Older and Wiser

The members of Pennywise carry on in the wake of tragedy.

Last year, Jason Thirsk, onetime bass player for the Los Angeles-based punk quartet Pennywise, shot himself in the head and died. It was the kind of terrible event from which many groups never recover. But as Pennywise vocalist Jim Lindberg tells it, the other members of the band were determined not to let Thirsk's act silence them, too. "We didn't really want things to end with Jason, because he was a big part of us having a positive message in our music," Lindberg says.

The events surrounding Thirsk's death remain unclear to this day. According to a report from Reuters news service, the body was found by Thirsk's girlfriend on July 29, 1996; police estimated that he had been dead for at least a day. The article suggested that Thirsk's despondency over his recent departure from Pennywise might have motivated his suicide, but a press release from Epitaph Records, Pennywise's label, sought to discredit this assumption by claiming that Thirsk accidentally killed himself while intoxicated. Lindberg strongly believes in this theory. "It was a real accident," he insists. "I don't really think Jason would have wanted to kill himself. It was just a terrible, tragic mistake, and I think he would be the first one to admit that if he were still alive."

Nevertheless, Lindberg concedes that Thirsk's state of mind at the time of his departure from the band was a bit shaky. "Jason left for a while to deal with some personal problems, and we had hoped that he would get a handle on that. And we had hoped to support him." He adds, "We definitely had plans to move Randy Bradbury [the bassist who replaced Thirsk] onto second guitar--and then Jason would have been back in the band. We just really wanted him to be in a place where he would be comfortable being back in the band. Until you face something like this, it's incredibly hard to describe to someone. Growing up in the South Bay area, it's impossible not to remember him."

Friends since grade school, Lindberg and Thirsk hooked up with bandmates Fletcher Dragge (guitar) and Byron McMackin (drums) while attending Mira Costa High School near Hermosa Beach, a community that spawned the Descendents, the Circle Jerks and Black Flag. In other words, they came of age at the epicenter of the then-burgeoning Eighties SoCal hardcore revolution, and their participation in the region's skate and surf movements introduced them to a subculture dominated by bored white middle-class teenagers who loved the loud, aggressive music that was being made by kids from precisely the same background. "You looked at them and said, 'Anyone can do this. It's not about rock stars and limousines,'" Lindberg recalls. "You had a sense that you could pick up an instrument and start banging out something yourself."

In 1988, Lindberg, Thirsk, McMackin and Dragge began doing just that. Before long, the foursome had graduated from headlining backyard parties to appearing on KXLU-FM, a popular Loyola Marymount College radio outlet. Vernon Trujillo, a DJ at the station, soon introduced the boys to Brett Gurewitz, the Bad Religion guitarist who runs Epitaph. Immediately after hearing Words From the Wise, a five-song EP the band put together for the tiny Theologian Records, as well as a demo tape made at a Pennywise practice, Gurewitz inked the combo.

The relationship proved to be mutually beneficial: Epitaph gave Pennywise much-needed distribution muscle and complete artistic freedom, while Lindberg and company became one of the first collectives to carry the imprint's signature sound beyond its California stronghold. In the wake of the success of another Epitaph signee, the Offspring, Gurewitz's creation has come in for reproaches from punk purists, but Lindberg rejects them. "I think the criticism of Brett and Epitaph is incredibly cynical. Anybody who says that Epitaph has become a major label would be absolutely correct, and if it's a crime to sign great bands, then he is guilty of that. But here's a guy who has done nothing but positive things as far as putting money back into the punk scene and supporting it."

Clearly, commercial radio has not followed suit: Pennywise has developed a substantial following despite receiving virtually no support from the medium. Even KROQ-FM (K-Rock), L.A.'s most influential purveyor of modern-rock pablum, initially ignored Pennywise during its years of struggle. Fortunately, the players were able to get even during a guest spot on Lovelines, a call-in sex-advice program that's now appearing on MTV. To wit: Dragge vomited all over co-host Dr. Drew and just missed splattering former Headbangers' Ball personality Rikki Rachman. "Fletcher is a force of nature, and he just wanted to express his distaste for the local-music radio scene," Lindberg explains. "We did it as a joke, because they never played our music at all--but when you're in a popular band, they want you on the show."

Full Circle, Pennywise's fourth Epitaph release, is a considerably more somber affair; it stings like iodine applied to a fresh wound. The disc, which is dedicated "to the life, music and memory of Jason Matthew Thirsk," includes the band's trademark mixture of message-oriented lyrics and maximum buzz-saw riffage, but it speaks with a new sense of urgency. Songs about self-empowerment ("Get a Life") and the need to maintain a positive attitude in the face of adversity ("Broken") smack painfully into attempts to deal with Thirsk's death, such as "Did You Really," which includes the lines "But did you really wanna die?/The question now keeps repeating in my mind/A shot heard in the night/An unheard cry, a fatal fight." Equally memorable is Circle's closer, "Bro Hymn Tribute," an anthemic encomium recorded live in the studio by several close friends of the Pennywisers. "A few songs on this record touch on what you go through when you deal with something like this," Lindberg notes. "You go through all sorts of emotions, such as this incredible grief and anger. And doing 'Bro Hymn Tribute' is our way of saying Jason's gone but he's not forgotten."

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