Monday, January 14, 2008

The Incomplete and Unofficial History of Punk Rock--The Essay

Andrew William Smith

Teacher On The Radio

Tennessee Tech

14 January 2008

The Incomplete and Unofficial History of Punk Rock

This essay, its photo scrapbook, and its on-air audio component—the 14th installment of the Teacher On The Radio program on Cookeville’s 88.5 FM—come together now because thirty years ago today, on January 14th 1978, the original incarnation of The Sex Pistols ended the band’s only North American tour in San Francisco.

Killing Rock and Roll?

The Sex Pistols fansite “The Filth and the Fury” summarizes the twelve days on the road in the USA this way:

“A U.S. tour was arranged for January 1978. Initially the band were refused entry to the States due to their criminal records; however, their Visa problems were eventually sorted, with the band only having to pull two shows from the tour. The Pistols being the Pistols, they decided not to play big American cities. Instead they opted to play a short series of dates in the Deep South of the country, in a selection of redneck venues throughout the likes of Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas.”

While the beginning of the Pistols in the USA was the end of the Pistols (the band broke up days after the tour ended), what ended in chaos inevitably commenced a communal effort to organize that chaos as an angry activist force worldwide. It always slamdanced on the head of the safety-pin of its own sense of self, embracing both message and a lack of message and finding itself under a big tent of enormous contradictions. Known as hardcore and DIY and many other things, this style became a lifestyle became a life became a movement most commonly known as punk rock.

Catching a show deep in the heart of the south, my friend and poet John Wright caught the Sex Pistols in person and later inscribed the moment in the following poem:

Brag #4 (Sex Pistols Yodel)

I saw the Sex Pistols

Baton Rouge, January, 1978

second stop on North American tour

I saw the Sex Pistols live

in a cosmic cowboy bar

built in the burned out shell of a Food Town

where my mom used to take me shopping

Sex Pistols live!

$3.50 general admission

crowd of 800

cowboys fratboys drag queens hippies

no one knew

how to be a punk rocker

opening act a zydeco band

Rockin’ Doopsie and the Twisters

everybody booed

I said they ruled

then the Pistols came on

with God Save the Queen!

stood this far from Sid Vicious

and spit in his face

sprayed Lone Star beer on Johnny Rotten

yeehah!—one more shitkickkin’g hoedown

my highschool buddies said “these guyts suck!”

“it’s just bad heavy metal!”

but my ears hurt the next two days

Elvis on the Hayride

Beatles at the Cavern club

way before my time

but I heard the Sex Pistols scream

No future

No future

No future for you!

and they were lying

I’m still alive

and I hate all pop music

all I play now is old time hillbilly

because I saw the Sex Pistols live

I saw the Sex Pistols kill rock and roll

The invocations of an antichrist and anarchy brought by Johnny Rotten, manager Malcolm McClaren, and the entire project of British rebellion combined to define the times. But the roots of punk remain in the States in places like LA, New York, and Detroit, with bands like Velvet Underground and the Stooges.

Although people locate many predecessors to this maniacal and minimalist movement, punk scholar Steven Taylor acknowledges the difficulty of narrowing punk’s family tree, noting that “Myths of origin can be misleading.” Nonetheless, before looking back to the Beats, the amateurish garage rock of the Fugs, and other angry ancestors, he outlines his interpretation of the roots with this description:

“Punk was born and named in the United States, a confluence of West Coast experimental trends, proto-heavy metal, and Midwest ‘garage rock’ with free jazz, avant-garde interpretations, and New York ‘art rock’ as aspiring musicians who were disillusioned with 1960s hippie idealism, mass media ‘folk rock,’ and remote, pretentious ‘progressive rock’ returned to what they perceived as a purer, more vital strain of music n what singer Debbie Harry called ‘the urgent rekindling of real rock & roll.”

Even deciding where to begin and end my playlist and this story offers its own dilemma. Lots of speculation looks over the pond to the media production that made the Sex Pistols. But when American analysts tried to “get it” by looking to England, they failed according to Charles Aaron in his “The Spirit of ‘77” flashback that appeared in a recent Spin. He carefully critiques an incompetent installment of NBC’s Tomorrow Show where an LA rock critic named Robert Hilburn claims “the sociological part is pretty much restricted to England.” Aaron retroactively responds,

“Perhaps because this was broadcast from California, nobody felt compelled to mention punk's actual roots in New York (via the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and Patti Smith) and Detroit (via the Stooges and MC5). Or the fact that 1977 London's miserable socioeconomic situation had nothing on New York's death slide of arson, blackouts, looting, drugs, the Son of Sam serial-killing spree, a race- and gay-baiting mayoral campaign, and widely decried cutbacks of sanitation workers, firefighters, and police (whose union passed out ‘Welcome to Fear City’ brochures at airports and bus terminals).”

(Apparently, according to my preliminary and unscientific scouring of You Tube, Tom Snyder never gave up on punk and featured many bands on his show—perhaps even correcting some of his original blunders—I don’t know. Of course, the “true punks” back in the day probably wouldn’t agree to go on national television, and the fact that so many of them did was likely a cause of much mudslinging in the fanzine community of the sub-sub-culture.)

My bias towards the Sex Pistols as anarchist icons, as our snotty, snarky, snarling grandfathers to grunge comes from the particular brand of agitation and propaganda their phenomenon spawned. But most of the bands that form this incredibly incomplete rock memoir undoubtedly come from America, the homeland that the lead singer of Forced Anger reminded me was “built on Indian graves” and the “blood of slaves.”

Leaving out the obvious originators like Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the Stooges, I begin the story before the Pistols with two examples, one from my Motor CityNew York scene perhaps most eligible for punk’s eden. Then, I spend far too much time in the 1980s and 1990s with my all time favorites like Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, MDC, Operation Ivy, and False Prophets. I don’t stop there, though, and conclude the set with some twenty-first century punks that inspire me to the core. roots and another from the

Peace Punk from Detroit Rock City

There’s an old saying I learned from my ex-hippy friends: “If you can remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there.” I never believed this cliché, seeing it as the pleasant smokescreen that my elders used so as not to talk trash about themselves and divulge the decadent improprieties of their younger years.

While I’ve always been called a hippy (sadly, often in a pejorative manner by my enemies), I cannot really claim or even reclaim that subculture as my own. I wasn’t there. But punk’s another story. I was there.

Sure, I arrived late, but too much of the music discussed in this essay and portrayed in my incredibly imperfect playlist represents a musical movement I witnessed first-hand, something I participated in as journalist-zinester and organizer-promoter. Yet, while writing this essay and mixing this playlist, I’m alarmed by how little I’ve included and how much I’ve left out. Some stuff I wanted to play, I couldn’t find. And I definitely had to leave out some songs simply because of the excessive use of profanity. Lyrically speaking, I try to keep the shows clean, but there’s nothing “clean” about punk, so this makes the entire endeavor all the more challenging.

Still, I have memories, many of them, which makes the stitching together of this story a subversive challenge of self-disclosure. The truth that lives in my mind also lies buried between the lines, in some stories that it’s scary to share. The truth lives standing in line at the shows, collecting vinyl at independent stores, moshing by the stage, and blaring on the mixtapes we would trade amongst ourselves.

The truth also lives in loving friends and lovers fiercely and protesting war with a warrior’s spirit. My participation in punk cannot be parsed out from growing up in the Reagan years and with my fears of nuclear annihilation. One of my earliest introductions to real life punk kids was at a massive peace march in Washington, DC that I attended with my Dad and a friend in March 1985. When I joined the chorus of a particular chant ("No War! No KKK! No Fascist USA!), I didn’t know I was reciting the lyrics that would become one of my favorite thrash anthems, “Born to Die.”

Born in 1967, I came of age in the 1980s, in the suburban belly of punk rock at my high school in Southfield, Michigan and later in the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Detroit, the heart of “the scene.” I attended countless shows and can remember most of them. The fact that I also listened to the Grateful Dead during that period and caught a few of those shows only betrays my mixed loyalties and eclectic tastes. But if it ever comes up, you can call me guilty as charged: I was a peace punk from Detroit rock city.

In my high school days, being a peace punk was much better than being a drunk punk but my punk credentials remained in question, in part, because I loved to listen to many other genres, and moreover, because I was not the least bit alienated or oppressed by my upper-middle-class parents who always encouraged and mentored my activism and rebellion.

For some, punk embodied a fierce purism, and for me, that was untenable because I listened to everything from new wave to alternative to the bands like U2 and REM who would eventually become too big for their britches, the Beatles and Stones of my generation. A certain faction of skinheads and neo-nazis at my school were certain I was a fake—called a poseur—in part because I got along with mom and dad. They hated me enough to denounce me in a fanzine, in “poem” called “Andy Smith” that ended with the line “We think you should die.”

But when I started to shop at thrift stores, attend shows, and chronicle it all in my school newspaper The Southfield Jay, I knew that I was a part of something I would remain active in for a long time (which I did until I left Detroit at the end of 1994). By the time I fled the Motor City, I had a darling young daughter. Perhaps being a Dad signaled the end of my rebellion and a time to grow up, but I tried to derail this philosophy of accommodation into adulthood in an essay I wrote in the concluding chapter of my Detroit 'zine Babyfish.

Interestingly, at the time that punks became parents, an entire genre of zines emerged to support that community, including the excellent Future Generation published by China (recently anthologized on the occasion that the baby who first inspired it is now a grown woman herself).

Anyway, the official chapter of my unofficial peace punk life extended from 1984-1994 during my Detroit years. Although I’ve rediscovered the genre and particularly enjoy the folksy and political acoustipunk of bands like Defiance, Ohio (yes, that’s the name), I’ve never really rejoined the scene—perhaps I really am too old for that now! I do have a young friend, though, who really likes political heavy metal, and we have discussed checking out some shows (he has this rad quote from a band called Exodus on his MySpace page).

I don’t listen to much punk anymore, but in mixing the show, I am taken aback by how raw and rude so much of it is, a far cry from the beautiful bubblegum of Green Day that my daughter has in her iPod.

(But I can’t understate how glad I am that she is listening to Green Day—I like to think of that band as a sort of “gateway drug” to more interesting things musically speaking.)

Back in the day (and yes, I have a right to that cliché), we didn’t have Hot Topic at the shopping mall. And many invented fashion and anti-fashion and shredded our assumptions even about ourselves.

But even by my time, we had MTV. (Okay, I must be honest: that’s where I discovered punk for the first time.)

But what I’m getting at is this: punk was never meant to be pretty—not to the ears nor to the eyes. Attempting to make philosophical, sociological, and ideological sense of punk in the sweeping Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus writes, “Today [the book came out in 1989], after more than a decade of punk style, when a purple and green Mohawk on the head of a suburban teenager only begs the question of how early he or she has to get up to fix his or her hair in time for school, it’s hard to remember just how ugly the first punks were.”

Does this devotion to the ugly and uncomfortable contribute to why I never “stayed” in punk? Perhaps I needed to balance ugly with beauty or perhaps I secretly believe that punk will always belong to the young. Marcus implies that punk’s purity comes from its brevity, its vitality balanced by a fleeting vacuity. He argues,

“There is a feeling in the best punk 45s that what must be said must be said very fast, because the energy required to say what must be said, and the will to say it, can’t be sustained. That energy is going to disappear, that will is going to shatter […] Like its rhythm, the punk voice was always unnatural: speeded up past personality into anonymity, pinched, reduced, artificial. It called attention to its own artificiality for more than one reason: as a rejection of mainstream pop humanism in favor of resentment and dread; as a reflection of the fear of not being understood. But the voice was unnatural most of all out of its fear of losing the chance to speak—a chance, every good punk singer understood, that was not only certain to vanish, but might not even be deserved.”

Indeed, it’s hard to sustain punk energy and voice when you’re a 40-year-old college professor, but I do bring my version of DIY to the classroom. Moreover, I take much solace in the fact that there are other punk rock professors out there who still kick it old school well into middle-age. Bad Religion lead singer Greg Graffin moonlights as a life sciences professor at UCLA. And Steven Taylor—the poetics professor at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado that the I quote earlier—played guitar with the False Prophets for five years.

This little blog turned into a lengthy research paper—with all the sleep deprivation and citation anxiety (“Where’s your Works Cited, Mr. Andy?”) that comes along with it. And even my incomplete history can only beg to one day complete itself. Still, it’s time for a conclusion to this chapter and some boasting.

First, I locate punks on a subculture continuum that includes beats and hippies before them and techno ravers and trancers after them. Second, in the audio and visual archives, in the mishmash pastiche of pop culture that comes with postmodernism, this continuum can sometimes become post-historical, creating the sense that it’s all still happening right now.

Finally, for this entry, I need to brag a little and say that yes, I saw many of these bands live, met many of them after the gigs, interviewed others for zines and radio, invited some of them to sleep in the group houses where I lived, developed close friendships with others, and even wrote the lyrics to the MDC song “I Do Not Wish” which is finally making its debut on Tennessee radio a mere 17 years after it was written and released.

Yes, my version of punk tends towards the political, towards the anarchist and peace activist wing of the scene, and it’s terribly biased and incomplete. That said, I share my story of punk for your listening discomfort and reading pleasure. I share my story of punk because I was there.

Works Cited

Aaron, Charles. “The Spirit of ’77.” Spin.com. 20 September 2007. 13 January 2008.

http://www.spin.com/features/magazine/2007/09/0710_spiritof77/

F&F pulishing. “Biography.” The Filth and the Fury.” 2000-2008. 12 January 2008. http://www.thefilthandthefury.co.uk/pistols/bio/sp_bio2.htm

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Taylor, Steven. False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2003.

Wright, John. “Brag #4 (Sex Pistols Yodel).” Nederland: Boar Hog, 1995.

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