By the time emo-punk trio Jawbreaker’s 1995 stunner Dear You made its way to me in 1998 or 1999, the band had been broken up for years. The legend goes something like, singer-guitarist-songwriter Blake Schwarzenbach and bassist Chris Bauermeister came to blows by the side of the road, mid-tour, after years of mounting pressure, a massive signing bonus with Geffen and punk-wide sellout -accusations from the Bay Area scene that helped birth the band. According to the 2017 documentary Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker, the fight broke up, Schwarzenbach and Bauermeister got back in the van with drummer Adam Pfahler and returned home, and that was that.
Meanwhile, the mythos surrounding Dear You grew, particularly, I think, among nerdy punk and emo-obsessed teens who felt, perhaps naively, that they were alone in the world. But whereas the prevailing emo logic of the day dove often into misogynistic, one-sided rhetoric a la, “How could you do this to me?!” Jawbreaker’s “Why do *I* do this to me?” introspection coupled with Schwarzenbach’s literary influences, Pfahler’s chaotic tempo shifts and Bauermeister’s borderline mournful bass lines made for songs that were not only universally appealing, but worthy of self-reflection. These songs weren’t blaming anyone, and they certainly weren’t about whining over girls or boys or enbys not liking you and why that made them worthy of hate. Instead, they were about regretting pride, trying to cling to the last vestiges of strength and about working out why, or if, you even liked yourself, and where you’re supposed to go from there.
“What’s the meanest you can be to the one you claim to love?” Schwarzenbach croons on “Accident Prone;” “I don’t think I hate you enough to commit you to me,” he laments on “I Love You So Much it’s Killing Us Both;” “Congratulations to you both I hope somewhere you’re happy,” he offers on “Sluttering.” Dear You is, plainly, a masterpiece, but for much of the fanbase, it and a couple other records were all we had to cling to, and hopes of a reunion were repeatedly dashed. Until 2016, when rumblings of a possilble Jawbreaker show started reverberating amongst aging punks. That following year, they reunited to play Chicago’s Riot Fest, and an entire generation of feelings-havers who never got the chance to see one of the most impactful bands of their era finally had an opportunity.
I’m one of those feelings-havers, which is partly how it came to pass that a carful of New Mexico yahoos recently spent way too much time, money and effort to visit Denver where, at a long last, Jawbreaker performed almost all of Dear You alongside some other songs from previous records, and where a band I’ve loved desperately blew my ever-loving mind alongside seminal punk quartet Descendents (who, frankly, warrant their own column about feelings, but thats’ for another day).
It took me nearly 25 years to see Jawbreaker live, but I did it, and it was everything. Maybe there’s something to be said for having built up expectations for more years of my life than not, or maybe there’s a whole lot to unpack in seeing a band that spent so many years refusing to perform, even as promoters reported offering them absurd payouts. I don’t take for granted the myriad emotions that went into the sheer joy I felt at seeing them live, but I also think there’s much to be said for the timing, too.
COVID-19 is not over yet, particularly for the immunocompromised. But restrictions have relaxed and people are more willing to gather than we’ve been in years. We can make informed decisions about how and where we spend our time. We can feel less fear. Had this show come together even six months earlier, it might have been a different conversation, but—and shoutout to Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium for taking vaccination proof seriously—the opportunity to experience a punk version of mass catharsis along with so many others who’d never experienced Jawbreaker live felt worth the risk, and it feels like a turning point: We screamed along with strangers, sans-masks. We laughed at Schwarzenbach’s mid-show banter. We made predictions about what non-Dear You songs might appear during the set. And when Schwarzenbach returned to the stage solo to kick off a brief encore with the song “Unlisted Track,” it felt meaningful to once again embrace performance as therapy. “You might show some interest,” he sang, “your world looks good enough to eat.”
In that moment, it was. Through the cancellations and the deaths and the dying, the suffering of those we love and have never met before, we’ve clung to the idea that our world is worth sacrifice. There, in a room with old friends, new friends and a sea of people who’d waited for that moment since they first heard Schwarzenbach implore us to “Save your generation,” we didn’t find ourselves bogged down by all we lost, but rather enamored with the things that might still come to pass. Ironic given the age of the songs, but another reminder that music is one of the best things we do, and some of it transcends everything else to provide the comforting reminder: We just want to be happy half the time, and blue only when we have the time.