Tube Tops and Sky Saxon: A Conversation with Government Issue's John Stabb
The D.C. hardcore legend speaks on punk rock's past and future.
When it comes to that initial cluster of hardcore punk bands coming out of Washington, D.C. in the early 80s, one cannot forget Government Issue and their polarizing and matchless front man, John Stabb. While every hardcore frontman at the time was trying their damnedest to outdo the likes of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins or Negative Approach’s John Brannon in sheer brute energy, Stabb was one of the few vocalists in hardcore not afraid to show a lighthearted, wiseass side with his stage presence. The first time I ever saw GI in the summer of 1985, he came out in a silver glitter tube top that spilt like wet pine within the performance of the first song. Once the tune was over, he tore the garment off his body, flung it to the side of the stage in all its disheveled glory and proclaimed, "I guess Madonna isn’t getting that one back.” It’s a remark that stuck with me all my life.
After many cold, quiet years, John Stabb has brought Government Issue back into the world, and, I for one, couldn’t be more thrilled. To celebrate their upcoming show at Acheron in Brooklyn this weekend, I got in touch with Stabb to get the skinny on bringing GI back from the grave, the work he’s putting into his autobiography and the greatness of Sky Saxon from the Seeds.
Noisey: Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Why the reunion of Government Issue now, and why this line-up of the band?
John Stabb: After doing the Government Issue gigs at the Ear Tumor Benefit for our friend, Stephen McPherson and the party for the release of the D.C. documentary Salad Days at the Black Cat in D.C., I feel that calling these a reunion of any kind makes no sense. Government Issue is a group again, and it was so much fun playing Damaged City Fest 2014, we decided to just keep it going. Guitarist John Barry has no other musical commitments. Bassist Dwayne Brunner does a shitload of tech work and sometimes tours with the groups. But he's down for our upcoming dates in D.C., Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Gainesville, and possibly more. Drummer Evan Handler tours quite a bit with his band, War on Women, but we're working around his schedule and things are going great.
How does it feel to return to these songs?
It's a blast to do the GI songs I've always been proud of all these years. Barry is digging his old songs and the ones he never wrote we chose to do. Dwayne and Evan are having a great time tearing into the vast GI catalogue.
Do you feel you are the “same person” that sang these songs back in the 80s?
I'm certainly not the same angry, young man with the broken heart worn on my sleeve, no. But at 54 years bold, I'm happy to share these old feelings with everyone who can either relate to or just dig hearing. I cannot put a number on how many listeners of GI's music who've shared with me how much some of our songs and my lyrics helped them get through the stressful teenage years as well as their troubled adult lives. I 'm glad that something I was part of and still doing after I once claimed it would never happen after 1989 made an impact on folks.
What has become of your long awaited autobiography The Sheer Terror of John Stabb?
Well, a few little things have come up in the last ten years of my life that made it very difficult to complete and publish my first memoirs that I'm currently titling Hear the Scream. They would be: being laid off a longtime job, separation, divorce, a new meaningful relationship, unemployment, gigs with my other band, History Repeated, searching for steadier employment, having to relocate from D.C. to Maryland and sharing an apartment with my Meowgirl Mina and our 2 beasties: Dr. Pocky Chan and Cat-Astrophe.
Between all of this and GI playing out again, the book wasn't ready for publishing. Right now, Mina and I are going to get back to a bit more editing and sorting to look into getting an agent. It's something I've been dying to have out there, so it's going to happen. I've done a handful of readings of some chapter excerpts and looking forward to continuing that as well. I've even done some live performances with my History Repeated guitarist and friend Derrick Baranowsky playing acoustic guitar and percussion that we called: Government Issue: Talk & Twang. In between us doing sonically reduced renditions of GI songs, I read stories and joked with the crowd. Our biggest gig ever was in D.C. opening for Kepi Ghoulie from Groovie Ghoulies & Kevin Seconds. That was so cool!
Do you pay attention to present day punk and hardcore bands?
Of course because – unlike some of my fellow avenging punk rock godfathers – I don't share the same opinion that punk and hardcore died after the 80s. I love seeing or playing with newer bands such as: Coke Bust, BSR, Pure Disgust, Musicband, the Black Sparks, Supreme Commander, the Flex, Los Crudos, etc. Any band who I feel can kick my ass upon a stage, I admire.
We’ve hit a point in time where the early 80s era of American hardcore punk is really revered. Books are being written and documentaries are being made, all that stuff. Do you personally think it’s an important moment in underground history?
Nobody can deny that era in punk rock, hardcore, and indie rock didn't shake a lot of people up in a good way. For me personally, I feel it's been a long time coming to have a documentary made on the D.C. hardcore punk band scene of the 80s. Ever since I first viewed Decline of Western Civilization, I always thought, "So why doesn't someone make one of these about D.C. Punk? I mean, compared to this really fucked up band scene in California, ours comes across a lot more positive and thoughtful!" Everybody had a copy of the documentary's soundtrack, and we loved listening to it. But seeing it all on the screen was really pretty depressing for me. It wasn't what I'd expected, and I couldn't relate to any of it. Great live performances, no doubt, but what a bloody, drugged out mess the musicians and fans were.
And now there's been a bunch of great music documentaries made, and at least one that I've got some contempt for. Films like Punk's Not Dead, The Filth and the Fury, Hit So Hard, The Punk Singer, Last Days Here, A Band Called Death, The Future Is Unwritten, The Rise and Fall of the Clash, xxx All Ages xxx: The Boston Hardcore Film, Filmage: The Story of The Descendents / ALL, Records Collecting Dust, Positive Force: More Than a Witness, Salad Days, and soon another D.C. punk doc, Punk the Capitol, are all very impressive to me. The one title I have serious issues with is American Hardcore. After the complete and utter mess of a book came out with the same name, I'd hoped the documentary would be much better. Instead, it just comes off as a continuation of one man's boy-crush on a handful of 80s punk/hardcore groups. And a pretty embarrassing one at that! Other friends will argue with me about both the written and filmed version, but my opinion hasn't changed one bit.
In thirty words or less, explain what Sky Saxon from the band the Seeds means to you.
Despite first seeing the Seeds in an episode of a 70s sitcom, The Mothers-in-Law, when I was a horny, mixed up, virginal teen, in the summer of '81, I was introduced to their music and singer and frontman, Sky Saxon, he became my psychedelic guru without him even knowing it. One of the coolest dressers and snottiest vocalists you could ever experience. Folks like that are a rare breed, and I'm glad to have his music to dig on forever.
Government Issue are playing Saturday July 18th at the Acheron located at 57 Waterbury Street in Brooklyn, NY. Show starts at 8 PM.
Tony’s books can be purchased here.