NOFX Taught Me What It Means to Be Punk
Fat Mike as Cokie the Clown
Courtesy of Fat Wreck Chords
I didn't like high school. The security guards would sell us acid and try to fuck our friends. Our vice principal, Mr. Fox, was a fascist who walked around with a giant megaphone.
Punk rock offered me an escape from the prison-like experience of going to Hoover High in Glendale. NOFX records kept me sane. I saw Fat Mike, bassist and co-founder of NOFX, as a more dysfunctional, pill-popping version of Michael Moore — punk rock was how he revealed the awful truth. In many ways, Fat Mike was the '90s equivalent of Darby Crash: smarter than he gets credit for, a master manipulator of the media, and defiantly West Coast.
Feeling reflective, I decided to call Fat Mike and ask him what he thought about my punk baptism through NOFX. As you'd expect, shit got weird.
Me: I took “Drugs Are Good” literally. What's it really about?
Fat Mike: It was just a throwaway off Punk in Drublic. The song is about experiences in my life when I've been on drugs, doing things I normally wouldn't do. It's like, “If you want an interesting life, drugs should be a part of it.” The best times in your life are bad ideas.
My high school experience was a series of "bad ideas." When school was out, we'd spend our free time at the Home Depot looking for barbed wire and light bulbs — medieval props for teenage torture experiments (i.e. backyard wrestling). A burned CD of AC/DC, NOFX, and Black Sabbath kept us whole.
Me: I hated high school. What about you?
Fat Mike: I thought high school was fine. I didn't take hard drugs until my thirties. I was into punk rock, getting good grades... I never even ditched.
I wasn't quite as studious. One weekend, during my senior year, I asked a fellow backyard wrestler to slice my forehead with a razor blade. I think he hit a vein, which made our fake violence look horrifically real. One quick slash, and suddenly, blood was squiring off my face like a scene from Kill Bill.
I don't remember much after that, except running to my pickup truck and driving to the hospital. NOFX's The Decline was the only CD in my car. I remember nearly passing out to Fat Mike screaming, "Father! What have I done?" as I swerved through the streets of Burbank — a fatherless teenager with blood streaming down my face.
NOFX provided the 18-minute soundtrack to my first near death experience.
As you might have guessed, my mom told me to find a new hobby. A few weeks later, I went to the Guitar Center on Sunset and bought a metallic blue Fender bass. I immediately put a NOFX sticker on it.
"One, two, join a punk band, shave your head and get a tattoo / You don't need talent, just sing out of tune." Or was it "sing attitude"? Nobody knows, except Fat Mike, who likes leaving things to interpretation, like an author using his twisted life story as an allegory for nihilism.
But those lyrics, off "Drugs Are Good," took me from mutilating my body to learning how to play NOFX songs on the bass. I even shaved my head. But what I remember the most was an interview where Fat Mike told a reporter that he sucked as a bassist. So I thought, "If Fat Mike can do it, so can I." (He was probably just fucking with the reporter.)
Me: I remember you saying you weren't a very good bassist. Do you think you're any better today?
Fat Mike: I mean, I still don't know how to play scales or anything. But I think the only reason I'm good is because I play soft. Most bass players just play too hard. A bad bass player can ruin a band.
By "soft," he means melodic and clean. He's no Matt Freeman (a NOFX inside joke these days), but Mike's metallic bass grind on "Release the Hostages," and his clean picking on the intro to "The Desperation's Gone" are part of why I became a bassist.
But on a broader level, NOFX appealed to me because they didn't write sappy love songs like Blink-182. NOFX sounded like don't-give-a-fuck punk; each song on records like Punk in Drublic spoke to me like anti-establishment, violently sexual, and self-deprecating bazooka blasts to all the Offspring fans.
When I found out skinheads didn't like NOFX, I was off to see them live.
Me on the left, just after high school, with my NOFX t-shirt.
I attended my first punk rock show at the 2000 Vans Warped Tour in Anaheim, where I wore a NOFX "The Decline" t-shirt and shorts. I moshed with skinheads to "Don't Call Me White," and for once, the skinheads were the ones who were intimidated — surrounded by Mexicans, Jewish kids, and the emo army.
NOFX was followed by Pinkerton-era Weezer and pre-American Idiot Green Day. The Warped Tour 2000 in Anaheim was one of the last great moments for the punk rock I grew up with — before it all went to shit.
Me: What happened to the Warped Tour? It sucks now.
Fat Mike: Yeah, we're not involved with them anymore. It's no longer punk rock. It's just the "what's popular with high schools kids" tour now.
Things have changed in 14 years. I graduated from high school right around the time the Warped Tour began its decline. I was part of the last generation to see the Warped Tour when it was punk.
During their 30-minute set at the Warped Tour 2000, NOFX played "Louise," a song about a sadomasochistic lesbian. Everyone was singing along to lyrics like, "You better lick my puss and asshole clean," devirginized by Fat Mike's sexually raw lyrics, who wisecracked between songs, like he was one of us, just a more wasted version. Mike connected with the crowd by acting like he was there by accident — looking for a free drink.
It was one of the punkest things I had ever seen.
Me: A song like "Separation of Church and Skate" was talking about punk becoming more corporate in 2003. What's the state of punk in 2014?
Fat Mike: I think real punk rock stays the same, especially underground. There's a place near my house in San Francisco called the Knockout, and I go see punk bands there frequently, just playing for beer. But "Separation of Church and Skate" was more about a romanticized experience of how scary it used to be to go to a show. Before the barricades and security guards. That was punk rock to me. Some clubs in Europe are still like that.
Is every Fat Mike interview highly orchestrated performance art? Who knows, but you can bet it's part of NOFX's fucked up mission statement: "I'm not your clown, I'm your dealer," says Mike, on 2006's "60%." "I'm holding three bindles of bullshit, and you're buying them because you're addicted to the pure and totally uncut." In other words, he's laughing about this right now, as if he's doing his Cokie the Clown performance art hopped-up on happy pills.
I guess that's why he's my preferred form of rock star — still down to earth, but detached from reality (either naturally or chemically). Did Mike really first start taking drugs in his thirties? I'll take his word for it, but he's probably chuckling about how I included that in this interview.
At 47, he's still punk rock's evil joker — part of the old punk guard of slapstick and drug abuse. He was also the West Coast's most vocal crusader, like Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, except way more willing to trash the Bible Belt. Sure, he might just be fucking with us, but Mike influenced me to buy my first bass guitar, and for that, I owe him the permanent calluses on my right index finger — along with my born-again punk baptism at Warped Tour 2000.
The second season of NOFX: Backstage Passport 2, documenting their life on the road, is expected to be released next year, along with their tell-all book, covering the debauched history of NOFX.
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