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On Saturday, May 7, Government Issue frontman John Stabb died at the age of 54. Below, friends and musicians that knew him throughout his life reflect on the weird, wonderful, and caring person he was.
Henry Rollins, Black Flag, Rollins Band:
I met John in 1980 at a club in Georgetown. Ian MacKaye and I saw this tall form in front of us with “The Stab” written on the back of his jacket. We talked to him and thought he was cool. Ian called him John Stab, which I guess morphed into “Stabb” at some point. One time we were in a van going to New York City I think it was, and John pulled out this notebook of lyrics and showed them to me. There was a song on every page it seemed. He had written the words so hard, it looked like he was trying to punch through the paper. It made me wonder if I meant was I saying in my lyrical efforts a fraction of what he was. I still have letters from him and the writing has that same intensity. John was the real thing. A true musician and a good guy.
Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys:
That original D.C. Hardcore crew was such a breath of fresh air when the DK’s came to town in 1981. So smart, so warm, and so much energy. John was down to earth, friendly; and seemed to evolve into the clown prince of that scene—complete with some medieval Court Jester’s coat he found who knows where.
Sail on, brother…I hope it found a good home.
J. Robbins, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Government Issue:
In my tenure as G.I.’s ninth (!) bassist, I saw John Stabb emerge unscathed from not one but two—actually let’s say two and a half—riots on tour (on two different continents); a van accident that cut short G.I.’s U.K. tour and left us stranded for a week; a weird generator party in the desert outside Las Vegas (crashed by neo-Nazi skinheads who chased us away when John refused to autograph a record for one of them); innumerable brutal slam-pits overflowing with bald, white-t-shirt-clad teenage machismo, into which he would wade—fearless and/or clueless?—clad in the most flamboyant thrift-store chic (“housewife psychedelia,” we called it), armed with only a tambourine and a microphone. So I suppose I thought there was a way he could emerge unscathed from his battle with cancer too. I saw him turn love, heartbreak, and disillusion into song lyrics, fuel for catharsis, because that is what a good singer does. He was never, ever, “cool.” But he was quintessentially punk: a singular weirdo, always true to himself. He was simply unstoppable, which I’m finding is an example we cherish more as we get older. Before I ever knew him, when I was a suburban teenager dying to feel a connection with something vital that seemed always just out of reach, some of his songs helped me feel that I was not alone. When he invited me to join his band, he literally changed my life, and a lot of who I have become and whatever I have accomplished in the decades since, and most of what I hold dear in the life I now live, can somehow be traced back to that moment. He was a fundamentally good guy, and despite my deep sadness at his passing, it’s good to know that before he left us he was able to get a glimpse of how much he was loved, and what a positive impact he had on people.
Dave Smalley, Dag Nasty, Down By Law, DYS:
John Stabb was real, an individual, and an inspiration. He didn’t conform to peer pressure. He was against the herd mentality that is all too common in the world. He was, in his life and musical career, a true punk rock free spirit. In fact, he will always be an icon of honesty to me. To really celebrate John’s legacy, go be yourself and do something against the grain. He’d like that, i think.
[He was a] great musician. Listen to the G.I. songs, and how varied they are musically and lyrically. Listen to the different approaches he took in his later bands, all of which had such uniqueness. look at the fearless, distinct, challenge-your-preconceptions sense of style that he displayed so amazingly on stage so many times. No one topped his “walk the talk” dedication to punk rock ideals of true independence.
He also had a great vocal style—one of the many things that attracted me to G.I. early on. So distinct. He was just himself, and when you heard his voice, in any of his bands, you knew it was him.
Despite his musical fearlessness, in person he was a truly gentle soul, and so kind. He was loyal to his friends, and I am grateful to be one of those. I’m honored to have sung backup vox in the studio on a few G.I. songs. I went to his wedding. I sang a capella onstage with him at city gardens, both of us wearing dresses, singling “Mohawk Love” to the tune of America’s schmaltzy “Muskrat Love.” (who does something like that??!) We had some really good talks and his humor and kindness both were always there. In the end, I think we both shared a love for each other as musical brothers.
Everybody dies, but not everyone truly lives. John Stabb lived to the fullest. We can all be inspired. To really honor his legacy, seize the day and be yourself. Listen to every kind of music. Have fun.
Oh, and have a fruity cocktail with an umbrella in it. He’d like that, too.
Alec MacKaye, Ignition, The Faith, Untouchables:
I met John on June 30, 1980 at a weird little bar called Scandals on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Prospect Street. My band the Untouchables was playing there with Teen Idles and Zones. The punk scene was still small and when John appeared in shredded, marker-scrawled regalia and crazy chopped haircut, we took notice. He was earnest and genuine and crackling with electric energy—self-conscious but hilarious and just happy as hell to be there and meet people. Among other things, he explained that he and Monique Beaudry had spent every last penny to take a taxi down from Wheaton that night. We were stunned and amused by this admirably feckless act and passed a hat to try and recoup the money they spent. That was the first indication I had of John’s relentless dedication to his interests, his scene, and what was to become his life’s craft. He was involved in and responsible for some of the most precipitous days of the D.C. hardcore scene and spent much of his energy vigorously poking fun at it as it grew and became more self-important and serious. He was like a true jester, incorrigibly against the grain even in his own family of friends. These are the testers and challengers that keep a community honest, toiling hard at the margins when it might be nice to hang out in the middle of the flock. John teased and tested and provoked—all in flying colors.
In October of 1988, Ignition did a show with Government Issue and NOFX in a gymnasium in Lincoln, Nebraska. There was a neo-Nazi “safehouse” not far away, populated by desperate skinheads from all over the country. Many of them came to the show, bumrushing the door and doing their best to intimidate folks in the crowd. They did not enjoy being directly mocked from the stage by John Stabb. A half dozen skins were about to drag him outside after the set, presumably to communicate their displeasure in the only way they knew how. I somehow got in between them and him and distracted them long enough for John to get away. It happened fast and didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time, but he never stopped thanking me for “saving his life” that one time in Lincoln.
Mark Andersen, Positive Force:
“I am uncool/oh yeah!”
This fervent vow by ‘70’s Scottish punk rock band The Rezillos touches what I found most beautiful about John Stabb over our many years of friendship: he, like me, was utterly, irredeemably, proudly uncool.
At its best, punk was an amazingly powerful vehicle lifting up the underdog, the geek, the misfit, making him or her—us—the heroes of the story. By being fuck ups together, we helped each other be brave, to be ourselves, to grow into the people we could be, to build a world, however small at times, where all could flourish.
John was this sort of punk. In many ways, he was one of the most unlikely front men imaginable: awkward, acidic yet vulnerable, wearing the most obnoxious “non-punk” clothing possible. In video footage of his first live performance in December 1980, he appears to be literally shaking with stage fright. Indeed, at one point in the brief set, he sang the words to one song while the band played another!
Watching this now, you think John might bolt from the stage at any moment—but he doesn’t. In fact, John never did over the course of more than three decades. Instead, he poured out his heart with humor and pathos with half a dozen different units until he was literally wracked with the cancer that took his life too soon. While his most important band, Government Issue, sometimes indulged in the cynicism that has also always been part of punk’s DNA, John was most gripping while exposing his heartbroken, insecure inner geek for all the world to see.
John often called his live performances “therapy,” a way to work through his issues, and no doubt it was. However, in doing so, he became an inspiration for similarly uncool kids around the world, proving that our stories mattered. More to the point, he suggested with every show that being cool was a dead end—what mattered was having fun, expressing yourself, being real.
Like his long-time bandmate, J. Robbins, I knew—and loved—John Stabb as a “fearless weirdo.” May we all have his courage, his sense of humor, his refusal to be constrained by convention.
Allison Wolfe, Bratmobile, Partyline:
Saddened by the passing of the wonderful John Stabb, I reread the messages he sent me several years back about my band Partyline (w/Angela Melkisethian, Crystal Bradley, Gene Melkisethian), which clearly was influenced by the Government Issue song. At first I was worried he wouldn’t be happy about our covering Partyline, or our band name either. Instead, he was generous with his support and said he was honored. Love that song, and much love for him.
Sab Grey, Iron Cross:
My dear friend, I can’t believe you have gone and left us. I just saw you at the FLAG show, here in Baltimore. Was it really two years ago? It was so nice to catch up, you hadn’t changed a bit and I mean that in the best way. You were always the kindest of all of us, I don’t think there was a mean streak in you, even when you were pissed off. Remember when a couple other guys and I had to help you evict that couple from your house? Even then, and you were pissed, you were still the nicest guy. It was almost comical watching you trying to get really mad! “Stabb, Let me just punch him for you!” Anyway, they left, I think you got those nice speakers out of the deal and I started dating the girl a couple days later after she dumped the loser. So that was a win-win. Anyway, we were talking at the FLAG show and it really was like shooting the shit way back when, like when we used to work at that Olsson’s Records, you were checking bags and everyone would come in to visit you. You were a stop on the punk rock walking-around-Georgetown circuit. Häagen-Dazs, Olsson’s, Penguin Feather, the bakery with the day-old bread, Orpheus, the video arcade, Georgetown theatre, and you. And Roy fuckin’ Rogers. I keep trying to get back to our chat at that gig cause that was the first time in a few years we’d seen each other. I think we did a gig together at Phantasmagoria somewhere outside D.C., maybe 2000? I dunno. It sure got easier to keep in touch once this social media thing kicked off. And I always enjoyed your goofy posts about shit films and stuff. Cause you were the king of shit films. To this day I have no idea how you knew so much about ’60s and ’70s B-grade slasher and exploitation flicks. How were you able to rattle off not just the name of the actress but all her other films (that no one EVER saw), the directors of those films, and a myriad of trivia about each one. In the age before internet this was truly remarkable! And of course there was the matter of your clothes. Fuck me, John, the shit you would wear. At first it was laughable, the day you decided you weren’t going to dress like the rest of us bums any more. You were going to anti-punk the punks! If we were wearing leather, well fuck it, you were going to wear taffeta. And fuck you if you don’t like it! And so you did. And you wore some horrendous gear! Truly hateful ’70s crap. You’re lucky you didn’t catch fire wearing that much nylon! I don’t think you owned a natural fiber! And it’s not like it matched! Oh no, taste was for others! You made it work though, and I went from laughing at what you turned up in to eagerly awaiting your latest hideousness to actively scouring the thrift stores to find you an especially repellent outfit. My joy knew no bounds when I copped that lime green with black velvet trim tuxedo suit and trousers from Value Village way up on 14th Street. And needless to say, you wore it at your next gig. Or to Safeway to buy a loaf of bread at eleven in the morning. It was all the same to you. Yeah of course there was the music too. You got any idea how good your band was? You guys were really, really great and so much fun and you just got better and better and you went from playing tiny gigs in basements and rec halls to twenty people, to full-on tours, and to weird places too, like Yugoslavia. Who tours there? In 1984? And through it all, you were the same kind, gentle, talented guy and that’s where we left it when I went back to England thirty years ago. And when I came back to the U.S., you had grown into a kind, gentle and talented man.
And so, there we were at the FLAG show just hanging out, like all those years hadn’t happened and before this cancer came and stole you from all of us, like the two teenage kids we were, who loved punk rock more than anything. And that was it, the last time we hung out, cause we’re not kids anymore and we’re married and it really is hard to get out now especially when we don’t even live in the same city and I really wish we had. We were both busy, but we did touch base by phone and this social media thing so I guess it’s OK and I really wish I could have told you all of this in person but that wasn’t going to happen. And why would it? We both know I’m not that kind of expressive, and let’s face it, it would have been well weird. Who gives paeans to the living? So, this will have to do. I’m going to miss you old friend. I already do, and I am absolutely sure the world just got a little shittier without you being it. You really were a rare and bright shining light, there won’t be another like you. Ever.
You did, however, also make the worst and shittiest and ugliest gig flyers ever! God they sucked, John! Truly terrible.
Tom Lyle, Government Issue:
John Stabb was a unique individual. The term “unique” is overused—most lead singers can usually be compared to someone that has come before. Not John. At least no one I have ever known. One would think that with this uniqueness would come some pretense, but not John. I remember more than once John getting off stage after performing an hour set, standing in a pool of his own sweat, talking at length with someone he’s never met, hunched over, having to get close enough to this fan to hear him because he hasn’t even had time to take out his ear-plugs. I’ll come back after drying off and changing, and John will still be there yelling/speaking to this fan, his whacky stage clothes that remained on his body (he usually shed most of them during the set) still clinging to his soaking wet body.
Some might mistakenly think his long-windedness (and he was quite talkative, there is much evidence for this) is egotism, but it isn’t. I’ve heard him asked one question during an interview and his “answer” taking 90 minutes, none of it about himself or his opinions, but him talking about music, movies, cats, and many other things, but very little about himself.
On the road during some long trips in the van (and those distances west of the Mississippi could be awfully long, and even in Europe during short rides) he would often complain about the heat, being uncomfortable, etc. This was the pre-internet age, after all. But once he was on stage, everything would change. I’m sure the reason he’d complain so much was because he wasn’t on stage, doing what he did best. He called his shows “therapy sessions,” the only thing that could “quiet” his mind, bring him true happiness. In the studio he often would ask “How do you want me to sing this?” but before or during a show, never. And he certainly never asked anyone how he should dress. On stage it was the only time he became himself, with no question as to how he should behave or sing or perform. If you’ve ever seen him perform, even on video, you’d think he had some kind of hyperactivity disorder, writhing on stage, making faces, shooing non-existent insects off his body, tying himself up in the mic cord, etc. And if there was anything that wasn’t equipment on stage (and often that stuff, too) he’d use it as a prop. Was he weird? Others might think so. To him, this was the only way he knew how to be himself.
Boyd Farrell, Black Market Baby:
John was truly one of the good guys of the D.C. Hardcore scene. He was warm, funny, friendly to everyone and what a great story teller he was! He was a D.C. original. I always thought he was D.C.’s answer to Captain Sensible. He was devoted to his wife and his cats and had such a passion for music. I always enjoyed talking to him wherever I saw him. He always made me laugh. He was quite a character, and I will miss him very much. R.I.P. John.
Shawna Potter, War on Women:
I didn’t know John for very long. War On Women went on a small tour with them in 2015, and even though he had no reason to pay attention to our band, he was nothing but supportive and really complimentary. He put us all at ease, both our bands becoming fast friends. I definitely stepped up my game on that tour—opening for such a legendary front person, I certainly couldn’t get lazy.
Brian Baker, Bad Religion:
He was without a doubt the most irreverent and uninhibited guy I’ve ever met, and his kindness and genuine concern for others was truly inspiring.
Kevin Young, longtime friend of John Stabb’s:
I visited John multiple times in the hospital and during his hospice stay. The last time I saw John was during my visit this past Saturday. I told him how hard he fought and it was time to find his peace, that he deserved peace. I gave him a kiss and left him and Mina to spend what would be their final moments together. I left the hospice center at 6:14 p.m. When I got home, I sent [Ian] MacKaye a message that John is finally at peace, albeit he was still alive when I left him. I sent that to Ian at 7:42 p.m. John would pass away within one minute—less than 90 minutes since I kissed him goodbye for the last time.
Although John is not with us, whether we knew him as Stabb or as Schroeder, he left a spirit of creativity and fun. His happiness was makings other people happy. I told him he was my hero and my brother and that he was able to spread so much love to this world. And because of that John will always be alive in each of us that he touched.