Straight Outta South Bay: Pennywise at The Palladium
by Heidi Siegmund Cuda
How to describe the Pennywise Reunion Weekend at the Hollywood Palladium?
It’s not easy to put into words what you want to say about the boys who give you strength, who taught you the poetry of defiance, and whose lyrics have become mantras to thousands of fans.
Some of those fans who showed up to the three-night event came from as far away as Australia and Canada to jump in the widening gyre known as a mosh pit. I always thought Pennywise was a bunch of toughs until guitarist Fletcher Dragge told me they write those lyrics for themselves, because they need that strength too.
I told frontman Jim Lindberg before the Friday night show that even if they sucked, I wouldn’t write that.
“We’re not gonna suck, Heidi,” he said.
They did not suck. Of course, the pressure was on, as Jim learned his daughters’ soccer coaches, principal and vice principal were in the house. How does a punk rock dad play that one? As Fletcher told him, “The principal’s a fan! You play it hard!”
And along with bassist Randy Bradbury and drummer Byron McMackin, they played it hard. Times, they are a changin’, as punks grow up and spawn Pennywise Youth. This is the group that in 1988 took the torch lit by Black Flag and Bad Religion and ran with it straight into a swell, coming out with a melodic punk sound that is still emulated til this day. And in one form or another, they’ve stood their ground. It’s the lyrics that stand the test of time: a defiance and positivity and independent spirit that is more meaningful today than it’s ever been. They were never afraid of politics, even during eras when it was more lucrative to be vapid. They’ve often been misunderstood, referred to as homogenous “thugs,” terminally embarrassing a major L.A. newspaper. Sure, sometimes Fletcher is punk in drublic, and he’s not always Miss Manners. But on Saturday night, ferociously playing a guitar with a “Bernie: Not For Sale” sticker, his message to the audience was clear.
“Get off your Kardashian-watching ass, and vote! It’s your country!” he told the crowd.
And then the band launched into “My Own Country,” which was exciting for fans who came to hear their favorite album (the three-night stint spotlighted a different one of their first three albums consecutively), but ended up hearing faves off multiple records as they played nearly two dozen songs each night. There were engagements: MMA wrestler Sean Loefler surprised his fiancé at the beginning of the “Bro Hymn” finale by getting down on one knee Saturday in front of the sold-out crowd (she accepted). There were special guests, as Bad Religion-Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson joined Pennywise on Friday, performing a Bad Religion-Circle Jerks medley that included “Live Fast, Die Young.” And from the opening chords of “Unknown Road,” the album Pennywise played Friday night, we were joined by ghosts. The ghost of Jason Thirsk, the band’s original bass player and seminal lyricist, was felt and acknowledged as Jim introduced the songs Jason had written. There were other ghosts, as people reflected back on the decades they’ve journeyed with this band and the people they’ve lost along the way (insert names here). To many, it felt like a high school reunion. For 98 Mute, it was a reunion, as the South Bay punks came out swinging, playing their first show in 15 years on Friday. Another seminal opening band that came out swinging was the Adolescents, who performed on Saturday. Watching Tony Adolescent, a proud father if there ever was one, you’re reminded how the days of youth don’t just run, they gallup.
A friend of Pennywise had brought an RV and parked it at the Palladium for the weekend. It became South Bay Central, as friends and family and fans all dropped off food and barbecue provisions. That’s always how it’s been with their kind of punk: there’s no hierarchy, anyone could drop in, because you didn’t need special access. It’s where you’d find guitarist Dan Palmer, whose band Death By Stereo opened the Friday festivities, asking if he could use the RV toilet to go “Number Three.” No one knew that what that meant but everyone had a laugh. It was just that kind of weekend. Because the Palladium sound has always been less than desirable, I watched each night from the side of the stage with the same three-middle aged punks who lined up as early as I did to get prime “rail” real estate. One of my comrades was a guy named Gunzi, who had flown in from British Columbia for all three nights. We watched the mosh pit get wider and wider and the people at the front of the stage—the same faces each night—scream the lyrics louder and louder. By Saturday, the “About Time” night, everyone was on fire. As Pennywise launched into “Peaceful Day,” with its lyrics, “Listen up everyone, there’s something wrong,” you couldn’t help but apply it to the current state of America. When they played “Same Old Story,” a song of defiance to the status quo, I took comfort in the fact that Pennywise had won their war for independence. They did it their way, and they consistently school fans to do the same. In other words, they’ve stayed true to the school they helped build. For 28 years, despite a few band shakeups, they continue to be relevant.
Jim said revisiting some of the songs they never play took them back to a time when they were just starting out.
“There’s a lot of positivity and hope in those songs, and that’s what I really love about the band,” he said. “They’re real life affirming anthems, and it was great seeing the crowd respond to them.”
Including his daughter’s principal, who managed to jump on stage during “Bro Hymn” on Saturday night, its lyrics of loss reminding everyone that life, like youth, is indeed precious.
Author Heidi Siegmund Cuda has written multiple books on punk and rap. Her latest book, “Definition of Down,” co-authored by Ice-T’s first wife Darlene Ortiz, is about the hip hop revolution.