Songs and Sickness
"It's not an act," insists the voice over the phone. Nor is it -- to paraphrase the voice -- some brash pop-culture statement on life imitating art. Rather, the voice implies, D Generation's story represents something eminently more real: hard evidence of rock music's ability to save lives.
It was a pre-interview briefing the likes of which I hadn't experienced since my half-hour drill with Beach Boys management to preface a ten-minute talk with Mike Love. D Generation publicist Jocelynn Loebl is intent on keeping at it until she's convinced that I understand what the band is about -- and more important, perhaps, what these gritty punk purists are not about.
In short, D Generation are not glam (may the spirit of Johnny Thunders strike down any journalist brave enough -- or stupid enough -- to compare D Gen to the New York Dolls); they don't wear makeup; they're not looking to capitalize on the kiddie-punk success of Rancid, Green Day and their West Coast ilk; they're not easy-living suburbanites striking a tough urban pose for credibility's sake; and, no, they're not the easiest group to talk to.
Loebl may have overplayed that last item a bit. D Generation may indeed be the real item, but they don't necessarily spend every minute of their time acting like sorry-assed street punks. Lead singer/songwriter Jesse Malin, the band's primary mouthpiece, can be disarmingly gracious, soft-spoken and polite, and if he's being insincere, he's certainly got me fooled. Malin is much less intimidating, it turns out, than the delinquent street urchin staring out indignantly from the band's publicity stills, or the snarling vision of pent-up rage evoked by his blistering vocals on the group's first legitimate major-label CD, this year's No Lunch.
"I don't care what terms you use to describe us," Malin says softly. "We're just D Generation, a hard rock band. We listen to a lot of everything -- a lot of Chuck Berry, Motorhead, Iggy and the Stooges, Bob Dylan, Germs, Bad Brains, James Brown, Otis Redding."
Malin's handlers, on the other hand, seem committed to perpetuating a punk-specific aura of bad-boy naughtiness, in hopes, perhaps, that it will precede D Gen wherever they go. And who can blame them? Such typecasting worked fine for the Sex Pistols (as you'll soon see, the Pistols/D Gen parallels don't end here) -- that is, until it backfired when certain band members began subscribing to every excess, as if each were another mythical step in the ladder to rock immortality.
In D Gen's case, the hype seems more a silly imposition than a necessary evil, a cheap image makeover that its members must spend extra effort dispelling as they move from one city to the next. Stripped to their essence, D Gen are five reasonably good guys from Queens just being themselves, even if that means living the punk-rock stereotype -- black leather, spiked hair, coy stage names and all.
Walking cliches or no, Malin, singer/guitarists Danny Sage and Richard Bacchus, bassist Howie Pyro and drummer Michael Wildwood have all the raw ingredients needed to claim punk legitimacy. First and foremost, D Gen cooks live, bashing out a furious noise that often polarizes audiences into love-'em/hate-'em halves. Even if you wind up in the latter group, you'll have a difficult time walking out of their show unmoved. Whether it's Malin venting his sheer disgust with the world around him, the band's unconditional surrender to the destructive and recuperative powers of rock and roll or the fearsome action in the mosh pit, something about a D Gen performance is bound to make your blood boil, staying with you long after the ringing in your ears fades.
"We like to get out there and break a sweat," says Malin. "You get into people's faces; you get something, and they send it back to you -- it's a give-and-take deal."
No Lunch is D Generation's spit-spattered manifesto (at least, until the next one comes along), 12 angst-ridden rifle cartridges loaded and spent in less than 42 minutes. "If you can say it shorter, all the better," Malin says. "We're not into overindulgence, long guitar solos and all that. Just get it done and get it out there; keep it right to the point. That's what it's about: songs and sickness."
Lean and mean, No Lunch is a highly listenable '70s/'80s time capsule, though one that rarely sounds antiquated. From the strong-armed snare-drum strokes that ring in the CD's first cut -- the one-minute-17-second hissy fit, "Scorch," in which Malin screams ruts in his throat like a prepubescent Bon Scott -- to the unabashed Cheap Tricky power-pop of "She Stands There" and "Too Loose" to the Replacements-inspired garage anthems "No Way Out" and "Major" to the semi-crazed Stoogesesque theme-song finale, "Degenerated," D Gen pays its respects not only to its punk icons but to many of the worthwhile mainstream bands of the last two decades.
In his lyrics, Malin vents his frustration over the chronic case of disenchantment, alienation and cynicism life has handed him. But he seems more concerned with getting it all out for his own good, rather than using it against those who might be responsible for his pain. In "Major," Malin reflects, "It ain't no paper moon / And I don't want a purple heart / Or suitcase full of regrets," displaying a world-weary opportunism well beyond his 29 years. D Gen's is a true '90s credo: complain all you want, but in the end, you've made your lot, so live with it.
The battle-scarred lunch box on the cover of D Generation's latest release lies open on the inside of the CD to reveal its colorful contents. A crushed Twinkie, a browning apple core, a toy soldier and a string of firecrackers make up its more innocent contents, but things get ugly from there: a cigarette, a flask of booze, a syringe and a blackened spoon, all packed together with a cassette marked "No Lunch" in red ink. It's a fascinating display, and the band's publicist, again, fans the flames of rumor, pointing out that the more unsavory items are tokens of the band's own personal struggles.
"Nah, I got to talk to her about that," Malin confides. "It's more a statement on all the superficial and negative imagery kids are fed these days -- general youth stuff."
D Generation's true story begins in 1991 in Manhattan, where the group received its first taste of recognition playing clubs on the borough's lower east side. They were five friends banded together in the name of stamping out hair-metal's cheesy hold on their fine community. All were trying to escape tenuous family situations -- death, divorce, poverty -- and all were hard-nosed advocates of punk's DIY ethic.
"I knew most of the guys from hanging out and playing together in different bands," says Malin. "Finally, we decided to start this band because we were so unhappy with what was out there, and instead of sitting around drunk and complaining, we figured we should do something."
Three years later, when the D Gen buzz in New York grew to a rumble, EMI -- also the Sex Pistols' label for an uneasy spell -- signed the group, encouraged by the success of neo-punks such as Green Day and Offspring. A debut release was recorded (D Generation), but just as a little national momentum was shifting in the band's direction, executive power shifted at EMI. Suddenly, D Gen had lost its most important fan, label head Daniel Glass.
"It was like a real fuckin' nightmare," says Malin, with an indifference that indicates he's told the story countless times before. "We signed with them, and everybody that we signed with got fired: the president of the company, the A&R person, the whole spaghetti."
Several thousand copies of D Generation were sent out before the band was dropped, and all distribution and label-backed touring were terminated. "We wrote a song about it, 'Every Mistake Imaginable' [which the band decided not to include on No Lunch]," chuckles Malin. "We were somebody else's gig. The new [EMI] president [Davitt Sigerson] didn't want to have anything to do with us."
But Columbia did, and the label quickly won over the band after a small bidding war ensued. Columbia even bought back the D Generation master tapes, which the group promptly and unceremoniously disposed of in New York's grimy East River -- 13 songs lost forever in the polluted depths.
Well, not quite. The band revamped four D Generation tracks -- including the band's aforementioned theme rant, "Degenerated" -- for No Lunch. D Gen kept sane through the uncertain period, bookended by its dumping from EMI and its signing with Columbia, by touring and writing. When things were kosher at its new home, the group finally took some time off in December '95 and January '96 to record its "official" debut with ex-Cars leader Ric Ocasek onboard as producer.
"No Lunch is our first real album to the kids," says Malin.
And hopefully, Malin adds, D Gen gives those kids the same sort of rush he experienced the first time he heard fellow EMI-haters the Sex Pistols and was inspired enough to "go break everything in my room."
"It's a state of mind -- a faith that there's something out there really worth sticking with," he says. "It might be very negative out there in this world and we might sing about a lot of dark things, but what we're stressing is real positive."
In other words, rock and roll really was a lifesaver for D Generation. Then again, maybe Malin is just messing with my head.
D Generation performs with Social Distortion and 22 Jacks on Friday, November 22, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For info, call 863-7173.
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