On Sunday, July 17th, 1994, I made my way to Richmond, Virginia to see my friends’ band open up for Bikini Kill.
In 1994, pre-Internet, info was scant, but we were dedicated, my friends and I, taking the three hour car ride in stride, our longest trip for a show to date.
The word on the ride was that “Sam’s new thing” was playing also. Anticipation was high, as Sam McPheeter’s last band, Born Against, had a large impact on the subculture I ran with. It was rare not to see at least one person wearing a Born Against t-shirt as you walked into an underground venue. Songs from their album Nine Patriotic Hymns for Children were mixtape staples.
That evening, as Sam took the stage with Neil Burke, wearing a big box/mask thing on his head, to begin incoherently screaming, electronic music swirling around him, Men’s Recovery Project would begin a years-long mission of defying audience expectation, denying the punk rock conventional, and doing exactly what they wanted to do as a musical project. People bought their albums wanting the sequel to “Mary and Child” and instead got tracks like “Problem?”
As the photo above illustrates, they were in costume, either in the sense of wearing literal costumes or as the deeply weird thing smuggled inside the punk rock subculture window dressing of the national infrastructure they traversed. Flyers made in distant towns before tour stops were sure to mention “ex-Born Against”. What the audience got was certainly memorable but entirely new. The only time the project headed back in the direction of conventional hardcore punk rock for one EP, the lyrics were extolling the virtues of being a “Normal Man,” among other things.
Men’s Recovery Project was a continual burning down of what had come before, a push forward past the conventions of the time, and a continual challenge to what was becoming, from 1994 forward, a very safe and very popular and profitable lane of a certain strain of punk rock. Many battles lost, many audiences indifferent or displeased, no “hits”, no mainstream breakout or success.
Many years after the summer of 1994, I was trying to start a band in Baltimore. I had heard about a Bulletin-Board-Type place called ELFWIRE, a sort of “weird Craigslist”. I had been in a band with a drummer and a bass player before, so I was looking to start something like that, a more or less conventional rock band where I would sing and play guitar. I posted what I was looking to do.
There was not a single response to my inquiry. I soon realized the problem. No one in the Baltimore music underground at the time was doing conventional rock music. I had no pile of circuit-bent synths, no instruments I had made myself. I had no larger concept like “graphicdesigncore”. No one in the band I was proposing would wear a costume. No one in the band would have an aux cord connected to an iPod Shuffle strapped to a banana.
Men’s Recovery Project lost many battles, but they won the war. I salute them and any who defy convention and push on the boundaries and limits. It is not easy or often profitable, but very important. What you did this weekend on stage may have been met with confusion, hostility, or indifference by audience members who were only there because the Bruce Springsteen concert was postponed. Take heart. What you do now echoes in eternity.