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Cult of Ferocity

True to punk's roots, Bad Religion keeps the anger alive

Bad Religion bassist Jay Bentley still remembers clearly the look of fear in the guy's eyes. Below him, the writhing sea of bodies was beginning to appear more and more like a swampy pit of ravenous alligators systematically dragging their prey through vicious underwater death rolls. Funny, then, how it wasn't some naive kid stuck in the middle of it all who seemed the most agitated and frightened. It was the young police officer on-stage screaming in Bentley's ear.

About 4,000 people were jammed into the Hollywood Palladium that February night for a free concert headlined by Bentley and his fellow punk icons in Bad Religion. Various Los Angeles gangs were well represented, and it didn't take long before the moshing turned unusually violent. Bentley, a veteran of such shenanigans, knew from experience that the best way to prevent things from getting totally out of hand was to keep the show moving.

"It was the typical L.A. deal -- the fights, the stabbings," Bentley recalls. "And here's this cop, totally freaking out, yelling that they're gonna close the show down. So I'm screaming back at him just to fucking calm down, saying 'You don't understand this, let us deal with it.' Every time it amazes me, these young cops get agitated, and they think that just by some show of might, people will obey. You can't stand up there with a microphone and think that 100,000 watts of power makes you better than those people down there. If you do, you're just fucking yourself.

"We played five more songs, [the cop] saw the light, and everybody went home without really destroying a lot of shit, even though that's why a lot of them came. They figured, 'Fuck it, it's a free party, at someone else's house.' "

Though Bentley isn't particularly thrilled about the prevailing social situation in L.A. these days, at the same time, he doesn't lie awake nights devising blanket solutions to the city's countless problems. He just does his part to keep on top of it, which is the essence of what Bad Religion has been about all these years. The band's adrenaline-pumping shows give kids a chance to vent, while the timely, thought-provoking lyrics remind listeners over and over that while the world may be going to hell, it's the individual, not the masses, who bears the responsibility for change.

Though he's now 30, Bentley says he's not letting family responsibilities (he has two kids, ages two and four) get in the way of those nagging feelings of action and accountability that first grabbed him more than 15 years ago, when Bad Religion was just a bunch of Nietzsche-reading teenagers playing for an audience that consisted solely of singer Greg Graffin's parents.

"Punk rock has always headed right to the edge of being out of control. Sometimes, it falls off," says Bentley, a former punk rock nightclub bouncer himself in the early 1980s. "And I'll tell you, I still get nervous, I still get that same anger boiling up inside of me before we play."

Not that everything has stayed the same. "Maybe what's gone from the old days is my naivete. You're not wondering, 'Geez, what the hell's gonna happen tonight?' You know what will happen," says Bentley, giggling. "You have to keep it in check. Every once in a while you can zone off into autopilot. A song like 'How Can Hell Be Any Worse?' [the title track from the band's 1982 debut], you've been playing it for 16 years -- maybe 10,000 times -- so you're up there in the middle of the song, and you suddenly think, 'Fuck, I wonder if I have any clean socks?' "

Bentley says he really doesn't see the current wave of popular punk bands -- Rancid, Green Day, etc. -- as the "revival" some have called it. He argues that if the music world were in a punk renaissance, we'd be talking about the Jam, not Green Day, and the Ramones wouldn't be thinking about finally calling it quits.

"It's not an explosion of punk rock, like some people would like to think. It's merely the time for this type of music to have its moment in the sun," Bentley says. "Punk rock is the flavor in people's mouth when they wake up these days, then one day it will be something else, like heavy metal. Then what will be left is the punk rock bands like us that have always been doing it, and will still be doing it."

Like some freeze-dried packet of cockroaches, Bad Religion has somehow survived multiple music industry Armageddons, various bouts of burnout and apathy, and the occasional lineup change. They've never been superstars, but relative anonymity has had its rewards. Their music, a blend of gritty hard-core riffs and skittish -- bordering on frenetic -- beats that usually comes crashing to earth in two-and-a-half minute bursts or less, has always provided the perfect conduit for the lyrics of towering six-foot-four-inch vocalist Greg Graffin. Those words, delivered with grainy-throated purpose and often bolstered by military-choir harmonies in the choruses, have given Bad Religion a certain clout in the eyes of the music press. Never mind that the band has been playing essentially the same tune for more than a decade. (Need proof? Check out the band's historical compilation CD, All Ages.)

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