A Final Farewell to Erik Petersen, the Punk Poet of Philadelphia
Like an angel who'd been dancin' with some devils, Erik Petersen was the voice of my Philadelphia.
My Philadelphia doesn't exist anymore. Places like that aren't static, and neither are our relationships with them; things change, people move, venues close, blooms fade. My version of Philly lasted for far longer than most love affairs do, though, and I still catch glimpses of it when I pass through on my way back to the woods to see my grandma. Cities are what you make of them, and I spent my most formative years in the belly of West Philly—and in North Philly, South Philly, Old City, Chinatown, Fishtown, Kensington, all over that beautiful old, dirty old town. I went there on school field trips when I was small, snuck out to metal shows there in high school, and went to college there. Philly's DIY music community became my world, and I learned more in basements, living rooms, and in the dusty stacks at my college radio station, WKDU, than I ever did in class. I only left once my feet got itchy and it starting feeling too close to home for my liking; once I was gone, it became a source of great nostalgia—and nothing characterized those years more than Erik Petersen’s voice.
That scratchy, earnest voice was a constant during those years, in our headphones and at raucous shows with his band Mischief Brew. My best friend, Kelly, loved Mischief Brew; she’d discovered folk punk while we were still a couple of teenage misfits stranded in rural Jersey, and despite my budding obsession with gory death metal, I fell in love with it, too. Whiskey lullabies, class struggle, love, loneliness—nothing could’ve made more sense to a couple of weird, sensitive kids who clung to our bullet belts and combat boots, debated the merits of train-hopping, and snarled at our racist classmates in the sea of John Deere caps, Pink Floyd tie-dye, and Confederate flags that ebbed and flowed around us. Philly became our Mecca, and we made secret pilgrimages across the Ben Franklin bridge as often as possible. She and I lied to our parents and ventured way out west to see Johnny Hobo play in a squat; we hugged and sang along with Ghost Mice at Lava Space, and swore we’d get the lyrics to “Free Pizza for Life” tattooed on us someday.
Mischief Brew was always playing somewhere in Philly, and we saw them as often as we could. Their blend of anarcho-punk, folk, and a grab bag of various unorthodox influences (Swing? Eastern European folk? Why the hell not!) and collaborators (various members of Leftover Crack, World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol, and the Hold Steady) was too much fun to resist, and their shows were always full of love and spilled beer, with Petersen—a working class punk, gravel-voiced troubadour, our gutter Springsteen—holding court at the eye of the storm. I moved to the city a year before Kelly did, and when we were finally reunited, every free moment was spent at DIY spots watching bands and drinking 40s of Hurricane and Sparks with the motley assortment of bike messengers, travelers, punks, metal kids, and assorted troublemakers that we called friends. It wasn’t all rosy—friends got mugged, hearts got broken, I got bitten by a pitbull on Lancaster Avenue, and (more innocuously), responsibilities like school and work horned in on our fun—but it still felt like a golden age.
Everyone I knew in that world loved Mischief Brew, too; whenever Petersen and his band played, it felt like a scruffy, sweaty family reunion. Songs like “Nomads Revolt” and “Coffee, God, and Cigarettes” were our anthems, with “Roll Me Through the Gates of Hell” inevitably ending in a joyous dogpile around Petersen and his guitar. I never met the man personally, but seeing the impact he had on other people—and knowing the effect his music had on me—made me secretly confer an almost demi-godlike status upon him. It's probably a good thing that we never met, too, because knowing that probably would’ve made him profoundly uncomfortable; everything I know of him paints him as an eminently humble, community-minded man. He was the voice of the Philly underground, and he wielded that power wisely.
His politics were always at the forefront; even when the words came couched in catchy melodies and clever turns of phrase, you knew where he stood, and he stood there proudly. Petersen sang of dying steel towns, the workers' struggle, government corruption, solidarity, revolution, hope, and whiskey, offering up three chords and the truth. "If you struggle and fight, you just may get out too," he promised, and it was easy to believe him. The song that always spoke to me most on that front came from an earlier Petersen band, The Orphans. Though they were best known for “The Government Stole My Germs CD,” it was one of their quieter tunes that reeled me in.
“For an Old Kentucky Anarchist” is a quiet, lovely little acoustic ballad that describes a bucolic image of anarchism in practice—the possibility of what could be, not what the government wants us to think about “anarchy.” It was my first exposure to that particular political theory, and while I didn’t delve much deeper into it until a few years later, the lyrics struck a chord that was impossible to ignore. The mental picture of a contented old woman in her garden, left with her principles and her memories of a life well-lived, was all too appealing to a budding lefty hearing it for the first time. The kicker really came in the verse, “Hell, I never cared much for any government / I got my Jesus when I feel the time is right / Singin’ I’m the richest I’ll ever be, I embrace the world I have all around me / Sing a dying song and slap my knee / Have a taste of true anarchy.”
I’ve been thinking about all of this quite a lot since the news broke that Erik Petersen had passed on. He was confirmed dead a few days ago, at the age of 38. He is survived by his wife, his pugs, his friends, his music, and his legacy, and floods of heartbreaking tributes from those close to him continue to pour forth. He was the guiding light of Philly’s music community, and now it all feels a little bit darker.
With the loss of its greatest punk poet, my Philadelphia really has disappeared forever, and the Hostile City’s lost a big chunk of its soul besides. Rest in power, Erik Petersen. You’ll be dearly missed, from Pennsyltucky to the stars above.
Mischief Brew's latest album, 'This Is Not For Children,' is out now on Alternative Tentacles Records.
Kim Kelly is sending gratitude and thanks on Twitter.