Johnny Hobo: Love and Despair

Recently, an old Johnny Hobo and The Freight Trains demo from way back in 2003 was uncovered, which reminded me of this essay I drafted in 2020 or 2019 about Johnny Hobo/Pat the Bunny and much like many others never got around to finishing and publishing. Apparently, back when I had wrote this I was thinking about how throughout the years I have often had people ask me about what my favorite bands/albums/etc. are, which I always have a hard time answering because I’ve kept the same music collection for over a decade at this point and listened to a lot of stuff. I’ve slowly built it up starting from pirated punk music from Blogspot sites with links to Megaupload zip files up back when I was in middle school, so it feels appropriate to start with one of a few punk bands that have remained relevant in my life even as I’ve eventually moved away from listening to punk very much. I’ve wanted to try to do some music blogging for awhile now and wanted to have a series called “Essential Nyxcore” or something like that where I just talk about music that has been important to me and influenced me in some way, because in one way or another music has often informed a lot of my writing. Who knows if that will ever happen at this point, but this draft already existed.

I’ve sometimes seen people dunk on folk punk as a genre, but admittedly it’s not a genre I ever listened to a whole lot of. I haven’t cared about punk in general for a long time aside from a few specific bands that fall under the label of being traditionally “punk” and not something adjacent to it like garage rock. Perhaps it just appeals to me as an anarchist even if most of it is kind of juvenile, like a lot of anarchism itself, but I myself was once an unironic edgy teenage anarchist listening to the Dead Kennedys and Leftover Crack/Choking Victim. I still listen to those bands, and I still listen to Johnny Hobo and The Freight Trains every so often. I pretty much know all of Love Songs for the Apocalypse by heart and can’t resist singing along every time I put it on.

I’ve said before that I’ve been inclined towards anarchism since I first became aware of politics. I could blame that in part on my upbringing, but I think that anarchism very much appeals to a certain type of person. With Johnny Hobo, there’s a very specific sort of anarchism found there that came out of the CrimethInc. era in anarchism (the late 90s/early 2000s). The 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the ELF attacks in the Pacific Northwest – events like this seemed to show that there was a resurgence of anarchist direct action traditions that at one point lead to the assassination of a president in America and a Czar in Russia. Insurrectionary anarchism, a tendency developed in Italy during the Years of Lead and popularized by Alfredo Bonnano, came to the United States through various post-left anarchist writers and eventually became an organizational tactic promoted by CrimethInc., crystallizing with the black blocs in the Seattle protests.

It’s over 20 years later now, and Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains not only anticipated the disillusionment of many anarchists at the end of the 2000s that lead to the popularization of nihilist anarchism, but at the same time their music reflects a disillusionment with punk, folk punk, and radical politics as a whole. I’ve always felt that for post-left anarchy, in being critical of mass politics, there’s always been an unstated belief that anarchy as a distinct change in the state of the world as a whole is impossible – a beautiful, impossible dream. Post-left anarchists are known for being gadflies within anarchism, but despite their apparent grouchiness, there’s a kind of despair within post-left anarchism that is nevertheless a joyful one. We’re never going to have anarchy the way you want it to be, yes, but you’re so fixated on the revolutionary pie in the sky that you don’t realize even within the dominating and all-pervasive state, anarchy exists nevertheless. It doesn’t exist as some point in the future that we reach; it flows through the world and makes all interactions between intelligences possible. We find it when we successfully circumvent the law to steal things we need or want, when we spontaneously organize illegal raves, when we proliferate copyrighted materials beyond the ability for the state to control. One of post-left anarchy’s valuable insights that has not yet coalesced into a more virulent anarchism is that anarchy is not, in fact, a state; it’s rather a fluid process.

Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains has the same pervasive joyous despair throughout their discography, except it anticipated anarcho-nihilism a few years before it came into existence. Their music existed between the joyous despair of post-leftists and the suicidal armed despair of anarcho-nihilism. There’s no hope of insurrection spontaneously spreading like in the more optimistic branches of post-left anarchism, nor any belief that we have to go back to a pre-civilization world, nor even much praise for “lifestylist” tendencies like anti-work or temporary autonomous zones. It is a decidedly self-destructive despair, which differs from the suicidal despair of anarcho-nihilism insofar as Johnny Hobo’s music occupies the liminal space where a party is about to go on too long and get weird, but everyone is at the height of intoxication. Love and despair to the point of self-negation, killing the cop in your head in a very literal sense.

Pat the Bunny, the former frontman for Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains along with several other folk punk projects, has said before in retrospect that Johnny Hobo was the result of an extremely dark period in his life. And while I can’t fault him personally for seeming to have a negative opinion on it now, for me Johnny Hobo exists suspended in a particular point in time that feels eternal. 20 years after the Seattle protests, any semblance of an anarchist “movement” or milieu or scene or whatever you want to call it is nearly nonexistent in any meaningful sense as far as I’m concerned. The internet is full of radlib anarchists who are well past the point of any radical despair and have turned to electoralism because the possiblity that their project is doomed is too much to handle. Better to frame their radical politics in morals of “harm reduction”, reducing radicalism to any action that causes some net amount of less suffering in the world rather than an irreducible struggle to completely negate the existent. Anarchists (and other leftists, to be fair) by and large aren’t far off from advocating for the same individualistic politics liberals advocate for. There was a brief moment in Summer 2020 during the George Floyd protests where it seemed like maybe I would have been proven wrong in saying this, considering that it was the biggest series of riots for the same cause in the history of the United States, but two years later things feel like they’ve largely gone back to normal.

Yet when you listen to Love Songs for the Apocalypse, you can feel the joyous despair of late anarchism cranked up to 11 with speed and cheap alcohol and probably recorded in a squat or under an overpass. There is in Johnny Hobo a refusal to let go of your despair, to not forget that the world is fucked up and miserable and there’s nothing you can do about it except engage in an ultimately impossible and self-destructive praxis of evading the state. And this too will do nothing, it will in fact kill you, but this to me is the beautiful dream of anarchy as realized by punk. It is specifically a Nietzschean anarchism, a choice to love one’s fate and yet affirm life anyways up to the point of complete self-destruction.

Nearly all of my experiences with other anarchists, if not other radicals in general, have never really lived up to the anarchy that Johnny Hobo’s music evoked. The idea of comradeship is not something I’ve ever been particularly inclined towards, and part of what drew me to post-left anarchy when I first got interested in anarchism seriously was – somewhat embarrassingly – the role of individualism in post-left anarchy. I’ve always detested the idea of compulsive collectivism and comradeship, ever an edgelord who can’t play well with other people. One example of this that stands out to me the most is the very first time I ever attempted to attend any kind of event that was explicitly anarchist. It was a speaking circuit that CrimethInc. was doing to promote their newest publication at the time To Change Everything, which I decided to attend because there happened to actually be an anarchist bookshop place in my city. The gist of what happened was essentially during the discussion segment where no one in the audience was talking and I decided to try to push myself out of my comfort zone and speak up, not being the sort of person who usually likes to participate in public spaces like that, and was quickly told to essentially check my privilege because white males (LOL) tend to take up space. Needless to say this was a mortifying experience that only irritates me more in retrospect since I didn’t know at the time that I was trans. It pretty much set my expectations for all future interactions with other anarchists, which turned out to be largely correct: People who call themselves anarchists always feel quick to engage in the performative shit like calling individuals out in public spaces for minor malfeasances or misunderstandings or mistakes, but never seem to do anything actually effective. Again I have to make reference to the George Floyd protests, which have in retrospect only made me feel even more strongly that whatever the fuck anarchists think is effective radical praxis, it clearly is not beyond the ability of the state to spin into being radlibism. 1

At this same community space a year earlier in 2014, I got to see Pat the Bunny live. I have no doubt that it couldn’t possibly compare to seeing Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains back in the day. The Ramshackle Glory/Pat the Bunny days felt like the hangover from Johnny Hobo, trying to tone down the unsustainable rage and despair of Johnny Hobo, but there were still some moments that shined through that. He performed the song “Let’s Take a Rise Like We Used To”, which in both the title, lyrics, and style is very much a throwback to the Johnny Hobo days. It’s a song about the Russian Nihilists, and captures that same joyous despair. Except where with Johnny Hobo the joyous despair is self-destructive towards no other end, “Let’s Take a Ride” is that same despair heightened to a revolutionary one in the Russian Nihilists. Though it feels like a commentary on the Johnny Hobo days, and he himself said when he performed it that nihilism is ultimately a self-destructive project, the almost mythical image of the nihilists inspires an armed despair that, to quote Nietzsche, doesn’t merely think No, say No, but does No.

Pat the Bunny, ironically or perhaps totally unsurprisingly, ended up disavowing anarchism in 2016. Though I can say seeing him live was one of the only positive experiences I have dealing with other anarchists within a context of doing something vaguely anarchist,2 the mythical joyous despair of Johnny Hobo was just barely there. Enough to nevertheless inspire me, more even than the Johnny Hobo material. Here was an armed despair, a self-destructive impulse whose goal was to spread ruthlessly and destroy everything in its path without pretending to be advancing any sort of programme for a better world. Nothing but the mobilization of hopeless individuals living miserable and worthless lives into war machines whose only purpose would be to serve as instruments of negation, to open up new possibilities through the destruction of the world. The uncompromising radical despair of Johnny Hobo given teeth. It captured my imagination so much that despite Pat’s warning that nihilism isn’t safe to mess around with, the song is what lead me to anarcho-nihilism and ultimately to accelerationism.

All of this is highly ironic, even a bit cringe, coming from someone with a decidedly middle class background. A few years ago, this felt much more obviously true. When I first found Johnny Hobo in high school, I was a straight-edge punk (cringe, yes). I hadn’t ever gotten drunk or high and couldn’t relate to any of those aspects of their music, and I went from being a middle class kid in high school to a middle class kid in a state college to eventually a borderline impoverished tech worker (yes not every tech worker works at FAANG). But as time has went on and I gave up being straight-edge, have become steadily more precarious and exploited in my employment, and most significantly of all, realized I was trans and consequently put myself in a position where I don’t have any kind of family (chosen or otherwise) to fall back on as a safety net and am in general at a much greater existential risk, I find Johnny Hobo’s music resonating with me once again in a way I’ve hadn’t previously experienced. Five Seven years of burnout working in shit-tier tech jobs, having the life sucked out of me by constant stress, precariousness, housing insecurity, and in the past year living in a tranny sharehouse that has been plagued with rapes, shootings, and vandalism in retaliation for people being called out for being rapists – it’s all only intensified the feeling I’ve always had that I am very much the sort of person that anarchism would appeal to. Someone who can’t really hold down a job (it’s a miracle I’ve been able to so far), who can’t get along with other people, who cares too much about freedom for it to really be practical, a perpetually immature punk loser.

People often call me a permanent edgy teen and I just laugh; I can’t even disagree with it and play it up because it’s sort of true. I think of a couple verses from “I Want Cancer For Christmas” off Love Songs for the Apocalypse:

I remember grade school And started to notice That I was the only kid sitting alone

I remember high-school And started to notice That not much has changed since I was 6 years old

It seems like anarchists are always trying to argue that they actually really do have theory and aren’t just edgy teenagers who want to maketotaldestroy, and while there’s some merit to this, one thing anarchism has always done best is exactly the joyous nihilism that Johnny Hobo’s music captures. A refusal to compromise on one’s radicalism even if it means destroying oneself in the process in the desperate attempt to have whatever kind of freedom is possible in this fucked up world. In our present moment, where every politics feels like irrelevant larping while neoliberalism continues to absolutely condition everyone’s ideas of what changes are possible and through which channels they can happen, that myth of the junkie crust punk who is too free for this world feels more evocative and profound than all the sad attempts leftists make at trying to resurrect politics that have already failed.

But nevertheless, anarchism as a politics has also failed. Not only that, but the joyous nihilism Johnny Hobo’s music evokes also failed, despite the ways it continues to inspire me. Because ultimately, the kind of anarchy that Johnny Hobo’s music evoked had to end eventually, somehow. Pat Schneeweis eventually sobered up, eventually started Ramshackle Glory and Pat the Bunny, eventually renounced anarchism altogether. Johnny Hobo’s music captured one side of a generation with no future and how it chose to cope with it, but it’s all ultimately in service of a negative death drive. The myth wasn’t good enough. There had to be something else.

Despite having always preferred his earlier music, one song I really like from Pat’s later work is From Here to Utopia:

when i was young, i drank too much, and i’d be lying if i said i didn’t feel so goddamn young tonight; maybe too young to ask what’s on my mind. like: if freedom means doing what you want (well), don’t you gotta want something? and won’t you tell me that we want something more than just more beer? and my friends, if that ain’t true, won’t you lie to me tonight?


i thought about how for thousands of years there have been people who told us that things can’t go on like this: from jesus chris to the diggers, from malthus to zerzan, from karl marx to huey newton, but the shit goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. now, i’m not saying that we can’t change the world, because everybody does at least a little bit of that. but i won’t shit myself: the way i’m living is a temper tantrum and i need something else, need something else, need something else to stay alive. (ohohoh.) and on the night that i play my last show, i’ll be singing so loud that my heart explodes. and i’ll be singing, and i’ll be singing: we are free! oh, but won’t you promise me that we won’t ever forget what the means? i know it’s hard to give a shit sometimes, but promise me we’ll always try. because i don’t wanna hate you, and i don’t wanna hate me, and i don’t wanna have to hate everything anymore.

The song both caps off Pat’s career as a folk punk musician and also to me is an attempt at challenging the entire concept of anarchy that I’ve argued Johnny Hobo’s music represents. Because pure negation isn’t an end in itself, and joyous nihilism without something else is just passive nihilism, more of the same resentful secular Christianity that Nietzsche criticized anarchism for. He doesn’t have an answer for what else there is, and neither do I. I’ve always said that post-left anarchism is better than the rest because it at least doesn’t pretend to have definitive answers.



Some of you may also remember a certain “major accelerationist thinker” from back when I was still using Twitter, experiences with whom only further cemented my complete lack of identification with basically every other “anarchist”. I said this at the time that I first drafted this essay and in the time since then, that motherfucker, that so-called anarchist, had the nerve to try to post some shit while I was homeless about how he recommended no one try to help me over some stupid Twitter drama. If most anarchists were worth the windows they break at black bloc protests they would find people like this and beat the everloving shit out of them. But this is just one of many instances of the so-called radicals in this shithole city I live in turning out to be the fakest, useless piece of garbage assholes.


The others being my interactions with the very same Aragorn! who sort of coined the idea of “anarcho-nihilism”, and the bookfair where I did my cyber-nihilism talk in 2016. Were it not for him urging me to do so, I may have never written Hello From the Wired and everything that has come since. Admittedly that would probably be a better timeline, but nevertheless, I still appreciate him being one of the few exceptions to all the stupid assholes I’ve met who claim to be anarchists.

Created: 2022-08-07 Sun 21:04