When people die, you just want to hug your friends and tell them you love them. That’s why I drove across the state the other night to stand awkwardly in a crowded room to celebrate the life of a person I never knew, surrounded by strangers who were part of a scene I never felt at home in. When Xy told me one of their old friends was gone, they didn’t have to ask twice.
I suppose the opportunity to see Catharsis, a band that was once one of my favorite bands, didn’t hurt either. I got to the venue early, hugged Xy tight. Then it was like Brian D fucking materialized out of nowhere. He did the intense eye contact, hand on the shoulder, “It’s so good to see you” thing that he’s famous for.
I texted Maria.
“Brian D just did the move!”
She replied in seconds.
“You mean the hand on the shoulder greeting thing?!”
Yep. That was the one.
Natalia showed up. We said our hellos and Xy went to take pictures while Natalia and I settled into our comfortable chairs on the balcony with our drinks. Some just short of fancy cocktail for Natalia, and a can of overpriced, over-hyped “LIQUID DEATH” water for me. We watched the bands far above the roiling crowd, grateful to be out of the reach of the flailing arms of windmilling and spin kicking kids. The first few bands were a blur. Catharsis hit the stage, and the kids lost it. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those kids had even been born the last time I saw Catharsis play.
It was 22 years ago, almost 23 years ago. I did the math. I was still a teenager, and it was before 9/11. The show was in a St. Paul basement, just as the temperatures began to plummet in Minnesota. I knew Catharsis were on tour, but being new to the Twin Cities, I didn’t know where they were playing. Luckily, I listened to the weekly punk and hardcore radio show on the community radio station every week. Even luckier, I recorded most shows on cassette to listen to while I worked late nights delivering sandwiches to college kids. The DJ gave directions to the gig on air. I rewound the tape over and over, scribbling the directions in my journal.
Of course, I got lost for hours in the St. Paul suburbs. I was just about to give up and drive back home when I found the house. Parked down the street from the house, I could have cried with relief. I paid my $5 at the door and stomped down the stairs into a packed basement.
I stood around in the back of the room for a few hours, watching hardcore bands play to windmilling jocks. I can’t remember who else played now. Buried Alive? Maybe. Disembodied and Brother’s Keeper? Also, maybe. This was, after all, during the heyday of early 2000s mosh metal. Catharsis was late. I would hear later they also got lost in the St. Paul suburbs. I had just given up and was walking back to my car when I saw a beat-up van pull up in front of the house. Unlike the crew of kids rocking sportswear in the basement, a mix of punks and hardcore kids spilled out of Catharsis’ van.
For all the anticipation and buildup, I remember little about the set a quarter century later. I danced with abandon with the crew of crusties who were on tour with Catharsis. Brian opened their set with a speech about how if we were living out our last free days, then this room must be our liberated space. I remember being into it, but also kinda thinking, “Chill, dude. You are last on the bill on a hardcore show with way too many bands in a suburban basement, not Vichy France.”
As the story went, Christian hardcore kids comprised most of the residents of the house. They found out too late about the anti-Christian sentiment that made up so much of Catharsis’ lyrical content. Rather than kick Catharsis off the bill, the Christian hardcore kids just boycotted the set by going upstairs to read their bibles when Catharsis played. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a good story. After the set, someone from the band helped me screen the Catharsis logo on my hoodie and I went home, electrified.
Not knowing that it would be 22 years and so many changes before I saw Catharsis again.
Natalia and I joked about how love him or hate him, or just think he’s kinda goofy, Brian D is still spry, diving into the crowd at almost 50 years old. Even from the balcony, I could see the annoyance written across the bouncer’s faces with every stage dive, having to hold the mic cord off the ground to keep it from getting pulled loose under so many stomping feet. Then they had to help Brian back over the barrier every time he went to climb back onstage. I couldn’t help but think it looked like a punk rock elevator service.
While time may have taken its toll on Brian’s voice, he gave it his all, regardless. The music sounded as sharp and desperate and ugly as it did a quarter of a century ago. The impassioned calls to action, the rousing pleas to come together and build a better world they haven’t changed or lost their urgency. If anything, they sound even more desperate now. It all still comes across as painfully sincere, as if Brian and the band are true believers rather than cynics and charlatans. There’s something to be admired there, I guess, considering how much darker a place the world has become since the heyday of 90’s hardcore.
I was 18 years old, stepping into something almost resembling adulthood, when I heard Catharsis for the first time. I grabbed a copy of the Samsara LP at Double Entendre records after reading a review of one of their shows in the much missed Slug & Lettucezine. The music was ugly, beautiful. Listening to it, I felt the same way I felt hearing Black Flag or His Hero Is Gone for the first time. In the tradition of all the best hardcore punk records, the music not only held up a mirror to reflect the ugliness of the world but provided a dark reflection to some deep, wounded ugliness inside of me as a product of that world.
There was a time when Catharsis gave voice to so much of what I felt, all the ugliness and pain and frustration and oppression. All the grinding despair, the yearning to break free from drudgery and lockstep monotony. The songs were my soundtrack to treading water in a sea of despair (see what I did there?). The music was so ugly, yet beneath all the distortion and shredded vocal cords, it spoke of a secret indomitable will. A refusal to break or give up hope as waves of despair threatened to drag you to the abyss.
At 41 years old, I sat there watching the band, remembering, reflecting on my shifting perspectives on both idealism and nihilism. When Catharsis was my favorite band, I fought a daily battle with cynicism building like bile in the back of my throat. I was a true believer, man. I clung to a fervent belief in a better world for each of us like a drowning man clinging to a waterlogged life preserver with no hope for the shore. On the days when the sunrise stung like a cracking whip, when my rage and despair at that better world being out of reach, Catharsis gave voice to those feelings, too.
And then we all got older. The world has only gotten darker, making the desperate rush and rapture of youth spent in the belly of a burning machine (see what I did there, again?) seem like halcyon days in comparison. Brian said something between songs. How if we knew then what we know now, if we knew what kind of ecological catastrophe we would watch unfold in our lifetimes, if we knew we would bear witness to an ascendent fascist state, how much racist violence we would witness, we would have fought even harder to stop it.
Everyone I love spends too many of their days pondering the grim possibilities of state sanctioned atrocities large and small. We stand together on the golden shores of the world we love, watching a rising tidal wave of authoritarianism, waiting for the wave to hit. I want to believe that if we knew then, what we knew now, we would have fought harder. But I’m not sure if I do. I don’t know if we’re fighting now. We’re all so busy surviving. It’s like we’re watching a fist close in on our collective face in slow motion. We move to raise our hands to block the blow, but our arms just won’t move fast enough.
The songs hold up regardless. Maybe some of those kids dancing and screaming and slamming into each other in the pit will get inspired and do their part. If so, I hope the struggle is easier for them than it was for so many of us. I hope when they make it to middle age; the march of time will have trod more gently over them than it has so many of my friends. I hope those kids avoid the pitfalls of cynicism and disillusionment. Most of all, I hope they never stare down a sense of betrayal when they find out that so much the dominant culture they sought to escape pervades every inch of their refugee. I hope they never find out how the hard way that some of the so-called revolutionaries they surround themselves with can be just as cannibalistic and lethal as anyone in the world outside.
Maybe I sound jaded, but I know what I know. I was a true believer once. I’m not now. There’s no denying it. Innocence, once lost can never be regained again.
After a dedication to the Atlanta Forest Defenders, Catharsis ended their set with Arsonist’s Prayer, a song I heard for the first time right after its release. I got the record in the mail a few weeks after September 11th, 2001. If you aren’t old enough to remember punk and hardcore and anti-capitalist struggles before that time, let me tell you; shit changed overnight. So many of us went from feeling like we were standing on the precipice of building a better world. World leaders and captains of industry couldn’t so much as gather in expensive hotels and boardrooms to plot to carve up every inch of the world and devour every resource without thousands of people showing up to oppose them. The Battle of Seattle, Quebec City, meetings of the IMF and World Bank and the G-8 Summit  transformed from recent victories and a rising momentum against the merciless consumption of global capitalism to the dusty and fading war stories of yesterday’s youth overnight. We were now watching the crushing maws of a police state slam shut on all our communities. The eyes of the state were everywhere, and they were watching.
The day the record arrived in the mail, I sat on the dirty floor of a Denver punk house and put the record on the turntable. I dropped the needle on the wax. A few seconds of crackling and pops in the speakers, and the music hit. I listened, reading along with the lyrics. Before I knew it, hot stinging tears welled up in my eyes. With an almost supernatural accuracy, Arsonist’s Prayer reflected the violent birth of the age we were entering.
It was almost as if Catharsis had predicted the future, even though the band recorded the song months before the events of September 11th. It was all there in the music, in the words. Those feelings of cloying dread that none of us could shake. The sleepless nights, getting up from bed, peering out the windows to see if the cops were circling the house again. Walking home from the bus stop alone, wondering who might be following you. On the streets, holding the line, waiting for the cops to charge. All around the city, everyone felt it, a growing awareness of the all-seeing, panoptic eyes of the police state. Beneath it all, there was the abandon, the grim determination to do what it took to throw even the smallest wrench into the gears of the capitalist machine running the world into ruin.
And then we got older. The world kept changing. We found joy where we could, toiling beneath the gathering clouds of all the wars laid down before we were born. Worry wore lines into our faces like furrows. For so many of us, disillusion set in; comfortable, soft, fitting like a second skin.
While the songs haven’t changed, I have. The world is burning down. Yet, I’m comfortable with myself in a way I never could be at 20 even as the flames grow. There is nothing else to do. I have long grown tired of the tendency in dogmatic leftist and anarchist circles to focus on some rigid right way of participating in liberatory struggles rather than doing the right thing. So, I said goodbye to all that and learned to live with my discontent. I’m thankful for an often reckless and perhaps misspent youth that led me to this point. While I have little optimism that any of us will see the brighter days we once fought for, I’m content, even as ashes rain from the sky. I’m content with winning my own tiny wars. Growing and changing, loving my friends as hard as I can, helping kids learn to express themselves through the written word.
I do more good in the classroom than I ever did being a foot soldier, proselytizing for a revolution that I no longer have any faith will ever arrive.
I do what it takes, as we all do, the best we can.
And I love my Friends.
For Natalia and Xy.