Pennywise’s ‘Bro Hymn:’ A hymn known by heart
Twenty-five years after his death, Jason Matthew Thirsk still has people singing his name
by Ryan McDonald
Justin Thirsk heard the plan the day before. He was nervous, but it was not the sort of thing he could prepare for.
“I’m trying to think if I’d ever sung that part before that night,” he said in an interview last week. He paused. “No. There’s no way. I wouldn’t have.”
It was the fall of 1996, and Pennywise was recording “Full Circle,” their fourth album, at Total Access Recording in Redondo Beach. Along with 13 tracks of new material, it would include a new version of “Bro Hymn,” a song from their self-titled first album about the death of close friends. This version would be different. The song would now reflect the fact that Jason Thirsk, Justin’s brother, a cofounder of Pennywise who wrote the original lyrics to “Bro Hymn,” was gone, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The studio was crowded the night of the recording. To this day no one is quite sure how many people were there. Thirty, perhaps 40 of Thisk’s friends. Too many for the liner notes; more than enough to create the roar of a crowd. The track that resulted, recorded live with all instruments playing simultaneously, has some of the nervy edge of a club show, but feels less scattered. It has the harmony of a room full of people focused on the same thing.
“We knew that we … we knew that everyone was hurting. It just seemed that this was the right thing to do: take this song that [Jason] wrote about friends, about good friends of ours who had passed away, take those exact sentiments and use them for his passing,” Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg said of the mood at the time. “It was almost like something we had to do. It was very somber, and very difficult. At the same time, it really was full circle.”
Those who were there that night alternately describe the session as “heavy,” “intense,” “necessary,” and “cathartic.” In the song’s fourth verse, Justin stepped into the vocal booth and took over from Lindberg. His voice is strained with emotion, grasping at the words like a man trying to stay balanced on a steep hill, as he screams “Jason, my brother, this one’s for you.”
“I remember immediately starting to tear up,” said Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge. “I was already emotional recording it. But when [Justin] sang that part, it was just brutal.”
Months later, a different sort of gathering with many of the same people would take place. On July 28, 1997, the first anniversary of Thirsk’s death, Thirsk’s friends and family gathered on the beach at 16th Street in Hermosa to honor his memory. It’s a tradition that has been maintained every year since. Last Wednesday, a few dozen people trod onto the sand and tossed roses into the windswept sea to mark 25 years since Thirsk’s death.
“Jason would’ve appreciated it; he probably wouldn’t have expected it,” said his father Martial of the endurance of the tradition. “He didn’t really think of himself as anything special, even though he was. He never wanted to be a rock star. He just wanted to write songs.”
The fates of Thirsk and “Bro Hymn” are entangled in a way that would have been impossible to foresee. He came up with the lyrics to the original at a time when Pennywise’s audiences could fit in whatever backyard they were playing in. The re-recorded version has amassed tens of millions of views on YouTube, and is now a celebration anthem for dozens of professional sports franchises.
The ability of a song to resonate with an audience is the result of a delicate balance. A song too specific, too particular, risks feeling like an inside joke, something others aren’t meant to relate to. But something too general, too removed from the life of its creators, will lack heft. It will sound like it’s from nowhere. And as much as “Bro Hymn” booms from arena speakers and the throats of European soccer hooligans, it retains an intimacy that causes people to make it their own, over and over again. That ineffable quality, friends say, goes back to Thirsk.
“We all have that story. We all have that guy or that girl who left us too soon, because they were being stupid or because they were in pain or through no fault of their own. We all have that story, without fail,” said Leon Ludwig, a friend of Justin and Jason, who was also in the studio that night. “It’s become that for everyone. I think that’s what Jason had in mind writing that song: to give everyone some relief from the pain that death causes. Everybody, in backyard parties and little concert halls, they cover that song and pay tribute to someone they love. It’s become a real blessing for a lot of people.”
In the mid ‘90s, Greg Gonzalez was living in Palm Springs when he got a call from Thirsk, a close childhood friend.
“He called me and he was just telling me how … how he’d made it. He was living on The Strand, living his dream, playing in front of crowds. And I was just really happy for him. I told him that, even though our lives had taken pretty different paths, that we were brothers,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez grew up next door to Thirsk in Hermosa, where he lived until moving to San Clemente when he was 12. Their parents were close friends, and they became the sort of inseparable kids whose parents insist on them being on the same Little League Team.
That bond would indirectly connect Thirsk with friend Pat Carr. One year, Carr and Thirsk were drafted onto the same Little League team. But Carr was moved at the last minute to let Thirsk and Gonzalez play and practice together. Baseball rivals at first, Carr and Thirsk soon became close friends, spending as much time together as they could.
Carr recalled Thirsk as someone possessed of a unique ability to connect with people.
“I don’t care what it was: something going on on the beach, a party, events, he would stop what he was doing, and when he met somebody, he would look them in the eye and have a conversation. And they were like best friends within minutes,” Carr said.
On weekends in middle school, Carr and Thirsk would don dark clothing and traverse Hermosa for what they called “sessions”: nights spent sneaking through people’s backyards and along their roofs. The evenings had a goofy, innocent quality, and they usually ended at a friend’s house near the beach on 16th Street. Then one night, after a session with energy left to spare, Thirsk suggested that they go by the Church, the former Baptist church turned art center and hippie hangout, where members of Black Flag and other bands lived.
Justin, Thirsk’s brother, recalled that when they were younger, he and his brother’s musical tastes leaned more toward now-lamented acts like Styx and Kiss. But one day their mom’s younger brother, who was involved in the early Hollywood punk scene, gave them the first album by L.A. punk act the Dickies. They weren’t sure what to make of it at first, but it gradually began sinking in.
It took some daring to go deeper. Hermosa’s punk heritage has become such an integral part of the town’s history that it is difficult to conceive of how scorned the scene once was. Now commemorated in city murals, the Church and its occupants were viewed as a menace, the sort of place parents would warn their kids to avoid on their way out the door.
“I’m like, Oh man, the Church is hardcore,” Carr remembers thinking. “That place, for me, was scary.”
At other times, Thirsk would push Carr to the Cove Theater, the Hermosa Avenue cinema that would become the Bijou, and which briefly hosted punk shows. Too young to be admitted (and with no money for tickets), Carr and Thirsk would climb up the side of the building and sneak into the projectionist room, then watch the shows unfolding below. The evenings gave Carr a sense of the depth of his friend’s passion for music.
“I would just be looking at all these guys, all these people, and I would be going, ‘Dude, this is crazy. Who are these people?’ I was just a very sheltered kid. And then Jason, he would just be watching the bands, watching the bands, watching the bands,” Carr recalled.
Thirsk, his brother recalled, began spending more time with slightly older 16th Street locals like Steve Martin, and began trekking to other parts of Southern California to attend shows.
Thirsk eventually began playing music in local punk acts like the Juvenile Delinquents, with future restaurateur Greg Newman, and PMA, which stood for “Positive Mental Attitude.” It was in the latter act that Thirsk’s playing caught Dragge’s eye.
Thirsk wrote the bulk of Pennywise’s early songs, including the EPs for Theologian Records and the band’s first LP for Epitaph Records. His songwriting showed how bands can be fast and aggressive without being vicious or abrasive. Lindberg pointed to the track “Covers,” a Thirsk composition about wanting to spend the day watching TV in bed with his girlfriend,
“That was so typical Jason, to write a song like that,” Lindberg said with a laugh.
Martin, who came up with the name “Pennywise,” said that Jason’s spirit had a lot to do with the band escaping the violence and nihilism that sometimes accompanied the intensity of their early shows. He pointed to a video he has of an early Pennywise show at the Anti-Club, a notorious ‘80s punk venue in Hollywood. The crowd, he said, is “one big gang fight,” while Jason, singing onstage, seemed to radiate a different energy. He wanted people to have fun. This spirit and his songs would help the band land spots in the burgeoning world of surf and skate videos.
“Jason wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t that type of person, he had a peaceful soul. But his songs were beloved by all of us on all sides of the tracks. You just couldn’t wait for the next song to come on, all the songs were so good” Martin said.
In the band’s early days, the group would practice in a loft where Dragge was living in Redondo. Thirsk would come by for informal sessions, to hang out, drink beer and write songs. Dragge recalls that he had written the now-famous riff of “Bro Hymn” on the guitar, and played it for Thirsk one day. Thirsk, Dragge recalled, liked the riff, and Dragge’s plan for a lyricless, “Whoa” chorus, and set about writing the lyrics.
Martin and Thirsk were living together on Hermosa Avenue while Thirsk finished composing “Bro Hymn.” At the time, the deaths of Carlos Canton, Tim Colvin, and Tom Nichols were still fresh memories. (Canton and Colvin died in motorcycle accidents; Nichols drowned jumping off the Hermosa Pier.) Martin recalled that, after Canton’s death, he, Thirsk, and others gathered on the Strand at 16th Street, then marched in formation to the White & Day Mortuary that once stood on Pier Avenue. Canton was the first friend lost from the group.
Eventually, “Canton, Colvin, Nichols” occupied the spot in the song that would later be filled by “Jason Matthew Thirsk.” The penultimate line of the song’s third verse — “If you die I die” — came from a header in a letter that Martin wrote to Jason while living in Hawaii. Martin still has all of the letters they exchanged, tied in a bundle.
When Pennywise entered West Beach Recorders to record their self-titled, first full album, it wasn’t clear “Bro Hymn” would be included. The band’s fans connected with the song, but it also seemed too ephemeral to be put on tape. Dragge ultimately insisted, and the band recorded the song for the first time there in the studio.
The instinct was right. It became a hit for the band, the sort of song that fans would say made a difference in their lives.
“‘Bro Hymn’ became this entity of its own. And you know, with a song like that, you’re going to get a lot of accolades. Jason was the guy who wrote the lyrics to that song, the bulk of that song. It’s a feather in the cap for most people. Jason just looked at it as a song about friends that he wrote. He never really tried to take credit for it or anything of that nature,” Dragge said.
After the band’s third album, Thirsk’s alcohol abuse began to impede the band’s progress. The other members asked him to take a hiatus. Randy Bradbury replaced him on bass, with the plan that Thirsk would rejoin the group once he cleaned up.
Carr, who was living in Arizona at the time, remembers being on the tour bus with the band, between Warped Tour gigs in Phoenix and Tucson. He asked about Thirsk’s status with the band. Everyone, Carr said, agreed that when the band returned, Thirsk would rejoin and the band would “get back in the studio and charge again.” He called Thirsk from the road, but missed him. In the days before cell phones, the two wound up playing phone tag.
A few days later, Carr got the news. Thirsk was dead.
“It was crushing. I mean, it was just shocking,” Carr said.
Thirsk was found dead in his home on July 29, 1996. According to records from the Los Angeles County Coroner-Medical Examiner, Thirsk died from a contact gunshot wound to the chest. Although the coroner ruled Thirsk’s death a suicide, family and friends believe it was much more likely to have been an accident. Thirsk, they say, seemed like the last person they could have imagined to have taken his own life. A few years earlier, the suicide of a friend in Santa Barbara had prompted him to write the song “Come Out Fighting” for their self-titled album, which included the lyrics, “Sorry to say, to your dismay your life is/Not the only one that you effect/Don’t you realize that a part of all of Us will die inside/When you yourself are dead.”
In 1998, as the second anniversary of his brother’s death approached, Justin found himself wondering whether the memorial would become an annual event. Then the third and the fourth anniversaries came. Years rolled by, and it became clear people were making a point to be there, and that the event had taken on a life of its own.
Last Wednesday, Justin began the evening, as he does every year, by reading a list of names of others who had died over the past year. Thirsk, Justin said, had become a “conduit” for keeping the memory of people alive, and for keeping in touch with those we still have.
Thirsk’s mother Pat, suffering from a bad back and unable to make the walk through the sand, missed the memorial for the first time this year. But afterwards, family and friends stopped by for conversation. The pain of losing her son will never go away, she said. But the annual reminder of his death does not make it worse — it helps remind her of who he was.
“He was just so kind, so friendly with people, and they loved him. He just attracted people, because he was that way. And I knew he was that way, subconsciously or underneath, but every year, it surprises me again, and it makes me feel good,” she said. “People, when it first happened, didn’t want to mention Pennywise or Jason around me. They didn’t want to say, Oh there’s this about them in the paper or something. But I said, No, no, no: the more people talk about him to me, the better. I love it. I crave it.” ER