July 21, 2016
"There's shoes not fit for their princes
But fit for we
Kings and queens
Oh, if you could taste our dreams"
Those were some of the first words I ever heard from Erik Petersen. It was 16 years ago and I found a box of tapes with a small note that read “FREE! TAKE!” on a porch on Buckingham Place, a magical alleyway of a street in West Philly. The first basement show I ever went to — Myles of Destruction, Captain Crash, Eulogy and Sputnik — was on that block in July of 2000, at The Catbox. The first squat I ever hung at, the appropriately named Buckingham Palace, was also on that block. These were formidable experiences for a 20-year-old budding punk with aspirations of mohawks and revolutions. So was hearing the music of Erik Petersen, though I didn't know it at the time.
This was before Mischief Brew was headlining shows across the world to hundreds of ecstatic fans all screaming along. Hell, this was before Mischief Brew. The tape I found in the free box, a collection of demos called "Mirth," wasn't even attributed to Petersen. There were woodcuts and illustrations of jesters and goblins and a couple circled A’s and that was basically it. The music was a weird mashup of old-timey folk and traditional songs with the energy and unflinching sneer of punk rock. I was hooked but in those pre-MySpace days had no way of finding out more.
The tape came with a patch that read “FOLK THE SYSTEM” that helped me connect the dots when, a few months later, I saw a flier with those same words advertising a show at the bar around the corner from my house. That bar, a legit hole-in-the-wall called Fiume that can hold 25 max and only if they're good friends or are too drunk to care, soon became Petersen's second home.
Fiume manager, bartender and former Mischief Brew bandmate Kevin Holland explained the connection.
“As far as I remember, the first time Erik played Fiume was a Kettle Rebellion show. Both bar and band were in their infancy. I was in my infancy too — as a bartender. That was the night I trained to be a bartender at Fiume. Since that December 2001 show, both Erik's music and Fiume have changed a lot and not at all.”
Which is to say that it didn't matter where or when you saw Petersen, he'd always play with so much energy and an impish, infectious smile on his face. And he'd play so much. In those days it was at Fiume or in the basement of Dahlak — really, they had shows there back then — or playing in various West Philly houses. Pretty soon after that, those same solo songs that Petersen had been working out for a couple years turned into a full band endeavor with Kettle Rebellion, which eventually turned into Mischief Brew.
Christopher 'Doc' Kulp, original drummer for Kettle Rebellion and Mischief Brew and later an occasional second percussionist, guitar player, and (at least a few times) trumpeter, said, "It was hard not to be taken with him, once he started performing. … We had a pretty small and rustic set up, and I remember one show in a barn in Maine where Erik, Shantz [Sean Yantz, original bassist] and I grabbed my cast-iron pot, some odd percussion, and an old bugle, and paraded through the crowd to the performing area to start. That was one of those things he just decided at the last minute."
"You're the gas upon my flames
My love and rage all rolled up into one
For every time your gun goes off
A new rebel is born"
Mischief Brew began putting out albums at a fast clip and Petersen, with the help of his incredible wife Denise and an army of pugs at their side, turned the band and the label they started, called Fistolo, into a self-sufficient enterprise. Well, as self-sufficient as it gets in DIY punk. With a couple albums and tours under its belt, the band started playing bigger and bigger venues. But true to form, Petersen would still end up at Fiume or, more importantly in those years, playing at protests and other political events.
In 2003, at one of the biggest anti-war marches in Philadelphia, Petersen played an impromptu set in Rittenhouse Square under a canopy of black flags and a cacophony of political banners. With that same mischievous smile I first noticed at Fiume plastered across his face, he led the crowd in a chant of “F--- war!” before launching into the song “Against,” which has some of the most acerbic lyrics this side of Woody Guthrie, one of his heroes: “These songs for peace/ How I wish they'd turn into antiques/ To never sing against war again.”
It was in environments like that where he truly shined. From the beginning, when he'd play a never-ending series of anti-death penalty rallies organized by PA Abolitionists, to a memorable set at Occupy Philly in 2011, to countless benefits for causes big and small, he was always, always ready to play. His songs straddled the line between the personal and political and he effortlessly melded the two in everything he did.
Listening to Petersen's music is easy. That's not to say that the music itself is simple or the lyrics too general and noncommittal in nature. It's more that it's always felt very friendly, mirroring its maker in many, many ways. You want to enjoy it because it's fun, because it's interesting, because you recognize something of yourself in the song. As musician Julian Root put it during a memorial event on WXPN last week, “Erik told our own stories back to us and made us feel like heroes.”
Or as longtime Philadelphia activist and Mischief Brew fan Ian Winter said, “I heard Erik's music for the first time when I was 16 — the split [release] with Robert Sarazin Blake — and immediately fell in love with it because it articulated something that I had been feeling for some time already: That the system is f---ed and deserving of our rage but people are so amazing and we should love each other with everything we got. This message is clear in Erik's music but also in the way he lived his life.”
"And everybody on the block
Is talkin' bout the weather, not the war
But will we crack when the houses all go black
And the radiators knock no more?"
In recent years the band played bigger and bigger shows, looking just as comfortable in front of a thousand people as they did in front of a few dozen. "My fondest memory will always be, when the band was still very, very young, and we got invited to play Hallowmass in 2005. It was the biggest crowd we had ever played in front of, and as we carried our equipment through the crowd to the stage, and sat there soaking it all in, Erik turned around to us, and just said, 'Isn't this the biggest crowd you've ever played for? This is nuts!'" said Kulp. "That was Erik. Always excited to perform, and always happy you were there to share it with him."
The newest Mischief Brew album, last year's “This Is Not For Children,” was put out by punk stalwarts Alternative Tentacles. This marked the first time the band released a full album not on the Fistolo label. It was a chance to reach an even greater audience even if it meant giving up control over so much of the minutiae. The gamble paid off: The band was booked to play a series of over-the-top shows in Europe starting in August, with one of the highlights being a show in London in August opening for MDC, The Dwarves and TSOL. I talked to Petersen about it when the band was planning the tour; he was ecstatic. Now, band members Shawn St. Clair, Christopher Petersen — Erik's brother — and Denise will be eulogizing a life lost too soon. They're far from alone in their grief.
Within minutes of the announcement, there was an immense outpouring of love, sadness and raw shock from around Philadelphia and around the world. It was comforting, in a way, to see the same themes repeated in social media posts from both close friends and people who had never met Petersen, making it clear that he had made a huge impact just with his music, much less with his generosity and overwhelmingly kind spirit.
One post that struck me was from Jessica Ingalls, a 33-year-old mother of two from the Midwest who has been a huge Mischief Brew fan going back to her days traveling around the country on freight trains.
“Transitioning from being a train rider to being a mother was the hardest thing I've ever done. This song helped. Hell, all of his songs helped,” she wrote. “My daughters are proof that a whole generation is being raised on his words.”
Her post was attached to a video of the song “Nomads Revolt,” which is about growing up but not giving up on your dreams or your ideals.
“Nomads Revolt” was one of Petersen's most popular songs. Whenever the band played it, the crowd, and especially the younger people there, would go absolutely nuts and it would inevitably turn into a giant singalong. For years I was confused why teenagers would have such a connection to a song about getting old. A (younger) friend then explained that it's not that there's any affinity to aging and settling down but rather it's the knowledge that you can do it without losing your identity. That’s what made the song so relatable, both to those who have and those who haven't yet but might one day.
It's 15 years later and my mohawk is a distant memory and the revolution still hasn't been achieved, but I want to believe it's just right around the corner. I still have the "FOLK THE SYSTEM" patch sewed onto my sweatshirt, right next to the one for the anarchist soccer club that played in Clark Park every Sunday for years. I saw Petersen play music in that park countless times, oftentimes after other, far more organized concerts. That's the nature of the park, I guess.
Winter, who booked Mischief Brew many times at the anarchist community center LAVA Space on Lancaster Avenue, said: “He played every benefit for every good cause and welcomed everyone he met into the circle of angry punks and revolutionaries but never stopped critiquing exploitation and abuse of power.”
I went from being a fan to someone who would spin Mischief Brew records on my WKDU radio show to having Petersen play shows I organized. And throughout it all, there was always a friendship that grew ever stronger as the years went on. I even got asked to play Santa Claus in a Mischief Brew video, to which I said, “Are you sure you want a Jewish Israeli who has never celebrated Christmas as your Santa Claus?” Petersen replied: “Yeah, why not? It's art.”
The last Mischief Brew show turned out to be July 8 at The Trocadero, opening up for World/Inferno Friendship Society and the reformed Culture Shock, one of Petersen's favorite bands. He covered their song “Civilization Street” so often that it almost became his song, so much that when Culture Shock played it at that show they asked him to come out and sing it with them. Lead singer Dick Lucas — best known for his band Subhumans — even made a joke about how Petersen had written the song.
Watching Erik Petersen sing “Civilization Street” with Culture Shock will forever be one of my favorite memories of him, one amongst hundreds built over a friendship of more than a decade. He looked so happy, so content on that stage that it seems bizarre and completely unfair to remember that it was the last time he ever played music. I don't think that feeling will ever go away.
Fiume bartender Holland summed it up best: “Erik was impervious to bulls---. He understood that certain realities are inescapable, but he also managed to keep his beautiful head in the clouds.”
"When the tape slows down
It means the battery's dead
May your songs never get stuck outta my head
If I ever fall asleep,
I'll remember my dream
Where everybody's there and nobody leaves"