Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How the Desecendents changed my life.

My history with the Descendents and ALL. 
(The photos were taken at the Groezrock Festival)

The following story is a bit out of sequence in terms of my other posts. The culprit, this  weekend’s quick and unexpected trip to Belgium. Here's the backstory: last year four former members of Black Flag: Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, Dez Cadena, along with Stephen Edgerton of the Descendents got together and formed the band FLAG and toured playing Black Flag songs. The only chance I had of catching this line-up would be taking a couple of days off from work and flying over to Europe. I was living in Egypt at the time and a flight to Belgium was relatively short and inexpensive. It was a no brainer, I would be going to see old friends play some of my favorite songs. I contacted Bill Stevenson and he set me up with passes for the shows. I met up with FLAG in Munich, Germany, I politely asked Bill if I could travel with them for their 3 European shows. After a short impromptu band meeting to decide: 1. Was there was room in the bus to accommodate an extra person? and 2: Did anyone object? Dez chimed in and said, “anyone wearing a Meat Puppets shirt is cool with me.” I was in. After Munich, we rode to Berlin and then to the Groezrock Festival in Belgium. I was beside myself to say the least. No, All!  

My first encounter with the Descendents music was when Jimmy ordered the Life Is Ugly, So Why Not Kill Yourself compilation LP through an ad in Maximum RockNRoll. Red Cross started off the album with a snappy little tune called Rich Brat, it was a sign of good things to come. Jimmy made a wise purchase. The following cut was, I Want To Be A Bear by the Descendents. Jimmy and I had to play that song over several times to get a grip on the lyrics. We were certain we heard, “I want to be a bear. I want to shit in the woods” somewhere during the middle and “I don’t want to smell your muff” at the end of the 40 second song. Talk about a quick, no frills introduction to a band. Not long after, the Descendents were featured on another compilation we picked-up, The American Youth Report. I’m Not A Loser not only solidified my appreciation for them, but it also became a personal anthem, maybe even a mantra of sorts. The anti-spoiled rich kid sentiment in the lyrics appealed to my outcast identity. They spoke of my day-to-day struggles in a preppy saturated school that was dominated by the likes of wannabe neo-conservative jellybean-eating Reagan supporters.

It was clear that Jimmy and I had to seek out and buy the band’s first album, Milo Goes To College. We read that the album as a posthumous release as the band broke-up because Milo did really go off to the University of California, San Diego to study to become a biochemist. In the meantime, Bill Stevenson would become Black Flag’s fifth drummer and the status of the Descendents was officially on hiatus as Black Flag was a fulltime commitment both emotionally and time wise. 

The Descendents first appearance in Denver.
Thankfully in 1985 the Descendents regrouped and released the tuneful album,  I Don’t Want To Grow Up. To date, I still consider it the cornerstone of the melodic punk genre, which would influence bands for generations to come. The timing of the release followed by a tour was impeccable. There’s no doubt in my mind that their songs offered hope to angst ridden nerdy teenage punk rockers like myself. It was a perfect mix of humor while tackling real emotions such as love and personal hardships. The song, Silly Girl was as perfect as any song to include on a mix tape for a crush or a girlfriend. I’ve been guilty of both over the years. As a matter of fact, my first girlfriend, Morticia and I went to go see the band at the German House (Denver Turnverein) at the end of summer. While slam dancing in the pit is not exactly the most romantic gesture, dropping her off at home at the end of the night finalized by that first kiss, was. The evening had all the raw emotions captured in a Descendents song.

Morticia and I lasted only a short while until she found someone new at her after-school job, which was being the potato cake fry girl at Arby’s. Somehow I always felt the Descendents were the soundtrack to my life through both the good and bad times. They had a way of expressing thoughts and emotions that were personable and not glossed over like other bands. Very few, if any punk bands at the time could pull off what they did with such sincerity. Most groups I listened to at the time screamed about how fucked-up the government was. In contrast, the Descendents sang about how fucked-up relationships can be. It was the tangible issues I could relate to. 

The band’s next album, Enjoy! introduced the Bonus Cup (1/3 cup instant coffee grounds, hot water, and 5 spoons of sugar), the instructions on how to make the recipe was printed on the plastic mug they brought to sell on tour. Their next show in Denver was in 1986. As luck would have it, the show was cut short due to a series of unfortunate incidents. The gig was at a hall on Federal Blvd. and was plagued with several fights. The situation was further compounded by a purse-snatching at a 7-11 down the street from the hall. Someone had called the cops and blamed the punks. The police began to arrive at the hall in force. I was talking with Bill about his drum set before they went on. He was telling me how he doesn’t let anyone touch his drums and how protective he was of them. While the band was partially through their set, several officers approached the stage yelling for the band to stop playing. The band ignored the warnings and continued on. One of the cops took the initiative and got up on stage nudging Milo to the side and pulled Bill’s base drum away from him. Bill jumped up off his stool and got in the cops face. I think Bill quickly and smartly realized he wasn’t going to win this battle as more officers gathered around; the plug was pulled.
A show that never happened
My high school graduation gift from my parents in 1987 was the privilege of borrowing my Dad’s mini-Bronco to take on a road trip to the east coast for a month. I departed a couple of days following the cap and gown ceremony and drove to Ohio to pick-up my friend Toledo Pat.  We embarked on a record-hunting excursion of the east coast. Inadvertently we picked up the Descendents’ trail and caught a couple of their shows as they were touring for their final album at the time, ALL. I had talked with the new bassist and guitarist Karl and Stephen to some extent because they had been in the Massacre Guys from Salk Lake City and played Denver on several occasions. I started to get to know Bill a little better as well. As we continued our road trip, Pat and I got on the subject of how the Descendents were turning more into a philosophy, a way of life.  It was evident by their song All-O-Gistics and applying their “No, All!” ethic in the pursuit of greatness.

The album is titled after the concept of "All", invented by drummer Bill Stevenson and friend Pat McCuistion in 1980. Based on the goals of achieving "the total extent" and "to not settle for some, to always go for All" 
You can say Toledo Pat and I were on our own quest for All, not many late teens ambitions include spending their summer hitting every record store between Denver and Boston and sleeping in parking lots and on picnic tables at rest areas to save a couple of bucks to buy more records. Our mission was clear.   
It's always a treat to talk with the insightful and thoughtful Karl Alvarez. 
By the fall of 1987 the Descendents went into a long hibernation as Milo went off to become a biochemist. The band wouldn’t resurface until almost a decade later. Bill, Karl, and Stephen reformed under the name ALL with a new vocalist, Dave Smalley (of the Boston straight edge crew and DYS fame, oh yeah, he was Dag Nasty too!). The group released the album, Allroy Sez. I caught ALL in the summer of 1988 at City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey. I was touring with my band Short Fuse at the time and we met the show’s promoter Randy Now (Ellis). Randy interviewed us for his radio program on the Princeton campus. He gave us a glimmer of hope that we might be added to the bill if one of the bands cancelled. Sadly none did. He was kind enough to add us to his guest list as a consolation prize. 

Andrew, the band's sound man was telling me how Bill came-up with a nickname for Chad (ALL's vocalist) to coincide with beard, he was being called Chee-ad as in Jihad. 
At the show I talked with ALL and got their booking agent information. Earlier that year I started a record label with the paychecks I was earning at Winchell’s Donut House from flipping donuts during the graveyard shift. Another ambition in the works was to become a concert promoter. Denver was suffering from a punk rock show famine as long-time promoters Headbanger, Brew, and Razor ceased doing shows. I took it upon myself to immerse myself in the often-thankless job of carrying the torch that these hard working individuals did over the years of bringing bands to Colorado. There were bands my friends and I wanted to see and they weren't just going to show up on their own. 
Both night's set-list.
The first couple of shows I booked were with my friend Steve Cervantes. We rented out a DAV (Disabled American Veterans) hall on East Colfax and brought Dag Nasty to town and 7 Seconds shortly thereafter. I started getting into the rhythm of bringing bands to Denver, I finally booked my first ALL show at the Aztlan Theatre in the summer of 1989. Allroy's Revenge was just released with their new vocalist, Scott Reynolds. I knew the band loved Mexican food so I asked my mom to cook-up her favorite dishes for the group. ALL thanked her in t-shirts each time they passed through and our friendships became more solid. I would bring ALL to Denver several more times until I moved to Birmingham, Alabama (for a girl of course) in December of 1992. We stayed in contact over the years whenever they passed through a city I happened to be or lived in.  

The first time ALL played Denver.
During the time I was bringing ALL to Denver, my friend Chris Shary befriended the band and started doing artwork for them. Initially it was designing t-shirts and later album covers. He eventually became the main artist for both Descendents and ALL. He has been a major driving force and contributor to both band’s aesthetics. 

Milo and Karl hangout out at the bus. 
By the mid-90’s Chris and I both finished our education degrees and started teaching art in the public school system in Colorado. In the summer of 1996, my wife’s job relocated us to Atlanta, Georgia while Chris stayed in the Denver area. Chris kept me up to date of anything newsworthy from the Descendents/ALL camp since his information came down the pike directly from Bill. We were ecstatic to hear that Milo was laying down tracks for a new Descendents album. Chris was super stoked that he would be designing the shirt for their weeklong residency of sold-out shows at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles. The news was that their new album, Everything Sux would be coming out and the band would be hitting the road for a year’s worth of shows.

The Descendents rolled though Atlanta in December of 1996. I hung out in the van with Bill while he got the set list together. I remember calling Chris the next day to confirm that Bill was indeed Marlon Brando’s character, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from the film Apocalypse Now. You could be sitting next to Bill and it would be obvious that he was in another world, Bill’s world. Like Kurtz, Bill has a sense of duty and commitment, his discipline mentally prepared him to go on stage. It’s a strict diet of minimal conversation, no food, and lots of coffee. He speaks only if there was some sort of reason or lesson to be delivered. My favorite characteristic of Bill is the way he seems to process information in his mind. It is usually followed-up by one of his classic delayed responses long after you thought he ignored your question. Other than a simple “hello” and maybe quick small talk, I learned over the years it’s best to talk with Bill after he’s done playing. It’s a treat to hang out with him after a show just to hear one of his many detailed stories that would blow away anyone’s mind. 

True, I was indeed on the guest list, but the Groezrock Festival has some pretty funny stipulations about getting through the gates. All guest passes had to be e-mailed in advance, in many ways the bands have no control over the backstage situation. So when Ana and I arrived at the show I had to work some of my magic at the production office. There was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to get an "all access" pass. 
As the summer of 1997 approached, Chris got the crazy idea that we should go on the Vans Warped Tour with the Descendents sporting cheap flea market straw cowboy hats. Shit, we were both teachers and had the summers free so why the hell not. We sent in our photos to have badges made and we were good to go. We were suppose to meet-up with the band in San Diego but Chris’ car blew something in engine while driving through Arizona. Ironically the car had enough gusto to pull into the Jack-Ass Acres gas station. We knew we were in for the long haul when bubba came up to us in his “liquor up front, poker in the rear” t-shirt and told us, “Your car is broken.” If we’d had known better, we would have ditched it. Instead we wasted away valuable days in the town’s only resort while the car got fixed. We made the best of the situation, but the hot weather eventually affected my health. The day we finally got the car back was the beginning of my battle with heat exhaustion. We left the desert at night to avoid the scorching temperatures and made a b-line all the way to Dave Naz’s house in Beverly Hills. The car didn't have air-conditioning so even driving at night with the windows rolled down was like being subjected to a blast of hot air blowing from an oven. Chris had to stop almost every half hour so I could shit, puke, or down gallons of water and Gatorade. When I walked into the convenience mart people quickly moved out of the way as if I escaped from a leper colony. A highway patrol car pulled us over because Chris had a busted headlamp; the officer took one glance at me and asked Chris, “what’s wrong with him?” I looked like death and felt much worse.  We made it to Dave’s just after midnight. I lied on his couch shivering and sweating; he remarked how scary I looked. 

Autographed Descendents shirt anyone? 
The remainder of our tag-along tour went without incident until we hit the Boise show where a tent stake met Chris’ leg leaving him with a giant gash. The medical team at the show bandaged it up pretty well and suggested that Chris go the hospital for stitches. That didn’t quite fit into our schedule, we had to see the Descendents and get out of Idaho ASAP as I had an unresolved issue that involved Albertsons Supermarket and the Boise Police from when my former band, Savalas played there back in 1992. I wasn’t keen on sticking around anymore than I had to. Chris and I agreed that maybe we should drive to Salt Lake City to have his leg looked at. We painfully drove the speed limit until we hit the state line. We checked into our motel room and thumbed though the Yellow Pages looking for a hospital. The front desk clerk pointed us to the nearest Emergency Room. We spent several hours in the waiting room watching gunshot and stabbing victims roll through the doors waiting for an available doctor. When we got called in, the bandaged was unwrapped and the doctor commented how gnarly the cut looked. By then, we figured we were definitely cursed and wanted to get back to Denver as soon as possible. The Descendents played early the next afternoon in Salt Lake City and Chris promptly declared that if we left after the band’s set we could be back to Denver a little past midnight. We sped out of Utah into Wyoming reflecting on the past couple of weeks. One of us made the comment “I hope the rest of the trip is boring and unmemorable” and not long after, the engine made that all to familiar clunking sound. Once more we found ourselves on the side of the road as the nearest town was about 45 miles away. Evening was quickly approaching and the temperature was rapidly dropping up in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. Chris stayed with the car while I hitched-hiked and caught a ride with a gay couple in a convertible coming back from celebrating their anniversary. They dropped me off at an abandoned gas station with an operable payphone. I made the call to AAA and they promised to send a tow truck to gather Chris, the car and grab me on the way back. I still hadn’t fully recover from the previous week’s heat exhaustion episode and when evening turned into night the fever and chills came back as I sat on the floor in the gas station’s bathroom waiting.
Thou shall rock out. 
The car was towed to Laramie per AAA’s 50-mile towing rule and then to Cheyenne the following morning where Chris’ parents came to our rescue. We had grown wise to just ditch the car and deal with it later. Chris’ parents were in a perky mood and decided they would be joining us at the Vans Warped Tour show in Boulder. As shitty as I was feeling, I still wanted to catch the Descendents until the puking and diarrhea returned. I was in dire need of recovery, if not medical attention and left early and returned to my parent’s house to sleep for nearly two days. The heat exhaustion took a toll on my body. It took almost 7 months for my body to reset and feel normal again.   

When the summer of 1997 came around, Chris cautiously approached me with the plan that we should do the same thing we did the previous summer, but this time with ALL and minus a shitty car and the drama that ensued. What else was an art teacher going to do in the summer? I cautiously, but enthusiastically agreed to spend another summer in the car with Chris following our friend’s band from city to city but in a more abbreviated version. And like we hoped, it was an unmemorable journey aside from the free pair of Vans we scored. 

I had seen Bill and company only a couple of times during the past decade on off-occasions like when he and Karl rolled through San Diego and played in the Lemonheads. Before I left the states for Egypt, ALL did a short stint at the House of Blues with former vocalist Scott. That was a treat. Generally my luck worked like this: anyplace Descendents or ALL was, I wasn’t. That changed this past weekend. I was treated to a twofer. I was looking at posts on Facebook and was reminded that both the Descendents and ALL were playing the Groezrock festival in Belgium. Because of the price of a plane ticket in addition to living deep in Africa, it felt impossible. It was a Thursday afternoon and I sent my wife, Ana an e-mail jokingly telling her that I bought plane tickets to Brussels. She replied with a big What??? in the subject line. She thought I was serious. It was my not so passive way of testing out the waters. When work ended that afternoon I chatted with Chris on-line going back and forth on how I wanted to go, how it expensive it was, blah, blah, blah. He was the real catalyst and countered my doubts with reasoning;  “you can always make more money…” Perhaps it was that long-distance reach and push I needed from him. I sent both Bill and Stephen a message on Facebook and to their personal emails asking if they would add me to the guest list. Basically, if either replied, I would buy the ticket and be on the redeye flight out of Ethiopia. It was a long shot. Within the hour Bill responds with two words: “yeah, totally.” I ran down to our neighbor’s apartment where Ana was and told her “Bill wrote back.” I mentioned she should go too. Ana, the responsible and level headed family member countered with, “What about work tomorrow…” I told her we had to buy the tickets now. I made the executive decision that she was going to be my partner in crime. The Internet actually worked at home long enough to book a pair of plane tickets and within a couple of hours we were out the door with no regrets in our quest for ALL. 

Thank you Bill, Stephen, Karl, Milo, Chad and Andrew. 
Who's excited to watch the Descendents? 
There was a time when I lived in Atlanta and read a couple of Jimmy Buffet books. I felt that Jimmy had a likeness to Descendents/ALL in that he he was on the quest for the ultimate. Jimmy is a self-sufficient guy and lives by his own rules and ethics. When I was visiting Bill with Chris Shary at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colorado I pitched my comparison to Bill. In his classic delayed response he looked at me for a few moment obviously contemplating what I just said. He was like "What?" and demanded further explanation. I don't think he ever bought into my reasoning.  
Attack, part 2.
Talking to the boss about adding an extra song at the end of the set. The next day we passed by Bill near the bands dressing rooms. We exchanged hellos and he stopped and looked at me and said "Where did you sleep last night?" Ana and I brought two carry-on bags on to the plane, one with a tent and the other with sleeping bags. We camped with Europe's finest drunk punk rockers. 
Chee-ad doing the ALL-ah. 
Huggy Bear or Swamp Zombie?
Special Tanks to Ana Medina for editing help. 


  1. Bob, that was fantastic! Thanks for sharing ALL! of that... You and Chris are so freaking awesome

  2. Fantastic! Descendents an ALL were both so influential on me as a young man, and so important in helping me cope with being a weird kid in a small, rednecky town. I've seen both bands countless times, and they're still both so important to me - even though I'm pushing 40 and about to be married. I loved reading your stories and encounters with the bands. They reminded me of all of my encounters with them over the years as well. Good times. Thank you so much for sharing.