A heart attack felled Seth Putnam on Saturday at the age of 43. If the man’s name is not familiar to you then chances are, especially if you had even the vaguest connection with metal, you know his band’s name all too well: Anal Cunt. And if you know A.C., chances are you know their song titles (sample: “I Made Fun of You Because Your Kid Just Died”) and their lyrics (sample: “If she doesn’t do the dishes or get you another beer/ Then punch her in the face and throw her down the stairs”) better than their music. They’re one of those “infamous” bands that everyone quotes and hardly anyone actually listens to.
Anal Cunt began blurting out minute-or-less chunks of crude, noisy, hyper-hateful grindcore in 1988. If they’d released one album of this sort of thing, they’d be a cult footnote among metal fans. Instead they turned into a weird cross-subcultural touchstone, just out of sheer perverse fuck-you longevity and intensity. Because even in a subgenre known for pushing metal to its limits in terms of both sound and subject matter, Anal Cunt attempted to alienate people longer and harder than any of their peers. It almost seemed to distress Putnam when people enjoyed his music. And so he spent two decades concocting progressively blunter and uglier ways to shock and offend anyone who wasn’t Seth Putnam.
Which isn’t to say you have to admire this…achievement. I sure don’t, and chances are you probably won’t either. But in terms of sheer not-giving-a-shit offensiveness, he had no peers. Putnam fell into a coma in 2004, and on waking up, he took the stage with a song mocking coma victims. Over eight albums, Putnam subjected just about everyone on Earth to his “comedy” of hate: women, gays, African-Americans, AIDS victims, the parents of suicides, rape victims, Rene Auberjonois, his fans, other metal bands, art school kids, himself. He made Tyler, the Creator look like both a total piker and a Louis-Ferdinand Céline-grade genius.
There’s a difference between uncomfortable but consciousness-changing comedy and music that’s the equivalent of the Truly Tasteless Jokes series taken to its logical and humor-free conclusion. Anal Cunt definitely trafficked in the latter. There’s no deeper meaning to their music. Seth Putnam was not prodding our moral sensitivities in order to talk about why people laugh when they should know better, to explore the deep and complicated guilt-response in comedy. He was trying to make himself laugh and make everyone else uncomfortable. If you thought he was ignorant trash, well, that’s what he was going for. He didn’t call one song “Everyone in Anal Cunt is Dumb” for nothing. If you found him hilarious, he’d just work harder to piss you off the next time. Which might still sound like I’m praising him for his intractability as a “transgressive” artist, but no. Really, no.
Now I’m not going to play holier-than-thou ideologue and claim that Anal Cunt never made me laugh, guiltily or otherwise. Sometimes they weren’t even hateful, just goofy. Even now I’m thinking of the lyrics to “I Ate Your Horse” and trying not to crack up. And Putnam’s aesthetic critiques could certainly be on-point; it’s hard to argue with the sentiments of “311 Sucks.” But we’re talking like 10 percent of the output of a band who thought a good lyrical gag was talking about showing up to a Hootie and Blowfish concert in Klan robes. Shock humor has value, but it’s tough to make a case for it when it’s as repetitive and artless as Anal Cunt’s. The other 90 percent of the time A.C. weren’t “taboo-breaking” so much as straight-up indefensible bullshit. Seriously, this is the guy who wrote reams of outright misogyny like the supremely awful and in no way comedic “Women, Nature’s Punching Bag.” And really, fuck that.
No doubt those close to him are grieving, and I certainly don’t mean to seem cold when a man’s died young, especially one who (going by his interviews) struggled mightily at various points. But now all we’ve got, as listeners, is the music. On that evidence, Putnam offered us an undiluted and all-encompassing misanthropy that’s unrivaled in modern music. And that’s about it. Plenty of people have turned misanthropy into art, but Putnam was more interested in writing songs about Eric Clapton’s kid falling to his death. As long as there are internet message board denizens trying to out-gross each other, Putnam’s lyrics will live on, which for better or worse is a 21st-century sort of legacy if ever there was one.