Government Issue at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, MA, 1986.
Word spread fast among the punk community this weekend: legendary Government Issue frontman John Stabb had died after a battle with stomach cancer. I know this means nothing to most of my readers, who are gamers not punks, but let me try to explain why it meant something to me.
I seriously got into punk rock and started going to shows in 1985, when I was 15 years old. I had a lot to learn and dove right into it. I devoured fanzines and scoured the record stores of Boston and Cambridge for records I had read about. I started with class of ’77 English stuff like The Clash and The Damned, then moved on explore everything from The Avengers and The Weirdos to Crass and Conflict to the Big Boys and The Dicks. And, of course, I soon discovered DC hardcore. Washington had a relatively small scene with a huge and outsized influence on the punk scene worldwide. Minor Threat and the Bad Brains were soon on my turntable, along with the classic document of early DC hardcore, the compilation Flex Your Head. It was there I first heard Government Issue. Shortly thereafter I got an LP called Four Old Seven Inches, which collected up early Dischord Records EPs that were already impossible to find. This is how I heard the first Government Issue record, 1981’s Legless Bull, as well as EPs by Teen Idles, State of Alert, and Youth Brigade (DC, not CA).
If there was one thing that became abundantly clear to me it was that punk bands did not tend to stick around very long. They burned bright and then broke up. This seemed particularly true of DC bands. I consider it a minor miracle that I actually saw Marginal Man and remain bitter that Embrace broke up mere weeks before they were supposed to play Boston with Dag Nasty. What made it worse from my perspective was that 1983 was an amazing year for hardcore, and while so very close to it (seriously, what is two years in the scope of things?) I had missed it. “Oh, you wanted to see Articles of Faith, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach? Sorry, kid!”
Imagine my delight to discover that Government Issue was still active, releasing records, and touring. I quickly gobbled up their LPs Boycott Stabb, Joyride, and The Fun Just Never Ends. By the time they came and played at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge, MA in the summer of ’86, I was primed and ready. GI did not disappoint, playing a ripping and lengthy set to a frenzied crowd. John Stabb was the maestro of this chaos. He cracked wise and didn’t seem to take himself seriously, but his performance was intense. I loved it.
The crowd singing along with Stabb at T.T. the Bear’s in 1987.
A year later GI was back at T.T.’s and I was there on the stage, camera at the ready. This was another stellar show. After a long set and an encore, the crowd was still hollering for more. Stabb was hyped, ready to go, but drummer Pete Moffett was exhausted. He was practically pleading with John to end the set. Stabb managed to rally him and they played another 3 or 4 songs.
A month or so later I moved to New York City to go to college. The place I had gotten the film from the show developed gave me doubles for free, so I mailed a few pics from the show to Al Quint, who did the Suburban Voice fanzine (and now does the Sonic Overload internet radio show). In my brief note I suggested that one of the photos might make a good cover shot. A few months later Al sent me a copy of the latest issue and there was my photo.
My 1987 photo of John Stabb on the cover of Suburban Voice fanzine.
Government Issue continued to record and tour, and they did something most bands can’t manage over a nine year career: remain vital. There was a progression from record to record, but they maintained their edge. Their 1987 record You is pretty far from Legless Bull but it is one of my favorites. It’s melodic and catchy, experimental in places but still punk rock. Same for Crash, their final record. I saw GI several more times in this era at CBGB and the Pyramid Club. They were always great, except that last time at the Pyramid when it felt like there was tension in the band. And indeed, not long after GI broke up.
Government Issue at CBGB in ’87 or ’88.
Five or six years ago John and I became friends on Facebook. We were never friends in real life (though he did tell me he always liked that Suburban Voice cover shot), but it was good to keep up with him through social media. I saw his posts around the holidays about being ill. Then he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer. There was a huge outpouring of support from the punk scene, with benefit comps and a GoFundMe campaign to aid with his medical expenses. We all hoped he could beat it, but cancer is a fucker. In just a few months John had gone from being sick to being dead.
A few years ago I backed a Kickstarter for a documentary about the DC punk scene called Salad Days. John Stabb and other members of GI appear in it, of course, because you can’t rightly tell that story without them. In 2014 there were two nights of shows at the Black Cat in DC to celebrate the film (which I recommend if you haven’t seen it) and Government Issue re-united to play one of them. As a backer I was able to nab tickets to the shows and planned to fly to DC to attend. Unfortunately, I was simply too broke to afford to do so and I had to sell my tickets. I was sad about it then. Now that I realize this was my last chance to see John Stabb perform, I regret missing these shows even more.
Punk rock continues on, as it did when D. Boon and Joe Strummer and Poly Styrene passed away. John Stabb will be hard to replace though. What I loved about him is that he was a glorious weirdo in the best way. To him punk rock was being yourself and doing what you wanted to do. In the scene there were always fashions and trends that came and went. I think he saw that there was a certain conformity in the scene’s non-conformity. Get your leather jacket, get your studs, get the right punk haircut. Stabb didn’t give a shit about any of that. “There’s a hole in the scene,” he sang, “where the brain used to be.”
There’s another hole now, John. We will miss you.
Stabb at T.T. the Bear’s, 1986.
[I took all the pictures in this post and I have a bunch more from that era I really need to get scanned.]