For those of you who might have forgotten just how truly great life was under the presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan, here are some things that prevailed under his watch: The mass firing of air traffic controllers, the concept of a winnable nuclear war, trees that cause pollution, ketchup as a vegetable, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos and “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa, public housing cutbacks and falling wages, the argument that people are “homeless by choice,” First Lady Nancy’s influential astrologer Joan Quigley, the savings and loan scandals, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, silence on AIDS, the Iran/Contra arms-for-hostages imbroglio, Manuel Noriega and massacres in El Salvador, $640 Pentagon toilet seats, lots and lots of naps. “Facts are stupid things,” outgoing President Reagan said in 1988 at the Republican National Convention, misquoting John Adams, who’d actually said, “Facts are stubborn things.”
Facts are sometimes also painful things.
Formed in 1980 in Queens, New York, by Dave Insurgent (born David Rubinstein) and Paul Cripple (born Paul Bakija) in the wake of the punk animal that had been unleashed by fellow schoolmates The Ramones, Reagan Youth was a band that was possessed of a uniqueness equaled only by the tragedy that consistently haunted it. In 1993, Insurgent’s girlfriend Tiffany was murdered by busy serial killer Joel Rifkin. His Holocaust survivor mother died in a car crash. A whirlpool of drug addiction led to Insurgent’s suicide that summer.
Reagan Youth was not an easy fit in the continuum of hardcore punk. More prone to anger and confuse punkers in the same vein as No Trend, Legionaire’s Disease or late-period Black Flag, the band’s was a musical critique that wielded tie-dye, anarchy and the Hitler Youth in the same caustically satiric breath. The debut album, Youth Anthems for the New Order, was released on the cusp of the Reagan re-election campaign, its notorious “Morning in America” rhetoric painting shadows around an Orwellian dawn.
1984 was a year of many meanings.
That Cripple is resurrecting songs from House of God (the final collaboration between him and Insurgent) is the latest in a long series of breaks with the straitjacket of hardcore. An exploration of dark sonic meditations à la Black Sabbath, House of God is being performed live for the first time in more than 25 years. “It kind of bothered me that he’s not around anymore,” Cripple admits, “so that’s why I wanted to do one last record for the guy — to change that ending that was pretty horrible; to make one last record that says, “Hey, dude, I loved your message and I’m glad that the kids actually latched on to it.” Being swallowed up in drug consciousness for the past couple of decades has one peculiar upside to emerging from that hole. “I guess, after 20 years, the kids have a chance to digest the music and his lyrics,” beams Cripple. “I think he was a pretty phenomenal lyricist. I’m sure that, wherever his form of energy is, it’s probably smiling.”
Returning to the spirit of Reagan Youth consciousness wasn’t quite so amicable. “I felt kind of constricted playing songs that were like, “[after] that summer, between junior high and high school you’re still playing songs like this?” He found that the chemistry between old Youths had faltered in the interim. “I got the old bass player [Al Pike], from the first record and the drummer [Steve Weissman] from the second record, and it didn’t really click. These guys were still bitter and I was unhappy; I spent eight years with these guys. I understand why, being the leader of the band, Dave just wanted to give up. It can be hard to get four guys to bowl together on a Thursday night.”
But I had songs in my heart,” he continues, adding, “I just lost it after awhile. I thought I could handle a good friend of mine dying the way he did, and I tried to tough it out, but it kind of sucked the life out of me, and I kind of fucked up with drugs. When he died, I stuck a needle in my arm. That’s how I coped.” After finding out how popular Reagan Youth had become in the ensuing 20 years, Cripple had an epiphany. “I saw how everyone liked Reagan Youth on the Internet and it kind of got me thinking how Syd Barrett lost his mind,” he reveals. “And wouldn’t it be cool if there was some kind of hardcore punk concept album, about a guy like that in New York City in the ’80s?”
Playing new music alongside new Youths — singer Trey Oswald, drummer Stig Whisper and ex-X-Possibles singer-cum-bassist Tibbie X (who also sings for Philadelphia S&M punk band GASH) — Cripple, having successfully staved off his demons, remains forward-thinking in the most surprising and encouraging of all possible ways. After suffering and losing as much as Paul Cripple has, choosing to live and create are some of the most contrarian things anyone can do.
Reagan Youth will perform at Billy O’s on Tuesday, Sept. 30.