The Descendents Rise Again

No one gives a shit about the third band on the bill at an arena rock show. Unless, of course, that band are the Descendents.

Formed in the South Bay in 1978, the foursome—original drummer Bill Stevenson, original singer Milo Aukerman, and longtime members Stephen Egerton (guitar) and Karl Alvarez (bass)—melded surf rhythms with the then-burgeoning hardcore movement, and in doing so, they almost single-handedly created the genre of pop punk (which shouldn't be held against them). The group's lyrical content is a greatest hits of teenage angst—food, boredom, parents, poseurs. But it's songs such as “Silly Girl,” “Hope” and “Sour Grapes” that make it cool for awkward adolescent males to admit that being the weirdo who doesn't get the girl really sucks. These heart-on-sleeve admissions have never been credited as playing a role in creating that emo stuff the kids love these days, but they should.

One might expect such a massively influential act to tour like crazy to cash in, but what makes the Descendents' upcoming gig at the Long Beach Arena such a big deal is the fact they haven't played in California in more than a decade. In fact, they've only played five shows worldwide since late 1997, making the April 7 show a rarity, one fans are eagerly anticipating.

The Descendents surely deserve better than opening for punk heavyweights Bad Religion and radio-friendly punkers Rise Against, but the group's position on the bill makes sense considering their long-running anti-cool stance. Three of the band's seven album covers depict a caricature of Aukerman wearing glasses and looking, well, nerdy, while the tune “Descendents” off 1985's I Don't Want to Grow Up explains it perfectly: “Never did a popular thing/Don't even know how to sing/Couldn't sell out a telephone booth/What I'm telling you is the truth.”

Perhaps the Descendents thought their harmonious hardcore wasn't sitting well with fans of bands screaming about Reagan during the 1980s, but these days, the band are one of the most revered in the punk community, which just confuses fans as to why the four men are flying to California (Aukerman lives in Delaware, Egerton in Oklahoma, and Alvarez and Stevenson in Colorado) to open an arena show.

“For me,” Aukerman says, “there's a nostalgia thing because we haven't played with Bad Religion in 30 years. Also, Bill's been working with Rise Against, and they have a long history together.”

The singer, who works as a research scientist studying plant genetics at DuPont, isn't quite sure what to expect from being an opening act, but, he says, he thinks Rise Against fans will “probably give us a fair shake.” And Descendents devotees can take comfort in knowing the band are talking about returning to Southern California later this year.

“The plan for this year is to do these one-offs because that's all I can do with my vacation time,” Aukerman says. “They [the band] want to capitalize on my availability because there's definitely a desire for people to see us. For better or worse, the Descendents got defined as me on some level, which is totally not based in reality. Bill's the ringleader; he's the force behind the band.”

Aukerman has left his group numerous times since its inception for both school and work reasons, but he has always made the effort to return whenever his commitment to science affords him a rock & roll vacation. After his departure in the late 1980s, Stevenson, Alvarez and Egerton formed the band ALL and have kept the Descendents name alive through numerous ALL albums and relentless touring. Even with his former bandmates playing without him, the singer is in awe that anyone still remembers his group.

“To this day, it still mystifies me because we've spent so much time in 'hiatus,'” Aukerman says. “I figured we'd fade into obscurity, but here we are, 30 years after the fact, and it's become something we could make a living at it. There are days when I wake up and think, 'I can't believe I'm still playing punk rock' because I feel like I'm a million years old.”

This article appeared in print as “The Descendents Rise Again: Singer Milo Aukerman's day-job vacation time is punk-rock time for the influential group.”

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