Chuck Meehan | photo by Karen Kirchhoff
Evolution, Not Throwback: Mace Canister Recordings’ Chuck Meehan is a punk scene vet living in the now
Kevin Seconds of the band 7 Seconds might still sing about how he’s “going to stay young until I die,” but he’s in his late 50s at this point, and not getting any younger. That same attitude, this idea of youth as an ideal, has always been one of the pillars of punk. But what if you don’t live fast and die young? You can be like Seconds and still sing those same songs to the same group of nostalgia-seekers looking to regain their past glory or at the very least try and plug in to something that existed well before they were born. Or you can be like Philadelphia’s own Chuck Meehan – same age as Seconds, give or take a few months – and spend your time trying to make the current punk scene better than anything that has ever existed before.
Meehan played bass in hardcore legends YDi in the early 80s, but if you ask anyone who knows him now, that will be way down at the bottom of the list of things they bring up. “Chuck just gets it,” according to Amy Opsasnick, who plays guitar in Ramones-core band Dark Thoughts. “He doesn’t have to rely on living in the past because he is in the present, but can use his past in a positive way — in sharing wild ass stories, pointing out cycles, parallels, and tired trends. He’s more excited about what’s up now.”
When he’s not at his job as a coordinator at an international shipping company, Meehan’s free time is almost completely engulfed by music. He’s a fixture at punk shows across the city. While he sometimes ends up at a more established – read: legal – venue, his heart and soul firmly reside in the chaotic basements and warehouses of DIY punk, spots he jokingly refers to as geographically NOYFB (None of Your Freakin’ Business, in more polite conversation).
“I enjoy the music most of all,” Meehan told The Key. “It’s the sort of music that agrees with me. I think these people are very sharp, resourceful, thoughtful, very intelligent. I have a lot of respect for them.” He started going to concerts as a teenager in the mid-70s. There was Lou Reed at The Tower in 74. Patti Smith a year or so later. A slew of other bigger rock acts. And then in June of 1979, at what happened to be the first ever show at the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street, he saw two of the finest punk bands Philadelphia had to offer at that time or really ever: Pure Hell and The Stick Men. He hasn’t looked back since.
Meehan spent much of the 80s deeply involved in the burgeoning punk scene. He played in the aforementioned YDi, putting out one of the most heralded 7” records in the city’s history – 1983’s “A Place in the Sun” – before parting ways with the band. He went to as many shows as he could, helped book even more, and was just very much a pillar in his community. But a decade spent up in New York City and a shift within punk towards musical styles he found less interesting resulted in him losing touch with the contemporary scene. He’d occasionally go out to see friends play shows but that was basically it. That is, until a couple years ago when he heard a track by West Philly hardcore punk band Blank Spell.
According to Meehan, “When I saw [Blank Spell], I was totally blown away. I just thought that the people who came out to see them, the whole thing, was just really cool. I started coming back and making friends – Jim from Dark Thoughts, Cella from Chondria and S-21 – I just really thought what was going on was really cool. I saw it not as a throwback but as an evolution of what myself and my friends were doing right out in West Philly back in the 80s.”
Although Meehan experienced the cultural and political vacuum of the Reagan years, he feels like the political climate now is just as toxic if not worse. “You can hear it with these younger bands: even when they’re not trying to be angry, they’re angry,” he told The Key. “The way I see it, they grew up dealt with a worse deck than my generation was. We were more like drop outs than anything, we almost chose it. Now [this generation], they grew up with the Iraq war and they went through the economic crash and now this fucking dickhead in the White House. That’s unfathomable stuff.”
While it felt great going to shows regularly and getting back in touch with the music that fueled his life for so long, Meehan was still looking for a way to do more. There were multiple attempts at starting a new band but none lasted more than a few practices. One thing that did come of those attempts was the purchase of a field recorder – later dubbed the “mace canister” due to its size and slight resemblance to the actual item – initially to try and record band practice. Soon, Meehan found another use for it: recording live bands. As he explained, “I had a little bit of a problem getting it on the proper settings and so one day I decided to bring it up to this warehouse show out in West Philadelphia just to test it out, to see if I could get the settings right. And it looks like I did, because when I played it back, it sounded so good.”
Those first recordings were done, he said, “as kind of a public service.” He figured the bands might want to listen back to their sets as a sort of quality control, “a tool to see how they sound live or if they need to make adjustments,” according to Meehan. Then Jeff Poleon from the band Latex (also head baker and owner of the very punk Dottie’s Donuts shops) suggested that the live recordings could be used to make tapes for bands to sell while on tour.
When Blank Spell and others did just that, as well as put those recordings up on Bandcamp, Meehan realized he had something important and possibly relevant on his hands. He decided that the “natural idea” was to take what he had already recorded – at that point more than a couple dozen bands – and turn it into a compilation. Mace Canister Recordings was born.
“It’s something that’s easy to do, fun, and kind of a DIY thing,” he told The Key. “There’s no expenses involved, it’s a real low-pressure thing. Bands are just, like, ‘Yeah, go ahead, use this track.’” The first Mace Canister Recordings compilation – featuring bands who you might have heard of, like Dark Thoughts and Telepathic, and some like Chondria who barely released more than a demo but were ferocious live – did really well both online and as a cassette release. He dubbed the tapes himself on a duplicator he’s often leant out to bands for free. And while the quality might not be perfect like if it was recorded straight off the soundboard, as Meehan put it, “I kind of like these better than board tapes in a way. I like raw stuff. The recordings do have a ‘close your eyes and you’re there’ kind of effect. The bands love it.”
For the second one, Meehan wanted to do something more than just putting out a tape. He had the idea of making the release a benefit for a non-profit organization, but didn’t know which one. Then fate interjected in a form it often takes these days: social networking. Meehan said, “I ran across a Facebook post by Mike McKee, who I’ve known for years and years and came up in the 90s punk scene, the underground punk scene, about a program that he started at Broad Street Ministries that gets homeless and destitute people legal IDs.”
McKee, a case manager at BSM who cut his teeth playing in bands including the infamous 90s political hardcore outfit Kill The Man Who Questions, Amateur Party, and most recently Armalite, explained that, “Despite photo ID being a requirement for everything from personal banking, food stamps and medical coverage to entering government buildings and accessing community resources, the roughly $30 cost to obtain or renew an ID card is prohibitive for the hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians experiencing deep poverty.”
He told The Key that he was pleased that some of the first people to reach out to help were part of the punk scene that he grew up in: “I was a bit taken aback by Chuck’s offer ’cause of its generosity – but then, we’re talking about someone already doing this labor of love by documenting live bands and show spaces simply to pour that energy back into the underground. So I can’t say I was totally surprised.”
According to the documentation included with the tape, the program was able to help 750 individuals last year and is on track to do even more in 2017. From the liner notes: “In addition to covering the cost of ID documents, staff and volunteers running the program support individuals living with behavioral health challenges and the disorganized nature of the streets and shelter system, so that photo ID can become the first step towards a more stable life.”
“To me, that was exactly the kind of thing that I had in mind as far as something like this, something that was DIY,” Meehan explained. The two collaborated on the title of the compilation – Adrenalin I.D. is a play on the longtime New Jersey hardcore band Adrenalin O.D. – with McKee coming up with the name and Meehan checking with the band.
McKee shares Meehan’s affinity for DIY organizing and sees a reflection of that attitude in the world of social justice. “In its best moments, the punk scene’s DIY ethos echoes some of the same DIY, if-you-need-it-make-it-happen spirit of the individuals and groups (overwhelmingly African-American women throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s) who really dreamed and sculpted this city’s social service landscape into existence,” he told The Key. “… I was drawn to Broad Street Ministry precisely because of its subversive mission of ‘radical hospitality’ that makes it not a traditional social service agency. Like punk, I see it as a valuable location to incubate new ideas and projects through mutual support while still confronting the policies and systems that do daily violence on our neighbors.”
Some of the bands included on the tape include S-21, Sheer Mag, Taiwan Housing Project, Blackout, and Enamel. Meehan is putting together a release show soon in West Philly. “Any little thing helps. I just feel like I’m older and this is a good way to pitch in from the sidelines,” he said. “You’re not trying to define [bands] or anything. I’m not trying to be a coach or some elder figure or some shit.”
This Halloween Meehan is dusting off his bass and playing in a Germs cover band that includes members of Blank Spell, Cape of Bats, and EDS. On the 27th they’re playing a show at LAVA Space with Dark Thoughts and Jenna and the Pups – that’s Jenna from HIRS‘ super fun pop punk project – that doubles as a benefit for the longtime community venue.
While his Germs bandmates range in age from early 20s to mid-30s, Meehan isn’t seen as an outsider in the group, just as he isn’t seen as one in the scene he’s been part of for four decades. According to Dark Thoughts’ Opsasnick, “Chuck has a very unique view of the scene, for sure. From being around at the time slam dancing was invented to now in the same city is a view no one else can speak of. Well, no one that is still interested and compassionate about the punk scene in a real way. It’s been and always will be a youth culture that will continue to borrow from Chuck and his contemporaries.”
Sure, Meehan might not put himself in the middle of the chaos, like in the picture of him front and center at the legendary Discharge show at the East Side Club in 1982. But he’s still there, still helping out, still trying to make his scene, his community, a better place. He might not be “young until he dies” like the aforementioned 7 Seconds song, but there’s no doubt he’s going to stay punk forever.