TIM ARMSTRONG IS RESTING his head in his arms on a tabletop in a back corner of the Bottom Line, a sedate New York showcase club. This is an impressive feat, more formidable a task for Armstrong than for most, since the lead singer and guitarist of Rancid sports a pink-porcupine mohawk. Its 6-inch tines bravely defy gravity (“Knox gelatin: Boil it and stir in an ice cube,” he later reveals), and tonight they’re looking particularly sharp and pointy.
It’s late Wednesday evening, and Rancid are watching an almost-somebody female folk singer with a little-girl voice; her tepid set culminates in a smirking cover of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” Armstrong has dozed off.
Drummer Brett Reed and bassist Matt Freeman – together they look like the Laurel and Hardy of greasers – are getting fidgety, having learned too late that there’s no smoking allowed in the club. Only Rancid’s guitarist Lars Frederiksen feigns interest, his broad, smiling face bright and wide-eyed. It seems Frederiksen took a hearty nap back at the hotel right before the show. He’s also got a mohawk, though his is flame colored and shaped like a scrub brush.
Rancid are here to see X, the legendary Los Angeles punk group, perform a semiacoustic set. Rancid love X. (Freeman has a mammoth tribute to X tattooed on his upper right arm.) X play an intense but mellow hourlong set that, as good as it is, has more to do with honky-tonk than with punk. But the members of Rancid, classic-punk die-hards, are thrilled. Afterward, out on the sidewalk, everybody agrees the show was perfect. Freeman proudly confides that Rancid once got to meet the headliners backstage after an X show. “Yeah, but Matt got star struck when he met John Doe,” says Armstrong with a sly grin. “He was speechless.”
In the damp, acrid New York summer air, the tendrils of Armstrong’s mohawk suddenly appear much wispier and more fragile. They’re drooping a little. He begins fumbling with the Master lock on the chain around his neck, then with his beeper. Sometime during the last year, being punk got more complicated than it used to be. Especially if, like Armstrong – who’s now dashing across the street to a phone booth – you’re the leader of the world’s third-biggest punk band.
FIRST IT WAS GREEN DAY, THEN THE OFFSPRING. Last year the sale of 15 million or so albums was all it really took to throw California’s vibrant, cozy underground punk scene into permanent disarray. “It was like a war started,” says Freeman, “and we didn’t have any aircraft carriers.”
Particularly affected was the East Bay scene centered on Gilman Street, in Berkeley. That nonprofit, all-volunteer club provided bands such as Green Day and Rancid – and before that, Rancid’s precursor Operation Ivy – with a supportive environment and a chance to play when the options were limited. For Reed, who previously had been hanging out in the San Francisco scene, Gilman Street was a revelation. “At Gilman you didn’t have to be a fucking hard-core street kid,” he says. “You could have fun at shows instead of having to deal with the whole violence thing.”
Long known as a breeding ground for the most radically left faction of California punk, the East Bay has since become a shrine for greedy major-label A&R representatives. “We were the perfect target to get caught in that cross fire,” says Freeman, 29. “I mean, [Green Day’s] Billie Joe is running around saying how much Operation Ivy influenced them, and Green Day are from our hometown, and then Offspring are on our label.” Sure enough, industry bottom feeders started showing up at Rancid gigs in the weeks after the Offspring followed Green Day into the megarock stratosphere. “They just started coming out to shows,” says Frederiksen. “We didn’t ask them to.”
By December 1994, Rancid were considering a $1.5 million deal with Epic Records, plus a $500,000 publishing contract. Then the coterie of managers and booking agents surrounding the band started howling. “We got made to feel,” says Freeman, “that we were evil for even talking to these fucking people.” The title of Rancid’s new album, … And Out Come the Wolves, is in part a reference to the bizarre interlude (the phrase itself was taken from an impromptu rant by Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll that graces one of the album’s tracks).
In the end, Rancid decided to stick with Epitaph, the Los Angeles independent label that also distributes the Offspring and on-deck punk superstars like NOFX and Pennywise. Despite Rancid’s vow that they never agreed to go with the Epic offer, the rumor was reported as fact in publications as prominent as the Los Angeles Times. Their own label even congratulated them prematurely on their newfound mainstream success. “Ever since I started playing punk rock, people have said major labels are shit,” says Armstrong. “But I have to be shown: When I was a kid, people would tell me, ‘Oh, don’t fucking drink, man, it’s bad for you,’ or ‘Don’t do drugs.’ But I gotta have my ass kicked before I’m gonna really believe any of that. I’m just so fucking glad we stayed on Epitaph.”