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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."
Such sentiments may strike a few observers as mawkish and didactic, but Lindberg feels that anyone who has a negative reaction to them has "a misconception about the band. They may think we preach too much, but what people have to understand is that we're talking to ourselves in these songs. We're not going out and telling someone to get a life. The song 'Get a Life' is just a way of saying to yourself, 'Don't sit around all day and waste it, because obviously it can be taken away from you any second.'"
That said, Pennywise is definitely not shy about climbing onto a soapbox. The band has long been involved in fighting against corporate and government polluters, and to further this cause, its members support the Surfrider Foundation, an organization established by surfers that seeks to promote responsible maintenance of the planet's oceans. (They contributed a ripping version of "Surfin' U.S.A." to M.O.M.: Music for Our Mother Earth, a CD that benefited the foundation.) "Go Away," from Circle, deals with these issues, which Lindberg, a longtime surfer and beach resident, sees as vital. "The reason they keep dumping sewage right in front of our house is because none of the people who enjoy going to the oceans are doing anything about it," he asserts. "A song like 'Go Away' is trying to raise awareness and inspire people that there are things they can do. It's basically a song about choosing your own battles and letting your voice get heard."
The Pennywise four are doing just that as part of the Vans Warped Tour, one of several traveling festivals making the rounds this summer. Lindberg champions it in part because its admission prices are lower than those for the H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza jaunts. In fact, Pennywise turned down an offer to play the main stage at Lollapalooza in 1995 because, in Lindberg's words, "thirty bucks is a lot for our fans to come and see us and not care for any of the other bands on the bill." This realization led indirectly to Pennywise's association with Warped. Lindberg was exploring the possibility of organizing a mini-festival starring bands popular in the skate world when he was contacted by promoter Kevin Lyman, who had already put together a tour with a similar theme. Lyman subsequently offered the outfit the co-headlining slot alongside NOFX at the second Warped event. Lindberg is even more enthusiastic about the prospects for the latest edition. "I think it's a testament to the strength and the health of the scene that Warped did so well, and it's coming back even stronger this year. In most of the markets, we've doubled the amount of tickets. To me, it's a great event. You get to see fifteen bands for fifteen dollars as well as seeing some of the best skateboarders in the world."
Of course, last year's Denver show, held at Red Rocks, was not without its pitfalls. Ticket-holders frustrated by a no-moshing policy pelted the stage with garbage throughout the day--an act of defiance that reached its apex during Pennywise's set. When asked if he has any advice for anyone interested in attending this year's concert, which is being held at a much more appropriate venue, Franklin Field in Boulder, Lindberg replies, "Yeah--don't throw trash."
Then again, Lindberg recognizes that getting pegged with disposable cups is a minor annoyance compared with what Pennywise has gone through since last July. "We've always been a band that does things honestly and put our personal lives in our music," he says. "And now we have an incredible tragedy to deal with."