“If I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you”

In praise of Travis Barker

“If I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you”

When We Were Young @ Las Vegas Festival Grounds

Las Vegas, NV

Oct. 22, 2023

I.

They spoke of small dick, dirty dick, dads sucking dick for Oxycontin. At the LiveNation pop punk nostalgia festival, Blink 182’s dopey stage banter and the delight I took in it remained unchanged since I last saw them in 2002, which happened to be my very first concert ever. That arena show had been a swift introduction to the tolls of the large-scale concert experience: crowd crush, brick cannabis wafting through collective body odor, six-dollar water, and kicks to the skull by crowd surfers in Doc Marten’s. However, the median age of the Las Vegas audience, as indicated by the man joking aloud that his knees would not permit him to pogo as Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley had instructed, ensured When We Were Young would be far more leisurely. Scattered wallets and vapes were hastily returned in the aftermath of light-handed mosh pits; my girlfriend and I refilled our plastic souvenir CVS water bottle at one of numerous free filling stations. 

My body unburdened, the festival did not weigh heavily on my heart either. I felt a warm pang hearing Saves The Day open with their breakthrough hit “At Your Funeral”, its rotation on MTV2 having been a soothing presence and a key gateway into emo. But for me, for the largely relaxed crowd, and certainly for Mark Hoppus and Tom Delonge, there was an assured distance between our current selves and whatever teenage torments this music had soundtracked. I learned this might be the experience one should seek at a backward-looking music festival aimed at one’s age cohort: an unencumbered jaunt through the past where, having made it this far, we are free to laugh at ourselves.

The only person taking it all quite seriously was Travis Barker.

II.

Something of a Shibboleth among elite rock drummers, Barker has named Buddy Rich among his favorite players. Perhaps they are all indebted to the midcentury big band leader’s frenzied wail, his pyrotechnics a staple of early TV talk shows. Barker, unlike Dave Grohl, possesses none of Rich’s pearly-mouthed showmanship, just the stick-flippy bombast. He doesn’t actually sound like Rich either, thank god. Why would he? There’s been decades of advancement in the trap kit maniac lane. Reading a riot act of jazz crimes, Richard Brody cursed the film Whiplash (2014) for its Millennial protagonist’s preposterous obsession with Rich, which signified the film’s portrayal of jazz mastery as a demeaning, cutthroat grasp at spectacle—a grotesque athleticism totally bereft of feeling.

I want to believe Barker, his fills loaded with exorbitant cymbal crashes but also the occasionally brilliant augmentation of a song’s prevailing rhythmic logic, deserves a more apt comparison. I’m loathe to admit the closest analog for some of his syncopation choices is The Police’s Stewart Copeland, the standard-bearer for nauseatingly ornamental rock fusion whose dad co-founded the CIA. At certain moments during When We Were Young, Barker laid down some hip-hop beats that sounded like a chopped and brick-wall limited Billy Cobham sample. In the magazines I read at the music shop while waiting to get picked up after drum lessons in the early 2000s, why were the elite rock drummers always trying to burnish their jazz bona fides anyway? You’d have to look somewhere further out than Milford Graves to find jazz that values Barker’s signature import: exerting nothing less than maximum kinetic effort at all times, to the detriment of his own safety. For better or worse, he’s never gonna be laid back in the cut.

This also complicates his role as the straight man to Mark and Tom’s hard-on ribaldry. Between songs, he doesn’t really smile, knowingly shake his head, or in any way acknowledge the dick jokes—he is too busy ruthlessly hydrating. During one song, Hoppus ran behind the drum riser and wrapped Barker’s entire face in a towel. It might’ve been befouled with Hoppus’ sweat, but there was no way of knowing because Barker did not flinch; he simply continued playing flawlessly, as if he did not notice the towel at all, as if he could not orient himself inside of a sight gag.

He does not make his job look easy, and that’s because it isn’t. But should playing drums in a band that still performs a song made entirely of swear words and butt cusses be approached so gravely, with an athleticism more often seen inside an octagon? I wish I was invoking MMA lightly—what did it mean when so much blood gathered on the left pant leg of Travis Barker’s navy Dickies that it glistened in the lights?

III.

Albeit a popular rock band that gained traction in the mid-aughts, 30 Seconds to Mars was an odd booking, and Jared Leto, the least effective frontman of the day, gained only polite purchase with the audience he was scoping through his sci-fi snow goggles. All day the dual main stages had been reigned with expert crowd work and unaffected fan service. Pierce the Veil singer Vic Fuentes plucked a woman from the audience for him to serenade and gift a pristine white guitar. All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth warmly beckoned people to hop on their friends’ shoulders “so we can see as many of you as possible.” Leto repeated, or recycled in half measure, each of these gestures with the appeasing tone of an assistant principal corralling a high school assembly and would just as naggingly stop a song dead if he didn’t receive enough compliance. It didn’t occur to him that, for a crowd raised at the Warped Tour, inciting a mosh pit would require a song with a tempo more compelling, and maybe a sentiment less boorishly Ozzfest, than that of “This is War”. He didn’t seem to know that forty-five minutes earlier, Good Charlotte had brought out Lil Wayne to sky-hammering rapture, one of a few reasons why he was granted a paltry fraction of that for bringing on Steve Aoki.

All day we had been unreservedly thanked: thanked for calling in to KROQ to request career-defining first singles, for following a once-fledgling band on MySpace, for “being such crazy motherfuckers.”

Blink 182, however, made fun of us. They called us names, gave us sarcastic waves. Introducing the unflinchingly sincere divorce anthem “Stay Together for the Kids”, Hoppus invited us to mock our old pouting selves outfitted in white belts and Jimmy Eat World tees. “It’s not a fucking phase, Mom!”

VI.

Pop-punk drummers exaggerate the technique punk borrowed from ska and reggae of tuning the snare drum extremely tight, pitched at a melodious ping instead of a growling smack. A drum dialed at this tension produces absurd recoil on the stick. The drum exerts itself on you, brushing your shoulders back. It dares you to play faster, harder, producing its proudest tones only when the challenge is met. In addition to tuning drums like a trebuchet, I would hold Barker responsible for popularizing some of the least ergonomic kit arrangements imaginable. His cymbals are suspended completely flat, discouraging any attack angles that would produce subtle articulation. His hi-hat is fixed nearly to his shoulders. These choices demand huge arm movements that appear physically taxing and supremely fucking cool and which do not slow him down in the least. During guitar swaps and other moments unfilled with dick, Barker reflexively knocked out big speed fills that cascaded across the kit. Boneheaded, to be sure, but this could be totally out of his control: his drums are an adversary constantly begging to be parried.

Finishing each song standing fully upright, Barker intuits that his virtuosity lends legitimacy, that somebody on the stage needed to lend this whole thing some gravitas. But musically, too, he lends a crucial pathos. When the other guys are singing earnest lyrics about childhood (which does not entirely prevent them from inserting another dick), Barker’s distended silhouette is lending their sentiments blooming fury, but also hesitation, anxiety, despair. He and his ballistic drum set work in tight bursts to perceptibly heighten the risk of implosion, only to then reliably bring catharsis. Even for an unserious project, the elite rock drummer faces a steep penalty for betraying a song’s momentum, whereas a guitarist or singer will be generously read as succumbing to passion, iteration, or sublime indifference. Ergo, it was hilarious when Hoppus sang the final chorus to “What’s My Age Again” two measures early, causing a fireworks cache to bust prematurely. Barker dropping a stick would’ve been a calamitous vibe killer. We want to see him make it look hard.

Hoppus and DeLonge would be the first to point out that the songs, their structures and sentiments, are not complicated. But after 25 years, Barker has explored their every nook, exploited every opportunity for an expressive change in cadence or texture. Sometimes these are gaudy Rich-like whorls of 32nd notes. Other times they are deft feats of tension that can heighten the stakes, something readily felt but just as easily misunderstood because they are in service of teenage sentiment, because they are perceived first as wholesale spectacle, because they happen while your step-dad sucks Mark off on Christmas. There is so much standing in the way of our recognition that Travis Barker plays with a great deal of feeling.

V.

When assembling a backing band for a television appearance, every major artist has their pick of first-call L.A. studio wizards, seasoned road dogs and Julliard graduates­­—any one of whom, depending on the length of the leash, could readily play disciplined charts or face-melting improv. A lot of people call Travis. His brand is unimpeachable on the rap axis, either to provide recognizably flashy rock gestures for legends going out on a limb or intriguing rhythmic value-add to an otherwise metronomic hit. But what does he provide for someone like Reba McEntire? Now a member of the Kardashian clan, let alone a professed workaholic, his affixture in the celebrity stratosphere demands greater visibility for an older set of E! viewers. Barker is going to take a lot more calls, will find himself looking out onto many more unfamiliar audiences.

As pop demands more sonic gloss and bodies in the writing room, as rap and rock (thanks in no small part to Barker) increasingly inform each other’s respective excesses, Blink 182’s last decade of studio releases have tried to accommodate it all. Tom DeLonge’s singing voice—let it enter your mind like a Santa Ana breeze, that Southern California dialect, a particular vowel being shoved through the formant orifice of a completely different one—is emulated as much as it is mocked, a forever-pubescent whine not just emblematic of Blink but entire affective modes of contemporary pop punk. Its natural curvature is strangled with AutoTune on the band’s overproduced new album. (Last week, fans speculated that a cleaner remaster was quietly uploaded to DSPs.)

Thankfully there is no such futzing on stage: DeLonge sings with a smirk so wide you can see the chewing gum in his mouth. Their live show makes no concessions. I recognized the shit-talk as a currency of affection, the band generously flinging it at the crowd, at each other. An overhead camera zoomed in on the red splatter Barker had sprung onto his gleaming white snare drum. “Aw Travis, not another crime scene!”

VI.

Pop punk will never die but some of its fading stars are mindfully weighing their exit strategy. Sum 41 announced their forthcoming double album (“punk shit on one side, metal shit on the other”) will be their last. The bassist for Good Charlotte just completed his degree in Applied Mathematics at UC Berkeley. I couldn’t help but feel proud of these former teen idols, all of them appearing healthy, knowing the getting’s good and going out on their own terms.

Blink 182 ended their set with the title track from the new record, provocatively titled One Last Time. Played without a wink by the entire ensemble, the ballad had Barker whipping his snare drum with wire brushes. Typically used for supremely mellow jazz in unamplified rooms, they signify that the rock drummer is being solemn. There’s no official confirmation this record will be their last, but the video monitors played an animated montage of empty rooms and stages that served as a career-spanning scrapbook. Seeing Blink 182 again was incredibly satisfying, though they could be finishing on a triumphant note instead of trying to keep the dirty joke going.

What will be a shame is if, outside of his flagship project, Travis Barker becomes better known for one of his other, less impressive hyphenates, namely TV husband. Any talk of his musical acumen would likely be in athletic terms, granting him the non-specific shredder pedigree drummers of his ilk tend to receive, one that is ultimately quantitative and boring. The methods of masters tend to be peculiar, even counterintuitive. Setting aside the spectacle, he manages to convey enormous feeling the only way he knows how. May he never go soft.