WHAT GOD DOESN’T GIVE TO YOU…
Has Laura Jane Grace found Total Clarity?
by Rob Knaggs
In May of 2012, Josh Eells of Rolling Stone released a story titled The Secret Life of Tom Gabel; an article detailing the interview between the music magazine’s journalist and the frontman of Floridian punk group, Against Me!, and his decision to publicly announce his enduring plight with gender dysphoria (Eells, 2012). The condition is described as a phenomenon in which a person feels their physical appearance and anatomical sex is contrary to their gender identity. The experience is accompanied by a persistent feeling of discomfort, social anxiety and distaste for their own body (Blunden and Dale, 2009). Gabel explains his dysphoria “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it’s shitty, man. It’s really fucking shitty” (Eells, 2012). Gabel’s disclosure of his desire to undertake surgery to become a transgendered woman to an internationally renowned magazine has sparked attention from both the general public and the punk/hardcore scenes. Gender and Sexuality in the punk subculture has been a trying topic since its origination due to the macho overtones and aggression that accompanies the attitude driven sound (Peterson, 2009). The matter is approached with opinions and standpoints as extreme as the music from the Bad Brains’ “burn in hell bloodclot faggot” comment against hardcore bands MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) and Big Boys to Kurt Cobain’s quote “I wish I was gay just to piss homophobes off”(Andersen and Jenkins, 2003 and Cobain, 2003). The shock of this news to the band’s audience can be forgiven due to Against Me!’s urgent, throat shredding vocals, masculine appearance and the vitriol in which they perform. Although, this could have been what Tom Gabel was trying to tell the world all along. In an interview conducted in 2008, the punk frontperson informed the Against Me! audience that there was a connecting theme in the songs Disco Before the Breakdown, Searching for a Former Clarity and The Ocean (Gabel, 2008). The body of this text will be deconstructing the sonic narrative immersed in the title track of Against Me!’s 2005 release, Searching for a Former Clarity, while making reference to how Gabel’s decision to transition could bring new context to the songs she wrote as Tom Gabel.
Against Me!’s Searching for a Former Clarity was their final release with Fat Wreck Chords before signing to major label, Sire Records. In an interview with Brendan Kelly, Gabel described the record as a concept album. “I was writing under the premise that I was dying. For a whole year and a half I wrote with the idea that “What does it all mean if you’re dying?”” (Bryan, 2012). In the same interview, Gabel revealed his fascination with gender confusion and identity dysphoria, an assertion that was overshadowed by jovial comments about women’s undergarments from the host. This statement is one example of the cryptic concepts and metaphors Gabel chose to undertake in the climatic finale that is the title track of Searching for a Former Clarity.
Against Me! are a band that are analyzed with intensive fandom and ferocity due to their controversial choices in terms of whom they release their records with, and the topics and subjects Gabel covers in the lyrics (Gabel, 2008). Searching for a Former Clarity as a song was no exception. On release of the concept album, Gabel tweeted to his audience that the song and the album were about the struggle of AIDS. This information led to a discussion on the band’s fan forum that the song’s character could be Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“searching for a former clarity”, 2008). Since Gabel’s coming out in May 2012, the song reveals a more personable connection to its author.
No the doctors didn’t tell you, that you were dying.
They just collected their money, And sent you on your way.
But you knew all along, went on pretending nothing was wrong,
you said I will keep my focus, till the end.
The opening stanza is a portrayal of Gabel’s self-consultation of his condition and his final decision to stay determined live life as society’s depiction of a male.
And in the journal you kept, by the side of your bed.
You wrote nightly in aspiration, of developing as an author.
Confessing childhood secrets, of dressing up in women’s clothes,
Compulsions you never knew the reasons to,
These lyrics refer to the prose he wrote to assist him through his dysphoria while also aiding his songwriting for his profession as a vocalist. This stanza was highlighted in the Rolling Stone release that reveal the second couplet not as a metaphor but a retrospect on Gabel’s experience as a child.
Will everyone, you ever meet or love,
be just relationship based on a false presumption?
Despite everyone, you ever meet or love,
in the end, will you be all alone?
Gabel is expressing the circumstance he is placed in if he decides to suffer through his own turmoil or the consequence if he were to reveal his true identity.
As the disease spreads slowly through your body,
pumped by your heart to the tips of your arms and your legs,
your greatest fear was that your mind wouldn’t last,
your coherency and alertness would be the first things to fade,
This verse is detailing the anxiety and pressure that is associated with remaining closeted about his gender dysphoria.
as the lesions spotted your skin,
as you fell to your knees in the center of the stage,
as you offered witness to mortality in exchange for the ticket price,
as the lights blended into the continuing noise,
as all hope was finally lost.
Adrenaline carried one last thought to fruition.
The most climatic stanza is a response to the celebrity and controversy Gabel has acquired and the emotion that his anxiety is building from remaining secretive about his dysphoria, he feels he’s seen solely as an entertainer. This turmoil comes from not being able to express his full “morality in exchange for the ticket price” as he would like to.
Let this be the end.
Let this be the last song.
Let this be the end.
Let all be forgiven.
The last verse is his acceptance to suffer through his dysphoria.
Gabel’s sonic narrative and inner turmoil within the track can be analysed further through adopting Brown and Dillon’s Groove, Hook & Sound concept (Brown and Dillon, 2011). The track’s groove can be found in the constant bass drum that consistently pulsates at 100bpm on each beat from the beginning to the strains of the song. It can be argued that the thudding tempo is representing the character’s heartbeat. Considering that the song is set a 100 beats per minute and the macabre subject matter throughout the song, it’s plausible to suggest that the character is suffering from tachycardia; a heart condition that situates an adult’s heart to beat at or over 100bpm, to sonically represent the severity of Gabel’s own dysphoria (Mikati, 2010). Due to Searching For a Former Clarity’s lack of chorus, the hook lies in the eulogy styled, stream of consciousness method in which Gabel has scribed the lyrics. The hook is immersed into the sound of the ever-building rock track, ascending from a journal written expression to a triumphant acceptance. The four-chord acclamation to the character’s confused compulsions is revered by a pulsating rhythm, electric guitars and the inquisitive to urgent desperation within Gabel’s vocals climaxing to the sound of a flatline caused by guitar in feedback.
The Rolling Stone article, The Secret Life of Tom Gabel has brought a newfound awareness of a gender that doesn’t receive an extent of media exposure or public understanding to a large international audience, let alone inside punk and hardcore social circles. Musicians from New Jersey’s, The Gaslight Anthem to Gainesville, Florida’s Hot Water Music have spoken out in full support for their fellow touring musician (The Gaslight Anthem, 2012). “Laura Jane Grace is as much of a dear friend as Tom Gabel ever was!” says Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music (Bitoni, 2012). Due to Gabel’s transition, the lyrics she had written prior to her transition will adopt a new context and newfound understanding. This discovery is evident in Searching for a Former Clarity where the assumed interpretation of the concept album’s finale was the character’s losing battle with AIDS. At a recent show supporting The Cult, Against Me! performed their track, The Ocean. The crowd applauded as Laura Jane Grace sang “If I could’ve chosen/I would’ve been born a woman/My mother once told me/She would’ve named me Laura” (Michaels, 2012). The lyrics hinting at gender dysphoria will be viewed in retrospect how Tom Gabel expressed, struggled and overcame his condition to become the woman both herself and her fans want her to be. Grace has empowered many through her public unveiling yet anybody could’ve found inspiration through the lyrics from the band’s origination to their song Bamboo Bones from 2010 release, White Crosses:
“What God doesn’t give to you/You’ve got to go get for yourself”.
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