by Chris Jarvis
Content warning: mentions police violence, state violence, alcoholism
July 14 is a day of mourning and remembrance for the punk community. Two years ago on that date, the folk-punk pioneer Erik Petersen passed away. Founding member and frontman of the iconic Mischief Brew, Erik Petersen was one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation. His music will long be remembered for its infectiousness, its unique storytelling, its wit, its rawness and its inflammatory radicalism.
Two years on, we remember Erik Petersen through seven of his greatest songs.
Pennsylvania was a key part of Petersen’s identity. It’s the State that he grew up in, the State that he lived in, and the State that would become synonymous with his music and his sound. It’s no surprise, then, that one of Mischief Brew’s best songs is a barbed love song for Pennsylvania. The song’s video is shot in the Pennsylvanian ghost town of Centralia, which was abandoned in 1962 after a coal mine fire ignited below the town – a fire which still burns to this day. An account that is equal parts beautiful and harrowing, O, Pennsyltucky references the Three Mile Island disaster, pays homage to the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and acknowledges the seedy underbelly of the State. Petersen’s PA is one of contradiction, of nuance and of incongruity.
Dirty Pennies narrates the relationship between a homeless woman and a young boy. It opens by depicting the beauty of childhood innocence and the morality and kindness children are taught. But this quickly deteriorates as the boy grows up, becoming a police officer, who goes onto enforce the policies and structures that undermine that innocence, morality and kindness. It’s cruel, it’s heartbreaking, it’s compelling, and it’s Mischief Brew at their finest.
Old Time Mem’ry
One of the themes Erik Petersen weaves most powerfully into his storytelling is change, and people’s inability to adapt to change forced on them by the structures and systems of the state, economics and politics. Old Time Mem’ry encapsulates the hopelessness of that inability. Telling the plight of declining industries and trades, and the people wrapped in their decline, Old Time Mem’ry is a masterpiece in the long lineage of folk ballads.
When not playing the role of folk-punk bard detailing working class struggle, the anguish of industrial decline or the spirit of his home state, Petersen was writing rebel songs. None is more poignant than the angry and incendiary Thanks Bastards! Petersen recounts the murder of Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department – “So when there’s 41 bullets, there’s 41 thousand thorns in your side”, “Found a wallet, not a gun – a mother wipes a tear from her eyes”. In just over 3 minutes, Petersen presents a powerful critique of state power and the use of police violence. Beneath the obvious critique there is also resilience, as the song prophesies the resistance bred by repression.
The Government Stole My Germs CD
Before Mischief Brew, Petersen was a part of hardcore band The Orphans, who were heavily involved in the West Chester punk scene. For the most part, they were angry, stripped back and aggressive. But their output also had the kind of musical versatility which would later become one of Petersen’s signatures, drawing on Operation Ivy-style ska in places, alongside unpolished early signs of Mischief Brew’s folk-punk fusion. The Government Stole My Germs CD contains none of that though. It is hardcore through and through – a perfect demonstration of Petersen’s earlier work.
As John Gentile of Punk News described it, Boycott Me! is a “working class manifesto” and a “middle finger to capital inequity”. Boycott Me! references the “fife and snare” of the American Revolution, evokes insurrectionary fervour, and purports an alternative view of the many boycotts of progressive artists carried out by the Fraternal Order of Police. Petersen argues it is in fact a badge of pride and glory to be condemned by the state’s enforcers, and does so in an unquestionably fun and impossibly catchy way. A call to arms and a satire all rolled into one, Boycott Me! is the purest form of rebel rousing music.
For An Old Kentucky Anarchist
Arguably Erik Petersen’s greatest narrative song, For An Old Kentucky Anarchist is to many the most memorable of The Orphans’ work, and certainly that which best shows the transition from hardcore to folk. Tackling alcoholism, bonds between parent and child, failed relationships, economic hardship and rebellion, the song builds to an unparalleled crescendo, as Petersen’s notorious growl grows into the final lines: “I’m the richest I’ll ever be, I embrace the world I have all around me, so sing a dying song and slap your knee, have a taste of true anarchy”. You’ll be hard pushed to find a song that better encapsulates Erik Petersen’s knack for character, place and concept than this.
In memory of Erik Petersen, who died on July 14 2016. Erik Petersen was a musician, singer, guitarist, mandolinist, pug lover, husband, carpenter, radical and punk. 11 days before his death, The Norwich Radical published an interview with him, looking at the motivations behind his music, his analysis of political progression and the blending of politics and Mischief Brew.
Featured image credit: Rik Goldman
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