If you ask the average, aging, leather-clad punk rocker to explain the difference between "old school" and "new school," he or she will bitterly complain about the last decade of pseudo-punk pop poofery started by Green Day and currently championed by Good Charlotte. Then he or she will mutter a few obscenities and ramble on about how these "spoiled kids don't know what it is was like back in the day, when you could get beaten up for just walking down the street if you looked weird."
In 1995, Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel was the "new school" poster brat. At age 15, the Naples, Florida, native was an angry little snot who ate drugs like candy. "I was angry, but I didn't know what I was angry at," he recalls. On July 4 of that year, he found out. "I was walking on the boardwalk, and a cop yelled at me to get off. So I did, and I was standing next to the boardwalk, and he yelled at me again." After the inevitable smart remark, Gabel was surrounded by ten officers, who beat the 125-pound teen into a two-week hospital stay, then charged him with multiple counts of battery on a police officer. Gabel spent the summer under house arrest. Then he was convicted, despite the obvious mismatch of ten armed policemen and one painfully skinny adolescent.
The situation radicalized Gabel. He dropped out of high school, became a mechanic, and started a punk zine -- which opened his eyes to what "an evil insane place Collier County is." He relates: "Collier County has both Naples, which has among the most millionaires per capita in the USA, and Immokalee, the poorest migrant worker town, where there's still slavery!"
Against Me!, Communique, and Lawrence Arms
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At age 18, Gabel split for Gainesville with a few of his college-bound punk-rock buddies and began pounding out his frustrations on an acoustic guitar. After a couple of solo demo tapes, he hooked up with a band (whose drummer played pickle jars) and recorded Against Me!, a self-titled, self-released, five-song vinyl EP in 1999. To save enough money to tour, the band moved into an office space together. A borrowed van served as transportation for the first outing. The West Coast was explored via a 1976 Buick Le Sabre crammed with four people and their instruments. "It was poorly planned," Gabel understates. "We were broke in Montana and had two weeks before our next show in Seattle. So we went into Wal-Mart, stole a couple of video camera batteries, returned them for store credit, and bought groceries." For gas, the band members panhandled at service stations across the mountain west until they had enough to fill the tank.
Their next tour, in support of their "Crime" single, was a much more successful three-week jaunt through the Midwest that ended in Indiana. After its last gig in Bloomington, Against Me! headed back to Gainesville with Gabel at the wheel. Then disaster struck. "I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a semi coming real fast behind us," he recalls. "I knew it was gonna hit us. BAM! It rear-ended us, and we rolled three times. It was a surreal experience. My French fries hung in midair for what seemed like forever, and then they finally landed." Miraculously, everyone in the now-squashed van walked away.
When they got back home, the band broke up. "[The pickle barrel percussionist] quit, and without a drummer, we were screwed." Rather than let Against Me! fizzle out, Gabel went back to basics. "I said 'Fuck it! I'm going to do the band without anyone else!'"
As it turned out, he didn't need anyone. His solo acoustic Against Me! EP outstripped all of the band's previous efforts in sales and songcraft. Gabel's percussive acoustic riffing and Billy Bragg-meets-Ian MacKaye holler makes track one, "Jordan's First Choice," an instant underground classic. The final track, "We Did It All for Don," is a Springsteenesque road song describing a world in which "there's no difference between staying here and a bullet in the head."
Just as Gabel asserted his musical self-sufficiency, Against Me! became a band again. His friend and fellow Florida Radical Activist Network member Warren Oakes moved from Sarasota to Gainesville to play drums. With both of its EPs in multiple pressings, Against Me! asked local punk consortium No Idea to release a debut album. No Idea owner Var Thelin immediately agreed. He explains: "People are drawn to them like bugs to light. And Tom is what draws them in. The magic of the band is Tom. He's got a very compelling nature. You wouldn't think by looking at him that he's got that magic , that fire, that energy -- but he's got it."
The album, Reinventing Axl Rose, is a genre-bending mélange of punk, folk, and reggae that never seems forced or contrived. Anthemic gang-choruses -- of the sort that would make the nastiest British soccer hooligan cry -- pop up in nearly every song. Gabel's lyrical acumen again pays dividends with more great road songs ("We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules"), a heartbreaking yet joyous ode to his grandmother ("Pints of Guinness Make You Strong"), and, most important, the 21st Century's first great protest song -- "Baby, I'm an Anarchist." Inspired by his involvement in radical politics (Gabel marched against the WTO in the May 2000 Washington, D.C., demonstration) and his uneasy relationship with liberals who like the company of radicals -- as long as they don't do anything radical -- the song is a punch in the 'nads to humorless tree-huggers everywhere.
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"'Cause baby I'm an anarchist/You're a spineless lib-er-al/We marched together for the eight-hour day/And held hands in the streets of Seattle/But when it came time to throw bricks through that Starbucks window/You left me all alone."
The Reinventing Axl Rose Tour lasted a solid year and pushed the band to a new level. No longer would it tour in crap vans and starve. Against Gabel's wishes and ethos, they began printing T-shirts. "Me personally, I don't like being a fucking billboard," he gripes. "It's so saturated -- everyone is wearing T-shirts. But it helps you eat." Their growing following also began to outgrow their usual house-party and DIY live environments. Gabel recalls: "In April, we were playing a house in Cleveland, and there were 200 people there. We were playing in the living room, and someone ran up from the basement and told us, 'Everyone needs to get out of the house! The floor beams are cracking!' We've gotten a lot of flack for it [hiring a booking agent and playing clubs], but obviously, you want to have the show where everyone can see it. You almost start to feel like you're the hired band for the person's party and no one is gonna flier for it. If I'm spending my time playing across the country, I don't want it to be some sort of exclusive thing where only the cool kids come. Fuck that!"
After 20,000 "cool kids" bought Reinventing Axl Rose, Gabel pissed them off by signing to pop-punk behemoth Fat Wreck Chords this spring. Anonymous cries of "sell out" filled message boards across the web, which flummoxes Gabel. "I grew up listening to bands on Fat. I went to see NOFX when I was 15. Propaghandi, Dillinger Four -- there's a ton of bands on there that everyone in the band is into."
While certainly punk's basement dwellers will get over Against Me!'s label switch, what remains to be seen is if they'll want what's on their new record, As the Eternal Cowboy. Gone are the big brawling choruses and hilarious anthems. In their place is a relatively straightforward collection of rock songs that Gabel describes as a "concept record about love and war where all the songs and all the lyrics flow." Is Eternal Cowboy the punk-rock answer to Pink Floyd's The Wall? Only the cool kids know for sure. But Gabel doesn't care one way or the other. "I don't give a shit what anyone thinks," he affirms. "If everyone else quit the band, I would not care. I would start over again. I dropped out. I have a criminal record. I have limited myself in my life. But this is what I want to do. I'm having a blast."