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The Descendents are the types of guys who fart in bed and then pull the sheets up over their girlfriends’ heads. Morons? Yeah, definitely. But they were also one of the finest pop-punk bands before that genre became as alternative as the term “alternative.” And they wrote numerous genuinely touching love songsas well as a lot of odes to poop, stuck-up babes, and universal loserdom. In 1987, singer Milo Aukerman left to pursue his Ph.D. and a career in microbiology, while the other members reformed as the watered-down All. Now, the gang of four has reformed to reclaim their glory, but they still haven’t grown up. The thing is, the rest of us have.
The Descendents’ popularity peaked right about the time I became obsessed with punk, and just about the time I became aware of my own inadequacies. Puberty, that great bolt of hormonal lightning that energizes some and fries everyone else, came crashing into my head and caused all sorts of natural disasters: tidal waves of anxiety, volcanic eruptions of temper, stormy lovelorn nights. The Descendents knew about the pain of pubescence better than anyone and communicated it in language a small-town 16-year-old could cling to like a lifeline. When Aukerman sang “My World” (from 1985’s I Don’t Want to Grow Up), I could take lines like “My world is in my mind/I’m locking myself inside/People, they can’t get in/I have no use for them” and claim them as my own. It was a rallying cry for independence even as my mother beat on the door telling me dinner was ready.
When I was dumped by my first love, “Pep Talk” (from 1987’s All) provided immeasurable solace: “I know what you’re thinking…You’ll never find another/But even if you did, well, you couldn’t love her/But out there somewhere is the person, place, or thing/That you need to make you believe in you.” Plus, Aukerman’s melodic rasp was in my range, so as I drove around in my Ford station wagon, alternating Descendents and Rites of Spring tapes with the Cure and New Order, I could do my primal-scream sing-along in tune. And when I was joined by my irascible friends, the Descendents were one of the few bands we could all agree upon. (Even Dave “Ain’t ya got any Georgia Satellites?” McKenzie succumbed).
So what happens when the small-town kid goes to college, moves to the big city, and basically forgets about one of his favorite bands until its members decide to regroup 10 years later? He cringes. He approaches the band’s new album with extreme prejudice, especially when it’s called Everything Sucks, and the band is basically its pale successor with the old lead singer tacked on. Despite these fears, I can honestly say Everything Sucks doesn’t.
Everything Sucks doesn’t have any songs that rival the Descendents’ best, but neither does it feature the meandering clinkers like “Iceman” and “Schizophrenia” that the group was prone to in its pre-retirement stage. Everything Sucks burns with a fierce intensity, and it’s always catchy, thanks to guitarist Stephen Egerton. There are a few pure Descendents-style love songs (“I’m the One,” “She Loves Me,” and “We” are near-classics), one of drummer Bill Stevenson’s standard odes to caffeine (“Coffee Mug”), some toilet talk (“Eunuch Boy” is about a guy who lost his schlonk, and “When I Get Old” features the Stevenson-penned “What will it be like when I get old?/Will I still kiss my girlfriend/And try to grab her ass?”), and a couple of anti-everything tracks (“Everything Sux” and “This Place”).
But there are two songs that, when you get right down to it (and to use a phrase even the Descendents can comprehend), totally suck: Bassist Karl Alvarez’s “Caught,” with its limp protests about the rich getting away with murder (literally) while the little guy gets fucked over for running a red light, and “Doghouse,” written by original Descendents guitarist Frank Navetta, who left the group after 1982’s Milo Goes to College. He should have stayed away. Navetta’s metaphors are weaker than Stevenson’s caffeine-damaged bowels. Witness the final verse: “I’m just a dog, I eat cat feces/Feel like a hydrant on this dodgy street/Live in the doghouse, everybody hates me/I want to get laid, but everybody takes me/I’m your dog and you’re bitches.”
“Doghouse” illustrates the sort of rampant misogyny the Descendents have always trafficked in, but Everything Sucks is thankfully free of the homophobia that, in retrospect, darkly colored the band’s past. Milo Goes to College features Navetta’s “I’m Not a Loser” (“You suck/Mr. Buttfuck”; “Go away you fucking gay/I’m not a loser”). And Stevenson’s “Hetero,” from All’s 1994 album, Pummel, states he’d rather “be a loser than have a dick in my mouth.” (It’s no wonder Stevenson likes having Navetta contribute: When his own thick-necked bile leaves him choked-up, he doesn’t have to travel far for a hateful lyrical Heimlich maneuver.) The homophobia and misogyny did, however, fit the band’s “we’re not part of any scene but our own” ethos: Everyone hates them, and they hate everyone. The anti-chick vibes were always just the Mr. Hyde side of their frustrated-loser Dr. Jekyll. But as nice as it would be to dismiss the Descendents’ anger as merely the posturing of a primordial persona, à la Don Rickles, it gets harder and harder to overlook as these guys creep toward their 40s. And as I edge toward 30.
So what it comes down to is that I don’t care anymore. I truly enjoy Everything Sucks, but the Descendents are no longer for me. I am glad, however, they’re back for that small-town 16-year-old cruising around in his Fairmont trying to deal with the chemical terrors his body is releasing on him. But hopefully, unlike his heroes, he will grow up.CP