October 25-31, 2006

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American Psychos

It isn't Halloween without the Misfits

By Sara Bir

Dead cats hanging from poles / Little dead are out in droves / I remember Halloween
--the Misfits, "Halloween"

Every year, as the frost spreads its proverbial icy fingers across the pumpkins, and drug stores haul out garish, cutesy battery-operated skeleton hands, the urge comes. No, not the urge to eat candy--that never goes away--but one more sinister, seductive, inescapable: the urge to listen to the Misfits.

Halloween belongs to the Misfits. You can play "Monster Mash" and "Thriller" and your novelty CD of spooky sound effects till the zombies come home. They are but trifles, trinkets as unthreatening as itinerant nuggets of candy corn. The Misfits meant business--horror business, in fact. This is a band that named their signature coiffure--the "devil lock," a twisted, greased-up shock of hair that dangled down between the eyebrows of each Misfit--after Satan.

The band formed in Lodi, N.J., in 1977 and saw their share of nom de punks--Bobby Steele, Joey Image, Robo--pass through their ranks before their demise in 1983. But it was the charisma and outlandish pseudo-toughness of 5'4" lead singer Glenn Danzig that solidified the Misfits' image. Danzig is the embodiment of the scrawny kid in high school who sat in the back of the classroom doodling winged demons and flying skulls on his notebook--only he started a legendary punk band, lifted weights to bulk up and gained a cult following. Show me a punker kid loitering in front of the local all-ages venue who doesn't have a Misfits patch safety-pinned to the ass-flap of her black jacket and I'll show you someone who hasn't done her homework.

I bought my first Misfits cassette at a combination gift shop/record store in Cody, Wyo., the summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park. The store featured mostly moose-motif fleece throws and overpriced lilac-scented lotions, and among this was the eerie skull cover art of Collection II. I felt a duty to rescue the tape from this otherwise frilly store, and the rest of the summer I spent driving past geothermal attractions with names like Sulfur Cauldron and the Boiling River while blaring "Devil's Whorehouse" and "Children in Heat." It felt so right.

The allure of the Misfits lies divided between the primal thrash of the band's elementary musicianship in contrast to Danzig's dexterous navigation from croon to bellow--the dude isn't nicknamed Evil Elvis for nothing. There's something genuinely desperate and sinister in the Misfits' scrappy punk, enough to convert their blatant campiness to credible menace. Something dark and unwieldy lurked beneath their panda-bear eye makeup and monster-flick posturing.

Perhaps it was the abysmally tinny recording quality of their singles, which seemed to be beamed in from another planet via an Outer Limits episode. Or it could be the almost na‘ve Gothic grandiosity of Danzig's lyrics, which, at their best, are simultaneously absurd and acutely poetic. Take, for instance, this couplet from "Where Eagles Dare": "Her omelet of disease awaits your noontime meal / Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands." Um, what?

The Misfits' original discography is scattershot with now-rare singles and EPs, making compilations the best option for neophytes. A 1996 Caroline Records box set came packaged in a coffin, natch, but the CDs Misfits, Collection II and Legacy of Brutality offer the cream of the Misfits' crop, and should satisfy all but the most fiendish of fans.

Post-Misfits, Danzig is an interesting figure, a caricature of himself--as is the current manifestation of the band, which guitarist Jerry Only reformed in 1996 with extra emphasis on their cartoonish B-movie aspect. Though Misfits Mach II have their fans, their albums don't resonate with the same lo-fi growl and youthful, standoffish spirit; in short, they don't sound like they were recorded in a cave or underground bunker. Of course, caves and underground bunkers are exactly the places you'd expect to find a Misfit.

So in between TiVo-ing It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and purchasing an unnecessarily large bag of Fun Size Snickers, don't forget to listen to the Misfits and revel in death, decay, spiritual corruption and punk rock--the true spirit of Halloween.

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