Fuck the Rules: A Brief History of Sheer Terror’s Paul Bearer, Chapter 1
Sheer Terror, Paul Bearer, and how I wish I could have saved my little brother
“I just got into the punk thing…pretty much when Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend. I just thought that was the most craziest thing I ever heard, so I went to the library and I stole the thing on cassette, Never Mind the Bollocks, I stole it—and I still have it. And I just started buying punk records and getting into it. You know, trying to sneak off into shows, whenever I could—because I was young.” – Paul Bearer in an interview for “Burning Time” blog.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the legendary hardcore punk band Sheer Terror until last weekend, when a friend of mine, Ricky Bacchus, formerly of the NYC-based glam rockers D Generation, told me I should check out their singer, Paul Bearer. Ricky knows of my interest in figuring out what makes for a brilliant front man and felt that Paul and Sheer Terror (formed in 1984 when Paul was but a young fella) would give me plenty of material.
So, off to Youtube I go, searching for my new mystery man. A man who, by the way, ain’t dead yet.
First off, I was partial from the get go to Paul, who now fronts for the slower-grooved band Joe Coffee. I’m partial because Paul is a big, hilarious, smart, thoughtful, ominous, artistic, no-nonsense, stone-mountain of man. Also, his thick Staten Island accent makes him ripe for a role in a Scorsese film (I assume it’s Staten Island. He’s from somewhere around there. How the fuck should I know? I grew up in the South).
The partiality towards Paul comes from the fact that my little brother, Tony, was just as big, just as ominous and thoughtful, couldn’t be held down by a 9-to-5 job, loved music just as much, was an artist at heart, and I believe if he’d known about Paul Bearer, well, he wouldn’t be dead (he died at the age of 33). In many of the interviews with Paul, he describes his inability to fit into regular “working stiff” society and how life on the fringes drew him inexorably to punk rock music and the scene around it.
My little brother was in trouble throughout his life starting way back in elementary school and felt a freak and I remember him sitting alone in his room as a kid playing the Circle Jerks, Hüsker Dü and Black Flag on bootleg cassettes he played on a cheap Sears tape recorder my dad gave him. He was chubby from the time he was a kid (he always had to wear “husky” sized jeans – that’s what they called them in the 70s) and he was always picked on for being big until he got big enough to kick their asses.
When he did have regular jobs they didn’t last long. I remember in high school he worked at an Advanced Auto Parts store. Evidently, he traded so many hubcaps and car batteries for weed that the store could keep neither item in stock. When he worked for Pizza Hut after that, well, let’s just say there were a lot of weed-selling rednecks riding around with large Pepperoni Pan Pizzas in their trucks. He also, at the age of 16, led a farmer on high-speed car chase through our tiny rural Southern town for hot wiring his $100,000 combine and wrecking it into a ditch. The farmer chased my brother all over town and through the back rural roads for over an hour, shooting at him with a rifle and blowing holes through the trunk of my brother’s old Corolla. Needless to say, the farmer had to end up not pressing charges because he was guilty of attempted murder over a tractor. My dad, a Mexican who used to be in Chicano gangs in Los Angeles in the 50s, didn’t really think it was that big of a deal all the way ’round.
My brother, Raleigh N.C.-s smartest drunken asshole (with a heart of gold), could actually sing his balls off. And, if folks weren’t pissed off at him, they were usually falling over laughing at his filthy direct humor (or running away sobbing). My brother often talked to me about wanting to front a band but because he was such a big, hulking dude, and despite his charisma and apparent confidence, he actually was too self-conscious to stand on stage in front of people. He would sing Corrosion of Conformity and Pantera songs to me at the top of his lungs, but only when I was driving him around in my car. Just me and him.
I feel confident that if my brother had seen Paul (especially the slower-moving Paul from the later years) fronting Sheer Terror – thundering back and forth slowly across the stage in front of the audience like a giant pit bull being taunted in a cage – well, I think he’d have given fronting a band a go. He’d see that leading a band– whether you are writhing wildly or standing stock still, whether you have a sexy girlie face and physique or a visage carved out of granite – is all about what the singer is exuding. It comes from within and it can incite an audience to rack and ruin. Some folks got it, and some don’t.
I believe my brother had it. And I sure as hell know that Paul Bearer has it.
If my brother had seen Paul perform, he’d have had the courage to go down the path of hardcore and find an outlet to quell the demons he wrestled with. Instead of selling coke for most of his life and eventually killing himself through his lifestyle, he could have purged through music. Alas, my brother, to my knowledge, did not get to see Paul Bearer or even know about him.
But enough with the sappy, sentimental stuff. Thanks to Ricky, I now know enough about Paul to feel like writing about him because the man was pushing the boundaries of his chosen genre – hardcore punk – from the get go. He was pointing out through his performances and lyrics how limiting the “rules” of punk could be and he was having none of that bullshit. At the same time, from what I can tell, that same music scene provided him with refuge – a place to belong. He identified with it and yet he rejected its restrictions. His relationship with hardcore punk points to one of the genre’s most overt cases of the fracturing of punk and hardcore ideology that caused it to bleed out on itself. Establishing a dogma was antithetical to the whole punk enterprise – and naturally, the ship couldn’t hold. Paul’s life gives us an example as to why.
Now, about Paul. Well, I’m finishing up chapter 2 this week.