“The greatest musician is a man whose thoughts and feelings are above the common level, and whose language matches them.” —H.L. Mencken
If memory serves me right, the year was 1997. We were somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike on our way back from New York to Maryland. Dave had the wheel. A girl named Mary, our ride for the trip, was in the back seat. When it came time to pick music, Dave threw in Leatherface’s Mush album. It was his favorite band and for some time he’d tried to push them on me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it. I can’t really say why, but I just wasn’t into them. We’d be in his house drinking beers, strumming guitars. I liked Snuff and Jawbreaker, which were in a similar vein, but for reasons unknown, Leatherface wasn’t resonating with me.
“But the lyrics, man. How can you not be into them?” Dave asked dumbfounded.
As I look back on it now, I can only chock it up to youth and stupidity.
“I don’t know. Can’t get into that whole gargling gravel voice.”
“How can you not?”
Well, sometimes we’re not in the same place as the music. We’re not ready. The music is what it is. It’s already done its part. It’s given us the art and said what it’s had to say. Whether we’re able to hear and understand its language, that’s a whole other ballgame.
So Mush went into the car stereo as I stared out into the darkness and passing cars. Some pot was passed around. Maybe there was liquor—can’t remember—and Mary had a clarinet… or was it a flute? Anyway, regardless, there was much laughter and whistling in the back. And then it happened.
From the opening chords of “I Want the Moon,” I was hit by a revelation, a shining light, an epiphany of sorts, going straight for my gut: This music was awesome. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard and everything I thought music should be and, though it was helping, this wasn’t the pot talking. The songs kept coming one after another, aggressive and fast with no bullshit, but still in your face. Yet, they were catchy and intricately played. The lyrics flowed with strange images of politics, poetry, and rhyme. Somewhere in there was love, some found, some lost. There was also a little joy and sadness. Then “Springtime” came on and I could feel the interplay of guitars vibrating through my feet and all around me—a beautiful swirling of melodic notes and a driving beat behind it. It was angst-driven and pushing straight ahead. All of a sudden that gravelly, pain-drenched voice made all the sense in the world. It had to sound this way. How could it not? “And there was springtime in the back of my mind and everything was warm and green.” I turned to Dave and said, “My God! This is the best band! I don’t know what I was thinking!”
To this day, Leatherface remains one of my all-time favorite bands. When I found out they were playing in Brooklyn, I have to admit I was more than a little excited. I hadn’t seen them since 2001 on their tour with Hot Water Music, so I made sure I wasn’t going to miss this one. In the two weeks leading up to this, I went through the entire catalog of albums, from the very beginning to the newly released Stormy Petrel, with the lyrics out, blasting the music and poring over the words. I began with the early, raw, more hardcore album Cherry Knowle. I progressed through Fill Your Boots, where you start to hear the sound taking shape, and then moved to what I consider are some of the two best punk albums: Mush and Minx. Though many of the band members have changed, all mark the stamp of Frankie Stubbs—the constant mainstay, who I consider to be an amazing songwriter, guitar player, and a lyrical wordsmith; a poet who just happens to be playing punk music.
I’m not one to throw around praise lightly, but, lyrically, I put him on a pedestal with the likes of Tom Waits, Shane MacGowan, and Willie Vlautin of Richmond Fonatine. Those other songwriters tend to be more straight-forward with their story telling, but with Stubbs comes an array of images and one-line thoughts, abstract streams of consciousness, laced and woven with metaphors and beautiful images. The man has that special ability to write a political song and then turns around and writes one about love, regret, and hope. He does it in a way that makes you think and speaks to you. He somehow paints a playful yet dark picture with an intensity that makes you feel taking you back deep to a time you thought you’d long ago forgot. There are few punk bands that have ever really been able to pull this off with a combination of music and words at such a consistent and high level over the span of an entire career, but Leatherface has. And, they’ve done it damn well.
So on an early March night, I took the G train over to Williamsburg a couple hours before the show. I stumbled upon a place called L.A. Burrito and found it hard not to at least check it out. By no means was it close to La Estrella or Antojitos or Huaraches de Azteca in Highland Park, but I washed my dinner down with a tamarindo and called it good.
I drank a beer at a nearby bar just to kill some time and then made it over to the Knitting Factory off of Metropolitan Avenue. I saw Frankie Stubbs hanging out in front, but I really didn’t have anything to say. I’ve never been good at introductions. Although I’m a big admirer, and figure he’s probably the friendly type, I kept to myself thinking he probably gets more than his fair share of folks coming up to him.
A few minutes later, I was with old friends drinking at the bar. I can’t give my thoughts on the first band because we were busy with our beers. Up second was a local Brooklyn group called Bridge And Tunnel. I’d heard a few good things about them, but after a couple of songs, I just wasn’t into it. It seemed to be honest and heart-felt, but it didn’t hit me. Everyone else I was with was pretty much of the same conclusion and, for some reason, the lighting person thought it best to keep flashing this insanely bright, white light into our eyes every couple of drum beats. That was nerve-racking. We soon found our way back to the bar with more beers.
The next band was Yesterday’s Ring from Canada. I don’t mean to be a stereotypical ass, but when I see all members in matching black attire, questions form. I wonder if synchronized guitar dances are next. Thankfully, they weren’t, but a couple of songs in, a lot of the room filed back to the bar. I realized this wasn’t going to be one of those amazing shows where great band after great band plays, and really, I hadn’t expected it to. We all knew what we were there for.
An hour later, the room was full with anticipation and excitement. Most people had a good amount of drinks under their belt with that look. You know, the “All right, let’s get this shit on” expression. I was excited to see that Dickie Hammond—original guitarist from the earlier albums—was back with the band, and I was curious what they would sound like with their new bass player and without Andrew Laing, longtime drummer. Stubbs came out on stage looking like a wise, old, bearded sage, wearing some hat that looked like something you’d find the people in the arctic tundra sporting, with a jolly grin on his face. A sold-out crowd of life-long fans waited ready. And for the rest of the night, few words were said between songs. It was just a succession of amazing tunes from nearly all of their albums.
I want to say they started with “God Is Dead” from the new album. It sounded great, but when they kicked into “Peasant in Paradise,” the place really got going. Half of my beer was spilled on me after the first couple of chords. The floor was now slick and I received a kick to the eye from a stage dive. I swiped away some strange liquid that came out and, truth be told, felt rejuvenated. It’d been far too long since I’d been at a show like this. People were falling to the floor and everyone was pushing one another, all in a fun nature though; arms raised, fists clenched, hanging on to every word and singing in unison like a drunken choir. The hits kept pouring on, one after another. At one point, I looked behind me and around at the crowd and all I saw were hundreds of smiles. It was quite beautiful.
They played nearly half of Mush and when they broke into “Not Superstitious” and “Springtime,” it was joyful mayhem. One young fashion punk—studded jacket, done up hair sort of thing—danced around on stage and then gave Frankie a fat kiss on the cheek. Stubbs, the elder statesman, looked back at him strangely from the corner of his eye, as if to say “What the hell you doing kid?” then laughed along with the rest of us. The kid dove off of the stage and plummeted into the crowd, being held up briefly, floating around, and then crashing to the floor, into the dark where friendly hands reached down, pulled him up, and threw him towards the front. I’ve never been one to go too crazy at shows, but I found myself in the midst of it, leaning on strangers, singing my heart out. New songs from the recent album were played and they were good. Damn good, but folks were yelling out for older hits. Those were the songs we knew and had listened to for years. Stubbs calmly, in a very friendly nature, said, “Hey, we want to play new songs too.” Then shortly after, he played the opening riff to “Little White God” and we all went nuts.
The interplay of Stubbs and Hammond was quite a thing to see. The new bass player and drummer, though they seemed to be much younger, held their own, keeping up with the band. But, you could tell that the veterans were in a different place musically than they were. Soul? Spirit? I don’t know what you call it, but they definitely had it. Their guitars and melodies played off one another magically. At one point, I saw them both with their eyes closed. Dickie, a big barrel of man was rocking to and fro and Stubbs was doing some kind of shimmy shuffle—you know, in it as they say—eyes briefly opening to an entire room singing together, smiling, then eyes closed again.
After the set we were granted with two encores, the last ending with classic covers of “Hops and Barley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Message in a Bottle. “That’s it, really. Thank you, we’re done,” said Stubbs, putting the guitar down. You could tell Leatherface had given it what they had, and still I wanted them to keep going. I would’ve willingly thrown twenties on stage if they’d decided to, but they’d more than done their part.
I found my friends after the show and each of us were grinning, sweaty. We were all in agreement. “That shit was awesome. God, I needed that! But fuckin’ eh, I’m sore as shit.” Neck kinked from a boot in the face, bruises from flailing arm, backs aching. We realized we’d definitely gotten our money’s worth.
The next night I was back at work. Saturday in Manhattan with a packed restaurant. Between stocking beer and scooping ice cream, I saw a girl about twelve who had the grunge look going and happened to be wearing a Clash shirt, which sparked my curiosity. I asked her if she liked them, but it turned out it was just a hand-me-down. She didn’t really know who they were. I told her that they were a great English punk band but had she heard of Leatherface? Now that was a band to check out, and I’d just seen them last night. Yup, over in Brooklyn. It was awesome. I even got the scars to show it. I pulled my lip back to show her a little cut, and yeah, I know, I’m getting your mint chocolate chip. Relax, but seriously though, forget all this MTV and pretty-boy radio crap they try to feed you. You should listen to Leatherface. And there she was waiting for her ice cream along with her brother. Huh? Rocky road? Right, right, everyone loves chocolate. But the brother, maybe fourteen, said he was into punk and he actually seemed to be interested. Then their mother came over from the table and heard me blabbering and mom said, “Oh yeah, I used to listen to London Calling.” I was surprised, but we were in agreement that it was a great album and yes, bless Joe Strummer. Then I told her about Leatherface. She’d never heard of them, but she said she’d check them out. I suppose it wasn’t much as far as payback or thanks for what they’d given to me as a band. Maybe it was just “a drop in the middle of the big sea…” but I felt like in my own small way I was doing whatever I could to pass on the word and music to other folks both young and old. The rest was up to them.
Dave Sanders is a freelance photographer who lives in Brooklyn. For more photos check out http://www.davesandersphoto.com/.