if i pierce the complexity, i won’t find salvation, just the bald and overt truth of the evil and deception

1994 was the year Asperger syndrome was added to the DSM, so that’s the earliest I was theoretically diagnosable. Despite my dad being an LCSW with a current license (sigh…), and despite me getting a PhD in psychology in 2010 (sigh…), I was only diagnosed in 2017.

I realized that one thing I did get in 1994 was Bad Religion’s Stranger Than Fiction. It’s just as well. A lot of things struck me, relistening to the album with this connection in mind. I’ve been meaning to post big commentaries about childhood albums that changed my life, so I might as well start with this one.

The context for hearing it was that I was 12, half-black, going to school on a Navy base in Sicily (and living off-base nearby), having a Jehovah’s Witness mother and an atheist father who liked philosophy, and getting bullied for acting autistic and stuff. I think I got the CD on a summer vacation to Germany.

Places I’ll probably never see again:


It was a time period absolutely crucial to warping my personality.

In retrospect, it’s probably the message I’d send back to my 12-year-old self. It presents unbearable truths about life, bearably. A lot of it’s even truer now than it was in 1994.

The first track is “Incomplete.” The psychological significance should be obvious from the first line. You can sense it even if you don’t have a name for it…

Mother, father, look at your little monster,
I’m a hero, I’m a zero,
I’m the butt of the worst joke in history,
I’m a lock without a key,
A city with no door, a prayer without faith,
A show without a score,
I’m a bad word, a wink, a nod, a shiver,
An untold story, sex without fury,
A creeping gray memory,
I am incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete
Doctor, cure me, what is the cause of my condition,
This madness shoots me,
Like bullets smashing glass in a silent movie,
I’m a trap without a spring,
A temple with no god,
A jack without an ace,
The tip of your tongue,
I’m a promise, an unmailed letter,
An unbuilt motor, deck without a joker,
A creeping gray memory
I am incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete
Tell Saint Peter not to bet on me,
I got a naked obsession,
A good intention gone bad,
I am incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete

It’s like Bad Religion had a premonition about fighting for your sense of reality in the Age of Trump.

there are desperate times upon us,
there are codes of white and black,
political resentment and people start to crack,
there’s hate and opposition,
there’s fumbling dialog,
yet you sit there and judge me
and you think it makes a difference

if you think I’m all alone you are foolishly wrong,
there’s an entire army who blindly follow along,
and you happen to be one of them believe it or not,
even though you try not to be we are of the same plague

the other ways we’re taught to fear,
don’t even scratch the surface of the problem here,
I’m not blind, and I’m not scared,
so many crucial factors exist out there,
and we’re but one, and they’re bout two,
and how we come to terms will help us pull through

things cannot change too fast,
it took us this much time,
to reach our current platform and walk this fragile line,
if I thought I’d make a difference I’d kill myself today,
but so many are like me lost in the fray

you create your own reality,
and leave mine to me

The title track is amazing. Bad Religion lyrics refer to children frequently. It’s like Greg Graffin knew exactly what it was like and how to tell everyone to fuck off in a fit of agony.

a febrile shocking violent smack
the children are hoping for a heart attack,
tonight the windows are watching,
the streets all conspire,
and the lamppost can’t stop crying,
if I could fly high above the world,
would I see a bunch of living dots spell the world stupidity?
or would I see hungry lover homicides,
loving brother suicides,
and olly olly oxenfrees,
who pickaside and hide

the world is scratching at my door,
my morning paper’s got the scores,
the human interest stories, and the obituary

cockroach naps and rattling traps,
how many devils can you fit upon a match head?
caringosity killed the Kerouac cat,
sometimes truth is stranger than fiction

in my alley around the corner,
there’s a wino with feathered shoulders,
and a spirit giving head for crack and he’ll never want it back,
there’s a little kid and his family eating crackers like thanksgiving
and a pack of wild desperadoes scornful of living

the world is scratching at my door….

cradle for a cat, Wolfe looks back,
how many angels can you fit upon a match?
I want to know why Hemingway cracked,
sometimes truth is stranger than fiction

life is the crummiest book I ever read,
there isn’t a hook, just a lot of cheap shots,
pictures to shock and characters an amateur would never dream up

The next song is about psychoanalysis and transgenerational trauma. SRSLY. It’s like it was written for the black child of a social worker. Greg Graffin isn’t even black, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we shared teh autism.

the brown and orange sky holds its breath
as the sun retreats to the distant horizon,
and our hearts palpitate anxiously as we soon will lay supine,
and wait for sleep to overcome us

and from somewhere in our black,
subconscious minds when we’re asleep,
comes a haunting swelling mass of voices,
resonating, its screams of forgotten victims and the cries of innocence,
and the desperate plea for recognition and recompense

tiny voices, echoes of our heritage,
our long and sallow faces turn the other way,
tiny voices, harbored deep within
as we outwardly deny that they have something to say,
and if we don’t confront them they will never go away

the billions of tiny pinhole embers fade into a morning sky
filled with poignant morose wonder,
waking, we bear a cosmetic peace that verifies the turmoil
which we carry deep inside

Notable memory about the next track, “The Handshake.” In Sicily in 7th grade, there was a tall guy from California who dressed like Nirvana. His opinion was that Bad Religion was “bitch music,” because “they’re even bitching about handshakes.” Keep that in mind when listening to the actual lyrics. I didn’t pick up on the obvious racism at the time. The song is actually useful social skills training for an autistic person, when you think about it…

every time you shake someone’s hand and it feels like your best friend,
could it be that it’s only superficiality?,
without regard to well-being, without an inkling of compromise,
handshakes are nothing but a subtle “fuck you”,
contracts determine the best friendships

this is the way of the modern world, everyone’s vying for patronage,
this is the way of the modern world, and something has gotta give

every time you shake someone’s hand,
and you share neither color or creed,
you gotta overcome the obstacles of history,
there is restrained passion, mistrust, and bigotry

and these have created the new foundations of society,
there’s no harmony just class and race

this is the way of the modern world,
everyone’s fighting for dominance,
this is the way of the modern world,
and something has gotta give

now I believe in unity, and I am willing to compromise,
but I’m not gonna lie or sell my soul

every time you shake someone’s hand,
it determines where you stand,
and if you won’t uphold your side then it’s better to
fend for yourself, and shun the handshake,
someone’s gotta give

“Better off dead” was useful Jehovah’s Witness debrainwashing. “The next time I create the universe I’ll make sure you participate” is awesome. I wasn’t consulted on so many things. God killing himself in shame was a novel idea.  Several other Bad Religion songs are critical reinterpretations of biblical stories, but this is the Stranger Than Fiction post.

I’m sorry about the sun
How could I know that you would burn?
And I’m sorry about the moon
How could I know that you’d disapprove?

And I’ll never make the same mistake
the next time I create the universe
I’ll make sure we communicate at length
Oh yeah

But until then, better off dead
A smile on the lips and a hole in the head
Better off dead, yeah better than this
Take it away, ’cause there’s nothing to miss

I’m sorry about the world
How could I know you’d take it so bad?

And I’ll never make the same mistake
So if you’re looking for a patsy
Why not try the entire human race
Just to play it safe?

But until then, better off dead
A smile on the lips and a hole in the head
Better off dead, yeah better than this
Take it away, ’cause there’s nothing to miss

Better off dead, you’re better off dead
Why don’t you try pushing daisies instead?
Better off dead… you’re better off dead
A smile on the lips and a hole in the head

and I’ll never make the same mistake,
the next time I create the universe
I’ll make sure you participate
Oh yeah

And I’ll never make the same mistake
the next time I create the universe
I’ll make sure you participate
Just in case

I never liked Infected, I was annoyed that it was on the radio, and it turns out it was written by Mr. Brett, not Greg Graffin. The band actually broke up around this point, because it was released on a mainstream label. That was a betrayal of Mr. Brett, who’d help found Epitaph Records. In the aftermath, Greg Graffin is said to have changed the lyrics to the song to something like “I don’t fucking know what this means.” I don’t care enough to confirm all that right now. That’s how I remember it.

Not feelin’ the sadomasochism.

Now here I go,
Hope I don’t break down,
I won’t take anything, I don’t need anything,
Don’t want to exist, I can’t persist,
Please stop before I do it again,
Just talk about nothing, let’s talk about nothing,
Let’s talk about no one, please talk about no one, someone, anyone

You and me have a disease,
You affect me, you infect me,
I’m afflicted, you’re addicted,
You and me, you and me

I’m on the edge,
Get against the wall,
I’m so distracted,
I love to strike you,
Here’s my confession,
You learned your lesson,
Stop me before I do it again

You’re clear – as a heavy lead curtain want to drill you – like an ocean,
We can work it out, I’ve been running out, now I’m running out

Don’t be mad about it baby,
You and me, you and me,
I want to tie you, crucify you,
Kneel before you, revile your body,
You and me, we’re made in heaven,
I want to take you, I want to break you,
Supplicate you, with thorny roses,
I want to bathe you in holy water I want to kill you,
Upon the alter, you and me, you and me

I don’t have a TV, and I used to be smug and annoying about not having a TV. In high school debate, the coach forced us to participate in “individual events,” and I remember writing an 8-minute oratory on why you should kill your television, which I think included EEG effects as a reason. I also remember making it needlessly repeat the phrase “kill your television” against my best judgment out of bad English teacher concerns about topic sentences or “signposting” or something. The judge didn’t like the repetition, either. The next coach gave up on the IEs, mercifully.

Guest vocals by the guy from Rancid, my grad school roommate’s favorite band.

television, television, television, television

oh yeah! I want to bask in your golden light,
submerge in electric waves,
I need my connection to the world outside

the world outside is buzzing like an angry wasp in summer,
the candidates are running, and soon the son of God is coming,
crackle mental convolutions tune in to the revolution,
whereby everyone’s included so we’ll never have to be alone

every atom of my body, blood and sinew, bone and fiber,
I can’t distill you from my blood,
you’re a hungry germ inside of me,
you’re my lover, you’re my heroine,
my conscience and my voice,
and I know that I have learned to let you in I
will lever have to be alone

I’d take after my mother but she’s from a different generation,
I prefer my big brother he’s so gentle and understanding,
and I learn what I can from him by the television light,
so that when I’m all alone I know everything’s gonna be alright

I am a unique snowflake unlike the sheeple. The feeling was really intense, around the military. Entropy as a recurring theme in their music (“arrow of time”).

individuals run for cover,
for the multitudes of thoughtless clones have reached a critical mass,
individuals hide in fear, under cover,
sheltered by the wafer thin veil of intelligence

individuals, nowhere to be seen

urbana is oozing like a bloated carcass,
with maggots cooking in the desert heat,
oozing, with progeny writhing and desperate
for input from someone more determined

congregating in invisible circles,
half apart and half apart,
all too aware of the insignificance,
pushing on with soul and heart

individuals don’t pray for forgiveness,
when pinned up against the wall under siege of persecution,
individuals command exception,
and accept dichotomy,
maybe you can’t choose anymore

procreation without gain or purpose,
languid wills and torpid minds,
catapulted ever faster by the arrow of time

Think different and be into cool shit. In retrospect, I survived significant assaults on my sense of self. Between the cult, the bullying, and the military schools…

I can see my teenage father standing straight on a desolate corner,
in the shadow of tentacled towers by the red light of America,
I imagine how his mother felt when she heard that her husband was dying,
and that underground heroes of the tarmac shooting smack were blowing up worlds

and Damned out loud,
he, can you tell me how does it feel?

yeah, tell me, can you imagine, for a second,
doing anything that you don’t have to?
well that’s what I’m accustomed to so hooray for me
and fuck you

when I slept with stony faces on the riverbank,
my angeldevil reveler shook me desperately in dying,
I don’t exactly want to apologize for anything, and now
we’re all mad and tangled in secret rooms with roman candles,
on an endless graveyard train

yeah, tell me, can you imagine, for a second, doing
anything just ‘cuz you want to?
well, that’s just what I do so hooray for me
and fuck you

yeah, I was dreaming through the “howzlife”, yawning,
car black, when she told me “mad and meaningless as ever..”,
and a song came on my radio like a cemetery rhyme,
for a million crying corpses in their tragedy of respectable existence

oh, yeah, I’m not respectable, and never sensible,
I’ve been incredible so damned irascible
and I like the things I do so hooray for me
and fuck you

Bad Religion didn’t run away from the realization that our society is fundamentally suicidal. Lots of suicide talk, on this album.

So, you’re feeling unimportant,
‘Cuz you’ve got nothing to say.
And your life is just a ramble
No one understands you anyway

Well, I’ve got a piece of news son,
That might make you change your mind
Your life is historically meaningful
And spans a significant time

Slumber will come soon
And you are helping to put it to sleep
Side by side we do our share
Faithfully assuring that
Slumber will come soon.

Well, now do you feel a little better
Lift up your head and walk away
Knowing we’re all in this together
For such a short time anyway

There is just no time to parade around
Sulking, i would rather laugh than cry
The rich, the poor, the strong, the weak
We share this place together
And we pitch into help it die

I’m not too good at giving morals
And I don’t fear the consequence
If life makes you scared and bitter
At least it’s not for very long

Slumber will come soon.

I think this message is very Buddhist.

if I’m a monster,
I am a willing one,
this roller coaster ride is an enticing one,
on the tip of a continuum flowing wavelike
through disorder carry me like a vessel to water

everything you see leaves a mark on your soul,
everything you feel leaves a mark on your soul,
everything you touch leaves a mark on your soul,
everything you make leaves a mark on your soul

if I can touch it,
I can destroy it,
if it’s imaginable to some degree,
I can become it,
like a hungry turning vortex that just flickers to existence,
consuming bits and pieces until I’m finally extinguished

everyone you see leaves a mark on your soul,
everyone you bare leaves a mark on your soul,
everyone you touch leaves a mark on your soul,
everyone you love leaves a mark on your soul

everything you take leaves a mark on your soul,
everything you give leaves a mark on your soul,
and all the fear and loneliness that’s impossible to control,
and every tear you cry leaves a mark on your soul

A big part of my problem is that I learned that the way to be awesome is to look the horror in the face and play your instruments as fast as possible.  Acceptance and commitment, you might say.  I get the impression a lot of adults believe that thinking about this stuff will make them jump off a bridge right then and there, against their will.

automatons with business suits clinging black boxes,
sequestering the blueprints of daily life
contented, free of care, they rejoice in morning ritual
as they file like drone ant colonies to their office in the sky

I don’t ask questions, don’t promote demonstrations,
don’t look for new consensus, don’t stray from constitution
if I pierce the complexity I won’t find salvation
just the bald and overt truth
of the evil and deception

there is an inner logic,
and we’re taught to stay far from it
it is simple and elegant,
but it’s cruel and antithetic
and there’s no effort to reveal it

graduated mentors stroll in marbled brick porticos
in sagacious dialog they despise their average ways
displaying pomp and discipline, they mold their institution
where they practice exclusion on the masses every day

decorated warriors drill harmless kids on pavement
simulating tyranny under red alert
protecting the opulent and staging moral standard
they expect redemption of character and self-growth

(no equality, no opportunity,
no tolerance for the progressive alternative…)

Speechlessness.

there’s a purpose, there’s a goal,
there’s a virtuous, and immoral,
there’s a reason for all of this,
and I don’t know what it is

I am one, and plural too,
I accept them but they exclude,
I could make sense of all of this,
but I don’t know what it is

the seeds of inspiration never germinated in my mind,
the beacon of awakening is somewhere that I can’t find, so
I don’t know what it is

there’s a beginning, and there’s an end,
there’s a climax, some would contend,
there’s a way to signify this,
but I don’t know what it is

21st Century Digital Boy turned out to be interesting now that I read the relevant Wikipedia entry. Musically, I always hated it. It’s Mr. Brett’s doing, putting it on two separate albums:

[We re-released the song] because we were playing it every night since 1989, ’90. It wasn’t that we weren’t happy with it. I was thrilled with it. I thought it was a great song. Brett just happened to think that we were playing it better than we played it on the record. He just thought it was the one song of his that had a snowball’s chance in hell of being popular. I think one of Brett’s quests as a song writer was to write a pop hit. That’s hard to do when you’re in a punk rock band. He always thought that song could be a pop hit, and he fought for it to get on the record and to be a single. I eventually got tired of saying ‘that’s not what we do’. That’s what he wanted to do when he was a member of the band at the time and we all went ‘well, OK, if you feel that strongly about it, we’ll put it on the record’. We have a very democratic process which is that if 3 members vote one way, then it’s going to happen, unless one member feels so strongly about it, then we all just concede and say that’s cool.

I can’t believe it
The way you look sometimes
Like a trampled flag on a city street, oh yeah
And I don’t want it
The things your offering me
Symbolised [civilized?] barcode quick ID, oh yeah

’cause I’m a 21st century digital boy
I don’t know how to live, but I got a lot of toys
My daddy’s a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy’s on valium, so ineffectual
Ain’t life a mystery, yeah?

I can’t explain it
The things they’re saying to me
It’s going yayayayayayaya, oh yeah

’cause I’m a 21st century digital boy
I don’t know how to read, but I got a lot of toys
My daddy’s a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy’s on valium, so ineffectual
Ain’t life a mystery, yeah?

Tried to tell you about no control
But now I really don’t know
And then you told me how bad you had to suffer
Is that really all you had to offer?

’cause I’m a 21 century digital boy
I don’t know how to live, but I got a lot of toys
My daddy’s a lazy middle class intellectual
My mommy’s on valium, so ineffectual

Cat’s Foot, Iron Claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Everything I want I really need
Ain’t life a mystery yeah?

Not feelin’ the references to the titles of their earlier albums (no control and suffer). Not quite feelin’ the original song it’s a reference to, which I had no idea until lastnight. 21st Century Schizoid Man, but in a bad way:

Cat’s foot iron claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door
Twenty first century schizoid man

Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man

Death seed blind man’s greed
Poets’ starving children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man

I also missed out on Markovian Process, because I had the US version of the album.

You will all say that I am surely crazy
Only an unrepentant pessimist whose thoughts should be detained
But facts are sterile, not vulgar nor sublime
And they’re not religion, they’re for everyone and signify the times
Today is a window, tomorrow the landscape
All you need to do is take a look outside to know what we’re bound to face

The level of disparity, the common man
The manner of destruction of the native land
The poverty of reprisal from all involved
And the scathing trajectory from the past

Markovian process lead us not in vain
Prove to our descendants what we did to them
Then make us go away

Overall, I’d have to say this is VERY DIFFERENT than any normal person’s idea of what an autistic middle schooler should listen to obsessively.  Illusions aren’t helping anybody but the people who think it’s cute that you look retarded, though.  Buddha said ignorance and delusion are the cause of suffering.  You can take that to mean very abstract things about the nature of reality.  You can also take it to mean what it says, in plain language.  Neither Buddhism nor existentialism are predicated on pretending that the world isn’t extremely fucked up.