Monday, April 6, 2015

Misfits Memories: How 'Earth A.D.' Changed My Life

Last week, the official lineup for the 2015 This Is Hardcore Fest in Philadelphia was announced. In addition to long-running scene stalwarts like the Cro-Mags, Slapshot, Biohazard and Killing Time, this year's event (held July 23 at Union Transfer and July 24-26 at the Electric Factory) boasts a July 25 headlining set by The Misfits, who are being billed as performing their 1983 album, Earth A.D., in its entirety.

Of course, today's version of The Misfits is vastly different than the band that recorded that album more than 30 years ago. If you venture out to This Is Hardcore to check out this special set, you will see bassist Jerry Only handling lead vocals (a role he's had for nearly 15 years now). On guitar, you'll see Only's son, Jerry Jr., who joined the band last year. On second guitar, you'll likely see either former Black Flag/DC3 member Dez Cadena (who has been playing with The Misfits since 2001 but recently announced an indeterminate break from the band to tend to health issues) or Soulfly/Il Nino/Cavalera Conspiracy player Marc Rizzo. On drums, you'll get a bona fide Hardcore guy in the form of Eric “Chupacabra” Arce a.k.a Goat on Murphy's Law, Skarhead, Harley's War and Crown of Thornz, who has played in The Misfits on a full-time basis since 2010 after filling in on several occasions in the prior decade.

Of course, the Earth A.D. announcement prompted a strong – and, in some cases, incredibly negative – response from fans. Personally, I'm thrilled by the news. And here's why...

When I was growing up and first discovering Punk and Hardcore, The Misfits were a huge deal to me. Being a North Jersey kid, I'd spot the poster for the Doyle Fan Club around – or see that amazing cover art for the full-length album version of Evilive – and marvel that a band that cool came from the area.

Although I was (and remain) a massive fan of Walk Among Us, it was Earth A.D. that knocked me over with its sheer power when I first heard it. I was already well into bands like Slayer and Metallica by then, but there was nothing that sounded that raw and menacing to my ears at the time. (I had a similar experience years later when I heard Hellhammer for the first time, but that's a story for another blog.) Later, my Earth A.D. cassette (yes, I said cassette) was a constant for me throughout my senior year of high school, when I'd often leave at the end of the day and immediately head over to Jerry's and make noise with him (and sometimes Doyle) for a couple of hours.

When I started hanging out and jamming with The Misfits in early '95 (the history of all that can be read here), I knew about 30-35 songs from their back catalog, but very little from Earth A.D. The reason for that was simple: There is a massive difference between the basic 4/4 I-can-play-this-in-my-sleep drumming on most of Walk Among Us and the frightening, breakneck precision of ROBO's performance on Earth A.D. Sure, the band live circa '82/'83 was an adrenaline-fueled train wreck, but Jerry, Doyle and ROBO are as tight as the Bad Brains on Earth A.D. (Just listen to “Green Hell” if you don't believe me.) In my mind, there was no way a 17-year-old version of me was going to be able to pull off that kind of speed and skill behind the drums– let alone on ROBO's old kit, which was what Jerry and Doyle had in the rehearsal room in their family's machine shop at the time. But I gave it a try, once bashing out “Green Hell” with Jerry and Doyle in a roomful of hopeful vocalists waiting for their moment to audition. I got through about three quarters of the song with flying colors before I missed one of those fast-as-fuck cymbal hits and it completely fell apart. Oops!

Left to right: Doyle, a 17-year-old/green-haired me and Jerry Only in 1995, probably moments away from attempting "Green Hell" (Collection of the author)

(A few weeks later, I went up to the machine shop and got the chance to see Doyle, Jerry and Chud bang out a good chunk of the Earth A.D. material the way it should have been played. I still remember literally feeling the power of Doyle's guitar hit my chest, and how well Chud handled those songs. When I saw that, I had no doubt that he would definitely be the drummer in the new Misfits.)

Looking back over The Misfits' vast and sometimes-turbulent discography, it's clear that Earth A.D. contains some of the heaviest and most brutally innovative work the band ever created. Have a listen to “Bloodfeast.” What other Misfits song (besides maybe “All Hell Breaks Loose” off Walk Among Us) demands such a varied drum performance? Without a doubt, ROBO was the strongest drummer the original Misfits ever had. As a songwriter, Glenn Danzig was beginning to greatly expand his musical vocabulary with Earth A.D., a trend he continued with his work in Samhain. If Walk Among Us represents The Misfits on Mars, then Earth A.D. represents the band's reign in Hell.

Naturally, the album's cover matched the brutal sounds within. According to legend, infamous Punk artist Mad Marc Rude spent more than 300 hours creating that piece. Not only did it perfectly represent the record's musical and lyrical content, but it also created the template for the years' worth of gore-infused Death Metal album covers to come. I was fortunate enough to meet Mad Marc in the summer of 1996, when he turned up at the Vernon, NJ stop of the Warped Tour with my buddies Sal and Dan Canzonieri of Electric Frankenstein. Although our conversation was brief, I'll never forget the guy. He was fucking intense – loaded with tattoos (including, if I remember correctly, one of Woody Woodpecker on his neck) and looking like he had lived very hard. Sadly, Mad Marc passed away in 2002. Those interested in checking out more of his incomparable art should definitely check out this Facebook page, Electric Frankenstein's Monster EP and his work in Dwarves frontman Blag Dahlia's brilliantly batshit 1998 novel, Armed to the Teeth with Lipstick. Additionally, a documentary on Rude's art and life, Mad Marc Rude: Blood, Ink & Needles, has been in production for years now and is said to be ready for wide release at some point later this year. Here's the trailer:

In addition to being my favorite album art of all time, Rude's Earth A.D. piece grew in personal significance when I accompanied Jerry and Doyle in the spring of '95 to the home of a fellow they called “King Resin,” who was making wall plaques of the album art out of a mold. The guys were nice enough to present me with the eighth Earth A.D. wall plaque ever made:

Painted versions of the plaque (along with a Jerry Only model and a “Pusshead” [sic] plaque), were later made available to the public, as seen in this rare order form from 1995:

Listening to Earth A.D. in 2015 brings back some strong memories for me. I can still see Jerry Jr., then just a little kid, asking his dad how much longer he was going to be doing band stuff at the shop that day because he was bored and wanted to leave. Another time, I redeemed myself in the Earth A.D. realm when I was jamming with Jerry and Doyle and we kicked into “Death Comes Ripping.” I hit the tune with as much energy as I could muster, and I absolutely slayed that fucker. When it was over, Jerry said I played the song too fast and needed to slow it down next time! Yeah...there I was, playing “Death Comes Ripping” on ROBO's drum kit and being told I played a song from Earth A.D. too fast. I consider that a major achievement to this day! (Unfortunately, I don't think that particular moment was recorded. Damn...) Above all, I remember Jerry putting in a lot of very long and hard days to get The Misfits going again. One minute, he was picking up boxes of t-shirts; the next minute, he was off to visit with Basil Gogos or Ed Repka to pick up artwork. After that, he'd head back to the shop, unload the stuff he picked up, handle a bunch of phone calls and then hit the practice/weight room to bang out a few songs before planning out more band-related stuff in the shop's large conference room. I spent a lot of time at the shop in that era, and it wasn't uncommon to see a typical Misfits-related workday for the guy start at 7:30am and end around 11pm. Jerry Only is the hardest-working, most professional musician I've ever known, and he's earned every penny he's made.

Earth A.D. was the soundtrack to a special time in my life. The album is irreplaceable to me.

With all that said, let's go back to the complaints concerning The Misfits' performance of Earth A.D. at This Is Hardcore. I find it amusing that some people will decry the idea of the Jerry-led Misfits playing an album without certain key members, but nobody seems to mind that the current Cro-Mags are selling a t-shirt with the words Best Wishes on it when nobody from today's lineup played a note on the album of the same name. I see no problem with either example, as I'd rather see these two bands honor their pasts instead of denying that there was a history before their current incarnations. It's also worth noting that before his medical problems recently took him out of the game, Dez served as the guitarist for The Misfits longer than any other six-stringer they've ever had (and that includes Doyle). Something else to consider: Jerry's stint as the band's singer has outlived the Danzig era (six years) and the Graves era (five years) combined. Simply put, there isn't a band on this planet - including a Jerry-fronted one - that can survive as a international touring act for nearly 15 years by sucking – regardless of whatever notoriety or success they achieved in the past. The reputation of the Danzig years might have allowed Only to get his foot in the door when he brought the band back in '95, but it is his talent, determination and drive that has kept him in the room for two decades and counting. If people from all over the world didn't come out in droves to see the Only-fronted Misfits play all these years – and the band didn't still put on a decent show - there wouldn't be a Misfits in the present tense. The band is obviously doing something right.

Yes, Jerry's voice cracks under the pressure of the material at times, but Danzig's been out of breath every time I've seen him perform in the last 10 years. That doesn't mean that these guys fail to deliver plenty of power from the stage; it's just that we're talking about guys who are in their mid- to- late 50s playing high-energy music they developed when they were in their 20s and 30s. You're not going to see or hear an exact replica of what they gave us in the '80s or '90s. Get over it and just enjoy the fact that these guys are still at it in 2015. In the case of today's Misfits, go on YouTube, watch videos of the current four-piece band and seriously ask yourself if you could bring the onstage energy that Jerry does at 56 years of age. I know I can't do it today at 38.

Twenty years ago, people said there couldn't be a Misfits without Glenn Danzig. Well, Jerry Only has proven everyone wrong ever since. Now he's taking on the heaviest and most challenging album in the band's discography from beginning to end while most people his age are enjoying AARP discounts. That is fucking Hardcore, and I'm going to make every effort to be there when The Misfits hit the stage in Philly.

Go here for more information on the This Is Hardcore Fest.


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