What I Learned: The Slapstick Legacy After 20 Years

Post Author: Jason Diamond
Slapstick Chicago

At some point in 1996, possibly in the summer, but maybe in the fall, Slapstick broke up. The problem was, unless you were in the band or knew somebody who was, confirming that fact probably took some time. Before indie bands paid publicists to send out press releases announcing such things or a disgruntled member could announce it on Twitter, unless a band booked a final show with flyers that explicitly stated “last show ever” or maybe did the more formal thing and announced it in a zine interview—it took a little longer to confirm. For Slapstick,it was all word of mouth, piecing together what sounded right and what didn’t until, finally, I had confirmation. My friend told me at some point early in the summer or maybe late spring that he’d heard they were breaking up, then somebody else a few weeks later said she’d heard they actually did break up. By autumn, a screen name in an AOL chat room said to all the other screen names that he’d talked to one of the members of the band, and that they’d “moved on to other things.” From there on out, it seemed that it was pretty much common knowledge that Slapstick had indeed called it a day. Looking back, it all sounds quaint and antiquated, that time before we all carried the internet in our pocket and access to the news around us at all times; but the process was piecemeal and painful since Slapstick was probably my favorite local band at the time. One day my friends and I were at some show they were playing, holding our middle-fingers high in the air and screaming, “Fuck you, alternative radio,” the next I was asking somebody if they’d heard it was over. All of that happened within a year.

Slapstick breaking up was an especially big moment for local fans because Chicago never really had a famous scene like New York, Los Angeles, or even the kind of place that, like its neighbors to the west in the Twin Cities, turned out two phenoms at the same time in the way of The Replacements and Husker Du. Good hardcore bands like The Effigies, Bhopal Stiffs, and Articles of Faith? Check. A couple of decent venues here and there and some good zines? Yeah, sure. But really, there was just Naked Raygun and everything that came after them—including basically Steve Albini’s entire career—that’s commonly considered the great lasting legacy of Chicago punk. Because although Albini, the most famous indie-rock producer, would probably tell you otherwise, if he hadn’t befriended and recruited Naked Raygun’s Jeff Pezzati and Santiago Durango, there’s a chance nobody would have paid much attention to Big Black. Then there wouldn’t have been Shellac; somebody else would have recorded Surfer Rosa; Nirvana would have gone with a producer who wanted In Utero to be slicker; and so rock history would have been different. That’s really the whole Chicago influence right there. Sure, Chicago house music, Wax Trax! Records and the Smashing Pumpkins came from there, plus Liz Phair, Drag City, and a slew of great labels and artists tagged as “indie” and “alternative” around the same time, but that’s really a whole different story. Until the 1990s, Chicago’s impact on punk was pretty much limited to the Naked Raygun family tree and outliers best known today among record collector types, plus Screeching Weasel and the Smoking Popes getting swept up in the post-Green Day major label signing spree. When bands made any kind of impact outside of the tri-state area, that was a big deal, but it didn’t happen often. Chicagoans were just fine staying in Chicago. Then ska happened.

Ska was huge in Chicago during the latter-half of the 1990s, maybe more so than anyplace else in America. As J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader pointed out in a 1998 article, the city then had “one of the most active ska scenes in the country, but also one of the most homogeneous.” What people called “ska-core,” the blending of ska and punk, was the gateway scene for lots of white kids from affluent neighborhoods from just outside the city, but it was usually far more core than ska. It had the guitar strokes and the horns one might attribute to Jamaican precursors rocksteady and reggae, but Trenchtown is a whole other planet away from safe midwestern neighborhoods that helped spawn a lot of the bands tagged “third-wave ska.” Slapstick gets lumped into that category, but for my money, it’s really them and a band that broke up a few years before they got together, Operation Ivy, that transcend the entire sub-genre, movement, or whatever you want to call it. They were heads and tails better above other bands that you’ll find under their generation’s part of the “List of ska musicians” Wikipedia page. They wrote great songs, and they both proved hugely influential.

The comparison makes even more sense when you consider the bands’ locations: Chicago in the mid-1990s was the next great American punk scene after the Bay Area explosion of the late 1980s and earlier part of the 90s. San Francisco and Berkeley had Op Ivy, Jawbreaker, Green Day, The Mr. T Experience, Neurosis, Spitboy, and any band featuring Jeff Ott; A few years later, Chicago produced bands like Los Crudos, The Bollweevils, Oblivion, Cap’n Jazz, Apocalypse Hoboken, Tricky Dick, and Sidekick Kato, among others. The Bay Area famously has 924 Gilman Street; Chicago had the Fireside Bowl. The difference, really, is that Chicago didn’t have a Green Day. It didn’t have that one huge punk band that had videos on MTV all the time, no Spin magazine covers, and no number-one hits. Sure, bands tried, but nothing ever stuck. I’ve long wondered exactly why, but I always give up when I start thinking about how Slapstick was probably Chicago’s best shot. That would change by the start of the new century, as bands with Chicago punk roots started climbing the charts and playing big arenas, but in 1996, things felt like they’d stay local forever.

“Big labels were trying hard to sign Slapstick,” Mike Park, who released the band’s music on his Dill label and later the entire Slapstick discography of Asian Man Records, tells me. He goes on to say that he “respected the hell out of them that they could walk away from it because it wasn’t the style they wanted to be playing.” They just walked away; they were done. After that, yeah, ska maybe had a good year or two left, but it was pretty much a joke by the end of the decade. Ultimately, however, that one band or sound wouldn’t go on to define what all of the members did from 1996 and onward. Slapstick would mostly become a happy memory, but also one of the most important bands in the story of Chicago punk.

Not long after confirming that Slapstick had actually broken up, a friend put a tape in a boom box. We were sitting in his parents’ garage. It smelled like a combination of gasoline and spray paint, the kind of scents found in midwestern garages when one sibling is into dirtbikes and four-wheelers while the other likes skateboarding and pretending he’s a tagger. I was a little woozy at that point from the fumes, but remember him telling me, “This is Dan from Slapstick’s new band,” as he hit play on the dubbed cassette. It had no horns, no ska chords, and sounded more like Jawbreaker and Fifteen than anything. The change in sound didn’t necessarily shock me. For some reason it seemed sort of natural and more like what I wanted to hear, but it was the first real indicator that we were in the post-Slapstick era. After that, he played another demo, this time by a band called Alkaline Trio. At the time, they didn’t have members of what would come to be known as the Slapstick family tree; later, however, Dan Andriano would quit Tuesday to take over bass playing duties, but not before Tuesday issued a great EP and then LP that have been overlooked in the last few years. Both definitely deserve reconsideration in the midst of our “emo revival.”

Chicago didn’t have a Green Day. It didn’t have that one huge punk band that had videos on MTV all the time, no Spin magazine covers, and no number-one hits.

Then, in what I’m pretty sure was within the same quarter of late 1996 or early 1997, I heard The Broadways, Slapstick singer Brendan Kelly and trumpet player Dan Hanaway’s new band. They would break up about two years later, with members going on to start The Honor System and The Lawrence Arms, respectively; within two years of breaking up, members of Slapstick planted the roots of what today is called the Slapstick family tree firmly into the ground. To this day, it’s still pretty difficult to go somewhere in Chicago and not hit one of the branches. You could easily play a game of Six-Degrees of Slapstick and get to just about any punk band in the city over the last 20 years. Some, like Alkaline Trio and Rise Against, were huge, national successes, while others maybe played a handful of shows and put out a single.

Some of the branches are direct (like Andriano in Alkaline Trio or Pete Anna joining Less Than Jake), others there might be a few degrees of separation, but at least four of them directly involve Brendan Kelly, you can draw a nearly straight line from Slapstick to the current day through him. And in my estimation, Kelly has not been involved with a bad record in his 20 years of recording, and that’s really pretty incredible if you think about it. He’s remained consistent, never tried out whatever new music was trendy in the underground at any given time, and has really only improved as a songwriter. There aren’t many people in punk, or music in general, that can claim all of those things.

History, however, has not been totally kind to Kelly’s generation of punk and its many sub-genres, at least not yet. When I say history, I mean the pervasive snobbishness towards anything labeled pop-punk or ska or emo. Subgenres, whether they’re embraced by the musicians tagged or not, can be the great bane of any band’s existence, and I can understand why there’s a tendency to snicker at these terms. I’m sure the people that make the music probably don’t like them either; it’s hard to forget a thousand crappy bands piling atop each other to grab the golden ring, playing MTV Spring Break, or jumping at the first opportunity to do the thing that in the 1990s was the somewhat vague cardinal sin of all underground music: selling out. Sure, there’s a lot of bad music out there from the Clinton years, but it feels like enough time has passed that we can start revisiting, reassessing, and appreciating the truly good stuff that came out of the post-Green Day rush. And there’s no better place than the Slapstick family tree, specifically Kelly’s work, to do that.

What I think people might miss when they hear Kelly’s gruff, raspy voice for the first time is that he’s actually one of the best punk songwriters of the last few decades, and what’s maybe even more important is that he has constantly surrounded himself with other musicians who complement his style and help write even better songs. I could sum up the bulk of his discography simply by saying something like, “Two words: consistency and urgency,” but there’s much more to his songs than that. There’s a stream of nostalgia running throughout everything he writes. On “Unicorn Odyssey”, he reminisces about, “A million distant memories of a million distant friends.” The first song of his you may have ever heard, “Good Times Gone”, which opens Slapstick’s sole LP, Lookit!, include the lyric, “It’s hard to believe when you’re 18-years-old that your childhood is over and it’s time to start growing up.” He’s also political (listen to just about any track The Broadways ever recorded), sometimes biting and hilarious, and through everything, all lyrical roads lead back to Chicago. That’s where it all stems from. There’s the little observations (“Alone on the back of the bus, don’t know what time it was / Sleepin’ away my way across town”) and the political commentary (“This town is choking on our filth, obstinate displays of wealth / Clog our Lincoln, Wicker, Rogers parks, here’s to your health, Chicago”). Few musicians have paid tribute to the Windy City, both the good and the bad, quite like Kelly has. And don’t even get me started on the song titles some of his bands have produced. “The Slowest Drink at the Saddest Bar on the Snowiest Day in the Greatest City” is something Raymond Carver’s corpse is kicking himself for not coming up with.

There’s a video that really sums up so much of Kelly and his work to me. It’s from the Slapstick reunion show at the Asian Man Records anniversary in 2011. A hooded Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio stands a few feet from Kelly on the stage, obviously drunk, talking about how, “Mike Park is the reason we have careers.” Kelly looks amused. He stands there grinning for a second and, like a seasoned comedian, he waits for the applause to calm down a bit. “By we I think you mean you,” he replies, then puts his arm around Skiba, before his friend who has had a pretty lucrative “career” with his band makes a real bad joke about Asians that just doesn’t hit, the kind that a guy in a bar who went from cool to shitfaced real fast makes. Kelly plays it cool, Skiba keeps going with the Asian joke, and then tries to define what he means by career. It’s awkward, but that’s not what makes me think of the path Kelly has gone down. It’s the word Skiba uses, “career,” and how Kelly really has never seemed to me to be the type of musician who looks at what he does as a job. That’s maybe why I’ve been listening for this whole time.

Today it’s hard for me to fault for people trying to make money off their music. I’m not 16 anymore and I have my own bills to pay, so I understand why bands decide they need slicker production, busses to get them to more shows, and why they license their songs to beer commercials and all of that. There’s nothing wrong with having a career. But none of that made sense to me when I started to really care about music, and Kelly’s middle finger to big labels and commercial radio resonated with me then, and has stuck with me to this very day. To Kelly’s credit, something I’ve noticed is that doing what he’s done for over 20 years, sticking to his guns, staying true, whatever you want to call it, isn’t always easy. You get older and you put things behind you, claiming certain ideas and feelings you once considered so important to be wide-eyed and childish is something that happens to the best of us; it’s hard to fight against the rot.

These thieves, these thieves in their flip-flops and bro attitudes

Are the very reason we do what we do

When I say fuck the man, it’s what I believe

That’s a lyric from “Warped Summer Extravaganza (Super Excellent),” off The Lawrence Arms 2006 album Oh! Calcutta!, recorded just a few years after the band played a handful of dates on the Warped Tour, by many accounts spending the entirety of the packaged “punk” tour making fun of it and pointing out its many obvious flaws from the stage. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of Warped Tour for a number of reasons, but when you’re in a working band, you come to depend on those kinds of events, the promised dates and paychecks. “Now people talk about the Warped Tour like it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to punk rock,” Kelly told an interviewer in 2006. “It’s not the greatest thing to ever happen to punk rock—it’s single handedly dismantling the whole thing we’ve been fucking building for all this time and nobody gives a fuck.” I remember reading that and thinking how happy I was somebody finally said it, even happier it was Kelly.

That same year, The Falcon—a “punk rock super group” composed of Kelly, his old Slapstick bandmate Andriano, and fellow Lawrence Arms member Neil Hennessy—put out Unicornography. While the band has always been more of a side project for the members than anything, the full-length has remained one of the best punk records of the last decade; hard to really define, full of catchy hooks, featuring some of Kelly’s best lyrics, and funnily enough, some ska songs. As of this writing, the band is getting set to release their second full-length on Red Scare Industries, Gather Up the Chaps, ten years after their first one. As I wait to hear it, I feel this weird surge of anticipation that I don’t really feel that much anymore when it comes to new records that I know I’ll just be able to stream on Spotify. I’m excited because the band has a perfect record in my eyes (one great EP and the LP), but also because if 2006 was any indicator, years ending in 6 tend to be pretty good ones for bands whose roots stretch back to Slapstick.

Twenty years is a long time. I try not to think of most things that I’ve done since I first heard Slapstick broke up, which is probably for the better. Yet there’s something incredible about revisiting the last two decades worth of music that has been put out since then by the members, going from the lone Tuesday EP to The Honor System’s Single File, to Kelly’s rendition of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle”, which, I should point out is the only good cover of the song I’ve ever heard. I’ve got a ton of my own memories tied up in so many of those songs, little things like driving home from a Denny’s in the suburbs on an early Chicago morning that was so snowy that I had to pull to the side of the road and just listening to Goddamnit until it eased up when I was 18, to getting one of my first real writing assignments: reviewing The Lawrence Arms’ Cocktails & Dreams, only to not have the review included in the magazine, and feeling like I’d fucked something up and I’d used up my one shot. I ultimately decided there was no better way to remedy things than by buying a bunch of beer and listening to the album a few more times as a fan, not as an aspiring critic. It helped. It really did.

It’s going on 20 summers since I first heard Slapstick broke up; I can fit a lot of clichés into that time. I can say I had great days in the sun, and that there were some truly terrible ones. Yet that year when my friend told me he’d heard Slapstick broke up while we were hanging out in his bedroom, surrounded by his shrine to pre-anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, listening to some record, both of us 15 going on 16—that feels like a lost summer in a lost year for me. Not because a band I liked broke up, but because of the kinds of forces that generally push kids like me more towards things and people that make us feel welcome in this shitty world. According to Wikipedia, 1996 was the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. Hulk Hogan turned heel, and the Yankees won the World Series. Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the band The Gun Club, and Timothy Leary were among those who died. Natural disasters, tragedies, wars, unspeakable pain, and signs of things to come flashed across our television screens, but we didn’t pay much attention because the economy was supposedly OK. Everything was supposed to be just fine in the “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” 1990s, but the first few years of the decade felt like a long sad march for me that finally led to 1996: my family fell apart for good that year, a girl I knew died of an overdose, another kid lost his life in a car accident; all of these things affected me greatly, they haunt me to this day, those ghosts of 1996. There’s something about that year, about all the things I’ve tried to block out that still come back to haunt me when I let my guard down for even a second. I wish I could find better words to describe how I feel about it, but really, 1996 just sucked. That’s what I recall as the overarching theme of the year: sucking.

It’s going on 20 summers since I first heard Slapstick broke up; I can fit a lot of clichés into that time.

Yet I don’t remember where I was the moment when Slapstick broke up because it took so long for me to confirm it actually happened, and there was never one feeling; just a long, drawn out mourning period followed by a kind of jubilation knowing that the members were all doing new and greater things. A band breaking up, while sad, doesn’t normally have the same kind of impact as a world leader getting gunned down or some other large scale historic event that get passed down through the generations in high school or bad History Channel television shows. But there was something important happening, to me, to my friends, to my city, to my world. How could I know all of that then? I had no idea what was to come for myself or anybody else, let alone the members of a band I liked. All I know is that, despite my disdain for the year, when I think back to 1996, everything takes place during the summer. I know that isn’t the case, that the Chicago winter was surely brutal as it always is; but every memory I have, whether it be of me just being a teenager and hanging out with my friends, feeling lonely and without much of a future, or just trying to figure out what the members of Slapstick were up to next, all of those instances are illuminated by warm sunshine.