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The Misfits: Undead Or Alive In Chicago

The reunited horror punks try to fit into a new world at Riot Fest

On The Misfits’ early recordings, Glenn Danzig’s voice shines. It is beautiful enough to sound out of place in the songs he wrote and recorded in the late ’70s and early ’80s, beautiful even as it sings about rape and murder, about bloodthirsty zombies and presidential assassinations. He sounds like Elvis fronting The Ramones, if The Ramones were occasionally partial to extended rockabilly jam-outs and if Elvis liked to sing about collecting little girls’ skulls.

On the third night of this year’s Riot Fest in Chicago, playing with the reunited Misfits, Danzig sounded tired. He panted audibly in the minute-long gaps between songs, many of which are little over a minute long themselves. He filled the space with banter, some of it nodding to the crowd’s hesitant cheers. “Are you ready?” he asked us, as though he were asking himself. “I don’t know if you’re ready.”

He gestured to the two inflatable jack-o’-lanterns flanking the stage. “Do you like our pumpkins?” he asked. He talked some shit about the Kennedys. He sweated through his corpse paint. He made reference to the fact that The Misfits’ Riot Fest appearances, in Denver and in Chicago, were the first shows that the classic lineup of Danzig, bassist Jerry Only, and guitarist Doyle had played together in more than 30 years.

“When we first started playing, people didn’t know what to do with us, because we didn’t look like any of the other bands,” he said. That difference was intentional, not incidental: The Misfits were three to four dudes, which was hardly an uncommon sight among bands, but they painted themselves to look like skeletons and they wore their hair in “devilocks.” In 2016, horror punk sounds comic; in 1978, it was a provocation.

So were the band’s lyrics, whose subject matter now reads as cartoonishly scary in the same way the B-movies of the time now scan. It’s unlikely that even the most abrasive contemporary lyricist would attempt a line like “I raped your mother today” — not because it’s offensive, but because it’s obvious. The shock wore off sometime in the past 40 years.

Like the classic horror movies that inspired them, The Misfits have earned a place of real affection in popular culture. They’re more loved now than they ever were in their prime; the skull with eyes that became their logo can be found sewn into $70 sweaters in upscale boutiques. That skull was splashed all over the crowd at Riot Fest; it was hard to walk between stages without seeing it, and not just on Sunday. Most audience members in skull shirts looked too young to have been born when the original Misfits put out their first album. Two men in the crowd near me before the performance swapped stories about seeing a different version of the band in the ’90s.

Danzig’s voice sounded raw. Not everyone gets to age as well as Morrissey, who, despite his share of health problems, sang elegantly during his headlining set on Saturday. The former ringleader of The Misfits was trying his best, though, rounding the notes in the impeccably sweet melodies he’d jotted down some decades back. The broad affection for The Misfits derives in part from the quality and tautness of Danzig’s songwriting. He handles rallying cries, like “We Are 138,” with as much skill as spooky love songs, like the mysteriously poignant “Hybrid Moments,” whose lyric “you hide your looks behind these scars” holds just enough enigma to inspire obsessive re-listens. Danzig’s characters bloody each other up incessantly, but the welcoming roundness of his voice and the clinginess of his melodies open his songs up to an appreciation that outlives their shock value.

The songs outlived his voice, too, which took on more of a barking quality live, raspy and emptied of its former warmth. It happens. That he was there was enough for the crowd, who may have seen The Misfits before but likely never with Danzig. The band dissolved in 1983, and he didn’t join its 1995 resurrection — he’d been embroiled in legal disputes with his former bandmates following the group’s posthumous popularity.

All that seemed to be behind him by now. Danzig spoke warmly of the band’s past from the Riot Stage, expressing gratitude for the chance to reunite. He sang hoarsely, but not without affection — for his bandmates, for the audience, for the songs he wrote all those years ago.

Did he know how much they’d been tamed? I had just come from watching Death Grips, who toy with tempo and song structure the way The Misfits once toyed with subject matter and cosmetics. The set felt energized, alive, riotous. From the way their music sounds to the dicks on their album covers to their infamous Chicago no-show, Death Grips stoke some of the same backlash that the first few waves of punk must have stoked. They played in near-dark under violet lights, their songs raucous and catchy. Death doesn’t die, it just finds new hosts to animate.