NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub And Other Stories bills itself as the “first tell-all autobiography” of the West Coast punkers, who (for the uninitiated) have released a dozen full-length albums, sold more than 8 million of them, toured 42 countries, founded indie label Fat Wreck Chords, and starred in their own reality television series. But if fans are looking for the encyclopedic tale of the band that is “Fat Mike” Burkett, Aaron “El Hefe” Abeyta, Eric Melvin, and Erik “Smelly” Sandin, they won’t find it here.
Instead, the book—which is written by the band, with help from Jeff Alulis—has the feel of a transcribed oral history, more a collection of stories than a year-by-year recounting of the band’s timeline. Much of it reads like a casual backstage chat with a member of the band, who starts with, “Did I ever tell you about the time we…?” And then another member chimes in with his version of the events or the next story.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is something cool about being let in on some of the biggest behind-the-scenes accounts from over the years. On several occasions, the reader is reminded that even other NOFX members were not privy to some of these stories before the book, creating a feeling of inclusion and revelation, if only through the not-so-subtle technique of spelling out that revelatory nature. Getting a particular story from multiple perspectives also has great potential, though band members rarely seem to disagree about the biggest details, and it’s a shame that approach to writing doesn’t pay off more.
But the natural progression of the stories works to paint a bigger picture of the band, just not in a traditionally comprehensive style of narrative. Hepatitis Bathtub more or less still follows a chronology, digging heavily into the band’s early years, bringing Hefe in later—as he entered the band—and ultimately wrapping up with things like Mike going public about his S&M lifestyle and the band raising families.
The book also does a great job of putting some of the biggest moments for NOFX into the larger context of punk and the rise of bands like Green Day and Bad Religion. Knowing the success NOFX ultimately found, it’s interesting to see the tales recounted of how ill-received they were up front, though that sentiment is well depicted by photos in chapter 19 showing people sitting during shows, often facing away from the band. And while much of the later success may just look like perseverance, decisions like refusing to signing to a major label when they had the chance also play a big role and get chronicled in detail here.
If the title The Hepatitis Bathtub And Other Stories and Jennie Cotterill’s disgusting take on a children’s book cover were not enough warning, several of the stories may gross out some readers. NOFX bookends the stories with chapters that involve drinking urine. Mike, in particular, can on occasion be insensitive in his wording. At times it’s obvious the band could have had more of a filter—or a better editor—to reduce the number of asides and footnotes that distract from the main storylines.
Despite the sloppiness, Hepatitis Bathtub tells a lot of great stories. It delves into troubled early childhoods, and the story arc of Smelly is likely the most harrowing of the book. He explains in detail his heroin addiction, what got him through it, and the complications that come of touring sober with a band that loves to party.
The stories range in tone from goofy (the band somewhat inadvertently stealing costumes they later realized belong to Red Hot Chili Peppers), detailed explanations for heavily fan-discussed theories and rumors (like the band cutting off access to press or opting to not make music videos for a long stretch), and behind-the-scenes anecdotes (like some of the crazy things that did not make the band’s Backstage Passport television show).
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub And Other Stories ultimately is a tale of a band’s sheer will to exist and its unlikely success. Sometimes that tale is told through different takes on the same story. Sometimes it’s told through entirely different stories. Somehow the cobblestone effort all adds up to the tale of NOFX, more or less. And while, much like the band’s success, it can, at times, simply feel like happenstance that it works at all, there is something to be said for the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s worked for NOFX for more than 30 years, and it works here, too.