I went to an urban high school, lived in a suburb and commuted an hour and a half by bus to get home every day. Kids would commute from all over the island to get to and from school and those of us who would use the same bus routes often defaulted to being friends because we had to spend 10 hours a week on public transportation. You could easily spot Maryknollers on the bus by their uniforms. I rode with my two best friends from junior high and because we lived particularly far out, there weren’t a ton of other schoolmates on our bus route, but one such person can be directly linked to our bridge from alternative music to punk rock.
I doubt anyone remembers this conversation besides me, but it was the very first time Cybil, Alison and I chatted Lisa up on the bus. As kids do, we practically opened the conversation with “so….what kind of music do you listen to?” This was freshman year and my prepared response included Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins. She shocked us by responding that she listened to punk rock. Confused, I was like “You...mean...like...the Sex Pistols or something?” No, she was into Bad Religion.
At the time I’d never heard of them but over the ensuing months and years picked up “American Jesus” on MTV and certainly heard quite a bit of “Infected” and “20th Century Digital Boy” on the radio. I got copies of Stranger Than Fiction and (eventually) The Gray Race because they were available on Columbia House.*
*It never hit me until I started writing these things how much the economics of music collecting impacted what I listened to. Things are so different now.
In short, I am and always was an extremely casual Bad Religion fan. I remember leading up to “American Jesus” on Alternative Nation one time, Steve Isaacs said something to the effect of “people say all Bad Religion songs sound the same, but you know? It’s a really good song.” This is true, and is a consequence of Bad Religion having such a distinct signature sound. The other thing about Bad Religion is that their songs are so topical. They’re like Dead Kennedys without the sense of humor. This is unique and a cool idea but not 100% my bag. There’s often very little art and mystery and I feel like I’m being educated more than I’m being entertained.
Then, there’s “Don’t Pray on Me,” to my ear the most distinct and by far my favorite tune by them. The guitar melody is more traditionally sing-songy than what Bad Religion usually puts out. I usually think of Bad Religion melodies being like a fuzzed out crank that’s moving the song along. The guitar in “Don’t” is more fun. It’s almost jovial. There are detours. It’s less *practical.*
Lyrically and thematically, the song is really fucking complicated, which is not a departure, but I feel like this one engages a little more artistry than usual? The first verse is about Rodney King and the LA Rebellion (who went 73 and 14 this season they had a great year). This is something I discovered today, which makes total sense given the timing of the release and Bad Religion being who they are. But in subsequent verses, they link together other parallel historical events in which (loosely) the media has obscured the relevant nugget of the story itself (i.e., the impact JFK’s possible affair with Marilyn Monroe on his legacy as compared with his being largely responsible for the Vietnam War)! Then, we get to talk about reproductive choice and my favorite verse of any Bad Religion song:
A bitter debate and a feminine fate
Fly in tandem like two precious babes
While the former gets warmer it's the latter that matters
Except on the nation's airwaves
And custodians of public opinion stay back after vainly discussing her rights
Lay hands off her body
It's not your fucking life
I always sing this out loud and in spite of myself always get goosebumps.
Give me a sec, I need to catch my breath.
And of course we need to bring it back to religion in the final verse because it’s Bad Religion and this time I get it because to review:
The media totally obscured the point of the uprising following the Rodney King verdict, failed to emphasize the human-rights relevance, which made the whole thing televised sound and fury signifying nothing.
This isn’t new; media sensationalism has always done a disservice to the actual truth.
For example in the reproductive-health arena, the focus is on the debate and not on structures that undermine equality.
IT ALL GOES BACK TO THE GODDAMNED BIBLE.
I also think of my brother when I think of this song. We shared it. I think one of his email addresses was firstname.lastname@example.org somewhere along that line. Or maybe it was a screen name. He was very much into Being an Atheist as a teenager than I ever was, which is I think why he got off on BR so much more than I did. While he was like “yeah! Fuck you, Bible!” I was like “hey, a Bad Religion song I can dance to!” I was really mad at Bad Religion for a time. I’d heard somewhere along the line that they were no longer a functioning band, didn’t travel together, and kind of just kept the machine going because they gotta eat. Some bands can get away with this, but if you’re trying to Tell It Like It Is and change minds, you absolutely cannot. Also kind of highlights the dangers of commodifying rebellious music. I know we loosened restrictions on this since Kurt Died, but come on.
But these motherfuckers are STILL GOING. That anecdote about their not speaking to each other is like 20 years old. If it were true, or like, even important, they wouldn’t have literally put out like SEVEN albums since 2000. I haven’t listened to any of them and I’m having trouble wrapping my head around who on earth needs MORE BAD RELIGION ALBUMS, but someone must be buying them. I can see there being a greater market for them in the Age of Trump. I’m not really craving them so much as I am a Devo these days. Bad Religion kind of only makes me nostalgic for there being some reason in the opposition.