Saturday Night: TSOL At Walter's On Washington

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TSOL Walter's on Washington May 7, 2011

In the dramatic, razor-sharpened lens of TSOL songs, suburbia is far from a sleepy wonderland bedecked with slick malls and coiffeured lawns. Those tracts of same-samey homes are chock-full of demons such as singer Grisham himself, who wandered the bland wasteland of the American dream in the early 1980s like a priest of peril to the lost boys, misfits, and rebels.

With the musical heft, prowess, and punk-gone-Goth shadings of the band backing him throughout these treacherous territories, Grisham always projects a persona that seems like a large amalgam: He's a Lenny Bruce-style iconoclast, a suave but demented Chris Isaak, and a nihilist vis-à-vis The Joker, not to mention a mouthy raconteur who can easily stir stories about Tesco Vee of the Meatmen, the Black Panthers and unemployment between jokes onstage.

Starting in 1980, TSOL pushed aside the art-school cadres that shaped new music in Southern California, injecting big doses of Huntington Beach hormones into punk rock. Like Agent Orange and Social Distortion, though, they didn't succumb to the choleric "fast and lean" rules of homogenized hardcore.

Having soaked up earlier waves of bands like the Germs, they favored something more poetic and fertile.

After imploding after just a handful of years, Grisham steered bands such as Cathedral of Tears, Tender Fury, and the Joykiller, but the reformed TSOL, who have seized the last decade with a hard grip, have remained invigorating and promising, delivering worthy music just as punks from their own generation, like Keith Morris and Mike Watt, chiseled and honed their own late-period ruckus. Both periods, new and old, of TSOL melted into a fierce onslaught Saturday at Walter's on Washington.

Since TSOL's beginnings, Grisham could deftly balance anti-political countercultural harangues ("Abolish Government/Silent Majority") with narrative structures more reminiscent of 19th-century masters like Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker on songs like "Silent Scream."

Like a poet of the macabre, he was a man of letters in a nest of shaven-haired punk vipers. Grisham aimed for the murky, allegorical, and dense, weaving the lore of literature into his own memory as a wicked outsider in the land of sun and fun. To listen to the TSOL is to feel his breath, both cold and vitriolic, causing creepy crawls down one's spine in the vein of "Code Blue," which the band whips out as their last goodbye nearly every show.

TSOL still explores the pent-up angst and alienation lurking in the male psyche, including the minefields of sexuality and personal power at odds with control, whose dimensions feel like a Kafka novel. They abundantly revealed this Saturday, giving the crowd quick gulps of the veteran tune "I'm Tired," with its angry retorts against the "system" and "process" that prey on those "who don't listen."

Those same tremors occur decades later in "Terrible People" as well, released mid-1990s, which they pummeled the crowd with early on in the set. In that tune, suburban moms dote on children that are no more than "rats in the system," and people are still not listening, according to Grisham, as they generate "monsters and victims."

These same concerns get more articulate throughout later TSOL, who gained a powerful foothold during the 2000s. This older, wiser version eschews some of the woozy, hallmark poesy of their earlier days, replacing it with buckets of brio and rage.

The band newly focused their anti-authority sentiments in an era of Bush's endless wars in tunes like "Serious," which popped up near the end of the set: "Let's make a bomb before feeding our children... vote what you want, the monster is replaced ... love your country, hate your government."

Likewise, songs like "Fuck You Tough Guy," also unleashed from the same album ("Divided We Stand"), offered no respite from the iconoclasm as well. "No teachers, no parents, no classrooms ... no idols," they sung, older at heart, but with no less rancor towards the forces that dealt them blows years before.

Punk rock has always been a call to arms for such freedom seekers, marginalized youth, artful demons, and queer/queered people, just like it has always been saturated with uncontrolled ideas and bodies, which writhed all night to tunes like "Dance with Me," a soundtrack to "convulsions" and "demonic beats" that made the crowd revisit 1982.

Sure, the Dead Boys and New York Dolls might have faded by then, but Grisham embodied a hybrid between such rebels and the beachcore troops. He was the linebacker-built, rakish guy unleashing motorcycle boots with razor-sharp spurs on idiots who dared cross him, but he also worked the stage with theatrical flare just as the band supplemented their trademark bracing, fissured guitar with keyboards and strings, breaking hardcore codes. Unlike some previous tours, those extra musical elements were AWOL during this set.

TSOL might have emerged as byproducts of the decline and fall of the 1970's - the flops of the Me Generation - but they still recognize and invoke a breeding ground of despair. Some in the audience knew this too well, recognizing their own dark memories mirrored in Grisham's potent narratives. His politics and vehemence may seem fringe to some, while others consider his songs too turgid.

Yet, Grisham is still an impenetrable mystery that commands the stage like a Rottweiler treading back and forth. As an undaunted, mad, dashing culprit, he worked the small space with endless gusto, holding forth like a tribal elder of the reckless and ribald.

Though he no longer dons white-face or other make-up, he still invokes the sexual deviance of early Adam Ant, the vampire intelligence and wit of The Damned's Dave Vanian, the Hollywood shit-grin of Eric Draven (The Crow), and becomes a larger-than-life, male Siouxsie Sioux.

That is, he really can sing, not just spit out the words with a blast-furnace mouth.

Grisham is not bolted to that nostalgia, or anyone's preconceived notions of what constitutes the living heritage of punk, as he noted to me while crammed in the van after the delirious show. Years back, restless people like him wrote on the back of punk flyers (not Tweets), made shirts chock-full of zippers that went nowhere, and wore bright yellow jackets emblazoned with anarchy signs for a cruise down the block, causing neighbors to slam their windows shut.

Those were the days, though, chronicled in his just-released memoir An American Demon, that included disappearing from his family as early as age 11, enduring an intensely incendiary climate while fronting his pre-TSOL band Vicious Circle (when people bombed his car, forcing him into Alaskan exile), and being on the 'sauce' - blurring the years with alcohol.

On Saturday, the band behind him, minus original bass player Mike Roche, never missed a single seismic beat, even sweat-drenched as they were and rammed frequently by the invasive, riotous crowd. As the band struck their chords well beyond the pale midnight hour, Grisham briefly became the Lord of the Flies.

The audience danced with him, burning away the last cinders of their cocoons, freeing themselves in the humid and bleary night, letting TSOL's songs linger in their hearts and minds, like truths summed up in their gashed heads and torn clothes.

But as the night closed, that same man hoped to lead them towards seizing the day, not disappearing into the black hole of social decay. And that he did.

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