Classics Of Love at Barfly, London, 2009. Photo by Imelda Michalczyk
When Lookout Records, the label I co-founded and ran from 1987 to 1997, shut its doors a few weeks ago, I was besieged by journalists and bloggers, some earnestly inquiring into What Went Wrong or What It All Meant, others more interested in taking a gentle, nostalgic stroll down the boulevard of broken dreams.
Before my appearance on KQED, San Francisco’s NPR station, I was asked to put together a brief playlist of songs that epitomized the Lookout ethos and aesthetic. They’d been planning on using Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” easily that band’s best-known song, thanks to the gently mocking yet affectionate cover version performed by Green Day at nearly every concert for the past 20 years.
I pointed out that not only would “Knowledge” bring down the wrath of the FCC, containing as it does one of the Seven Deadly Words radio stations are never allowed to broadcast, but that it wasn’t even Operation Ivy’s best song. Or at least not the song that best summed up what that band was all about.
“The Crowd,” I suggested, would be a better choice, and that was in fact what they played. I listened over the phone while waiting for the interviewer to turn his attention to me, anticipating the part where, following the first anthemic chorus, Jesse eases up ever so slightly to sing, with that subtle yet unmistakable catch in his voice, “Drink drink in the badlands…”
The whole song makes me want to jump up and down, grin maniacally, and throw myself around the room, but there’s something about that line, with its barely muted, infinitesimally constrained passion, that has never failed to send chills right through me. David Hayes, my original partner in Lookout Records, put his finger on a similar phenomenon back in 1989 when we were listening to the rough mixes of the Op Ivy album.
There’s one song – “Bad Town” where Tim Armstrong sings lead. It’s a great song, and totally stands on its own, but when it reaches the outro, there’s a 10-second – seriously, 10 seconds, no more – where Jesse adds a backing vocal that blasts the whole thing into the next dimension.
“Listen to what happens when Jesse comes in,” said David. “It’s almost scary.”
It’s been almost 25 years since I first heard Jesse Michaels sing. I’ve seen him with Operation Ivy, Big Rig, Common Rider, Classics Of Love, even doing birthday karaoke at El Cerrito’s Mel-O-Dee Inn, and I’ve never known a more naturally gifted performer. His whisper-to-a-scream intensity can instantly electrify any piece of music it’s attached to.
When Operation Ivy broke up immediately upon releasing their first and only album, “Whatever happened to Jesse?” soon became the inevitable question in any discussion about the band. It was widely known that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman kept their partnership going through the short-lived Downfall and Generator before winding up in the very long-lived Rancid, and slightly less known yet easily ascertainable that drummer Dave Mello aligned himself with the virtuoso jazz-punks of Schlong.
But Jesse? He was reported to have become a monk, to have moved to Nicaragua, to be writing a book, constructing a new supergroup, or in rehab, or… feel free to add your own stories, because that’s what it seemed everybody was doing, while almost nobody knew what if any of it was true.
Over time I’ve learned little bits and pieces of what really happened, while remaining as befuddled as anyone about some of the other legends of Jesse’s Lost Years (I say that semi-facetiously; the only people they were actually lost to were the fans, waiting impatiently for Jesse’s return).
When he did re-appear, you could say he eased rather than thrust himself back into the limelight with the solid but low-profile Big Rig. Then, after a similarly long interval, came Common Rider. They were well-loved, but despite a couple superficial similarities to Operation Ivy – mainly in the use of ska and reggae beats – they too seemed almost deliberately low key.
“Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us” was Operation Ivy’s epitaph as delivered by Tim Armstrong and Rancid. Perhaps – I may well be reading too much into this, of course – that outcome prompted Jesse, in his new musical incarnation, to exercise the caution that he had once claimed not to understand.
More years passed – if there’s a single definitive thing you can say about Jesse, it’s that he’s not one for rushing into things – before slowly, gradually, a new band, Classics Of Love, emerged. Thanks to his history, Jesse couldn’t avoid being the most visible member, but this time it felt more like a band than “Jesse Michaels and…”
To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw them three years ago in London. The group – who had been performing on their own as Hard Girls before joining forces with Jesse – were undeniably and impressively solid, but Jesse was still nervously feeling his way into this new role, and a full-fledged musical bond had yet to be formed. The highlight that night was a cover of – what else? – Operation Ivy’s “The Crowd.”
But what a difference a little time makes: Classics Of Love are back with their debut full-length album, released February 14 on California’s Asian Man Records, and it’s a dazzling tour de force that marries intense melodic hardcore with Jesse’s signature vocals more successfully than anything I’ve heard since the heyday of Operation Ivy.
Not wishing to mislead anyone, let me hasten to point out that Classics Of Love do not resemble Operation Ivy in any obvious way (apart from being awesome). The one similarity I can see, though, is the way Jesse’s voice has regained its full-throated and uninhibited power, and is driven and underpinned by a band that matches him note for note and beat for beat, a band that plays not behind but as one with him.
I don’t write a lot of record reviews these days, and haven’t had much interest in doing so. This one’s worth making an exception for. Like many of us, Jesse has spent his share of years in the wilderness. It only makes it all the more special to welcome him home.