If the New York Dolls taught the world anything in 1971, it’s that when bodies move to rock and roll music, they can be transgressive in ways that operate both within and without traditional forms of policing identity. To be sure, the Dolls weren’t the first ones to mobilize transgression in rock and roll — Elvis’ gyrating hips are one of the earliest, most overt examples of a body fuelling a moral panic in post-war popular music — but when they staggered out of their bicycle shop-cum-jam space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and took to the streets, they inadvertently set the template for a new form of movement in rock and roll, what would coalesce into punk less than a decade later. Contrary to glam icons such as David Bowie or Mick Jagger, with their liminal identities that played with the idea that they either were or were not, toying with the heteronormative boundary from within, David Johansen preened and plucked on stage at the Mercer Arts Centre, at once resolute in his heterosexuality and somehow beyond it. As he once said in an interview, “When the Dolls first started, we didn’t say, ‘You’re a faggot so you can’t come here’ — or, ‘You’re straight so you can’t come here.’ It was beyond sexuality… that attitude was scary to a lot of people.” In hindsight, the divide between glam and punk is clear: the former is a series of struck poses, of predetermined identities, while the latter unfolds identity with excess, irrespective of narrative.
A direct line can be drawn from the Dolls’ self-titled debut album and Against Me!’s latest full-length, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Not only are the New York Dolls’ signature, stripped-down punk guitars and snappy, early rock and roll drums obvious reference points for Against Me!’s tighter, scrappier sound on the album, but Against Me! now occupy similar transgressive space as the Dolls. Their music has always included anarcho-punk aesthetics, railing against political injustice and oppression, but never has it been as focused or closely defined as on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Now, led by transgender frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace, Against Me! join the ranks of bands using punk rock as a radical form of expression to take aim against the binary representation of sex, gender and desire naturalized by patriarchy. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an incredible, powerful statement that unfolds the narrative of Grace’s male-to-female transition with unflinching vitality and honesty.
“Part of the aspects that originally drew me towards punk rock are the ideas of smashing gender roles, smashing the patriarchy, thinking for yourself, staying true to yourself, being real,” says Grace from her new home in Chicago. “I don’t want punk rock to be a boys’ club and I don’t like seeing homophobia; I don’t like seeing racism and sexism in the punk scene. I recognize it’s there sometimes, but I think that if you’re into punk and into that scene, it’s your job to stand up against these things and take punk back from these people.”
Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender in an interview with Rolling Stone in May 2012 and began the long process of transitioning from her previous male identity as Tom Gabel to her current female identity as Grace. Tom Gabel had been living for as long as he can remember with gender dysphoria. Looking back on Against Me!’s catalogue, which extends over six albums, starting with Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose (2002), his lyrics seem to be peppered with (now obvious) references to the disconnect between his biological body and his gender identity: on “The Ocean,” off 2007’s New Wave, Gabel sings, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.” At the time, however, no one seemed to pay much attention to any of the references; Gabel had become so adept at passing that no one even questioned his identity. “Feeling that what you’re doing is being misinterpreted by most people, because it’s not being presented in the proper context, was something that built to a breaking point for me,” Grace told NPR in an interview this past January.
Of course, with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, nothing is left to metaphor or the imagination. Just as Gabel came out without mincing words in May 2012 and began living life as Grace, so, too, does the album race through 10 tracks that cut straight to the core of the matter: “You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made,” she sings on the title track, mirroring the words she sang all those years ago under a different identity.
When Gabel first started writing the album, however, he almost hid behind his usual veils, penning a story about a transsexual prostitute. It didn’t take long for him to privately come out to his band and discard the fictional character.
“Starting out, it was just feeling insecure about the perspective I was coming from: I was trying to put it [all] on a fictional character, as opposed to the fact that they’re all my own experiences, coming from myself,” she explains. “It was something I initially said that wasn’t really true.
“It was always rooted in autobiography. There was no fictional character, other than what I said in interviews.”
True Trans Soul Rebel
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the culmination of a story more than two years in the making. Released on Against Me!’s own, independent label, Total Treble Music, Grace was able to retain full creative control over the final product and image. Against Me!’s relationship with Sire, a subsidiary of Warner Records on which they released New Wave and White Crosses (2010), soured as Warner cleaned house in the face of a rapidly diminishing market. Taking what they learned during that time and applying it to this album, Grace calls Transgender her “college thesis,” a masterpiece that will certainly come to define their career.
Creating Total Treble Music was all about setting the stage for the release of Transgender, even if, when the label launched in 2011, the album was still in its infancy. “Putting myself into a position coming into this record, where I knew what I was going to be talking about, where I knew what I was going to be going through, I just really wanted full control: I wanted to be able to steer the ship. I got what I wanted and it’s a continuing experience,” says Grace.
Indeed, watching the band perform live, it’s clear that Against Me! have never been better: they feel like a young band, hungry to make their mark on the world, rather than a band that’s celebrating its sixth full-length in just under two decades. The core of the band, including Grace’s childhood friend, guitarist James Bowman, remains intact and stronger than ever, and their new rhythm section, bassist Inge Johansson (The (International) Noise Company, CSS) and drummer Adam Willard (Rocket From the Crypt, the Offspring, Social Distortion), are some of the best players in the scene today. Grace has said in interviews that recording Transgender almost destroyed the band, but those scars have only served to push the band, and themselves, forward.
“The past couple of years, in particular, have really served to strengthen [my friendship with Bowman]. In the band, playing with both Adam and Inge, I really strongly feel that we’ve never had a better rhythm section. They’re both incredible players and bring it live. It feels really good being on tour right now, playing shows: we all feel like we’re on the same page, we have the same goals and we’re all really excited to be doing what we’re doing. I can’t really ask for more.”
Johansson and Willard certainly bring a veteran pedigree to Against Me!, which has served to inspire Grace to keep developing the band’s sound, rather than cranking out another record that sounds like what they’ve always sounded.
“For you to be able to grow individually as a musician, the best is to play with musicians who challenge you, or who are better than you, so you’re forced to up your game,” she says. “To be playing with two people of the pedigree of Adam and Inge, knowing the bands they’ve been in over the years and what they bring, makes you step up as a musician, which is awesome. In regards to being in a band that’s existed and playing under the name, Against Me!, for 15-16 years as a musical unit, and there’s still room to grow and evolve, it keeps you interested and it keeps you real, as opposed to feeling like it’s boring and knowing what everyone is going to do, how everyone plays and where our limits are.”
“It’s my soul, recorded.”
Grace makes it clear that she’s not speaking for the entire LGBT community on Transgender Dysphoria Blues or in interviews. More than anything, she wants to get her own transition story out there in the hopes that it will resonate with fans who may be experiencing similar feelings. On Transgender, she is finally able to be honest with herself and the world, singing about her own experiences without pulling any punches. Certainly, the band’s visibility and relative commercial stability have given Grace a loud stack of amps through which she can shout the message at the top of her lungs, getting it out to as many people as possible.
“Definitely, my goal when talking about this is to make it something that is more in the public eye, to educate people. I feel like it’s something that most people don’t know a lot about and there are a lot of misconceptions out there, and a lot of prejudices against it, so, pushing forward a largely misrepresented segment of society and trying to make it more commonplace is the overall goal of talking about it,” she explains.
“I’ve tried to make it very clear that I’m definitely a fuck-up. I’m not a role model and I do not have all the answers — I’m living one day at a time.” On record and on stage, however, as her body traverses through the music, she actively creates a space for conversations about non-heteronormative identities and, most importantly, for emerging support communities. Just like the Dolls set the template for bodily subversion in punk, Against Me! are blazing a trail forward for the acceptance of LGBT identities in popular music in the hopes that more people will feel comfortable coming out when the time is right.
“I guess the point that I always try to make is that I’ve always tried to find community in my life,” she says. “To me, making connections to the LGBT community that I have, through coming out and being public with it, means the world to me. So, with someone looking at me as a source of support, or whatever, I’m equally looking at them as a source of support, feeling like you’re not alone in the world.”
Catch Against Me! at the Commodore Ballroom (Vancouver) on March 26, the Starlite Room (Edmonton) on March 28, at Republik (Calgary) on March 29 and at the West End Cultural Centre (Winnipeg) on April 1.
By Sebastian Buzzalino