For a man of 40, I’ve had a relatively small number of “favorite bands” in my lifetime. When I was 10, my favorite band was AC/DC. At 15, I was rockin’ with Dokken. At 21, I was all about Nirvana. The lengthiest favorite band reign of my lifetime belongs to the Dimestore Haloes, who were “my” group from 1998 until they disbanded at some undetermined point in the early to mid 2000s. The title has remained vacant ever since. In between, there were others like Judas Priest (my seventh grade year) and Bad Religion (the year after college). And I’ll never forget those years – circa ’96-’97 – when the Parasites were my #1.
Along with Screeching Weasel, The Queers, the Beatnik Termites, Green Day, and the Mr. T. Experience, the Parasites were the cream of the crop of ‘90s pop-punk. Originally formed in New Jersey in 1985, the Parasites became more or less a one-man show when Dave “Nikki Parasite” MacKenzie relocated to Berkeley, California in the early ‘90s. Working with a revolving door of supporting players, MacKenzie recorded two albums for the indie imprint Shredder: Punch Lines and Pair. The latter was primarily comprised of songs that had originally appeared on the band’s 1990 debut Pair of Sides. For years, I insisted that the punkier Pair was by far the superior album. Although I liked Punch Lines, I contended that it was “overproduced” and sounded “like an Elton John record”. It’s easy for me to understand why I felt that way then. I was a young man – 25, 26 years of age. I was a dyed in the wool “punk rocker” with a closet full of Clash t-shirts and a bedroom floor littered with Maximum Rocknroll back issues. Punch Lines, for all of its merits, did not deliver the buzzsaw guitars and stripped-to-the-bones simplicity I craved in pop-punk music. But as the years passed and I came to value musical substance over musical style, I completely fell in love with Punch Lines. It’s not even close – Punch Lines is the best Parasites album, and to boot one of the ten greatest pop-punk albums of all-time.
Perhaps because MacKenzie played everything but drums on the album, Punch Lines has the feel of a solo record. Although the obvious influences (Descendents, Buzzcocks) contribute to the general musical approach, the album is the distinctive work of a truly unique artist. True enough: MacKenzie has always been a genre traditionalist, and no one is better at crafting simple, catchy pop-punk songs. But no other pop-punk album has ever sounded quite like Punch Lines, which derives its character from MacKenzie’s plaintive vocals and brilliantly heartrending lyrics. If Punch Lines really is a concept album, the concept is not hard to grasp: love’s a bitch! The man once told me that he wrote songs because it was a lot cheaper than paying a therapist to listen to his problems. And judging by the lyrical tone of Punch Lines, he must have suffered through some serious relationship woes prior to writing these songs. I had suffered through some serious relationship woes of my own around the time I bought the album, so it’s easy to see why Punch Lines connected with me. The record affirmed my views on love – and probably influenced them going forward.
While typical pop-punk music of the day addressed the ups and downs of teenage romance, Parasites songs spoke of far more complicated adult love. Punch Lines recounts the less pleasant aspects of grown-up relationships: the inevitable dysfunction and subsequent betrayals, the torture of loving someone who doesn’t love you back, the neurotic over-analysis of what went wrong, the dark cloud of obsession looming over new love, the agony of loss and the hole it creates in your heart, the bitter realization that what started out so promising could have ended in heartbreak and despair, and through it all, the optimism to believe that no matter how many times love fucks you over, it’s going to finally work out next time. By turns pitch dark (“Dead Roses”), hopeful (“When I’m Here With You”), cathartic (“Letdown”), stalkerish (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”), bitter (“I Don’t Believe You”), and bizarrely upbeat (“Crazy”), the relationship theme plays out with all the poignancy, humor, and high drama of a cinematic love story. If they ever make a Broadway musical out of Punch Lines, I’m first in line for tickets.
Perhaps a fair criticism of Punch Lines would be that its best tracks outshine the rest. The funny, self deprecating “Young and Stupid” is just about the greatest pop-punk tune there’s ever been. And album opener “Crazy” is simply an extraordinary song – a touching tale of two very imperfect individuals who nonetheless make a perfect match (“I met you in emergency/You rolled right by on your way back from shock therapy/I knew that you were meant for me/I loved the way you moved/Even though you moved involuntarily”). Also meriting classic status in the annals of pop-punk is the peppy and impossibly catchy “When I’m Here With You”. But while the rest of the album may suffer slightly by comparison, it's still really freaking good. The likes of “Someday”, “The Next Time”, and “Nothing At All” are solid tunes on their own and crucial components of the album as a whole. And “Letdown”, for all of its dragging instrumental bloat, is the epic closer the album needs. While not quite a “happy” ending, the song brings closure to the artist’s suffering. A page is turned, and our protagonist lives to love another day.
The optimist in me was sometimes tempted to re-program the CD so that it would end happily with “Crazy”. But deep down I knew it was pointless. Punch Lines is supposed to be a bummer – the kind of record you listen to when you’re going through some major shit and need company for your misery. You listen to this guy spill his guts about how much his love life sucks, and it makes you feel better. The album sure got me through some rough times. Today at a considerably happier point in my life, I hope to never again require its consolation. But Punch Lines will always be a favorite of mine. The 25-year-old me may have been mostly full of shit, but he had fine taste in music.