Anthrax holds a special place in my heart. Branded in my brain, 10 years old, snowy, Cleveland, OH winter evening, watching MTV, more specifically Headbanger’s Ball, as most 10 year olds did in 1991. On screen come Anthrax, a band I had heard of only in the most darkened circles in the 5th grade, usually reserved for the kids whose parents let them out of the house past 8 on a school night. And Public Enemy who drove the bus for bringing African American youth politics to the forefront through hip-hop. Quite an exotic mix for a white kid from the suburbs whose cassette tape collection consisted of Milli Vanilli and Madonna.
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
When I was 17, I lived just outside of Jacksonville and began attending my fourth (and final) high school. I met a cute brunette at a show, and she went to my school. She was cooler than me, it’s true. She kept playing this band from Gainesville in the car that I had never heard of before. The opening song sounded like the beginning to a spaghetti western, and she knew all the words and I didn’t. That would soon change as I fell head over heels for Against Me! and the girl.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a little background information on what’s happening on this album. Tom Gabel… I don’t know exactly how to phrase it. Tom Gabel is not gone, but he’s also not here. Even the band’s Wikipedia page does not list him under former members. Let’s dig deeper.
Transgender Dysphoria is defined as a person’s discontent with the sex that they were assigned at birth, and the roles associated with that gender. Tom Gabel suffers (suffered?) from transgender dysphoria and finally reached a breaking point where something had to give. So, now Tom Gabel is Laura Jane Grace. Out of what is seemingly a very complicated situation comes a relatively simplistic solution: tell the people in your life what you are feeling, and make changes accordingly. Fortunately, Tom has the support of his family, bandmates, and I’m going to assume the majority of his fans as well.
The album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, starts off the same way that Reinventing Axl Rose does; with a snare drum and Laura banging out chords on that beautiful Rickenbacker semi-hollow body that has inspired bouts of envy from me, time and again, over the years. Laura’s voice remains unchanged and except for the subject matter, it’s still the same band. The subject matter is confessional but should not ever be mistaken for an apology. Laura jumps right into it with the opening track, which has the same name as the album. “You want them to see you like they see every other girl. They just see a faggot.” That about sums it up, right? We’re done here? Not quite. Following the title track is “True Trans Soul Rebel” which is the tune that caught my attention on my drive home this evening and kicked my ass into writing this at one o’clock in the morning. Laura knows, and always has known, how and when to tug on the heart strings to create the most effective songs and records. This track has a melancholy feel to it (especially the verses) but when you start paying attention to the words it becomes truly heart-breaking. “Yet to be born, you’re already dead” would sound cryptic or nonsensical taken out of context, but in the context of this record I think it’s one of the most profound statements Laura makes on the album.
Laura has always inspired quiet, introspective night drives through northeast Florida but as I rolled away from Duval county and picked up speed on the highway, “Two Coffins” punched me right in the nose with a closed fist. I can’t tell who it is about (Laura’s wife? Her daughter, perhaps?), but that is hardly the point. The point is that it makes sense to her and she has kindly left enough of a void in the lyrics for a person to insert themselves into the song. It’s an acoustic song, and it drips with bittersweet longing for the person that she is singing to. Maybe in my current state of mind I’m just not hearing the lyrics from the right angle and to someone else it would be quite obvious, but right now, tonight, the mystery of the song is part of why it’s one of my favorite tracks on this album.
Immediately following “Two Coffins” is “Paralytic States”, which upon first listen sounds like an up-tempo, feel good song. Diving deeper into the lyrics you realize that it’s a terrifying account of someone suffering from Transgender Dysphoria, and the lengths to which a human could potentially go when they are unable, or unsure, of how to cope. Add substance abuse to the mix and you have a really volatile, desperate, hopeless individual on your hands. Laura said in another article that it came down to a matter of survival for her. Just reading the lyrics sends a shiver down my spine and I am thankful that when unsatisfied with life she was strong enough to make a change, despite life and potentially relationship-changing implications. In this instance it seems that there will be a happy ending, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are in this world that will not arrive at the same destination.
I guess if I could take away one lesson from this album, it’s that things change. Time changes, people change, places change. Just like when I got back to Florida and drove down familiar roads only to realize that the people who lived in this house no longer live there, the same thing is happening to every other person in this world. Maybe they didn’t realize it yesterday, or today, and maybe they won’t tomorrow, but it’s almost guaranteed that at least once in an individual’s life they will realize that the world is changing around them constantly. The way that I don’t see that girl at shows anymore is the same as why I’ll never see Tom Gabel up on stage again screaming out the lyrics to “Walking Is Still Honest.” Things change, and that’s okay.
Laura Jane Grace is here to help us keep the music playing. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is one of the most affecting records I’ve ever heard in my life, and I only covered a handful of the ten tracks. If you want to hear about, and feel, some really life changing, in your face, gritty stuff happening in someone’s life, please listen. If you don’t want to feel what another person is feeling why do you listen to music in the first place?
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