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Unholy Rollers

Apathy is one ailment from which the veteran punk rockers in Los Angeles-based Bad Religion have never suffered. But Jay Bentley, the band's bassist, knows why so many other people in his generation do.

"Say you get a voter information packet," he notes from his Hollywood home, "and it says, `Here are the reasons to vote for Proposition 107: It will save the planet, it'll make you a million dollars and it'll make you happy for the rest of your life.' Then you read on and it says, `Here are the reasons to oppose Proposition 107: It will kill the planet, you'll lose all your money and your hair will fall out.' And you go, `What am I supposed to think here? What am I supposed to do? Who do I trust?' You wind up throwing up your hands and saying, `I don't care anymore.'"
Bentley, however, still cares a great deal, and he's proud that his band (also featuring singer Greg Graffin, guitarists Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson, and drummer Bobby Schayer) has been fighting the good fight for nearly fourteen years. Although the group's seventh release, last fall's Recipe for Hate, is its first to be distributed by a major label (Atlantic), it continues Bad Religion's M.O.: biting, incisive lyrics wedded to melodic, hook-filled punk. "American Jesus" is a tuneful assault on nationalism run amok; "All Good Soldiers" pokes holes in the military mindset; and "Modern Day Catastrophists" both exposes and succumbs to urban paranoia. Graffin and Gurewitz, the primary songwriters, don't always couch their decidedly left-wing themes in the freshest imagery, but Bad Religion's instrumental prowess and the players' sincerity more than compensate. "We don't take anything for granted," Bentley insists.

The band got its start in 1980, when Bentley and Graffin were students at El Camino Real, a high school in the San Fernando Valley burg of Woodland Hills. "It was just something to do after school," Bentley says of the garage jam sessions he participated in with Graffin, Gurewitz and original Bad Religion drummer Jay Ziskrout. "There was no agenda. It was just something we were all part of. We went out to all the clubs, so we figured we should have a band."

Within a year one of the act's primitive demo tapes found its way into the hands of Hetson, then a member of L.A.'s own Circle Jerks. While guesting on Rodney on the Rock--a radio program hosted by KROQ-FM disc jockey/avid scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, who championed the SoCal punk movement--Hetson gave Bad Religion its first airplay. This led to the appearance of more kids at Bad Religion shows, but virtually no interest from the music industry. "If there were record company people listening, we didn't know about it," Bentley concedes.

So the members of Bad Religion decided to take matters into their own hands. They released a self-titled EP in 1981 on a homegrown label they dubbed Epitaph. That was followed by the next year's album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse, a 1985 EP called Back to the Known and the kinds of career frustrations that frequently tear bands apart. The recently reformed combo X reached national prominence during this period, but L.A. punk contemporaries such as the Germs and Fear didn't survive. By the middle of the decade, Bad Religion seemed ready to follow the latter groups into oblivion.

"There wasn't anywhere in L.A. to play anymore," Bentley says. "We went from having dedicated clubs like Godzilla's, which held 2,500 people in its big room, to places that would hold 125 people. There were still a lot of people who wanted to hear punk, but the clubs just said that they didn't want the liability from the slam dancing and the pits. I mean, I'm sure there were lawsuits, because a lot of people got hurt in those days. So the club owners decided they'd rather book Top 40 bands than ones that would bring in that type of clientele."
These factors led Gurewitz and Bentley to temporarily defect from Bad Religion in favor of other groups; Bentley played with Wasted Youth, TSOL and a handful of additional bands that he can no longer remember. Meanwhile, Graffin enrolled at the University of Wisconsin--but he also managed to keep Bad Religion alive, thanks to assistance from new recruit Hetson. By the late Eighties, Bentley and Gurewitz were back in the fold, and the band was as strong as ever, releasing a quartet of impressive discs (Suffer, No Control, Against the Grain and Generator) in a five-year span. At the same time, Epitaph grew beyond its original modest designs, eventually providing a recorded home for like-minded artists in Coffin Break and Claw Hammer. The imprint was seen by people in the know as a West-Coast version of Dischord, the anti-label started by the musicians in Fugazi. It stood as a grassroots response to the soulless approach of the overgrown record companies.

As a result, Bad Religion's move to Atlantic came as a shock to true believers in the punk-rock community. Bentley has heard criticism from these quarters, but he rejects any suggestion that his band's new multialbum agreement constitutes anything close to a sellout. "For one thing, we've known our A&R rep for a long time, which is a positive. And he reports directly to Danny Goldberg [Atlantic's president], who knows and respects us. So all of a sudden it became a good situation--and if it becomes a bad situation, we'll say we gave it a shot and get out. I don't think anyone's expectations are that great."

Bentley adds that he and his fellows went into the Atlantic deal with their eyes wide open. They made it clear to the company's marketing team that they didn't want Recipe for Hate sold on the basis of its impressive guest stars, who include Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano. "We sat down with them and told them, `You are not going to promote the crap out of us as the next big thing,'" Bentley says. "`That's not what it's about. You just manufacture the records and put them out, and we'll all get together and talk and make it work the way it has for all these years.'"

For all this talk of tradition, Bentley allows that the times are definitely changing for him. Because he's married and the father of two children under the age of three, he's beginning to look at the lifestyle in Los Angeles, where he's lived most of his life, with fresh eyes. "There are a lot of aspects of L.A. that I like, but there are also a lot that I don't like, and that's what makes it easy to think that a simpler life would be a lot better," he says. "But a lot of it is media hype. My wife tells me that everything she sees, everything she reads, is about something horrible. And I say, `Yeah, but there are six million people here, and every night when you see the news, they're only talking about maybe a hundred people.'" He laughs. "But those hundred people are the worst people you can ever imagine."

In fact, Graffin has recently deserted Los Angeles for the friendlier metropolis of Ithaca, New York, where he is pursuing a doctorate in evolutionary biology from Cornell University. That doesn't mean, though, that Bad Religion is apt to shelve its social protests and pleas for justice in favor of ditties about Darwin. The group's shows are as urgent as ever, thanks to the musicians' defiant refusal to kowtow to any trends--even the alternative fever that's likely the only reason Atlantic gave Bad Religion the time of day.

"I don't even know what alternative is," Bentley says. "I've been in a punk-rock band for fourteen years, and the word `alternative' came around four years ago, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm still in a punk-rock band."
Bad Religion, with Clutch. 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, January 17 and 18, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, $16, 830-2525.