NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories
NOFX and Jeff Alulis
As “Fat” Mike Burkett says himself in the final chapter of NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, “I guess when a person tells one fucked-up story it sounds believable, but a series of fucked-up stories back to back sounds to weird to be true. Collectively, NOFX has enough fucked up stories that no one ever knows what to believe about us.”
It’s true, of course – because the stories and characters which have both surrounded the band as well as populating the band’s songbook often seem so fantastical (including, but certainly not limited to, tales of malicious hijinks like “The Moron Brothers” and stories of lesbians, crossdressing, drug and alcohol abuse and death like those featured in “Liza and Louise,” “My Orphan Year,” “Creeping Out Sarah,” “I AM an Alcoholic” and more), there’s no easy way to decide for certain which songs are true-from-life experiences set to song and which, like “Cokie The Clown,” simply express a gift for fiction. For fans, there is always an escapist aspect to both sides because, at the end of the day, they can just choose to believe or not at their leisure and just sing and laugh along regardless but, even so, when they first discover that there may be even the smallest grain of truth behind the band’s material, their brains recoil and call “bullshit” as an involuntary act of self-preservation. Some fans simply don’t want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes and choose to simply deny the possibility of its existence.
Hearing the exclamations of disbelief about some song subjects must get frustrating after a while so, with this book, all of the members of NOFX (and that includes a couple who aren’t with the band anymore, like Dave Allen and Steve Kidwiller – and some of their road crew alumni too) have contributed to and agreed upon a definitive history of NOFX. No attempt is made to cover or smooth out any rough or hard memories, EVERYTHING feels as though it has been included in the name of telling the whole story from 1981 (before the band started – the book begins with the bandmembers’ first introduction to punk rock music) and including events which occurred at least after 2010 (while dates are a little hazy, some may be from 2015).
Now, of course, some portions of that 35-year history get sort of glossed over, but certainly not many; the only part which really feels as though it was rushed through here is the period beginning right after the Rock Against Bush campaign (which came along in 2004) to right before the Backstage Passport Tour began in 2008. Through that period in the book, Fat Mike and the band discuss the kicks they normally have on tour (like hiding care packages of illicit substances for unsuspecting people to find, as well as dodging customs searches while on tour) and dig into some great, but fairly inconsequential, memories.
Prior to and following that period in the book, readers not only get a surprisingly in-depth and candid recollection of the history of NOFX (surprising because none of the rigors of the road or substances partaken of along the way have blurred any bandmember’s memories noticeably, but also a very revealing exposition of each bandmember’s personality as well. Of course, readers will be able to recognize Fat Mike’s authoritative voice if they’ve ever read the lyric sheets to any of NOFX’s songs but, with the artifice of the music removed, readers truly get a great sense of the biographical nature of his songs as they find that they recognize more stories than they may have thought they would; understanding quickly all becomes little more than a matter of context.
Conversely, Eric Melvin’s voice in this book is very low-key in that it almost seems as though the guitarist is going out of his way to choose his words very carefully in order to make sure there is no chance of misunderstanding them. He’s also the first member of the band to offer apologies of perceived slights that either he or the band may have committed through the years. Least surprisingly, guitarist Aaron “El Hefe” Abeyta presents himself in print precisely as NOFX fans have always seen him: as the class clown. Throughout NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, Hefe’s is the voice offers the most comic relief (recounting memories of hijinks on the 1996 Warped Tour are a great example of that), but it’s usually backed against a truly touching sentiment (like “My daughter Kalyn was born in the middle of my nightclub madness, and between NOFX’s touring schedule and the stress of the club could hardly enjoy my first couple years of fatherhood. The one place I could let loose was on this new thing called the Warped Tour” for example). For any other author or character in any other book, such a delivery would likely make for frustrating fare but, here and from Hefe in particular, it just suits and is welcome as an alternative voice.
Finally, without question, the greatest surprise among the authoritative voices which contribute to NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories is that of drummer Erik “Smelly” Sandin. Maybe it’s because no one ever expects true, genuine profundity from a drummer (because how many times can one hear the joke about the only thing a drummer gets on an IQ test being drool before one begins to wonder if it isn’t true) or maybe it’s because no one ever asked, but Sandin becomes a star early in this book because he is so articulate and his attention to detail is so fine. At every turn through NOFX – regardless of whether his recollections are from before, during or after his years on to heroin – Sandin’s unflinchingly moral tone quickly becomes the one that readers feel as though they can trust above all; he is not so proud that he cannot apologize if he was wrong (like that time he stole a car with some punk kid hiding terrified in the back seat – who is later revealed was Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong), and he has the iron resolve of a survivor and recovered addict which oozes from his words and is impossible to not respect.
In the late reading of NOFX, the focus of the prose shifts fluidly from being a chronology of events with a personal flavor to an examination of personal growth and development. Fat Mike takes the lead at this point and the woman who would become his second wife is introduced. Here, more song subjects get indirectly addressed as Burkett expands upon his interests in BDSM and crossdressing as they have developed in recent years and points to some of the subject matter for songs like “My Stepdad’s A Cop and My Stepmom’s a Domme.” Even so though, the discussion doesn’t come off as surprising so much as simply an obvious extension of how the book has progressed and how the characters have developed. Because of that too, when Burkett explains his bandmembers’ positive reactions to his personal growth and discoveries, it simply feels that much easier for readers to follow all of the characters down that road to a positive conclusion of the book.
“So is it a good read,” you ask? For fear of putting too fine a point on it, I blazed through the 353 pages of my press copy in four days flat (a breakneck pace for this critic); I was hooked early and simply could not put it down. The characters of each bandmember are meticulously presented and articulated and, after one has made it through the whole book, readers are left feeling as though they truly KNOW them, have a believably complete understanding of what has driven them for the last thirty-three years and know how and why they continue in the manner they do. In a world where many rock bios seek to do little more than collect myths, NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories bravely stands and tells the great, unbelievable truth.