There once was this crap band called Teenage Love. Sometime in 1985, staggering onto the stage at Vic and Bill's in the Fort, they were exultant, barely able to stand up straight, sneering at the crowd. "Here's a goddamn romantic song!" Rus Harper's voice came out harsh, more goblin than man. The crowd, filled with Knoxville's freaks, scum and idle curiosities, came together for one lousy moment. This wasn't music, nor was it noise.
"This is our buddy here. If anyone wants to come up here and French kiss him…." Sure, why not. It wasn't even art. It was an impurity, screaming to get noticed. Things seemed louder than ever before, and the Fort had never been a more interesting place.
The egos were huge. Bassist John Sewell, his head messed up on Valiums, yelled every profanity, finding ways to shape his misguided anger into poetry. Teenage Love was pure ego, a strange, distorted voice that told you to piss off.
"We wanted to intimidate and scare the hell out of regular people," Harper says. "It was always fun to see them take a few steps back once we got good and started. Or to see one of us get chased offstage by an irate redneck when we'd say, ‘This song's called "Redneck" and it's going out to you, fucker!'"
In the bathroom at Vic and Bills, scrawled on the wall, someone left the message: Teenage Love, go away. They probably took it as a compliment, because that's how they liked it. Teenage Love was the sleaziest, dirtiest group of boozehounds to ever be mistaken for a band. Their two-chord hellraising, even at its worst and most incomprehensible, is still a reminder that the world is messed up, that everything is not OK.
Harper couldn't sing. Sewell had a filthy mouth. Concerts fell somewhere between performance art and a riot. They went through 15 members in just seven years. In spite of it all, no matter how many people they insulted, there was a frightening honesty at the heart of all the noise.
Once, while bumming around Memphis, they began looking for any place to play. Nearby, at Prince Mongo's Planet, the club owner had the misfortune of saying, yes, they could use another band. Three songs in, in front of a crowd of frat boys, Harper stood up on a table, wearing pantyhose and combat boots, screaming, "So, does Greek night mean you all are gonna fuck each other in the ass!" The plug was yanked immediately, just before they could play a fuzzed-out cover of "American Band."
Maybe it's not as loud as it used to be. Listening to Live at Vik n Bilz 1985ish, a slipshod recording that's barely listenable, it's not too difficult to remember the old days of Teenage Love, filled with a raucous energy that's still screaming 20 years later. Stuck on the CD, the sound's a faded memory. Like an impressionist's painting, everything's gone hazy, as if that's how it's supposed to be.
They'd say, "This is for you!"
Today, Rus Harper doesn't look like the boozy madman that he once was. Sitting at Old City Java, with a copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road on the table, he's nearly sage-like when he remembers the '80s. "There's always going to be a certain amount of angst in the world," he says, "and I think it's fun if you can let it out in a creative way. You have something more than just going out and kicking someone's ass. When you get people pounding their fists with a catchy, mean-ass song, all the better.
"It really captured a gut-wrenching fuck-it, in a very simple way. The most successful music is the simplest."
Back in the mid-'80s, after a particularly wild concert, a young kid came up to Harper and said, "You saved me from religion."
"We all survived," Harper goes on, thinking back to 2004's Metrofest, when Teenage Love played for the first time since 1991. "It's amazing how intact some of these motherfuckers are…. It was great. The songs really stand up. If the songs sucked, I wouldn't be doing it again. It's still some of the meanest punk rock I've ever heard."