What Punk Gave Us

March 8th, 2013

John Roderick, musician and songwriter and frontman for the band The Long Winters – an old personal friend – wrote a shocking manifesto Wednesday in the cover story of the current Seattle Weekly bluntly titled ‘Punk Rock is Bullshit’:

http://www.seattleweekly.com/2013-03-06/music/punk-rock-is-bullshit/

The piece begins with a dead-on introduction to the why of punk’s birth and ascendance beginning thirty-five years ago:

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the baby boom, force-fed the misremembered vainglory of Woodstock long after most hippies had become coked-out, craven yuppies on their way to becoming paranoid neo-cons, punk rock provided a corrective dose of hard truth. Punk was ugly and ugly was true, no matter how many new choruses the boomers added to their song of self-praise. 

But Roderick goes on to make wild and dangerous assertions, wild because they are false synecdoches for the experiences and emotions of millions, and dangerous because in a culture stuffed with cultural product and now sliced into innumerable tribes talking on the internet mostly among themselves, they might be mistaken for the truth: young Siouxie Sioux begging for shock in a Gestapo outfit was the movement’s high moment; “Punk encouraged us to hate innocence”.  A multitude of semi-credible generalities about Northwest insularity and laziness-as-rebellion applied across the spectrum, and well-deserved criticism of dumb-punk clichés (“Hate was the only emotion we could express”) damn what for so many of us – to risk the hyperbole of the penny Rimbauds and kitchen-sink manifestos Roderick rightly pillories – rescued meaning and civilization when those things seemed extinct in America.

A fair-minded bystander might ask, why all this fuss about music? Can a social or intellectual movement even engage the world, with its wars, rigged elections, drones, billions in poverty, continent-sized gyres of ocean plastic, if its defining arguments circle back to rock bands playing piss-and-beer smelling venues, or downloads posted by indie ‘record’ labels?

Music is not the forum: it was the key that opened the door.

Think about life before the Internet – as hard to do now as it was for us Xers in our 70s childhoods to imagine a world of horses and buggies – in which there are three television networks bowing to the lowest common denominator, FM radio pumping pap approved by Columbia or RCA with their sidelines of ‘serious’ music, Prince or Dylan or Springsteen as deep or dangerous as anything within reach. Bookstores, in which the wisdom of centuries mostly sleeps waiting, failing schools hardly equipping anyone to set foot there, like art museums a province of the elite and the elderly. In a recent movie about that time ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, teenagers in 1989 Pittsburgh love a song that comes on the radio and wonder for months what it had been: the world was like that.

The only thing which offered the post-Baby boom, white suburban majority another imaginative model for living – a counter-narrative, if you will – was the very specific and directed circuit of ‘punk’ or ‘independent’ bands, small record companies and stores, music venues and (mostly college-based) radio stations that comprised a subculture whose motivating spirit, identity and style were the direct descendant of what the larger world for the span of a few years (1977-1980) understood in a very limited way as ‘punk’.

Those interested in how this relatively small group of people influenced so much of a generation, and what people mean when they say to Roderick before he dismisses them, “Punk rock saved me” should watch Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about the Minneapolis band The Replacements on Youtube which features not a picture or clip or song from the band and is instead about what the band meant to the people who used them as a tool for understanding the world and their lives:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY2q3mF5Tk0&wide=1.

I’m not unaware the cradle of this culture was rife with idiots as Roderick claims (though he seems to define decades of cultural association with the worst kind of punk thug, people Ian McKaye and Jello Biafra were castigating nearly from the start): I lived in London when punk was a costume for young criminals sometimes put on by truly frightening racist skinheads whose ire extended from ‘Pakis’ and ‘wogs’ to the children of American occupiers, and was in L.A. for some truly rough shows just a half-decade after those immortalized in the doc The Decline of Western Civilization. But somewhere between that time and the mass-explosion of this culture brought on by the popularity of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the slam pit was a peaceable venue where adolescent male aggression became a dance of brothers (yes, sisters needed Riot Grrl with all its own preposterous excess and serious intent to invite them to the front).

Roderick’s essay claims crediting a generation’s DIY ethic as expressed in independent businesses to punk ignores what small business has done since Ben Franklin or something, but we, in the suburbs, in the 80s, didn’t have those models. Those of us drawn to what punk became were the lost, without models, stability, resources beyond the next minimum-wage check, as Roderick acknowledges:

Admittedly, punk rock was a club that accepted all the misfits. It channeled adolescent anger and frustration into positive and inclusive feelings of belonging. This is not an insignificant achievement.

I think of myself to this day as a punk because for a very long time the culture that called itself that was the point through which I met people like myself: trying to recover some dignity from growing up abused, needing cultural touchstones more meaningful and connected to real experience than the next episode of Cheers. As time went by, the place where I found this aura of a real culture, deeply engaged with life as it is lived and the mysteries which extrapolate from it, was in literature. I came to feel that engagement with the soul that I felt seeing My Bloody Valentine or fIREHOSE also happened with the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Virginia Woolf. I began to write stories, a novel, and later poems and screenplays with an artistic identity I first found dreaming in the dim red lights of TRAX in Charlottesville and the Palomino in North Hollywood and Emo’s in Austin and Moe’s in Seattle.

It caused me to be so brave and foolish that I even fancied the ecological ruin falling on America might be cured at the country’s edge, where the magnetism of its bands and bookstores drew lost thousands through this culture, full of hope and the intention to live as more than a consumer. I went into local politics.

http://www.grassrootsthefilm.com/

I was wrong, and was attempting the impossible. But this life is full of dead ends, and bands that have broken up that once seemed to change everything with a song. Consider Walt Whitman, or W.B. Yeats (“he became his admirers”) and Neutral Milk Hotel.

The approach to life I developed as a punk brought me to Mexico City, where I saw what was missing and with help from a community that gathered online from the real life lived in those times, created it.

www.underthevolcanobooks.com

A cultural gathering place, a church of literature, a net to receive the migrants moving down from an impoverished America to a place where what I’d once called punk was all around: an old woman, selling tamales from a kettle on the street; bands playing as they walk with a boy running under the windows of apartments to catch coins; hawkers playing pirate CDs out of backpacks on the metro or selling gum or cough drops or medical dictionaries or peanut bars. A place in which the apocalypse has already happened (and has been happening since the Spanish arrived) and survival in these margins is improvised, with good cheer despite the desperation.

It’s all punk to me, and not bullshit in the least. And I am very far from alone. It can be said that this is just the world, but punk, however anyone might want to abuse the term for their own psychosis or fashion show, is how I got to it.

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