Over a generation ago The Descendents laid out the philosophy of “All,” the guiding principal of which is to not settle for anything and to keep striving to be your best. Among the All-O-Gistics (a slightly longer version of punk Ten Commandments penned with tongue firmly in cheek and feet firmly ensconced in scuffed Doc Martens) are such pearls of wisdom such as:
“Thou shalt not have no idea”
“Thou shalt not partake of decaf”
“Thou shalt not commit laundry”
And, whatever you do, “Thou shalt not commit adulthood.”
That’s easy enough to write in your youth, but time and consequences make adulthood inevitable. Their sound and energy bely the fact that The Descendents have been around in some form for over forty years. It took a few years for the lineup to crystallize, but the core line up of Milo Aukerman (vocals), Bill Stevenson (drums), Karl Alvarez (bass) and Stephen Egerton (guitar) has remained constant since 1986. During that time their active status has varied as they dealt with the burdens of adulthood – college, day jobs, children, parents and peers dying, and getting burnt out and laid off from those same day jobs.
What’s adulthood look like? Thirty years ago, on the dazzling short and stoopid “I Like Food,” Milo gleefully proclaimed:
“I like food, food tastes good!
I like food, food tastes good!
Juicy burgers, greasy fries!”
Now on “No Fat Burger” (2016) he’s forced to concede:
“Can’t have no more juicy burgers
Can’t have no more greasy fries
Doctor took my lipid profile
He told me I’m barely alive!”
Despite all that, their sound hasn’t changed much, and they can still put on a ferocious live show. They proved that over and over on Friday night to a sold-out house at Bogart’s. They came on like a juggernaut and, other than a brief pause before the encore, never let up. Songs from their 2016 album Hypercaffium Spazzinate meshed nicely with their earlier material. They’ve never strayed far from their signature sound- an appealing brisk blend of punk and pop with solid hooks and full throttled vocal delivery. It’s a sound that burns clean enough that it still sounds current. Other bands such as Green Day, Blink-182 and even Foo Fighters have used that template to achieve massive success. Before the show I was talking to a young guy in the front of the pit. I mentioned I had seen The Descendents at Bogart’s back in 1997. He smiled and said, “Oh, that was before I was born.” That’s a solid testament to how enduring their appeal is.
In some ways, hewing to that sound is a young man’s game, but Stevenson and Alvarez are still dynamos and played with enormous energy. They haven’t lost a step and pushed the songs with blitzkrieg drumming and catapulting basslines. Egerton’s guitar was as searing as ever, and it was nice to see him stretch out leads in between crunchy power chords. And Aukerman? Well, Milo was as coffee-fueled as ever, prowling the stage with mic in hand. With his thick spectacles (secured with a sturdy elastic head strap), short cropped hair and impish smile he looked like a punk rock Drew Carey.
The setlist drew from their entire career and the energetic crowd seemed to know all the classics. As the lead to “Clean Sheets” broke out, a sea of arms erupted into in the air, fists ringed by bright green neon wristbands. A passionate crowd sung along with every word. Bodies were passed overhead, and the patient security folks grabbed them securely, guided them to their feet and eased them back into the crowd. Catch and release over and over a steady stream of dazed teens, women and shirtless tattooed men. A young woman with a fiery fuchsia mohawk came out of the pit and brushed past me, her face elated. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young girl, maybe six, being passed toward the stage. Instead of being frightened, she was giggling at the sheer joy of it all. She was guided out of the pit and her dad hoisted her on his shoulders. She beamed as she watched the band, forking her fingers and rocking out.
As much as the crowd loved the band, it was clear that the affection was mutual as Milo climbed off the stage to sing “Thank You” (off their 1996 album Everything Sucks). The song is their tribute to every fan of every band that nobody else gets:
“You don't get played on the radio
That's not the game you play
Well I don't care anyway
I glued your tape in the stereo
So I know every word, every note
And every chord is right, right on”
Milo shook hands and pressed into the crowd, putting the mic in front of them as the fans took turns singing, “Thank you for playing the way you play!”
The band closed out the first set with their eponymous 1985 theme song. Back then, their future was uncertain, and it was rewarding to hear them sing to a sold-out crowd: “We never did a popular thing/Don't even know how to sing/Couldn't sell out a telephone booth/What I'm telling is the truth!”
Milo thanked the crowd and joked, “We’ll see you again in twenty years!” But after a short pause, they returned for encores and a surprise guest. When Milo went on hiatus in the ‘80s, the other three members formed a new band (All) with a new singer (in fact, Milo was sporting an All t-shirt all night and it soaked through so much that the logo was barely visible by the end of the show). After a few more Descendents’ songs, Milo ceded the stage to All’s lead singer, Chad Price. Chad burned through two songs for the mini All reunion before Milo returned, hugged him and closed out the evening.
Hopefully The Descendents will continue to tour and inspire the next few generations to carry their torch. If not, as Milo sings on “Smile,” “Toil away, and at the end of the day/You can look back at a game well played.”
In the end, The Descendents may be guilty of breaking a few of their own rules. Have they ever coveted their neighbor’s food? Probably, even despite the doctor’s warning. Have they ever partaken of the dreaded decaf? Less likely. Can they still bring the fire, and do they always go for greatness? Yeah. Still and always. The proud, the few, The Descendents.