Under The Skin: Descendents, ableism and a new generation of punk positivity

Descendents album covers

A new Descendents album; their first for the Epitaph label in 20 years and their first new music at all for 12; the ushering in of a new era for the LA legends with a solid set of their pop-infused punk rock, previously branded by the band themselves as “frustrato-rock or chainsaw pop.”

Cause for celebration, then. Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3.

Said Descendents singer Milo Aukerman of the band’s new material when the album was announced: “I think one of the things that’s kept us inspired over the years is having the music as an outlet for our frustrations. Having the freedom to completely blow my voice out every time I recorded was a very positive experience for me.”

But there is a tension and a dissonance in Aukerman and co.’s positive experience of having the freedom to create their new music, and that of a group of people in the wider world experiencing its commercial release from a very different perspective.

Stay Up Late is a UK-based charity that exists to promote the right of people with developmental disabilities to lead an active social life and enjoy live music. In particular, the organisation seeks to tackle the fact that people with developmental disabilities aren’t able to ‘stay up late’ and do the things that so many people, who don’t need support, take for granted. One of the things that the charity campaigns about is language and how it can marginalise people. In the run up to its release, the title of Decscendents’ new album and its spin-off EP caught the organisation’s eye.

Paul Richards is Director of Stay Up Late: “I was reading a blog post on the website Real Gone who were expressing their disappointment at the new album from the US punk band Descendents. There’s a lot of hype and expectancy around this record as they haven’t released anything in years. So what do they go and call it? Hypercaffium Spazzinate with a companion EP titled Spazzhazard.”

As Richards explains in his subsequent open letter to Descendents: “Spaz is a really offensive word in the UK and often used in disability hate related crimes. We don’t like it and have done a lot of work raising awareness with kids around the damage language can cause.”

Real Gone and Stay Up Late had initially called for a boycott of Descendents’ album, Stay Up Late starting a petition to gather supporting signatures and Real Gone explaining their reasoning in an editorial: “In Britain, “S” is taboo. A word so horribly outdated and offensive that in the minds of the more thoughtful and disability aware, it is now on a par with racial slurs.”

To begin with, Stay Up Late’s petition and open letter and Real Gone’s editorial didn’t prompt responses from the Descendents camp or Epitaph records. They did prompt responses from the public across social media, however.

Some members of the public, particularly those in the US, calmly pointed to the fact that, in their opinion, the band meant no offence to anyone; that as a group they had a history of crude, childlike humour, a love for coffee and its energising properties, and that the word in question had no such hateful connotations in America or other territories.

Others took a less rational approach to the dialogue, accusing Real Gone and Stay Up Late variously of trying to censor Descendents, limit free speech, cynically profiteer from the album title and its release by appropriating Descendents mascot Milo’s image for their own purposes, and/or perverting the spirit of punk. All were accusations that both Stay Up Late and Real Gone refuted.

Stay Up Late’s Paul Richards: “We haven’t made a penny out of this, and we were just trying to do the age old punk thing and use a bit of satire. We’ve expressed an opinion and been vilified by Descendents fans who tell me to shut up because everyone should have the right to free speech. We’re a small charity trying to change the world for the better in our way, and to try and prevent us from doing that is really low.”

Real Gone: “Is it fair to criticise a band over a use of a word and a choice of album title? Yes, in this case, we feel it is totally justified. Descendents are foolishly helping to revive an outdated word and almost legitimise it for the fun of their fans – and possibly even for a new generation. Milo Aukerman, Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez – all now men in their fifties – really should’ve been smart enough to rise above dated playground ‘humour’, to look at the bigger picture and understand that this has the potential to cause upset.”

But what of that ‘new generation’ referred to by Real Gone? What do contemporary punk artists make not only of Descendents’ album title and the use of that word, but of the punk scene and its philosophies in the meta-modern era? After all, Descendents are making their return in 2016, but their career began and was at its most prominent in the late 70’s and early 80’s LA punk and hardcore scenes.

UK punk songstress Louise Distras has spent the past three years cutting her teeth across the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA with the likes of Billy Bragg, Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers and The Damned, and making festival appearances at the likes of Glastonbury, Punk Rock Bowling and Bearded Theory. After making some observations about the Descendents album title on her social media pages, Distras was subject to the worst kind of internet trolling, receiving messages containing sexist, misogynistic and ableist language, as well as threats to her own personal safety and security.

To date, Louise has ably called out the offending people and their hateful messages, ultimately reasserting her vision that contemporary punk should always be a force for positive change, social cohesion and societal progression.

“Perhaps Descendents didn’t mean to cause offence but they are displaying a lack of social awareness with regards to issues concerning disabled people,” she says. “This whole thing is about raising awareness of the use of ableist language and low level negativity towards disabled people that is increasingly pervasive. It’s an issue that does need to be addressed, and we can make a positive difference by changing and challenging the language that we use.”

It is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. Whilst no-one is suggesting that Descendents or punk music in general are solely responsible, the debate about the use of ableist language is set against the backdrop of a 41 per cent increase in reports of hate crime against people with disabilities in 2015, a statistic that an article on the UK’s Independent news website suggests is an under-estimation of the scale of the problem.

Distras’ vision is indeed a contemporary, progressive and positive one then, and is in direct contrast to those who have responded to the debate by positing an overly-simplistic and limited notion that punk exists to offend and has never been a ‘safe’ space.

Distras: “Just ’cause some people thought it was cool to be ‘offensive’ and proudly politically incorrect back in the 70’s and 80’s, it doesn’t mean that it’s cool to act like that now. That’s not how the next generation of bands do things in 2016.”

She adds: “Given the current social and political climate, if the big names of punk have nothing else to contribute other than setting a bad example, then it’s time for them to step aside and make room for the new generation of artists who are using their power for good, by spreading positive messages and bringing people together through the power of music.”

And what of this notion that punk is, by its very nature, offensive and not ‘safe’?

“Now more than ever, it’s time to stand up and speak for marginalised people who can’t speak for themselves, instead of ridiculing and discriminating against them. There is no place for hate speech anytime, anywhere and especially within the punk rock community.”

Far from being a lone-wolf within that very community, Louise Distras’ voice has been joined by her contemporaries from bands with roots in both the UK and the US. Damian Hughes is guitarist with prominent UK rock band Allusondrugs, a group that draws on punk, psych-pop and grunge, works within that community and is a band with a message of progression and positive change.

Hughes makes clear that, for him, this issue is not really about people being offended by this kind of language, acknowledging that the offense caused can be unintended, whilst still making the point that he sees no place for it in art.

“The problem with the use of derogatory language in art isn’t really about hurting people’s feelings, it’s about the social and political impact it has,” he says. “The use of such language is just one of the things that contributes to the marginalisation of certain groups of people. I don’t think there’s any merit in using this sort of language to headline art, rather it’s just a crass method of rustling the public’s feathers to gather attention whilst – intentionally or unintentionally – perpetuating the damaging idea that certain people’s lives hold less value than your own.”

Should art and punk music not concern itself with whether it causes offense, then? And if punk becomes safe, does that in some way diminish its power?

“Punk is supposed to be about challenging social norms that restrict freedom. It’s about bringing people together so that they can hit with their unified might against a system that oppresses them. It is not about the exclusion of certain groups of people and it certainly is not about silencing people who criticise the use of language that promotes the exclusion of people. People have the freedom to say what they want, but people also have the freedom to criticise damaging language.”

And what of the idea that highlighting Descendents’ inclusion of that word in their album title is unjustified censorship, or a curtailing of free speech that goes against the grain of the punk philosophy?

“I, like so many other artists in my generation, want to try to bring people together and promote healthy ideas for the progression of society in a way that includes everyone and gives everyone what they need. Its not about me and my right to say what I want, it’s about us and our future together on this planet. There is still a lot of societal growth that needs to happen and opening dialogues and speaking out against anything that is unjust or damaging is a big part of helping that growth happen.”

On the other side of the pond, Hollis Mahady is the US-based singer of US/UK pop-inflected punk rock band Love Zombies. She has a dual perspective, having spent a significant amount of time with the band on UK shores. She is also the author of The Reconnection Movement manifesto, a peace movement aimed at bringing people back together outside of their computer and phone screens.

In the context of an unsettled post-truth world of the UK Brexit from the European Union and Donald Trump edging ever closer to the US Presidency, what does she make of both punk’s place and power, and the Descendents’ choice of words?

“Although the times may have changed, to me punk still means standing up for what you believe in, questioning authority and not just being one of the sheep in a blindly following herd,” she posits. “While we aren’t in the 1970’s or 80’s anymore, I don’t think that means that we aren’t still angry about injustice, inequality and oppression. I just think that in a different time and with a different set of problems we are facing we are also trying new methods and alternative ways to deal with them.”

What about Descendents and their new album? Does that album title have a place in 2016?

“I feel that the descendants, most likely, weren’t consciously trying to offend people with disabilities, but I think it is important for them to see how their words have had an effect on people in an age where we are shifting into a new state of consciousness. We all have to be the change we want to see in the world. I want to see this world more peaceful and loving.”

So what does that mean for the wider world of punk and punk artists in real terms, in the here and now?

“I really think the new punk of 2016 is more concerned about changing themselves, taking responsibility for their own actions, being aware of the part they play in the relation to the whole and looking at what impact they can have on the world through positive action and their music rather then being pissed off and blaming everyone else.”

What now for the specific instance of Descendents and the title of their new album, the lightning rod that triggered this wave of debate, dialogue and yes, from some quarters, abusive internet trolling?

It does seem highly likely that the band did not intend to cause offence or contribute to the marginalising of those with developmental disabilities. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that more recent songs in the Descendents canon such as “‘Merican” show a distinct socio-political awareness, condemning slavery, McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and America’s war in Vietnam. New song “Limiter” is about Aukerman’s experience of putting his own son on prescription medication, and “Shameless Halo” tackles the current state of US politics.

But then this level of awareness seemingly makes the title of the new album all the more baffling. Surely even if no such offense or meaning was intended, this week will still see Descendents join the ranks of those who have perpetuated the use of language that does marginalise, damage and divide.

Even the the etymology argument that has been commonly deployed in relation to this particular album – that the meaning of a word has changed and therefore made its use acceptable, or that it means something different in a different geographic region – denies that word’s historic root, use, and the story of the people who have been oppressed or marginalised by it.

Real Gone concluded in their editorial: “Milo learnt the art of biochemistry when he went to college, but it proves that academic smartness is one thing, social awareness is another. In the Descendents’ case, when it comes to disability issues, they’ve got a really long way to go.”

Initially without comment from Descendents or Epitaph Records, and after reporting the receipt of threats of physical violence from the public aimed at him, Stay Up Late’s Paul Richards had at first concluded that the charity’s petition to boycott the LP needed to end. On the verge of pulling the petition down, events transpired to offer Richards a chink of light.

“I was beginning to think that this was all too much hassle, and that its just not worth the abuse when a couple of things happened,” Richards says via an update at Stay Up Late. “I had a lovely email from Milo Aukerman, the lead singer of Descendents. I had a lovely phone call of support from 38 Degrees (the petition website) saying they’d run similar, successful petitions, against two punk bands who were homophobic and misogynistic playing at festivals.”

With Descedents engaging in what Richards describes as “thoughtful and civilised dialogue about this issue” then, he has found a new resolve to continue with the petition and encourage people to develop their own understanding of – and show support and awareness for – people with developmental disabilities and the issues that affect them.

“The crowd defending the use of the word ‘Spaz’ are shouting the loudest at the moment,” he says. “So please sign and share the petition and show your support on our Facebook Page.”

He has some final words of wisdom: “Watch your language though people – names really do hurt people. And above all look after yourselves when you’re campaigning.”

Links and further reading:

Stay Up Late: www.stayuplate.org
Real Gone: www.realgonerocks.com
Descendents: www.facebook.com/thedescendents
Louise Distras: www.louisedistras.co.uk
Allusondrugs: www.facebook.com/Allusondrugs
Love Zombies: www.facebook.com/lovezombiesband
The Reconnection Movement: www.reconnectionmovement.com

A Brief History of ‘Spaz’ (Language Log)
10 Reasons To Give Up Ableist Language (Huffington Post)
6 Common Phrases You Didn’t Realize Were Ableist (Bustle)
Hate crime against disabled people rises 41 per cent (Independent)

Stabbing at care centre leaves 19 dead (Guardian)

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song | Live From Los Angeles – Tairrie B. Photography

Under The Skin: Springsteen, Jonas and the click-bait culture

Springsteen 2014

I must have been feeling grumpy over the weekend, because it seemed that every music-related web-link that I clicked on managed to boil my piss. Everything from mistake-laden copy to cynical click-bait bullshit had my pulse racing and my hands reaching for a computer like a professional keyboard warrior.

After counting to 10 I usually stepped away from what I perceived to be crass, flimsy and pointlessly spiteful content, but the fact that I’m still thinking about it and writing it all down here proves that it has stuck in my craw.

What was the target of my ire? The full list would be long and tedious, but it ranged from articles full of simple spelling and grammatical errors, through to opinion pieces that seemed to exist for no other reason than to cynically drive traffic to a website without actually adding anything to any given debate, or that sought to spitefully take the piss out of unfortunate individuals who really had no place in the publication in the first place.

There were many examples that I stumbled upon over the weekend, but two from Team Rock illustrate my point.

The first was BP Perry’s piece headlined “Why is Bruce Springsteen punishing his fans for something their politicians did?”, shared across Team Rock’s social media pages with the line “Why Bruce Springsteen cancelling his gig in protest over an anti-LGBT law is not right-on, it’s ridiculous.”

The article stems from Springsteen and his band cancelling a North Carolina show in protest over the US state passing the “HB2” law. As The Boss himself explains on his own website: “HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.”

You could argue – as some people did when I mentioned this to them – that it is legitimate to ask why Springsteen cancelled the show altogether, potentially putting numerous fans out of pocket, rather than going ahead with the gig and speaking out on stage. And you know what? I wouldn’t have felt angry about the article if it had sought to have that dialogue in a constructive manner. As it is, I got no sense that it set out to do that at all.

Quite apart from the fact that all Springteen’s fans who bought tickets to the cancelled gig are getting a refund, just look at the tone and language of the piece: “This knee-jerk reaction to something he doesn’t like makes absolutely no sense. Had Springsteen rocked up to his concert, made a little speech about his opposition to the new law and invited those who didn’t agree with him to leave with a full refund, then fair enough. But no. Bruce decided that the best way to show his displeasure was to say to hell with the whole damn lot of them.”

“That’s to hell with his own audience. His fans. The people who like him so much, they’re willing to pay him quite a substantial amount of money to see the Boss and his band play live. And he’s just given them all the finger because of something their state government has done. He’s pretty much saying his own fans have colluded with their legislators to come up with a law he doesn’t like, and now they must be punished for it.”

What an ill thought through, selfish and cynical crock.

As Springsteen made clear in his statement about the cancellation, “No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden.” Quite.

“…made a little speech about his opposition to the new law…” How patronising.

“Knee-jerk reaction”? Not bloomin’ likely.

Those who pay any proper attention to Springsteen and his work know that he has always been politically engaged. They know that he dresses his politics to the left, and they know that he seeks to support the people of the world who are most in need.

Saying that his fans have colluded with their legislators? Saying to hell with his audience and giving them the finger? Absolute rubbish. This isn’t Springsteen abandoning his audience, this is Springsteen supporting people who are misunderstood, stigmatised and oppressed in ways that other people aren’t. This is Springsteen helping people to have their voice heard, using his celebrity in the way he knows how. This is Springsteen doing what he can to make a difference.

The suggestion that this is anything else comes from a hardened, cynical place; a place that has no awareness of Springsteen and what he stands for; a place that has little care or consideration for minority communities. It’s made that much worse because – let’s not forget – this piece has been published by Team Rock, the outlet which took such a strong stand against Phil Anselmo’s racist behaviour earlier this year, accusing other publications of “editorial weakness” in the process.

I’m calling BS on this article and all pieces like it. I don’t want to read such articles from any publication, Team Rock or otherwise.

The second piece, again published via Team Rock, was an article that sought to ridicule pop star Nick Jonas for playing a poor guitar solo at the Country Music Awards.

My thoughts here are essentially “Who cares?!” Nick Jonas and his music are irrelevant to the world of rock and metal. He is not trying to be part of the rock and metal community. He didn’t get up on stage and tell everyone that he was the best guitar player since Randy Rhoads. He played the solo at THE COUNTRY MUSIC AWARDS for goodness sake.

But even if Jonas had been trying to make an impact on the heavy metal scene, why bother writing this waste of everyone’s time? It is essentially nothing more than flimsy piece of spiteful trolling; the worst kind of internet click-bait. All it exists to do is make someone feel bad and others feel better by laughing at them.

No thanks, Team Rock, or any other music publication for that matter. I know you’re better than this. Start showing it.

So, over to you. I would genuinely like to hear your thoughts on this kind of journalism, on the Team Rock pieces specifically and any other such articles that you have comes across whilst browsing. Do you like the kind of articles referenced here? Or would you prefer that music outlets didn’t publish such pieces? Do articles such as these exist because the public genuinely want to read them, or are they published to draw an unsuspecting public in? Get in touch and let me know.

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Under The Skin: introducing Kandace Springs and ‘Soul Eyes’

Kandace Springs

The transforming and transporting power of music: sometimes it has the ability to take you to another plane; an inner, spiritual space in which you can lose yourself for a little while, nourish the soul and let the outside world fall away.

An artist with just such a transporting power is singer and pianist Kandace Springs, whose debut album, Soul Eyes, is due for release via Blue Note Records in July.

The 27-year-old, Nashville-based singer-songwriter counts such stylists as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Norah Jones as her heroes, transforming those aforementioned influences into a personalized sound that reveals itself effortlessly. “The artists who have inspired me the most all sang so naturally,” Springs says. “That helped me find my own sound.”

Kandace Springs 02

Currently on tour in the UK with Gregory Porter, Springs’ success hasn’t come overnight. Her 2014 self-titled debut EP had a decidedly contemporary R&B/hip-hop bent, but the artist couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t yet singing her true self.

Conversations with her longtime producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers led to soul searching and rethinking her musical direction. Eventually Springs returned to a more spacious, organic sound that channels her earlier jazz influences as well as her Nashville upbringing.

Springs attracted the attention of Prince, who heard her makeover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and invited her to perform with him at Paisley Park for the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain. “He encouraged me a lot before I recorded this new record, especially during the time in which I was trying to figure out my sound,” Springs says. “He told me that I needed to do what comes naturally to me. He was absolutely right.”

Springs adds: “I would like to be known as one of the younger people that are keeping jazz and soul alive and vibrant. I love the realness of jazz and soul.”

Listen to Kandace Springs’ track “Soul Eyes” via the Spotify link below.

Kandace Springs is currently on tour in the UK with Gregory Porter. You can catch her on the following dates:

06th Apr: Colston Hall, Bristol
08th Apr: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
09th Apr: Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield
10th Apr: Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
11th Apr: His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
12th Apr: Perth Concert Hall, Perth
14th Apr: Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
15th Apr: Sage, Gateshead
16th Apr: De Montfort Hall, Leicester
17th Apr: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
19th Apr: Brighton Dome, Brighton
20th Apr: St.David’s Hall, Cardiff
21st Apr: Lighthouse, Poole
22nd Apr: Pavilions, Plymouth
24th Apr: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
28th Apr: Eventim Apollo, London
02nd Jul: Love Supreme Festival, Lewes

Connect with Kandace Springs at:
Facebook: facebook.com/kandacesprings
Twitter: twitter.com/KandaceSprings
Web: kandacesprings.com

Album Reviews | Live Reviews | News | SBA Lists | The Playlist | Under The Skin | Without A Song

Under The Skin: There is no place for racism in Heavy Metal (or anywhere else)

Phil Anselmo - apology video crop

When footage emerged online last week of Phil Anselmo making a ‘Sieg Heil’ salute and shouting “White power!” from the stage of this year’s Dimebash event, my reaction was one of colossal disappointment and disgust.

I was disappointed because there is no place in this world for racism. I was disappointed because there is no place in heavy metal for racism. I was disappointed because I love a lot of the music Phil Anselmo has made with his bands Pantera and Down specifically. I was disappointed because Anselmo was a guy I had looked up to.

How could you, Phil?

And yet here he was, a man who is a highly regarded and important figure in the world of heavy metal, making an abhorrent and deeply racist gesture at an event which existed to commemorate the tragic death of another highly regarded heavy metal musician, Dimebag Darrell: a former band-mate of Anselmo’s, no less.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the footage of Anselmo at Dimebash that was posted to Youtube.

I briefly thought about writing a piece for Skin Back Alley and then initially decided against it. Metal Hammer magazine had been swift to publish Paul Branningan’s piece on the same subject, as had Metal Sucks with Axl Rosenberg’s editorial, which also drew attention to some previous examples of similar behaviour from Anselmo. What could I add?

But in the following couple of days I realised how strongly I was feeling about what had happened. I naturally found myself speaking to musicians, friends, relatives and metal-heads, soliciting their views and thinking through my own as questions arose in my mind. Should I throw out all those Pantera records and Down albums? Should I do the same with other artists’ works if they had done equally idiotic things in their lifetimes? When exactly do you give up on artists you have (had?) respect for?

Once the footage of Anselmo’s offensive gestures had been published, the man himself responded, dismissing his actions as part of a “joke” that was based on the fact that many of the musicians that had been performing at Dimebash were drinking copious amounts of white wine. Although the post has since been deleted, here was what Anselmo had to say in the comments section beneath that Youtube video:

Anselmo comments - Youtube screen shot

And therein lies the admittedly very fine line for me. Anselmo’s behaviour on stage at Dimebash was appalling. Whether he found it such or not, his gestures and that phrase WERE offensive. They WERE racist. They WERE downright wrong. Nevertheless, in time it might have been possible to forgive the man and move forward if he had truly owned his actions, acknowledged how wrong they were, apologised for them and committed to making amends for the future.

As it was, he tried to pass it all off as the “inside joke of the night.” Despite trying to claim that he will “own this one”, he plainly didn’t, ultimately concluding “No apologies from me.”

Well, the spectacularly unfunny “joke” is on you, Phil.

Another respected metal musician who performed at Dimebash, Machine Head frontman Robb Flynn, had his own thoughts on the matter:

Other musicians whose music I love and who I have immense respect for have, down the years, said and done some spectacularly offensive things. Whilst reflecting on the events at Dimebash I found myself thinking of other examples in order to try and place Phil Anselmo’s behaviour in some kind of context.

In 2014, Black Flag and Rollins Band icon Henry Rollins published an article in LA Weekly titled “Fuck Suicide.” In it he wrote some incredibly ill-informed and downright offensive things about people who suffer with mental illness and tragically take their own life as a result.

Back then I was just as disappointed in Rollins as I am now in Phil Anselmo. I corresponded with a musician at the time of Rollins’ article and asked how they felt, knowing that they too looked up to Rollins, but also that they worked closely with charities seeking to end the stigma and widespread misunderstanding associated with issues of mental health. Referencing the fact that Kiss’ Gene Simmons had also made some disparaging remarks about people who had committed suicide, the musician I corresponded with wrote:

“I’m for Simmons and Rollins as people, even though I’m not for all of their opinions. If I had the opportunity, I would sit down with them and try to open up an honest dialogue about mental health. Shame has no place.”

Wise words. And in the days following Rollins’ original column, he published a follow-up that was refreshing in its honesty and attitude. Rollins not only apologised for what he acknowledged were ill-informed and offensive remarks, but committed to educating himself further about the topics of mental health and suicide:

“I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you,” he wrote.

And there was that difference that I was looking for. Yes, Henry Rollins had expressed views that were undeniably offensive, ill-considered and simply wrong. BUT! He listened to what people had to say to him. He recognised that his position was wide of the mark. He really did own his mistake, apologised for it and made a commitment to educate himself and become a better person as a result.

If only Phil Anselmo had immediately done the same.

After a lot of heated debate within the heavy metal community, Phil Anselmo did publish his own apology, going on camera to say that he deserved the “heat” that he was getting. Here’s the video:

I hope that Anselmo is sincere in his apology. Whilst he has made no public commitment to do so, I also hope he spends time educating himself about racism and, much as Henry Rollins did, try and evolve and become a better person as a result of the controversy. I believe that people genuinely can change for the better, and also believe that it is possible for Anselmo to do the same. Even in the world of heavy metal, a world that thrives on cultures and styles that are outside of the mainstream and that can seem from the outside like a place of extremes, we have to have a compassionate hope for the future, and the future of the music that we love.

As seriously as I take Phil Anselmo’s actions, and whilst I will continue to confront the tension that exists between his music and his behaviour and will continually sense-check myself and my listening with a view to developing and evolving my thoughts and opinions, I won’t be throwing out my collection of Pantera and Down albums just yet (although absolutely reserve the right to do so in the future.)

As a respected classically trained musician and critic asked me in recent days, should we also abandon Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Parsifal because the man himself was very far from perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold artists – or anyone else – accountable when they do something so repulsive.

On that theme – and another reason behind my decision to publish my thoughts here – my enormous disappointment with Phil Anselmo himself has been matched only by an equally sizeable disappointment in the response to Anselmo’s actions from people who claim to be fans of heavy metal and its culture.

Even the most brief perusal of the comments posted beneath Metal Hammer’s article or Metal Sucks’ editorial will turn up hundreds of abhorrent opinions: people claiming that Anselmo has nothing to apologise for; people claiming that Anselmo shouting “White power” is no different to others shouting “Black power”; people claiming that liberalism has no place in heavy metal, or that this is just another example of the politically correct brigade jumping on a bandwagon and using it as a means of furthering their own agendas.

No. Enough.

In my heart-of-hearts I have always believed that the heavy metal community, at its best, is about welcoming and embracing minorities. It is about giving a home to people who have felt that they have no place in mainstream society, or who feel that they don’t fit the picture of whatever society deems “normal” these days; people who feel like the proverbial square peg in a very uninviting looking round hole.

What Phil Anselmo did on stage last week is the very antithesis of that philosophy, and the raft of vile and vitriolic opinions that have popped up during the fall-out from Anselmo’s behaviour are too. If you feel in any way that heavy metal has been misunderstood as a culture and community over the years, spouting views that tacitly support the continuing of racial hatred is not going to do you, or the culture and community that you supposedly love, any favours.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I’ll keep saying it until it becomes clear that it is no longer necessary to do so: there is no place in heavy metal for racism. There is no place in the world for racism.

So please, no more. We can all do better. We need to evolve.


As an aside, and not central to the problem of Phil Anselmo’s racist behaviour, another reason why I decided to go ahead and publish my thoughts here was the sniping that I saw cropping up in various heavy metal publications’ coverage of this story.

In particular, I felt that Paul Branningan’s piece in Metal Hammer, whilst to be entirely applauded for holding Phil Anselmo to account, let itself down in its criticism of other publications’ decisions to either (A) not post any news about the story or (B) couch their coverage in language such as “apparently” or “appears” when describing Anselmo’s comments and gestures. To quote one of Brannigan’s paragraphs from Metal Hammer:

“Certain major rock magazine websites have, at the time of writing, failed to even make mention of the incident, a shameful, negligent oversight which speaks of editorial weakness. Other news outlets have elected to couch coverage of the incident in conciliatory language, talking about what Anselmo “appears to” have said, and “appears to” have done, as if, perhaps, we cannot be trusted to verify the evidence presented before our eyes and ears.”

It felt like an unnecessary swipe and, as it turns out, it was a little hypocritical. In fact, Metal Hammer had used exactly the same kind of conciliatory language in their social media posts linking to their own news articles about the events.

Metal Hammer Facebook Anselmo post

I am fully aware of arguments about how all it takes is for “a few good men to do nothing” for terrible things to occur in the world, and would have expected major rock and metal publications to cover the news. That said, the paragraph in Metal Hammer felt like it was delivered from a very high horse and left a bitter taste.

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Under The Skin: Stephen Lee and “The First Three”

Stephen Lee

Somewhere in the world there is a conservative country music fan ruing the day that the words ‘punk’ and ‘country’ were ever used in the same context. They’re listening to their collection of long-players safe in the knowledge that the world is just as it should be, that nothing has changed and that those rebellious punk kids haven’t managed to manhandle their beloved old-timey music in a new direction.

God forbid that they ever stumble across the progressive politics of new country artists such as Kacey Musgraves then, or indeed the outlaw-strewn songs of Maryland maverick Stephen Lee.

Lee’s most recent release, The First Three, collects together the singer and songwriter’s first three EPs as a solo artist, material that he recorded after his three year stint fronting DC-area country-punks Who Are The Southern Baptists?

As Lee’s history might suggest, the album is a stripped down, punked-up affair, his smoky rasp of a voice accompanied by minimal arrangements of guitar, banjo and occasional percussion, giving his down-to-earth observations of life’s trials and tribulations room to breathe and space to hit home.

But before you set off running at full-pelt in the wrong direction, no, this doesn’t sound liked The Damned have picked up a banjo and caught the bluegrass bug, but these songs full of heartbreak, ambition and plenty of humour do come tooled-up with a welcome rebellious edge.

“My Sacrifice” is a great example of just such a piece, the slow-burn start building in tension until three-quarters of the way through Lee is thrashing at his guitar like a man possessed, the angst and energy having finally taken hold and erupted in explosive fashion. It’s immediately followed up by the aptly titled and vigorously up-tempo “No Country Song”, in which Lee name-checks his iconoclastic heroes such as the equally insurrectionary Johnny Cash.

Indeed Lee is known for his Springsteen-esque 4-hour plus gigs, during which he delivers not only his delightfully dissident original material, but covers of outlaw classics from the likes of The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Credence Clearwater Rival, George Jones, Neil Young, and other staples from the Great American Song Book.

It’s not all country with a middle finger raised, however. Lee also does a fine line in sublime observational story songs, steeped in heartbreak and pathos. Closing track “Homesick Blues” does exactly what it says on the tin, but in such a way as to make you well up listening to Lee’s full-throated Waitsian ruminations. Fellow musician and Skin Back Alley favourite Matt Woods summed it up beautifully when he said recently of Lee’s work: “Steve has a down to earth and honest way of capturing those moments we all go through and turning them into songs that are destined to stick in your head and rattle around like a ricocheting bullet.”

Eking out a living “loaded up and broken down in a different town each week”, Lee makes no bones about the fact that for all its romanticised mythology, building a career as a troubadour is no easy thing. Fortunately for us hard work and passion win the day, Lee concluding simply in “It Goes All Night”, “…but its all, well it’s all alright.”

Fortunately for us too, Lee’s music is very much more than that.

Stephen Lee is embarking on a series of US tour dates throughout July. You can catch him at the following solo shows and festival events:

02nd Jul: Shepherdstown, WV – Devonshire Arms Café and Pub, 9pm
03rd Jul: Columbus, OH (July Fest Day 3) – Bernie’s Bagels and Deli, 9pm
04th Jul: Chicago, IL (House Party)
07th Jul: Muncie, IN – The Acoustic Room, 8pm
09th Jul: Wynadotte, MI – The Rockery w/ Robert “Fireball” Mitchell, 9pm
10th Jul: Grand Rapids, MI – Tip Top Deluxe w/ Brother Dege Legg, 8pm
14th Jul: Pittsburgh, PA – Howler’s Café, 8pm
16th Jul: Charleston, WV – The Empty Glass, 10pm
19th Jul: Untitled Music Festival, New Castle, VA

Connect with Stephen Lee at:
Facebook: Facebook.com/StephenLeeVA
Bandcamp: StephenLee.bandcamp.com
YouTube: youtube.com/StephenLeeVA

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