Category Archives: Punk Rock Means Freedom

Gimmie a Pepsi, Just One Pepsi!

I probably should be careful about titles.  Any more “gimmie”s and I’ll be over with Darby Crash, and, yeah, the namecheck is disturbing to me too.  But, as my punk aficionados are no doubt already aware, there is a reason for the Pepsi-ness here.

“Institutionalized” was before my time–sort of.  How about before my punk time?  I’ve been trying to remember when I first crossed paths with ST–I’m fairly certain that it was during the “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow…” period, though the first image that stands out for me is this one, from “You Can’t Bring Me Down.”  I do recall that my first complete recording of ST was “How Will I Laugh,” and it was a copy dubbed off a CD (I think) by my best friend CR, shortly before some hideous teen falling out or another.  I listened to that tape until it’s untimely demise at the hands (?) of my mother’s Pontiac.

Ah, the good old days.

I never really expected to see ST live, though I wanted to, so I was delighted to see them on the Orion lineup last weekend.  I swear–barring the dude’s arm in the way–does it get more Mike Muir than this?  Dude has so fucking much energy.

******

I started this post in July–and then didn’t write another word.  And not writing, as I’ve shared before, is not a great sign for me.  I kept hearing that truth in different ways, but last night a friend’s pain drove it home.

Write or die.  Get the words out of my head and in front of my eyes or they remain shadows that can be dismissed.  I recognize how dramatic that sounds, but it is as accurate as I know how to be.

I’ve rearranged my title again–couldn’t let go of the truth of the disease, and particularly in light of the recent news of a new non-pathology (I love when the stuff in my head gets named! /snark) and the continuing struggles with chronic fatigue and its assorted foolishness.  But it’s beautiful, dammit.

I know I’m sick again/who’s gonna be my friend when I freak out?”

So back to the navel-gazing.  And, as an act of contrition (and also truth, since I tend to forget how bad things get.  I do the euphoric recall thing about everything), I’m going to make myself record my most recent disease-borne adventure in food, having been recently ordered to exclude:

  • Dairy (allergic)
  • Wheat (sensitive)
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Soy
  • Eggs

Which left me wondering what I can still eat.  Seriously.  What do I eat for breakfast, having lived on oatmeal?  And is this the excuse to eat Brussels sprouts more often, to my family’s great horror? I’m also very, very grateful again to Isa Chandra Moskowitz and the Post-Punk Kitchen, where I’ve been getting my Gluten-free recipe suggestions for a while now (vegan cooking allows me to not worry about at least two of the above).

One thing is certain, Pepsi is not on the list of consumables.

Does that destroy any punk cred I might have had?

[ST was awesome, of course, BTW.  Fucking awesome.  As was Avenged, but that’s a story for another day.]

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Professor K. Cracks the Books

So, Duff published his autobiography, and I hereby order all of you to go read It’s So Easy.  I know I am as biased as they come about the man, but, the book is well worth the time you’ll spend.  I reviewed it on Amazon, so if you want more of my ecstatic waxing (that looked so much better in my head than when I typed it) enthusiasm over the subject, you can read my thoughts there.   I rather wish I had finished my thoughts about Bozza and Slash–not sure why I submitted without, but that paragraph should have read something like this:

Of the three AFD-era band members published so far, I enjoyed McKagan’s the most. Adler’s was painful in a I-can’t-even-finish-it sort of way, and while I enjoyed much of Slash’s book, I too often felt like I was reading Anthony Bozza–particularly in the quirky little questions and pseudo-cliffhangers. Folks who have followed McKagan’s post Guns-career and especially his writing will be unsurprised by how engaging the book is; folks who recall only the Duff of Use Your Illusion will be stunned. Readers looking for more salacious detail about the band once heralded as the world’s most dangerous will be disappointed. The memoir treads lightly–for the most part–there.

The same weekend I read Duff’s autobiography, I read Jack Grisham’s, which is titled American Demon.  For those who don’t spend their time mired in punk memorabilia and whatnot, Grisham hails from the early days of Orange County hardcore, most memorably for most in T.S.O.L.  Unless of course you were among those confronted by Vicious Circle, in which case, indeed, your memories may be a tad biased on the matter of the man.  And possibly his bands.  Grisham has rather oddly become a centerpiece in my class this semester, partially because his remarks in American Hardcore are themselves rather memorable, and also because it’s rather difficult to ignore that Slade in What We Do Is Secret is modeled on him (nor do I think it is intended to be ignored–and modeled isn’t nearly a strong enough verb).  As a result–or perhaps this is a matter of causation–I was drawn to the book.

While I’d undoubtedly recommend the book to someone, I’m not altogether certain who.  If you were running with Grisham at the formation during the heydays of OC hardcore, certainly it might be a take worth examining.  If you have any interest in the roots of OC hardcore, you still may enjoy it, though it doesn’t pretend to delve into punk for the most part, though he provides the obligatory and, frankly–given the rest of the book–mundane take on “real punk”:

Real punk is not being able to hold it together for your college degree, or for your long term, forty-hour-per-week day job.  Real punk isn’t fun or glamorous; real punk means that, against all your best intentions, you’re sitting in a lonely apartment with your head in your hands wondering how the fuck your destroyed your life again.  Real punk means that whatever you love is gonna be gone unless you get a touch of divine intervention–and as I said before, God doesn’t give  a fuck.

Real punk does suck.

[…]

…remember, history is rarely written by those creating it. So, I’d be careful what you read and believe. […] Columbus didn’t discover America, Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, and your favorite old-time real-cool punk band or singer wasn’t. (202-203)

I’m not sure what put me off more–the arrogance (I’m reading Jack Grisham, what else was I expecting?), the hyperbole (Edison!  Columbus!  Punk!), or the everyday wrapped in an air of revelation. As my students can testify, he’s hardly alone or original in those claims about punk.  Of course, it could simply be that I get irritated by any claim to know what “true/real/whatever” punk is.

It is all about me, after all.

As a recovery narrative–it isn’t.  I won’t go so far as other reviewers (and Grisham himself) to laud this as a book unlike the score of other books written by and about addicts in that it doesn’t end in redemption.  The publisher puts it this way: “Eloquently disregarding the prefabricated formulas of the drunk–to–sober, bad–to–good tale…”.  And, yes, the redemption narrative stops short–we don’t watch demon Jack recover, but that’s less a result of the narrative strategy than when the timeline of the book halts.  Fairly easy to avoid redemption when you stay out of the recovery part of the tale (and, indeed, there is that–Grisham has been sober for more than 20 years).  And, as more than a few examples can point out, mere sobriety does not necessarily render one a saint.  Nor a nice guy.  Nor even tolerable, nevermind redeemed and/or good.

Of course, it was intriguing enough to make me want to chart where the book belongs within the canon (such as there is) of redemption narrative and the sub-canon (far more codified) of the Faustian narrative, though that’s not quite what he produced here.

The book is worth reading, provided rape, various forms of violence (inflicted on women, men, children, well, everything, actually), and descriptions of alcohol and drug abuse aren’t triggering.  Also a general tendency toward asshole–it’s difficult to come away liking the narrative voice, though I certainly enjoyed the playfulness and the turns of phrase.  His description, for instance, of alcohol, was…uncomfortably familiar (and the very thought of Grisham in my head decidedly freaky):

Booze is a synthetic taste of God, created by man to satisfy a closeness that wasn’t there when he, the man, was created.  God, in His infinite wisdom (and need for acknowledgement), left a spiritual hole in man that only God could fill.  This way, man would have to search out his Creator to feel whole, and then than Him for being created.

Shit, that was a mouthful of words just to say that booze makes you feel all cuddly and warm inside. (45)

Okay, so not really in my head, but, yeah.  I smiled.  I even whipped out the highlighter.

Two books arguably about similar topics (white dude, hardcore punk, addiction, and in Duff’s case, life thereafter), but wildly, wildly, oh so incredibly, different.  If ever two books could showcase what differences in narrative tone and thesis can do to a story, these are ready for the pairing.

Go forth and read, my children.

Postsuburban Youth, Part II

In completely parenthetical news, I seem to have gotten Duff excited about Kids of the Black Hole.  Well, truth be told, I think the title got him excited, but I’ll take what I can get.  Taking over the reading habits of the planet, one fellow geek at a time.

So, onwards.  I’ve finished mulling Dewar McLeod’s Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, which led me to this peculiar interlude the other day,  and I’m pretty sure there will be at least one more post on this subject as it continues to rattle around in my brain. Fortunately, the rattling is largely positive; MacLeod’s book makes for an excellent narrative introduction to L.A. punk as well as a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the underlying causes of both the music itself and the social context of the music.  I’m particularly excited about his analysis of the role of contention in punk.

One of the complaints I’ve made about punk research and writing is that so much of it is rooted in the “I was there”* (see also O’Hara’s Philosophy of Punk: More than Noise) or a variation on the theme, which is perhaps best regarded as “we were there”: the multitude of oral histories that have been published over the last 10 or so years, including Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History and Marc Spitz’ & Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk.  MacLeod doesn’t do this, though he acknowledges his place in the growth of California punk, remarking about his experience seeing the Ramones at the Whisky “They all seemed to be having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure what to make of them” (11-12).  In fact, rather than grounding himself as one centered in the experience of SoCal (or California, for that matter) punk, he describes himself as having “missed it,” particularly the early days when he was

…young and couldn’t drive.  But also I didn’t think it was mine.[***] These people were older, cooler, realer than me.  I wasn’t like them, and never could be.  They came from somewhere else.

Of course, I was wrong.  They came from places just like mine, and from the vast range of the broad middle class of postsuburban California. (13)

As it happens, he was in the midst of one of the turning points (MacLeod certainly argues as much) in SoCal punk–the Elks Lodge show on March 17, 1979.   When he tells the story of that night, though, MacLeod stands back and lets others, including reviews from the Los Angeles Times and seminal punk zine Slash.  MacLeod reappears in the chapter, not to paint the image of the night, but to offer excellent context and critique as to how and why that night was a turning point in punk.

This particular argument, regarding the co-existence of punk and New Wave, is one of several well-documented and nuanced arguments that MacLeod weaves together in the book.  The first half of Kids revisits much of the ground covered in We Got the Neutron Bomb and elsewhere, but, of course, he’s not relying exclusively on oral narrative; MacLeod creates a cohesive narrative using the various punk stories and conflicts over what constituted punk.  The latter half of the book turns to the advent of SoCal hardcore, where, as I mentioned, I thought the book might begin.  In wrestling with the text, it is more clear to me now why the first part is necessary–it offers a narrative that contrasts with the development of hardcore (punk and New Wave being elements of the city and the immediate suburbs, hardcore coming from the exurbs and remaining there, largely).

I have to say that one of the most interesting elements of the book is that MacLeod doesn’t wax ecstatic over any particular group, save arguably for Black Flag (though it is rather difficult to write about SoCal hardcore without writing extensively about Black Flag, so it’s rather easy to see why).  Most shockingly (I jest), he is all but dismissive of Darby Crash, who we see moving through his various permutations from Jan Paul to Bobby to Darby.  While not the first to make this particular observation, MacLeod is perhaps the most understated about the Germs’ eventual move away from the strictly amateur: “…even the Germs occasionally managed to play a song that actually sounded something like music to more traditional ears” (62).   The failure to laud the Germs as the be-all-end-all of LA punk is, I admit, refreshing (even if I am a bit of a Germs fangirl), and his otherwise straightforward tone throughout the book sets off the periodic wink-wink, nudge-nudge (though tinged with love, no doubt) one-liners well, including one about Germs guitarist Pat Smear’s time with Nirvana: “And thus, thirteen years after Darby Crash committed suicide and the Germs died with him, L.A. punk produced its first rock star” (135).

MacLeod tells the story of the Elks Lodge a total of three times: in the introduction, in the argument about the attempts to mediate the first phase of punk, and again as a link to the development of hardcore, fraught as it was with violence and police action.  In effect, the night, though MacLeod himself stays at a remove in telling the story the second two times, serves as the pin that binds SoCal punk entirely in the text.  Further pulling his narrative together is, of course, the theoretical premise that something in the human geography is at work in the development of both of these eras of SoCal punk.***  The premise strikes me as sound, and it is certainly intriguing.  Combining the exilic function of suburbia with an economic milieu rooted in information technology, postsuburbia created a youth who were

…fully “postmodern…,” whose alienation resulted from the “impact of modern information technologies spread by global capitalism,” as the corporate-controlled media and consumer environments increasingly supplanted the home, family, school, and workplace as sites for socialization [qtd. in MacLeod 99)].

While I understand–and tend to agree with– the argument MacLeod is drawing here–that one of the recognizable features of a shift from suburbia to postsuburbia is that the home (and, indeed, workplace, school, family, etc.) is no longer the center of authority as existence and experience became “fragmented” (104)–I am also tempted to quibble.  Clearly the fragmentation to which he refers was evident–one can certainly hear it in the lyrics of SoCal hardcore (MacLeod uses one song in particular to support this conclusion, Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 “Institutionalized”), but I still can’t shake the feeling that were applying terminology more apt for a slightly younger generation to the early days of hardcore.  On the whole, however, MacLeod’s thesis is most intriguing and well-explored; he made me curious enough to keep digging into the subject(s).

My only significant point of contention comes in the conclusion, which MacLeod begins with “Hardcore was white music” (131). He’s right, of course; one of the realities of hardcore was its present and largely un-named whiteness, though his stated rationale for the claim is hilarious:  “Musically, the sound stripped out nearly all rhythm and even melody.  Generally, the only variation occurred in tempo” (131).  To which I would add the qualifier: tempo equaled mind-alteringly fast to even faster.****  I appreciate his humor here.

MacLeod’s too-brief exploration of race in hardcore is problematic for me, largely because he appears to buy into a fairly either/or notion; that is, either hardcore had racist elements or it didn’t.  He notes that “…while Black Flag’s “White Minority” seemed to lament the day in the near future when ‘all the rest will be the majority….We’re all gonna die,’ their singer at the time when they debuted the song was Latino” (131).  After cataloging several of the racial markers in hardcore lyrics, MacLeod remarks “As hardcore style emerged, race itself was strangely almost absent. The social problems hardcore punks did address did not include race” (132).  I can’t tell if MacLeod is suggesting that race was truly not present, even if it went unmarked, or not.  Even so-called “casual racism” (MacLeod’s term) suggests something about the context, even if race does not appear to be a concern for the majority.  One of the hallmarks of whiteness, is, after all, that it goes unspoken and unrecognized–especially for the white majority.  And, of course, for the majority white musicians playing to majority white crowds, how easy is it to be casual in the racism.  How easy to use the Latino singer as a token.  As a later for instance, the much-discussed Guns N’ Roses song “One in a Million” got much more commentary in the press from liberal-leaning (and talkative), white Seattleite Duff McKagan than it did from Slash.  Indeed, the media seldom even noted Slash’s parentage when asking about less-than-casual racism of the song.  In short, I don’t know that MacLeod and I would actually disagree on this point, but I’d have liked to see a less casual inclusion.


*Let us agree that for those of us who weren’t there (I was three at the time of the Elks Lodge show mentioned below.  My forays into punk came a tad later), the “I was there” is not so much problematic [read: aggravating], but the reflexive dismissivness of those who were not is.

**MacLeod writes about this notion, but I can’t underscore the importance of the perceived ownership of music enough.

***He does ever so briefly nod at the later developments of punk in Orange County and the Bay Area.  I’d throw in A7x to his list as well, but you probably saw that coming already.  I’ve reconsidered my position in the earlier Author’s note (and the 8 sentences I cut out of it).  I’ll revisit sometime.  Until then, an early clip for your consideration.

****Aaaaand later drummers, like the Rev (ahem), would use their access to technology to improve their speed–via practicing while gaming.

Postsuburban Youth Culture

I really, really try not to write about books before I’ve finished mulling them properly, but the one I am picking my way through right now has me thinking so much that if I don’t get something written down, I’ll never get through to review the book.  Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California by Dewar MacLeod came to my attention by way of an email from my ever fabulous Librarian,* who keeps tabs on newly released books on punk, since I teach composition classes on the subject fairly regularly.  I was standing in the middle of a bookstore during December when my phone announced the incoming email (now, as to why I was in a bookstore AND checking email, I can’t say.  I can only assume it was destiny).   The title grabbed my attention, and I shot over to the music section in the vain hope the book would be there.   It wasn’t, so I ordered it and it has sat in my book pile, keeping a bio on Thelonious Monk company, while I wandered through several other texts before coming back to this one.

I was a mite surprised to see Exene Cervenka gracing the cover, largely because my initial impression of the title had me thinking several years beyond the advent of SoCal punk–I assumed that the book would trace, at the earliest, the decent of the HB hardcore crowd into the scene.  My completely wrongheaded thought was this would look into the more recent punk phases in SoCal–primarily because I kept seeing phrases like “neglected episode in rock history” associated with the book (that phrase is off the back cover).  Since it covers the advent of punk in Los Angeles, we aren’t talking an area that is completely neglected, even in academic circuits (or, at least, I spend so much time with my head buried in that period that it doesn’t feel like it to me).  A jolt of honesty:  the band that first came to mind upon reading the title (and, indeed, the first chapter–I’m further along than that, but I keep tripping over my own thoughts) was (and this is where the “that’s not punk” arguments begin) Avenged Sevenfold.**

Just hang with me for a moment.

In his introduction, MacLeod notes “In the post-war era alone, Orange County (south of L.A.) went from rural to suburban to post-suburban.  The new types of localities contained industry (increasingly information-technology oriented), office parks, services, and shopping centers, as well as housing tracts.  For bored teenagers, though, this new type of psychogeography represented the worst combination of suburban exile with posturban desolation” (3-4).  I was a little surprised by this, in no small part because I needed to spend sometime boning up on my geographical terminology.  My experiences with human geography have tended to deal with rural areas, not terribly surprising given that I live in the South (which is obsessed with its own real and imagined “ruralness”).  I deal with cities on occasion, usually when dealing with, yes, punk, but I was out of my league here.  I wouldn’t have posited any form of “postsuburbia” any earlier than the 90’s, so I was well and truly confused.

So, to research.

According to the editors of Post-Suburban California: The Transformation of Postwar Orange County, California,:

Postsuburban regions have distinct locations for commerce, recreation, shopping, arts, residences and religious activities. These activities are often all conducted in different places which are linked primarily by private cars. This fundamentally decentralized arrangement makes postsuburban regions complex, incoherent, disorienting, dynamic, and lively. Postsuburban regions cannot be easily understood with traditional categories of suburb and city or by focussing on one city, such as Irvine, since residents of any one city travel throughout a post-suburban region for work, shopping, worship, recreation, and arts. (Kling, Olin, and Poster)

The key elements of the postsuburban experience include the spreading out of services and experience–not insignificantly– a nightlife.  Private cars are a necessity; often the post-suburban environment lacks significant (or any, in some cases) public transportation.  If I am imagining this properly, we’re looking at rhizome (Dear god, Deleuze and Guattari find me here too??)–multiple population centers without any single one being the “center.” I’m familiar with the set up–it’s more or less how my hometown is organized, though in the last few years (I think the plan existed for 20 or more, but I don’t recall), there has been the artificial creation and placement of a “downtown,” which cannot hope to actually function as a “center” in any traditional sense, as all the same things: food, hotels, shopping, recreation, etc. are available in places throughout the city–in various segments we loosely referred to as neighborhoods.

Anyway, what struck me in MacLeod’s remark was the word bored, one often associated with suburbia and, I take it, with post-suburbia; certainly that seems to be part of his claim about Orange County.   Suburban boredom came from exile–“there’s nothing to do here.”  One fled to the city for recreation and the vaunted nightlife.  So what of the post-suburban, when recreation moves home, though not necessarily next door (“over there” always has better stuff to do, more danger to find.  Ask any 80’s or 90’s Virginia Beach kid where the best drugs  and parties were, and my high school was always named.  Except by us.  Well, except for the parties.  We’d claim those, but “they” always had far better access to far better drugs.)  So what generates the boredom and the frustration in this environment?  And why the heck did I keep thinking about Avenged Sevenfold, even as I read about X, the Screamers, and the transformation of one Jan Paul Beahm into Bobby Pyn and then to Darby Crash (who, let us agree, manages to focus me and is an interesting example in MacLeod’s work that I will look at later)?

Or, to be more precise, why did I keep coming back to the band members’ collective backstories, which are replete with arrests, fights, expulsions, and general mayhem, other than the two obvious things–OC and my own misapprehension about timing.  The Orange County band has a heck of a backstory at that–ones that practically scream PR (and, are often dismissed as such), but not atypical, necessarily.  Good kids who found trouble and turned that trouble into art.  Kids with violent streaks, drug habits, and penchants for not always knowing where those fine lines between teenage misbehavior and troubled really were:

Shadows played basketball, earning a few scholarships – but only after years of run-ins over drinking. Vengeance was placed in honors classes, all of which he quickly flunked.  Seward simply dropped out. “If it weren’t for this, I’d probably be working a normal job and playing on the weekends for 10 people at the Irvine Spectrum,” he says.  Gates, who describes his divorced parents as “very supportive,” was still “tossed out of my home a couple of times. I was living out of my truck for a short while. My dad wanted to emancipate me at 16 and send me to music college. “But school never worked for us. We failed miserably, got expelled, you name it.” “We were all bad kids,” Sullivan says. “So, we stuck together. But what I got kicked out of my house for I make a living at now.”(Wener, OC Register)

Or this, which recounts Sanders’ (well, more to the point, his parents’) experiences.  By their own accounts, he was pushed into basketball and practice (and if this didn’t remind me of more than a few friends over the years) by his parents.  His rebellion?  Alcohol.  Fighting.  Arrests:

“This is how nightmares arrive. They walk up your driveway in a pack. With knives and chains and baseball bats. Twenty, maybe 25 kids. All of them high on rage. Most of them high on something else, too. They are here, at your so-straight two-story, in your so-straight neighborhood, with one so-twisted mission – spilling your son’s blood.” (Miller, OC Register, Feb. 2000. Link points to blog with full-text.  Register site wasn’t cooperating)

I’m not getting into the particulars of the parenting experience recounted in that article (my heart goes out.  There are phone calls no parent wants to make and no parent wants to get.  And damn near all of us get one or the other.  My heart still leaps to my throat when the phone rings, unless TG is in the house with me.  And even then sometimes.  Miller follows up 7 years later, noting “And you just learned that, two weeks after the story appeared on these pages, Dad was summoned to the police station, where he found his son bloodied and handcuffed to a post. Arrested again.” (Miller, OC Register, 2007. Links to a blog with the article.  Grrr.) .  The articles–the second from well before A7x was of note outside the OC–strike me as capturing a question–something that hasn’t changed, why are they so angry?  In this case, at least, boredom is not the word that comes to mind; if boredom, that perhaps it’s the boredom with false choices–be the basketball star or be the rebel.  Be good (successful??) or be pierced and tattooed (guitarist Vengeance (Zack Baker) articulates this particular idea fairly often, actually, even now–wanting to be both the success and the guy no one would look at and think successful).  If suburbia bored teens to untoward escapes to the city, what in the world did postsuburbia do?

The question of anger is one that comes up time and again with respect to punk (and metal, though they are handled rather differently).  Often, the anger that fueled punk is regarded (by punks then and by academics now) as righteous–American punk responding to the failures of the Reagan administration, for instance, just as their British counterparts responded to their own failing economy.  But, just as often, someone (yes, even the academics–and nearly always my students) asks–why so angry?

More than just a PR blitz for another angry metal band, the stories of the members of Avenged Sevenfold seem to tap at something essential, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what that is at present.  They strike me as archetypal experiences–and not just for the subset who would get to ride off into rockstarland (the determination, drive, and, (occasional–more so now–less so in some early encounters with the British press.  Oy.  Youth.) professionalism of the band is another story entirely).  Archetypes for a youth culture that has twisted and shifted and de-politicized (and repoliticized when useful) stylized themselves away from the youth culture of the 70s–but the anger has not abated, even if it has shifted–and, in the case of this band, perhaps shifted into a rejection of some proscribed visions of what success is supposed to mean.  I see it in my responses as a youth (and I am all of 6 years older than the majority of the band, after all, so it’s not that unlikely), though less so in my son’s generation, who, at least the ones I interact with, are chafing for a fantasy world of yesteryear, where success followed a certain script (that script having long since been destroyed).

Or something.


*Bonus points to anyone who pictured Noah Wylie just then.  More bonus points to those who know why that would be appropriate.

**Hokay, let me put my prof hat fly my geek/freak flag for a moment.  No shit, not punk–metalcore band, initially.  Metal, by their own estimation and by style (though with considerable punk influences.  Another post?).  Waking the Fallen and Nightmare are my favorite albums, in no small part because of the thematic similarities (go ahead, listen to Waking (ahem, WtF), you’ll hear the roots of virtually every theme (lyrically and musically) that the band works through in a more mature fashion on Nightmare.  Got away from them in City of Evil and went WAY the hell away on Avenged Sevenfold (though, I am enamored of that album as well) . Seriously, same themes.  Even the same fucking phrases.  I probably should write through that some day too).  Anyhoo, what I hear in Waking (and Nightmare and my favorite tracks on AS) is a persistent punk influence (not that this should surprise anyone and, lest anyone be under the impression that I’ve forgotten, such music exists on a continuum.  How do you pick a punker from a metalhead circa 1983?  Measure the hair), particularly in the speed of the drums.  I didn’t go see them when Jimmy was still alive; figured I had time.  I’d get around to it.  That, by the way, is what being a Guns N’ Roses fan does to you–I mean, if those 5 can still be kicking…

Drama Queens and Riot Grrrls

Apparently, according to my less-than-subtle subconscious, my mind regards me as something of a drama queen.  I’m not altogether surprised by this, mind you; I indeed fit the description from time to time.  However, I’m not sure I deserve what my brain chose for last night’s dream.  I mean, Rachel Berry?  Really?  I’m as bad as a teen drama queen from Glee???  Shopping for furniture? I figured out the Rachel Berry part–anyone with insight into dreaming about furniture shopping, feel free to analyze as you will.

For the record, I reject this characterization.  I am no Rachel Berry.

*********

Over the break, I read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and I’ve been pondering it ever since.  Now, I typically avoid books with the phrase “true story of,” unless I am buying a bit of true crime  schlock (since one knows more or less where the bias will lie with those writers), but I was intrigued enough by a relatively concise history of the movement from someone who was not busily trying not to be a leader of said movement (there was a fair bit of that–I understand why, but it often ended up clouding the situation needlessly).

For those who are left clueless or struggling to recall what in the world Riot Grrrl refers to at this point, here’s Kathleen Hanna’s manifesto for the movement and Allison Wolfe’s response to Marcus’ book, which provides further context.  Even from my limited perspective, Wolfe is correct in her assessment that there are some dissonant moments (I’m trying to recall which one made me stop and stare at a wall for about 10 minutes, trying to figure out if I had completely lost my mind in my recollection of the history of American punk, but it was apparently insignificant enough in the end that I neither wrong WTF? in the margin nor can I come up with what the factoid was.  Assume that the triviality of it is indicative of the level of geekiness involved here).  And, while I’m not altogether thrilled at the dismissal of those who “sold out,” that’s one of my personal irritations with much of punk, though, again, I get it.  And the dismissals are often veiled or incidental; Marcus notes, for instance, that

L7 played second.  The LA band–whose breakout album, Bricks are Heavy, would drop the following week–had recently founded Rock for Choice, an organization that sponsored benefit concerts to support abortion rights.  L7 was also the only group that hadn’t objected to MTV’s designs on the night. (116)

The “designs” to which Marcus refers was MTV’s request to film the show in question.  For Bikini Kill and Fugazi, in Marcus’ words

But it was still the organ of commodified youth culture, and true punks* would have nothing to do with it.  Plus, the channel wanted to install tracks for its camera in front of the stage, cutting off the audience from the musicians.  There could be no better metaphor for the sinister reach of the spectacle, trying to butt its way into the middle of a human interaction, to turn an authentic exchange of energy into debased image-production. (115)

I feel certain that it is obvious why L7 might have acceded to MTV’s request, with their album set to hit the market.  By 1992, the relationship between artist and MTV was fairly well sealed (though, one might argue, it would become both murkier and more problematic in coming years–I’m looking at you TRL).  I get the point–MTV in the middle (literally, in this case) of audience and artist does change the dynamic–it has to, insofar as the physical separation, and, of course, to whom do you play on stage–the human audience sweating in front of you or the camera’s eye for the audience at home?  That choice is not insignificant; even as far back as Pirandello we were aware of that distinction (I don’t have a copy of Shoot in front of me, or I’d quote the matter right now).   Cell phone cameras (video and otherwise) have likewise altered the dynamic, even if the means of production are no longer in the hands of the devil, er “organ of commodified youth culture”.

In the main, Marcus’ book is well worth the read, at least from where I sit.  I learned a bit of context I’d never gotten before, and I realized a few odd, odd connections.  Her analysis of the media’s representation of Riot Grrrl is particularly worthwhile and noteworthy.

As I wasn’t part of the movement (though, as they say, every girl is a riot grrrl), it was the media representation that I was first met with.  I didn’t even hear the term “Riot Grrrl” until around 1993, likely after I was pregnant with my son, despite living only 3 hours from one of the revolution’s epicenters–Washington D.C.   Part of this comes from cultural context; Riot Grrrl had a hell of a time laying tracks period, but in an area culturally subsumed by large military bases and the headquarters of the Christian Coalition, feminism had an odd role in my hometown.  And my own head, which was largely pointed toward “getoutofheregetoutofheregetoutofhere” up until I discovered I was pregnant, left something to be desired when it came to listening to what was going on around me–particularly if it was something I might have regarded as helpful.

Because, at it’s heart, it would have been–a group of people who saw the world in similar colors and shapes to me?  Yeah, that would have been quite the lifesaver at the time.  And the things the members of the movement were regularly accused of–manhating feminists and the like–yeah, I heard that.  Often.  Usually from football players, but not exclusively.  I heard it from teachers who thought I had no place in a Physics class and friends who thought that picking me up in the air when I had said no already or me–ardent feminist and self-avowed bitch that I was–barefoot and pregnant was the funniest thing ever.  It took me far more years that I think I want to admit to realize the levels of fucked up I was not to see how insulting that was.

But, in reading Marcus’ book, I see some of what my friends and I were doing was similar–even without the context of Riot Grrrl, not incidentally “Girls to the front.”  Ladies of my general age, tell me if this sounds familiar to you:

There they’d stand, planting their legs in broad Vs and linking arms with each other or balling their fists at their waists, daring anybody to challenge their right to the space [at the front of the stage] where moshing usually held sway. (124)

Mosh pits in my hometown were not as wildly violent as such could become, at least until Desert Storm.  There was, at least from where I was standing (up front, of course) a pretty significant change around that time, not surprisingly.  The most notable experience I encountered was not in a club, but at an arena–at a Guns N’ Roses show in 1991 (I’m sure I mentioned this before), where the pit got so violent that scores and scores of people were pulled out.  Had the few women in the pit been able to lock together (as we did in other situations–usually smaller venues–and often not so much to hold back moshing as to hold back the jackasses who were trying to feel us up), we might have collectively been able to hang on that time.  As it was, I ended up–by chance, by height, and by broad shoulders, to be the last female standing on my side–and that by the end of the opening band.  My much smaller friend had to get out far earlier, for her own safety.

Little things.  Little connections.

********

Finally, a funny.  The search term that led some poor soul to this blog recently: “gravity’s rainbow coprophagia.”  There’s meaning there somewhere, right?


*ARRRRGH.  True. Punks.  *bangshead*

Mohawks, Irony, and Youth Culture

TG’s first weekday wrestling match was last night, and Boyo won one of his two matches.  He was pleased with the win, critical of his overall performance, and, generally, a Tough Guy.

This morning, he’s a tough guy with a backache.   Poor boyo.

High School Wrestling is a strange enterprise.  For myriad reasons, but I’d like to address the reason most closely associated with this blog’s enterprise.  Oh, wait.  Okay, the second most closely…

First would be the potential addictions, of course.  Steroids are of major concern, but after seeing them twist the bejesus out of each other last night, I’d say that those mats are likely the beginnings of more than a few painkiller addictions.  Hell, I wanted painkillers, and I was only watching them.

But, I want to address something close to my heart: punk–this time, via the mohawk.  Now, those of you who aren’t hanging around high schools or watching Glee (or UFC, according to my High School fashion correspondent) might be a tad baffled as to why I am discussing a trend to indelibly linked to my own teen years.

My tweet-o’horror last night:

I’m disappointed in the quality of the mohawks here today. Kids these days. Sheesh.

Well, perhaps not horror exactly.

I’m fond of the mohawk*.  In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had a few students who sported them, even one fellow who wore some truly impressive Liberty Spikes (I admit it…I covet the style.  I’m not sure I have the patience for the maintenance, however.).  Some were of high quality and talent and others were of middling effort, but acceptable, for the most part.  Granted, in the last year or three, I’ve had several students sporting  faux hawks, which disappoint me tremendously, but I’ve not encountered the likes of the ones I saw last night outside of television.  Say, on Glee’s Puck, for instance:

I should have known…there’s Glee fanfic.   OMG.  Sorry.  Oh, and PUCKLEBERRY????  WTF?  *headdesk*

Now, Puck’s hairstyle is clearly intended to be all about intimidation.  He’s the jock with an attitude, given to lying and threatening as needed, tossing the occasional slushie, and to singing “Sweet Caroline,” should it help to get in Rachel’s pants (or Quinn’s, or whomever he was actually hitting on in that episode).

*headdesk*

According to TG, UFC fighter Chad Lidell is responsible for the appearance of mohawks on the mats.  Now, I’m not sure I agree completely with his assessment, but this picture amuses me sufficiently to include it here.  Lidell’s mohawk is not of my favorite style,admittedly, as I am rather fond of the more flashy, work- intensive mohawks.  The photo is apparently from Lidell’s** stint on Dancing With the Stars.  But it is serviceable, and, I suppose, it does fulfill the intent of being “intimidating” (I guess.  Not for me, but, hey, maybe it works in the ring).   Football players have used a similar mowhawk-style over the years, with a varying degree of success with regard to intimidation, but certainly they do tend to stand out (Chad Johnson’s blonde mohawk–there is a pic on the mohawk link above).  I’m not a huge fan of the wide mohawk look in any event, so I’m probably a bit biased on the matter.

Thing is, the kids last night had either poorly maintained mohawks (sides growing out really, noticeably–perhaps working on getting rid of the ‘do??) that might have worked or were, well…it looked for all the world as if we took a standard, every day male haircut and then removed the sides.  Pitiful excuses for mohawks.  What is this world coming to?

There was a point here…

Ah, yes, I recall.  I had been pondering punk and youth cultures in general of late, and wondering how applicable the theories (link points to previous brain droppings on the matter) might be to current American, and, particularly, Southern, white Millennials–and, more to the point–if they could be applied at all.   I keep reading incredible rage in papers from this group–especially the males, and I haven’t pinned down where the rage is coming from, largely because it is so diffuse. They rage against everything…

And, yet, much of it seems to be a tempest/teapot thing.  Indeed, on more than one occasion, it has occurred to me that I am seeing reflected rage–“I’m supposed to be angry” so I am, but there is no identifiable trigger.  Some will cite the economy and current economic practices, but these are also upper middle-class students, many of whom do not pay their own tuition, who live away from their parents, but are largely subsidized by the parents, and often approach college with radical learned helplessness.

And yet, rage.

What are the points of resistance?  What are the specific spaces of frustration, change, etc.?  How is it (and is it) reflected in the codes of their behavior and dress? Most of this was idle thought, but looking over the mohawk-travesty got me wondering about it again.

Much of punk style was initially ironic co-opting (one could argue as much about the mohawk, certainly).  Sarcasm and sardonic humor are a mainstay of the punk music genre (thank goodness).  But, as my colleagues often point out (following just about every 20th century European literary theorist), our American students have almost no sense of the ironic.  Many of them simply cannot recognize it, even when it is pointed out to them.

And I caught myself wondering if these half-hearted ‘hawks were significant in that fashion (a mohawky death of irony).  The styles  come to the students via media images from sports, which co-opted the “fierce” associations with the mohawk and reflect a period these kids don’t recall, but have likely been exposed to via the Quincy-punk media image (again, fierce, violent, but also often ridiculous), which does still pop up every once and again.  But, students do seem to be aware on some level that punk was associated with rage and rebellion (at least, those who have any concept of punk do)…so are they co-opting it without irony?

*sigh*

Yeah, kids these days.



*Okay, I have to admit something here. I have Darby Crash’s voice in my head right now bitching about the use of the term mohawk. Mohican, it keeps saying, Mohican. Gimme a beee-ah. Mohican…. Oi.

**Every time I type his name, I find myself wanting to go read Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” which faux-references (sort of) Liddell Hart.

Punk Style: Drunk, Fast, and Pinned

So, the second (third? umpteenth?) installment of my foray into punk is getting slightly sidelined by a desire to play a bit with the theories rhyte turned me on to. Apologies for being tardy with this entry–I’ll do better (I hope) without Memorial Day distracting me.

I had read some of these pieces in graduate school, but, well, let’s just say that in my particular comparative literature department, cultural studies was frowned upon. Didn’t, as it turns out, prevent me from doing cultural studies, I just lacked the theoretical constructs that might have saved me a bit of sanity in the process. But, no one ever claimed that doctoral work was for the sane. In fact, I think nearly everyone believes exactly otherwise.

So, rhyte mentioned Stuart Hall and co. as essentials for the work I’m digging around in, and I started digging. Good stuff, I might add.

The majority of what I have encountered so far deals with Brit punk, so I’ll hash out a brief summary and then see what we can do with American punk, too, which has a slightly different set of concerns associated with it. The thrust of the arguments is fairly straightforward, claiming that punk is one of several postwar subcultures born inside the British working class, which, of course, is accurate. I will say that it took me some time to work through the use of “sub”culture, as it is a term I have largely rejected in my own writing, in large measure because it assumes privilege. Primarily, I’ve rejected describing various American regionalisms as “subcultures” (as one will occasionally see them labeled), because such usage assumes not only dominance of a particular culture over the “subs,” but a certain superiority. I know precisely where my resistance comes from–>I hold Dr. Ronnie Hopkins and my class on Black English Vernacular entirely responsible, so I struggled with the terminology a bit, until I hit upon the following remark, which made the usage not only perfectly apt in this case, but it reset my thinking on the use of the term: “but just as different groups and classes are unequally ranked in relation to one another, in terms of their productive relations, wealth and power, so cultures are differently ranked, and stand in opposition to one another, in relations of domination and subordination, along the scale of ‘cultural power'” (Hall & Jefferson 11). The term highlights the way such cultural groupings are treated within a dominant culture; the use of the term does not necessarily invalidate the cultural group or reduce them, but it does posit the relationship of cultures to one another in a given society; that is, once “sub”cultures ascend to dominance on the spectrum, they simply become the dominant culture–or absorbed into the dominant culture, at any rate.

The contentions here are pretty straightforward too. About punk Dick Hebdige suggests that (and his first point has been made time and again by all manner of folk, including Duff): “[t]he punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between audience and artist, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock’s* implicit contradictions. For example, the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance, and verbosity of glam rock superstars”; Hebdige further posits punk as parody of glam rock, speaking for the white working-class through a “rendering of working-classness,” describing itself in “bondage through an assortment of darkly comic signifiers–straps and chains, strait jackets, and rigid postures. Despite it’s proletarian accents, punk’s rhetoric was steeped in irony” (63).

Two pieces exist to pick apart here: the “look” (style) of punk and the rhetoric, both of which, Hebdige claims, are ironic positions. The image of punk, especially Brit punk (American punk will have its own peculiarities), is replete with color, attitude, and safety pins galore. Hebdige and others argue that the style is itself a language–it communicates to the “reader” a level of connection or disjuncture, depending on the position of the reader to the subculture; thus, image is, indeed, everything here. To illustrate his point, we need only look at the following clips from two Sex Pistols shows, one at the rise of punk and one at the height (well, for the Pistols, anyway). Look carefully at the difference in image between the initial ascent to television (the mainstream) and the concert footage from ’77:

Example one (in which Glen Matlock** appears on bass):

Note that in the first example, the Pistols look more “glam” than punk–at least if we consider the later manifestations of those terms. Note, though, Rotten’s earrings, which would appear to be, like his brilliantly pink jacket, a bit glam frou frou; they are, however, far more mundane–mere paperclips. Hair is messy; eyes are properly insane (though nothing like the 1977 footage); studded leather wristband visible. He’s a Ted (in his vaguely Edwardian, brilliant pink), but he’s a Teddy boy gone wild (sorry–I know that was awful) in his destruction of the jacket–note that the right shoulder is pieced together with safety pins, pieces of the trappings of punk that we will come to know and love. And Rotten owns up to this, at least partially, when in his autobiography, he outlines his distaste for the 70s variation of Teddy boy: “…there was a Rock-n-roll revivalist movement going on that I found loathesome. Here were sixteen-year-old kids into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley….You shouldn’t be propping up somebody’s grandad as a hero. They weren’t making a life of their own. They were living in someone else’s fucking nightmare” (63). Cookie, as always, looks like, well, Cookie, in his drummer finery (dressed as a drummer SHOULD. I’m looking at you, Mr. Studded Thong Lee.***). I’ve little to say about Matlock, but…Jonesy. The Man. Steve Jones in his finest pink. Sort of a nod to glam, a nod to, what? mod, maybe?, and then a sublime little kick at the piece of equipment and the notoriously fabulous hip swing.

Really, is there more to say about Jones? I’m far too entranced to comment.

So, we move from the 1976 BBC debut to 1977, after Sid joins. A few things to watch for here: first, watch Sid’s face between :25 and :31–it’s the sneer. A practiced and well-considered sneer (of course, I know no one who does anything similar). Also, watch for the glam send-ups–>especially from Steve and Sid.

Example Two (with Sid occasionally playing bass between poses, bless his heart):

So, did you see the sneer? Consider how many times you have seen that face on one musician or another since 1977. Seriously, it is almost as ubiquitous as the “big bird” of earlier musings. The costumes have changed here, of course. One might argue that this is an effect of no longer being on prime time, as it were–that the demands of stage differ from the demands of TV, and there is some truth to that. One plays a different role according to one’s audience, most of the time. But, I think we’ve got other elements at play here. First, we have the ascent of punk into the media’s eye–and the “look” of punk, born, I would argue, out of a shared space between American and Brit punk (Sid’s look is nothing if not a play out of the Ramones, who reached London by 1976 with their leather-clad NYC punk; true, though, as Hebdige points out, the leather-look was the stuff of the 60’s Brit “rockers”–more well known in American as “greasers,” who were also, as Sam pointed out, beginning this whole venture, also known as “punks” in Southern America. Small world, ain’t it?). So, we have trenchcoat-clad Jones [which, as Hebdige suggests, plays on the classic sexual aggressor motif–which in turn fits Jones’ persona, as he describes himself as “a real pussy hound…constantly looking for anything to fuck” (Lydon 89).], the leather-clad, dog chain-wearing, sneering Vicious, the adorable Cook (properly dressed, again, I might add), and Rotten, looking properly nuts. All of this is well and good, what we come to expect in pre-hardcore punk revelry…and then start The Who moments: Steve’s hop (:23-ish), Johnny’s sort of Roger-Daltreyeque moments around 2:20, and the other shows which feature Sid doing the windmill, rather inexplicably–look for the Dallas performance of “Holiday in the Sun,” I’m pretty sure he does it there. An image shift ahs taken place. Even if we accept Rotten’s version of the world, where he simply felt drawn to the clothing of the “bum”: “forgetting the dirt, they looked so stylish to me” (71), it seems clear that the media vision of punk, picked up from various sources, including the Pistols, has in turn influences the image they present here. As Hebdige points out, by summer 1977, the flash of punk could be readily mail ordered (96).

So what are we to take of this in terms of the drunk punk? What does this add to the style in question?

Again, we have no less than two sets of problems to outline here: first, the celebration of excess, more aggressive than their equally drug-and-alcohol addled glam rockers and presages the excess of the 80s and, second, the eventual rejection of such a lifestyle, heralded primarily out of DC hardcore followers of Minor Threat. The birth of Straight Edge isn’t terribly surprising if one looks at the overall age of the punkers, many of whom were underage–>punk shows were often held outside of bars because 1) media influence convinced not just a few American bar owners that punks were dangerous to their establishments and 2) if you have a “youth-culture,” you tend to sell less alcohol in the bar (doesn’t mean consumption doesn’t happen, but it may not benefit the bar keep, you know?). What better way to announce your power over the inability to work within the established mode (playing in bars) than to denounce that central moneymaker–alcohol?

Hebdige suggests, rightly I think, that everything punk is an intentional obscenity, meant to disrupt and challenge. “Clothed in crisis,” he calls it (114). The music was frantic, the clothing meant to appall, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs seems to follow suit–deliberately aggressive. But, I think that to limit ourselves to a purely reactionary reading undermines the nihilism that drove some of the punkers, and, more over, the parody that drove others.

I think parody is going to be our next gambit. Too much of punk was too smart to ignore this bend. Perhaps we should begin with the parody of consumption…

One thought I would like to leave you with: I see scores of Benjaminian moments in here, in large measure because of the audience/artist conflation–many punk stories discuss the fans literally crossing the boundaries, and most of the videos, should you watch enough, herald the interaction between audience and artist–the audience is, more often than not, right there on stage, especially as we progress into American hardcore. But, I would suggest that punk can exist because of the collapse of the aura and the handing over of the process of artistic commodification over to the artists (the masses, and, initially at least, the working class punk). The DIY ethic is an excellent example of the ends to which Benjamin refers in his “Work of Art” essay, where the masses gain control over the technological reproduction of image and sound (the tape exchanges, the zines, and so forth). Moreover, punk quite literally exploits the collapse of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction by bringing audience and artist together: hiring fans into the bands (Rollins into Black Flag, for instance) is but one example, more significant, I would argue, is the deliberate amateurism of early punk–quite literally, anyone could have a band. Now, the best of punk bands really weren’t as amateurish as we tend to discuss them having been, for, as Hebdige reminds us, it is helpful to know the language you are going to parody. Then again, the Germs didn’t get “good” in a technical sense until the last show.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that like YouTube, punk is a logical end to Benjamin’s call. And, better than YouTube, it began with a political sensibility that was more significant for some punkers than the technical aspects of the music. Perhaps we’ll begin there–music as parody in an age of technological reproduction.

Tune in next week.


*I tend to use “glam rock,” when talking about 80s hair rock, but that’s NOT what Hebdige is talking about. He means Bowie and Bolan and company–the original glam rockers.

**When researching, I found the Urban Dictionary entries for Sex Pistols. Glen Matlock‘s entry reads “bassist for the sex pistols, everyone thinks sid vicious was the bassist but he was basicly used cuz he was so hot.” Internetz writing style aside…wow, even I’m not that far gone.

**I shouldn’t poke fun. After all, Axl did have an untoward penchant for U.S. of A. print biker shorts. *shudder*


Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Hutchison & Co, 1975.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: Picador, 1994.