T.S.O.L.: The Early Years Live: DVD

Aug 21, 2008

T.S.O.L.: The Early Years Live: DVD
T.S.O.L. was one odd dodo egg of a punk band. Even their initialed name was slightly off-kilter in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. Sure, as the stripped-down capital letters T-S-O-L, it seemed cool and somehow mysteriously foreboding, like all acronymous names do. Those seductive periods after each capital letter told you that some wonderfully hidden meaning was waiting there to be despoiled. But once the bra of mystery was unfastened and the booby prize of meaning flopped out, you were left with something called “True Sounds Of Liberty” wobbling in your hands. What the fuck was that? I had always hoped T.S.O.L. stood for “Totally Shit Out Of Luck,” which I thought had the proper amount of punkish disenfranchisement and snarl. In fact, I had always hoped they would take a cue from a band like M.D.C.—whose acronym held multiple meanings—and adopt “Totally Shit Out Of Luck” for at least one album. No such luck. The problem for me was that “True Sounds Of Liberty” has an almost “Up with People” sound to it. I could all too easily picture it being the cornball title of a Pat Boone album of jingoistic feel-good songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “God Bless the USA.”
But that’s just the band name. There’s also the issue of the band’s “look”—which is prominently on display in this DVD featuring two shows from the band’s controversial Beneath the Shadows “peak” era in 1983. Playing an outdoor show for a handful of punks and a throng of vaguely confused-looking college kids at an unnamed “art school,” Jack Grisham looks like a cross between Bryan Ferry and an extra from Fiddler on the Roof. With a stylishly tousled hairdo that’s part devilock, part Flock Of Seagulls, and with a cherubic, smiling face that puts one in mind of Bob’s Big Boy, it’s hard to imagine that this is the fearsome sociopath whose cruel and felonious travails have been recounted again and again in books like We Got the Neutron Bomb, American Hardcore, and in countless interviews through the years. And if his goth-art gypsy costume doesn’t throw you during the outdoor show segment, then you’re treated to Jack’s new-wavey ‘80s look in the second show featured on this DVD. Frosted bangs and a Saved by the Bell sense of splashy colors are the motif here. I don’t know where this guy was getting his fashion tips but it sure the hell wasn’t from Darby Crash.
And then there’s the ever-changing, ever-confusing music. As demonstrated so abundantly on this DVD, on one tune you have a ferocious early ‘80s political hardcore band moving your intestines up under your armpits with walls of pummeling sonic anger, and then the next tune you have a poetry-spewing Sisters Of Mercy-type goth-art band painting waking dreams in your head with evocative soundscapes and moody artistic flourishes. (And, if you’re like me, you start to wonder if these are the guys we need to finger for planting the very first seeds of what later grew into the wretched weed called “emo.” But that’s another topic for another time.)
This Jekyll and Hyde personality was, of course, what many people back in the ‘80s found to be refreshingly freeing about the band and what others found to be just plain annoying. And after watching this DVD, both while sober and while under the influence, I can now say that I am firmly in both camps. And that’s because I’m more and more coming around to suspect that maybe T.S.O.L. was not so much a “band” as what the ethnomethodologists term a “breaching experiment”—which is when someone targets a specific sociological niche and deliberately toys with, shits on, and generally fucks with that group’s deepest sense of “appropriate behavior.” What Robert Anton Wilson and the Discordians called “Operation Mindfuck.” And if I’m right, then Jack Grisham is the punk rock cousin of people like Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen. The fact that he makes a point of mentioning something as wholly irrelevant as the individual heights of each band member (6’1”, 6’2”, 6’3”, 6’5”, respectively) almost every single time someone sets a microphone in front of his mouth for an interview, is surely a tip off that this is all a Kaufman-esque farce dolled up as a goth-punk band. Now if they were all, say, over seven feet tall, he’d have a real reason to keep bringing the whole height thing up. But, unfortunately, they’re nothing more than a bunch of just-over-six-foot runts. So it’s obvious to me that Grisham is something very much along the lines of a larrikin, which is an Australian term for a charismatic lout who specializes in scrambling people’s treasured mores and serving them up sprinkled with extra fart powder.
Then again, maybe I’m giving them all too much credit, maybe they really were just a bunch of spoiled rotten rich suburban hardcore kids with latent Liberace-esque tastes in art and fashion. Maybe they really were little more than slightly brain damaged surfer apes who were equally capable of cranking out viscerally brutal hardcore as well as squishy goth rock poesy—while lacking the mental capacity to distinguish between the two. But I doubt it. Ultimately, it’s Grisham’s ever-present Big Boy grin that tips you off to the fact that you’re being fucked with by experts.
So even if you don’t share my appreciation for breaching experiments and larrickinism, you should still consider checking out T.S.O.L.: The Early Years Live—especially if you’re into the classic early ‘80s hardcore scene. This DVD shines an honest light on a band that was one of the most influential—and schizoid—during punk’s formative years and it does it in a way that’s both entertaining and bewildering. –Aphid Peewit (MVD Visual, www.MVDvisual.com)