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Chris Gethard: How Punk Rock Can Make You Successful

In an excerpt from his new memoir ‘Lose Well,’ the ‘Career Suicide’ comedian explains why DIY bands playing in a basement changed his life

Chris Gethard performs onstage at Clusterfest, 2017

Chris Gethard performs onstage at Clusterfest, 2017

FilmMagic

Chris Gethard’s new book Lose Well is a guide written from the trenches for anyone trying to make something happen. And – spoiler alert – whatever that may, you will fail at it. You will eat dirt in small ways and miserably large ways. Some flameouts will be spectacular, demoralizing, publicly humiliating and soul-crushing. Gethard lived them all. As a result, he’s hosted his own talk show, a hit podcast, an HBO special and more. He never imagined any of it primarily because he created these ideas from scratch. Gethard shows you how to do that in your own life – how to fight the good fight, as he says – in anecdotes that are hilarious, often cringe-inducing, but ultimately inspiring – much like the punk scene he experienced one fateful night in a church basement somewhere in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. Read an excerpt from the chapter “Punk” exclusively here. Then find him on the road

If not for my brother, I never would have found punk rock. And like legions of Lower East Side junkies, British working class toughs, and bored middle-class suburban American kids before me, if I never found punk rock, I imagine nothing good in my life would exist today.

Before you skip to the next chapter, reader who is rolling your eyes, let me be clear that I understand that punk is not for everyone. Some people like songs that are longer than three minutes long, feature more than the same four chords, and don’t highlight singers screaming into a mic. I know punk might not be your cup of tea. Some people hear “punk” and still think about English teens with orange spiky hair who wear studded leather jackets and blow snot rockets at the ground while sticking safety pins through their faces. I get it. That stereotype isn’t quite true. But I won’t waste time trying to convince you, because that’s not what matters.

Punk taught me about empowerment. It showed me the strength that comes along with failure. It made me realize that only I can shatter the status quo, the built-in programming that life tries to embed in me. In my opinion, deep down, punk is about two things – asking why things have to be the way they are, and figuring out if there’s a way to accomplish things on your own, without the help of any power brokers, or oppressive forces that might dilute your voice and your mission.

You may not be interested in music at all, let alone music produced and consumed by angry teenagers. Maybe you’re a Midwestern mom who needs to box out more time for your home-based hobbies. This applies to you too. Because if you ask me, Etsy is the most punk rock invention this decade, and HGTV with its 24-hours of DIY-programming might be the most punk channel in the history of television.

Chris Gethard

I sat in my room on a Friday night, playing Road Rash on my Sega Genesis. I developed an obsession with this game, in which you ride in a motorcycle race, brutally hitting other riders with fists and clubs as you pass them. This was my standard Friday night activity that summer between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. If I’m being honest, it’s what I did most Saturday nights as well. Gregg received his license a few months before summer hit, which meant he was gone as often as possible, borrowing our mom’s Saturn so he could pick up his friends and take off into the night. My evenings went from watching tv and playing video games with my brother to doing those same activities alone. Worse yet, he’d regale me with tales of his adventures. From tormenting hippies who hung out in a park in Livingston, to nights spent in far- away diners hitting on girls with varsity jackets from other high schools, to scavenger hunts where multiple laws were broken, Gregg had stories of his newfound car-based freedom that made me seethe with envy.

But this night was different. I’d just settled into my post-dinner video game marathon when Gregg sauntered into my room and asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Uh…nothing,” I responded. I wanted to say Oh who, me? Just sitting around being bored out of my mind and jealous of you. I’m glad I bit my tongue.

“Cool,” he said. “We’ll leave around 7:30.”

“Where are we going?” I asked. He just turned and walked away.

A short while later, we drove up Eagle Rock Avenue. Eagle Rock is the main road in my part of town. My house was a few short blocks from where it ended, meeting up with Main Street. Eagle Rock Avenue, in my mind, represented possibility. It crossed roads that lead to other towns. It led to highways, and those might lead anywhere. Take it far enough and you’d be in Roseland, then East Hanover, and eventually Route 10. From there who knows where? Driving up Eagle Rock meant we weren’t staying in our neighborhood. Something was happening.

“Where are we going?” I asked. I was psyched my brother was bringing me anywhere. Gregg barely tolerated me a lot of the time. I was annoying. I was his kid brother. I was also kind of a hyperactive angry prick for a lot of our childhood. But he liked that I put him and his good taste on such a pedestal, so every once in a while he’d bring me someplace just in an effort to blow my mind.

“Mike D is putting on a concert,” he mumbled.

I was intrigued. I was terrified. Mike D was by far the friend of my brother who attracted the most trouble. I’d heard legends about him for years, and before I ever even met him I found just the idea of him very strange and very cool. The first time he visited my house he leaned against the wall near our front door and said nothing. It was as if he feared my parents, or any authority figure really. He wore a leather jacket, had a pony tail, and as far as I was concerned came off as an adolescent mix of Boo Radley and the Fonz. I peppered Mike D with questions.

“Is it true,” I asked, “that you once brought a tool kit to school and spent the whole day taking apart desks?”

“Yeah,” Mike D said. “Windows too.”

This kid was a rabble rouser. When my brother said he was “putting on a concert,” I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to a concert in my life. My entire perception of concerts was defined by the video Guns and Roses put out for their cover of the Beatles’ “Live and Let Die.” I thought concerts happened in arenas, where sweaty rock stars who somehow pulled off wearing kilts stood on massive stages and blew away tens of thousands of fans. How was my brother’s weird quasi-criminal friend going to stage one of those? He wasn’t even a musician.

We pulled into the parking lot behind the Pleasantdale Presbyterian church on Pleasant Valley Way.

“Let’s go,” my brother said, opening the door.

“Uh, we’re Catholic,” I said.

“Stop being dumb.”

A few kids stood behind the back entrance of the church. At first, I thought they were burnouts, but these weren’t the 70s relic stoner types I was used to seeing around town. That gang all had long hair and a greasy vibe and leaned against muscle cars. These kids had on baggy jeans. One of them had bleached hair and a skateboard in his backpack.

We entered the church basement. A small stage stood at one end of the room. Folding tables lined the back wall. Behind them a group of kids was selling stuff. A few dozen young punks were scattered about, including my brother’s group of friends and pockets of kids who were not from our town. All of them seemed tough. I was the youngest kid in the room by far. It felt a little unsafe.

After a few minutes, there was a commotion on stage. Some kids had climbed onto the stage and were grabbing instruments. I thought they were stealing them. Instead, they plugged them in. One of them stepped up to the microphone.

“Hi, we’re the Missing Children,” he mumbled. And then, out of their amps, blasted the loudest, worst music I’d ever heard in my life. The Missing Children were terrible. They could barely play in time together. The bassist slammed into the singer, knocking him away from the mic, but he still shouted the words, pumping his fist in the air. It was a shit show.

But man, was it a beautiful disaster. It was perfect.

The crowd rushed forwards, slamming into each other, throwing their fists up, shouting along with the singer. They didn’t even know the words, but so many of the choruses were just things like “Whoa oh oh” or “La la la, yeah yeah” that you could figure out the lyrics quick and get in on the fun.

It was a sweaty mess. Everyone was caught up in it. I was about to start my freshman year of high school. I was used to doing whatever it took to avoid feeling different. I was a nerd, and as a nerd I stuck with other nerds to avoid standing out or drawing unnecessary attention to myself. That’s how I kept life safe, blending in among kids just like me.

That’s not how things worked in the church basement, where fat kids spun in circles, bumping up against cool skinny girls. A black skater kid jumped off the stage and landed near a bunch of burly looking white kids in hoodies. People who didn’t know each other had their arms around each others’ shoulders. The dancing looked more like a fist fight. But any time someone fell, the crowd would part, someone would help that person up, and they’d hug with grins on their faces. It was like the whole world had short circuited and everyone was thrilled about it. I’d never seen anything like this.

And best of all, the band on stage was composed of people no different from me. They seemed geeky and resentful and spoke with thick Jersey accents. If we passed them in the hall at school and you told me these kids were in a band, I wouldn’t have believed it. The singer wasn’t Axl Rose. He didn’t have long hair or somehow pull off walking around in a baseball catcher’s gear. The guitarist wasn’t Slash, a scumbag superhero come to life.

I charged into the group of dancing kids and spazzed out. I’d never danced in public before, but surrounded by kids who looked exactly like the kind of kids I’d argue with in the lunchroom about whether or not Iron Man could beat Wolverine in a fight, I flailed around and had fun. I wasn’t hip. I wore an X-Men shirt, not one representing a band. No one judged. No one seemed to even care. Everyone did their own thing, but they still did it all together. It felt great and, I remember thinking, what freedom felt like.

The next band up was called Felix Frump. Their tunes were catchier than Missing Children, and they less angry, happily dumber. All their lyrics were about how they couldn’t land dates. Talk about relatable. Between songs, they bantered into the mic. They were funny idiots, in a good way, and everyone loved them. When Felix Frump played, I danced even harder. My brother stopped flailing his arms around in the middle of the scrum just long enough to make eye contact with me. A grin spred across his face. Here he wasn’t the brainy kid with the braces and bifocals. I wasn’t the pre-pubescent runt. We were just two more people dancing, not apologizing, parts of a greater whole.

The final band was One Nature. They were moody. They were intense. They were loud. Unlike Felix Frump, One Nature wasn’t messing around. They were still kids – twenty at the oldest – but they were up there because they had something to say, and they were saying it quite loud. When One Nature played, no one really danced. We all stood in place and listened and watched and swayed and nodded our heads in recognition of our shared anger, which at least for one night, we weren’t about to keep bottled inside.

Mike D stood in the back of the room, a smirk on his face. He wasn’t playing in any bands tonight. He just put this together so we could have it. He made it happen because he could. For the first time I didn’t see him as a troublemaker, I saw him as an organizer. The room was full of kids I’d probably be scared to talk to if I passed them in the hall at school. I realized that’s because it’s easiest for society to function if people are placed in little boxes. Tonight, these same kids busted out. They all looked different, but what they had in common is that they were all dissatisfied and looking for something. And here, in the dingy basement of a tiny church, they were finding it. Do not doubt the screamed words of musically challenged teens; they might just set you free.

After the show, I was covered in sweat, more excited than I’d ever been before in my life. I didn’t want to lose this feeling. I wanted to commemorate this night.

I approached Felix Frump’s merch table, which was stacked with t-shirts and cassette tapes. To my surprise, the lead singer was sitting behind the table, selling his band’s merchandise himself, something I knew even then that Axl Rose would never do.

I wanted to say something, anything, but the words wouldn’t come. I was thirteen. Processing my feelings wasn’t a strong point. I had a million things to say, an endless stream of opinions that for the first time ever felt valid. After a lifetime of feeling that the world would be totally fine without hearing anything I thought about anything at all, that night felt like for the first time it might be ok to say them.

“Hey man, what’s up?” the singer asked me.

I looked down, embarrassed. Finally, I blurted out, “I want to be you when I grow up.”

He was taken aback. He smiled Then he nodded. Then his face got serious, he leaned across the table, and looked me straight in the eye.

“No man,” he said. “I want to be you when I grow up.”

It didn’t make any sense, but it made all the sense in the world. I looked back up at the singer. It was as if I saw him for the first time. He and I weren’t that different. He was young. He pronounced “coffee” and “dog” “cawfee” and “dawg,” just like I and everyone else I knew did. He was familiar, accessible: all of this was. There was no reason I couldn’t be him. The only difference between him and me was that he picked up a guitar and played it. There was no reason I couldn’t learn to play a few chords, if I wanted to. I didn’t have to watch from the sidelines. I could participate.

I bought a t-shirt and a tape. I walked away, paused, then turned back.

“Who uh… let you do this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Like this tape,” I said. “It’s real.”

“Huh?”

“Like… you didn’t make this by just making copies on a boombox. It’s purple and the song names are printed on the tape and it has a real case and everything. Who let you do that?”

“Nobody, man, we just did it.”

My brain exploded. It never occurred to me that you could just make a thing. T-shirts? Cassettes? Those come from factories. Adults run those. And when kids want to make dumb shit, adults say no. That’s just the way I thought it worked. But maybe not. These idiots had a t-shirt. They made a tape. The other bands both had records. Like, on actual vinyl. That seemed impossible.

It was the first time in my life that I realized people could just do things, and, if you want them to, things can just exist. No one can stop you if you don’t want them to stop you. It can be—and is—as simple as that. Now, obviously there are a few compromises that come with this. You’ll play in church basements instead of stadiums. You’ll have to walk off stage, stand behind a beat up folding table, and sell your t-shirts yourself. But the things you make will exist.

Want more Geth? Watch Rolling Stone‘s mini-documentary going behind-the-scenes of TruTV’s The Chris Gethard Show:

In This Article: Chris Gethard, Punk Rock

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