Screaming and Dreaming: Why the Rock*A*Teens Matter

Beth Wawerna

Rock *A* Teens

Hi, I'm the crazy bitch that named my band after a Rock*A*Teens album.

That album is Sweet Bird of Youth, the band's 5th and final LP, released on Merge in 2000 and reissued on vinyl for the first time last week. It is a 17-song rock masterpiece that stabbed me in the chest 14 years ago and continues to twist the knife to this day.

I grew up in Atlanta not far from the neighborhood of Cabbagetown, which in the '90s was a broken-down, dilapidated, drug-addled, potentially life-threatening-yet-hauntingly cinematic little world that attracted local musicians and artists. It was here that the Rock*A*Teens rose from the ashes of tragedy and ghosts of bands past—a scrappy militia of world-weary drinkers and thinkers who would become one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But they were also a band eerily out of time—to brazenly mangle a Costello lyric—and that is probably why you've maybe never heard of them.

[I should note here that Creative Loafing has an excellent and extensive oral history of the band that does a much better job than I ever could of communicating the finer points of the RATs backstory. So read that to get the facts, and I'll handle the feelings. So many feelings.]

The Rock*A*Teens were a rock 'n' roll outfit of epic proportions led valiantly by a one Chris Lopez, a force of nature both on the page and on the stage. The band's songs and shows were swampy and sweaty and sticky and sweet, full of clanging and clamor that reeked of the South and could swing wildly from decadence to decay in a single moment or turn of phrase. I mention Sweet Bird of Youth as it's the namesake of my band, but I love all five Rock*A*Teens albums equally, and you should seek them out immediately. Each is a thing of beer-soaked, sweat-stained glory—a dizzying conflation of chugging guitar-driven decadence, glittery garage rock, reverb-ed romanticism, guttural yowls and punk rock scheming, screaming and dreaming. This was a band. And I mean, like, a BAND. They took their job seriously, man, and that is something I don't say lightly these days. They were real. They fucking meant it. As a lyricist, Lopez is peerless. No one writes songs like that anymore.

NO.

ONE.

And I mean, like, SONGS—detailed and gnarled as though he carved them from a tree with his own fingernails. If there is such a thing as Southern Gothic songwriting, Lopez perfected it and he is ever the dogged protagonist in his own frayed but unflinching story, limping and leaping, sneering and snarling through whatever shit-storm life has teed up for him next. Alive and wired, with a cutting sense of humor and a looming sense of dread, he stalks that stage and hunts you down.

As a kid who knew nothing about life, the RATs made me want to know everything about life—the beautiful and the damned. They made me want to make mistakes. They made me want to be someone else's mistake. They made me want to love and ache, suffer and surrender, fuck and forget, kill, be killed, beg and plead, burn and bleed, ache for something, settle for nothing, lose everything, fall apart completely, get super fucked up, get super laid and then maybe like, punch someone in the face. I found it all very romantic. But I'm 36, and I've actually done all of those things now, and felt all of those things, innumerable times over. Since the RATs called it quits, I've grown up…or tried to. And I guess maybe they've grown up, too…or tried to.

When Merge announced the Sweet Bird of Youth reissue a couple months back, they also announced that the Rock*A*Teens would be playing some live shows—their first in 12 years—leading off with two back-to-back nights at The Earl in Atlanta. So, naturally I died for a moment and when I came to, I booked a plane ticket home.

Those shows took place this past weekend, and though I'm writing this from my apartment in Brooklyn, I'm pretty sure my face and liver are still flopping around on the floor of The Earl in a shallow grave of PBR. I knew these shows would be special. I mean, this is where it all began. Not just for the RATs, but for most of us in that room this weekend. This is the place where we made our best mistakes (sorry, I speak Costello as a second language). It's the place where we grew up…or tried to. It's the place some of us got married, had kids, got divorced, got arrested and got drunk. It's the place some of us stayed, and the place some of us left—but for these two nights, it was the place where all of us lived.

I moved out of Atlanta in 1995, but this weekend I felt a sense of community and camaraderie that far surpasses anything I've felt in the Brooklyn scene in the 13 years I've lived here. It reaffirmed a lot of things for me, chief among them that Rock*A*Teens fans are the fucking best. We didn't all know each other, but we all loved each other. We all drank together, we all screamed together, we all saw an ex-boyfriend who'd aged badly, we all desperately tried and failed to dodge that glitter bomb (ok that might have just been me). And I could say that we were all reliving the past and our youth, but that sounds sad and pathetic and it's simply untrue. We were all very much in the now, bound by something intangible. Anyone that was there knows what I'm referring to and I'll leave it at that. To anyone that wasn't there, in case you were wondering what it sounds like when all of East Atlanta orgasms at once, here it is:

I have long considered the Rock*A*Teens my dirty little secret, even though I evangelize the band whenever I can, sometimes to an embarrassing degree when alcohol is involved—and it usually is. Earlier in this piece I said they are one of the greatest rock bands of all time. That might sound like an outrageous claim, but fuck it.

The Rock*A*Teens currently are Chris Lopez, Justin Hughes, Ballard Lesemann, Will Joiner and Michelle DuBois. Rock*A*Teens of years past include Chris Verene and Kelly Hogan.

I love you all.

*****

As a postscript, to anyone that lives in the path of the RATs summer tour dates: Please, please go:

July
12 Athens, GA at the 40 Watt
24 Carrboro, NC at the Cat's Cradle

August
07 Philadelphia, PA at Johnny Brenda's
08 Boston, MA at the Middle East Upstairs
09 Brooklyn, NY at Glasslands *w/ Bird of Youth
10 New York, NY at Le Poisson Rouge *w/ Will Sheff (of Okkervil River)

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