NOFX was one of my first forays into punk rock music. They were kind of on the cusp of being mainstreamed but never got over the hump. I think if you were to draw a line between mainstream and just-underground punk rock music, Bad Religion would be on one side and NOFX would be on the other. Unlike Bad Religion, they stayed completely off MTV and mostly off mainstream radio. I believe the story was that they produced a music video for “Stickin’ In My Eye” and against their better judgement submitted it to MTV, who didn’t play it and NOFX was like “well, I guess that’s that, then.” They were definitely played on Radio Free, but I’m not sure how far beyond Radio-Free type and college radio stations they appeared. I’m thinking very little. But that presence they did have served them really well, while still giving them fairly plausible DIY bragging rights. And they’re millionaires. Go figure.
I feel like my introduction to NOFX came early on in high school because of the aforementioned Radio Free airplay and the fact that they came through Hawaii fairly regularly. I can’t pinpoint it, but do clearly recall buying a used copy of White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean at what was then the Radio Free Hawaii music store* (it is now a bank). This was another economic decision, where I made the purchase because it was the first of the familiar albums I found used.
*Goddamn, there is precious little online about this fabled location which was hands-down my favorite place in the world sophomore and junior year in high school. If I didn’t have the money to buy a compact disc (even a used one), I would carefully select a sticker and buy it instead for a dollar or two. Also purchased at this location was the purple hair dye I used to dye my hair the one major time I did it. Some of you may not know or remember that it was REALLY REBELLIOUS to dye your hair a non-natural color and was not the kind of thing you could get done in a salon. And furthermore, your school probably forbade it and you could absolutely not work in retail or any variety of position not related to the subculture in any way. Those days are long gone.
It’s interesting that it happened that way. When it came out, NOFX’s sixth studio album, Heavy Petting Zoo was my favorite record by them because it was so grand and ambitious. In retrospect I think it was probably too ambitious and didn’t age well, but I still think of it fondly because it coincided with such a Time. I listened the shit out of that album. Then, I think like a lot of people, I turned to their previous release Punk in Drublic for a long time, which is fair and includes NOFX’s most beloved and (probably) best known song, “Linoleum.” Released right on time in 1994, you’d think that Punk in Drublic was their breakthrough album, but just as NOFX is only sort-of a mainstream punk band, Punk in Drublic is only sort of their breakthrough album. The turning point for NOFX which elevated them from scabby jokesters to legitimate talents both in writing and musicianship happened leading up to their *fourth* release, White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean.
This is the direct result of their hiring musical ringer Aaron Abeyta, known in NOFX as El Hefe. This move is less cynical than I make it out to be. Their previous lead guitarist made an ill-timed departure right before Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. When Fat Mike recounts this story, he is unable to contain his giddy, schadenfreudic delight. Hefe wasn’t a punk rocker, he was a Very Good Guitarist (and trumpet player AND voice actor), the formula worked exceptionally well, and this lineup change is directly responsible for their being elevated to Punk Rock Legends. <br>
It wasn’t until I sat down to really critically think about which NOFX song most belongs on this list that I realized the songs on White Trash actually mean the most to me and it is in fact my favorite NOFX album at this point in my life. Punk in Drublic is a more confident effort. It’s sillier and probably more evolved musically. There’s a humble quality to White Trash that I find really endearing. “Please Play This Song on the Radio” was a standout for me right away since the first time I heard it ws *on* the radio, making the whole situation very meta, which never fails to tickle me. “Bob” and “Stickin’ in My Eye” are classics. “Liza and Louise” is the first in a series of embarrassingly problematic tunes about lesbians that seemed legitimately progressive in their time. He meant well and “Liza and Louise” on its own would have been fine but in subsequent installments it goes off the rails in straight male lesbian fetishization. I digress.
“The Bag” is a bit of a sleeper, but one I’ve always loved. After very careful thought,* I think I’ve made the right choice, particularly for Our Times. I first heard it on Radio Free. I don’t think it was a single, but made its way on the radio anyway. Musically, it’s sad. It starts out like a lot of NOFX songs do, with manic guitar and drums in a break-neck intro cut by Fat Mike’s semi-intentionally disharmonic vocals. The drums are kind of typical for Smelly’s style in that they feel like they’re almost tripping over themselves. The melody itself is tired and regretful, matched well with the tired regretful lyrics.
*I didn’t limit myself to one-song-per-artist on this list but the very sophisticated calculus I used to determine song selection and rank order determined that NOFX deserved one song but it should be in the top thirty, so in this case, yes, it’s just one NOFX song.
When I really thought about what this song was trying to say, I was actually kind of moved by the application to Our Times, particularly for those of us belonging to an out-in-public community. The lyrics express a feeling many of us have had at our worst and most tired, feeling very alone among friends. I’ve done a lot of reflecting about how I didn’t appreciate being out among friends as often as I was before the pandemic hit. I mentioned this in my post about Operation Ivy: what happens when a party feels like an obligation. I read that in Mike’s lyrics. It’s the lament of someone who’s not in the mood, but is out anyway: “There's no reason for me to be here, no I feel so lonesome surrounded by friends,” “Give me something I can sink my teeth into; show me a time, tell me a story that I haven't heard a million times before.” Then in the last verse, strangely prophetic: “As I watch the people pass, I see moments in their life, nothing fascinating. Are we all living for the past, never realizing we're clinging to an empty bag?” So like in this case the idiom “left holding the bag” is a double entendre where “the bag” is nostalgia. To review: in a single song, Mike laments the obligations that have us socializing for socializing’s sake in a song that’s literally about the dangers of nostalgia?! When this hit me, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. This isn’t the only time they did this. Their song “Just the Flu” which came out in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and NINETY ONE, basically talks about life in the time of Corona. NOFX is to the pandemic as the Simpsons is to the Trump presidency.
I have loved NOFX for 26 years. I went on hiatus during the aforementioned period when we as Americans grew tired of punk rock, but fell off the wagon in 2008 when the Fuse network began airing episodes of their truly fantastic reality series, Backstage Passport, a TV series I have watched in its entirety at least ten times and have not grown tired of it. Then we started catching up a little bit to find out that they hadn’t put out terrible music in the interim. Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing (2006) is the strongest post-So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes and in fact I’d probably rank it third in quality behind White Trash and Punk in Drublic.
As I do with any band that has a Personality, I get frustrated with NOFX and their musical and spiritual leader, Fat Mike. He hasn’t been doing well in the last several years and I think that there’s some tension within the band that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot. Mike has made a ton of mistakes and you can blame mental health and substance abuse challenges he’s been very open about over the years, but I worry that there aren’t a lot of people willing to tell him “no” anymore. I read their four-way memoir The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories and he comes off pretty bad in it, though I do recommend it; it’s a great read. Regardless, when they come through town, I will go and see them and I’ll be excited about it. They’re a legitimate source of comfort for me, still together, a certainty in an uncertain world, for now, at least.