Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
From the first moment I heard “Teenage Dirtbag,” upon its release in 2000, it felt like it was everywhere. Hearing it rattle the walls as it emanated from the massive sound system at Virgin Megastore in Times Square (where I was working back then) would always trigger the same two contradictory thoughts: “not again,” followed rapidly by “…I love this “. Tune-wise, it seemed like the hyperactive and insecure younger sibling of Nada Surf’s 1996 sarcastic classic “Popular,” all catchy, candy-coated and gigantically chorus’d. But lyrically, well, that’s where the sonic kinship ended.
Even if you didn’t grow up on Long Island in the ’80s, if you are a true-crime aficionado of a certain age (a horrific classification but here we are), you are likely to be familiar with the case of Ricky Kasso, who murdered Gary Lauwers (both 17) in June of 1984. And if you did grow up there like Wheatus’s Brendan B.Brown (and myself), the whole story is firmly and forever embedded in your psyche, especially if you were a kid or teen at the time. It was both tragic and terrifying.
It wasn’t long before the press found a sensationalistic angle to latch onto regarding the crime and the scapegoating began. When Kasso was arrested for the murder, he was famously photographed wearing an AC/DC shirt replete with a bloody logo and a green cartoon devil. And that little detail, coupled with rumors of the crime being part of a satanic sacrifice ritual, provided all the ammunition needed for those in authority–i.e. parents, teachers and police–to go into irrational overdrive. As naively fantastical as sounds, from that point on, if you actively listened to metal, if you wore tees featuring the bands you loved like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath, you were heretofore regarded as one of the devil’s loyal soldiers. While this mistrust of metalheads was patently ridiculous, an absurd piece of residual damage based on a single news photo, it really happened. And it was this very notion that led Brendan B. Brown to pen “Teenage Dirtbag”.
In a 2012 interview with Australian music site Tone Deaf, Brown elaborated on the inspiration;
It came from the summer of 1984 on Long Island, when I was 10 years old. That summer in the woods behind my house, there was a Satanic, drug-induced ritual teen homicide that went down; and the kid who did it was called Ricky Kasso, and he was arrested wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. That made all the papers, and the television, obviously; and here I was, 10 years old, walking around with a case full of AC/DC and Iron Maiden and Metallica – and all the parents and the teachers and the cops thought I was some kind of Satan worshipper. So that’s the backdrop for that song. When I sing “I’m just a teenage dirtbag,” I’m effectively saying: “Yeah, fuck you if you don’t like it. Just because I like AC/DC doesn’t mean I’m a devil worshipper, and you’re an idiot.” That’s where it comes from.
Regarding the song’s legacy, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Brown added;
What the song has done on its own, that means that whatever drove people to the song is way more important than some Satan murder in my hometown… I never did Halloween stuff when I was a kid. I just watched out the window as the rest of the kids toilet-papered and egged our house. You develop ideas in solitude that can be destructive, incredibly destructive, and can also lead you to be skeptical of herd mentality and groupthink. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that some part of this song represents incredibly bleak solitude for me, and conversely, a lot of people know about it. It’s a very strange, stark juxtaposition.
And that’s the brilliant mystique of “Teenage Dirtbag”. It can go either way. It can sound like an angsty,empowering mosh pit anthem or a diary page of alienation and unrequited love. Its object of affection is a girl named Noelle, yet its sentiment feels universal and resonates regardless of the gender of the person performing it. It takes the shape of whoever is singing it, and its meaning is custom-molded to whatever state of mind you are in when you are hearing it.
Let us now celebrate 20 years of the all-time evergreen hymn for all of us besotted misunderstood loser kids with some exceptionally fine cover versions. May it always be so.
Phoebe Bridgers – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
Phoebe Bridgers has just released one of the best albums of 2020, Punisher, a melodic, wide-eyed and gloriously honest piece of pop work. It’s one of the finer pieces of art to surface in this otherwise nightmare of a year. Here she serves up a gorgeous acoustic version of “Dirtbag,” delivering a vocal full of wanting and utter believability.
Ruston Kelly – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly’s 2019 cover album Dirt Emo featured songs by Dashboard Confessional and Taylor Swift as well as this live run-through of “Dirtbag.” What do all these songs have in common, you ask? It’s all in the title of the album; to quote Kelly, “I don’t play country, this stuff is dirt emo. It’s like crying in a barn or angsting in your room with a banjo.” Kelly’s take on “Dirtbag” is starry-eyed and beautiful, featuring some sweet pedal steel and a vocal that simply soars.
trick burn – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
There are a lot of covers of “Teenage Dirtbag.” Maybe not a thousand just yet but give it a year. I’ve listened to a great many of them (understatement), always with hope that someone will deliver that special something and make a song I already think is beautiful sound brand new again. It doesn’t happen often. But this version by trick burn from 2015 is different. It’s got a laid back, slacker-ish vibe and with its plaintively sung chorus, it adds a nice layer of sadness to the song you don’t hear too often.
Ryan Playground – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover)
Ryan Playground makes infectious, inventive and handsome electronic pop, quite literally doing it all, from producing to writing to performing…and her cover of “Dirtbag” is one of the best. It’s a lullaby turned up high, lonely, understated and totally in love.
Wheatus and Friends – Teenage Dirtbag (Wheatus cover?)
I have a playlist in my music library solely dedicated to “Teenage Dirtbag,” featuring the original plus a dozen or so of the very best covers (the finest of which you can hear within this post). Whenever I would add a new version, I would trip into a daydream that went something like this. I am at an event called “The Dirtbag Festival.” There are dozens of bands on the bill. Each band’s set consists solely of versions of “Teenage Dirtbag.” It is the only song played by anyone that day. The music blaring over the speakers between bands is always a version of “Teenage Dirtbag.” The night closes with Wheatus and all the other artists on the bill that day performing an all-star jam of “Teenage Dirtbag.” Then everyone gets into their cars to go home with “Teenage Dirtbag” playing in an endless loop on their radios.
Well, it turns out it wasn’t in fact a dream, but a premonition. This past March, as the COVID-19 lockdown began, Wheatus invited fans to record their own covers of the song which the band would then edit and assemble into a single version. The end result is the video above. Welcome to “Quaranteenage Dirtbag.” No matter how you feel about the song, the pure, uninhibited love on display in this video, recorded during this horror show of a year, is straight up, heart-meltingly wonderful and yes, that sound you hear is me crying.
The Acid King by Jesse P.Pollack is an exceptionally fascinating book about the crime and situation that inspired “Teenage Dirtbag” and features quotes from Brendan B. Brown. Also recommended is this seminal article by David Breskin that appeared in the November 22, 1984 edition of Rolling Stone magazine.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Wheatus’s self-titled debut album (and home of “Teenage Dirtbag”) the band is releasing a re-recording of the LP in its entirety later this year. The reason for the re-recording? Unbelievably (or maybe not), Sony appears to have lost the masters. And Brown has never been given a straight answer in regards to their whereabouts. But unlike the average re-records, Brown and the band have painstakingly, forensically, obsessively attempted to recreate the original down to the most minute details. You can check out the first fruits of this gargantuan project right now in the form of, what else, “Teenage Dirtbag” here. It sounds really damn good.