There’s an old essay by Sarah Vowell, “These Little Town Blues,” it’s in the Take the Cannoli collection from a few years back. The piece talks about why New Jersey turns out great musicians. She’s talking mostly about how Sinatra, and Springsteen for that matter, embody the essential elements of punk. She writes “Punk is rhythm, style, poetry, comedy…Punk means moral indignation,” referring to Sinatra forming Reprise Records on his own, referring to Springsteen’s early endless desire to bust loose. Vowell taps into the desire for change or transformation that punk rock facilitates. That being from Nowhere, New Jersey—and believe me every great punk is from the town of Nowhere, USA—creates such determined individuals for they experience “in three-dimensional form America’s admiration of and alienation from New York,” and learn to stand above the mighty shadows of the great N-Y-C.
She’s right, perseverance is a pillar of the subcultural underground, it’s the vision to forge ahead and the sheer tenacity Rye Coalition sweat out in their new tight and to the point documentary The Story of the Hard Luck Five, directed by Jenny Matz—complete with a Dave Grohl interview and Coalition guitar player Jon Gonnelli’s f-bomb dropping Grandma.
Now if you don’t know Rye Coalition you’re not alone. They were an acquired taste from the turn of the millennium indie-punk-hardcore underground (take your pick) who imploded in the mid-aughts after a bum record deal brought hard times. They were never my cup of tea; I took myself far too serious to get caught up listening to bands that had fun. And like fellow underground champions KARP or Tight Bros From Way Back When, Rye Coalition sound like a super-charged blend of angular guitars, classic-rock rhythms, and bar-band vocals. Front man Ralph Cuseglio’s delivery sounds like some street poet shouting at you over Angus Young riffs.
I’ll spare you the anticipation, and perhaps trepidation that comes with watching a rock-umentary, nothing bad happens to this band. In fact their overall invisibility and youthful working-class attitudes are the crux of the narrative. There’s no indulgent drug use or excessive drinking, no late-night hotel-room debauchery and certainly, being that they’re five Jersian dudes in an old Econoline, no women around anywhere. It’s just a band of brothers bound together by a love of playing rock and roll, fueled as much by a love of off-kilter hardcore like Born Against and Rorschach as by Led Zeppelin. Gonelli puts it best when he says, “This isn’t a job, this is just, you know, I like to hang out with my friends.”
Jenni Matz direction reflects this gangs-all-here attitude. Culled from footage shot over a 12-year-plus career, Matz’ film feels more like an intimate home video than a formatted retrospective. She creates a seamless blend of all-eras live footage, tour-van hi-jinks and hindsight’s 20/20 interviews from the band and fans alike. It makes Rye Coalition feel real, feel like dudes you just might know, who just might be the best kept sounding secret around.
But then these five dudes throw everything to the wind to make a living as a rock band and kind of failed, kind of. They took what little fan base they had and whatever cash they culled together from failed tours and odd jobs, and put it on the line to pay producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Robert Plant) with a personal check. Albini engineered their third record, 2002’s On Top for the now defunct Tiger Style Records. This is when the pedal hit the floor. The venues got bigger, the crowds grew dedicated, and before they knew it, they scored high-profile tours opening for Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters. This led to a major-label record deal with Dreamworks Records—signed by an A&R rep named ‘Tick’—who helped convince the label to give the band half a million so Grohl could produce their record at Sound City in Los Angeles. And right on time, the hard luck kicked in. As Chunklet magazine founder and all-around underground cynic Henry Owings puts it, they endured “more bad luck than most bands at their level of competence and talent.”
Owings is just one of the many voices who lines up to howl the praises of the monumental Rye—Grohl, Albini, Gern Blansten’s Charles Maggio, Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, The Fucking Champs’ Tim Green—it’s a who’s who of underground outsiders and curmudgeons. What you realize through Hard Luck Five is how critical this outsider attitude is to the underground (in whatever form). The doggedness of bands such as Rye Coalition is founded on accepting oneself as different, or at the very putting personal faith in cultural defiance.
The view then from Rye Coalition’s Jersey City, or Sinatra’s Hoboken, into Manhattan, a mere five-mile stretch running between two different worlds, inspires, and in some ways demands, a depth of self-propelling tenacity and fortitude, as evidenced in the bonus live footage and high-energy stage taunting shown throughout the film. As Sarah Vowell wrote, “if you’re Nowhere’s child, hubris is an import, pride a thing you decide to acquire.” The Rye Coalition found and carried their pride with a wink and nod of pomposity, and as experience and time proved, only for the amusement and reassurance of themselves.
Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck Five will be released on January 13.