Music

Faded Reflection: Lance Hahn, 1967-2007

Jonathan Kirby
Lance Hahn, 1967-2007

A true punk Renaissance man with an unrelenting DIY work ethic, J Church frontman Lance Hahn may never have achieved wealth and widespread fame, but his passing in 2007 robbed the world of one of the most prolific and dedicated punk rockers of the last 20 years.

A certain glib brand of postmodernism might point to how there was not one Lance Hahn, but many. There was Lance Hahn, the singer-songwriter and driving force behind the band J Church, but also Lance Hahn the punk historian, Lance Hahn the San Franciscan, Lance Hahn the Situationist, Lance Hahn the Asian-American, Lance Hahn the baseball fanatic, etc. Still, this kind of a description overlooks a simple but somehow elusive fact: these were not separate identities united by the same body, but facets of the same prismatic whole.

Lance Hahn defied convention at every turn. He offered class analysis at a time when it had been eclipsed by a cloud of floating signifiers and debates over language and representation. He was nominally a punk, but he harbored as much admiration for Albert Ayler as Ian MacKaye. And in an era when punk became more thoroughly commodified than ever before, Hahn stayed doggedly faithful to the DIY ethic without ever losing his sense of humor, as he noted in 2000 regarding J Church’s lack of commercial success: “First off, we’re ugly, and secondly, I’m Chinese.”

Arguably more so than any other musician of the last 20 years, Lance Hahn put into practice the Situationist ideal of permitting no separation between art and everyday existence. There’s a reason that Hahn and others have repeatedly employed the metaphor of a diary to describe his music: he lived his art, and he made his art his life.

"There is no plan, it's just like writing in a diary really. Sometimes it's inane, and sometimes it's not completely inane."

-- Lance Hahn, 1995

That life began in Hawaii, in 1967. Hahn has recounted that the first record he ever owned was Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones, which he liked so much he took it into the bathtub with him. After discovering punk rock through an uncle’s copy of London Calling, he immersed himself in the then-thriving Los Angeles punk scene documented in Penelope Spheeris’s epochal The Decline of Western Civilization. According to legend, Hahn was the first person in Hawaii with a mohawk.

After tours of duty in several Hawaiian punk bands and a transplant to the west coast with Cringer, Hahn and bassist Gardner Maxam formed the band that would become the most enduring platform for Hahn’s songwriting, J Church, named after a San Francisco bus line.

J Church quickly developed a reputation as an almost absurdly prolific band, with the name J Church appearing on nearly a record per month in their first three years together, on as many different labels as possible. But over the course of their first few releases, Hahn systematically established the band’s dimensions. The first EP, She Said She Wouldn’t Sacrifice in 1991, offered strident politics and lyrics cribbed from Guy Debord, but the second release, This Song Is for Kathi, showcased the personal side of Hahn’s songwriting, and began the process of tying the band to their adopted home in San Francisco, with lyrics depicting Hahn walking down Mission Street, people-watching at the BART station.

The record also introduced Hahn’s penchant for non-fiction. With “Girl in a Magazine”, he chronicled the fall of porn star Colleen Applegate, whose spiral of cocaine addiction ended in her suicide at the age of 20. Hahn juxtaposes her death with her life on camera, depicting her final decision in chilling terms: “She goes to the closet and gets the gun / The only act in honesty / The only part you’ll never see”. Alongside tales of beery loneliness and anti-capitalist fervor, Hahn would go on to write songs about figures ranging from Leni Riefenstahl to Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The band’s third recorded appearance came on the R.E.M. tribute Surprise Your Pig. J Church did “Rockville”, actually the first song they ever recorded, inaugurating a long tradition of sometimes ill-advised cover songs. For every brilliant original Hahn penned, the band would toss off another inscrutable cover, a tendency exemplified by Hahn’s decision to record a suite of Electric Light Orchestra covers for a split with Discount. (They’re surprisingly good.) Much like how the Replacements in their heyday would oscillate wildly between bracing poignancy and shambolic tragicomedy, Hahn’s tossed-off and sometimes half-baked covers have a silver lining: they cast his originals in sharp contrast.

"A lot of people write trying to keep track of all the fucking records we put out. I can't even remember."

-- Lance Hahn, 1995

The mid-’90s marked one of the most fertile and creative periods in J Church’s 15-year career. Ironically, it was also the time when Hahn took a sabbatical from the band to serve as touring guitarist for a pre-Odelay Beck, a job that gave his guitar picking mainstream validation and forced him to play in new ways, after growing so used to his own material.

Despite these commitments, J Church released an album per year between 1993 and 1996. 1995’s Arbor Vitae in particular stands out -- perhaps the band’s first genuine masterpiece, the album was produced by Frankie Stubbs, best known as the sore throat behind the band Leatherface. Sounding like a more English Motörhead playing covers of Flip Your Wig-era Hüsker Dü, Leatherface are a band unnoticed by many but beloved by a cult of connoisseurs, much like J Church. It proved a perfect fit, as Stubbs’s diamond production touch lent the band a steely edge that their earlier records had been missing.

It didn’t hurt that Hahn turned in a set of the most biting songs he’d yet written. J Church’s lyrics frequently chronicled life in the Mission, but Hahn actually wrote nearly as many songs about Los Angeles, where he first lived after his exodus from Hawaii. Speaking about Los Angeles in 1995, Hahn said sagely, “When you live here long enough you either hate it, or you learn to appreciate it.” Arbor Vitae was practically a concept album about LA -- the title actually comes from the street Hahn and Maxam lived on. Over the course of the album, Hahn ably displays his gift for narrative (“Cigarettes Kill”), his sociologist’s eye (“Mr. Backrub”, “Waiting on the Ground”), and his broken heart (“Smoke in My Face”, arguably J Church’s single greatest break-up song). The Bukowski comparisons often leveled at Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach actually adhere better to Hahn, and Arbor Vitae plays like his Factotum.

On top of the yearly LPs, J Church put out some of their best singles during the Clinton years. 1993’s My Favorite Place EP offered an especially memorable chronicle of Hahn’s decompression after returning home from a tour, where when you’re at home you want to be touring, and when you’re touring you want to be at home. J Church also recorded the Ivy League College EP in 1995, a merciless skewering of liberal arts moral hobbyism and one of Hahn’s most biting social satires. The song depicts an encounter between a guy “burning incense, talking all his nonsense” and a girl who’s “got a haircut like Sinead O’Connor and Charles Manson”, noting that “She don’t need you at all / Just daddy’s money, that is all, that’s all”. Along with the This Song Is for Kathi and My Favorite Place EPs, Hahn has cited the Ivy League College EP as representing the “essence” of J Church.

"Each number conveys a specific mood, like pages ripped from a journal and set to music."

-- Todd S. Inoue on J Church, from the San Francisco Metro, 1995

As the 1990s dragged to a close, Hahn developed a nasty cough. “I was coughing to the point where I couldn't sleep at night and would simply lie in bed for hours gagging,” he recalled in 2000. Thinking he had bronchitis, Hahn went to the San Francisco Free Clinic for medicine and promptly mortified the staff, who were convinced he was on crack or speed due to his dangerously above-normal heart rate. Hahn discovered he didn’t have bronchitis, but congestive heart failure.

He was rushed to the emergency room at San Francisco General, mystifying doctors who couldn’t understand how he was still alive. “One doctor actually told me that I shouldn't have been able to walk,“ Hahn noted. A battery of tests revealed that Hahn’s heart had been enlarged to the point where it was pumping twice the normal amount of blood, which filled his lungs (thus the cough) and damaged his kidneys. Told that a heart attack was imminent, Hahn spent the next week in a hospital bed waiting to die.

But then, to the surprise of all involved, he didn’t. Hahn’s doctors diagnosed him with malignant hypertension, releasing him with extensive medication and instructions to return to the hospital once a month for blood work. Once a working treatment had been found, Hahn’s life more or less returned to normal, although any extensive touring had to be curtailed. “Plus, I'm going to be in debt for the rest of my life,” Hahn said. “But I'm always in debt, so what can you do?”

Live in 2000 (photo by Dave Deluxe)

Undaunted, J Church returned to the fold with 2000’s One Mississippi, an expansive double-LP featuring Jawbreaker’s Adam Pfahler on drums. Hahn called the first J Church album in four years “the best thing I've ever done on all levels (writing, production, performance).” Like many similarly ambitious albums, One Mississippi divided J Church fans: some agreed with Hahn about the record’s quality, but others felt that this time he’d gone too far. And J Church do stretch a bit on the album, working in traces of alt-country, post-punk, and even a solemn, haunting final track that sounds closer to Codeine than Crimpshrine. But it’s all surprisingly well-incorporated into the J Church aesthetic, and Hahn may be right. One Mississippi sounds like the band’s magnum opus: a sprawling, deeply personal masterpiece in the vein of other outsized classics like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade.

Following the album’s release and subsequent touring, Hahn relocated to Austin, where his girlfriend Liberty Lidz had been accepted as a grad student at the University of Texas. (“Shunned by the UC system,” in Hahn’s words.) J Church continued despite the distance, but fate dealt Hahn another cruel blow in 2002, when his apartment burned down, destroying, along with numerous personal possessions, the entire inventory of his record label Honey Bear, and a working draft of his book on English anarcho-punk, Let the Tribe Increase.

But Hahn again refused to be cowed into submission, resurrecting J Church with a new lineup that included Austin 'zinester Ben White, Severed Head of State drummer Chris Pfeffer, and, for the first time, a second guitarist in Dan DiDonato. Bolstered by Pfeffer’s furious drumming and the dual-guitar arsenal, Hahn declared the band’s “hardcore renaissance” as they released a split LP with Austin punks Storm the Tower in 2003.

In early 2004, the band released Society Is a Carnivorous Flower, an LP capped off by the most ambitious song Hahn ever wrote: an epic, seventeen-minute suite that chronicled the tumultuous events of May, 1968 in Paris. It was, on the one hand, Hahn’s ultimate love letter to the Situationists (from whose graffiti the title is taken), but it was also classic J Church, as Hahn wove political discontent and emotional isolation into a rich, compelling tapestry. And despite the song’s operatic structure, it rocked as ferociously as anything the band had released.

Six months later, Green Day released American Idiot.

"I think of what we do as a sort of mirror of my little part of the universe. As time goes on, I try to make it a more and more complete reflection."

-- Lance Hahn, 2001

Over the past year, Hahn’s health problems -- which had never gone away -- finally caught up with him. On October 21st, after a prolonged fight, Hahn passed away due to complications from kidney disease. The damage from his heart failure had never healed: in a cruel twist of poetic irony, Lance Hahn died because his heart was too big.

A memorial blog sprang up almost immediately to allow fans to express their memories of Lance. The comments constantly return to his unfailing humility, as well as his formidable work ethic and ubiquitous presence in the punk world. One insightful comment compares his passing to that of Maximumrocknroll founder Tim Yohannon in 1998: both became such foundational figures in the punk scene that they were sometimes taken for granted, with fans and compatriots assuming they’d always be there, tirelessly doing their thing while others dropped out or moved on.

But most notably, both Lance’s personal friends and his distant fans speak of him in the exact same terms: the barrier between performer and audience, long the archenemy of the punk ethos, visibly evaporates as you scroll down the page. One friend notes Lance’s egalitarian kindness: “Lance treated everyone the same, whether you were a member of his favorite band or the 14 year old kid shopping at Epicenter, embarrassed because his mother walked with him upstairs to get the new Rancid.” At the same time, one of the most eloquent comments zeroes in on Lance the artist: “So many stabs at the sublime; so many bulls-eyes.”

Quantity is an inescapable factor when discussing Lance Hahn. J Church’s rate of releasing new records was the stuff of legend, and despite leading one of the most prolific rock bands of all time and dealing with worsening health problems, Lance also found time to run a record label, publish a 'zine (Some Hope and Some Despair), write a regular e-mail newsletter (It’s a Living But It’s Not a Life, with topics that spanned from Major League Baseball to free jazz), and even write a book on anarcho-punk. But the quality of his canon is just as unavoidable as its size: unlike so many rock auteurs, Lance didn’t merely dump product because he could -- every song, every article, and every musing he delivered to his fans arrived with polish and personality, like a letter from an old friend.

Despite Lance’s best efforts, the world isn’t a much better place today than it was when he first sheared his hair into a Mohawk. Society grows more spectacular by the moment, and our increasingly terminal sense of ironic self-awareness has only allowed the forces of global capital to strengthen their grip on our lives. But Lance Hahn’s all-too-brief existence provides a powerful corrective to the sense of despair that such a world can engender: an example of a life lived beautifully, where art and everyday life blur into a vanishing point, where songs sound less like bumper sticker slogans and more like late-night conversations, and where the boundaries that separate us from the impossible seem not just within reach, but already fading fast into the distance.

One measure of wealth is not how much money a person can amass, but how many friends. And by that yardstick, Lance Hahn, whose friends ranged from grizzled Bay Area scenesters to Middle American teenagers he’d never met, was surely among the richest men who have ever lived.

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