By Dylan Tarr
Punk is stupid. Wait. Before you crucify me in Ian MacKaye’s front yard on a cross made of your original SST compilation releases, let me re-tell you a story you’ve heard a million times: the canonized horror story of Jawbreaker as told by Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker.
In 1994, Jawbreaker was on the precipice of greatness, or at least about to make a ton of money. They were beloved at home in California and across the country in the DIY scene, they were on tour with Nirvana at the height of the band’s fame, and they were about to sign a record deal with Geffen, a major label that would allow the band to make a record “rather lavishly” as described in the film by frontman Blake Schwarzenbach.
So Jawbreaker did what most musicians set out to do but few achieve: they signed a deal that would make them household names. A deal that would ensure them the fiscal freedom to make the music they had always wanted, one they had moved across the country for and the culmination of living in a van for six years. But when Jawbreaker’s collective pen hit the pulp of contract paper, every single punk in the world instantly hated them. People who had once championed them as heroes cried “sellout,” immediately dropping them into obscurity. Eventually tensions rose in the band and they called it quits just a year later.
If it sounds crazy a band could be killed off by a fiscally and creatively responsible decision, that’s because it is; it’s absolutely insane and Don’t Break Down knows it.
There’s a scene with the owner of 924 Gilman (whose name I’m forgetting because he seems like an awful person) where the dude actually says Jawbreaker wasn’t welcome in his club after they signed with Geffen. There’s another scene when Rich Egan of Vagrant Records says he hated Dear You, the band’s only infamous major label release, the first time he listened to it. And during the Dear You tour real people spend real money on real tickets just to stand in the front row with their backs turned towards the band.
And that’s why punk sucks. So often the communities that love artists like Jawbreaker only love them conditionally. They love them if they stay in the same podunk town, play the same dive bar every weekend, and re-make their first record over and over again every other year. They love them as long as they stay “authentic” (read: poor). They want these bands to be their own in-house creative sideshow like a musical version of Misery. And when the bands don’t play along, they’re ostracized from the community they helped build.
Pfahler sums up the absurdity of Jawbreaker’s ex-communication when he says “we were on tour with Nirvana, what did you do last week?” To which the elitist basement-dwelling punk masses would have to answer “not shit,” before prepping their microwave for another Hot Pocket.
But even after every single one of your favorite musicians of the 90’s recollect pointing their gnarled spite-filled fingers at Jawbreaker in 1995, Blake, Adam, and Chris are just three dudes trying their best. They’re not melodramatic assholes ranting about each other like in so many music docs; they’re down to earth.
Blake is the quiet one, stoically preserving Jawbreaker’s artistic integrity while managing to not sound like a snob. Chris is still trying to fit in, wearing the unmistakably enthusiastic facade of the outsider. Adam is the glue keeping it all together, pressing Jawbreaker’s catalog on his own label and hoarding (I prefer ‘preserving’) every flyer, fan letter, and t-shirt in his basement.
Schwarzenbach even laughs while recounting the band’s moment of implosion, when he told Bauermeister in 1995 “you’ve been ruining my life since I met you” with a grin and a narrowed-eyed belly laugh.
This moment sort of distills Don’t Break Down into one really simple lesson that Pfhaler points out near the end of the film. He says, “[people] change their minds, that’s what they do.”
It’s taken over 20 years, but pretty much everyone has changed their minds about Jawbreaker. They’ve assumed their rightful place as cult heroes and Dear You is considered by many to be one of the band’s best records. Even Rich Egan thinks so (whose name I do know because he seems like an alright guy now).
Last year Jawbreaker sold out again: they agreed to play together for the first time since 1996 at Riot Fest, for what I assume to be an ungodly amount of money. But this time the scene police didn’t kick down their door, nobody accused them of selling out, we were just happy, because in those 20-some years we did what people do, we changed our minds about Jawbreaker. We grew, we learned, we forgave, and now we can finally enjoy, basking in the fact that anyone cares this much about anything at all and rest easy knowing we’re living in a Jawbreaker renaissance.
Don’t Break Down is currently on tour making its way across the United States and Europe in select theaters. It’s not currently available for purchase, to stream, or even to illegally torrent (trust me I’ve tried). Go to dontbreakdown.com for more information.