On September 17th, 2022, I witnessed something long believed to be impossible: a reunion of “The Original Misfits,” founder, songwriter, and vocalist Glenn “Danzig” Anzalone, bassist Jerry “Only” Caiafa, and guitarist Paul “Doyle” Caiafa. Danzig and Only are well into their sixth decade, with Doyle close behind. They have played a handful of gigs since their 2016 reunion, their first in thirty-three years, but never in my city. It had become tempting to believe the Misfits reunion was just the latest of the strange rumors that have followed the band since the 1970s: they worship Satan, rob graves, and only play on Halloween. Like most punk kids of my generation, I grew up obsessed with this band that had broken up before I was born. Their uncanny death rock anthems, played on a perennial loop and sung together in drunken revelries, reinforced three essential certainties: (1) death (it “comes ripping”), (2) the Misfits are the greatest punk band of all time, and (3) you will never see Danzig and Jerry Only on stage together. But here they were, like the creatures in one of their creations, mythic movie monsters come to life, wreaking havoc on legions of hapless kids.
Too Much Horror Business
The setting was Riot Fest, a latter-day heir to the punk nostalgia package Warped Tour. Riot Fest’s marketing draws on the argot of aging and perennially online millennial hipsters who lost track of the fuzzy border between irony and sincerity sometime in the Bush Administration. Its slogan: “Riot Fest Sucks.” Get it? It’s a place where the kind of “fifteen-foot-high stages” the Dead Kennedys deplored are adorned with the names “Riot,” “Rise,” “Roots,” “Rebel,” and “Radicals,” decked out with Broadway lighting and fortified by barricades and small armies of bouncers enforcing a barrier that punk is supposed to have overcome. Between bands, patrons pay airport prices for food, drinks, and mountains of merchandise tailored to court the disposable dollars of hipsters-cum-yuppies still sentimental for their salad days. Many wear the shirts advertising previous Riot Fests, or the shirts of bands playing that day – which, in my day, one didn’t do.
Riot Fest was founded in 2005, an indoor festival at the Congress Theater in Logan Square featuring dubious lineups of classic punk acts like the Dead Kennedys, the Germs, and a ragtag version of the “Misfits” led by Jerry Only. After hosting such improbable reunions as Naked Raygun, The Replacements, and Jawbreaker, Riot Fest has developed a reputation as the ultimate vendor of punk nostalgia. In the process, it has ballooned into a multi-million dollar operation with corporate funding and seemingly endless pockets to procure top tier acts. Quickly outgrowing a single club, Riot Fest became a federation of venues, and in 2012, moved outdoors to a central location in Humboldt Park, the center of a working-class, traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.
The move was a massive takeover of public space for private profits, in a historically disinvested but gentrifying non-white neighborhood, with scant public space to begin with – all for a fest that draws an overwhelmingly white clientele. Since then, Riot Fest has become a flashing, flaming, blaring beacon emblematizing the long-standing race-blindness of punk, in which largely white devotees from relatively privileged backgrounds cast themselves as the wretched of the earth, draw from black and brown musicians who are seldom acknowledged, and serve as shock troops for gentrifying speculators, often with little sense of how clueless they appear.
Rainfall at Riot Fest 2014 led to intensive damages to Humboldt Park, some of which remained closed even after the fest declared it repaired. Even when things go smoothly, Riot Fest entails a literal enclosure of the commons, erecting meshed fences to prevent entry or even sight, and shutting down public space for weeks at a time. Public relations outreach through the non-profit Riot Fest Foundation, including the promise of $500,000 in local donations, the distribution of 600 Thanksgiving turkeys, and free tickets for neighbors, failed to stem opposition. In 2015 Riot Fest was ousted from Humboldt Park and relocated to Douglass Park, in the largely black, working-class neighborhood of North Lawndale. There, the same protests have been raised ever since. Adding fuel to the fire, a recent investigation discovered, in classic Chicago fashion, Riot Fest has leveraged political connections to avoid paying practically all of the attendant fees for use of the park and subsequent damages.
In short, Riot Fest is corny as hell. But, in an honest assessment, so are the Misfits. And, apparently, so am I.
Possession Of The Mind Is A Terrible Thing
In May of 2022, Riot Fest announced the Misfits would play their entire album “Walk Among Us” in September. The full album gimmick has become a way for older bands with regrettable latter-day releases to assure the faithful that they will play the hits from back in the day. It also imbues some novelty into the performance of material decades old. Initially I balked; three years living in Chicago have taught me that enjoying Riot Fest is about as cool as preferring the Cubs over the White Sox. I attended a few Warped Tours as a teenager, and swore the whole thing off as a miserable, sunbaked cash-in for musicians whose best days were behind them. Since being initiated into the underground fraternity of DIY punk at fifteen, I have found big concerts impersonal, prefabricated, and way too expensive. Above all, I love the Misfits, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a bunch of guys my parents’ age prancing around in spooky makeup calling themselves teenagers from Mars.
As the summer wore on, however, I found myself, like the protagonist of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, drawn irresistibly toward the dayglow terminus where alien invaders promised to touch down and transform my life forever. On Spotify, chunks of Glenn Danzig’s infernal hymnal slowly replaced my more responsible choices of college educated post-punk, bebop jazz, first-wave ska, and ambient noise, which I have deemed dignified for a creative professional closer to forty than thirty. I recalled the exhilaration that coursed through me the first time I heard Danzig’s voice, levitating over a fuzzy guitar belting out hook after unforgettable hook, propelled by galloping bass and drums, stringing together sentiments I could not believe human minds had formulated, all within the space of two sublime minutes, or less.
As a youngster completely at odds with the known world, the Misfits assured me that the profound disjunction I felt, like a mutated Martian or human fly, was not my burden to bear alone. There were others, including many who had come before me, who had found in this world nothing worth liking, and declared themselves its sworn enemy. They stared the ugliness and cruelty of the world in the face, and refused to be its victims. To survive a world of monsters, they became monsters themselves. If it was shocking or offensive, they would say it. Whatever was disallowed, they would do. They were not beholden to God, family, country, or even the human race. They had found each other, and now, like radio waves from another world, their message had reached me, calling me forth to walk among them. In the Summer of 2022, I heard this message once more.
Desperate for a way out, I contacted my ace, cultural critic and ne plus ultra millennial punk Andy Folk, known to the normies as A.M. Gittlitz. He had seen this lineup of the Misfits play a sold out show at Madison Square Garden in 2019. “Forget about it,” I hoped the Folkman would tell me. “They looked and sounded awful. It ruined my teenage years, as if they could get any worse.” But to my chagrin, Andy testified that the “The Original Misfits” were actually the second best show he had ever seen – after Iggy and the Stooges. Even in the nosebleed section of MSG, he said, it still felt like an epic punk show. He couldn’t believe that Riot Fest allowed attendees to get so close to the band for the cost of general admission, and was already regretting not flying out himself. And with that, like the kind of tortured soul one encounters in Danzig’s lyrical landscape, torn hither and thither and ready to turn their soul over to Lucifer himself, I was doomed.
Hybrids Opened Up The Door
The more you think about the Misfits, the less they make any sense. They were a bunch of tough guys from Lodi, New Jersey, known locally as “Land of Dumb Italians” and a popular setting in the Sopranos. “The Misfits were an old school New York guido thing,” recalls Necros frontman Barry Henssler. Close enough to New York to absorb the grit by osmosis, but too far away to earn its sophistication or coveted street cred, the Misfits were overeager to prove they “ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch,” as one of their most famous lyrics insists. The Caiafa brothers worked in their father’s machine shop to finance the band, spending their off hours lifting weights and rooting for the New York Giants. While Danzig was the artist of the bunch, one high school classmate remembers him as “a typical short Italian guy from Lodi with a temper.” In the years since, he has proven this reputation countless times, sometimes to his peril, as in the famous viral video in which he steps to another performer and is knocked out cold.
At the same time, these cliched bridge and tunnel goons dressed themselves in an exaggerated version of goth fashion, complete with corpse paint and “devil lock” hairdos, which they invented. Their all-American athletic physiques were repurposed to accentuate monstrosity. At a time when punks still stopped traffic, and were met with casual violence from cops and squares alike, the Misfits took its penchant for shocking images and outrageous antics and upped the ante. In the process, they made themselves into the worst thing someone in a small town can be: an alien.
In short, the Misfits were mutants, estranged not only from the suburban hellscape of their Anytown, USA, home, but from the other freaks and weirdos too – the hippies, bourgeois bohemians, champagne socialists, art school set, and the cosmopolitan punks of New York City. Danzig in particular was far too weird for Lodi, New Jersey. But nobody in a Manhattan coffee house could mistake him for anything but an unrefined hoodlum from the Land of Dumb Italians. As Andy Folk argues, the Misfits are therefore the ultimate suburban band. They are the avatars for us weirdos who grew up close enough to the city to feel its intoxicating allure, and who dreamed of attaining its worldliness and authenticity, but found ourselves hopelessly tethered to the philistine purgatory from whence we came, making us alien to both worlds, like teenagers from Mars. For the Misfits, like so many suburban punks, the harsh fact of this double exclusion became a vendetta against the world. “Singing of pure violence,” writes Folk, “the Misfits fantasized about armies of mutants like them overthrowing the normal world they abhorred.”
B Film Born Invasion
Formed by Danzig in 1976, and joined by Only shortly thereafter, the Misfits are technically a ’77 punk band. That year they played their first show at New York City’s famed CBGBs and released the Cough/Cool 7”, an organ-driven otherworldly apparition. Over the next six years, a flurry of singles, two landmark LPs, and a treasure trove of bootlegged and unreleased material, the Misfits built a dedicated cult following across the US. Their efforts at touring spread the devil’s gospel, but were financial disasters marred by violence provoked by the crowd and Misfits alike, including a riot in San Francisco, where Doyle knocked someone unconscious with his guitar. They also maintained the “Fiend Club,” highly personalized mailers to their growing base of rabid fans, or “fiends.” Living the hardcore ethos of the time, the Misfits released their own records and merch, and played small shows across the US.
In contrast to the minimalism and communalism of their hardcore contemporaries, however, who clustered in insular scenes, spurning artifice (and often musicianship) to strip punk down to harsh bursts of sound meant to leave outsider mystified, the Misfits crafted ornate aesthetics around a sound that was “accessible, strangely familiar, and utterly digestible,” in the words of James Greene, Jr., author of the Misfits biography This Music Leaves Stains. The band remained aloof from the tribal DIY scene on the nearby Lower East Side, with its violent sectarianism and strict code of musical austerity, instead orienting nationally, along with sister band Black Flag. Perhaps this contained the germ of the rockstar ambitions the core members would later reveal. Among the many recriminations later hurled between them were claims that Danzig had calculatedly monopolized royalties, at a time when few in hardcore were bothering to even copyright their material, amid his own insistence that the Caiafa brothers would have rather sounded like Van Halen and Judas Priest than a hellish choir of pre-dawn corpses come to life.
On the surface, the Misfits’ canon was bubble gum American pop culture: comic books, top 40 rock and roll, classic Hollywood, and above all, the B monster movies syndicated endlessly on pre-cable television. But this was no fantasy of return to the good old days; as America came apart at the seams in the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s, the Vietnam war, economic crisis, and the beginning of decades of downward mobility, the Misfits ghoulishly perverted the nostalgia for “Happy Days” that terrified suburbanites clung to in the encroaching night of American decline. At their hands, the James Dean imitating greaser of yore, since neutered to become the family-friendly Fonzie, was reimagined as a corpse-painted ghoul out cruising the darkness in search of ultraviolence. The harmless idyll of suburban Halloween was recast as a ghastly terror of mutilation and murder. In short, there was no golden age to return to. The violence and grotesquery of the present had always been there. The Misfits revealed the fantasy of postwar Americana so cherished in the popular culture to be a thin veneer stretched atop brutality, barbarism, and pornographic violence.
Danzig’s legendary baritone vocals tell the whole story. He can intone with the likes Roy Orbison, the Righteous Brothers, or even the King himself, conjuring the apex of the harmless, American Bandstand rock and roll carefully shorn of its black roots. But nobody could confuse Danzig’s lyrics, like “the maggots in the eye of love won’t copulate” or the strange Jaqueline Kennedy sexual fantasy of “Bullet,” with those of “Unchained Melody” or even “Burning Love.” In Danzig, the stately crooner had gone haywire, like some malfunctioning cyborg from Westworld or THX-1138, and in the place of coy innuendo and familiar comfort, was spouting almost unimaginable morbidity and filth. And like the Ramones before them, the more these freaks pledged allegiance to American pie, the more grotesque, barbaric, and stupid it appeared. Rock nostalgia was recast as a collection of miniature skulls hung up on some maniac’s wall.
The genre of horror was particularly easy pickings. Gothic literature and Hollywood monster movies have become a harmless part of the cultural canon, as young children dress up like zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein’s monsters each October. This is because horror is a genre that allows ostensibly normal people to work through their deepest fears, insecurities, and the desires they wish they didn’t have, all in a socially acceptable way. It is therefore easy to lose sight of just how grotesque the subject matter of horror actually is – and many fans would be happy to keep it that way. But Misfits listeners were assaulted with the crimson reality of this cultural tradition: murder, disfigurement, rotting flesh, perverse sexual desires.
It was the Misfits’ revenge on the world they wanted to destroy, and was not limited to horror. The Misfits took prurient glee in the popular fixations of Patty Hearst (“She”), JFK (“Bullet”), Sid and Nancy (“Horror Business”), Marilyn Monroe (“Who Killed Marilyn?”), and a whole society of voyeurs “blue from projection tubes” (“Static Age”), glued to their televisions, mesmerized by the spectacle of it all. By sharpening the dull edge of Hollywood nostalgia with turbo speed aural blasts, they effected, in Greene’s words, “the ultimate marriage of Ramones and Romero.” Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep from tearing each other to shreds.
You Bet Your Life There’s Gonna Be A Fight
It is often said that tension between band members propels a musical act forward for as long as it can last without being ripped entirely apart. If this is true, as Greene so dutifully chronicles, the Misfits are case in point. By all appearances, the band was simply never big enough for Danzig and anyone with a mind of their own, especially Jerry Only. “When you put two tigers in the cage,” Only recently reflected, “it’s an issue.” These uneasy dynamics, compounded by the band’s lack of commercial viability, led to their abrupt 1983 demise. For the better part of the next three decades, Misfits traded petty barbs as they soldiered on in the strange afterlife of performers whose defining moments came in a youth ever receding into the past. Danzig enjoyed some mainstream success as a solo performer, supplemented by the royalties he enjoyed as the sole credited Misfits songwriter. The Caiafas alternated between work in their family’s shop and attempts to cash in on the notoriety of their old band, which only seemed to grow with the passage of time.
The Misfits may not have broken into the mainstream in their heyday, but true to form, their walking corpse has haunted nearly every corner of the Earth in the time since. In the early 1990s the so-called alternative scene, built on the foundation of early hardcore, became a worldwide phenomenon. Suddenly the Misfits were being reverentially covered by chart-topping acts like Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica, as Danzig’s star rose, in its own right, in the genre of metal. The other Misfits had long disputed Danzig’s claim to sole ownership of the band’s rights, and this sudden bankability of their recordings led to legal reckoning. This included the sale of their entire catalog, and the subsequent distribution of royalties to the musicians who had played on Misfits records.
The settlement also enabled the 1995 emergence of a Caiafa-led Misfits sans Danzig, which toured extensively and released two pop punk albums featuring a young vocalist named Michale Graves doing his best Danzig impersonation. As this so-called Misfits lineup fought to establish itself outside its creator’s shadow, ongoing bad blood with Danzig forced fans around the world to take sides on what is essentially Lodi, New Jersey playground beef. For instance, my high school friends and I, who became rabid fans around this time, were happy to cast our lot with Danzig, refusing to indulge “The Newfits” with ticket sales or even a fair listen. (In hindsight, I can now admit: not too bad!)
The Only-led Misfits limped into the twenty-first century, shedding Doyle in 2000 and Graves in 2001. To sweeten the pot for fans, they added stints from marquee punk veterans Marky Ramone, Dez Cadena of Black Flag, and the return of Black Flag and former Misfits drummer Robo, for concerts that increasingly became star-studded exercises in punk rock karaoke. Jerry Only, and whoever was around him at the time, also produced a couple of nominal Misfits records, often featuring himself on vocals, which were inferior to even the recordings with Graves. In a dramatic twist, Doyle effectively switched sides during this period, appearing episodically with Danzig throughout the aughts and into the teens to perform Misfits songs on Danzig tours, which remained commercially viable, even if the heights of Danzig’s stardom were behind him.
In 2005, Danzig initiated copyright complaints over Only trademarking several Misfits logos, including a version of the iconic Crimson Ghost, which Danzig had himself taken without permission from the 1946 film of the same name. Only’s persistent use of these copyrights led to Danzig’s filing a 2014 lawsuit, asserting him to be “the creative force behind the band” dating back to 1977. Characteristically, the filing argued Only’s “primary qualification [for joining] was that he had recently received a bass guitar for Christmas.” While Danzig’s claim was thrown out by the overseeing judge, negotiations between the two camps took a surprising turn: discussion moved from squabbling over forty-year-old intellectual property and trading childish barbs, to ironing out the logistics of a Misfits reunion with Danzig on vocals.
It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise; each party had entered the suit seeking to maximize their profits from the Misfits brand, and this was most certainly the way to do it. By 2016, Danzig and Only had agreed to an arrangement that split the profits between them, treating Doyle as a hired employee, along with an unspecified drummer, ultimately Slayer’s Dave Lombardo. Putting a fresh spin on Romero, a cynical James Greene, Jr. quipped: “When there is no more room in court, the Misfits will reunite.”
Come Back And Bite My Face
A longtime fan, like me, who had never seen the Misfits play, Greene nonetheless refused to attend the 2016 reunions. He dismissed the shows as “a legal resolution, an agreement between Glenn and Jerry so they stop dragging each other to court over pictures of skulls they stole from somebody else in the first place.” After skipping the first two shows, he explained: “I felt skepticism that any of this would really go down, or that it might veer into disaster if it did. The venue struck me as wrong; the Misfits in their glory days were always a club band… And, of course, this assembly is not really the original Misfits – it is Most of The Original Misfits Featuring Dave Lombardo.” Ultimately, though, he added: “Yes, I feel some regret…” (My reasons were less complex: I was broke and legally disallowed from leaving New York City.)
Naturally, massive concerts like Riot Fest trade the supposed authenticity of seedy clubs and extensive touring for a small number of guaranteed paydays, backed by corporate sponsors and financers, drawing large numbers of a band’s most affluent fans to one place, flush with cash for high-priced tickets and merchandise. Was it punk? Probably not. But are the Misfits? Hardly. Today they are affluent old men who have been suing each other for decades and cashing in on their past whenever possible. Not that I really blame them. They must be asking themselves how much longer they can go out there and perform, and are likely just saving up for retirement. As a teenager, sheltered in a house financed by my parents’ lives of toil, I found it unpardonable that a punk band would compromise their integrity for something so trivial as money. Nowadays, I look at reunion shows, reissues, festivals, and merch as an understandable solution to a problem I now know all too well: paying the bills. And the money appeared to be good. A spate of Misfits shows in different US cities came and went in 2017, 2018, and 2019, crossing the threshold of the ten appearances which Danzig and Only were on the hook to play as part of their legal agreement. This meant they could actually tolerate each other for reasons other than compulsion by the law.
Meanwhile, I was too broke to even entertain the idea of paying more than $15 for live music, much less traveling for it. By 2022, however, my fortunes had improved. Employed as a professor in the Chicago area, I was flush with disposable income, graying in the temples, and increasingly sentimental about punk rock, which now stood for a world of freedom and immediacy from which I had been exiled by the passage of time and my entry into the professional world. In other words: I was the perfect mark for an expensive Misfits reunion at Riot Fest.
Entrance Into Heresy
The atmosphere at Riot Fest was surprisingly mellow; the $120 ticket price seems to have kept the rowdiest punks on their barstools cursing the corporatization of it all. The audience ranged from hordes of teenagers – desperate, as I had once been, for an authentic world outside their monotonous suburban life – to a comfortable number of fans who made me feel young. I saw no evidence of protest by locals, save for a wheat-pasted flier: “No Mega Fests in Douglass Park / Parks For Play Not Profit.” On the other hand, a number of ostensible locals looked to make the best of the situation, posted up on the sidewalks outside the fest selling food and alcohol to attendees, or else just partying bemusedly amid the chaotic swarm of drunken outsiders. I don’t drink, and attended alone. This was a solemn occasion.
Inside the confines of the privatized park, I took a carefully engineered trip down memory lane, with a soundtrack provided by Bad Religion, FEAR, Seven Seconds, and the almighty Madball. Looking around, though, it was clear that most people were there for one thing. Some packs of young fans sported corpse paint and even devil locks. The Crimson Ghost was everywhere. Now that this image pops up in films, music videos, and shirts worn by celebrities like Demi Lovato, XXXTentacion, and even Justin Bieber, one can forget just how creepy it is. The Crimson Ghost is the uncanny superimpositon of a skull mask over dispassionate, dark-ringed human eyes, flashing a punctuated grin, and effecting thereby the perfect marriage of horror camp and flesh and blood brutality. The result is truly unsettling, and it was ubiquitous. One young woman advertised the Crimson Ghost, alongside an inscription in the Misfits font that took Danzig’s most extreme lyrics – “I’ve got something to say / I raped your mother today” and turned them into the positive affirmation: “I practiced consent today.” Another boasted a message far less ambiguous: “Fuck Glenn Danzig.”
The Misfits were slated in the headliner spot, running from 8:30 to 10pm. As the clock creeped toward showtime, and the crew toiled in the dark, amplifier stacks stenciled with the Crimson Ghosts amassed where the Misfits would soon play. The stage was framed by two massive jack-o’-lanterns, their faces contorted evilly, belching dry ice, tokens of the band’s enduring commitment to Halloween store schlock. This setting was topped off by a massive wall of video screens, black like monoliths from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but soon to come to life, signaling the Misfits arrival at a twenty-first century corporate rock event. Their stage was bordered to the left by an equally large screen featuring the current band playing on the stage next door, Gogol Bordello, a frenzied Romani-inspired punk ensemble. Concerts like Riot Fest minimize the often excruciating dead time inherent in the club experience by placing two headliner stages side by side, resulting in nearly no waiting between bands. It is one of the perks of paying a small fortune for punk rock.
In all my strained imaginings of this improbable moment, I had not planned to get anywhere near the stage. I envisioned broken bodies in the death rock dance hall as a mad dash of monster kids responding to Danzig’s murdergram pushed and shoved each other for hundreds of feet in every direction. In reality, I was able to politely meander through the crowd, up to within about twenty-five feet of the stage. I had expected to endure a miserable crush, but even after getting close enough to the stage that I could have been seeing the show at a midsized club, standing room was comfortable, and the audience considerate. This just added to the dreamlike quality of an event I increasingly believed could not possibly be real. At last, the lights went dark on Gogol Bordello, and the piped-in sound of forlorn spooky wind signaled that either a Spirit Halloween store had opened nearby, or the hour of the Misfits had come.
This Ain’t No Fantasy
I had never laid eyes on any Misfit in the flesh, and seeing them walk on stage was truly a monster movie come to life. Jerry Only, smeared with his football-inspired ghoul makeup, sporting the signature devil lock, and enveloped in his spooky spiked jacket. The corpse-painted behemoth Doyle, shirtless and hulking, more muscular and menacing than he appears in photographs decades-old. And Danzig, the olive oil-voiced ringmaster of this devil’s carnival, his signature black hair blowing in the wind, and his iconic Samhain belt buckle put to the test by a quarantine fifteen (or two), but holding it all together to make him as formidable a presence in person as in the ethers of punk lore. By this point, if Frankenstein’s monster himself had lumbered onto the stage and picked up a guitar, I wouldn’t have second guessed the scene. It was intense enough to see them all just standing there, so thrilling, so satisfying, that I momentarily forgot I had come for any other purpose. But then they started to play!
Here is where I wish I could say: “With that first errant note, I realized I had made a tragic mistake. The Misfits appeared old and worn out, bungling their old songs, and bearing no resemblance to the musicians who furnished the soundtrack of my youth. This is when I realized that Johnny Thunders was right, you can’t put your arms around a memory. What’s more, in that moment I accepted that the Misfits were never mine to be nostalgic about; my fascination with them bears no resemblance to an actual band from Lodi, New Jersey, but was instead the product of my own extreme alienation, not just in place, but in time, sufficient for me to ensconce my life with music written before I was born. In reality, I have no real relationship to the Misfits beyond that of a consumer, and a latecomer at that. And anyway, that’s for the best, because some of their most classic songs, like ‘Die, Die My Darling,’ contain troubling themes that today appear hopelessly dated, perhaps offered at the time for adolescent shock, but still boldly trumpeted by their creators long after they have shed the alibi of youth. And what was I doing at the enclosed commons of Riot Fest anyway? Where was my class consciousness? So I promptly turned my back and departed, emboldened by the words of James Green, Jr.: ‘I never saw the Misfits when Danzig was in the band between 1977 and 1983. I’m keeping a streak alive.’ It was the last time I would ever listen to my old friend Andy.”
Alas, I cannot say any of this. The Original Misfits is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen!
At once, the massive metal stage, closed on three sides and sheltered by a aprotruding roof some seventy feet in the air, lit up to assume the appearance of a great spacecraft landed on a barren field bearing its angel mutant cargo. The Misfits launched into “20 Eyes,” conjuring the body horror fantasy of a human mind overpowered by visual stimulation: “When you’re seeing twenty things at a time / You just can’t slow things down / When you’re seeing twenty things in your mind / Just can’t slow things down.” This is precisely how I felt for the next hour and a half. Where to look? What to do? Sing along? Dance? Feast on human flesh? I leapt in the air and my sunglasses immediately fell out of my pocket and were stomped to oblivion; no matter, I wouldn’t be needing those in the crypt! A dusty circle pit opened up and I remembered Folk’s insistence that it was a very special thing to be able to mosh to the Misfits, so I alternated between a few goes round, and then rejoining the thousands-strong singalong unfolding all around me. My overloaded ego came tantalizingly close to achieving what Freud once called “that oceanic feeling” attainable only by religious experience or extreme drug use, and I would interrupt these rare and precious moments only to remind myself: I’m actually seeing the Misfits!
The reunited Misfits are heavy and mean, thanks in no small part to Lombardo’s relentless propulsion, which only stepped on the songs’ toes once or twice, few enough to be forgiven. Their sound bears the hallmark of the thrash metal genre, which spawned in the years following the band’s breakup thanks in part to the band’s own influence, and now lends all of their music heavier and more aggressive tones. It was tempting to bemoan this souped up Misfits as an inauthentic departure, but following the Caiafas’ increasingly corny appropriation of the band’s brand over the decades, the present lineup is akin to Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare, which rescued Freddy Kreuger from the dopey camp of the latter-day sequels, making him faster, more violent, and much scarier, while reminding the audience that corny wisecracks aside, this is the supernatural form of a deceased ghoul who rips children to shreds in their fucking dreams. And in many ways, this was just the Misfits picking up where they left off in 1983; their final record, Earth A.D., traded B movies, comic books, and Ramones beats for visceral scenes of realistic carnage, matched by music far heavier, faster, and darker than anything they’d done before.
The violence of the Misfits’ music was not disappointed by their presence on the stage. Doyle, in particular plays his guitar with such beastly ferocity that he was either out of tune or missing strings by the end of every song, and began a steady rotation between multiple instruments – also explaining the unassuming presence of hired gun Acey Slade, set off in the back left corner, also playing guitar. Only was busy smashing his bass seemingly every ten minutes, and immediately producingl an identical one in its place, erasing whatever doubt I had that he is a living cartoon character. Danzig strutted and puffed his chest, never getting winded as he belted out one classic after another at perfect pitch. The trio bounced around the stage, either having a great time or doing a damn good job pretending. They even seemed warm toward each other, which was surprising, but must be easier these days, with no broken down tour van to return to for endless drives on a shoestring budget. The Misfits rocketed through “Walk Among Us,” getting about halfway before Danzig began to complain that they “had to” play those songs, but soon enough they’d play whatever the crowd wanted to hear. And sure enough, they played almost everything I could think of, for nearly ninety minutes. It was so impressive to see these guys thirty years my senior tearing it up for as long as they did; by the halfway point, I was completely exhausted!
Moments Like This Never Last
Cynical as I am about these things, I initially waited for the euphoria to wear off, for me to begin noticing things ugly, shabby, and mean that would shatter my good time. Surely I could have scrutinized Danzig’s stage banter, including some dumb quips about the Chicago murder rate and a predictable lament about “cancel culture” (as if he wasn’t headlining a massive festival), to cast myself as too politically pure for this problematic affair. Or I could have balked at the elaborate lightshow, including blinking strobes, the unofficial beacon of shitty corporate music. I could have taken further issue with the barricade between the band and the crowd, that primal enemy of punk rockers, or the giant television screen, calling to mind the Misfit’s derisive anti-TV dirge “Static Age,” or the fact that two of the five men on stage could not be considered “Original Misfits” by any stretch of the imagination. But as the Misfits powered on, I simply became obsessed with the fact that their set would not last forever. Breaks between songs became unpardonable interruptions. Ten o’clock approached like my execution. And finally it came. The speakers went dead, the lights came down, the Misfits returned to being Glenn, Jerry, and Paul, and I was left wandering through a dark field with thousands of other survivors of this beastly bacchanal, our mouths still bloody from the feast, condemned to figure out what had overcome us.
One strange detail I keep returning to in the week since Riot Fest is the t-shirt bearing the détourned lyrics of “Last Caress.” It is a defiant retort to one of the most heinous declarations in musical history, words made doubly despicable by their presence in the catchiest, most radio-friendly rock and roll melody of the entire Misfits cannon. The lyrics of “Last Caress” were no doubt calculated to cause maximum shock and revulsion in the listener, as it surely did to me. It would be obvious for someone, especially in today’s polarized cultural terrain, to hear this song and denounce its creators and all who would dare hum its tune. But maybe that’s too obvious, too predictable, and perhaps playing right into Danzig’s hands. So this fan had refused to flinch. She stared straight in the Mona Lisa smile of the Crimson Ghost, and grinned back. The music of the Misfits, the profound sense of alienation from which it sprang, and the belligerent desire to chart one’s way out of it, all belong to her just as much as anyone else, including the author of the song himself.
This is nothing new. Since its inception, interactions between many punk musicians and their audiences have been antagonistic, even violent, or else characterized by an uneasy tolerance rooted in the acknowledgment that the role of each requires the other. This detachment comes in handy, because many aging punk musicians like Danzig have grown hopelessly out of touch with the world, but still insist on adopting the contrarian posture that characterized their youthful work. For many fans like me, the most dangerous time at a punk rock reunion show is the dead space between songs, when the vocalist decides to give the audience an offbeat take on current events – which may sound edgy and subversive to the speaker, but usually ends up being a load of reactionary crap.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, though, because punk is oedipal; our heroes exist to be destroyed. Far from a coherent musical canon, punk denotes a particular feeling, an out-of-placeness with the world and disrespect for all things holy. Authorities and elders are treated with suspicion and derision, like the father who must be killed, or the fool crowned king. The savviest of all are the ones who are in on the act: the villainous frontman, like FEAR’s Lee Ving, who taunts the crowd, using incendiary language and insulting gestures, and is jeered in return, theatrically reenacting the struggles against authority, and for self-determination, which characterize the lives of young (and not so young) people who follow punk rock. In this way, punk is a bit like professional wrestling, though the violence is often real. And reveling in the pettiness, smugness, thin-skin, and Napoleon Complex for which he has been known since the 1970s, Glenn Danzig has always been happy to play the role of heel.
If punk has anything clear to say, it can be summarized by some of its most recurrent lyrics: fuck you. Beginning with the Sex Pistols affirmation “no future” – or the Stooges’ “no fun,” or the Ramones’ no-anything – punk’s strongest suit has been what Heglians might call “determinate negation”: defining itself through being opposed to all that exists. This can be a powerful and necessary posture, an essential rejection of a detestable state of affairs from which the new can spring – that is, assuming the new is affirmed in place of what has been rejected. Otherwise, punk becomes a mere posture, a stale performance of rebellious promise forever deferred. On the “Rebel” stage at the corporate “Riot” festival so unwanted by its working class neighbors, we witness the eternal reenactment of the failure to actually rebel. (Hegelians might call this “bad infinity.”) Or worse yet, as critic Lester Bangs argued in an essential 1979 essay: “anytime you conclude that life stinks and the human race mostly amounts to a pile of shit, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for fascism.” In the very least, this seems to have translated to a profound blindness to questions of race, gender, and other ways the suffering and powerlessness of the world so furiously denounced by punk is dealt out unevenly, to some of the people least represented on its stages.
In the end, I have to admit that trying to overly intellectualize this strange music, which gives unhappy young people a means of charting their own offbeat path in the world, feels just as unfair as the demand adult radicals have made of rebellious youth since the 1960s: to solve the social problems grownups can’t. “Given the structural powerlessness of working class kids and given the amount of state pressure they have to absorb,” write Paul Corrigan and Simon Firth, “we can only marvel at the fun and the strength of the culture that supports their survival as any sort of group at all. If the final question is how to build on that culture, how to organize it, transform resistance into rebellion, then that is the question which takes us out of youth culture and into the analysis of working class politics generally.” In this view, punk is something less than many of its leftist adherents, myself included, wish it were, and something more than its apolitical fans want it to be, “just music.” But punk will never be anything on its own – except for an outlet for disaffected people to find community, and just maybe, enjoy brief moments of real, communal, transcendence, before returning to the grind of their everyday lives.
“If you’re gonna scream, scream with me,” Danzig bellows, in his finest legato. “Moments like this never last.”
Thanks to Christian, Andy, May, Mike, and Glenn Danzig’s cat.