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.)
On Bad Religion's latest, The Gray Race, Graffin plants his size-13 shoe right up the rump of an American political system that spends millions of dollars on elections while people are left to starve in the streets. In the cleverly cynical "Punk Rock Song," Graffin sounds his latest call to arms: "Written for the people who can see something's wrong / We do our share, but there's so many other fucking robots out there."
Graffin can get away with this preachy stuff without sounding rhetorical or shallow because, for one thing, he has the education to back it up. He has a year's worth of work left on his doctorate in evolutionary biology at Cornell University, and like the leader of Australia's Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett, who graduated from law school and chose instead to write songs about environmental and social catastrophes, Graffin offers an authoritative yet street-smart take on the world's problems. And that message isn't lost on Bentley, either.
"I want to teach my children the positive aspect of negative thinking," he says. "I don't want them to be misled. What you've always got to question is the idea that this person you're listening to isn't always telling you the whole story."
As Bentley sees it, people have to understand that while today's explosion of technology can be used to supplement people's intelligence, trouble starts when technology actually replaces the human element.
"You don't want to fall for the technology carrot that promises it will make your life better, and then you stop questioning it. I can write down your phone number a hell of a lot faster with a pencil and paper than I can boot up the computer, get the file and type it in. It's just not the be all, end all," he says. "You see these kids at McDonald's, they push a picture of a hamburger on the cash register, and never have to think. Nobody has to think about shit anymore. If the register broke down, and you order some fries and give the kid $50, they don't know what the change is. Too many people may end up like that. You take the technology away, and things fall apart."
Bentley did his share of navel-gazing at one point, quitting Bad Religion along with co-founder Brett Gurewitz in 1984. He didn't see a future in the band, and lost his desire to continue. To this day, Bentley can't really say why he chose to come back when Graffin called him up two years later; Bentley, in turn, coaxed Gurewitz back into the fold. Gurewitz is gone for good now in order to devote all of his energy to his Epitaph record label, which is home to the million-selling Offspring and former MC5 guru Wayne Kramer. He was replaced in 1994 by Brian Baker (formerly with Dag Nasty).
In true punk fashion, Bentley says it took all of one hour to bring Baker in once Gurewitz made his departure official. "We're very blase about bringing in new people. We just do it," he says.
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As for the predictable cries of sellout when Bad Religion moved from Epitaph to major label Atlantic, Bentley snorts out a typically indignant response. "If people want to bitch, I say, okay, show me what you're doing," he spits back. "If you're just sitting there on your ass and bitching, I don't fucking listen."
And what about years from now, when Bad Religion is ready to write its own epitaph? What will it say?
Bentley roars with laughter, relishing the moment, and fires back an answer in an instant.
Bad Religion performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the International Ballroom, 14035 South Main Street. Tickets are $16.50; $17 at the door. Dancehall Crashers and Unwritten Law open. For info, call 629-3700.