Bad Religion and Jim Ruland’s Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion

Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion (Hachette Books, 2020), written by Jim Ruland with Bad Religion, tracks the band’s forty-year career as a powerhouse within the punk genre. The original core of the group is still intact and includes vocalist Greg Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz, and bassist Jay Bentley—along with guitarist Brian Baker, who has been with the band since 1994. Bad Religion first materialized when its band members were teenagers living in the San Fernando Valley. They each came to punk music for their own reasons, but their common vision for what a punk rock band could be is what has sustained them for over four decades. The book also tracks the personal experiences of the members: Gurewitz’s drug addiction, Bentley’s alcoholism, Graffin’s desire to work within the scientific community and be a punk rocker, the struggles of surviving on an independent label in the late eighties, the challenges and pressures of trying to flourish on a major label in the nineties, and the relief and satisfaction of returning to independent status in the early 2000s. Most importantly, the book solidifies Graffin and Gurewitz as the most significant songwriting partnership in the punk genre, situates the band in its proper context as being the group that revitalized punk music in a massive way in the late eighties and stimulated the punk explosion of the nineties. However, Bad Religion’s most valuable contribution to the punk rock community is its anarchically smart lyrical content, as noted by Ruland: “Bad Religion’s subversive spirit and thought-provoking lyrics made it okay to be rebellious and intellectual.”

A much appreciated feature of Do What You Want is the multitude of perspectives. Ruland gives his analysis of the punk rock scene and its various shifts as well as how Bad Religion operated within the genre and outside of it as it made strides to achieve mainstream success in the nineties. Intertwined within that analysis are the perspectives of the band members and their personal experiences throughout the course of the band’s history. As a result, the book is not only educational, it is layered with personal meaning that allows readers to develop a deeper understanding of how the band began, evolved, and continues to maintain its prominence in the current moment. For example, Gurewitz explains the deeper implications behind the band’s logo, the crossbuster:

When Brett fleshed the logo out, he intentionally used red, white, and black, colors associated with the swastika, the symbol of the Nazi Party. ‘It wasn’t uncommon to see people wearing swastikas in the early punk scene,’ Brett said. ‘I thought kids were probably wearing it for shock value, but I wasn’t comfortable with that, and I could never wear one. The red, white, and black crossbuster is a strong, shocking icon. As a young Jewish kid, it was something I could wear that was equally shocking as a swastika.’

Gurewitz was able to create his own symbol of empowerment that has resonated with punk rockers across borders and generations; it is not only a band logo, it represents a refusal to submit to oppressive religious and ideological dogmas. This brought a new and much needed perspective to the punk community in the early eighties. Bentley also brings a refreshing sense of humor to the book as he describes how he first joined the band:

GREG: You’re going to play in our band.
JAY: Okay. I have a guitar.
GREG: We already have a guitar player. You’re going to play bass.
JAY: Okay. I don’t have a bass.
GREG: Here are some songs we wrote. Can you find a bass?
JAY: Oh, fuck. Okay.

Since all of the members were teenagers when they started Bad Religion, their perspectives were different in the sense that they saw the punk rock world from a less connected position than older musicians that were already established and well-respected within the punk genre. Bentley gives a candid explanation of what it meant for him to be a young punk musician in the early eighties:

‘I felt like we were in an adult world that we didn’t understand,’ Jay explained. ‘There were other people dealing with the business side of things that I didn’t want to know about. I just wanted to play and leave. It wasn’t business and it wasn’t a party. There was this feeling that this was important without knowing why. Maybe that was just youth and not having a grasp on things, but the party thing wasn’t really for me. I think part of that was from our discussions in Greg’s garage: “What do we want to be as a band? What do we want to say? How do we want to present ourselves?” I don’t know what other bands talk about when they’re forming. I just know that we had that discussion. We didn’t want to just be up there screaming, “Fuck the cops!” or “I hate my parents!” There had to be something more meaningful than that. That was how we felt about the band. It wasn’t a vehicle for drugs. It wasn’t a vehicle for money. It was a vehicle for us to say the things that we felt. That was more important than anything else.’

This desire to do something more than to appeal to the punk trends of the moment—which encouraged chaos and violence—highlights another aspect of the book that deals with the band as principled and devoted to what Bad Religion continues to stand for: independent, critical thought, and a rejection of the status quo, particularly in regards to religion. The band’s desire to build a legacy that never compromised its identity was entrenched within them from the beginning:

‘I would take a box of records,’ Brett recalled, ‘and bring them to Middle Earth Records in Downey, Moby Disc Records in Van Nuys, Zed’s Records in Long Beach, and Poobah Records in Pasadena. I’d talk to the buyer and leave fifteen copies in their store. Then I would call around and say, “Hey, do you need any more?” and lo and behold, they were burning through them and wanted more. So I would drive out there again. That was the extent of the business. It was pretty small-time, but that’s how we did it.’

Although the DIY approach was not a new concept within the punk community, it became the core principle through which Bad Religion defined itself, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. Gurewitz started Epitaph, the most influential independent punk music label in existence, in order to put out Bad Religion’s music, and it was a decision that came with great risk. However, that risk paid off significantly because Epitaph went on to put out music from bands that reimagined and revitalized the punk scene in the nineties—the Offspring, Rancid, and NOFX in particular. Bentley describes the financial risk that Gurewitz willingly took on in order to bring Bad Religion—and the entire punk scene—to the next level:

‘If there was ever a moment when I watched Brett Gurewitz become the Brett Gurewitz that we know today,’ Jay said, ‘it was for Against the Grain. We were excited to take those orders, but we had to make those records and there was no financial capital to make that happen. I went with Brett to his bank and I watched him put up everything he had in the world to get a line of credit to make those records. Everything. Studio, boards, outboard gear, car. Fucking everything. He put it all out there to get this line of credit. None of us did that. He did that.’

It is important to backtrack a bit to understand why this is a significant moment in Bad Religion’s history, and how that history is intertwined with the reemergence of punk in the nineties. Against the Grain is the band’s fifth album, released in 1990, following No Control (1989) and Suffer (1988). These albums represent the defining core of Bad Religion: fast, aggressive, melodic punk music accompanied by sharp, intelligent, socially-conscious lyrics. These three albums had a significant impact on younger punk musicians like Fat Mike and Tim Armstrong who were looking to write better, more solid punk songs. These younger musicians pulled from those three Bad Religion albums, particularly Suffer. However, the band was not popular on a broader scope. They were selling albums, but they weren’t making any money, and what they did make went into touring. Aside from the West Coast, they played to very small audiences in conditions that weren’t ideal. Suffer was a watershed moment for the band because it was the best album the group had made up to that point and it established the signature Bad Religion sound that influenced an entire generation of punk musicians. Gurewitz reflects on listening to Suffer with Bentley for the first time:

‘The moment it dawned on me that we had something special,’ Brett said, ‘was when I was driving home from a show at Iguana’s in Tijuana with Jay Bentley. I had the finished, mastered album of Suffer on cassette. I was in a late eighties Buick Century, which had the best GM Delco stereo. We were driving home, listening to Suffer. We’d listen to the whole album, then the tape would flip and we’d hear the whole album again. Then it would flip and we’d hear it again. We listened to it three or four times, and we just looked at each other like, Holy fuck! Is this as good as I think it is?

Suffer, No Control, and Against the Grain were defined not only by the band’s desire to make the best punk music possible, but by the group’s decision to remain true to its principled identity as punk rockers who believed in the punk ethos of anarchic rebellion, who were also smart and had something significant to say about society and the world at large.

The main reason why Bad Religion has retroactively received credit for stimulating a rebirth of punk in the nineties is due to the rise of Nirvana in the early nineties, which overshadowed the group’s important musical contributions. The book deals with this issue at length. Ruland explains that

While it was true that Nirvana played a big role in ushering in the punk explosion of 1994, their impact is often mischaracterized. Nirvana changed the music industry by removing the barriers that prevented popular indie rock bands from breaking out. But Nirvana didn’t inspire the punk rock bands that soon became household names. Bands like NOFX, Rancid, and the Offspring were already out there, making records, playing shows, and hitting the road, and the band that inspired them was Bad Religion.

In a broader sense, much of what was happening musically in the punk and the metal communities in the late eighties and early nineties was rendered invisible due to the grunge explosion. Record companies, the media, and mainstream radio took to grunge because it was seen as safer and more palatable than punk and metal, which were considered too primal and aggressive for the average rock music listeners. As a result, rock music journalists in particular shifted away from those genres in favor of being hyper-focused on grunge and incorrectly gave it credit for revitalizing aggressive forms of music, punk rock in particular. Graffin gives his own ideas about why he believes punk found new life in the nineties:

‘I think Green Day, the Offspring, and Bad Religion expanded because the culture allowed it,’ Greg explained. ‘There was a new generation of kids who wanted aggressive music. They were buying more skateboards. They were buying more snowboards. The X Games were coming into their own. There was a whole cultural change going on that bands were able to capitalize on. It wasn’t the bands leading the way. Musicians want to believe they changed the world. They didn’t. They were able to thrive in that cultural milieu. That’s my belief, and it comes from studying a different field and seeing how nature works. I’m an evolutionary biologist. I look at things in a different way. I see the flourishing of a species due to the environment, not the other way around.’

Graffin’s explanation reinforces the idea that Ruland puts forth: Nirvana was the band that allowed the mainstream culture to become receptive to more aggressive forms of music. It opened the door for punk music to be accepted on a wider scale, but musically and lyrically, Bad Religion was the band that influenced the punk musicians that came to prominence in the nineties. At the end of the book, Ruland gives a very articulate description of what makes Bad Religion one of the most influential (and the most enduring) band in the punk rock genre:

Bad Religion represents nothing less than the marriage of punk rock protest and intellectual inquiry. Theirs is not a legacy of mindless fury, nor of self-effacing debasement, but one that champions questioning authority, challenging dogma, and resisting easy answers. For the last forty years, Bad Religion has urged its audience to think for themselves, and by doing so has made the world a more intelligent place, one lyric, one listener, at a time.

According to Graffin, “You can’t tell by looking at a punker with a Mohawk if you’re looking at a philosopher.” This statement very much describes Bad Religion’s influence on the punk rock community as a force for higher thought. The punk ethos has always concerned itself with rebellion and uninhibited freedom which is a strength as much as it is a weakness. Rejecting societal standards of the self and connecting with a more primal self is what defines the punk community as a whole, but without the ability to achieve higher thought and understanding about the self and its role in the greater scheme of things, it creates stagnation. Bad Religion encouraged punks to be unapologetically human, but to also be smart and critically engaged with the world, and that’s what makes the group truly significant. Readers will find much to appreciate about Do What You Want: first-hand accounts from band members, lyric analysis from Ruland, an education about the history of punk, and a deeper understanding of why Bad Religion is still such a powerful band forty years later. One reason for this has to do with chemistry. As in all successful bands, the members click and develop a shared intuitive understanding of what it means to collaborate and communicate their needs and desires as humans and musicians. Baker explains this perfectly in regards to his relationship with Gurewitz:

‘I have a pretty good idea of what Brett wants,’ Brian clarified, ‘because we’ve worked together for so long and I’m so familiar with Bad Religion. It comes from years and years of experience. Also, we share a lot of arcane musical knowledge. We’re fans of the same kind of guitar players. When he asks for something, I know what he’s talking about right off the bat. I know what he wants to hear. Also, what he wants to hear is kind of what I would want to hear, too. To me it seems completely natural and intuitive. There’s a very good chance I know exactly what he’s talking about because I know exactly what he’s talking about.’

September 27, 2021