Young and Miserable and Right: Pat the Bunny, a Retrospective for the Apocalypse
Anarcho-punk Patrick Schneeweis (aka Pat the Bunny) wanted to make it abundantly clear that he had no answers for anyone, least of all himself.
It was 2013. Pat the Bunny, sometimes known as Johnny Hobo and sometimes as Patrick Schneeweis, was standing in the back corner of a Brooklyn punk venue, getting ready to perform. He was thin to the point of being gaunt, dressed unassumingly in torn jeans and a t-shirt. The tattoo on his left bicep, which inexplicably reads breakfast, was his only concession to stereotypically alternative or punk style. He looked like many other 25-year-old men, though perhaps a little more ragged around the edges, as he smiled earnestly and handed me a pamphlet outlining his plans for setting up anarcho-syndicalist communes after the overthrow of the United States government.
Ramshackle Glory was billed as "A punk rock band with all the wrong instruments," and that's what they were. It comprised 12 members, an accordion, a banjo, and several other components more appropriate to a gypsy jazz band than a traditional punk outfit. This tour had been announced via the band's fledgling website: "This is the Plan. The Plan will surely change according to the whims of Chaos, but this is our proposal to the forces of disorder that reign over us all," they wrote by way of introducing a list of concert dates. The show in New York had no location, reading only "To Be Announced (ask a punk)." Somehow, everyone in the room had managed to find it.
I was 16, wearing a boy's athletic t-shirt from Modell's that I had liberated of its sleeves with a kitchen knife, dipped in laundry bleach, and emblazoned with RAMSHACKLE GLORY painted with correction fluid. My best friend J and I had made the executive decision not to buy malt beer from the corner bodega beforehand; Pat was newly sober, and it seemed appropriate that we ought to experience his music that way, too.
As the band set up and started to play, a boy looked over at me. His shoes were taped together with silver duct tape. "Where'd you get that shirt? I didn't know Pat sold them."
"I made it."
"Yeah, you did, didn't you?" he asked rhetorically, admiring the terrible bleach job. Then he was gone, absorbed into the small but energetic tornado of a mosh pit to our right.
Ramshackle Glory performed for 14-minutes and then, citing technical difficulties with the borrowed equipment, abruptly ended their set.
"I think you were amazing," I shyly told Pat after the show. He was busy shoving boxes and instruments into the back of a beat-up van, so full it was hard to believe all the gear had ever fit inside in the first place. He was visibly uncomfortable with praise, but he accepted it with the grace of someone who, if not interested in fame, has reconciled himself to what little he had of it. Then the van drove away, one of its back doors still swinging wildly open as it swerved down Flatbush Avenue.
Perhaps fittingly, the venue where Ramshackle Glory played that night no longer exists. It became an Italian restaurant, serving up plates of pasta from a counter where the makeshift stage used to be.
Pat retired from music and disappeared two years later.
My friend J moved to Los Angeles by herself that year, where she got addicted to cocaine and stopped listening to folk punk.
I'm still here, though I'm not sure what I became. If I learned anything from Pat's music, it's that we can reinvent ourselves as many times as we need to.
I don't believe in cops, bosses or politicians
Some call that anarchism
I call it having a fucking heart that beats.
-- Wingnut Dishwashers Union, from the 2010 album Burn the Earth Leave It Behind!
Patrick Schneeweis' story begins in 1987 in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he was born and grew up and listened to Fugazi and learned to play guitar. We don't know a lot about Pat's childhood, or his upbringing, or his life outside of music and activism and self-destruction. He has one younger brother, Michael, who occasionally joined his brother's musical endeavors during his short career from 2005 to 2015. He was born into a middle-class family, or so he confesses in his lyrics, somewhat embarrassed that he was not born as down-and-out as he quickly became. "[We] grew up in a rural setting near a magical lake," Michael told me via email from the Buddhist monastery where he now lives, though he remained hesitant to share too much about their family lest he begin to speak for Pat. The problem, of course, is that Pat himself has disappeared. I'll get to that later.
* * *
By the time I met Pat at that show in Brooklyn, he had written hundreds of songs and released them under at least 20 names. He has been in so many bands, solo projects, and collectives that it's remarkably difficult to pinpoint a 'first' album, but for the vast majority of listeners their introduction to Pat's music came through Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. Love Songs for the Apocalypse came out in 2005 (DIY Bandits); a rough, honest record made by an artist laying his soul bare for the world, or whoever happened to stumble upon it, since he made little effort to distribute it. At this time, Pat was still living in Vermont, chronically homeless and spending most of his time drinking malt liquor and dropping acid by the local train tracks.
A sense of utter hopelessness pervades the music and its lyrics, and Pat makes no effort to polish it away. His voice is hoarse, cracking wildly, and his acoustic guitar is often out of tune. As Johnny Hobo, Pat wanted to make it abundantly clear that he had no answers for anyone, least of all himself. Music for him was about chronicling his own collapse, line by line. "[Johnny Hobo] was a phase that was, I believe, marked by some serious self-doubt, confusion, and anger in my brother's life," says Michael. "Maybe it was before the discovery that excitement turns back to pain, shame, confusion, and doubt when it's only based on drinking a 40."
The Johnny Hobo project may have been more about self-destruction and nihilism than any constructive effort to change himself or the world around him, but glimpses of hope in the form of philosophy and politics are visible beneath the rubble. He references Nietzsche—"God isn't dead, but I'll get that bastard someday!" he screams tunelessly on "Church Hymn for the Condemned"—and talks about revolution—"I've got my forty-ounce, and a system to overthrow," he tells us matter-of-factly on "DIY Orgasms". The revolution may have been limited to a vague idea at this point, eclipsed by the more pressing need for more beer or more drugs, but the lyrics were already marked by Pat's characteristic honesty, conveying the unglamorous reality of his bleak existence. It was enough to get Johnny Hobo a name as an anarcho-punk outfit, a band that stood for something, even if their something was only a more honest nothing.
If freedom means doing what we want, well don't we gotta want somethin'
More than just more beer?
- Wingnut Dishwashers Union, from the 2008 album, Never Trust a Man Who Plays Guitar
The year 2009 saw the end of Johnny Hobo and the creation of a new band, Wingnut Dishwashers Union, which toured almost nonstop. At least 19 people are known to have been members of Wingnut Dishwashers Union at one time or another, including a thereminist and a washtub player, but I can find only first names or aliases for most of them. As with Johnny Hobo, many of Wingnut's concerts featured only Pat by himself, without the support of other musicians at all.
Wingnut Dishwashers Union, like Johnny Hobo, was an anarcho-folk-punk band with the same unrestrained anger and raw emotion of its predecessor, but listening to the records instantly reveals a change in Pat from his prior persona. In 2009, Wingnut Dishwashers Union released its best-known album, Burn the Earth! Leave It Behind! (Wingnut Dishwashers Union, DIY Bandits, 2010) where Pat began more stridently to reference the political philosophers who had influenced him. In the song "Proudhon in Manhattan", whose title refers to French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who's widely regarded as the first anarchist, Pat imagines Proudhon's theory of mutualism applied to the modern day. Pat's anarchist values are stronger than ever, but the lyrics during the Wingnut period reveal a more positive outlook, a belief that change is possible.
"Tonight when I dream it will be / that the junkies spent all the drug money on / community gardens and collective housing", he fantasizes in "Proudhon", "And the anarchists have started / filling potholes, collecting garbage / to prove we don't need governments to do these things / and I'll wake up/Burning Times Square". No longer secondary to getting drunk and high, the violent overthrow of the capitalist system was a real possibility for Pat, and something worth advocating even after he 'wakes up' from his dream.
The rage is still there, however. On the album's third track, Pat declares defiantly: "Fuck every cop that ever did his job, and fuck every bank that never got robbed, and fuck all the other banks, especially mine!" It was during the Wingnut Dishwashers Union period that he also began to use heroin regularly, bringing a darker tone to the somewhat more cheerful whiskey-and-acid-tabs indulgence that had characterized the Johnny Hobo years.
The only published interview with Pat dates from this period, recorded by Punk Globe magazine (Tyler Vite, date unknown). When asked to introduce himself, he said simply, "There's not much to say. I try to maintain sanity in a society that is both criminally insane and accuses anyone transgressing its norms of being utterly mad. And honestly, that pursuit takes up most of my time in one way or another." At the end of 2009, Pat entered rehab for both heroin and alcohol addiction, forcing him to quit the band.
No one's gonna stop you from dying young and miserable and right / but if you want something better you gotta put it aside. -- "From Here to Utopia" by Ramshackle Glory, from the 2011 album Live the Dream
For almost three years the outside world heard no communication from Pat. In 2011, he suddenly reappeared with an announcement on his previous band's webpage. He had moved to Tucson, Arizona after leaving rehab and was beginning a new stage of his career. With this came the birth of a new musical group, Ramshackle Glory, and the release of a new album, Live the Dream (Plan-it-X – PIX-095, 2012). Ramshackle Glory was made up of 12 members, whom he had met "wandering the desert", and their music was still anarcho-folk-punk, but it would also address his experience with addiction recovery. So began the era for which he remains best known, and in which he achieved the most commercial success.
Like a lot of his fans, I was unsure what this radical life change would mean for his material. Some went so far as to be skeptical that he could make good music sober; as unsavory a thought as that is, it makes sense, given that so much of his previous content had centered around portraying the daily reality of an addict. There was no substance to their worry, however. Ramshackle Glory's lyrics were as powerful and visceral as anything Pat produced as Johnny Hobo or Wingnut Dishwashers Union, but the music was cleaner and more professionally recorded. He wrote about his past with the same brutal honesty, while also integrating more political and philosophical references. The band sang about the Spanish Civil War and heroin withdrawal, waiting for a train-hopping friend who never arrives, and burning calendars to keep warm in the harsh Vermont winters.
Still, it was clear that he viewed himself as fundamentally changed for the better, due to his newfound sobriety. If Johnny Hobo and Wingnut Dishwashers Union were about Pat wanting to drink himself to death and take society with him, Ramshackle Glory was about life after the revolution and how good it could be. "I want freedom, not a boss that comes in a forty-ounce bottle of anything," he sang plaintively on "We Are All Compost In Training" (Live the Dream). It might have taken him years to realize, but he craved 'freedom' not only from cops, bosses and politicians but from his internal demons, too. "Living's a struggle," he admitted in the album's penultimate track, "Bitter Old Man", "except when it isn't."
His brother Michael agrees that the Ramshackle Glory material is some of Pat's best work, describing it as an "Incredible collaboration, good intention, generosity. Trying to change the world for the better but knowing deep down that you haven't yet resolved your relationship with yourself, let alone the whole world in all of it's [sic] anguish." [ Author note: I emailed Michael a few years ago and asked him some questions about Pat with the intention at the time of making a documentary film about Pat's career. These quotes come from our email correspondence.]
* * *
The political and social beliefs Pat advocated for most of his career are so outside the mainstream that at first glance, they sound like a joke. 'Anarchy' is seen by some as a state of madness, or perhaps something joked about by middle schoolers who want to live with no rules and equate their parents with The Man. At the very least, it connotes a failed state, not a permanent condition for Americans to aspire to.
And yet for years Pat staunchly refused to 'believe in' aspects of society that most of us take as immutable. The very idea of government went against his beliefs, as did the idea of law enforcement, even laws themselves. It goes without saying that he didn't believe in capitalism, war, or the accumulation of wealth. If his unwillingness to accept almost any form of profit for his music is any indication, it's likely he didn't believe in money, either. Most of his albums—if you can even get them sent to you from his distribution label, DIY Bandits—remain priced on a "sliding scale" that allows you to pay what you can. In person, he preferred to simply give his work away, uncomfortable with cash.
The anarcho-punk movement is and was about direct action. The question of whether or not the use of violence is acceptable to accomplish their aims has always been contentious, but many in Pat's camp fall on the more radical side. Ramshackle Glory's second album, Who Are Your Friends Gonna Be? (2012) features on its cover a painting of bandana-wearing anarcho-punks vandalizing a car and leaping a fence while being pursued by militarized police helicopters.
Pat and his followers believed that cooperation and mutual aid could make government unnecessary. "As long as freight trains run and loners pick up dreamers with thumbs, who needs governments to get a letter to you, or a mixtape to me?" he sang in "Vampires are Poseurs", outlining his particular emphasis on establishing a nongovernmental postal system. It wasn't enough anymore to destroy the status quo; in the Ramshackle Glory period, he was committed to rebuilding the world afterwards, whatever that might entail.
If you don't step outside the things you believe, they're gonna kill you. - "From Here to Utopia" by Ramshackle Glory, from the 2011 album, Live the Dream.
Every punk likes to believe that their love of the music comes with an outsider status and a belief in something outside the status quo, but few are as self-aware and as committed to the evolution of that belief as Pat was. Indeed, the sheer lack of self-awareness is what often makes punk rock seem patently ridiculous; we've seen the middle-aged man in Doc Martens and spiderweb tattoos vomiting in the corner of St. Marks Place and 5 th Avenue, trying so hard to embody a bygone scene that he doesn't realize it has left him behind. Pat transcended punk's tone-deafness by constantly evolving, yet he remained steadfast to his ideals.
In 2013, Pat published an open letter to his fans, declaring he would from then on refuse to perform material from the Johnny Hobo or Wingnut Dishwashers Union catalogs.
"Those songs represent a huge amount of suffering for myself and many of the people who cared about me the most during those years. I also do not feel represented by the lyrics to many of my old songs, which were written during a very different time in my life than where I am at now. For those reasons, among others, I am not willing to perform that material.
I know that not everyone who comes to a show is going to be aware of that, and that some people who know about it won't understand. Some people are still going to request the old songs, and I accept that as part of the deal in continuing to play music publicly. But I would still appreciate it if you didn't request those songs, whether my reasons make sense to you or not." - [online version no longer available, originally published 24 May 2013]
In 2015, Pat shared a rambling Facebook post and promptly deleted it, though a version of the post has been preserved by fans. He apologized profusely, saying "I have grown into a basically ordinary person," something which in his eyes was akin to failure, or at least the inability to be Pat the Bunny anymore, whatever that meant to him or to us.
"Nothing I write feels very skilled at communicating whatever it is I am trying to say, but it just seems important to tell you that I am not really an anarchist or a punk anymore. My viewpoint has changed dramatically in the last six to nine months, and this kind of politics and music is just not where my heart is anymore. I have no interest in convincing anyone of anything, so that's all that's important to say about it. I just don't want people to feel tricked when they buy or listen to my music."
Signed cryptically "Pat (no bunny, at last)" the letter went on to declare his retirement from music, potentially forever. Since then, his whereabouts have been largely unknown to all but his family, and perhaps not even them. His record label answers orders for albums and merch only sporadically, and Pat himself doesn't answer emails or messages through any social media platform.
There's something refreshingly, almost bizarrely honest about his decision to disappear; his ideals were so dear to his heart, it implies, that he could no more make music without them than he could sing without a voice. If he was no longer an anarchist, then he would no longer be a singer. Still, something is lost. If his departure ensures that we will never feel tricked, it does nothing to keep us from feeling abandoned.
A punk rock song won't ever change the world / but I can tell you about a couple that changed me. - "Fuck Shit Up", Wingnut Dishwashers Union, from the 2010 album Burn the Earth Leave It Behind!
Though Pat has all but vanished from public view, his fans don't all share his recalcitrance from technology, and a thriving community survives on Reddit message boards and a Facebook group. Some know one another from real-life adventures; others are joined only by the internet and their mutual love of Pat's work. They call each other "comrade" and share their fan art. They talk about addiction and recovery and the feasibility of traversing the country as stowaways on freight trains.
More than anything else, members of the anarcho-folk-punk scene share a sense of humor. There's a pervasive sense of the impossibility of a lot of their dreams, particularly the political ones. "Who does the dishes after the revolution?" asks one fan rhetorically in a post. "We eat our food off the ground like true anarchoprimitivists," someone responds, while another declares "Dishes are bourgeois and have been outlawed." The subtext of all these jokes: The revolution is never coming, but it doesn't mean we can't Live the Dream.
No one seems quite sure of Pat's whereabouts, and it appears he prefers it that way. Some fans claim to have possession of a recent video showing him happy at a campsite out West, but the footage has not surfaced. "It's like a Bigfoot sighting," crows one. "I'm well aware of where it is," someone responds, "But if anyone else finds it please don't share it. I think we are in a general consensus that revealing where he is, is not the smartest move."
There's something a little bit frightening about the devotion fans tend to develop for their rock stars, and as much as the punk ethos claims to make no stars and respect no idols, it certainly isn't exempt. Pat's disappearance and the strong reactions of many fans inevitably call into question the passion they had in the first place; was it ever about him, or was it about having someone to justify their own self-destructive fantasies?
The demand that he be the impossible Pat the Bunny figure at all times was almost certainly what drove him to withdraw in the first place, yet many of his fans persist in their nostalgia for the idealized character they loved. The death of an artist so often leads to overblown lionization and a feeling that he can do no wrong. Certainly, some have taken that attitude. But Patrick Schneeweis isn't dead, even if Pat the Bunny is. Around the world, a sizable group of misfits harbors the secret hope that their personal Jesus, if you will, will resurrect himself to save punk rock from itself. In the meantime, we're left with the vague instructions he gave us: quit your job, overthrow the system, and have a good time, whatever that means to you.
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