Against Me! 23 Live Sex Acts: The bravery of punk

The punk band Against Me! is about to play in San Francisco for the first time in years, and no fan of punk should consider missing it. In case you do, though, they happen to be coming through with a new live album in their wake, and it is the recorded equivalent of the perfect concert photo. “23 Live Sex Acts” captures the band playing hard and unmistakably as its honest current self within the crucible of another independent tour, and it unerringly preserves the raw snapshot of what would have otherwise been an ephemeral moment.

Time is a bastard: you can never step in the same river twice, you can never see the same show again, and you will never actually hear your favorite record live. The features of things are slowly eroded and bolstered by time in unpredictable ways, and those who cling to the past are eventually left with only sickening parodies of former greatness, music included. Against Me! seem to understand this, and when they play their old songs, they bring them to the present rather than trying to reinhabit a time that is gone. Everything on 23 Live Sex Acts feels new and cohesive, despite being a broad sampling of the band’s full history, and those hoping for a time machine can look elsewhere.

Against Me! 23 Live Sex Acts Cover and Record
Against Me! put out 23 Live Sex Acts on three discs of turquoise vinyl for people with an allergy to money who are drawn to colorful things

Musically, 23 Live Sex Acts excels, especially in comparison to the prior live album, which felt slow and morose. A few repeated songs let us compare this directly, including “Cliche Guevara,” which now pummels ahead 10 to 14 beats-per-minute faster and matches its original, energetic studio version. Like most live albums, this one is more enjoyable if you’re already a fan, but given that, it rarely falters. Some songs, like “Unconditional Love,” have never resonated with me, and that remains true for their live forms, but the overall track list is unlikely to disappoint many. The album’s only major weakness is born from the same source as its strength: Against Me! are tour-hardened beyond nearly any band, and they have played their songs countless times. This process has led the live versions to drift slowly from the studio ones, sometimes in fantastic and passionate ways, like buffed gems emerging from a rock tumbler, but occasionally also in more mundane or negative ways. When an errant “bro” is dropped into a pre-chorus of “Miami,” for example, it feels like a detour that didn’t need to be taken, a mutation of randomness and caprice rather than meaning. But not all live variation has to be dripping with intent: live things have bumps and warts, and even the spontaneous departures that don’t work out still give a glimpse into the hidden thoughts of the band.

On a boring piece of paper, 23 Live Sex Acts is a great achievement: a veteran band in its finest shape records a particularly lucky and long live show in Kiev, Indiana, sometime in February of 2014. This whitewashed description undersells Against Me!, though, because it doesn’t include a reason for you to give a crap about that performance. You should not care about 23 Live Sex Acts because it was “flawless” or “definitive,” descriptors applied routinely to the worst of aging mainstream rock as it is stamped, screaming, onto Blurays for collectors. You should care, instead, about this record and Against Me! because they have the rare ability to find truth and to speak it. The guitars and singing are a bonus, but this band is great because it is a blueprint for bravery.

Punk, to me, is about the distillation of what it means to be brave. There are innumerable qualities that might make a thought or action brave, but the final judgement is always based on a deep calculus that enjoys nothing more than decomposing into nearby, ugly traits when one stacking block is placed wrong. What is brave on the right day is thoughtless and dangerous on another. What is heroic when done alone is craven in a mob. Bravery, in the end, depends fully on context. It relies on detail and interpretation, on vantage point, on culture, and on bias. It is slippery to pin down, and for being a quality so universally adored, it is never universally agreed upon. Through this morass, the best of punk is like a knife through pretension and discord, cutting a belief violently down to its atoms and then announcing, full-throated, what is really there.

Against Me! at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, CA, on 9/27/2014
Against Me! finishing a 9/27/14 performance at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, CA, with Laura Jane Grace and Atom Willard waving bye or asking for impossible high-fives

With that said, I have never found a punk band braver than Against Me!, the group that erupted years ago from the orbit of Florida and that exists now more as a part of the road than any fixed spot. Over the years, the sounds and lyrics have changed. The record labels and aesthetic have shifted, seismic lineup reorderings have nearly ended the band, and always the message emerges from new locations as the grueling and mostly-DIY tours continue. But through this, the underlying ethos consistently traces back to a true north, the radius of the circle pointing unwaveringly to its center without regard for the point of origin on the circumference.

Against Me! first cut deeply with the album “Reinventing Axl Rose,” and songs from this era are still very much alive at their shows (and on 23 Live Sex Acts). Even the name “Reinventing Axl Rose” doubles as a concentrated core value: they were out to tear down the traditional rock star, preening and pomped, past the point of passion. As laid out in the title track, they wanted “a band that plays loud and hard every night, that doesn’t care how many people are counted at the door” and a scene where “honesty and emotion are not looked down upon, and every promise that’s made and bragged is meant if not kept.” In its final phrase, the song summarizes itself: “that we all are stronger than everything they taught us that we should fear.” It was as bald a manifesto as one screaming person could lay out, and it planted what seemed to be an obvious signpost for the band’s future direction.

If you took the sign at face value, though, you quickly got off course. Many songs (including “Thrash Unreal,” “Miami,” and “How Low” on the new live record) continued to make raw and unapologetic observations about the state of the world, channeling the unadorned honesty that makes good punk so powerful, but unexpected twists began to creep in. What started with songs like “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” eventually metamorphosed into jaded recantations named “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” as the band discovered complexity in concepts that seemed simple before. A mid-career tour DVD featured Against Me! courted mercilessly by major record labels, proudly laughing that anybody could buy them drinks but they’d never sign. They signed. The music was still good, but it became progressively harder to connect the dots into a believable ideology. Tom Gabel, the frontman and prime creative force with a world-defying-yet-emotional yell, still seemed earnest, but it was unclear how it all lined up.

Then, Laura Jane Grace arrived.

Just before that, though, the internal wheels fell off the major label, leaving the band stranded on tour with no promotion for its new record. Dates were canceled, the record foundered, and the band retreated. Time passed without significant output, and the trajectory of Against Me! seemed interpretable only as a crash into the ocean or a burn-up on reentry.

But just as things approached their most inscrutable, order and bravery emerged: Tom Gabel announced that he was transgender and he’d now be living as a woman. He picked the name “Laura Jane Grace,” and an immediate change in perspective illuminated the past decade in a way that made it make sense. Previously opaque lyrics turned out to be literal: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” And previously clear lyrics turned out to have been obfuscated or misinterpreted, as is captured on 23 Live Sex Acts when Laura confesses, during the preamble to “Pretty Girls,” that the song had originally been written about gender dysphoria but had been disguised for years so as not to raise eyebrows or questions. She now proudly sings it with its honest lyrics.

And then, when it all made sense and the phoenix of Against Me! appeared set to rise with its new frontwoman, half the band quit. There had been talk of a new album in the works, but all plans went dormant. Laura and her wife separated. It again seemed like the end, and Grace would later say in interviews that she would have stopped the band then except that she had a message to get out. That message was the album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” their most recent and by far their most brave output.

After beginning her transition, Laura was profiled and interviewed incessantly in both music and mainstream magazines. Many of the articles were well-done, but an equal number resorted to cliches, asking about her anatomical plans or wanting to see her closet. In one telling answer, she replied, “But me at my most personal, sharing my most personal thoughts, is what I do in songs. Letting someone look through my closet, or something like that, doesn’t really compare to pouring my heart out in a song.” And by any analysis, that seems truthful: more or less the entirety of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is manifestly autobiographical, with only varying levels of abstraction. It is unflinchingly and brazenly candid, featuring lyrics as direct as those about Laura’s failing marriage and the heart tattoos that symbolized it, and it is undeniably soul-bearing.

To write such personally-exposing songs, to change your body so that you can find peace with yourself, even if it invites violence and slander from the hateful and the bigoted, and then to travel the world yelling all of this into microphones in pursuit of living as your true self: if that is not punk, then I don’t know what is. Regardless, it is unquestionably brave, and the living picture of it is captured in 23 Live Sex Acts. The name of the album itself may even be a description of this entire feeling. “Live sex acts” clearly refers to the live performances of the songs, but it also raises the image of actual live sex acts, intensely intimate and personal realities put on exhibition for all to see and judge. The word “sex” can also alternately be read as “gender,” maybe as one final veiled reference to the dysphoric roots of Against Me! and the endless struggle we all face to be brave.

Against Me! is playing at Slim’s in San Francisco on September 24th, 2015 (tickets).

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