REVIEW: Fifteen, SURPRISE! (Grass)

-Eric Hsu

When I first heard this CD, I hadn’t been to any East Bay punk shows in a long time and I had been trying hard to like the recent Ammonia and Local H !CDs (incredibly mediocre grunge), at least enough to review them, and ended up feeling just sick to death of music. Anyway, when I put in the Fifteen, I can’t describe how refreshing and alive the music sounded. There is such personality in the disc, and such energy. Even tired energy is thrilling if it’s genuine, and that’s what you get on this disc, tired-genuine energy. I think you owe this disc a try if you’ve lost hope in music, especially if you don’t get regular exposure to good hearty punk. You know who you are.

Fifteen played their final show a couple of months ago at Gilman, and it was packed. It was a great scene: daylight, punks of every stripe, old-timers and newer faces lined up (literally) around the block to try to squeeze into the show, and all under the skeletal shadow of a half-started brew-pub across the street. Gilman fought the licensing of the brew-pub for a long time, with a number of good well-reasoned arguments, but the main point was that the brew-pub was the leading edge of a gentrifying wave that was going to wipe Gilman out as a safe refuge where punks could be punk and have a scene and gossip and fight and basically be left in peace. Of course, the Berkeley City Council loves yuppie businesses and wishes punks would grow their hair and get jobs, and that’s how the large metal frame came to be erected, I-beams piled like a grave marker.

Fifteen has been around for a long time, long enough to have some kind of credibility among most people, not only among the punks but also the activists, since they played a lot of benefits at People’s Park (an admirable crossover). Everyone knew who they were and had respect for them, but I didn’t know anyone who really went to their shows. Some old-timers didn’t like their music, some thought they had gotten weird (“That last show was really weird… Jeff just rambled on in a psychotic way… I think his girlfriend is screwing him up.”), some thought their music was stuck in a rut. Pretty much everyone seemed to take them for granted, which is probably why their last show was such an event.

Reportedly, the breakup was friendly and Jeff wanted to move on to other things. Their three-piece sound visits Descendents territory, maybe with some Fang and Minutemen flavor. No matter how you cut it, it’s the essence of the East Bay sound, which makes it really easy to ignore as long as the scene is thriving, or even if it’s stagnating, since scenes tend to stagnate around their center of gravity, when the once-living heart becomes orthodoxy.

The songs are good, and very political, but fatigued at the same time. There are intelligent songs against violent cops, killing Indians, AIDS-spreading, and they’re moral ones too. The songs are fueled with a sense of social justice and responsibility, about revolting and not just rebelling. But ultimately, they’re defeated and about survival and retrenchment. “I wanted a way out, but I didn’t want to die,” Jeff yells, which is a good example of the positive-in-the-face-of-despair mood that pervades the album. “We are in the mid/late-stages of the coming fascist dictatorship,” writes Jeff. If that sentence has no meaning for you, skip this record. There are songs about old friends becoming cops, dumb drugged out rebels, and in the big picture, being an activist when the evil is winning all over in spades.

There’s no doubt that some of the weariness of the record (and the scene as a whole) comes from the super-mega-success of Green Day, and the baby-mega-success of Rancid. But even in a song about a Husker Du, criticizing “They traded gold for what they had inside,” they also say, “They probably never knew that they kept one scared kid alive.” I have a lot of respect for this record, especially for its attitude. It constantly finds the energizing and valuable side of negativity. After all, if something makes you really angry or really sick, there is something there that you cared deeply about, and Fifteen sings about those things.

The funny thing is I don’t have any urge to play the CD (now). The songs are strong, sometimes beautiful, but somehow it’s so much in the air in the East Bay that playing the sounds of the grinding guitars seems redundant. But now that the Gilman scene is choking to death, maybe this will be an important historical document someday. No one is going to buy this as sanitized danger a la Green Day or Rancid. There’s simply not enough exposure. But I’m glad they existed and I’m glad they made this record, and I think it could be important for some people out there, it might keep “one scared kid alive.”

I’ll let Jeff sign-off with his fatigued and mature take on the (unwelcome) East Bay punk successes: “I think we have better things to do than write letters to MRR and gossip about who showed up on MTV… No punk band is going to spontaneously generate the revolution, change is a lifelong process, made up of all of us. Who cares if “Bad Rancid Day Breaker” sold, I think we (and that includes me) are just hurt that a connection that we had with a band that we owned half of (the connection that is) got sold to the highest bidder. Life’s better down here in the real world anyway.”

Contact: Grass Entertainment, 72 Madison Ave., NY, NY 10016