Interviews with 20 Years on the Front Lines
Before a recent show at Chicago's infamous Aragon Ballroom (or 'Brawl Room' for those of you who remember some of the city's early large-scale punk shows), St@tic talked with Greg Hetson, the longtime guitarist for Bad Religion, an original Circle Jerk, and a punk rock survivor. Touring behind the recent The Process of Belief (on original Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz's label Epitaph), Hetson was in an amicable mood just hours before he was scheduled to hit the stage.
Outside of the new record, BR's fans have had the opportunity to add to their collections by picking up copies of the DVD The Riot, a fan's look at a 1990 gig that erupted into violence when fire marshals and police pulled the plug on the high profile show. While the band doesn't stand behind the quality of the release, the topic did spark questions about Hetson's takes on crowd violence, the historical attitudes toward punk rock, and Bad Religion's role as an outspoken, politically minded rock band.
"I don't think we're overtly political 'cause we don't really have this party line we (adhere to) or ask people to agree with," stated Hetson, who is as mindful of his group's reputation as he is of the mainstream's current take on punk. "There's a fine line between (commercial punk) and the boy bands, and there's a place for both of those," he continued, well aware that most of the cherished bands coming out of England in the late 70s were on major labels and profited from "a slight commercial success."
Hetson was a teenager when first-wave punk was threatening the laid-back attitudes in LA. His first show was a July, '78 Dickies headliner at The Whisky, and he was acquainted with members of seminal acts like X, The Germs, and The Eyes. He has fond memories of talking his way into 21+ shows when he was underage, and was cautious of law enforcement's attitudes toward the kids of the day. "Most of the violence (at the early punk shows) was instigated by the police," he recalled. Being singled out as a movement because of appearance and exaggerated reputation was "a very tense thing."
Since then, punk, like most other outlaw cultures, has been co-opted by big businesses that are out to make a buck on the notions of danger and rebellion. Still, Hetson has hope that the initial call to arms applies to the sophisticated malcontents of the 21st century. "It always helps to have something to be pissed off about," he added.
His remembrances the 1990 "Riot" gig are sketchy, but he did recall that it was a "slow news day," so "CNN picked (the story) up and it ended up on wire services all around the world." Scandalous for the media, perhaps, but Hetson was unfazed. "I've been to much bigger punk riots than that."
Today, Hetson is a proud father who happens to be a touring musician. You sense that, while he doesn't mind waxing about 'punk as a social/political phenomenon,' for him Bad Religion is a career. "We enjoy touring and playing live,…but it is more of a strain psychologically and physically (than when I was younger)," he stated. "You don't bounce back as fast…like the athlete you get to a certain age and you're more prone to injury."
On stage later that night, Hetson bounded around with an energy and enthusiasm respectable for a man half his age. Maybe 20 years on the front lines has its price, but the guitarist never lets on as he tears off chord after chord.
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