Photo by Jack GouldNo matter how many birthdays Shawn Stern racks up, he's still going to be young. He still plays guitar and sings in his punk rock band, still loves the show Jackass (but advocates responsibility and caution when setting yourself on fire), and if he wakes up in the morning and sees some decent waves outside his window, well, don't even bother calling him at work that day. And that's why—even after 20 long years behind a battered stack of amplifiers—they don't call the band Mature Brigade.
"I've prolonged my adolescence longer than I thought," says Stern, singer and guitarist of Youth Brigade, one of SoCal's longest-running (discounting a few years in the late 1980s when they broke up) and most stridently the-personal-is-political punk bands. "I never thought when I was a teenager that I'd still be playing punk rock. I figured I'd probably have some kids, have a boat and sail around, go surfing, maybe own a restaurant—who knows?"
Instead, he's still running Better Youth Organization records (which is also strutting confidently toward a 20th anniversary), still playing with brothers Mark and Adam in one of the longest-lasting family dynasties in punk rock (sorry, kids, the Ramones weren't technically a family), and still singing with the same introspective ire and sociopolitical fire as he did back on their Sound and Fury debut LP in 1983. You're only as young as you feel, and Stern still feels the same as ever.
"Sometimes, I'm more of a pessimist now—a realistic pessimist," he says. "But I still believe that you can change things, and I still believe it's worth trying. The alternative is just giving up. The system is set up to frustrate you; you start caring less and less about everybody and think more and more about yourself, your work, your mortgage, your kids. It makes it hard to be an activist."
So he's not quite as active as he once was, he says: he only runs a label, a band and human history's largest punk rock bowling tournament (72 teams of four punkers each. "You say, 'All right, everybody bowl,' and it's just a huge amount of noise," Stern says). The rest of us should be so lazy, but we'll allow Stern the point. Before Youth Brigade was even a band (and before it was even an ill-fated, skinhead, swing band, waaaay back in the day), the Stern brothers were a youth movement all their own, feverishly working to focus the positive potential they saw in a media-maligned punk movement. "Hey, it did well for the Osmond brothers," Stern says.
They started the Better Youth Organization in 1979 in the aftermath of an LAPD raid on a by-all-accounts peaceful punk show with X and the Go-Go's in MacArthur Park and soon started setting up their own punk concerts. And then they started running their own club in the valley, Godzilla's. And then they started putting out their own records, beginning with the canonical compilation LP Someone Got Their Head Kicked In. And then, when they hosted a locals-only punkstravaganza at the Hollywood Palladium ("Youth Movement '82"), they sold 3,500 tickets and put the profits toward a rattletrap of a school bus to take the Better Youth Organization gospel international. So maybe that's Stern's standard for "active."
"What we were doing then was just sort of making it up," he says. "We just did things. If we wanted to play a show, we did it ourselves. If we wanted to put out a record, we started a record
company. DIY was the only way."
Their 1982 summer tour with Social Distortion was noteworthy for its sheer audacity: a busload of kids—some still years away even from graduating high school—on a cross-continent, two-country, punk-rock-or-die-trying marathon. It's now the stuff of legend, thanks to two filmmakers who tagged along. Remember Another State of Mind? Every punk kid in the country does, and Stern's got the sacks of mail to prove it. Ask him about the movie, and he responds in the same weary but good-natured tone of voice people use to tell you, yes, getting that nose piercing did hurt.
"Every time I go out, practically, people are like, 'What happened to the guy who was coloring his hair?' 'What happened to Monk?' 'How about that guy in the wheelchair—did he die?' 'What was it like?'" he says. Out at a Social Distortion show at the Hard Rock Cafe a little while back, Stern heard someone call his name: it was Adam Small, one of the filmmakers behind the movie. They hadn't seen each other in years and caught up on old times. And then Small asked, "Hey, Shawn,
whatever happened to that guy who was coloring his hair?"
For the record, Stern doesn't know, though he heard that guy joined the Navy or something. But the kids still ask, the same way they demand all the old songs when Youth Brigade play live. "We'd say, 'You weren't alive when we wrote those songs,'" Stern says, "but the things we talk about are pretty universal. I'd like to think the things we have to say are things kids would hopefully be inspired by."
So here's everything you need to know: they never salvaged their broken-down-beyond-repair bus, which sputtered to a lonely death somewhere in the wilds of Middle America; Minor Threat's kitchen was so disgusting that all the punks used the facilities at the 7-Eleven across the street; and Monk the mechanic just e-mailed Stern last year.
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And that tour was as hard on intraband relationships as it was on that bus, but the brothers Youth Brigade soldiered on until 1985 ("We grew up screaming and yelling at each other," says Stern, so tour stress wasn't fatal) when drummer Adam Stern quit to go to art school. In the intervening years, they tried the Brigade (the band sans Adam was an experience Stern recalls as "weird"), Shawn's new punk band That's It!, and then Adam and Mark's realization of their secret swing-kid dreams, the Royal Crown Revue (which they helped form in 1989; Shawn says his brothers are both "disgusted by what Royal Crown Revue have become"). And then in 1992, at a bar in Hamburg, Germany, with Youth Brigade on the jukebox, the Stern brothers reunited and, after some beery reminiscing, decided to get the band back together with new energy and new songs.
And that's why, in between a slew of new records and rereleases, a few humble tours, and even a little punk rock parenting of some better youth of their own, Shawn Stern and his brothers still get to wake up in the morning and do basically what they wanted to do when they started the Better Youth Organization back in 1979.
"We didn't think about what we were doing when we did it—we felt we had something to say and we wanted to have a good time. It's been a pretty good thing," he says. "And it's better than working nine to five."
YOUTH BRIGADE PERFORMS WITH DAMNATION, THE SMUT PEDDLERS, THE FORGOTTEN AND JUSTIFIED ANGER AT CHAIN REACTION, 1652 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 635-6067. FRI., 7:30 P.M. $8. ALL AGES; ALSO WITH THE LINE, PISTOL GRIP AND DEATH BY STEREO AT THE TIKI BAR, 1700 PLACENTIA AVE., COSTA MESA, (949) 548-3533. SAT. CALL FOR TIME AND COVER. 21+.