Today's Top 40 hits are the shortest of short stories. They are moments in time, blips of consciousness.
Not so the songs of local punk band Crying 4 Kafka.
“Human Rights Brutalized” opines that wealthy nations are morally obligated to eliminate human suffering.
“Pride 2 Swallow” criticizes the greed and materialism of the Bernie Madoff subprime-mortgage years. “Who then can you trust?/Men in suits, the upper crust?/Clearly not, unless to say/Take my heart take my pay.”
“When Hate Becomes Commonplace,” influenced by Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, laments our violence-saturated media.
And “Demons Come Dance,” which became a minihit in Santa Barbara, holds forth on the best way to conquer your psychological demons: “Demons come, demons go/Step aside, let them flow.”
These tracks are, in essence, singing editorials. “They do say that music is a pitch to the disaffected,” says Paul Abramson, Crying 4 Kafka's endlessly energetic co–lead vocalist and lyricist.
Some punk-rock songs, though, can be like Freudian slips, when you say one thing but mean your father. The “demon” in Crying 4 Kafka's most popular song is many things to many listeners — drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence. To Abramson, it's his dad: “He was like the main character in Death of a Salesman but with a foul mouth and poor impulse control.”
A classical violinist who washed up in real estate, his dad is the stuff of suburban Greek tragedies. He was a man with great ideas, and an inability to execute them. He was the Army master sergeant who brought home a Purple Heart and a bad attitude. The military's angry discourse followed him home from war. The dog was the fucking dog. The kids were the fucking kids.
These types of fathers beget sons who grow up to be either psychologists or punks. Paul Abramson's dad got both in one.
By night, a punk-rock singer. By day, a mild-mannered professor. “This is the world I created for myself,” Abramson says, sitting in a squashy chair in the same spare, utilitarian university office he's sat in for three decades. UCLA's psychology department hired him in his 20s and he has been there ever since.
Now 60, Abramson studies human sexuality, and is often asked to be an expert witness in sex-abuse trials. Here's one. One day, a 6-year-old girl winds up in the hospital bleeding, having been raped by her 40-year-old mother's 17-year-old boyfriend. But the police, the doctors and Child Protective Services send her home for six more months, where the rapes continue until the girl passes a note to her friends at school. At the trial Abramson testified on behalf of the victim.
That case became the song “Fuck Mom, Fuck Dad.” Sometimes, the sensible, reasoned language of academia just isn't enough.
“What I like about punk rock is that you can juxtapose a street language with a metaphorical language,” Abramson says. “You can be more poetic, more forceful.”
Crying 4 Kafka consists of Abramson, his 58-year-old neighbor and co-lyricist Steve Stewart; 52-year-old bassist Joe Dean; and drummer Brandon Thibeault, at 24 the youngest of the group.
“I've wondered what Brandon gets out of it,” Abramson says. “Maybe he likes the stability of older guys. We show up on time. We don't do drugs or get wasted. The band's not in danger of falling apart at any minute.”
Choosing at 60 years old to be the lead singer of a punk-rock band, choosing not to be embarrassed, is an act of rebellion, he believes.
At gigs, they are sometimes mistaken for the parents of the band, instead of the band. It happened recently at the Viper Room. “You here to see your kids play?” a guy from their opening act asked.
Other times, students stumble upon Abramson's shows and are surprised to see their professor onstage.
“A lot of what we do creates cognitive dissonance,” he admits.
Still, they press on. “My bandmates would probably be upset if nobody showed up for our gigs,” he says. “But if the objective is for these songs to be a catalyst for social change, then influencing even just one person is powerful.”
Getting friends in their age group to come see the band play, however, is a lofty objective. “Well, geez, you're going on after 9 p.m.?” they ask. “Sorry. I'm asleep by then.”