The Murder City Devils are the best band you’ve never heard of. Their sound can best be described as the tender melody of “Appetite”-era Guns ‘n’ Roses brutally raped by the Danzig-era Misfits while Social Distortion watches and jerks off. All the pure rock fury of the first two with the swagger of Social D before Mike Ness got fat. I saw the Murder City Devils only one time, in their hometown of Seattle. The opening act was a burlesque show. I almost got in a fight because I wasn’t dancing hard enough, then wandered wasted through Seattle with a hot chick on my arm, which is basically the story of every song in their catalogue. This is not a story about that show.
I discovered the Murder City Devils in Philadelphia, roughly a year before. South Philly had become a Mecca for mostly homeless hardcore and crust punks, who took up residence in the tenement houses in neighborhoods no one in their right mind would want to live in. The buildings were narrow, but five to six stories tall, and the punks utilized every inch. Each house had a name. There was $10 House, Fancy House, Wasteland, Fake House, The Catbox, Buckingham Palace. Dr. Filth was in unrequited love with two girls from “The Farm,” and I was smitten by a lady who lived at “Castle Greyskull.” Doc and I took turns driving there every few weeks, to crash on someone’s floor for the weekend.
The houses smelled like lentils from top to bottom. Up to a hundred punks could be living here at any given time, two or three to a room on beds, cots, couches, futons, or any other sleepable furniture that could be curb-shopped. Every room was a bedroom, and some rooms only had curtains for walls. Dogs roamed the lower floors, but couldn’t handle the steep stairs beyond. Cats perched on every bookshelf, and the basement is where they kept the litter boxes. You didn’t want to go in the basement. Unfortunately, that’s where they did shows.
The buildings were virtually soundproof for any music played down there, and these typically weren’t neighborhoods where people cared that an army of kids in black patchy clothes were hanging off every porch or balcony, 40 in hand. Crust punk all-stars like Aus Rotten, Anti-Product, or Chumbawumba could be seen in these basements on any given night, at least before Chumbawumba sold out. We were really into those girls. Nothing ever came of it.
The Lost Film Festival was one of our excuses. Some director or actor that we might have recognized was going to be there, or possibly a film we’d read about in a magazine. One of the girls Doc liked got an apartment with a lady I was quickly falling for, and we’d made arrangements to crash with them and all go to the film festival together.
Between us and Philadelphia was the appropriately named January 2000 North American Blizzard. It’s on Wikipedia; you can look it up. Everyone told us not to take the trip: our friends, our parents, random people on the street that overheard us talking. This was a really important show though, and if our actor or director wasn’t there, someone else probably would be.
Doc already knew the Murder City Devils. We always made a point to walk down South Street, because it was in that Fear song, and also because there was a cool shop on every corner. At one of the record stores, Doc picked up the Devils’ “In Name and Blood,” on vinyl with the controversial photo shoot of the band murdered amongst the lyrics and liner notes.
The blizzard hit no more than half an hour after leaving Binghamton. We were immediately slowed to a crawl, and visibility went to nothing. We’d spent our entire lives in Upstate NY. We were not afraid of a little snow. At Clark’s Summit we took the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the toll highway that led all the way to Philly. It was not too late to turn back, but we didn’t. Fifteen minutes later, the defroster broke. Ice crept from the edges across the inside windshield until it was covered. The windshield iced over completely. We pulled over in Bear Creek and found a gas station open through the storm. We could not stay there, those hillbillies would eat us alive. Without a defroster, we weren’t likely to make it anywhere else.
Dr. Filth had a brilliant solution.
We bought a pack of hand-warmers. These were plastic pouches of unidentified chemicals that heated up when a hunter put them inside his mittens or boots. They are common items at gas stations in the wilds of New York and Pennsylvania. As the ice formed inside the windshield, I would use that hand warmer to melt it. Under normal conditions we were less than an hour from home. Philly was still several hours away. We had no idea how long either trip would take in current blizzard conditions. We pressed on for Philadelphia. We had a film festival to attend!
Since forming in 1996, the Murder City Devils have released 7 full-length albums and numerous singles and 7-inches. I found them at the height of the Napster fiasco, and tracked down their discography song by song. Darkly themed tales of broken bottles, lost loves, murders, and the sea. Their fourth album is titled “Thelema,” the spiritual law advocated by Aleister Crowley. There have been several breakups, but the core lineup has been back together for several years, and released their newest album in August of 2014.
The trip took six hours, but we made it alive through some of the worst conditions I’ve ever been through. Philly was dark and snowy. In these primordial days before GPS and smart phones, all we had was a sheaf of MapQuest directions to the girls’ apartment, and then a vague idea of how to get to the film festival from there.
Problem One: The girls weren’t home. They also weren’t answering their phones. We could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment. This was only one of several instances where we traveled great distances to arrive on a friend’s doorstep and find Doc hadn’t been explicit with when we were arriving, and if we would be arriving at all. The longest trip was when we took a train to Seattle to a shocked ex-roommate that was going out of town the next day.
Problem Two: We didn’t know our way around Philadelphia at all. We were completely lost for some time, driving the wrong-way down one-way streets. When we finally found the road we wanted to be on that would take us to the festival, we were on the wrong side of the river, and had to start the whole search over after we found a bridge.
The Lost Film Festival was in a garage with two bay doors and no insulation. There was a heater, but there might as well have not been a heater. There were 20 to 30 punks in black sock hats, heavy hoodies, leather jackets and knee-high boots. Even the accumulated body heat did nothing to stave off the cold. There might have been beer, but we were perpetually broke, so we didn’t drink more than a few. Plus, we faced the possibility of a drive home that night. Between us we could never hope to afford a hotel, and if we slept in the car we’d have to leave it running to keep from freezing to death. I wasn’t about to cuddle with Dr. Filth, no matter how life-threatening the situation may be. In the morning we’d either be dead of carbon monoxide poisoning after the car was buried, or we’d be out of gas, and without money to purchase another tank. Even Dr. Filth and I were not too stupid to drive drunk through this mess.
I don’t remember any of the movies we saw, but I remember being disappointed we didn’t see “Kung Fu Jew.” Dr. Filth bought an armload of VHS tapes that he still has to this day. He spent enough that we could have gotten a reasonable room, or more than one tank of gas, but this was money he’d brought for movies, not for hotels. Neither of us ever questioned his decision.
When the festival ended, which was not incredibly late, we gave one more try to the girl’s apartment. They were still not home. They were still not answering their phone, which we could still hear ringing inside the apartment. Despite this, we tried calling a lot of times, more than any reasonable person would do.
There was no other option, we had to go home. Now, after all my wizened road-warrior years, the trip sounds only mildly frightening, but this was only the start of my adventures. Two-hundred miles in the middle of the night through terrain that was treacherous without mountains of snow that continued falling made for a terrifying adventure. Tractor trailers don’t slow down in these conditions, in fact some take the empty highways as an opportunity to see how fast their trucks can go. They blew past us, and the wake nearly sent us plummeting off a mountain on more than one occasion. The Universe must have some great purpose for myself and the good Doctor, because life has thwarted our stupidity on so many occasions I can’t count.
The Edge of Quarrel is nothing to get excited about. I found the entire movie on YouTube, it’s probably still there. I recommend watching it if you have the time. Enjoy for what it is, not what it’s meant to be. A young straight edge punk returns home to find his friends embroiled in a bitter punk v. hardcore war. The sXe hardcore gang was played by the band Botch, and the Dann Gallucci of Modest Mouse and the Murder City Devils plays the leader of the drunken, drug-abusing punks. Three boys, one girl, a whole bunch of people that end up fighting. At the end, the two sides must join forces to defeat the army of rednecks. The whole film is in black and white, and the cast is pulled from the Seattle punk and hardcore scenes. It’s worthwhile for Botch and the Murder City Devils playing in the background. Doc and I watch this movie every few years. It never stops getting better.
The budget was $5, and it was shot by a video camera that someone’s mom had in the basement. The actors were talentless, the characters without any depth. The dialogue was cliché, but the movie was amazing. The time Dr. Filth and I went to Seattle together, our first priority was visiting the record store in the movie. Dr. Filth bought the VHS, and we spent the next two weeks inviting friends over no more than one or two at a time and forcing them to watch the movie.
The Murder City Devils were the exact band I was looking for at the moment. The songs hit the right spot in my lizard-brain. They were sleazy, they were filthy. Spencer Moody was the slickest, most bad-ass front-man I’d ever seen, and he was a four-eyed nerd. His lyrics are evocative of the great Beats. Not boring stories of Jack Kerouac drinking himself to death, but Burroughs in Junky, or Phillip K. Dick. They sing of passion crimes and the sea, they hint at esoteric knowledge. They speak to those who cling to the underbelly. We found out later the girls were visiting friends in Binghamton that weekend. It was all worth the adventure in the end. “These idle hands, they do the Devil’s work.”
Paul Juser is the creator of Dr. Filth, a superhero with the power to convince himself anything. Read his adventures and more at www.printisbetter.com