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When Rolling Stone dropped a bombshell article in May 2012, outing Against Me!’s frontperson (then known as Tom Gabel) as transgender, it gave rise to a small army of dysphoria detectives. Fans and journalists scrambled to comb through the band’s back catalog to find hints and clues about this big secret hidden between the lines of the punk band’s lyrics. The problem was, they weren’t searching back far enough. They should have gone way back, all the way to the beginning, to The Disco Before The Breakdown.
Instead, many focused on the middle of the band’s career. The most immediate and obvious example people latched onto was “The Ocean,” the final song on 2007’s New Wave, which the label hated and insisted on cutting, but was a hard-fought inclusion:
If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.
My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.
I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.
It was a foreshadowing of the new name Gabel would adopt as a woman—Laura Jane Grace—and was the most bold and forthright she’d been about her gender dysphoria in her lyrics. There were other hints around this period, too. In the title track on 2005’s Searching For A Former Clarity, for example, she wrote:
And in the journal you kept, by the side of your bed,
you wrote nightly in aspiration, of developing as an author.
Confessing childhood secrets, of dressing up in women’s clothes,
compulsions you never knew the reasons to.
But Grace was tackling this subject even earlier, though she was more guarded in her songwriting. She relied on vague imagery and sometimes even let emotions out subconsciously.
Over the last year, Grace and I together wrote her forthcoming memoir, TRANNY. In working on it, I did a lot of re-listening to Against Me!’s catalog. A lot. The songs soundtracked the late nights typing away in front of the computer, from the band’s forgotten early DIY demos to their new album, Shape Shift With Me. The more time I spent with Grace’s songs, and the more I learned about her life, the more they took on new meaning in their respective contexts. But November 2002’s The Disco Before The Breakdown, at only three songs, is by far the most prophetic release of the band’s catalog.
“Those songs surprise me in how much people still ask for them and appreciate them,” Grace tells me of the EP. “So they’ve had this weird life to them. Lyrically, I still feel really proud of them. I think the writing is solid. I just wish the recordings had been a little better.”
The EP served more of a utilitarian purpose than anything. Immediately following the release of their firestarter debut, Reinventing Axl Rose, the band found themselves with a new member, Andrew Seward, who replaced original bassist Dustin Fridkin. About to head off on tour with this new lineup, Grace wanted to have a record for sale at their shows that included Seward’s input. She wrote these three songs and they recorded them together. But while Reinventing Axl Rose largely dealt with punk politics, its 11 tracks comprising a fist-in-the-air manifesto that would shape the scene for years to come, The Disco Before The Breakdown was far more personal.
Grace was barely 22 upon the EP’s release, and was in a marriage that was rapidly falling apart for a number of reasons: the suffocation felt by domestic life in Florida while trying to make a go of being a touring musician, suspicions of infidelity, and a pregnancy that ended in abortion. On top of that, she was often depressed from fighting a confusion she’d carried with her since her youth—that she felt, as described in TRANNY, “schizophrenic or a body possessed by some kind of twin souls warring inside of it, one male, one female, both wanting control.”
The opening title track of the EP kicks off with a deceptively fun little three-chord intro, but the lyrics are much darker than the music lets on:
And if you follow the jawline down over the heart,
the curves of your bone and muscle that make up your head to toe.
It’s just skin and thread, stitches and ligaments,
words that we spoke only to regret.
“That was me wanting it to be androgynous,” Grace says. “We’re all the same. You’re just dust in the end. It’s just bones and ligaments held together at the soul. I was trying to detach it from gender.” Gender identity was still very much a mystery to her at the time, and most of the information she had about the subject was relegated to “sex change” tabloid headlines. She didn’t have a name for what she felt, nor was she able to turn to the vibrant online trans community that exists today for information. She never confided or discussed it with anyone. In her mind, she referred to this other side of her personality as “her.” “Who was ‘her?’” she asks herself in TRANNY. “She was the person I imagined myself to be, in another dimension, in a past life, in some dream.” The song’s next verse is perhaps Against Me!’s earliest lyrical example of these isolated and internal struggles:
And I know they’re going to laugh at us,
when they see us out together holding hands like this.
They wouldn’t understand it if we told them all the reasons,
not that I think this deserves any kind of explanation.
This is a metaphor. By “holding hands,” she was being one with “her,” and if anyone she knew saw her like that—donning the makeup and dresses she wore in secret—she feared she would be ridiculed. The frustration expressed in the last line of that verse—the idea that others are owed an explanation for her identity—would become even more relevant after coming out in 2012. During her transition, she often wrote in her journal about the resentment she felt toward her doctors, her therapists, or her father over the feeling of having to open up about her gender identity almost as if she were asking their permission. Grace, a true punk spirit, has never taken kindly to authority and has the arrest record to prove it, so this was a great source of anger at the time.
The EP’s second song, “Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%,” was written while the band was in Pittsburgh, crashing at Anti-Flag drummer Pat Thetic’s house while he was trying to court Against Me! for their label, A-F Records. There’s a verse toward the end that sticks out:
And can you live with what you know about yourself,
when you’re all alone, behind closed doors?
The things we never said, but we always knew were right there.
It’s got me on my knees in a bathroom,
praying to a God that I don’t even believe in.
Well, dear Jesus, are you listening?
“I seem to write about being in bathrooms a lot, grasping at porcelain and vomiting,” Grace laughs when reflecting on this lyric. And while she’s done her fair share of tour puking, this particular instance feels specifically reminiscent of experiences in her teenage years. As a teen, bored and trapped in her grandmother’s retirement community in Naples, Florida, she would lock herself in the bathroom and try on her mother’s dresses that were left behind in the hamper. Grace would blur her eyes until it felt real. Often, she prayed to Jesus (and one time, Satan) to allow her the miracle of waking up a woman.
The last line of the song would eventually prove especially prescient:
If you’d told me about all this when I was 15,
I never would have believed it.
At the time, she was looking at her life at 22 through the perspective of her teenage self—how surreal it was that she was in a touring band, about to go through a divorce, and being courted by Anti-Flag, a band she first heard at 15. But today, the line takes on a new meaning to her in the context of her transition. If you’d told her at 15 that one day she’d be playing in front of thousands of fans, living as a woman, she never would have believed it.
The EP’s third and final song, “Beginning In An Ending,” heads toward a place of closure for this period in Grace’s life. She writes of lounging on the couch with her first wife near the end of their marriage:
In your arms, I don’t know who I am.
While the marriage would soon dissolve for a combination of reasons, she recognizes now that it was impossible to keep any sort of meaningful relationship going when she was so confused over her sense of self and keeping this part of her life a secret from her partner.
Grace doesn’t have to write in code these days. She made up for all those years of having to hide herself behind symbolism with 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, her first post-coming-out release. The album let out all of the frustration she bottled up for three decades in an extremely direct and aggressive manner, and it will unquestionably go down as the most important release to tackle the subject for this generation. Grace continues to write openly about gender on Against Me!’s new album, though much of her writing has shifted to the next phase of her transition: learning how to love, how to date, and how to just exist as a trans person.
She’s even gone back and rewritten older songs to make them more honest. In “Pretty Girls (The Mover),” a song about having a crush on someone, for example, she has updated the line “I want to be healthy, I don’t want this problem / You wouldn’t think something like irresponsibility / Would complicate something like asking for some company” to replace “irresponsibility” with “gender identity,” a phrase she wished she could have used in 2005 when it was released.
Grace’s transition announcement in 2012 largely absolved her of the criticism that had plagued her throughout her career—that she was a “sellout” or not “punk enough.” The angry punks who turned their backs on her for releasing music through a division of Warner Music instead of independent punk labels, touring in a bus instead of a van, and playing stadiums instead of dingy clubs finally understood that there had been more at stake for Grace this whole time. Major-label albums like New Wave and White Crosses became better understood in their reevaluation. But The Disco Before The Breakdown seems to be the one that’s slipped through the cracks all these years.
When asked how she has explained the lyrics on The Disco Before The Breakdown when inquired about them over the years—either by fans or interviewers or her own bandmates—Grace shakes her head. “They didn’t,” she says. “No one’s asked me about these songs, ever.”
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