In 1991, Californian punk band Pennywise released their self titled debut album. The final track on the LP is a three minute cut written by bassist Jason Thirsk, titled ‘Bro Hymn’. It’s an emotive ode to brotherhood that’s dedicated to three of Thirsk’s late friends – Tim Colvin, Carlos Canton, and Tom Nichols. The track is very much a product of the ’90s California punk scene – energetic, melodic, and catchy in a pop sense. At the time of recording, Thirsk was struggling with depression and was battling with an ongoing addiction to alcohol. Tragically, it was a fight that he would lose. Thirsk took his own life in 1996 after a relapse, at the age of 28. Despite the loss of a founding member, Pennywise continued to record music – and in 1997 released their fourth LP, Full Circle. The album echoes their debut stylistically and sonically, and appropriately it’s closed with a re-recording of ‘Bro Hymn’. This new version, titled ‘Bro Hymn (Tribute)’, features a guest appearance by Jason’s brother, Justin Thirsk of the band 98 Mute, on drums and vocals.
This rendition brings a new agency to the song. It’s a frenetic, pulsing track that’s completely irrepressible. Simultaneously sombre and joyous, the sing along vocals are a statement of defiance in the face of the uncertainty of death. Despite the simple structure, the song is genuinely affecting. The crack in Justin’s voice as he dedicates the song to his brother is heart-wrenching. I first heard the track when I was in primary school, on one of the punk compilations I used to beg my mum to buy me from the local record store. It gripped me immediately, and despite the inevitable change of taste that comes with age, it’s a song that I revisit every few years. No matter what you think of the rest of the band’s oeuvre, or even the genre as a whole, there’s a poignant earnestness of personal loss that Pennywise manage to capture on the track.
If you search for the song on Youtube you’ll see that the comment section, usually one of the more vile portions of the web, has become a virtual receptacle of public grief. The page is covered with dedications to lost lives. While some are inevitably the glib work of online trolls, the majority are sincere lamentations from individuals all over the world. Seeing these tributes is oddly comforting. While each message is a scrap of data thrown into the ether, collectively they form a touching mosaic of loss. Grandparents, classmates, lovers – all are remembered equally on this shifting digital wall. Sure, the messages will inevitably disappear – extinguished like the lives of those that they commemorate – but it’s the intent and purpose of each message that resonates. They’re threads of raw emotion that link strangers across the world together. The comments on the video have transformed a private experience into a public forum – a place of empathy and shared experience.
Grief is an anomaly. It’s a universal emotion, but so intensely personal that it feels totally alienating. There’s a comfort in the idea of hundreds of strangers turning to one song in a moment of loss, and embracing a few minutes of escapism. Part of the appeal is the idea of unity in a crowd, a sense of camaraderie and shared burden. It’s a facet that punk music regularly engages with, the trope of throwing an arm around a friend in a moshpit. Distinct as an individual, but integral to the crowd. Those moments are an affirmation of life. Lost in a sea of peers, totally engulfed by the moment at hand. They are the scenes that defy death. Consciousness of mortality is briefly replaced with transcendence – however fleeting. Paradoxically, simple truths are often the most difficult to grasp – and your own mortality is the plainest truth you can face. That’s the beauty of this strange wall of dedications, as much as their in memoriam they’re also defiant statements of affirmation. They’re as much about their author’s commitment to remembering the individuals they’ve lost as they are about grieving.