Borders and Boundaries
Throughout my life, there have been a great number books and albums that have come at just the right time, that the only way to properly describe them is to say they “saved my life.” More often than not this is merely hyperbole. But in the case of the album Borders & Boundaries by Less Than Jake, it definitely carried me through the end of my drinking.
This is even more ironic as I don’t necessarily like Less Than Jake. I always found that whiny third-wave punk-ska to be utterly annoying. And for the bulk of their catalog prior to Borders & Boundaries (which I will refer to as B&B from now on), this was true. As a lifelong fan of classic Jamaican ska from the 50s and 60s, jokey suburban white kids playing a wildly bastardized version of black music always infuriated me. But I digress.
I am not entirely sure how I got my hands on this album, but it is one of the few CDs that travelled with me in the early 2000s. I think I had Ministry’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, Blood for Blood’s Spit My Last Breath, Sick Of It All’s Yours Truly, and B&B. Blood for Blood was my band of choice back then, as their horror movie-themed hardcore mixed with violent self-pitying lyrics made a great soundtrack to my ever-devolving psyche. But as the spiral began to sink to it’s deepest, the melodies of Less Than Jake were more singable, and singing has always been the cheapest form of therapy I have had at my disposal.
Toward the end, as I was outcast by all of my friends, and couldn’t bear being persona non grata. I found myself leaving Portland and wandering the streets of whatever town in California I could hitch a ride to. My days mostly consisted of drinking and walking around town, looking to make friends, but unable to ever even look someone in the eye. I remember one time, I had hitched a ride into San Jose with some dude that had just gotten a divorce and was moving to California for a change of pace. But he didn’t want to be alone, so he paid me to stick around. Every morning I would wake up to money on the table, after he had left for work. I would quickly head to the liquor store to pick up gin and Hawaiian punch, which was my cocktail of choice if I could afford the gin. If it wasn’t gin, it was a steady stream of fortified and/or boxed wine. I would drink myself into a walking coma and walk around town singing/screaming along with whatever I was listening to. I have no idea how long I was in San Jose, but however many days I was there were spent in a grayout, which had become the norm for the five years prior.
Long story short, the album is fairly conceptual, as it deals with being sick of the way things are, which is analogized by a morose nostalgia and festering need to leave town. This was both figuratively and literally poignant for me at the time, whether it was concerning my ever growing physical dependency to alcohol, my depraved antics that had me ostracized from my community of violent homeless drunks and junkies, or my perpetual state of self-pity having lost the one true love of my life years prior when my wife had asked for a divorce.
On the first song “Magnetic Youth” LTJ puts the horn section front and center, as opposed to filler back-up roles like in other ska-punk bands. The lyrics denote a rising sense of alienation, mixed with neurotic perspective of people hating the speaker. I call this neurotic, the age old “haters gonna hate” crowd, because I have never met a human alive who could take time out of their own self-obsession to truly hate anyone as much as the ego maniacs want to believe that they do. No one really cares that much, outside their own small world. This is obviously made an archaic concept in the age reactionary internet lynch mobs, but at the time this album came out, such did not exist yet.
The lyrics in the bridge of the song let on to an interesting philosophical conundrum, as well as mirroring my own deluded self-pity.
All those people, they keep watching me
All those people, they hate me
All those people, they watch me
All those people are just like me.
Forgive me if I get a little Buddhist here, but in this sea of self-obsessed depressive outburst, the speaker actually sees that these people he feels so alienated from are exactly like him. The idea that we dislike/hate in others that which we see in ourselves is wildly insightful, especially when put to such plain language. I have always been drawn to witty and/or insightful lyrics.
The second song “Kehoe” follows the same insightful lyrical paradigm that LTJ will follow throughout the album.
The third song “Suburban Myth” is where my love affair with this album begins. Interestingly, it is in the same vein of ska-punk I am not wildly fond of, but lyrically hits me in the feels. Long story short, the speaker is acting as a tour guide showing the listener around town, telling stories of what happened in each place. This immediately hit me when I heard it, as the youthful vigor I once had was beginning to wane, and the only way I could hold on to any semblance of self was more and more about the stories I could tell, as opposed to actually creating new experiences. This is stated succinctly in the line…
Everybody loses sight of all the “how its been” and “never was”
The next song “Look What Happened” opens with the lines…
And I swear it’s the last time
and I swear it’s my last try
and we’ll walk in circles around this whole block
walk on the cracks of the same old sidewalks
then we’ll talk about leaving town
yeah we’ll talk about leaving
I swear it’s the last time
and I swear it’s my last try
I don’t know where I was when I first heard this song, but I will never forget where I was when it hit me. I was wondering the streets of Portland, from squat to bar to dope spot to under the bridge looking at everywhere I had been for the 13 years prior. I made mental notes of all the pain, all the death, all the loss. All the failed relationships. Failed attempt after failed attempt to get sober, get off the streets, get a job, get my wife back; the list was endless. I drank from a space bag of Franzia Chillable Red I had in my backpack and walked around crying. And then before I even knew what was happening, I found myself on auto-pilot, jumping on the bus to the furthest south on-ramp in Tualatin Oregon, and I was hitching a ride to Orange County. Unbeknown to me, I was to get sober but few mere months later.
The rest of the album is a roller coaster of lyrical prowess and melancholy nostalgia. I could write a whole book about the albums profound impact on me. But I am mostly interested in the irony of such an affect by an artist I don’t necessarily care for. I guess this speaks more to being open to possibility, because you never know where the next kernel of hope is going to come from. I hope someday to thank them personally. I don’t know where I would be were it not for B&B.