By Margaret Wappler
Times Staff Writer
March 16, 2006
Legally blind as a result of a degenerative eye disease, he offers a quick and unsentimental explanation of his condition.
"Don't be offended if I don't make eye contact or give you the facial expression you were looking for," he laughs. "I just can't see you."
But there is sight and there is vision — and of the latter, Posen, 34, has not been shortchanged. He has built Hopeless from the ground up, spun off subsidiary label Sub City as a means to bolster his many charitable efforts and launched the Take Action Tour, a major source of funds for an agency that helps teenagers with mental health issues.
The tour — the sixth edition hits town next week for a show apiece at the House of Blues venues — donates 10% of its gross door receipts to the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, which operates hotlines — (800) SUICIDE and (877) YOUTHLINE — for youngsters who may be suffering from depression or contemplating suicide.
Between Sub City and Take Action, the agency has received $220,000 in donations over the last four years, and Posen's efforts have earned so much attention that he launched this year's tour in early March with a press conference on Capitol Hill featuring a speech by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.).
That's a long way from the living room of his house in Beverly Glen, where his label was born in 1993 — and even farther from that moment in 1985 when Posen fell in love with punk rock. That night, when he witnessed X perform at the Country Club in Reseda, was "a life-changing experience," Posen says. "Being in a place filled with a thousand punk rockers, slamming and stage-diving, it was a completely different energy than I'd ever seen."
It was eight years later when Orange County punk band Guttermouth challenged him to release a 7-inch featuring its song, "Hopeless." Posen, who had never considered running a record label before, launched his operation in his living room, converting his garage into a mini-warehouse and recruiting his mother to help package the records. His older brother contributed the seed money, $1,000.
Within two years, the label grew from his living room to a small office in his stepdad's accounting firm to a 1,500-square-foot warehouse. Posen signed metal-punk bands Thrice and Avenged Sevenfold, among others, and his brother put up $60,000 more. But it wasn't just Posen's astute reading of his fan base and his brother's generosity that took Hopeless to the next level; Posen's deeper commitment was also the result of an unfortunate turn in his eyesight.
At the time, he was a film student at Cal State Northridge who had worked on commercials and indie films such as "Killing Zoe." Posen hadn't considered Hopeless a full-time gig until a botched biopsy rendered his right eye, the stronger one at the time, completely impaired. Diagnosed when he was 19 with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that attacks the retinas, Posen could now only detect shapes, shadow and movement. He could no longer drive or read much of anything, never mind shoot a music video, as he had for Guttermouth and NOFX.
Posen was devastated but optimistic.
"Maybe it was me just being naive or in shock but I don't think I stopped for a moment," he says. "I remember being in the hospital on the phone talking to bands about either doing a video for them still or putting out a release."Focusing all his energy on Hopeless, which now has nine employees and more than 80 releases, Posen also wanted to find a way to intertwine music and activism. A trustee for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, he created subsidiary label Sub City in 1999 with the Take Action Tour as its cornerstone. Past headliners for the national tour have included Thrice and Avenged Sevenfold, and punk-pop acts Alkaline Trio and Jimmy Eat World.
In the first few years, Sub City donated funds to a diverse set of charities, but Posen says that the fans, many in their teens, wanted a more streamlined message about the issues closest to them, depression and teen suicide. In 2001, Sub City teamed with the hotlines, and it is now their major source of funding — although the label has given more than $600,000 to other charities, including the Women's Justice Center and the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society.
Among the headliners on this tour are Matchbook Romance, Silverstein, the Early November and Hopeless' own Amber Pacific.
"One thing I never thought about when we signed with Epitaph is how much music can change these kids' lives," Matchbook Romance singer Andrew Jordan says. "I've had kids show me scars on their wrists and tell me that our music saved their life."
Says Amber Pacific singer Greg Strong: "There will always be songs about girls, but we also have songs about losing someone incredibly close to you."
Posen says he hopes the tour can help battle the stigma of mental illness.
"We treat it so differently from physical illness," he says. "I want it to be out in the open. I want to send a message that there's nothing wrong with you. We're still your friends."
In the meantime, Posen's love of punk rock remains unfettered. The Encino resident still goes to shows a couple of nights a week, even if he does feel the energy differently.
"I really zone in on musicianship and the feeling of the music and the audience," he says, adding that he also asks random crowd members to describe the band's look and stage presence. "It's better in some ways than before because now I'm getting a whole range of opinions."
Take Action Tour
What: Tour featuring Matchbook Romance, Silverstein, the Early November, Amber Pacific and I Am Ghost
When: Wednesday, 6 p.m., House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim; next Thursday, 6:30 p.m., House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Price: $18.25 to $19.25 (Anaheim); $18.15 to $19.15 (Sunset Strip)
Info: Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; Sunset Strip
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