Recently I hit a landmark that is weird to write: I have been sober for as long as I could legally drink when I was an addict. And even when I turned 21, I knew I had a problem. I only felt like myself with a beer in my hand. I could not go to a function without planning to get blitzed. With my five-year sobriety anniversary, I have been thinking about one band that soundtracked the worst years of my life.
In some ways, my experience as someone invested in punk can be described as before and after Lawrence Arms. I only discovered them because my roommate, who was much more knowledgeable about punk, passed them on to me. But the journey through their discography was not a normal one. Even before I started writing about music, I had a critical mindset rotting the way I engaged with music. I had to go chronologically. It resulted in weird opinions sometimes. There was a period in my life where I absolutely loathed TLA’s breakout, Oh Calcutta. I felt that true fans would recognize it as a poser’s pick. The first song I ever heard was “An Evening of Extraordinary Circumstances,” which opens A Guided Tour of Chicago. The song is full of references to Chicago and feels well-observed. The chorus is raucous, led by the lyrics, “Tonight I’ll drink nine or ten beers.” But the lyrics are depressing and something I identified with. My experience felt similar to me as a young adult still finding out how to navigate himself as a college student. The compositions were primitive and rudimentary, and the recording sounded like shit. It was far from representative of TLA. The Northside, The L&L, and any Number of Crappy Apartments stand out, showing outlines of future records.
My newfound love of Lawrence Arms coincided with turning 21 and discovering a love of the nastiest combo of Malort and Old Style. TLA embodied a certain kind of drunk Chicago guy who could often be your bartender. You may see this person today at your favorite punk bar. You may be unsure if this person is just an asshole or a bit standoffish while working. Maybe you experienced singer Brendan Kelly himself at Gman Tavern in the 2010s. People have relayed plenty of stories to me of talking to him while he was drunk. I even subjected him to my fanboy tendencies once.
Because TLA was so beloved by so many Chicagoans, a cult of personality seemed tied into the band. The annual fest War on Christmas seemed like a family reunion that was more a party than a concert. TLA made drinking sound like the coolest thing you could ever do. Partially because of them, I treated getting drunk as an Olympic sport. And I found I was good at it as a fat person. I would increase the amount of beers I could consume on a given night. Pregaming would become a whole ordeal. Drinking a six-pack before going to Quenchers Saloon or Double Door was not enough. There needed to be shots interspersed in there too. It would ensure all I would need once I got to the bar was one shot and nothing else.
Something has been gnawing at me lately as I reflect on a version of myself that no longer exists. What does a sober person do with the culture you deeply identify within the throes of addiction? Because TLA was not just something I enjoyed. I thoroughly was a walking cliche and, in some way, tried to embody the culture they had wrought. Drinking was a coping mechanism, and TLA was my background music. I still love the music, but listening to them while I stay home on a Friday night in my thirties feels wrong. It feels antithetical to what TLA represents. The context is incorrect. A lot of the stuff you would call orgcore or fest punk is a communal experience. I think of going to a show, and then Iron Chic’s “Cutsey Monster Man” starts blaring through the speakers. Friends start joining arms over each other shoulders screaming, “I want to smash my face into the goddamn radio.” TLA has plenty of these moments as well. I still vividly remember singing into a stranger’s face, “Good friend, how loud do/You want life to shout her/Answers in your ear?” Just hearing those lyrics in “Disaster March” will give me goosebumps.
There are parts of TLA that I can still hold dear. They were responsible for birthing many less interesting versions of punk that I loathe. I saw some versions of copycats going to shows in the 2010s. Some weren’t bad, but they never came close to writing b-sides as good as “Corpses of Our Motivations.” Also, the lyrical heft of TLA gets lost in people who make bands inspired by them. There is less of the tired trope of. “I’m sad, but I’m going to get drunk with my friends.” Greatest Story Ever Told, especially, has some density to it. When you dig into the liner notes, it can be read as a concept record. It famously has references to the book Master and The Margarita. I was so fascinated by it that I did a final paper for my Russian history class in college. The paper was awful, but I did not care at all. Music was more important to me than anything happening in college. I would spend more time on the northwest side of Chicago than hanging out in Rogers Park at Loyola University.
By the time the follow-up to Oh Calcutta came out in Metropole, I was already a fan. That was nine years ago, so I have trouble remembering my initial responses. I remember feeling muted on it and feeling as if some of the aggression was gone. But now, the opening line of Chilean District sticks out: “I was born, and I died/Just a moment went by.” At 21, I was not ready to process some of the thematic threads throughout it. It felt like a natural progression for a band that lives in pop-punk. It allowed them to escape the “peter-pan” dilemma many have faced. Writing about teenage problems as a forty-year-old is pathetic. It does not carry the same weight when you have kids. I was not ready to think of these weighty ideas at the time. If there was a TLA record I was living, it was Oh Calcutta. I did not want the party to end.
I am far enough away from those times to internalize the message. Recently, my friend circles have shrunk. Last year was the ten-year reunion for high school. Friends from middle school had parents that recently passed away. People who were once central to my life have moved on to different phases of their life. I am no longer a part of their weekly activities. It isn’t bad; It is just a reality of aging. The scene I grew up in my twenties feels fractured, and I am lucky to see most people in that small micro scene. The last time I got a flashback to a long-gone era was going to my friend Vito Nusret’s wedding reception. Sincere Engineer played acoustic, and Chris Sutter of Meat Waved joined The Brokedowns to cover Sass Dragons and The Arrivals. It shows how special an event it needs to be to return to 2015 for me.
Even if I do not live vicariously through TLA songs anymore, they were responsible for building parts of my community. I was introduced to local bands and others through their holiday show. I bonded with others over our mutual love of this silly little band. It’s ultimately a good thing that I do not personally identify with the lyrics with something that defined my previous decade. I am ready for the next band to take over my life. Who knows, maybe I will surprise myself, get into ambient or noise, and decide to make that my entire life for my thirties.
When I got sober in 2018, my tastes were quickly changing. I felt that the strain of orgcore or fest punk that TLA belonged to was growing stale. Nothing was exciting me anymore. I was more interested in Julien Baker and Exploding in Sound Records. I can still remember when I decided I needed to move on and expand my tastes. The Menzingers released After The Party in 2017, and to this day, I can remember thinking fuck this when I heard Tellin Lies. It is up there for one of the worst songs to open up a record that I feel somewhat positively about now (“Oh yeah, everything is terrible, buying marijuana makes you feel like a criminal”). It is funny now because the parts of that song directly speak to me as someone whose twenties just ended.
Two years after my newfound sobriety, The Lawrence Arms released a record called Skeleton Key. I was interested, but my excitement was tempered. That reaction was telling for me. I was fully enmeshed in the world of hardcore and found more excitement in that youth movement than a bunch of aging punks making another record. To this day, I still do not know how I feel about this record. Nothing is wrong with it; my issues have more to do with me than anything else. Kelly’s lyric motifs have become a bit more grating in recent years. I do not find nihilism that alluring of a concept now that I am no longer 21. It is very solidly the worst record since Ghost Stories for me.
For me now, TLA has become jukebox punk for me. When I want to sing along to something, I will put on Apathy and Exhaustion. It is nostalgic fodder. I treat the same way people treat an emo night or an outing at karaoke. Listening to TLA now fires the same pleasure center as hearing my favorite emo songs from middle school. If I hear someone cover them, I will lose my mind for a few minutes. I may see TLA play Chicago this year. But those times when they held sway over me are long gone.
Nowadays, I wonder if TLA means anything to someone under 25. There is part of me that wonders if they are old-man punk now. I would joke years ago that I was the youngest fan they had. It is not a band I would tell a nineteen-year-old they need to hear. I would point them toward Cocktails and Dreams to start if they were interested in exploring the discography. TLA is ancient in certain ways because their lineage goes farther back than two decades ago. A record like Oh Calcutta was the culmination of the Chicago punk scene germinating in the 90s. It had parts of Naked Raygun and the scene around Fireside Bowl, but they supercharged it, infusing it with a Beastie Boys-style approach to its attack. It was the record that made sure TLA became an important name; Without it, people would not talk about them in the same way. For those who are unaware, I made a list categorizing TLA stuff. Not all of it is necessary, but hopefully, you can find something in a band that I devoted way too much of my life to.
Guided Tour of Chicago-Essentially a rudimentary version of TLA. The dual vocals are not there yet. Brendan’s lyrics are fine, but they are just standard punk music. If you like this, go back and listen to Broken Star by The Broadways.
Ghost Stories-If you have to listen to the early period, Ghost Stories should be your pick. It feels a bit more like the version of TLA that people know. There are some fun short experiments (Sixteen Hours, Minute) and nice vignettes of living in Chicago (“Here Comes The Neighborhood”) that try to wrestle with gentrification. Chris McCaughan has more space to show off his talents, which comes through on “Martha Plimpton.”
Best Stuff, And You Only Really Need One of Them
Cocktails and Dreams-This is a good starting point for newcomers to TLA. It collects songs from EPs, splits, and compilations. One of the biggest songs for TLA (100 Resolutions) comes from this collection. Lately, I find myself listening to this collection over everything else.
Apathy and Exaustion-This- This record made me fall in love with the band. It is where everything crystalizes for them. It was the first record they did for Fat Wreck. Mcaughan’s songs, in particular, are all great. Brick Wall Views is my favorite. It does begin to sag in the second half. You can notice many of the same chord progressions and rehashing of similar ideas.
The Greatest Story Ever Told-As I said earlier, this one may be the most fun to get into weeds with. It is the sleeper choice for fans of the band. Kelly kind of stays out of the way and lets Mcaughan go off. Right now, this is the one I reach for the most.
Oh Calcutta-This record is TLA’s legacy. It was the summation of decades of Chicago punk, reaching back to Naked Raygun. It was TLA’s attempt to make the kind of record they grew up on. While it succeeds in its mission state, I was frustrated by it for a long time. I never loved it as much as I thought I should. But now, I cannot deny Oh Calcutta; It has an energy that simply none of the other records have.
Still Good But Only Necessary If You Are a Completionist
Metropole-It is impossible to do better than oh calcutta. Metropole works because it doesn’t. It reads as a response to the previous record. It works with the knowledge that TLA was a band for over a decade. It is weathered in a way I appreciate. I summed up some of my feelings earlier in the essay section.
Skeleton Coast-Though unfair, Skeleton Key is a lesser version of TLA. I appreciate that it is a little more frenetic and uptempo than Metropole. I just do not have a strong relationship with it. But it is still miles better than the first two records. It is just not one that I feel compelled to revisit beyond a couple of tracks when I am in the mood.