This piece is about an absolutely amazing song by Craig Finn called “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight.” We will also expand on the song’s theme, which is how subcultures (and “scenes”) operate. Finn is, in my opinion, the greatest lyricist working today (not the greatest living lyricist, that’s still Dylan). I’ve written about about Finn before here, and here.
Finn himself says that “It’s Never Been A Fair Fight”:
“is about the extreme difficulty of staying true to the rigid rules of a subculture as you get older. The character in the song revisits an old peer and finds struggle and disappointment in the place he left behind.”
In this case, the narrator had been part of the punk/hardcore scene in the 1980’s and 1990’s, has left the scene, and reflects on his time there and what it meant as he meets his old friend, and we suppose former lover, Vanessa. I’m not sure I understand the entire chronology of the song, as it engages in some apparent time jumps that can be little hard to follow. Overall however, it is pretty clear what the song is about. The opening verse sees the narrator (let’s call him C, because while we will grant Finn the understanding as an artist that his characters are characters, in this case the song feels pretty autobiographical) checking in with Vanessa. The song opens in the present day.
I met Vanessa right in front of her building/ she was vague in taste and drowning/ she says she’s got a new man and he’s in a new band/ and they’ve got a new sound
I said hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder/ I’ve got a broken heart from 1989/ I was holding me head in my hands from the heat/ there were elbows in my eyes.
While we get the impression that C has been out of the scene for a while, Vanessa is very much still in it, new man, new band, new sound, same old place. Vanessa’s man, we assume, is in a hardcore band, and I believe it is the case that Finn came up through the hardcore scene before forming his first band Lifter Puller. Lifter Puller is not a hardcore band, and I don’t know if Finn was actually in a hardcore band or just in the scene.
“Hardcore’s in the eye of the beholder” is a funny line for a number of reasons (it also reminds me of the classic David Berman line “punk rock died when the first kid said/ punk’s not dead/ punk’s not dead”). In any case, after C recalls his broken heart from 1989, the song shifts back in time, back to when C was attending hardcore shows, hot and sweaty, elbows in his eyes.
Vanessa said that there’s threads that connect us/ flags and wars we should never accept/ Angelo said that there’s snakes in the smoke/ from the cigarettes
Ivan isn’t all that concerned/ he said it’s mostly about what you wear to the show/ I think the scene’s gonna fall apart pretty soon/ heard a song that I liked on the radio
Finn is an absolute master of sketching characters in just a line or two. Here, he uses a sort of pointillistic approach to introduce us to two additional members of the scene, Angelo and Ivan. With just a few short verses we already understand a great deal about “the scene.” Here is what we can deduce:
i) All four members of the scene have very differently valenced loyalties. Put another way, they want different things from it. Vanessa is a purist; for her being part of the scene is like being part of an tribe, an army, and we take her to be a fierce protector of the in-group/ out-group aspects that tend to arise in subcultures. Angelo, it seems, is a little out there; he’s seeing snakes in the cigarette smoke and probably not all that interested in the ultimate nature or meaning of the scene. Ivan likes the t-shirts and jeans, likes the look. He’s not a purist either. And C, well he likes a little pop music, an inclination we assume is strictly verboten for folks like Vanessa.
ii) Probably because of the differences in ideas and ideologies between the scene members, C sees things coming to an end, both with the scene and between he and Vanessa. Here we are reminded of the difficulty of keeping any kind of group together, whether a scene, a band, or just a group of friends. Everyone knows the feeling of having a group of friends who tell each other they will be tight forever, however life doesn’t usually work that way. The best film about this dynamic is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, which depicts a young group of friends in Manhattan who come together and then slowly, but inevitably, come apart over the course of a winter. There is a great moment in Metropolitan where the main character, Tom, looks around and realizes the scene is dead. Where did it go? It was here one day, gone the next. Scenes are like that, and this is what Finn is writing about.
iii) The inherent differences between people which make keeping the scene together are also something that Finn celebrates to a certain extent I think. One of the most salient features of Finn’s writing is his compassion. Finn has compassion for Angelo and his snakes, Ivan and his jeans, and for Vanessa, in all of her rigidity. As of the time of the song we know for sure that Vanessa is still in the scene and C is not. I guess that neither Angelo or Ivan is still around, however if only one of them is my money’s on Angelo, if he’s still alive.
Through the course of my own life, I have been involved, for a shorter or longer time, with a variety of subcultures. One category of subculture that I have frequented is what we could broadly call “new age.” My explorations of this category have been reasonably extensive. Back in my early 20s, I was involved for about 4-5 months with a Tibetan Buddhist group back in Washington State. I would get up at 4 AM, drive an hour across town to a beautiful old house on the hill, and meditate with the folks there. This group also organized some outings, such as mountain hiking.
I enjoyed the group and the meditation. The group leader, a slightly older woman who was lovely, asked me to pay like 6 dollars for a little book with chants in it, which I did. There was a total cross-section of people in the group of different ages and backgrounds, and all in all I liked it there. However, I peeled off from the group after a time for reasons very similar to those discussed by Finn. There were two specific things that led to me leaving. The second I’ll discuss a little later. The first was one day I was chatting with one of the members on the street outside after meditation. He was telling me how his daughter used to play chess, however he would no longer allow her to do so because it was interfering with her studies of Tibetan Buddhism. “There’s just not enough time,” he told me.
I had talked with this guy before and he was a perfectly nice guy, but I didn’t agree with his approach. I felt, in fact, that it was bad action. Now, I understood that people joined the group for different reasons and had different levels of investment. I was not looking to become a Tibetan Buddhist or anything—I was just “checking it out.” To circle back to Finn, the valence gap between this fellow’s take on the subculture and my own was vast, and his entire approach turned me off. This was the first step in my deciding to leave.
The next three verses of “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight” see C trying to keep the door open to Vanessa even as he edges out of the scene. He wants to meet her and if she agrees he will know that she like him feels that “punk is not a fair fight.” Finn doesn’t say, but I’m guessing Vanessa doesn’t show.
If things change quickly/ just remember I still love you/ and I’ll circle ’round the block tonight/ between 9 and 10 o’clock tonight
If you’re still standing here, I’ll take that as a sign/ that you agree it was a sucker punch/ punk is not a fair fight/ it’s never been a fair fight
We said there weren’t any rules/ but there were so many goddamn rules/ we said that they’d be cool/ but then there were so many goddamn rules
Verse VII is the hinge-point of the song and basically it’s thesis. Finn’s point is straightforward: the appeal of the scene was the potential for freedom, exploration, rebellion, however once inside the subculture C finds himself increasingly hemmed in by the strictures of that culture and the requirements necessary to remain within it. The very thing that drew C to the subculture (flight from an over-determined social reality) is that thing that ultimately drives him away. “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight,” appears in two versions on the 2021 record All These Perfect Crosses; the main version is horn driven and upbeat, and there is also an acoustic version. On the main version, Finn, realizing perhaps that the repeated line is a bit poetically unorthodox, spits out a laugh on the “then” in “but then there were so many goddamn rules,” and in the process underlines the centrality of the sentiment to the song as a whole. It’s a great verse, and one which tells us something fundamental about C’s nature: he likes the action, and as such needs to be free to pursue it wherever it may be. Action is not limited to the Minneapolis hardcore scene, after all.
The second reason I left the Tibetan Buddhist group had to do with something the leader said one day. As I mentioned above, I liked her quite a bit; she was chill and down to earth, empathetic, and basically pretty awesome. However, one day there was a guest speaker who was some kind of Tibetan monk. This was an “occasion,” took place in the afternoon rather than the morning, and I drove over. The monk was talking about the process of selecting a new Dalai Lama, and went through the whole deal with the reincarnation and such. As I recall, there was a bit about burning the bones of the current Lama or something. Anyway, after the talk the monk jetted, and there was some time for discussion. I spoke up and said that although I was all into the meditation, I wasn’t sure the reincarnation process with all the burnt bones was totally on the level. I wasn’t rude, or even critical really, just making a comment. The leader said quite sharply, “it is not our role to question. This is the way things are.” To me, this sounded like some dogma. Worse, it sounded like more bad action. I didn’t like the vibe so much anymore, and never went back.
In Finn’s explanation of the theme of the song I am drawn to the word “extreme” in the phrase “the extreme difficulty of staying true to the rigid rules of a subculture.” It’s a very specific phrasing, and I guess what he means is, for a certain type of person, an open-minded and flexible guy or gal who enjoys subcultures for their “checking it all out” aspects, that following all of the goddamn rules becomes, basically, impossible. This was certainly my experience with the Buddhists, although, much like C, I look back on the time fondly as well.
I want to expand a little bit more and scenes and subcultures. Scenes and subcultures, I think, are related but not synonymous. In the case of Finn’s hardcore group and my Tibetan Buddhist group I would say hardcore was a scene and a subculture, while the Buddhists were a subculture but not a scene. Therefore, scene here is a subset of subculture; not all subcultures are scenes but all scenes are also subcultures. What makes a scene a scene? This is rather difficult to pin down, although clearly it has something to do with “coolness.” Scenes are cool (until they aren’t, Finn’s point I guess.)
But were the Buddhists not cool? I don’t know, some of them were pretty cool. And, some people associated with that group back then might well look back and say “man that was quite a scene.” But for me, it was at best scene-adjacent. One day the group hiked up Mount Spokane and held a little fire ceremony there near the top. That was kind of a scene. Looking at this event gets us perhaps a little closer to a working definition of a scene. If the fire hike was a scene it was because it was a little “edgy,” a little “out there,” non-mundane. Now you might feel that meditating in a mansion at 5 AM is non-mundane as well, and you may be right, but I think you know what I mean. Scenes have a je nais se quois quality that mere subcultures lack.
I’d like to explore this distinction a little further by looking at another new age type event I once took part in. This was a Kabbala meet up held in New York City. (I referred briefly to this incident in my Bad Moves piece.) I’m not sure exactly what Kabbala is, although I know that Madonna dabbles. But I was curious, so I went to check it out. This meet up was held way up high in an old building in downtown New York. The room the meet up was held on was gorgeous; it felt like something from the Gilded Age. There were about a dozen people there and these were scenesters all the way. What made them scenesters? Again, it’s difficult to precisely say, however let’s just say you know ‘em when you see ‘em. In my Bad Moves piece I wrote:
If you know me this is not a secret, but I’m a hardcore closet New Ager. There, secret’s out. I’ve messed around with all kinds of New Age action. Once I attended a Kabbala meetup in Manhattan. There were some hardcore New Agers there too, seriously. Those folks were not in the closet at all. Shining eyes, whatever color they are wearing.
The event started slowly, as people said hello, got caught up (I seemed to be the only newcomer), and took off their shoes, which let me know right away that I was in for some good action. In the front of the room, arranged in a kind of half-moon pattern, were a series of large pictures of various tarot cards set up on easels. The pictures were beautiful; if you’ve even seen tarot cards you’ll know what I mean. I forget what all of the different cards were, however there was the one with the man on the wheel of life and another with the sun and moon. I had no idea what would happen, which made the event eventful already.
When the group got settled in front of the pictures people started discussing the symbolic imagery of the cards in super-granulated detail. Their knowledge was deep, and a little intimidating, however I had by this time studied quite a bit of astrology, and there was just enough overlap between astrological symbolism and tarot symbolism that I could kind of keep up with the discussion. As the afternoon progressed I got more comfortable and began to contribute. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I sort of knew and am a pretty good talker. Sometime you just gotta fake it ‘til you make it, and as I was faking it I actually started to make some sense. A few people started commenting on my comments, expanding on them and such, and suddenly I was part of the flow. After the event one guy asked me if I’d be coming back. I explained that I would love to but I lived out of town. He said “that’s too bad. You really contributed a lot here today.” This made my day; as regards to the Kabbalists I’d made it.
The Kabbala meet up provides a further clue as to what scenes are all about. First, the group, I would argue, was both a subculture and a scene. They were a subculture because they knew and interacted with each other semi-regularly around a certain niche topic. They were also a scene because they were cool, way off-beat, and like walking in the light man. However, and this is important, although I was neither part of their subculture or their scene (because I was not a regular), on that particular day I was definitely part of a scene. In other words, while subcultures need to cohere for a time to become subcultures, you can, if you get lucky, be part of a scene for just one afternoon.
And sometimes a one-time scene might be all we need. The Kabbala meet up, for me, was exciting, unusual, and eventful. But who’s to say if I went every week I wouldn’t get bored with all the tarot cards and the moons. In fact, it’s highly likely that I would, over time, have wanted to talk a little non-tarot. Would then I have not also begun to feel hemmed in by the strictures and limitations of the culture? Quite possibly yes, and that’s the thing with scenes—at some point the curtain has to close.
With verses VIII-XI of “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight,” the song seems to see C attending a show, and this is where the chronology gets a bit fuzzy for me. Is C attending the show in the present for old times sake, or is he giving us a rundown of the stuff that could happen on an old school Saturday night. Certainly, there is some nighttime action going on:
Some industrial vampire/ had it scratched into his skin/ someone got something from the store down the street/ someone got their head kicked in
If the cops shut down the show/ just remember that we tried/ and I’ll meet you at the place we crashed/ in 1999
If you’re still staying there/ I’ll take that as a sign/ that the drugs, they all ganged up on you/ It’s never been a fair fight
It’s never been a fair fight/ It’s never been a fair fight
At first I thought Verse VIII was back in time, however the more I look at it maybe all of these verses are in the present and C is going back to one last show. I’m not quite sure. Verse X certainly seems to be back in the present day as C wonders if Vanessa is still in her same place as 1999, and if so he’ll know she is on the way to becoming a drug casualty of one kind or another. Presumably Vanessa’s situation is what Finn is referring to when he refers to the “struggle and disappointment” that he finds on his return.
In any case, while C is still out looking for his lost love we get a repetition of “it’s never been a fair fight,” underlining the fact, wherever we are in time, the battle to remain pure to the punk ethos has been a rigged game all along.
Different places, I have noticed, have different norms. If you are from the United States and have been around a bit, you will know instinctively, for example, to avoid certain areas of certain cities after dark. Based on just a very few contextual clues, or just a “feel,” you just know when you gotta get out of there. Other countries are not necessarily like that, although some are. There is, in the U.S., a certain edge to situations that I find kind of specific. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago I dealing with some bad action, so I went back to the East Coast of the U.S. and checked out a bunch of live music. One of these shows was the band Ween. Ween is kind of a cult band, albeit with a pretty big cult. The show was in a small town on the New York/ Connecticut border and there were few hotels around. I stayed at a knock-off Marriot or something, and there were a bunch of other Ween fans staying there. I ordered a Lyft to get to the show, and several other folks were getting rides from the front of the hotel as well. Among these was a couple of Canadian guys who had clearly already tied a few on. I introduced myself as we were waiting and asked where they were from. “We’re from Canada,” one said, “and we’re here to fuck some shit up.” Now, there was perhaps nothing particularly special about this encounter, however I was stuck by how this kind of thing would be very unlikely to happen in a country like Japan or Singapore. The social norms in these countries make it that much more difficult for a rambling pair of dudes intent on mayhem to just carouse away. This interested me.
On the way back from the Ween show I got another Lyft. This was around midnight, maybe a little later. The driver was a Jamaican fellow called Barbadour, and he was stoned to the gills. Red eyes, slurred speech, loose hands on the wheel, the whole nine yards. This guy was gone. I noticed this right away, and bracketed it. We took off. He took a backway to the hotel, not the way I had come before, and there was a long downhill with like a 120 degree turn at the bottom. This was not a highway or anything, just a normal road. The dude was doing about 85 on the downhill, and took the curve way wide, fishtailing all over the place. He was, basically, out of control. As I was sitting there in the backseat I was thinking two things: i) this could be it buddy, and ii) haha, welcome back to America, where shit like this just happens. The Ween show was a scene; the Barbadour journey, that was just an occupational hazard of the live music fan.
This is sort of what I think Finn is getting at when he catalogues a few of the things one may see at and around a hardcore show. Vampires, shit-kicking, and a little shopping. All in a night’s work.
The last three verses of “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight” form an apparently tragic coda for the song as they seem to be about a funeral for a former scene member who committed suicide. This is not explicitly stated, however it sounds like that’s what’s going on. (It could even be Alejandro, given the apparent second reference to cigarettes.)
Yeah, I went to the service/ no, I didn’t know what to say/ everybody’s talking about his joie de vivre/ I guess I didn’t see it that way
I saw him snap off the filters/ I guess he liked how it burned/ everybody’s talking about his song and his laughter/ I guess I’m still not sure
Yeah I knew he was hurting/ I was not exactly walking in bright lights/ yeah, I knew it could happen/ it’s never been a fair fight/ it’s never been a fair fight
Obviously C has mixed feelings about the decedent—and the various plaudits to his character come off a little cold to our narrator. C leaves the door open to various interpretations (“I guess I’m still not sure”), and knows that he himself was not in the best place either. Yeah he knew it could happen, and in a sense C is saying “there but for the grace of god go I.” Punk claimed a scalp, and C is lucky to have gotten out while he still could.
As for myself, these days I am less interested than formally than becoming a part of a distinct subculture. While I still find subcultures fascinating, I no longer wish to tie myself down to any one group in particular. In fact, I never really did. But I gotta say, I still love a good scene. I guess I’m just weak that way.
We have looked at how scenes might involve some combination of the following: i) coolness; ii) edginess/ out-thereness; iii) eventfullness/ the unexpected; iv) divergence from the mundane. Although I still love scenes, I don’t go looking for them quite as much as before. Rather, I enjoy those scene-adjacent zones where events may become eventful and one has the ability, perhaps, to create one’s own action without the necessity to conform except to the dictates of basic good manners. One category of place which meets the above framework is bars.
Bars satisfy a lot of what we are looking for here for a number of reasons. First, they attract a loose and evolving cross-section of people, many or most of whom are, in one way or another, looking for a little action. Second, relatedly, at a bar we never know exactly what’s going to happen. However, bars usually have their own norms and even rules—most bars are not total free for alls. This is basically a positive for the scene-adjacent connoisseur, as a little boundedness is sometimes no bad thing. At a bar, you can do your own thing, you can chop it up with the folks, or something in the middle. As for myself, I equally enjoy working quietly on a piece at a familiar bar as well as mixing it up with all and sundry.
Bars can be “a scene,” for sure—and the more outre bars certainly fit into this category. In addition to being influenced by hardcore music, as an artist Finn is deeply indebted to the band The Replacements. The Replacements, like Finn (and Dylan), are from Minnesota, and there must be something about the relative isolation of this state that pushes folks there to big cities, scenes, and action. On their song “Here Comes a Regular” from their 1985 release Tim, the Replacements write about being a regular in a bar:
And everybody wants to be someone’s here/ someone’s gonna show up, never fear/ ‘cause here comes a regular/ call out your name
Indeed, bars are set up to facilitate connection, the potential to allow everyone to find a someone. Also, as mentioned above, bars promise the unexpected; someone’s gonna show up; something’s gonna happen. However for the regular, bars also offer a safe, essentially bounded, space as well. The regular is known by name, greeted at the door and shown out at closing. The regular is trusted, and if he or she slips up one evening, this can be easily overlooked. The regular is a someone on the scene. Bars though, except for the most specifically focused ones, are not necessarily subcultures. They are instead meeting places, crossroads. At a bar we may find the redneck and the intellectual, the tattoo artist and the hairstylist, the doctor and the bike messenger all happily co-existing. A good bar collects people from various professions and yes, even subcultures, and somehow flattens them. Everyone is basically equal at the bar.
In Japan, however, (and other cultures may have their own version of this) there is a specific class of patron known as “the kaicho.” “Kaicho” means “boss” or “chairman” in the business world, however in the bar world it ironically yet affectionately refers to a specific type of regular, usually an older man, who occupies the unofficial position of “boss of the bar.” The kaicho needs to be a serious regular, and each bar can pretty much only have one kaicho. All the regulars know who the kaicho is; all refer to him by his proper title. Other regulars slot in around the kaicho, and are afforded essentially equal respect, even if the kaicho gets a little extra attention. The Japanese word for regular is “jouren,” and the term has a little extra layer of meaning than the English. There is always a seat for the jouren no matter how crowded the bar, and the bar staff will often come outside with the jouren to bid goodnight (this is a common feature at many Japanese establishments for both regulars and high paying customers in general.) At the same time, the jouren may also be tacitly expected to buy the bar staff a round (the Japanese word is “ogoru,” which means to treat) every once and a while, and sometimes deeper into an evening may be reminded by another of her ilk of this quasi-obligation. The jouren, like the regular but with a culturally specific overlay, plays an important role in the theater that is Japanese bar culture.
Therefore, a good neighborhood bar, the natural home of a regular, has all of the attractive features of a subculture or scene without so many goddamn rules. One can come and go as you like, there are no tribal affiliations (one may have a favorite bar and yet it’s perfectly acceptable to also check out its competitor across the street), there are no sartorial codes, and because most bars (though in Japan not all) no longer allow smoking indoors, we are not even all that likely to see snakes in the cigarette smoke.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I totally understand what Finn is saying when he says that fidelity to a sub-culture as one ages is “extremely difficult.” Most adults, after all, have a job of some kind, and jobs, most of them anyway, come with too many goddamn rules of their own. The last thing I need after work is to be told who I can and can’t associate with, what I can and can’t wear. I’ve never liked any of that anyway. However, like Finn, I have a lot of empathy for Vanessa. For her, the scene is permanent, and she is always chasing her North Star from inside it. And in the end, C no longer loves the scene, but the flame he has for Vanessa burns bright.
Dedication: For my bartenders, Wakaba and Sari. Next time I see you I’ll buy you both a drink, I promise.