Under the Influence
It's fitting that the band name Avail evokes the word "alive." The best rock, like all the best art, is not some rarefied air breathable only to people who wear puffy shirts and pointy shoes. It's music that makes everyday life feel alive.
Richmond, Virginia's Avail -- perhaps the only living band that's had as profound an influence on the current rock mainstream as on the underground -- makes just that kind of music. It even has a mission statement in "Black and Red," off 2002's Front Porch Stories: "Color yourself, color yourself black and red/Touch all you see, surround yourself," sings Tim Barry, going where no punk has gone before and using the colors of the anarchist flag as a personal, universal credo.
But Avail isn't about demystifying punk or anarchism, or representing any subculture. Like most influential bands, it's an odd brood that doesn't fit easily under a heading. With everything Avail's hearty grip encompasses -- a seamless swath of hardcore punk, melodic guitar rock, folk and country, "emo," metal traces, blue collars, left-populism, antics, ethics, regional pride, and kicking real and proverbial ass -- it may as well be the E Street Band for our time.
"Any of those bands that you see on MTV2 now that they categorize as the new emo bands, a lot of those bands take elements that Avail did, of fusing rock melodies to hardcore, 10, 15 years ago," says A.C. Thompson, who met the members of Avail in a brawl in a Richmond club around 1990, and formed a cottage label with Barry to release the band's 1994 debut. "A bunch of bands with far lesser talents have gotten very, very wealthy working on some of the ideas that Avail developed. And they're just five hammer-swingin' guys who, when they're not on tour, are driving around in beat-up trucks, building houses and shit for a living."
It's not just MTV2 that owes Avail a debt, but also the folk-influenced hardcore punk movement of bands like Florida's Against Me!, just now poking its head above the surface. While X and the Pogues once fused folk and punk, Avail was the first hardcore band to mix Americana into its alloy. "It was not contrived -- it was just like an accident, like everything else in this fuckin' band," says Barry over the phone from Richmond, knee-deep in writing the band's next album, due this year. "A guitar player who grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Cougar. And then me, growing up with a mom who listened to Emmylou Harris and Arlo Guthrie."
All four of the band's ongoing members -- Barry, guitarist Joe Banks, bassist Gwomper!, and "cheerleader" Beau Beau -- are from the D.C. suburb of Reston, Virginia, and have been driving each other crazy virtually since nursery school. By high school, the buddies were hanging out in D.C., soaking up the stark political hardcore and freaked-out variations thereof of bands like Fugazi. Barry recalls the scene vividly: "When you're 18 and you go to see Verbal Assault and Scream play at a random church in D.C., and the show finishes, and you pick up buckets and tin pans and drumsticks, and you march out of the church and go protest apartheid at the South African embassy . . . It was a real eye-opener."
But it's in Richmond where Avail made the strange mark that eventually got the band signed to Lookout Records, and later Fat Wreck Chords, two of punk's highest profile labels. The four friends settled in Richmond in 1990, and if they didn't create its punk scene, they certainly lit it up. "They would never want credit for anything anybody else did," says Thompson, who now works as an investigative reporter in San Francisco. "But before they were there, people were like, 'Yeah, I'm from Richmond, it's kind of a drag. ' And now every other person you meet has a Richmond tattoo." According to Thompson, Avail's relentless touring -- worldwide and almost nonstop since 1995 -- paved the way for subsequent bands such as Young Pioneers and Strike Anywhere, as did the outspoken pride expressed in some of Barry's lyrics in the crime-ridden rust belt city the band adopted.
While it's easy to get caught up in the ironic fun when Barry boasts about Richmond's murder rate in 1998's "Scuffletown" ("Third per capita/Next year, number one!"), Avail songs are about much more than Richmond. They're about the way the band rips through near-metallic thrash, folky jangle, and sharp D.C. angles, with Barry declaiming up top about everything from consumerism to guilt and personal demons. And don't forget the hooks, the key that opened FM radio to many of Avail's followers. If any hardcore can be described as "lilting," it's this.
What Avail may lack in recognition, it makes up in character. Like most bands with devoted cults, the Avail crew's quirks are as lovable to its fans as they are potentially befuddling to newcomers. Drummer Ed Trask, "the new guy" at five years served, is a street muralist, one of the best-known painters in Richmond, and one of the least colorful of the bunch.
Barry, known for his exploits as an avid freight-train hopper, less so as a classical music fan and set builder/production assistant for the Richmond Ballet, is a man of contradictions. "He's a tremendously layered person," says Thompson. "Tim is a guy who's both super into politics and then at the same time, he's down to sit on his porch and drink beer with the local rednecks that live in his neighborhood and come by and kick it and talk about just bullshit."
Bassist Gwomper!, for his part, has a talent for getting arrested -- check out www.availavail.com for photos of apprehensions in progress. "His ability to navigate through sort-of bureaucratic structures and generally follow any kind of rules is pretty limited," says Thompson, who describes guitarist Banks as "the hardworking family dude."
And then there's Beau Beau, who looks and acts like he was just kicked out of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. As official cheerleader, his duties include manic onstage dancing and backup vocals. "It was sort of like he always hung out with the band, and one day it just morphed into this thing where he ended up being on the stage, and that's been the deal ever since," says Thompson. "He's a full member of the band."
Not every band has a tatted-up male go-go dancer, but then again, few bands make music so much about being alive as Avail. And Beau Beau is Avail's human live wire. "The Beau Beau factor could definitely be a source of confusion," says Thompson, cracking up. "One that remains confusing to people to this day."
"You can look at our crowds and be confused, too," says Barry. "The guy with the Mohawk and the studded belt, missing his front tooth. And then there's the crusty punk with his bedroll. And then there's the dude in the Dave Matthews Band hat and khakis, who's a professional. We're looking out to a crowd of people from 20 to almost 40 years old, and they're all gettin' down. That's as confusing as we are, I guess. I'm confused by it all. But I'm not confused by how we all feel at the end of the night."
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