Gender Punk Politics With Titus Andronicus

Seeing Titus Andronicus perform is like going to a Patrick Stickles Variety Hour. The New Jersey band has played Washington, DC a fair share – but their recent show at The Black Cat will likely top the list, when the list is re-written.

A self-proclaimed DIY local punk band (the lead singer works at The Black Cat) The Max Levine Ensemble was the first opener. They played tight, shouted out to their (present) moms, dads and grandparents, dedicated a song to police repression (it might have been oppression, the lead singer was a bit mumbly – in which case I cannot figure that one out) and another about America’s patriarchal society. “It’s about the patriarchal society and the fucked up lens that America sees itself through.”

They offered up FREE ZINES over at the merch table, which I had perused previously. The mostly male crowd seemed uninterested in hearing about FREE essays about gender and sexism in the punk scene. Immediately after their set I went and got a copy of ALL THREE and started reading the one that grabbed my attention, “Sexism In The Punk Scene,” written by three women and one man. I got through the first by Lauren Denitzio of Worriers and The Measures before The So So Glos came on. (All of them are available online here.)

Titled, “You Know What Makes Me Feel Unsafe?” I felt surprised, impressed and grateful that this essay existed. In addition to laughing at the line, “If you’re doing something that makes me feel unsafe at a show, I don’t care how much you love Sleater-Kinney…” every other word was resonating with me. A short excerpt:

“You know what makes me feel unsafe? When you’re the only guy in the pit who doesn’t get the message to not fly full force into someone half your size or strength.  When you take your shirt off at a show.  When you ask me if I’m “IN the band or WITH the band” after a male bandmate says the four of us are all IN the band.  When you tell me I play guitar well for a girl.  When you say that all the guys want to fuck the girl in that band.  When you make a rape joke. When you use the word bitch or call someone a slut.  The list doesn’t end there.  Now do you think the scene isn’t sexist?”

I couldn’t get this entire idea (and more) from this essay out of my head throughout the rest of the night. And I couldn’t help but think about it based on The So So Glose and Titus Andronicus’ behavior during their sets.

The So So Glos are a band I’ve written about, briefly. I am very familiar with two of their songs – probably because they are perfect pop punk songs that the radio plays constantly. I was uneasy about seeing them live, but afterwards I can say they’re a lot different than their record sells them to be. They’re out supporting Titus Andronicus on the “Bring Back The Dudes” tour (why, hello there Gender) and this Black Cat show was the last night of it. The So So Glos are a band of brothers (on bass, guitar, drums and then…”adopted”/philosophical brothers) from Brooklyn. They play a lot at the venue Shea Stadium (that the lead guitarist Adam, from Titus Andronicus, owns and operates.) I figured their name was just a quintessential “The” band name that worked seamlessly. But it actually has a meaning. They even list it on their website:

“A post modern narcissist who’s devotion to ones ego surpasses their devotion to any social, political or moral cause.” They were preaching about (and it’s the chorus to their most popular song) rooting for the losing team. Underdogs and triumphant turn-around stories seemed to be their thing. The called themselves, and the crowd, the losing team. This message seems to be deeply ingrained in their brains (I mean, they are an “indie” band from Brooklyn, I guess they need to deal with defeat on some level.) They talked about Rally Caps (they were all in Mets garb and their home turf is a venue called Shea Stadium – we GET IT) and demonstrated what a Rally Cap is to the crowd. They seem like great dudes. Lead singer and bassist Alex Levine was high-fiving the front row and at one point said, “I’m going to switch to low-fiving because this looks too much like I’m doing the Nazi sieg heil and we are against racism, homophobia and discrimination of all sorts.” They’re still winning.

But then just a few songs into their set, 20 minutes after The Max Levine Ensemble brought some much-needed gender discussion to the front, The So Glos started a chant, “Bring Back The Dudes” (apparently, chanting this is how we get them to get them to tour again). They actually did this twice during their set.

Let’s go to the scoreboard for a quick second.

The Max Levine Ensemble – three twenty-something looking DC men – preached to a not-yet-full crowd about their disdain for America’s patriarchal society. Followed by The So So Glos, five guys from Brooklyn – actual brothers – who like to root for the underdog, “practice” Rally Caps (read: a superstition that hopes for the best) and flaunt their approval for the equality of all human beings. But they also started a gendered chant (for a much fuller room) “Bring Back The Dudes.” I think you might see where I’m going with this. I’m not sure if anyone was realizing that “dude” is a gendered word – no matter how much whatever gender uses it. And that chanting it may be implying gender and gender roles.

Before we get to Patrick Stickles’ naked, Trainspotting-thin, (pale as hell) washboard abs – the man seems to have no body fat whatsoever – that contributes to the entire night’s sort of hypocrisy, we do need to talk about Titus Andronicus. Because they played one of the greatest shows I’ll ever see – and one of the greatest shows the Black Cat will ever see.

They opened with my favorite song, “A Pot In Which To Piss” from 2010’s The Monitor. Actually, they played almost the entire record (but not in this order): “Titus Andronicus Forever”, “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”, “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem)” and “Four Score and Seven.”

A few songs from last year’s Local Business snuck into the setlist like, “In A Big City”, “Ecce Homo” and the great “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter.” A few others that I’m unfamiliar with (and majority of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with them too) were in there too. I was sad they didn’t play “(I Am The) Electric Man.” When they played it before the record came out at the Rock And Roll Hotel last fall it turned into a jazz-rock jam session. It was supreme. But that being said, every Titus Andronicus live version is supreme. They’re a perfect live band and there is so much variety to them, as DCist put it, “What sets Titus Andronicus apart from many other acts that roll through town repeatedly is their ability to make every show worthwhile. They’re not at band to catch “next time,” so much as a band to catch every time.” And considering that this was the last show of their tour (Stickels voice was barely audible, I can’t believe he actually performed) what ended up being a FIFTY MINUTE wait for them to take the stage was well worth it.

If you aren’t familiar with Titus Andronicus, they’re a punk band from New Jersey who named their band after a violent and bloody Shakespearean play (his first tragedy). Everything they do is epic, in every sense of the words “everything” and “epic.” Their music isn’t for everyone. They play loud, long songs that progress, have repetitive choruses and some of the best piano solos on the planet. (Yup.) Including the live version of “To Old Friends And New.” (My god, if there was a live recording of this show somewhere, please someone get it to the world):

While the band left the stage and they set up an electric piano on the side for lead guitarist Adam Reich (who also played drums for a song while the drummer sang lead) Patrick went off on one (of many) tangents (I took notes of them all):

This song is about love and expectations. Sometimes you’re too young and immature to know how to love. But if you do love someone, tell them how you feel.” They went into a long version of the song (it’s already seven minutes), where the band eventually joined Stickles and Adam on stage. The crowd swayed in each others’ arms. It was just one of many moments from the night. Overall, the biggest message of the song is the last line that gets repeated and repeated and repeated, “It’s alright the way that you live.” Basically, BE YOURSELVES, EVERYONE.

Patrick opened their set with just the beginning of the Stickles Sermon (at least that’s what I’m calling it) and told the crowd that life is about being excellent to each other. He mentioned how they grew up watching old Fugazi videos of The Pit and told everyone to be kind, not to throw themselves into each other too much (yeah, right) and to “treat and love everyone as if they were your little sister or brother or your grandmother.”

But they also started the “Bring Back The Dudes” chant three times during their hour and a half set.

Which ended quite well. They got a warning that they needed to be off stage by 12:30 am, so Stickles said, “This is usually where I make a big speech because I got a big fucking mouth. Last night we did toasts at the Holiday Inn in honor of the last night of the tour. Everyone’s was two minutes…mine was 40. But we only have 15 minutes left, so we’ll get right to it.” And then of course they played six more songs.

It was incredibly gigantic and amazing. Stickles thanked The So Glos (“They’re my favorite band”) and broke right into “I Love Rock And Roll.” The So Glos then joined them on stage and brothers Alex and Ryan Levine did “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” into Patrick on vocals for “I Wanna Be Sedated” and a few other songs including REM’s “End Of The World.” I was actually not paying as close attention as I should’ve, because when I looked back up from documenting this on my phone, Stickles had his shirt off.

And ever since I saw his gleaming body of muscle and bone, I can only think about how everything the THREE bands said was kind of undone by ten guys – plus two guys taking video – thrashing around on stage, one of them half naked. (Stickles tried to dedicate a track to his girlfriend who was backstage, he got the crowd to chant her name. She wouldn’t show, someone at one point was carrying her on stage over their shoulder and she ended up getting away. Which sounds like the perfect way to show your respect to women, especially the woman you love.) Stickles taking his shirt off due to sweat is cool, people immediately think of Iggy Pop (I did) and they praise his dedication and how punk he is for doing it. Keep in mind that if a woman were to do it, it would immediately become nudity (you know, because it’s normal to see a man without his shirt on) and sexualized.

At one interjection of many into the crowd, Stickles said, “It wouldn’t be a Titus Andronicus show without old grumpy Uncle Patrick’s rules. You see big boxes on stage and think you have something to lean on, but that just makes our jobs harder. What I’m trying to say is, get your fucking hands off the monitors. I’m grumpy. I’m on my man-period. I’m man-struating.” Oh wow, I thought. He really just did that. (It got a laugh. Even better.) Taking a gendered, biological event – that none of us have any control over, really – and making it into a joke. We’ve really come full circle on this whole Sexism In The Punk Scene.

“Oh, but Titus Andronicus has had a couple of women in the band that ended up splitting off to work on other projects,” our Internet friend Andy was telling me (no lewdness towards Andy, please, he’s an explanatory do-gooder.) And I found myself telling him that it just didn’t matter. I said to him, “I think you would need to have a vagina to really get it.”

Right after I said that, he agreed and I knew I had found a way to prove my point. (A point that I’m surprised I made. A point that is itself totally sexualized and gendered.) Trying to explain behavior seems to be what guys do best – by finding a way to dance around the issue and include women into to show that it isn’t sexist at all! because there isn’t sexism in the punk scene. Which is something I hadn’t really thought about, until the opener stuck the idea in my head.

Would I have ever thought of any of this throughout the show? We’ll never know. But the images I saw of men thrashing around on stage and seeing women worried and shoving people back into the mosh and dash away from crowd surfers felt enough to prove their own point that sexism is still present. (And I’ve seen the female shovers and dashers at every heavy/loud/punk show I’ve been to.)

Regardless, The So So Glos and Titus Andronicus are – first and foremost – incredible live bands. I love Titus Andronicus. I’d put them in a Top 10 Band list that I can’t live my life without. You must see them. And none of this hypocrisy changes the fact that they are all excellent musicians devoted to their craft, doing what they love and following their hearts. Especially since they were the ones bringing up love and equal rights in the first place. It’s all just very ironic. And I bet they don’t even realize any of this. (Care to weigh in, guys?)

The Patrick Stickles Variety Hour is an incredible feat, to participate in and to watch him exert that much energy. It’s amazing the worlds he dreams up in his songs, especially since they all come from his own experiences in love, hate and mania. “It’s been a long time on this tour. We’ve hand our ups and downs. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am the voice of mania and he is the voice of reason, and the treasurer and logistical thinker among many other things [he gestures to drummer, Eric Harm]. Those two things, they makes the world go ’round.”