In my all-time favorite Rancid song, Tim Armstong is hanging out with his man Lars on 6th Street in Manhattan right on the verge of losing it–losing it all, which is always just a minute or a wrong move away with these guys–when they meet three Puerto Rican girls who take them to the Funhouse so they can play “a lonely pinball machine.” Then Tim is uptown, 52nd and Broadway, a block south and due west of Dee Dee turning tricks in the Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd,” waiting for some girl who’s never coming and watching the world go home from work. “How many times will it take me before I go crazy?” he sings. “Before I lose everything? Something burning deep inside of me.” Man, every time I hear this song–which is way more often than you think–I get scared at that part, like in a good horror movie where you forget, for a second, that it’s only a movie and put your hands in front of your eyes.
That’s Rancid, my friends, and you’ll not find a finer punk band making records and trying hard to keep it together in this day and age. They hey, they ho, they rock and roll, they get down to get up, they dress Chuck Berry in platform shoes, they put the Clash in hot pants, they lounge on the beach in Jamaica in black jeans and fuck it if they get salt water on their suede creepers (also black, natch). On the new Life Won’t Wait, they’re rude boys imagining the international punk rock underground as a James Bond movie, full of glamour and action. They goose their sonics to perfection like Swiss watchmakers bent on building the perfect bomb. The shit ticks and tocks and then just blows up, you know?
I had dinner with Rancid a couple of months ago, and you’ll not find a sweeter bunch of tattooed love men making records and trying hard to keep it together in this day and age. We were eating at a table in the kitchen of Col Legno on 9th Street and at the end of the meal somebody–it wasn’t me and it wasn’t them, I blame the publicist–ordered tiramisu. “Is there alcohol in that?” asks Lars Fredericksen. “Oh,” says Brett Reed, the drummer, who has a forkful fast approaching his mouth when he gets a whiff of the rum, “there is.” Lars’s goes down instantly. “That’d be a good end to the meal,” says Lars. “No one saw Lars for three weeks after dessert. He got into a fight with a writer and left him unconscious at the scene before a three-week spree…” Lars, the story goes, got bombed after his first Rancid rehearsal, went down to a Green Day show in Berkeley, whipped his dick out, and went around asking girls to put it back in his pants. Sobriety, like punk rock, is considered a life saver in this band. It’s interesting to spend a little time, on record or in person, with a group that works so hard to hold on to what they have, given how much time in this rock and roll we all love is spent trying to let go and obliterate everything and everyone. I should mention here that Lars and Tim both got married this year, and that bassist Matt Freeman is involved in a long-term relationship. (Brett Reed is single, kids, and he is hot! Somebody page Winona!)
Anyway, Tim and Matt have known each other since they were five, and played together in Operation Ivy, which was a ska band way back in the days of hair metal–the Big ’80s! Before Rancid, Lars played in one edition of the UK Subs, who I’ve read were one of the original punk bands, and Guns N’ Roses covered one of their songs once! Brett Reed is single and he is hot! Rancid are all from working-class families, which is just one reason they don’t sound all mellow like Pavement (another: they don’t smoke dope)! Rancid are always called “East Bay punkers,” but Tim lives in L.A. and Matt spent a lot of time in the East Village after the tour for the last album, …And Out Come the Wolves, and their songs sure mention New York a lot. On the cover of Life Won’t Wait, Tim’s huddled in the doorway of Coyote Studios in Williamsburg while Lars walks on by.
About Life Won’t Wait. It’s punk rock in love with soul and r&b and reggae. It’s deeper than dirt; it feels like punk rock that fell so madly in love with reggae, it went backwards from Jamaica to New Orleans and upriver from there. It starts with a song called “Intro” where they play guitar and harmonica sideways (I don’t know how) and then speeds up from there. Highlights: the title track, with Buju Banton; “New Dress,” about a girl in Eastern Europe who wants to look her best and is looking to the West; and “Who Would’ve Thought,” ska-by-way-of-the-Temptations and makes me want to fall in love (although, hell, Dawson’s Creek does that). More highlights: the sweet little soul guitar at the start of the stomp-skank “Hooligans,” Lars croaking his way through “Leicester Square” like he’s just donated his last remaining cilia to Joe Strummer, the song where they do shout-outs to Sick of It All and Agnostic Front and Simon and the Bar Sinisters and other hardcore and punk and whatever bands they love for keeping the scene that saved them alive.
Love and punk and ska and soul and reggae and rockabilly and the Clash and all. Punk rock as Chicago blues–a bottomless tradition, you understand–complete with a harmonica-driven thing about smoking your last dollar in Tompkins Square. Politics lived and/or thought out. A bassist who could carry an entire song if he had to and a drummer who can lay back when he’s charging forward (not easy–ask Charlie Watts). Technicolor buzzsaw guitars and 3-D switchblade guitars and wide-screen Godzilla-glitz guitars and these little miniguitars, too. All this and “Who Would’ve Thought,” where Tim remembers the days when he drank like a fish and crawled like a wreck and rejoices that he didn’t go crazy, that he’s done with watching TV all day, done with the drinking and crawling. He’s got anger under control, he’s got the girl and the dream. Still sounds like there’s something burning deep inside of him, though. The Ramones left home but never grew up. The Clash split up when they couldn’t cut the crap. So if you’re at all interested in the struggle of getting older and still rocking hard, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.