Pop culture icons come in all sizes. Elvis Presley reigns as the super deity. Hank Williams perches over the dusty regions. Then there's Jesse Michaels-no less an icon for a generation of punks weaned on the seminal East Bay punk band Operation Ivy. While Op Ivy posthumously ascended to cult status-largely due to alums Matt Freeman and Tim Armstrong's mainstream success in Rancid-Michaels disappeared, prompting Elvis-ian rumors that he had forsaken punk rock to pursue life as a Buddhist monk.
The truth is less sensational. Michaels did study Buddhism, but hardly to a monastic degree. He went to school, spent some time “finding himself,” but most of all made a concentrated effort to lead a normal life.
“I just didn't pursue any notoriety,” Michaels says. “If you just live your life and don't solicit attention, then it's fairly simple to avoid it.”
The abundantly modest, surprisingly soft-spoken Michaels seems grounded, utterly devoid of ego and as pure in his ideologies as ever. Call him Saint Michaels, though he'd reject any such sort of adulation, just as he laughs off the suggestion that he's an icon.
“I kind of hear that sometimes, but the whole idea of an icon is pure mythology. No one has that experience,” he says.
“My daily life is just as flawed, mistake-making and fucked up as any fan who might think something special is going on. I just stay true to my experience and don't pay attention to labels like that, because they're just imaginary.”
After a decade of self-imposed exile, Michaels returned in 1999 with a new project, Common Rider. Their first album, Last Wave Rockers, largely picked up where Operation Ivy-and their forebearers, The Clash-left off, delivering ska-tinged, socially-conscious and oft-times deeply personal rock ‘n' roll grounded firmly in punk ethos.
“The message in our music is passionate and hopeful, positive but at the same time aware of the fact that we live in troubled times,” Michaels says.
“I think a lot of bands are purely entertainment. Not to fault them in any way, because some of the deepest musical experiences are just having fun. But we're trying to do something different-of course having fun and enjoying music, but at the same time acknowledging that problems are part of our collective experience.”
Michaels says the band has amplified that message on its recently-released sophomore album, This is Unity Music. Though not necessarily “political,” he says, the album tackles more issues.
This trait makes the band a perfect fit for the activism-oriented “Plea for Peace/Take Action Tour.” Now in its second year, the tour, organized by Sub City and Asian Man Records, was founded to raise awareness of social issues. Ten percent of the tour's door receipts benefit The Hopeline Network, a program that provides suicide prevention and other services nationwide. Last year, the accompanying compilation album sold more than 60,000 copies.
“Mike Park [founder of Asian Man] has been asking me to do it for years,” Michaels says. “It just seemed appropriate.”
The road, and indeed the world of punk rock, is very different from the one Michaels and his then-teenaged cohorts traveled years ago.
“I still love punk rock, but am not as affiliated with the movement-if you can even really call it that anymore-as I was. Before, it was about being part of this radical community, sleeping on floors, interacting with people on a totally underground level. Now, for better or worse, there's more separation between bands and the audience.
“What I define as punk rock is a very small percentage of what's going on right now,” he continues. “Nothing against them, but if a band sings pop music and has Christian lyrics and is friends with their parents, then that's so far from what I always thought of as punk rock.
Punk's newfound innocence is, Michaels says, not all bad. While there's a lot less energy at shows, he says, there's also less violence. “At least you can go to a show nowadays and not have to worry about getting the shit kicked out of you,” he says.
Operation Ivy and the Green Day back catalog established Lookout! Records as a first-rung indie, and some people expect Michaels to be living large as a result. The truth is that he lives what punk purists would consider a righteous existence.
“I'm not leading a luxurious lifestyle. I don't have to work all the time, but have to find other sources of income [than royalties]. I live in small apartment, very low-key. I think if I'd played my cards right things could have been different, but it just didn't work out that way.”
Saint Michaels takes it in stride.
“That's just fine with me.”