Keeping It Real

Are the Lower East Side Stitches a punk rock clich or the last of a dying breed?

Two decades ago there was one thing you could count on from punks: the whiff of Aqua Net No. 5--concrete in a can--forming a cloud around liberty spikes and Mohawks. Or for particularly stubborn hair, a mixture of Elmer's, prized for its water solubility, and hairspray. It's been a long time since such tactics have been employed with any degree of success, but the Lower East Side Stitches have the hair to prove that good ol' fashioned punk is not dead. "Just to piss off the higher-ups and make them actually take notice," drummer James Baggs says of the band's old-style fashion sense. "To take a political idea and twist it around and screw the situation up."

Which raises the question, what makes punk punk? In the '80s, when the moniker first lost its luster of heroin overdoses and sloppy British accents, never had the dilemma of fashion vs. attitude been more obvious. On the West Coast, the punks piled into vans, carting themselves from one kegger to the next, with nary a concern about personal appearance or society. On the East Coast, they blurted out political aphorisms and baited the System with wild hair and safety-pin-encrusted jean jackets, constantly attempting to rub society the wrong way. Both sides questioned the other side's claim to be "real" punks. "There's nothing wrong with L.A.--if you don't live there, I guess," Baggs says. "But being from New York holds a lot of weight, and we really want to push that New York pride, anti-mayor shit, you know?"

Punk may have been invented in America, but it was England which figured out how to ram it down people's throats. "London needed it," Baggs explains of why the Brits pilfered and changed the scene. "The L.A. punk back then was somewhat political, but not really. In California, I don't know of any punk bands that really fucked with, like, senators or governors, or anything like that. They weren't pissing people off. The English punk was all political, about being screwed up and on the dole and stuff. That, to me, defined it; really gave it a definition of being a movement, more than just a style of music and fashion."

And it's that era of punk, when the Sex Pistols were the top of their class, for which the Stitches have a soft spot. Baggs, vocalist Mick Brown, lead guitarist Curtis Stitch, rhythm guitarist Lorne Behrman, and bassist Damian Branica aren't afraid to admit that theirs is a conscious choice to reestablish the Golden Era. "It was a lot more serious back then," Baggs says. "It was no bullshit about just being young and angry. Punk now has nothing to do, in my eyes, with how it should be or how it was. It was about being frustrated and stuck. The greatest injustice is all these bands coming out that forgot the true meaning of it." But the Stitches are willing to let bygones be bygones, forgetting the whole mess that grew out of the '80s into the '90s, and returning instead to a simpler time when punk was attitude, and attitude dictated fashion.

The Stitches' sophomore release, STAJA98L.E.S., has the look of London punk, with garish pink-and-blue cover art, but all the feel of the godfathers of punk themselves, the Ramones. It was produced by Daniel Rey, who worked with the Ramones once upon a time.

"We're not trying to stagnate and stay with the whole '76 to '78 ideals," Baggs explains. "But we definitely like the old thing and want to keep it like that. We're trying to keep it original and how it was supposed to be, at least in our minds. It's definitely more us than anything else." Still, naysayers charge that the Stitches are simply ripping off the past and that, by signing to Ng Records (an independent label distributed by BMG), they have sold out. Baggs summarily brushes such claims aside: "We have nothing to cash in on."

For another thing, Curtis Stitch is the past; his youth was spent handing over hard-earned bucks for '70s punk albums when they first came out. And while his bandmates may be younger, it's hard to imagine the "real" attitude hasn't rubbed off. Three-quarters of the Stitches still slave away as bartenders at night, suggesting that their signing with Ng hasn't been a financial windfall.

"Everybody's going wacky, saying that we did this, that, and the other thing," Baggs says. "Meanwhile, we are not reaping any sort of benefit from any sort of major label thing. We're still struggling. So screw 'em. If they're not going to take the time to find out what they're talking about, then I'll let them live in their stupidity, because they have no idea what's going on."

The Stitches may be nihilists, but they don't whine about it like the Londoners. "Musically, we're not really political. We just write about how frustrating life is," Baggs says. They write about their experiences and the world around them. Sure, maybe that includes throwing up in a toilet, but it also means hating school, hating mainstream culture, hating your girlfriend, hating mooches, hating New York City politics, and just loving to hate things. Poets they are not, but then they never claimed to be. In fact, the Stitches don't claim to be anything.

"Everything we do, if we're going to get flak for it, is because we want to do it that way," Baggs says. "Making money isn't a priority, but then again, who's going to say no to a good life?"

Lower East Side Stitches, opening for Blanks 77. 9:30 p.m., Thursday, February 4, Euclid Tavern, 11629 Euclid Ave., 216-229-7788, $8 ($9 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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