Naked Raygun, a band founded in 1980, recently played The Aragon in their hometown of Chicago. Though the headliner was Jawbreaker, there were many in the crowd who were there specifically to see Naked Raygun.
A few days after the show, I checked in with Jeff Pezzati, one of the band’s founders and its lead singer. He is routinely described as a punk rock icon from a legendary band. So how does he feel about such labels? We discuss it here. While the word “legend” may mean one thing to most fans, Pezzati views it with a sense of humor,”I don’t pay that much attention to labels like that. I know that James Van Osdol called us that once. It could mean that we’re just old. Ha.”
Pezzati spoke of the effects such a label might have on the receiving people or groups of such labels, “We’ve always been pretty hard on ourselves to play the best that we can. I don’t think just because a few people are calling us legends would change our preparation for playing out live.” Along the same lines of the band being considered legendary, Pezzati has been ordained by NR fans and those whose job it is to analyze and write about punk musics, with the word “icon.” According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the second description of the word icon is as follows: “an object of uncritical devotion : IDOL.”
From our discussion, I sense that Pezzati would not believe or describe himself as someone who has been an object of devotion, sans criticism. I did put the question of how it feels to be called an icon of punk rock. And whilst the subject of dictionaries never arose, his definition resembles that found in the Collins English Dictionary. As Collins defines it in their entry: “someone or something regarded as embodying the essential characteristics of an era, group, etc.”
On being called an icon, per Pezzati: “Well, that’s weird too. It indicates that I am symbol of punk rock. In that sense of the word” (the literal meaning) it feels right because I believe that punk rock is a very good thing that changed music indelibly forever. I can stand up for that any day.”
Pezzati downplays the influence he and Naked Raygun have had on the musicians and bands that followed and his role in shaping said people/bands. Most famous perhaps of citing the influence of Naked Raygun is Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. Grohl has oft relayed his memory of watching and being inspired by his first live music performance. The show was at The Cubby Bear, when Grohl came to Chicago for a visit. He was there with his cousin and the band was Naked Raygun. In 2015, Grohl repaid that “favor” by inviting Naked Raygun to open for them at Wrigley Field.
“Those bands would have probably made the right kind of music anyway. There were plenty of great bands out there to pick up on when we were starting. We might have hurried the process along for some of the people in those bands.”
I have myself seen many bands describe how much they appreciated what Naked Raygun has done and how they were insured by NR. It occurred again on the evening of the Jawbreaker show, when Smoking Popes, the first band on the bill, gave a shout out to NR and Eli Caterer of Smoking Popes joined in for a couple of songs.
So of course, I felt compelled to ask Pezzati to discuss his influences and to recall some of the stand out moments in the band’s history of sharing the stage. “This is a great question. Our influences were: The Buzzcocks, Wire (first 2 albums), The Stranglers, Gang of Four, The Dead Boys, The Birthday Party and a few others. We never got to play with any of them. Shows that stand out for me are: The Undertones at the Aragon Ballroom in the mid 1980’s. Madness at the Park West in the 80’s. Johnny Thunders at some little hole in the wall where Walter Lure’s band was playing in NY,NY – he just showed and took over the show. The Birthday Party at Tut’s in Chicago in the 80’s, The Cramps and also The Psychedelic Furs both at Tut’s. Blurt at Hueys in Chicago. Gang of Four at the University of Chicago. Also Ian Hunter at the Park West with Mick Ronson on guitar.”
When it was announced that Naked Raygun would be opening for Jawbreaker, there were ripples of rumors that this show would mark the end of the band playing live. Pezzati is quick to dispel that rumor: “Well, we WILL play out live when our album comes out. Although no one seems to be in a hurry to finish it. And we may play on New Year’s Eve…this year.:”
As with what seems to be most bands, the Naked Raygun’s lineup has changed over the course of its history of nearly four decades. I wondered how those changes affect the performances of songs that were first played by members no longer affiliated with the group. Pezzati: “Well every player, plays a little different, however we want the ‘new guy’ to play the songs as close to the recorded version as possible. There may be a slight difference. Hopefully it is an improvement to the original or we would have the part explained better to the player. For example…we have very few songs with any guitar solos. I hate guitar solos…but if you’re going to stick (one) into a song it should be brilliant and you (as a guitar player) should be able to regurgitate it up the same way every time the song is performed.”
Moving on to other ground, the corporatization of punk rock, which is not new. Pezzati describes it this way:
“(Punk rock) certainly started out on unsteady ground. It was the laughable joke of most American music fans. However, as people ‘got it’ they became devout believers and some, disciples of the music. The corporate world just took edible pieces of punk and applied it to sell their products or ideas. I have no problem with that. The fact that the entire genre was ignored by popular radio… now that I have a problem with. Looking forward I see a worrisome predicament beginning to occur…that is that the mainstream music industry still has not included into their ‘boys club’ attitude this great music. I mean how many times have you heard even Weezer on the radio or seen a post, pre, emo, pop punk band on the Grammys? They still believe that rap is good music and it just isn’t. It’s total garbage. And yet they are rewarding it like it’s the best thing since ice cream. How many times are we going to listen to a song where the guy calls himself the N word and think ‘Wow that is so great and new’?”
When discussing punk rock with a singer who was active in his present band during the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher / United States President Ronald Reagan years, I would be remiss if I did not broach a topic on a lot of our minds recently: Donald Trump. I presented it to him as follows: “Treason” is a song that has been recently played, repeatedly on Facebook and other places with Trump in mind. How do you feel about that? Are there songs you have written long ago, which feel newly relevant in the era of Trump?
Pezzati: “I first read about Donald Trump in the 80’s when I bought a book – an unofficial biography of Trump. He had bad taste then and he has bad taste now. Some people will never have the skills to mold themselves into a palatable version of their elected position. “Treason” remains relevant as does “Managua,” “Hips Swingin’ and certainly “Rat Patrol.”
Recalling that roughly one month post-2016 U.S. Presidential election, Guardian newspaper in Great Britain put this query to its readers via this headline “Rise above: will Donald Trump’s America trigger a punk protest renaissance?” I put this query to Jeff Pezzati: “Have you seen an uptick in music addressing politics and is this something you like to see? I see now that a few bands have taken on the GOP in their music (as it seems when it comes to punk does appear to be more of a target that the left). I
Pezzati responds, “I have seen some really pissed off people in bands – for example Vic Bondi. Originally of Articles of Faith. But I don’t know if I’m the one to ask. I’m not really in tune with the kids these days..”
I asked him to respond to something I have also seen happening starting almost from the moment Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton finished her concession speech that night in early November 2016. It seems much of what we see in the punk rock community is addressing the president is via t-shirts and buttons and the like. Is this something you see as productive or merely cathartic for the wearer? And do you see a discernible difference from the punk rock answer to Reagan and Thatcher; and other leaders coming after both Reagan and Thatcher?
Pezzati: “The punk rock community seems split on this issue and during Reagan’s and Thatcher’s day it was too. You have emo bands just writing torrid love songs and some people are just sick of hearing about the latest atrocity that the Trump administration has contrived.”
I then switched gears back to Naked Raygun and specifically, its beloved bass player Pierre Kezdy. Kezdy joined the band in the early 1980’s, however he’s not presently playing the live shows due to his health. I asked Pezzati if he would provide an update that best that he could.
“I know he feels the love from the NR fans…. He is not doing well. Cancer is a bitch. They treat it so viciously that almost kills the host …meaning you. The thing is – most of this malady could have been avoided but Pierre has always had what I call ‘The Martyr Complex’ and always will.”
The love was indeed present at the most recent show where arguably the most popular item available at the Naked Raygun table was a t-shirt featuring a delineation of Kezdy.
Almost wrapping up, I had two more questions to pose to Jeff Pezzati. The first was in reference to upcoming projects he might want to share with Dying Scene readers. And what a teaser he provided.
“Someday I WILL release a solo effort that is mostly complete at this time. It has one song on it that is the best thing I have ever written.”
I also asked if he had anything else he wanted Dying Scene readers to know. He answered with a few words of wisdom, not necessarily garnered through years of being that aforementioned punk rock icon but by years of just being a human. They are words we all should already be heeding but a reminder every now and again is always a good thing. Of course Pezzati had to answer with a bit of humor.
“Be good to one another. Life is fragile and very short. To overcome any situation, take small bites. You’ll get there. Since most of the time you spend is doing things that you HAVE to do rather than CHOOSE or ENJOY doing ….treat every day as something special… a gift – if you will. And things will work out, I promise. I am after all an icon AND a legend. Ha!”