by Jason Kron
I’ve been a devoted fan of Sam McPheeters for twenty years now, starting when a friend in tenth grade lent me the Men’s Recovery Project compilation CD, The Golden Triumph of Naked Hostility. MRP was the second of the three bands for which Sam provided vocal stylings, and they were fucking weird, even compared to bands like The Residents who use weird as a calling card. The much-discussed thrill and personality change that comes with discovering punk was still fresh to me at that time, and the idea of any band retaining punk’s immediacy while going an extra mile conceptually and intellectually was mind-blowing. Bands still do this sort of thing once in a while, but the wave of it that appeared in the late 90s was the most successful at making me feel like it was okay to be myself, even more than straight-forward punk did. If you ask me (which you kind of are by reading this), Men’s Recovery Project pulled this style off better than anyone.
I’ve also been a huge fan of Sam’s other two bands: the far-left political-hardcore Born Against and the classic fuck-you hardcore Wrangler Brutes. At one point I attached a self-important secrecy to all three of these groups, thinking of each of them as my band, dreading the straight world getting wind of them and stupid posers showing up at their shows. So it was extremely surreal to read Sam’s words on his dabbling in this mentality with the set of bands that changed his life, several of which are featured in his new book about the hardcore punk world, Mutations.
Both above and underground, bookstores are riddled with literature about music written by people who “were there.” Mutations goes far beyond any of those other books because it’s by a real writer. Sam shifted his focus from screaming to the written word in the mid-2000s, releasing two excellent novels (the black comedy The Loom of Ruin and the sci-fi Exploded View) as well as a plethora of articles and short stories. Therefore, in addition to Mutations containing interesting subject matter, it’s damn good writing. And as a great work of writing should be, it’s a lot of things: funny, touching, heartbreaking, and it makes ya think. A lot of Sam’s deadpan wit comes less from outright stating “My opinion is…”, and more so from merely recounting events as they took place, which in and of itself can come across as a critique of how ludicrous our world is.
Part of the book is essays on Sam’s own experience in the hardcore punk community, and part of it is essays on individual bands and the cultures surrounding them, good elements and bad. He has a passion for this subject matter, like one’s love for a family member who has hurt them and let them down in ways that need to be acknowledged, but who’s also taken care of them and instilled a lot of good values in them too. It’s as refreshing to come across his excitement as it is to interact with anyone who sincerely loves what they’re talking about. There are a lot of references here that make for plenty of discoveries. Even when I was unfamiliar with the band I was reading about, he writes about it in an interesting enough way to keep me engaged and guarantee that I’d be looking up their music later.
It wouldn’t be a book about 1980s punk if Ian MacKaye and Jello Biafra weren’t name-dropped extensively, but there is also a lot of focus on lesser-sung heroes such as The Casual Dots, SSD and Thrones. (Side-note: I really, really love Thrones.) The chapters where Sam is gushing over his favorite bands are adorable, and the parts where he singles out bands he’s not as into also make for very entertaining reads. (Spoiler alert: He does not like Green Day.) His rants about the state of music in general are also on point, including his essay about why background pop music needs to stop being played inside every single establishment (which is something that I’ve been angry about for decades).
Perhaps the most endearing element of Mutations is the lack of manufactured coolness that is so present with so many other music veterans. McPheeters isn’t afraid to expose himself (and not in an illegal way), to speak openly about the experience of feeling like an outsider amongst a community of supposed outsiders, describing very accurately how much more crushing that experience is than being rejected by the rest of society. In other words, this is like communicating with a real human being, which is rare in a world where everyone is obsessed with putting up a front. There is a complete lack of self-congratulating in Mutations, which is refreshing in its separateness from so many other books of its kind, but is also unfortunate because this book and Sam McPheeters’s contribution to the genre it highlights are so fucking good.
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