Lead singer of the punk band Bad Religion.
Full Name: Gregory Walter Graffin
Born In: Madison, Wisconsin
Current Home: Ithaca, New York
Academic History:BA in Anthropology from UCLA, BS in Geology from UCLA, MS in Geology from UCLA, currently working on PhD in Evolutionary Biology-Paleontology at Cornell University
The following is an autobiographical article written by Greg Graffin. An edited version of it appeared in Details magazine.
A Punk Synopsis
About two weeks ago I received a letter from a punker who said he used to be a fan of Bad Religion. "Used to be", that is, until we let him down by releasing our last two albums which didn’t fit his definition of punk. There weren’t any songs against the establishment, he claimed (which isn’t true by the way), so how can you call it Bad Religion? "Indeed how can you guys call yourself punk?" He went on to imply that we don’t know anything about what punk is because we are so "out of it". He was clearly angry, and intolerant of what our recent music actually had to say. He believed that the sanctity of the punk establishment had been infringed on somehow by our last two albums (but he also noted that our previous seven albums weren’t guilty of such treason).
The very same day I ran into someone on the street in the town where I live and he recognized me as the singer of Bad Religion. Like the guy who sent me the letter, he too was a punker, but he wasn’t angry or judgmental. We talked for a short while and he spoke about how increasingly these days young people in general are hostile to strangers, and don’t want to listen to anyone but their own comfortable circle of friends. And about how people seem to be motivated these days by some unseen force to be closed minded. His open desire for opinion, and his focus on relevant issues were refreshing and it made me remember all the great things about the punkers I grew up with and still interact with today: open-minded, inclusive, unpretentious and not presumptuous, and willing to confront the people or institutions that seemed unfair or unjust. Instead of being concerned with establishing an institution within which we could exclude others (which, sadly, is what many punkers really want), we were interested in including people who felt estranged by, or disillusioned with their social surroundings.
In that one day I experienced some of the best things about punk, the traits exhibited by the kid on the street, and the worst things about punk: the negative, self-righteous, dogmatic thinking of the kid who wrote the letter. Both of them were self-acknowledged punkers yet they were from almost opposite ideological poles. For 16 years now I have been a member of this strange sub-culture, and I have come to realize that there are both liberal and conservative wings of it. In that sense it is a microcosm of society in general.
It is an inane task to try and define punk universally. Its meaning is fuzzied everywhere by contextual circumstance. A 16 year-old girl from an affluent religious family who consistently shows up to church on Sunday with her green mohawk and "Fuck Jesus" shirt is punk. But so is a 42 year old biology professor who claims that Charles Darwin’s ideas were wrong. Neither person has ever heard of, nor met, one another, nor hung out together at the same underground club. And yet their challenge to established institutions and revulsion to dogmatic thinking links them spiritually. Whether this is genetic or learned is unknown. But I too feel a kinship with everyone who shares these traits. I don’t feel allied with those who are exclusive, elitist, and who think that their way of life is a model for how others should live theirs. My philosophy was instilled by the open minded thinking of my parents of course, but also through the turmoil I experienced growing up. While I realize many kids had it harder than me, I have found that a lot of people who call themselves punks had similar experiences.
In 1976, At the age of 11 I moved with my mom and brother to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Like millions of other victims of divorce in the 1970s I had to deal with the fact that my father was now living far away (in Racine, Wisconsin) and I would not get to see him as much as most other kids see theirs. This pain was compounded by the bewildering alienation I felt as a Wisconsin boy at Junior High School in the Los Angeles unified school district. I had entered a landscape unlike anything I experienced in my 11 years of life. I had dark brown fluffy, wavy hair, unfeatherable, impossible to mold into the cool rock-and-roll hairdos of the 1970s that were so popular. I wore velour kids shirts from K-Mart, and corduroys and because they were less expensive than jeans and we didn’t have a lot of money. I had cheap shoes, usually also from K-Mart or Payless, always worn out, with goofy logos that emulated the real popular brands that all the other kids wore. I rode a Sears 10-speed that was heavy, sluggish, and couldn’t jump or skid. I had a powder blue, plastic skateboard with noisy, open-bearing wheels, totally unfit for the skateboard parks that were so popular in southern California. I had never been to the beach in my life, and thought of it as a place to go swimming, not as a symbol for a way of life. People asked me "Dude!.....do you party?" I thought of our annual kids new year’s parties back home in Racine. We stayed up past midnight and ate ice cream and soda, but other than those I didn’t have much experience throwing parties. It took me about six months to realize that party was a synonym of getting high. I saw fellow 7th graders come to class with squinty eyes and euphoric smiles reeking of pot smoke (at first I didn’t know what that smokey odor was). Fellow classmates in "shop-class" had secretive projects that they brought out only when the teacher, Mr. Feers, took his cigarette break. Their works consisted of salvaged polyurethane cylinders, sealed at the bottom, sanded smooth around the top, and a few 1/4 inch holes quickly forged on the drill-press. I was bewildered when one of them asked me: "Dude!....check out my bong, isn’t it bitchin’"? Not only did I not know what a bong was....I didn’t understand the adjective he used to describe it, nor why he was hiding it. All I knew was that there was some weird secret about all this, and I was not one of those who were welcome to the information. Kids moved up the social ladder by revealing their knowledge of rock and roll culture and sharing their covert collections of black beauties, Quaaludes, and joints. If you partook in their offers, you were one of them, a trusted confidant. If you were afraid to partake, you were a second-class loser. In other words, if you went along with the flow, unquestioning and complacent, you were accepted and rewarded with social status. If you questioned the norm, or went against the grain in any way, you were in for a rocky ride down the social ladder.
I shriveled under this pressure. Unable to compete yet unwilling to shut down, I came to be friends with a particular class of people who were labeled geeks, nerds, kooks, dorks, wimps, and pussies (or "wussies" if you combine these last two). We hung out together and did creative things after school, but the greatest alleviation of my suffering came from music. We had an old spinet piano that I would bang on and sing songs I learned by ear. I desired to gain a musical identity just like my peers at school, but I wasn’t inspired by the bands that formed the fabric of this burn-out drug culture: Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kiss, Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd among many others. Luckily, by the time I was 14, I had discovered a radio show on Saturday and Sunday nights that showcased local bands from L.A. I discovered the station because it was the only one in L.A. that played Todd Rundgren from time to time. My friend in Wisconsin and I had grown to love Todd and Utopia because they were melodic rock, but somewhat beneath the mainstream of popular music. Those characteristics still appeal to me today, and often guide my preferences for other bands.
I cannot overstate the importance of that radio show in the development of my musical personality. It was called Rodney on the Roq (on station KROQ) and it proved that there was an entire community of people right there in the same city that used music to share their alienation and confusion about the culture around them. It also proved that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or signed to a major record label in order to be played over the airwaves. The actual recordings were not slick high-budget productions. Often times Rodney would simply play demo tapes, or acetate pressings (limited-use vinyl singles or e.p.s). It was gloriously vulgar, and inspiring in its simplicity.
I wanted to be part of this community of musicians. The music was heartfelt and desperate. It spoke of the suffering that comes from the pressure to conform, and the burden that is placed on us by those in power, and the celebration of belonging to a community of powerless misfits. yet it was delivered by such a variety of bands, from different backgrounds. I "went punk" at 15. I cut my wavy hair very short, dyed it pitch black, and made my own t-shirts. I was creative enough and over the years I had experimented with songwriting on the piano along with my friends playing pots and pans and using cheap tape recorders. We were determined to send in a tape to Rodney on the Roq. But before any of that could materialize, I was introduced by a fellow wussie to the guys who would become Bad Religion. By the end of that same year, 1980, I had made my first record and Rodney played it. Usually this would make anyone a hero at his high school, a veritable recording artist as a classmate! But my high-school peers were violently opposed to this new evolving subculture. It was not the kind of music that glorified sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. It wasn’t "mellow" and it didn’t inspire people to get "wasted". I was seen as an enemy of their way of life. There were three of us at the school who were punkers. And all three of us at one time or another were physically beaten by people at school who attacked us only because of our musical preference. This scared me and at the same time made me feel powerful. It made me realize how frail most of the conformists really were, how easily they could be pushed to the point where they lose control. I found great solace in the community of other punkers from different schools, all with similar stories of oppression and abuse. My house became a hang-out and our garage became a rehearsal space (my mom was lenient, but also always at work, so there was no adult intervention). I began to feel like there was a way to deal with the disillusion of my cultural surroundings. But it was through questioning and challenging, not conforming and accepting.
This stance probably made me more insightful about human social interaction, and a better critic; but it also made me more cynical, and less understanding of those close to me who weren’t punk, and therefore it definitely retarded my ability to have intimate relationships. We punkers were linked by what we thought was a deeper cause, our desire to overcome societal pressure. It was a tacit assumption that we all had the same feelings, because we were all treated similarly by our society. The emphasis was always on the collective turmoil of our group and not on individual personal issues (there were a lot more songs about "us", "our", and "we" than about "I", "mine", and "me"). Maybe this is why so many of my friends got hooked on hard drugs, and some killed themselves. My punk friends did not practice understanding, we only exhibited toleration.
This shortcoming naturally extended to the sexes. I just assumed that girls were equals on every level. They dressed similarly, had similar hairstyles, and even slam-danced with us boys. Their suffering was our suffering, it seemed to me. I never thought that maybe they saw the punk scene from a unique perspective. "Women’s issues" were not on our discussion agenda. Both sexes were too busy being stalwart, and tough. It was wonderfully equal, and I was proud of my egalitarian view of the sexes. Unfortunately, it was also an excuse not to address differences between the sexes. To this day, I am great at being tolerant with women’s expressions, but bad at understanding their needs. And the time with my male friends is spent talking about mundane issues or worldly problems, not personal desires or feelings. This has interfered with numerous close friendships, and it has undermined my ability to be a good husband.
I decided to go to college. I anticipated that it would be a place where dissenting voices were recognized and applauded. This romantic vision appealed to me. I loved playing in my band and contributing to the challenge of mainstream music, but I also wanted more. I felt an urge to question more of society than just the music scene and people’s fashions. I figured that I could play in the band on weekends and vacations, and I could write about the relevant issues I was discussing at the university. But I realize now, in retrospect, that the university was as replete with the pressure to conform as my high school was. Students were rewarded for thinking like the professor. Only rarely did the professors try to educe original ideas from the students. More often we were rewarded for regurgitating the same rhetoric on tests that they professed in the lectures, which were more like state-of-the-union addresses in any given discipline. Although I was lucky enough to find three wonderful and inspiring faculty advisors who praised my originality and made me feel smarter than I probably am, I was saddened that there were so few like them. I became acutely aware that the usual university experience for most students was one of indoctrination into the prescriptive thinking of a privileged society. It was a recipe for what was acceptable to society. And nowhere in that socialization process did they provide a troubleshooting guide to deal with alternative ways of thinking. As a result, my undergraduate G.P.A. was only slightly better than average. But thanks to my advisors strong recommendations and insistence that I had original research ideas, I was able to continue and receive a Master of Science degree in Geology. I went on to a Ph.D. program too. Both of my higher-degree programs have taught me that the way to succeed in our society is to walk that fragile line between understanding the dogma that is inherent in the prevailing ideology and showing the people in power that you have your own ideas too but are not willing to infringe on their tolerance. Originality has a low tolerance threshold.
Over the last year and one-half I have been privileged enough to travel with more than most people do in a life-time. As I became more worldly, I realized that at every level of society and culture there are teachings that dictate how people are supposed to behave, and that in some way or another control people’s freedom to express themselves and live happy lives. I feel that it is the gift of being human to be able to challenge and confront those tenets, and share new ways to evoke originality from others. I’m glad that I’m not an animal.
Today, I have a more sophisticated view of my social surroundings. I have children, I own a house, I have insurance, I make financial decisions. My insight into the world comes from disparate sources: geology, organismic biology, music, travel, and fatherhood. This plurality insures my individuality. And learning to be an individual was the best gift I got from growing up punk. I am conscious of stereotypes, and try not to fit them. No geologist I have met is also knowledgeable about the music business and likewise no musician I know understands earth history like I do. I am proud of this unpredictable uniqueness.
Strangely, punk is quickly becoming mainstream. Last year, more people bought punk rock records, tapes, CDS, t-shirts, stickers, and show tickets, than ever before. As in any capitalistic situation, the punk market is experiencing a focal shift away from the original intent of the art (or product) toward the creation of a credo or indoctrination surrounding the marketing of the product. Why else would entire music labels market themselves as "punk labels"? Because they are selling fashion and building a sub-cultural retinue instead of promoting honesty and creativity of its artists. This is a sad state of affairs in the music industry that occurs at the independent-label level as well as in the majors. Therefore, it is no wonder that there are a bunch of "punk police" out there monitoring whether bands like ours fit the stereotype, and match their dogmatic view of acceptability. They exhibit the same behavior as the academic clones who graduate by the thousands each spring, ready to discriminate against others who challenge their learned ideology. The letter I received two weeks ago from that disgruntled fan was sadly reminiscent of the persecution I felt in high school from the stoners. It is also a shining example of how easy it is to follow the party line and advocate unoriginal, thoughtless sentiments, which in turn motivates me all the more to provoke.
Information contained within this writeup was culled from various Bad Religion web sites.