It’s easy to self-destruct in a hurry — the sheer number of live-fast/die-young bozos can attest to that. But to really experience nihilism seriously and sink into the innermost circle of hell through the quicksand one mouthful at a time…now that takes guts. If any band stands as testament to such temerity, it’s Poison Idea. The Portland, Oregon quartet maintained an appetite for self-destruction — by means of drugs, alcohol and a dietary intake that elevated the mean weight of band members well past the 300-pound mark — for a decade-and-a-half, making sure to suckerpunch any arbiter of good sense on its way down.
When Poison Idea formed, the band espoused relatively traditional hardcore values: the main goal was to cause, as the title of a later album put it, war all the time. The earliest material is available on The Early Years, a 22-track CD of singles and suchlike which features three separate — and equally invigorating — versions of the anthem “This Thing Called Progress.”
Pick Your King, wrapped in an appropriately sacrilegious sleeve, positioned the foursome as true keepers of the faith, what with guitarist Tom Roberts’ Angeleno-styled ampheta-strum attack (especially reckless on “Cult Band” and “Castration”) and the blink-and-you-missed-it jimmying of thirteen songs into just over 15 minutes. If there’s anything they don’t hate, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this. Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes backs off from that extremism long enough for frontman Jerry A. to profess his undying love for what made Milwaukee famous on “A.A.,” (which closes with an entirely believable salutation “trembling hands/bloodshot eyes/propose a toast to my demise”). While most of the group’s peers are lucid long enough that you can imagine them handling day jobs, the blind rage of songs like “Die on Your Knees” and “Don’t Like It Here” (wherein Jerry views making it to the toilet as a victory in itself) is as formidable as pre-domestication Iggy.
By the time Kings of Punk was released in 1986, Roberts had rechristened himself Pig Champion — a fitting moniker, since he had ballooned over the 450-pound mark — and the band’s psyche had grown considerably uglier. The cover photo of singer Jerry A., his chest still bleeding from the band’s logo, which he’d gouged in himself with a razor, is a mighty compelling measure of the local barometric pressure. Drawn out to conventional lengths, songs like “God Not God” and the pro-death missive “Subtract” are even more discomfiting than the 60-second explosions of yore — the elongation makes their sincerity all the more graphic. War All the Time weighs down (no pun intended) the band’s sound with more conventional metal dynamics, from the incredibly monolithic drumming of new recruit Thee Slayer Hippy and the thick rhythm riffing of second guitarist Eric “Vegetable” Olsen. The viscera you feel may be your own — being pulled straight through your ribcage on “Romantic Self-Destruction” (a scumbag’s-eye-view of the absurdity of that juxtaposition) and the pro-death (what, again?!) “Push the Button.” This is truly the sound of cockroaches ruling the earth after mankind’s demise.
Darby Crash Rides Again (which pays loving tribute to the Germs’ deceased frontman) and Ian MacKaye (which treats the Fugazi guitarist to a venom bath that’s every bit as sincere) are two sides of the same coin, replete with a herald of a forthcoming “Drug Revival” and a rather touching transsexual appreciation (“Ballad of a Pre-Op”). While the band’s needs are, shall we say, basic, Jerry A. is surprisingly articulate within the limited contexts. The increasingly locked-in rhythm section — Myrtle Tickner (a male) had joined on bass — feed the plague ever more effectively. That’s particularly explicit in a live setting — as evidenced by the half-dozen in-concert bonus tracks appended to Ian MacKaye when it was reissued as Dysfunctional Songs for Co-Dependent Addicts.
Although Poison Idea had begun to chase its own tail, Feel the Darkness demonstrates that the band was willing to bite down-hard — when it caught that pesky appendage in its teeth. Jerry’s forthright self-loathing breaks the surface of Champion’s riffstreams with unsettling precision on “Gone for Good” and “Death of an Idiot Blues.” His eyes-rolled-back onslaught even gives “The Badge” (perhaps the most chilling cop-killing missive this side of Compton) a sense of authenticity. Dutch Courage, recorded live in Europe, oozes a downright bizarre mixture of professionalism and contempt. Champion and new partner Mondo are capable of stop-on-a- dime time changes (see songs like “Plastic Bomb” and “Getting the Fear”), but the hate-hate crowd relationship is reminiscent of that evidenced on the Stooges’ Metallic K.O., peaking on an incendiary rendition of “Hangover Heartattack” which extols the idea of cholesterol death.
Blank Blackout Vacant (which, in typically explicit fashion, adorns its sleeve with a dictionary definition of “nihilism”) wastes no time in adding its own variations for Webster’s delectation. “Icepicks at Dawn” (with sampled fistfight sound effects) and “Smack Attack” are prototypical PI rants, but there’s evidence of some technical progression: “Star of Baghdad” is shot through with aggro-surf guitar soloing, and a cover of “Vietnamese Baby” struts with the glammy cheekiness of the New York Dolls’ original.
The awesome Pajama Party confirms the band’s ability to pass for a party band on a River Styx cruise line. Its thirteen covers — culled mostly from singles and compilations — range from the faithful (the Damned’s New Rose”) to the unrecognizable (Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”) and from the ridiculous (the Go-Go’s’ “We Got the Beat”) to the sublime (the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”). In a related vein, the joint mini-album with Jeff Dahl includes the collaboration’s two- cover tribute to the late Stiv Bator(s) and three of PI’s own tunes as well as some of Dahl’s.
The six-song Religion & Politics begins with nearly a minute of acoustic guitar picking — and if that’s not scary enough, the title track actually suggests there might be some point to life after all. That kind of abstract progression didn’t bode well: Champion split soon thereafter, and the four-piece that recorded the European live album (as per Your Choice’s policy, part of its royalties were donated to an animal-rights organization) simply had no spark at all. Poison Idea broke up in 1994, although it continued to play shows from time to time. Pig Champion died at his Portland home January 30, 2006.