Pat “The Bunny” is one of the most interesting artists in the folk punk scene, if not in the entirety of modern music. He’s an enormously intelligent individual that has had a very unique trajectory through life. He started off in Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains as a teenager addicted to heroin, writing nihilistic songs about the hopelessness and futility of life. Eventually, he moved on to a new project in Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, which had a much more political voice. In 2011, he went to rehab, got clean from heroin, and started Ramshackle Glory, offering a new perspective on many of the things he sung about in Johnny Hobo and Wingnut. During his time with Ramshackle, he also released a lot of solo material dealing with the same subject matter in unique ways.
One of the recurring themes throughout all of his projects has been what is freedom: what does freedom mean, what does it mean to be free, how do you live a free life? I’ve always found it incredibly fascinating how his conception of freedom has changed over time as he’s grown as a person, so I’ve decided to write something tracing the evolution of freedom in Pat’s works.
My survey begins with the song Harmony Parking Lot Song by Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. The earliest version of this song I can find is from 2005’s Caught In the Act of Not Being Awesome. The chorus to this song goes:
Here’s to the rubble:
A brick through every window,
A casket buried six feet deep for everybody’s hero.
Here’s to our lives being meaningless.
And how beautiful it is because freedom doesn’t have a purpose.
This chorus alone provides a deep insight into how Pat felt about freedom at the time. Freedom is completely meaningless: it’s only an illusion that we whisper to ourselves to make us feel as if our life has meaning, as if our choices make any difference on the outcome of what happens. However, to truly understand this song, we have to look at the context in which the chorus is placed. The song is a lament for all the friends who are no longer part of Pat’s life. His friends have either been cleaned up by going to rehab or been put into jail for their lifestyle choices. This is where the nature of freedom comes into play: his friends thought they were free by choosing to live a life without rules, abusing drugs, slashing tires, spraypainting graffiti on walls, and so on. Yet, all of that rebellion is meaningless in the face of a hegemonic State which absorbs all rebellion against it and either reforms the rebels into productive members of society or places them into institutions where they can do no more harm against the State. In this way, freedom is truly meaningless, as the only true act of freedom is rebellion, but that rebellion will always be destroyed by the State.
The next song that directly addresses the idea of freedom is 2007’s Sellout Song from Johnny Hobo is Dead. Here, Pat deals with a kind of crisis: there is a conflict in his mind about what he believes he knows and whether or not it’s true. The final lyrics of the song are:
Well, when its gets had to breathe
sometimes I slip to apathy,
but I don’t got any excuses not to learn
what words like home and freedom mean.
This is an interesting divergence from the ideas in Harmony Parking Lot Song. It’s an admission that Pat doesn’t quite know what freedom means, and he’s not actively seeking out a meaning for freedom. The rest of the song mocks the upper-middle class lifestyle, where freedom means choosing what kind of sports car to buy, or which expensive condo you should move into. The self-loathing that is characteristic of Pat’s music throughout his career rears its head here; Pat acknowledges that the freedom of the yuppies is all an illusion, but that he has no better conception of what freedom means and is just as lost as them. Though he may not delude himself with the notions of false choice providing freedom, Pat knows that he has no better framework in which to situate the idea of freedom.
After leaving Johnny Hobo behind, Pat still engages with the notion of freedom. In Fuck Shit Up on Wingnut Dishwashers Union’s 2009 release Burn the Earth, Leave it Behind, Pat seems to have found a notion of what freedom means to him. The song begins with:
I don’t believe in cops, bosses, or politicians.
Some call that anarchism.
I call it having a fucking heart that beats!
I do believe in freedom and never giving up.
Call my methods madness or call them luck.
I do what I got to to be able to breathe!
Here Pat has abandoned the notion expressed in Sellout Song that freedom is something he can’t understand. Though he may not be able to express what freedom means in any exact terms, he believes that freedom is the ability to do whatever is necessary to keep living in a world that alienates you and marginalizes your political views. Freedom is the ultimate ability to survive in this world without compromising your ethics and becoming complicit with the systems you struggle against. It’s the constant struggle to live a life without becoming that which you hate.
In the same album, Pat expresses a more pessimistic view of freedom in My Idea of Fun:
Like if you don’t want to work, then that becomes your job.
There’s a lot of overtime, there’s not many days off.
I hope you know that I’m not trying to complain.
It just gets hard to explain to people that I know, or kids who come to shows
that I just don’t want to talk about the office today.
While he may not directly talk about freedom, the idea that making choices to live life the way you want to still traps you in the same cage that you’re trying to escape. While Pat may be able to escape the clutches of working a wage-slave job, he is still haunted by exhaustion and an inability to truly do what he desires. In the end, he reflects a view of freedom that is highly reminiscent of that expressed in Harmony Parking Lot Song.
The next song in which Pat directly references freedom comes from We Are All Compost in Training from Ramshackle Glory’s first album, Live the Dream, released in 2011. This song is incredibly interesting, as it was the last song Pat wrote before getting sober, and, thus, it provides a look into his mind at the time when he realized that he was no longer able to live life the way he currently did:
I want freedom, not a boss
That comes in a forty ounce bottle of anything,
Or taped scotch paper.
Here, Pat realizes that what he has until now mistaken for freedom is just another form of enslavement, just to a different god than that of the employer. This ties in to the partial realization in My Idea of Fun that his current avenues of escape from that which he abhors are inadequate; he is still trapped in a cage, just one of his own design.
Live the Dream has another important song dealing with freedom, From Here ‘Till Utopia (Song for the Desperate). The relevant part of this song was written while Pat was still playing as Wingnut Dishwashers Union. Once again, he is questioning everything he believe to be an expression of freedom:
When I was young, I drank too much, and I’d be lying if I said
I didn’t feel so goddamn young tonight.
Maybe too young to ask what’s on my mind.
Like if freedom means doing what I want,
Well, don’t I gotta want something?
And won’t you tell me that we want something more than just more beer?
And my friends, if that ain’t true, won’t you lie to me tonight?
Pat expresses his dissatisfaction with the idea that freedom is a negation of the system. Freedom can’t just be a means of escaping the system: it must be something productive and affirmative. Freedom must be something that creates new possibilities rather than just negating the possibilities that exist. In his life when he wrote this song, freedom just meant getting drunk and high to temporarily escape the shackles of the capitalist machine. This feels unfulfilling to Pat; he feels that an integral component to freedom must be using your actions and your choices to create an alternative system.
The most interesting engagement with freedom comes from The Mark Inside, Pat’s first solo release after getting clean. Song For a Stray Cat on the Fence is the first time that Pat truly asserts that freedom involves a responsibility; it’s not a utopian ideal that is completely pleasant, but involves truly confronting who you are and your place in the world:
Freedom is nothing soft and sweet,
It’s beautiful and terrible.
It’s admitting everything that I don’t want anyone to know.
It’s telling people that I love I stole from them when they weren’t looking.
It’s fucking up so many times that they won’t pick up when I call them.
It’s watching people die because they got back in it,
And knowing that I don’t have any say in it.
It’s watching people die,
And knowing I don’t get any say.
In this track, Pat faces the reality that if he is to truly be free, he must acknowledge all of the horrible things he has done to other people. He must take responsibility for everything he feels guilty for and he must continue to bear that responsibility, regardless of whether he is ever forgiven for those actions. At the same time, freedom means bearing witness to the horrors of life and accepting that you can’t change certain things. It’s the acceptance of powerlessness in many aspects of life.
Throughout his music, Pat has invoked many different ideas of freedom, each reflecting his station in life at the time. Through moving from a nihilistic notion of freedom as a meaningless notion to a conception of freedom as a liberatory responsibility, Pat is able to build up freedom from nothing; he is able to create meaning where there was none before.
If you liked any of this stuff, make sure to check out the new (and final) Ramshackle Glory album coming out on December 30th. Preorder it here.