Talking “Knowledge" With Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels
The frontman of the legendary Bay Area punk band discusses one of their many anthems.
This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
On May 28, 1989, during Operation Ivy's last show at the legendary Gilman St, vocalist Jesse Michaels addressed the packed venue. "This song is called "Knowledge", and it's about growing up," he said before the band launched into the crowd favourite from their lone LP Energy.
Operation Ivy grew up at 924 Gilman Street, or simply Gilman, the East Bay, California venue that became springboard for the 90s pop revival and "Knowledge" became one of the band's many anthems during this time.
Michaels, Tim "Lint" Armstrong (guitar, vocals), Matt "McCall" Freeman (bass, vocals), and Dave Mello (drums), formed the band in May 1987 and were one of the first to mix elements of hardcore punk and ska.
Along with Green Day, The Offspring and later Rancid (who Armstrong and Freeman formed after Op Ivy) and the emergence of Lookout Records, Op Iv were considered a big part part of a new breed of Bay Area bands.
Though they were only around for a couple of years and released just an EP, Energy, released on Lookout! Records, and a couple of compilation tracks, their legacy is still felt and young punks, many who weren't even born in 1989, continue to wear their shirts and singalong to their songs about unity.
After Operation Ivy, Jesse played in Common Rider and has worked as a visual artist creating graphics for bands like Filth and Green Day. As a painter his work has been shown in San Francisco, Los Angeles and NYC. Currently he collaborates with clothing label Altamont.
We caught up with Jesse to learn about "Knowledge".
Noisey: Where you were when you wrote "Knowledge"?
Jesse Michaels: Tim gave me the opening lines, up to "I know things are getting tougher when you can't get the top off from the bottom of the barrel / wide open road of my future now - it's looking fucking narrow." Then I wrote the rest around Berkeley. I don't remember exactly where. I would write these things piecemeal - hanging out, in cafes, in the car, wherever.
At your last Gilman Street show you introduced "Knowledge" as a song about growing up. What does it mean to you now after all these years?
My words were very influenced by Stiff Little Fingers. If you listen to SLF songs like "Break Out" or "At the Edge," there is this sense of adventurous uncertainty and a rebellion against proscribed norms for young people. The basic idea was that embracing uncertainty is a power in itself, even if the pressure is on to get a career plan or whatever. I was against ideology and falling into life traps. I thought mainstream adults were mostly boring and I felt judged by them for being at loose ends. The song was my response. I don't claim that it was totally coherent but that's kind of the point.
The opening lines have a sense of futility but as the song continues it rises as a kind of triumph.
Those lines were Tim's lines. Yes, the futility and angst is definitely there and then it turns into an ecstatic thing. That was sort of the approach or basic premise of the whole band in a way. You talk about terrible things honestly and then through this weird alchemy of music it becomes a moment of release that somehow goes beyond the petty problems of the world.
It was called "Knowledge" though you wrote it while you were cutting classes from high school. How much does education have to do with knowledge?
The title comes from the chorus and is about knowing and not knowing. The point is that sometimes not knowing is a form of knowledge because it allows you to remain open and see life without preconceptions. This isn't that new of an idea. I am not against knowledge or education, in fact I really love that kind of thing and recently went back and got a degree. I also loved learning back then but it's true that I had a lot of trouble tracking high school.
Looking back do you understand some of the cynicism that comes with an idealistic song that some think came to represent the naivety and punk utopian of the Gilman punk scene of the time?
There was no utopian thing. Gilman was totally ridiculous and there were a lot of deeply cynical people involved, believe me. There were fights and meltdowns every week and there still are. There was political people, spiky jacket people, academics, druggy types and just complete weirdos so I understand cynicism about utopian ideas but it is based on a mistake. Also the song in no way represents Gilman Street, if people glued it on to some kind of Gilman flag that's totally an add-on.
What did Tim Yohannan of Maximum Rocknroll think of the song?
Tim was more into hardcore shit. He didn't love our music although I know he thought we were fun. He always watched us and him and Matt were homies. But to tell you the truth I never knew what that guy was thinking so who knows.
The songs reach increased considerably after Green Day covered it in 1990.
Yes. I am not sure where to go with this. It has been an interesting experience. I generally don't talk or think about Op Ivy that much in my daily life but Green Day's cover and especially things they have said in interviews have definitely spread the word about the Op Ivy stuff.
Besides Green Day, there have been a lot of bands to cover the song. Do you have a favorite?
It's very difficult for me to listen to my own music or covers of my own music. After it is recorded, I like to be done with it except for very occasional spins. I do appreciate that people enjoy it and that it still has legs. I like that it is part of a longer lineage of music that includes bands from before and after Op Ivy as well.
Lead image: Ashley Goodall
Photographs provided by Jesse Michaels