Youth of America
Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
I think I managed to edge into that final group of American middle-schoolers who lacked the Internet, which we all know was created for checking out up-and-coming bands and discovering older records if you didn’t have a cool older sibling doing the legwork for you. We coped by paying close attention to album reviews or interviews of our favorite current bands to see what records those guys dug. We’d move on from there, begging our parents to drive us to good record stores, hoping to find those lost treasures. If we came across a band T-shirt for those artists, it really would’ve been a worthwhile trip since we’d get to show off our cred at school. It was through this tireless search for a more potent and obscure dose of adolescent male angst music (it was the ’90s, after all) that my best bud, a die-hard Nirvana fan, and I found one of Cobain’s favorite bands, Greg Sage and the Wipers.
Sage was playing earlier than most American punks, appearing as a teenager on a one-off blues rock record by Portland, Oregon wrestler Beauregarde in 1971. Toward the end of the decade, Sage, inspired by punk rock’s emerging DIY sensibility, formed the Wipers with the intention of recording 15 records in 10 years and releasing them from his own record lathe without live shows or promotion of any kind. This proved more difficult than Sage realized and the debut, Is This Real?, was released in 1979 on Park Ave. Records. Sage’s songs were melodic, spirited expressions of suffocating alienation so intense that his lyrics are written from the point of view of an alien in disbelief at a world that could be so cruel.
What saved his lyrical content from self-parody was his indelible melodic sense combined with an approach to his Gibson SG that some critics have likened to Hendrix, minus the showiness and blues foundation. When I hear Sage’s guitar, I think instead of Link Wray, who tricked out his rabble rousing rockabilly with striking guitar tones, coloring a musical style played by bands that came a dime a dozen in the late 1950s. To this day, Sage tinkers with tube amplifier electronics, modulating sound in an evolutionary step forward from Wray’s pencil-punched speaker cup. Dissatisfied with his professional studio experience recording Is This Real?, Sage produced and engineered the forceful follow-up, Youth of America, on his own.
Abandoning his earlier outsider-as-alien conceit, Sage seemed to realize that there was an entire generation coming up that felt the same way he did. Growing up as latchkey urchins in the shadow of economically successful and culturally lauded Baby Boomers, Sage sought to rally his fellow generational miscreants, singing “Take a piece of our lives / Didn’t think we’d care?” amid furious guitar fuzz and occasional piano chords that lend a poignancy to album opener “No Fair.” The 10 minute title track comes next, with layers of swirling, frantic fuzz and a moody mid-section that calls to mind Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” only this seems closer to the “guitar army” that Page liked to use as a metaphor to describe his overdubs. Here, Greg kicks sand in the Boomers’ Third Eye, sourly murmuring “You wanna be born here again? / I don’t wanna be born here again,” before mockingly suggesting the listener “Take the risk / Let it expand your imagination.” On one hand an insult to the Boomers’ interest in psychotropics as spiritual sacrament and on the other, an acknowledgment of the urge to self-medicate while living in the pressure of the Boom shadow. Sage hasn’t given up hope on his age bracket though; “It’s time to heal this now,” he demands and ends the song imploring, “You! you! you!”
A punk song as long as “Youth of America” was an unorthodox move for 1981 but that doesn’t make Sage a total punk reformist. “Taking Too Long,” rolls off the amp assault for clean, agile guitar and again, piano. “Can This Be,” the most exciting song on the record, follows with the Wipers sounding like the Buzzcocks with a Big Muff turned all the way up. There’s a kind of sweetness to the upbeat change here as Sage incredulously wonders how long it will be until he can self-actualize himself and his dreams in the wake of the cultural wreckage of the ’60s and ’70s. Again and again, Sage emphasizes that what separates him from happiness is time. Time until record labels are irrelevant? Until he’s made enough money to produce another record? Until the Boom is culturally insignificant? Nothing gets resolved by album’s end; “When It’s Over” finds Sage tensely pummeling strangled chords high up on his guitar neck while Brad Davidson and Brad Naish are locked into a kamikaze rhythm behind him. Sage sings “In this land of dreams…/ Find myself sober,” as though all the waiting has made him more steely and determined.
Youth of America has seen several CD re-releases, including one on Restless with particularly cheeseball skull & flag cover art. It’s unclear whether Sage sees any royalties from these. However, he re-released The Wiper’s first three albums in 2001 (including 1983’s Over the Edge) in a boxed set available through his own Zeno Records, with bonus material, liner notes, and corrected track listings. Kids today don’t know how easy they have it.
by Chris Middleman