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The Art of Aging Disgracefully

’90s garage-rock icons Boss Hog are back — as scuzzy and romantic as ever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In another life, Boss Hog singer and fearsome gutter-punk deity Cristina Martinez once worked for Us Weekly. “They decided that I would make a good party girl,” she explains, “so I would go to parties and hold up a mic to celebrities and say, Blahbbity blahbbity, and they’d say something stupid back, and I would go and type it in, and they’d run pictures, right?”

Right. A personal highlight, however improbably, is when she got relationship advice from Ann-Margret. “I just wanted to know what was it like to fuck Elvis,” Martinez admits, “but I didn’t ask her that. I asked, ‘You’ve been in this marriage for so long, you and your husband, blah blah blah. What’s the secret to a long marriage?’ And she leaned into me and said, [whispering] ‘You want to know what the secret to a good marriage is?’ Like she was going to give me some pearl of wisdom that I was going to be able to print. And her words were, [whispering] ‘You have to work at it.’ I really had to bite my lip not to laugh at her, because it was such a cliché and so ridiculous.”

This is coming up because I’d just asked Martinez for the secret to a long marriage. Boss Hog was formed in late-’80s New York City around the core of Martinez and her near-future husband, guitarist Jon Spencer (of the near-future Jon Spencer Blues Explosion); they’d already played together as part of the trash-rock provocateurs Pussy Galore. If you were the sort of person who idealized the old Times Square — back when it was a rough, seedy, alternate-universe Disneyland — you worshipped these people as gods, or as tattered, triumphant devils. Like Jack and Meg White, but scuzzier, and still together, and way, way cooler. It helped that both sides of this power couple were ridiculously attractive, a state of affairs they were happy to weaponize. In fact, Boss Hog debuted at CBGB, a show legendary for wild rumors that Martinez — or Spencer, or everybody, or nobody — performed stark naked.

Whether that actually happened is less important than the fact that 20-plus years later, people still talk about how it maybe happened. It set a tone, one that did not particularly emphasize longevity, or at least long-term maturity. My first exposure to Boss Hog was Martinez’s command performance on the band’s pulverizing cover of the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” which likewise did not imply much in the way of impending domestic bliss.

And yet. Boss Hog put out three full-length albums and closed up shop in the early 2000s — go for 1995’s Boss Hog if you want snarl, and 2000’s Whiteout if you want vaguely snarly grooviness — in part because Martinez and Spencer were raising their son. (Collaborating on a band does not make a couple better equipped to collaborate on a child, incidentally: “Both are not good for the marriage,” Martinez advises.) That kid is a teenager now; he makes his own music, and mostly remains tactically oblivious to the fact that his parents once wrote a song with the chorus “One! / Two! / Fuck! / School!”

He also still may not be aware that his parents helped create a harsh, discordant genre of music called pigfuck. “I’m not so certain that he knows that term,” Martinez says. “He knows what we do. I think he knows how we fall into the history of New York music. He makes his own music, which is fantastic and wonderful and is on his own, following his own drummer. So it’s not, I don’t know. It doesn’t really overlap so much. He, very rightly so, studiously ignored us.”

Boss Hog started doing the occasional reunion show in 2008; their first album in 17 years, Brood X, is out Friday, thanks to copious amounts of hustle, not to mention a few day jobs. (Martinez works for Bon Appêtit these days.) The slowest and broodiest song, the closing “17,” ends with a startling burst of cicadas, those weird and gooey insects that only emerge, in disconcertingly large numbers, every 17 years or so. You tend to end up stepping on a ton of their carcasses, just walking down the sidewalk. It’s super gross, but the en masse hum from the trees is weirdly soothing.

For proof that true love and a long career in rock ’n’ roll were not mutually exclusive, most noise-inclined Americans spent decades looking up to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, but that ended badly. (”It was very devastating,” Martinez allows. “I felt personally betrayed.”) You might consider holding up Martinez and Spencer as the platonic ideal instead, particularly as living, breathing, surviving avatars of the Old, Dangerous New York City. Not that she advises that deification, of course. You can try to be like them, but don’t, y’know, actually be like them.

“I have no answer for you, other than we should not be held up as any kind of example of a fine marriage,” she says. “We have been through plenty of shit and we have almost broken up many a time, and I love Jon dearly, and I guess that’s the only thing that I can say, which is not an ingredient I know where to purchase. I just happened to, I don’t know — we just still like each other after all these years.” She perks up, thinking of another example. “The Cramps, man! To the end!”

But going through the band’s back catalog now — from the noisy calamities of 1990’s Cold Hands to the frigid New Wave of Whiteout — the quietest and most romantic moments somehow hit the hardest. “I Dig You,” from Boss Hog, is loopy and somehow very tender. It starts with Spencer drawling, “Late in the evening / I fall down, drunk” and only grows weirder and sweeter from there; “Yeah, send me some money!” Martinez blurts out at one point. It’s inspirational; it’s aspirational.

This is not Boss Hog’s typical mode, to be so soothing, so sentimental. Brood X is a dark and nuclear-stormy affair, kicking off with the disquieting “Billy,” wherein Martinez howls, “The brink of destruction!” (She wrote it thinking about her son and the way New York City seems to chew up idealistic young strivers and spit them out.) The impending doom only intensifies; late in the game, we get “Sunday Routine,” a funeral dirge of exquisite monotony — a tribute, Martinez says, to The New York Times’ “Sunday Routine” section.

“It’s my favorite part of the newspaper,” she explains. “It’s always largely the same: I wake up, I make coffee, I take the dog for a walk, I have my time by myself before the kids get up, and then I need to take them to the playground, and then we watch TV or we read a book, and then we go to bed. It’s really like, ‘Oh my god, this is mind-bendingly stupid. You poor people.’” She notes, however, that the entry devoted to industrial icon Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is quite the exception. That bizzaro vision of NYC as an avant-garde playground still exists in a select few people.

She and Spencer are presumably exceptions, too, though not to the degree you might imagine. What makes Brood X so alluring is the mix of youthful ferocity and wizened exasperation, a hard-driving attempt to age both gracefully and disgracefully. “We’re obviously not the same people,” Martinez says. “We’ve all grown and matured and mellowed to a certain degree in our personal lives. I hope we’re all a little bit more socially functional than we had been in our youth. But that doesn’t erase my love affair with my hatred and confusion.” She laughs. “I nurture that part of my soul, too!” But her marriage, and her band, are as ornery and alluring and indomitable as ever. What can she say? You just have to work at it.