American Rage and Suburban Malaise: A Study of the Urban Punk Underground
Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist (Photo by Christian Contreras)
This piece has been censored for the UIC Radio blog.
It’s difficult to write about punk without draining it of its chaos.
The greatest punk shows are soaked in sweat and blown into the red. The best punk lyrics are incomprehensible, the best punk venues include a highly suspect dirty mattress in the corner, and the best punk showgoer is one who will sweat all over you, push you into other strangers, scream in your face, and then let you bum a cigarette at the end of the night. When writing about punk neglects to include that sense of disorder and entropy, you get sterile talk of what is, above all, the art of violent, cathartic release.
When I was a teenager, DIY punk shows in Chicago were my safe haven. Growing up gay, there are very few spaces in which you know that you’re not the only outcast- which isn’t to say that I was some sort of hunchbacked adolescent hermit, but when you come out of the closet early, there’s a very thin line you have to walk, knowing all the eyes that rest on you. Getting drunk, then moshing and screaming and sweating in trashed apartments on the weekends was just the sort of chaotic release I needed to keep from cracking under the pressure.
There’s an energy at every great punk show that finds its way up your spine and lets you know you aren’t the only one who just needs a f*cking break. There are systems in place working against all of us- some more complicated or institutionalized than others- but the fun of a punk show is sourced from the moment it allows for young, frustrated, bored, and fed up people to stop needing to think for a while.
Eventually though, you stop being seventeen years old and it’s no longer socially acceptable to struggle through an Aquafina bottle full of whiskey, sweat through your shirt and make out with a high schooler at the end of the night.
Still, I took my sweet time bidding the Chicago punk underground adieu. School took over, my taste in music changed, and I found myself on the outskirts of a scene that I’d loved being a part of. And then, new anxieties in the world began to pile on. A reality TV star with a racist agenda was quickly becoming a real contender for the American presidency. And then he picked one of the most homophobic politicians in the country to be his would-be Vice President. And then the murder rate for trans people was the highest it had been in years. Nightmares started to become realities and I found myself longing even more to be back in those punk spaces- to see if people were still raging to create the things that I would’ve needed to stay sane.
Sadie Switchblade of G.L.O.S.S.
I was still immersed in mainstream music media, and I was surprised to find that not only were songs of rage and anxiety being produced, they were gaining unprecedented attention and traction. One band in particular, a hardcore punk outfit consisting entirely of genderqueer musicians, G.L.O.S.S. (an acronym for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit), made huge waves on mainstream music press sites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Their music is loud, violent, fast, and bold, and their sheer kinetic energy never let up. Guitars were pushed to their very limits and their volumes maxed out, and drums were booming, quick, and crisp. Brad Nelson, a staff writer at Pitchfork, wrote that their music “conveys a violent and severe world, one in which the only reasonable and intelligent responses are anger and aggression.” The music was fantastic, but the band’s commitment to the punk identity was just as important: G.L.O.S.S. refused to give interviews to any major music blogs, and even went so far as to break up entirely when the hype around the band outgrew their purpose for existing in the first place.
“The punk we care about isn’t supposed to be about getting big or becoming famous, it’s supposed to be about challenging ourselves and each other to be better people. It feels hard to be honest and inward when we are constantly either put on a pedestal or torn down, worshipped or demonized. We want to be whole people, not one-dimensional cartoons.” (G.L.O.S.S. for MaximumRockNRoll.com)
What was so special about G.L.O.S.S. was their refusal to acquiesce to any standard- even those within the hardcore punk scene, which had been notoriously dominated by bands consisting of exclusively white men. They may be the perfect example of why punk is so necessary in the current political climate- spaces need to be carved out for all the marginalized people who need to know that they “deserve everything,” as G.L.O.S.S.’s lead vocalist Sadie Switchblade puts it. The traditional punk ethos is still very much ingrained in their music- “We Live,” a song off of their EP Trans Day of Revenge includes lyrics that read like a near-universal mantra for punk bands. “We live for nights like this / Basements packed with burning kids / We scream just to make sense of things / Studs and leather / Survivor’s wings.”
As I kept coming across more and more thinkpieces on the state of punk and all the movements and changes the bigger bands were undergoing in the midst of political turmoil, I found myself wondering what was brewing in the underground. I put out an open call on Facebook for people in Chicago punk bands to send me their music, and got a wealth of responses almost instantly. I browsed through all the submissions looking for the sound that made me feel what I felt when I was a teenager: music that was cathartic, the perfect balance of joy and rage.
Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist (Photo by Connor Lavin for Leap Photography)
One of the bands that managed to hit that sweet spot was Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist, a group of twenty-somethings of differing musical backgrounds based in Chicago. Their name was borne of some sort of fever dream- their bassist’s dad approached them out of nowhere and suggested the name with no explanation or context and it stuck. I got the chance to interview the band’s drummer, Mark Czmil, a twenty-three year old raised on metal who joined the band after a falling out with the original drummer. MGLW’s lead singer, Gage Walden, was a close friend of Czmil’s, and approached him to join the band. When Czmil told him “I don’t know how to play drums,” Walden replied, “It’s punk.”
This sort of unpolished collaborative energy is a thrill to hear evolve across MGLW’s discography. Early recordings like their first album Shit Happens are more raw and messy, but the energy and synergy heard across their music is still present. At their best, MGLW create walls of sound, total sensory overload- “Rezball” from their 2015 album Awww Shit features some impressively deft work from guitarist Jeff Finnegan and a scream-along refrain that captures a sort of suburban malaise that begs to be destroyed: “Resin gets you high! / Resin gets you high! / Resin gets you high! / Resin gets you blasted!”
Gage Walden of Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist
Their shows are energetic, unbridled, and like all punk shows are, above all, sweaty: in a YouTube video of their 2017 CD release show for their most recent album Who Gives a Shit?, Walden shouts into the crowd, “I feel like a stick of butter in a frying pan, oh my God!” and the crowd responds with an encouraging chant of “Heyyy, we want some pussaaay!” Everyone’s drenched in sweat of their own creation as well as some borrowed from others, the band has shed the majority of their clothes to stay conscious, and the entire crowd is smiling.
There’s an obvious amount of effort and energy that goes into these songs, and while Walden is the sole lyricist for the band, Czmil made sure to mention the conscious effort that goes into crafting their sound on the composition end. He described the writing process as “a lot of marijuana and maybe a few beers,” but then dove into all the technicalities of crafting that authentic punk sound:
“I try to use a lot of dissonant chords, a lot of diminished intervals, a lot of evil-sounding things that in the middle ages would’ve gotten me in thrown in the dungeon- thankfully we aren’t in those times anymore- but really the main thing is me sitting there going, how can I make all this dissonance sound like a song?”
While Czmil is grateful for the fact that we aren’t in the Dark Ages, and many of Walden’s lyrics deal heavily with personal experience, there are a lot of political lyrics across their work. MGLW tackles an unfair court system, (“The righteous room of prejudice / For justice you must look your best / Time and money are on the line / For made up things that we call crime”) crooked politicians (“Constant oppression with no escape / Politicians use laws to masturbate / Corrupt closed minded demands from the state”) and NRA corruption (“Privacy is now extinct / They listen when your phone rings / Hello? Yes, who is this? / Your stalker and I know something”) with a frantic, raging attitude. These lyrics are blunt and effective: radical mission statements that fly by with Walden’s rapidfire cadence and the rest of the storm that MGLW creates. Finnegan’s riffs are rhythmic and face-melting at once, and meld perfectly with Vyto Walz’s bass parts, which hold the whole thing together with impressive control and versatility.
Of course, there are also a lot of songs about drugs. Schwag, powder, grass, Lucy, and countless more are name-dropped across their discography. And they weren’t alone: other bands who submitted their music had their own arsenal of odes to getting high. One that stood out in particular was suburban ska-punk band Bad Timing, who declare they are “HIGH AS F**K AT NINE IN THE MORNING!” on their song “Carefree,” a lyrical moment that took me back to the kind of screaming magic that makes an entire show.
When punk isn’t political, it’s just trying to keep itself entertained. The songs about drugs and alcohol aren’t usually songs about responsible use- these are songs about getting absolutely plastered. But it isn’t that simple: songs about getting high out your mind are side-effects of the Chicago punk scene’s disillusionment with the world in general. To be punk is to be bored, to be bored is to be rebellious.
Siouxsie and the Banshees
In Mark Sinker’s essay “The Etiquette of Punk,” he juxtaposes mainstream religious and political teachings with those of punk classics. There’s a certain rejecting nihilism to a lot of “punk teachings,” and it can be traced from Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist all the way back to punk’s earliest days. As Sinker puts it, “Punk has to mean refusing both puppet-dom and God the ventriloquist… from self-assault to metaphysical nihilism, [punk is] a declaration of war on the very concept of tomorrow… rejecting a failsafe machinery for generating destiny.” Punk assumes nothing, because there’s nothing like an assumption to create complacency.
Comparing lyrics about living oppressed by the “backwards attitudes and customs that hold us back,” it’s clear that the punk state of mind hasn’t changed much in decades.
“Should I throw things at the neighbors / Expose myself to strangers? / Kill myself or you? / Now memory gets hazy? / I think I must be crazy / But my string snapped / I had a relapse / A suburban relapse”
– Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Suburban Relapse” (1978)
“Wake up to reality, alarm slap to the face / You walk among this life, dwell on false faith / Glued to the screen, don’t worry it’s a dream / It’s not what it seems / It’s not what it seems / Appearing everywhere but still can’t find yourself / Questioning beliefs, are we a part of Hell?”
– Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist, “What a Waste” (2017)
Punk pushes questions of sanity and routine on its listeners in a way that shakes them out of the mundanity of their day to day lives. Sonically, of course, their message is hard to miss, but on closer inspection, punk lyricism dives deep into questions of existentialism. Punk, in ways both light and serious, forces you to look at the behaviors you’ve fallen into, and to question if you’ve said “f**k you” enough times to them.
Czmil describes the crowd at an MGLW show as “a lot of kids in the 18-21 range wearing black and crazy hair and patches.” This is the prime punk market: those looking over the cliff at the adult world down below and not liking at all what they see. Czmil told me that at the core of his work with the band, he just wants to have fun, but there’s something about the energy of performing this sort of music that brings it to another level.
“At the live shows, we have a fanbase that knows the words… having 20 people yelling along with our vocalist sends f**king chills down my spine.”
This is ultimately what punk is really about, then and now, in cities across America. There’s a lot to fear. There’s a lot to be anxious about. Young people find themselves cornered by these new sources of anxiety- sometimes there’s no space for a practical, patient reaction. Punk musicians deliver something necessary to make sense of our world: the unfiltered, knee-jerk reaction to the backwardness of real life. If there was ever a time for the catharsis that underground punk gives, it’s now. There’s something seriously empowering about packing in shoulder-to-shoulder with people who didn’t ask to be born into a mess they didn’t create, and collectively deciding on the most appropriate reaction: total f**king rage.
Martha’s Got a Limp Wrist is a punk band based in Chicago consisting of Gage Walden (Vocals/Yellin’), Jeffrey Finnegan (Guitar/Shreddin’), Vyto Walz (Bass/Pluckin’), and Mark Czmil (Drums/Bangin’). They are currently working on their fifth album, tentatively titled Ain’t That Some Shit, set to be released in late summer 2017. They’re playing a show at The Fallout in Pilsen on May 13. You can listen to their music here.
Nick Malone is a writer and former punk fanatic from Chicago. He promises he didn’t know that Gage Walden went to Kindergarten with him before writing his entire Music Cultures final paper about his band. Stalk him at University of Illinois at Chicago where he studies Creative Writing. You can read his writing here.