As a fan through the second half of Bad Religion’s career, I’ve always felt the
band put their message before themselves. Their personalities haven’t been
nearly as front-and-center as so many other rock stars I’ve followed. It’s only
thanks to album liner notes that I’ve learned just enough about them to be
curious: how did Greg Graffin come to be a professor at Cornell? How did Mr.
Brett’s role change over time? Why did Bobby Schayer leave the band? Why did
Jay Bentley come back? In chronicling the band’s forty-year run, Do What You
Want filled in all the gaps and then some.
It details how Graffin’s academic career advanced right alongside the band’s,
including an especially interesting anecdote about an early scientific
expedition. To be honest, though, Graffin receives a surprisingly small amount
of attention (at least, for a front-man).
Contrast this with Bentley, who provides the lion’s share of direct quotes,
giving perspective on everything from partying to operating heavy machinery. I
met Jay once, so I might have been more focused on his contribution. Watch any
Bad Religion performance, though, and see for yourself which member is the most
animated. It seems natural that he’d take such an active role in the biography.
His goofball comments add levity to the book, but he may also be the most
transparent about personal struggles (even insecurities) and criticism of the
For a drummer with “only” ten years in the band, Schayer also gets a surprising
amount of attention. He comes across as the most humble of the crew, focused on
the work and the opportunities it afforded him. In their consistently positive
portrayal of their former band mate, the band seems to be saying, “we really
love this guy.”
“Mr. Brett” Gurewitz’s role is way more complicated. Like Bentley, he struggled
with drug addiction. Unlike Bentley, he wrote some of the band’s most popular
songs. On top of that, he founded a record label, Epitaph, which he managed
right alongside songwriting and guitar playing… Until he didn’t. He left the
band for most of their stint with a major label and returned years later.
Gurewitz provides perspective on songwriting but also on the business side of
things. It’s through him that the book explores Epitaph, though as a separate
and highly successful venture, its story could probably support a book of its
own. It was surprisingly telling to learn how he came to be called “Mr. Brett.”
Any artist that works for forty years is sure to have regrets. Acknowledging
them takes some care, though. Go too far, and you alienate your fans. Don’t go
far enough, and you come across as out-of-touch. I think Do What You Want
dances the line well. They have no love for their most spectacular artistic
digressions, but it’s easy to take pot-shots at Into the Unknown and The New
America (they do take a few). The band’s most compelling reflections are more
subtle. Graffin talks about how he “went too far” in his lyrics for “God Song.”
Drummer Pete Finestone complains that Graffin and Gurewitz “sucked up so much
oxygen in the room.” Gurewitz explains why 80-85 was “clumsily conceived,”
and Bentley admits that “we didn’t take [No Substance] seriously.”
I’m cherry-picking, of course. This is not a book of bitter, washed-up artists.
The band still endorses most everything it’s done, which is a little surprising
given that they were teenagers when they wrote their first songs. Though that
sometimes goes a little too far. The biography’s occasional self-congratulatory
rhetoric sometimes struck me as conceited. To be sure, the band has made a ton
of great music, and it’s not my place to deny them a little horn-tooting. But
the subtlety of statements like “two of the most intelligent songwriters in the
industry” is still a little grating.
Maybe it’s because their actions speak for themselves. From their rigorous
touring schedule to their empathetic set list design process, they regularly
demonstrate how their commitment extends beyond the music they’ve created.
Though what they didn’t achieve is also telling. Bad Religion is not a group
of activists. They understand their impact as the ideas that they convey and
the conversations they inspire. Social organizing is largely absent from their
career. Sure, there’s the Bad Religion Research Fund, but that only ran for a
few years, and it was capped at
the kind of money you’d expect from a group of international rock stars.
They’ve never claimed to be anything more than entertainers, so it’s not
exactly fair to count this against them. But the book does make me wonder about
how things could have been…
Having the full chronology laid out (and forgiving some liberties with the
order of events) really helps contextualize their career. On a personal note,
it helped connect two moments that have always seemed disjoint to me: the
release of No Substance and the release of The New America. That’s when I
started listening, so I’ve always felt a divide between “classic” and “new”
material. Do What You Want helped me recognize how artificial this is. It
gave me an appreciation for the relationship between the two albums and see how
the shortcomings of the latter are in some ways present in the former. And it
helped me to appreciate The Process of Belief as something of a return to
form (albeit with way more pop influence).
As a long time fan, I found Do What You Want to be tremendously satisfying. I
doubt it holds much meaning for folks who can’t already sing along with “I Want
To Conquer The World,” but that’s okay. If you’re among that group, I have a
different recommendation for you: listen to the music.