Assuming that culture is moving at the pace in which it is normally expected to move, that which is known as the culture of the “hipster” (at least as we know it today) should start petering out anytime now, assuming that its decline hasn’t started already. Like any counterculture, it had a decent run. There was much laughter, there was much sadness, and there was a lot of nihilistic sex. But it’s over. It’s time to wear looser pants, burn your masturbation collage art, go to law school, and have a set of resentful children who know you, but also kind of love you, as the thin, cheese-soft shell of humanity that you are and perhaps always were. As much as this evolution is collectively of our own making, it is also kind of inevitable; it is the way of nature, it is the Will to Live. It has to be that, otherwise the logic of nostalgia is without foundation. Oh and there will be much nostalgia, embarrassing, utterly pathetic nostalgia, the kind that will likely not be too distinct from boomer nostalgia. We are dead.
Though The Reatards’ 1998 album Teenage Hate was not re-released with this transition in mind, the timing seems more than perfect. The late Jay Reatard (née Lindsey) was one of the leading underground artists of the ’00s. His eccentric garage rock was perfect for the Echo Park/Williamsburg fringe set and his talent made it memorable. Though perhaps not as recognizable as, say, The Rapture or Liars, Reatard’s music is fitting for the age in which it was released, and it summarizes better than any other artist where hipster culture came from, if not necessarily where it was going. Goner’s re-release of his old band’s debut album only helps to illustrate this point. Jay Reatard, like Vice magazine, was there at the beginning and in much dirtier condition.
The Reatards do not defy the simplest explanation. They were a three-piece from Memphis who, when put in the same space, played short and sweet songs with minimalist verses, repetitive choruses, and screeching bratty vocals. The Jay Reatard of these early recordings is one of bottomless negative emotion but of limited musical range, not unlike most teenage punks, only The Reatards are saved from local punk obscurity by their chief songwriter’s raw talent for structure and hooks. In that dark time following Green Day and preceding The Strokes, The Reatards were flirting explicitly with punk’s more indulgent garage rock ancestors and their hometown’s early settlers. Songs like “When I Get Mad” swelter in Stooges guitar sleaze with Jay laying on thick the macho southern Lothario accent, while “Out of My Head, Into My Bed,” “You Fucked up My Dreams” and “Old News Baby” recall the lightning strike pop of The Wipers and Flat Duo Jets, only with the anger turned up and the angst turned down slightly less. “I Gotta Rock N Roll” blisters the ears with a swift blast of rockabilly that’s over as quickly as it starts.
The album is accompanied by two cassettes released prior to the album; the only thing really distinguishing them from the album itself is the lowest of lo-fi sound quality, something that is becoming rarer and rarer as better technology becomes more available. Production-wise, one would have to really make an effort to sound as grimy as The Reatards do on these recordings. In fact The Reatards’ more emotionally repressed counterparts to the north The White Stripes made a go of it for much of their career, but the fact that it was an aesthetic choice compromised the authenticity. Other than that most 18-year-old musicians would avoid the analog approach.
In the liner notes to Teenage Hate, the then-18-year-old Jay wrote a brief reflection for his fans about his music, at one point wondering if “all I have to offer is hate and negativity in the form of rock n roll or if everything will magically change with the years. I don’t know … but lets [sic] hope not. Rock and roll is my salvation it’ll set me free whatever that means.” The Reatards made some waves in the underground during their tenure, even being able to tour Europe the same year Teenage Hate was released. They were able to last a few more years after that before Jay started spreading his creativity around over a great distance with solo albums and side-projects. As it turns out his music did change over the years, but naturally rather than magically. Though it retained much of the primal, garage energy of his early work, Jay would integrate mellower instruments into his compositions like the mandolin and the cello, and become more of a craftsman in his later period.
It’s the craftsman, of course, who will go down in rock history and become a staple of every aging hipster’s music library (in whatever form that will be), while they will likely orphan the punk rocker, only to be taken in by their children. While young musicians today would avoid recording their music like this at all costs, they cannot deny that it is them in a nutshell. Teenage Hate will always have a special place in the young of any generation since its release because they are every bit as dumb and raucous as the record is, and its sheer listenability will keep it alive for the foreseeable future. Whether or not it will inspire similar-minded artists is another matter, but it’s good to know that no matter where culture goes from this point on, the skeleton of punk still warbles from place to place in search of a new idiosyncratic surgeon to give it new flesh.
Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08
Wipers – Over the Edge
New Bomb Turks – Destroy, Oh Boy!