Ronen Givony - 33 1/3: 24 Hour Revenge Therapy [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Ronen Givony

33 1/3: 24 Hour Revenge Therapy [Book] (2018)


The 33 1/3 series barrels on with an exploration and celebration of Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy by Ronen Givony. The author is a junior staffer at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and omnivorous consumer of all types of music, including classical and pop. He is responsible for New York City’s Wordless Music, which finds “pop” artists performing pieces of orchestrated chamber music and bridges the gaps between classical music and other, less-heady genres. Givony has spent the better part of a decade consuming, processing, and presenting his musical loves to the world and here turns his eyes and ears to Jawbreaker.

Givony’s dissection of what is arguably Jawbreaker’s best album and epitome of their aesthetic is reverential, if at times over-intellectualized and verbose. At one point, Givony compares the band to John Milton (the most egregious example of overreaching), but it’s clear he is passionate about the band and cares very deeply for 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. As the other books in this series have done, he begins by contextualizing the band’s beginnings and first two albums, Unfun and Bivouac.

There’s not much mythology in the recording of the album. The band was experiencing a creative flourish and writing some of its strongest songs to date. Being admirers of his prior output, the band called up Steve Albini and asked if he would record the album. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was recorded quickly under his direction. Nearly all tracking was completed in 2 days recorded as a live unit, but the band did return to the studio for some overdubs and polishing on a few of the tracks. In the trailer for “Don’t Break Down,” Albini hilariously remembers deflating Blake Schwarzenbach’s ambitions when he shows him the tiny Orange Crush amplifier he planned to record him through. Micro amplification aside, 24 Hour sounds massive, unpolished, and abrasive.

One thing Givony makes very clear is the unique and interesting way Blake uses metaphor and lingual gimmicks throughout the album that separates him from his peers in pop punk. “The Boat Dreams from the Hill” (my personal favorite on the album) was always a track I glossed over to get to “Boxcar” before I sat down with the lyrics and realized what Blake had done. “Boat” is personification of a neglected piece of marine material that sits unused for its purpose “anchored to some fixer upper’s dream.” The boat symbolizes a potential future that is never going to be realized because of lack of effort, resources, and motivation. However, it’s Blake poetic turn of phrase that elevates the song’s conceit as the abandoned boat’s regret is temporarily levied when “rainy days drop boyish wonder.” Therein lies Jawbreaker’s sleight of hand; if you’re not paying attention profound lyrical insights are buried in the band’s rushing cacophony and Blake’s croaking vocals. “Ashtray Monument”’s title and central chorus are also a strong symbol of collective despair at the crumbling of a relationship as a mountain of cigarette debris illustrates the narrator’s isolation. The intriguing phrase Givony focuses on in this song is the following couplet:

No one said that this life was easy

Did that no one ever live a life this hard?

What may on initial glance read as a cliché or trite lyric is really changed by one word. Blake directly identifies the speaker in the first line and asks if “that” no one really shares the same experiences as the narrator of his song. Therefore, the first line is transformed from a general statement to a declaration made by a single unknown person who Blake is taking to task. “Condition: Oakland” is the centerpiece of the album and an ambitious track that boils down all the themes of the album into a statement of dysfunction. The caustic crash of the guitars and drums herald Blake’s ultimate acknowledgement of his own hand in his current state of mind that serves as an unwitting explanation of the internal struggles of underground bands on the verge of a career breakthrough. Blake documents he is “naked and hysterical / reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at…desperate, alone / without an excuse / I try to explain / Christ, what’s the use?” The song’s outro is a Kerouac reading about drifting aimless in San Francisco and hints at Jawbreaker’s grand literary ambitions.

The two most infamous songs on the album “Indictment” and “Boxcar” seem to interest Givony the least, but he does recognize the juxtaposition they represent considering Jawbreaker’s ultimate move of signing to Geffen. Originally titled “Scathing Indictment of the Pop Industry,” “Indictment” lampoons the idea of signing with a major and going after chart success and serves as its own cautionary tale: “Then we’ll quit our day jobs / We could be the next group that you rob.” It is nearly comical how vicious the song attacks perceived enemies in the industry (considering Jawbreaker’s next move) as Blake eviscerates “stupid, happy songs…[that say] many things in its nothingness,” “moving units and tracking charts,” and most damningly “selling kids to other kids.” Now, in contrast to the polemic of “Indictment,” “Boxcar” reads as Jawbreaker’s middle finger to the scene: “You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone / Save your breath, I never was one.” Blake is defiant against his critics, proclaiming “I’m coloring outside your guidelines” and ultimately embraces that “you’re all alone / you’re on your own.” Musically, both songs bounce on a strikingly similar tempo and chord progression, and despite their importance on the band’s outlook from their lyrical content, Givony is far more interested in the subsequent tracks.

After painstakingly overanalyzing every song on the album, Givony discusses the band’s surprise invitation to open for Nirvana for six shows after the Wipers dropped out of the In Utero tour in 1993. Credit this coup to Frances Bean’s nanny Cali DeWitt (who memorably adorns the CD cover of In Utero dressed in drag) who was a huge fan of the band and had Bivouac on constant repeat in the Cobain household. It’s also interesting that Albini had helmed both 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and In Utero. At their opening show in Chicago, Ben Weasel introduced the band (with Bobcat Goldthwaite introducing Nirvana), but the backlash back home in the East Bay was swift. The band voice no regrets about the decision, but it was the beginning of choices in their career that would lead to the baffling alienation of their core audience. A review of their opening set from one of the shows deride the band for playing the same song with hardly any moderation; another easy mistake to make with a band whose nuanced lyricism was occasionally buried by their sometimes-simplistic pop punk music. Certainly, “Indictment” and “Boxcar” are strikingly similar and Blake’s vocals are a rasping croak on an initial listen, but the intelligence and aching empathy of the metaphor at the heart of “The Boat Dreams from the Hill” require an investment and deep dig into the lyrical depths this band was capable of mining.

The back half of the book actually covers the fallout of Jawbreaker signing to Geffen, the ramifications of the polished product Dear You, and a philosophical repartee about “selling out.” “Selling out” and the backlash of core fans was a serious concern in the ‘90s as Green Day weathered an onslaught after signing to Reprise and releasing the juggernaut of Dookie that took them nationwide. Despite your current opinion of the band, if you stack Dookie next to Kerplunk it just sounds more massive with arguably Billie Joe’s strongest songwriting to date. Without Dookie, I would not be writing for this site or about any of these bands. For better and worse, Green Day kicked the door open for punk (as Nirvana had done a few years before) and allowed those of us in far flung rural enclaves of the US to be exposed to this exciting music coming out of the East Bay. Givony recounts the sniping and anxiety present in the scene-policing Maximumrocknroll (MRR) and admits Jawbreaker didn’t do themselves any favor with their initially defiant stance against majors. The author cites numerous interviews and editorials where the band members (usually Blake) and even pal (and later “sell out”) Ben Weasel state time and time again that they are not signing to a major. Givony rightly wonders why the band would go to such lengths to rail against the majors if they had an inkling of intent that they would ever sign, and due to their multiple statements, they end up looking like complete hypocrites when they finally sign. Now, in Jawbreaker’s defense, the backlash and vitriol directed at Dear You definitely looks misguided from the benefit of hindsight. The album is not the complete failure it was made out to be at the time. In comparison to 24 Hour, it is definitely more polished and introduces a new singing style from Blake. Interestingly, Givony dispels the oft-cited urban myth that Blake’s throat surgery was to blame for his vocal change and reveals that Blake actually had the throat surgery prior to 24 Hour. Dear You’s sound results from Rob Cavallo’s (Green Day’s longtime producer) streamlined and arena-ready production, sanding the rough edge charm from prior Jawbreaker output. However, Jawbreaker would become a cautionary tale in the underground as Laura Jane Grace commented in her memoir Tranny when Against Me! was considering signing to a major they were concerned about the also oft-cited tales of fans sitting with their back turned during shows when songs off Dear You were played.

The debate between “selling out” and authenticity is not invalid but often over-exaggerated. On the one hand, it is entirely self-centered and self-serving for a music fan to expect his/her favorite band to remain in poverty when the opportunity for comfortable self-sustainment through art presents itself. Givony also argues that it seems perfectly acceptable for these artists to work any other kind of day job as long as their art is not tainted by commerce. These financial arguments seem quaint in 2018 where outside of Drake and Taylor Swift, no one is selling huge amounts of albums. On the other hand, the argument for authenticity in art is essential. In an ideal setting, art is a pure reflection of the creator’s reaction to their life and/or the outside world. Our common experience allows us to identify with the art and gives us insight into others who are struggling with the same things we are. However, once those expressions become tainted by the temptation to orchestrate such art strictly for commercial profit, it dilutes the quality and intent of said art. Punk rock is more restrained by these considerations than almost any other genre. Music created by artists who consider themselves outcasts or out of the mainstream vein of thinking is ripe for scrutinization. However, the hypocrisy continues; the Ramones and the Stooges were never not on major labels for their landmark albums. Also, commercialized art can be enjoyable if dispensable; entertainment can exist outside of profundity. While acknowledging that Jawbreaker’s fans had a histrionic reaction that was ultimately harmful to the band, Givony mourns the loss of a reality where music fans were this invested in a band and a scene as he has witnessed the erosion of empathy with the advent of streaming music. He argues that streaming has diluted the value of music. His arguments are valid; however, I would counter that streaming has brought these disparate and difficult to find scenes and bands into the hands of youth who are stuck in rural Nebromahoma and don’t have an access or outlet to these ideas or people. It perhaps does diminish the tangible community, and there is something to be said for creating your own scene and music within your limited means. Music has always weathered changes in technology and presentation (vinyl, 8-track, cassettes, CDs), and artists will find ways to adapt and evolve – that evolution may be out of the hands of mine and Givony’s generation which makes us more apt to fail to recognize the transition.

Givony nearly buries the best part of his book as a disguised postscript. He concedes to share something personal that sheds light on his obsessive take on Jawbreaker and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy by admitting that in high school in South Florida an “infinitely cooler” woman turned him on to the band. Said woman was his adolescent punk rock girlfriend who filled the margins of her intimate letters to him with Jawbreaker lyrics. Givony admits he did not handle the relationship well, and he and the girl ultimately parted ways, much to his later regret. Straight out of a romantic comedy (or tragedy, I guess), he serendipitously runs into her in New York on the Brooklyn Bridge many years later with her unfortunately handsome husband. Where Jawbreaker succeeds is giving colorful metaphor to the sense of loss and regret that are endemic in young adulthood (and middle age as well). Through Jawbreaker and Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics, he can mourn his loss of her and also issue this dissection of their best album in tribute to her. To summarize Givony and Blake, “Hey A, I Miss You.”

Ultimately, Givony’s book is an overanalytical, at times irritating intellectual discussion of Jawbreaker’s music. However, the success of this study is the insightful discussion of “selling out” and the ramifications (or lack thereof) that have persisted into this wild new frontier of streaming music and falling artist compensation. This book is a must read for all Jawbreaker fans and anyone remotely interested in the hypocritical, yet passionate underground of the ‘90s that was perpetually preoccupied with the optics of authenticity.