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It was sometime during the final chorus of “October, First Account,” when Jemina Pearl and Jonas Stein were singing together over a song that is somehow more powerful live than it is on record, that I realized I was crying. Not some minor water-in-my-eyes moment, but like, full-on waterworks. Something about the odds of being there, 1,100 miles from where I live, in a single-seat row at the back of the Tabernacle in Atlanta, seeing a band I love do one of my favorite songs ever hit me in the solar plexus. I was soaking through my KN95, as 16 years of listening to a song that gave me incredible catharsis at too many emotional moments in my life to recount here in full came rushing into the present. The song ended, I clapped and yelled, and didn’t stop crying until the band finished playing “Bicycle Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle” some minutes later. I didn’t expect to ugly cry during a set from the aughts’ best punk band, but there I was, crying a similar volume to the cans of Liquid Death available at every bar in the Tabernacle.
For the better part of the last 14 years, since Be Your Own Pet went down in flames in 2008, whenever I have the “what band would you pay to see reunite” discussion with my friends, my answer has always been Be Your Own Pet. I never got to see them in their original run; the closest they got to me in my Wisconsin hometown was Chicago. I was a pizza delivery man in suburban Wisconsin paying my way through college at the time and couldn’t afford to go to a city that was four hours away to see a band that, out of my friend group, only I loved. Over the years, I figured it would never happen; what teenage band do you know that flamed out before the members were 21 ever got back together? Maybe The Runaways? That’s basically it.
Then, a few months ago, Jack White announced his Supply Chain Issues U.S. Tour, and one of the opening bands was listed as “Be Your Own Pet.” I assumed that was some kind of typo, and just went on with my life. Then every music publication ran a story about the band reuniting to play the tour — Pearl and White are close, as she is part of the Third Man family, thanks to her marriage to Ben Swank — and I realized it was for real. The band would play two dates — in Nashville and Atlanta — which was later expanded to add dates in NYC and some spot shows in between. Fourteen years of claiming I’d spare no expense in seeing Be Your Own Pet live if they ever reunited became not a theoretical at a bar, but a reality. I bought tickets, used frequent flier miles and booked myself a hotel room. I was in Atlanta for only 17 hours, 40 minutes of which was spent crying my way through Be Your Own Pet’s set.
In the seven weeks between when I bought the tickets and went to Atlanta, I have had every flavor of conversation of why I would fly myself across the country to see a band that put out two albums a decade and a half ago and dissolved abruptly. Founded by singer Jemina Pearl, guitarist Jonas Stein, bassist Nathan Vasquez and drummer Jamin Orrall when they were teenagers in Nashville, the band went from playing 10-minute sets at Nashville all-ages shows to playing Glastonbury in under 18 months. Their early 7-inches — “Damn Damn Leash” especially — got the attention of punk luminary Thurston Moore, who signed them to his then-new label, Ecstatic Peace. It was easy immediately to see what made Be Your Own Pet special; not only was the band like a Swiss watch of punk fury, their riffs and drumbeats wild in isolation and locked together perfectly in unison, but Pearl’s lyrics were radically feminist and basically the diametric opposite of the mold the music industry often forced young women into in the 2000s era. She was singing about not wanting to be leashed, about wanting to kill her boyfriend because he wasn’t a cat person, about Xanax, about robbing banks and about what it was like to be a teenager in 2006. Their self-titled debut got them booked on worldwide tours before they turned 18, and set the stage for their sophomore album, Get Awkward, which was released as part of a deal Moore had worked out with “upstreaming” his bands to Universal, for increased distribution and visibility. This deal would ultimately destroy the band.
Universal didn’t understand the appeal of Be Your Own Pet. They booked them on a never-ending tour for incongruent publications like Nylon magazine — which all the band members remembered in a recent interview with The Guardian as being the tour they started taking substances to cope — and in a bizarre move, removed three songs from Get Awkward for being “too violent.” The songs — “Becky,” “Black Hole” and “Blow Yr Mind” — are fan favorites (they did “Becky” and “Black Hole” as part of their reunion dates), and are shockingly un-violent when stacked against albums released on Universal at the time that did not have any censorship of any kind (say, every Eminem album). The combo of burnout and substance abuse on the tour, and the pressures of their label wanting them to do things they didn’t want to do — especially Pearl, being subjected to a sexist music press that saw her as a Lolita avatar and treated her inhumanely — led to the Stein, Vasquez and second drummer John Eatherly (he joined when Orrall left to form JEFF the Brotherhood) quitting the band at the end of their 2008 U.K. tour. Stein went on to play with his new band, Turbo Fruits, and when Universal demanded another album from Be Your Own Pet, Pearl went solo for 2009’s Break It Up. When that album failed to deliver what Universal wanted, Pearl was dropped.
Thus came the 14 years in between their last shows in the U.K. and their shows in support of White. Watching them in 2022, the years dripped away; maybe they lost some of the youthful anger and cruise-missile determination that comes with teenagedom, but they still kick a tremendous amount of ass. The rhythm section of Eatherly and Vasquez were dressed like the rhythm section of Thin Lizzy in 1981 — lots of denim — and they were locked in totally from the opening rush of “Thresher’s Flail.” Stein looked like a backing member of Talking Heads on set at Stop Making Sense, but was rocking so hard he had to chuck his eyeglasses to the side because of the sweat washing down his face. And Pearl, the nucleus of the band, was like a fitness instructor from hell, doing aerobic routines and looking ready to kick someone’s head in. They did 18 songs, split pretty evenly between Get Awkward and Be Your Own Pet, with the edge given to the latter. “Adventure” was light and fun, “The Kelly Affair” felt like more of a noir nightmare live than on record. “Zombie Graveyard Party” — apparently a favorite of Pearl’s children — was an absurd, hilarious peak, and they somehow transformed “Bicycle Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle” (the only song they did on national TV) into a thrash metal song. Their set made clear how ahead of their time they were; if they had come along 10 years later, it’s not impossible to think that they’d be the subject of Tumblr memes, and fans earnestly asking Pearl to run them over with a truck. They captured so much of what it was like to be a teenager in the 21st century: the aimless emotions, the anger, the boredom, the way that sometimes your emotions make you a zombie, how faking expertise would become a major part of existence. It was profoundly unfair for them to have peaked in an era where the music press would mistreat Pearl, where the label system would chew them up, where their righteous songs would be treated as too dangerous.
Trying to explain what Be Your Own Pet means to me is harder than explaining what the Beatles mean to me — a connection with my dad, who I struggled to “know” in childhood — or what William Bell means to me — a legend whose music is like a warm blanket for me. Be Your Own Pet came along when I was 20. I remember reading about them in a physical issue of Rolling Stone (how retro!), how they were a punk band whose debut was coming out on the hella punk date of 6/6/06, and that they were described in my memory as a “more punk” Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of my favorite bands at the time. I went to my local record store and got their first CD, and I remember sliding it into my 2002 Saturn SL1’s stereo and almost blowing my head off. It was a sunny day and “Thresher’s Flail” was like a bomb dropping from nowhere. That album didn’t leave my car for close to two years; it was the soundtrack for a summer when I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I had changed majors and was delivering pizzas and not doing much of anything. That summer, Be Your Own Pet represented that feeling of forward momentum you only have when you’re young, that forward flailing of certainty and fortitude and doggedness. They were adventuring, they were adventurers — just like I was as I navigated drinking beers in parking lots after my shift and hoping to gather enough money to propel myself somewhere, anywhere but Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
That fall, my mom had a cataclysmic health event where, on three separate occasions it felt like — to me, at least — we were close to losing her. Since childhood, my parents were like trusted friends as much as authority figures, hipping me to music, movies and books, and trusting me to not do anything too stupid. Which is to say, I loved my mom, as many 20-year-olds do. My mom was basically in a hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries, for the better part of five months in the fall and winter of 2006. Because I lived at home to save money during college, that meant doing shifts at her bedside in between classes and work, confronting the reality of losing her alongside my dad, who somehow kept it together, despite nearly losing his best friend since they were in seventh grade. I probably should have been in some kind of therapy, as I definitely should have been talking to a professional about what it was like to be 20 and holding a trash can for my mom to puke radiation out. But what I had instead was Be Your Own Pet, which manifested in me listening to the CD, in full, on the 35-minute trip back and forth between the hospital in the bigger city she was being treated in. That meant screaming every single word to “Bog” while driving 75 on Highway 41; that meant head-banging to “Stairway to Heaven” while going through the Culver’s drive thru to stress eat butterburgers; principally, it meant crying to “October, First Account,” a song, in my mind, about attempting to make sense of an out-of-control situation, and picking yourself up and trying again.
There’s that book called Our Band Could Be Your Life, and while that phrase was meant as a call to DIY, a “you can do this,” I think of that phrase here because Be Your Own Pet are a band that have been with me for the duration of my adult life. I’ve listened to these two albums for 16 and 14 years, years that changed me and clearly changed them. They’re older, they have other interests. Stein is a disco DJ. Eatherly played in Smith Westerns, the Virgins and has a new band. Pearl is a mom. I’m different, too. I’m wider and have less hair. I go to therapy. I’m married.
But in the 30-odd minutes of the band’s set, time completely collapses. I’m 31, trying to convince a karaoke bartender to add “October, First Account” to their songbook, because I want to scream it in public. I’m 22 writing about Get Awkward being censored at my first professional writing gig. I’m 26, depressed, playing my now-vinyl copy of Be Your Own Pet over and over while drinking alone. I’m 21, driving home from a hospital, using the album as my only escape. I’m 36, alone, sitting in the balcony in Atlanta, watching a band that means so much to me reunite. If this leads to more tours, more albums, more anything, it’ll feel like running up the score. For one perfect night, it wasn’t nostalgia: It was like one of my favorite bands stepped out of the past, and into our future.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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