Any book that begins with the sentence, “The first time I drank piss I was on a fire escape overlooking Los Angeles” is bound to elicit something of a visceral response from the reader. Those familiar with “Fat Mike” Burkett, to whom said sentence is attributed, and company in the seminal California punk band NOFX would expect nothing less.
Unsuspecting readers—but really, how many could there be picking up a title like NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories?—might find this opening line a bit jarring, but it ultimately serves to set the tone for the remainder of the book. With each band member given the chance to more or less introduce themselves to the audience with a character-defining narrative or anecdote, the band is off and running, having established their respective roles in what essentially amounts to a parodic treatment of the formula established by VH1’s Behind the Music.
Where that series tended to place a somber face on the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and its untold consequences, The Hepatitis Bathtub turns this paradigm on its ear, instead openly embracing the drugs, drunken debauchery and punk rock attitude at the center of the band’s ethos. With the music itself taken something of a backseat, we’re left with the stories surrounding the band’s formation, its evolution and rise within the ranks of the underground. While at least some discussion of the music is present, it seems almost perfunctory, the band more interested in the way of life that informed the music rather than vice versa.
Tonally, it switches back and forth between the scatological and the sincere, making for an at times awkward juxtaposition of heartfelt junkie confessions and ribald sexual experimentations. But given the band’s history and refusal to become too self-serious, it comes as little surprise that they refuse to ever get too heavy-handed. Instead, they tend to favor the more light-hearted, juvenile stories associated with their early years of touring, their complete and total lack of propriety at parties—the sheer number of passages dealing with dicks being exposed would give the entire oeuvre of Jackass a run for its money—and general punk rock debauchery.
Structured roughly chronologically and told as something of an oral history of the band, each surviving member of the band (past and present) is given a voice to tell their side of the myriad stories contained within. It tends to rely on a Rashomon-style narrative, albeit often played for humor, with memories contradicting one another or reaffirming the worst. With Fat Mike largely taking the lead, bandmates Eric Melvin, Erik “Smelly” Sandin and Aaron “El Hefe” Abeyta tend to fall in behind, each delivering a series of often only tangentially related narrative threads that make for entertaining reading, but a less than cohesive narrative.
But narrative cohesion never seems to have been the intent. Instead, the members of NOFX have gone out of their way to put down in writing seemingly each and every embarrassing moment experienced both on the road and off, with the band and alone (generally in search of drugs and/or kinky sex). The sheer amount of unapologetic honesty and self-deprecation on display is a refreshing twist for a genre generally reliant on hagiographic mythology and an overabundance of ego. Nowhere do they ever even purport to be anything other than a bunch of California punks who happened to get lucky through persistence and a well-honed stage act.
Anyone who has ever even humored the thought of forming a band with friends will be able to relate to their description of a repellant sound based not in music, but in youthful cacophony. Fat Mike openly admits to having no vocal talent whatsoever and that a number of the vocal takes on their first few recordings were spliced together, often word by word, in order to create the effect of his being able to stay within a relative distance of the correct pitch. But as with many like-minded individuals, music was simply the means by which to reach the end of being able to head out on the road and party with friends.
The most harrowing passages ultimately belong to Smelly, as he chronicles his downward spiral into full-blown heroin addiction and the cost to both his health, his family and his friends. His candor is admirable as he recounts disappearing for days in between shows and recording sessions in order to score drugs, stealing in order to fund his habit, and the psychological toll addiction can have on those fully enveloped in its unforgiving grip. He paints a starkly grim and honest picture of just how far he sank and what it took to come back. Admitting his heroin addiction to be a life-long struggle and concern that could flare up again at any time makes his openness all the more remarkable.
At its heart, NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories is the story of friendship and perseverance in the face of personal and professional adversity. It’s a subtle thematic through line that tends to get overshadowed by the more outrageous moments spent chronicling nearly every rock star cliché imaginable—and then some. The sheer number of these types of stories that have to be read to be believed is almost too overwhelming to begin documenting here. Suffice it to say, NOFX have raised the bar for rock ‘n’ roll memoirs in terms of the volume of sex, drugs, alcohol and general prurience to an absurd new level, one that subsequent bands will be hard-pressed to surpass.
They’ve also shown themselves to be a fun-loving, even sensitive family of misfits who would do nearly anything for one another. In this, Hepatitis Bathtub manages to toe the impossibly fine line between gross-out humor and earnest reminiscence, making for a wildly enjoyable, disgusting, hilarious ride told with equal parts hubris and self-effacement. This approach lends the band a surprisingly relatable, humanistic feel that makes the book more than just a collection of stories rooted in juvenile humor. For that we can all be thankful.
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