An unspoken rule of life is that when a band breaks up, that’s when you can get a tattoo of their logo. There’s no way they could disappoint you after breaking up. Even if one member of the band said something heinous down the line, or blew up a school bus, or something else unheard of, it doesn’t feel canon to most fans. It’s outside of the purview of the band. Jawbreaker fans have been getting The Four F’s tattooed on them forever, so what’s up with those four F’s anyway?
It’s, oddly enough, a reference to an old German athletics crest inspired by the motto, “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei,” which translates to something like, “Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free.” After seeing Jawbreaker perform for the fourth time, four more times than I was promised I’d ever see them, I wrote a few things about Jawbreaker.
It feels so odd to say I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Jawbreaker. That’s the kind of thing you say about a mid-tier local opener, not the object of so many “when pigs fly”-esque jokes over the years. There was even a band called Jawbreaker Reunion, whose name was a faux bait-and-switch that served as a cheeky reference to let everyone know they were in on the punk joke, too. In 2014, Jawbreaker never seemed like they were going to reunite, so Jawbreaker Reunion’s name was free to use. Jawbreaker turned down rumored sums of money anywhere in the ballpark from $500,000 to $250,000,000, depending on who was telling the story from their barstool.
The band’s demise came in the most punk rock fashion possible: A major label debut, accusations of “selling out” lobbed by former fans, and growing tensions between members led to a roadside fistfight. Schwarzenbach said Jawbreaker would never reunite.
Jawbreaker is one of the few bands whose documentary film, Don’t Break Down, isn’t exactly charitable to anyone in the band. Blake looks standoffish and pretentious, Chris sounds like the worst guy to be trapped next to in the back of a van on tour, and Adam sounds like the diplomat and businessman of the three, which is its own kind of nightmare. The guy who directed this whole thing treats Blake like Herzog treats the bears in Grizzly Man: He sees the beauty of nature but will not allow it to outweigh the threat of its vengeance. The doc ends with the band playing together for the first time in 13 years, but only after the director slowly moves them all into a rehearsal space and asks them to pick up an instrument and play a little riff or two. He sits on this footage for almost a decade. It’s the only proof of life Jawbreaker has since 1994. It’s not even a reunion as much as it’s some guys playing some old songs. It’s not really a performance, it’s stilted and shaky and coerced. It’s not a natural act, this reunion. It’s done under peer pressure. The big reunion itself, 2017 at Riot Fest in Chicago, didn’t truly feel natural, either. Punks knew it would take an offer they couldn’t refuse to get together after 23 years, and it sounds like it did.
Jawbreaker’s reunion was something that went from impossible to improbable after its announcement. Plenty of conversations with friends went like, “I’d love to see them if they can keep it together.” The reunion took place and they clearly had a great time. It’s good enough to keep them together years down the road. The reunion barely feels like a reunion, now. They play shows all over the place every year. They took their second chance and didn’t break down. They’ve been reunited for almost as long as they were an original band.
“Selling out,” isn’t a thing in 2023. “Getting the bag,” is applauded and encouraged. In 1993, a small Seattle trio called Nirvana took Jawbreaker on tour. This was, in some circles, seen as selling out. In 1994, punks felt that Jawbreaker sold out when they accepted a million-dollar contract from David Geffen’s DGC Records. In 1995, old fans would literally turn their backs on the band when they performed. Before they had to address the allegations, the band wrote a response to this and it became the band’s most popular song, “Boxcar.”
I’m not sure how I feel about “Boxcar” at this point in my life. It’s a fun punk song about not being punk, but in the way that you’re too cool for anyone’s rules to be classified as a punk rocker. Nobody has ever accused me of not being punk rock (😎), but it’s convenient that one of the biggest songs in punk-adjacent rock is a rebuttal to that allegation. It’s a kiss-off to anyone who defines themselves as a punk, a middle finger to those who might heed anyone else’s expectations of what a punk does, what a punk looks like, and what a punk listens to.
The first time I heard this song, I definitely was not a punk. I was interested in punk rock, but I was an 18-year-old college student in business school, of all things. That’s not punk!
It felt good to hear a punk band talk about how they weren’t punk. It made my experience feel valid as someone who didn’t have a punk scene growing up. I barely had anyone at my high school who knew what punk rock was outside of Green Day or Blink-182. I got my subculture fix in other places but they assuredly were not “punk.” At 18, it felt like I could wipe my brow and say, “No, I’m not punk but Jawbreaker said that’s ok.” Not that I needed it in the long run, but when you’re getting into a subculture around a bunch of people who have been there longer than you have, it helps to have any support at all.
At 32, the argument feels less convincing. It’s not that it’s bad to not be punk, but the argument in the song feels boring in this day and age. Perish the thought that the poseur could prosper, it’s the relation to the song’s sort of anti-posing that makes me pause. Punkers of all shapes and sorts are an obnoxious breed, there’s no argument there. They’re fickle and rude, but is the same true for the guy who swears he was always too cool to be a punk? Seeing a bunch of people shout along to the lyrics, “‘You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone.’ Save your breath: I never was one,” with the sort of conviction you’d see at Sunday mass struck me sideways. The song is about being a part of the scene and getting ostracized for some bogus commandments you never signed off on, not about being an interloper who never identified with a scene.
When do you stop caring about poseurs? When do you stop caring about what’s real or what’s punk rock? When does that happen? Because it hasn’t happened to me and I’m worried I’ll be cursed with this teenage thought pattern forever. Is it because I’ve never been busy enough to stop caring? Has my life not been tough enough to make me choose between my ethics and my economic safety? Am I not important enough to sell out? Am I a poseur in the eyes of someone more punk than me? Does this spiral ever end? Who’s punk? What’s the score?
Jawbreaker is not a happy band. It’s not that there’s no joy in the lyrics, but the happiness in songs like “Fireman” or “May 4 (Sluttering)” is at the expense of someone else. The Jawbreaker reunion/victory tour hasn’t been sad at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s been a joy to see these guys whenever I can. Each time I’ve seen them, these songs about being alone and angry take a different tone because I’m surrounded by people I love.
It’s a far cry from the years I spent listening to their discography alone in dorm rooms and bedrooms across middle America, hoping one day to be around people who understood this music, who understood me. And now I’ve got that. Every single time, I’m surrounded by love and people I can sing and dance with to any of these songs, even if we’re singing about existential crises and girls with blue mohawks getting on a train and getting out of our lives.
Jawbreaker technically curated the fest they were supposed to play, under the name “West Bay Invitational.” It’s a reference to maybe the only happy-ish Jawbreaker song. Despite Blake hurting his arm and Hayes breaking the scissors, it sounds like the party goes pretty well in the song. “We’re having a party, please come. It won’t be the same without you, please come,” is the purest and most considerate line in any of their songs. It’s a bountiful olive branch in a discography full of vinegar and sharp objects. It’s true, though. Throw a party and think about all of the people who can’t come. Would it be the same if they could make it?
I threw a party when I left New York and most people could not come, and because of that, it was not the same. My attempted West Bay Invitational of sorts, friends from all over the city coming together to sing karaoke, was not the party I intended on having. It was a wonderful night with my friends who all knew each other and the songs we sang were songs we could all sing along to, but I missed everyone who couldn’t make it. I felt the love in the room and I hope everyone outside of that room could feel it, too.
Now that Jawbreaker’s reunion is permanent (for the time being), are they free of their legacy? Like I mentioned above, this is a band who is about to be reunited for longer than they ever existed. Are they now beyond being a legacy act? They’ve released three or four amazing records that defined gen-x slackerdom via malaise and generally being “over” anyone’s ideas or rules. Every too-cool punk depiction in art since the 1990s has been aping Jawbreaker’s disengagement and disenchantment with anything that isn’t their own.
Maybe it’s because it’s acoustic and you can hear everyone singing, but “Unlisted Track,” an unlisted track on Jawbreaker’s final album, Dear You, is the most popular song of the night. It’s an ode to a lover or co-conspirator, I’m still unsure which. Maybe it’s an ode to the person you were when you were younger.
This song and its lyrics are the freedom in Jawbreaker’s work. It’s the freedom you get when you realize that it’s your life and not anyone else’s. It’s a want for others to feel the same even when you know they might never find it. You can still yearn, you can still be punk, you can still be yourself, as long as you’re doing it for yourself.
“Now everyone tells me that they’re crazy, but crazy people aren’t so fucking boring,” is the load-bearing part of the song. It takes me back to those nights at college house parties when someone would say “Let’s get weird!” and proceed to chase shots with beer in a basement until everyone sort of just went home at the end of the night. It’s boring and gets more boring. It’s never cool. I spent so much time staring at the floor or my phone with people I forgot about six months after I graduated. I spent nights wondering if this was going to be my life forever, and then it was never again.
It’s a tired trope but when I listen to “Unlisted Track,” I think about what I’d do differently if I knew then what I know now, or at least if I acted on the gut feelings I always had. The thing about going back to being the same person with more knowledge is that I am the same person I was in those basements but with more knowledge of myself. The basements turn into dive bars or clubs or jobs or sporting events, but they’re the same basement in spirit.
The thing about going back to being who I was when I was 19 and listening to Dear You for the first time is that I’m still that same kid in a dorm room but I’m free. I’m free of history papers and I’m free to not sit in those basements. When Schwarzenbach sings, “Show me the raw stuff of youth. Would you do it for yourself?” I have to ask if I would do it for myself. Would I let myself run free and do my own thing? Don’t I owe that to myself to not feel the weight of rules and expectations I never signed up for? Don’t I owe that to the artists I love? I think so.