The love affair began on May 17, 2003, in a Tacoma basement. It was the first time I had ever been in the same room with Against Me!, a still fairly unknown punk band from Gainesville, Florida, who had just started making waves with their raucous full-length debut, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose.
During the band's set, I stood on the outskirts of the small mob that was squished into the windowless room, partly because I was one of the few who didn't yet know all the words to the songs, and partly because the smell and heat in the basement—a culmination of dozens of sweaty strangers steaming up a space no bigger than a one-car garage—was too much to take without the negligible breeze wafting in from a half-open door in the back.
It was a mess, but it was magical. It was the precious moment when you discover the perfect band at the perfect time in your life.
An idiot was leading the country, and the nation was still tender from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Divided over whether we should go to war with Iraq, I, like everyone else, needed an outlet for the growing rage.
That night, Against Me! became my outlet. That show was an exercise in fervent unity, proving to me that people could still stand together and celebrate something that felt honest, as opposed to numbing their minds with meaningless pop culture in order to forget how fucked everything felt.
I saw them over and over again—every time they came to town. I burned their songs onto every mix CD I made for friends, and thanks to my position here at The Stranger, I even got to interview the band's singer (twice!) while tracking their progress as they literally went from playing basements to playing arenas.
Like nearly every relationship that started when I was in my early 20s, it would prove to crash and burn. I enjoyed their show at the 2008 Capitol Hill Block Party, just after the release of their major-label debut, New Wave, but it signaled the beginning of the end.
When they played Neumos in 2010, their performance was stripped of any recklessness or passion. It sounded good, but it felt like nothing. It got worse with the band's uninspired 2010 release White Crosses, specifically the single "Teenage Anarchist," which seemed to dismiss everything the band had ever stood for with the lyrics "Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?"
I still DO want to set the world on fire, asshole! my brain screamed the first time I heard the song. The singer and I were roughly the same age, yet it felt like Against Me! had grown old and tired and had given up.
I swore I would never see them again.
Two weeks ago, I broke that frigid promise. Earlier this year, the band's singer, formerly known as Tom Gabel, came out as transgender. She fearlessly announced to the world, via an in-depth Rolling Stone article, that she was changing her name to Laura Jane Grace. And with that story, follow-up interviews, and daily tweets, she's invited fans and strangers to witness the very personal details of her transition, including how it's affected her relationships with her wife, parents, and bandmates. It was a bold and inspiring decision.
I knew I had to see them again, to see how (or if) Grace's bravery brought back the band's courageous force.
On September 6, Against Me! played the best show I've ever seen them play. Seeing them play Seattle for the first time since Grace came out as transgender felt like seeing them play for the first time, period.
From the moment the band took the stage, El Corazón's sold-out showroom was host to the happiest, craziest celebration of life I've ever experienced at a show.
Grace told MTV News that announcing she is transgender has been the most empowering thing she's ever done, and her confidence was undeniable as she stood smiling in front of the adoring crowd of hundreds. She owned that room.
People screamed out "I love you!" They jumped onstage to sing along with her and chanted "Laura Jane Grace" to bring the band back for an encore. If there was ever any worry in Grace's mind that the band's fan base would resist her, or balk at the sight of her new softer muscle features (from hormone treatments) in a black slip dress or her chin-length curly hair and eyeliner, then a room full of fans screaming her name to see her play just one more song must have squelched those fears.
That show felt like what I assumed an Against Me! show would always feel like— fiery, fearless, and united—and it's impossible not to conclude that that is because, for the first time in her life, for the first time in our lives, Grace was performing in the skin she'd always believed she belonged in, burning with a passion that can only be fueled by a fearlessness that comes from wanting to set the world on fire.