Punk Thing

7.1 / Sell Out Now

Punk Thing

By Brandon Brown September 10, 2015

in memoriam Peter Culley

 “Punk was not a musical genre; it was a moment in time that took shape as a language anticipating its own destruction.” —Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

“I’m mad, but I ain’t stressin’.” —Kendrick Lamar

Do you know that great Sappho poem about all the things some people say are so great? “Some say marching cavalry, some say foot soldiers / others call a bunch of ships the most beautiful of sights / offered by the dark earth / but I say it’s whatever you love best.”1 The rhetorical device Sappho uses to open this poem—“some say…but I say”is called a priamel, a list of possibilities that the speaker ultimately disdains in favor of her true feeling. 

The scream is one of both affirmation and refusal

This literary device been used by countless poets since Sappho. Poly Styrene makes use of it for one of my favorite songs, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…oh bondage up yours!!” Part of the genius of this particular priamel is the transformation of Poly Styrene’s voice, which begins subdued, even resigned, but rapidly becomes a loud, feral “fuck you.” The scream is one of both affirmation and refusal, deftly iterating the way the phrase “Oh Bondage” both celebrates and utterly rejects the quotidian masochism of life under dominion.

What happens right after this vocal leap can only be described in terms of utopian time travel. A sixteen-year-old white Brit who calls herself Lora Logic blows one long note into a saxophone, a note that stubbornly drones before distorting into a crude statement of the melody. Then Poly Styrene’s voice returns: swinging, furious, perfect. Her sense of timing is extraordinary, stretching out the o of oh just slightly, but long enough that up yours suffers a soft elision. When she screams “up yours!” she has to squeeze the two syllables into one and a half. It’s a little out of step, but so is Poly.

Of course, there’s no video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” The song was only a single in the technical sense that it appeared on a forty-five before it appeared on an album. It obviously didn’t chart. There is a pretty good 1977 interview with Poly Styrene on Australian TV, recorded a few weeks after “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was released. She’s nineteen or twenty, shy, with massive braces, wearing a pirate-ish cap with red and blue puffballs. The video of this interview was posted on the Internet in 2013, two years after she died. But I wonder if she ever saw the footage as an adult. I really wish she were alive to see it on the Internet with me in Oakland.

I have seen a lot of weird videos online, but for me the weirdest one on YouTube is a video of a band called Revolvers, playing at the Daily Grind in Kansas City in 1996. The video is dated 1994, but who cares? This essay is largely about how punk eludes the imperatives of rectilinear time in practice, if not intent—how its ephemeral spectacles are preserved in more durable forms. 

What makes this video so weird for me is that I’m visible in it, the whole time. I’m standing in the front row, pressed against the stage, not very considerate of my shorter friends and peers who are flailing around me. Re-watching the scene, I try to focus on the band, just as I did when I was there, but it’s hard not to gaze at my skinny, eighteen-year-old self, talking to friends, bobbing my head up and down, and dancing in my way. (I am such a better dancer, now.) In the video, when I know some of the words to some of the songs, I sing loudly along. I know all the words to “Dreamlover,” so when the band plays that song, the singer pulls my head close to the mic. 

The Daily Grind was a coffee shop with a little stage in the back and lots of room to dance. During my last two years of high school and the following summers, I’d see between two and five shows a week there before it, like every other all-ages venue in Kansas City, fell victim to the municipal hatred of expressions of intelligent beauty. I’d often go there immediately after school, hours before the music started, to cut and paste pages for my zine, consume detrimental quantities of caffeine, gossip, and plot with my comrades in the punk scene.

The larger semiotic universe of punk was to me only a rumor

I listened to punk music before I was a punk. My uncle gave me a copy of Ramones Mania for my eleventh birthday, and it swiftly became my life soundtrack, replacing the noodle-y metal I had explored in the interest of fitting in with other freaks. But the larger semiotic universe of punk was to me only a rumor for a few years yet. At the record store in the city, I bought a copy of Maximum Rocknroll by chance. I marveled to read bands interviewed in its pages, which talked about the Ramones as a living and meaningful presence—as not just an influence but also an active force for good in the particular Zoroastrian way that punk understands itself in and against the world. 

This is a quintessential punk scenario: listening to a record leads to the re-evaluation of all values. When I gained access to a larger set of fashion ideas, political discourses, and bands and zines, I did as the other punks: I listened to records, went to shows, made a zine, danced. I flirted with orthodox punk style but wasn’t very good at it. Just once, I managed to have a full mohawk. With a combination of egg, hairspray, and willpower, it stayed up for the space of one night’s show. It was wonderful but impractical; with it, I stood seven feet tall, from toe-top to mo-top.

The punk scene taught me the key terms and discourses that shaped my first sense of politics outside of and beneath the spectacular nonsense of America’s electoral conflicts. I first heard the word feminism and met actual feminists at a punk show. While talking to punks, I heard the words anarchism, communism, and socialism. While most punks were inchoate radicals, the permissive ethos of the punk community did not necessarily lead to predictable social and political positions. There were Christian punks, for instance; there was a pretty substantial Hare Krishna punk scene (does that still exist?). I first saw Sanskrit as a tattoo on the arm of a teenage punk rocker at a show. The information I gathered during that time isn’t new to me anymore, but it’s also not dead.

I was thinking about this exceptional status, the status of the not dead, when my partner and I traveled to Mexico last fall. A few weeks earlier, forty-three college students had been kidnapped and disappeared; the day we flew to Oaxaca from Mexico City, a government spokesman announced that their remains had been found. Before and even after the announcement, no one really knew what had happened to the students, whether they were alive or dead. 

On walls and sidewalks and even on the side of the beautiful Ex Convento de Santo Domingo, there was a lot of graffiti announcing outrage and despair about the students: fue el estado! (“the government did it”). And everywhere we went, the looming gloomy number: 43. Walking between downtown Oaxaca and our hotel, we passed another graffito concerning life and death. In vivid, erratic purple paint, someone had written, el punk no está muerto! (“punk is not dead”). It gave me a feeling of familiar wonder every time I saw it; it offered a translation of a sentiment that I had been reading, hearing, and saying out loud since I was a young teen. 

One might suspect that punks doth protest too much

It’s weird that punks are constantly saying that punk’s not dead. They say it to each other, to themselves, and, indeed, like the slogan painted on the wall in Oaxaca, they say it to whoever might be passing by, to the world. One might suspect that punks doth protest too much; in other words, one might suspect that punk really is dead, the mourning of which punks express by formulaic denial. Of unsure birth, unable to die, punk prowls vinyl purgatory, haunted by the proliferation of its origin stories, of punks’ refusal to permit punk to die.2

Of course, punks themselves die. Every person who played on the first three Ramones records is dead. Poly Styrene is dead, Joe Strummer is dead, Ari Up is dead, Sid Vicious is dead, and Nancy Spungen is dead. John Lydon is arguably alive. This perhaps proves nothing but that, according to punks, punk survives the death of its early avatars.

These early avatars form the main subject of most writing about punk. A common topic in this literature is the offsetting of nascent punk from other contemporary forms of rock and pop. Prog rock in particular expresses a shadowy impulse towards boredom masquerading as an avant-garde idea, the excessive soulless gore of rock taking itself both too seriously and too shallowly. But what’s not often said in making this distinction between punk and prog, its innovative nemesis, is that punk is quite often a conservative genre. Many punks don’t identify this anti-progressive orientation as a paradox. Rather, it’s worn stubbornly as a point of pride. Music or fashion statements that stray too far from the iconic canon of ’76­ to ’77 cease to be punk. They can be good but not punk. 

Punk proverbially invests in the production of total permission, but ironically this permission is not typically used to innovate something new but rather to repeat existing signs with perverse intensity. The music made during this period has never been dispensed with or significantly transformed, nor have the integral elements of punk fashion or grooming been improved or much changed. If those icons from 1976 and 1977 had become nostalgic, if those records now sounded dated, if punk’s opposition to specific political contexts had passed out of existence along with those contexts, then punk would be like new wave: a historical moment of sounds and sights to be studied and enjoyed. Instead, the icons and sounds insistently return, symptoms that never develop into something mortal nor disappear.  

In a recent interview, Billy Childish refers to both the brevity and the permissiveness of the original punk moment: “In the spring of ’77 I was wholesale for punk. For six months, I thought it was the most fantastic thing—punk rock was the great liberation of my life…all this music was just permission to do everything.”3 The fact that six months of Childish’s late teenage years could be the great liberation of his life is typical of punk’s utopian potential. While many eventually hang up their spikes, the sounds and sights of punk from this era are remarkably hardy: every day, some young person becomes a punk. There is some alchemical quality that punk nourishes, keeps alive, or at least not dead. This quality did not disappear after the first declarations of punk’s death; instead, it can be accessed and revived, over and over. Someone hears Poly Styrene sing “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” for the first time and is immediately and forever changed. The quality is largely made of anger.

Anger is a complex and confusing emotional experience for us. Because anger is so potent and common, and frequently results in violence, it has been one of the most studied and discussed of all psychological affects. We basically think anger is bad, we try to avoid it, and we entreat our fellows and sisters to avoid it as well. But it has not always been the case. Aristotle, for instance, considered anger at the right things and at the right people one of the noble emotional means between two extremes. The extreme form of anger is irascibility. But for Aristotle, just as ignoble as irascibility was “inirascibility,” the inability to get angry.

Baruch Spinoza defines anger as “the desire by which we are impelled, through hatred, to injure those whom we hate.”4 Punk negativity sublimates injury, to be sure, but punk rage is vague. The targets of punk hatred are not typically reducible to one or even a few specific bodies (like disappointing friends and lovers, fascists, bosses, politicians, nation-states). Punk hatred is promiscuous; one need only look at the propensity of punks to inflict injury on one another and themselves—from pummeling each other at shows, throwing bottles at musicians on stage, shooting heroin. Alternately, sometimes the substance of this rage doesn’t even look like anger. I return to the Revolvers video, with my teen avatar bobbing around. There I am, weaving amid the crowd, chatting in the ears of friends, listening and looking hard, taking it all in. Reveling in the great liberation of my life, I don’t look particularly full of hate.

Still from the X-Ray Spex performing "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" circa 1977. From the documentary Punk in London (Metrodome, 1977).

This is one of the great curiosities of anger as an animating force. While we all know the cartoon image of anger, in which somebody looks quite mad (the scrunched face, narrowing eyes, elevated volume of voice), none of these features are necessary appurtenances to the figure of the angry person. Right now I’m so angry that I could foam at the mouth, but nobody in this quiet library would ever know. Perhaps this is the camouflaged affect of what doesn’t quite die. Even when one’s dog collar goes into the closet, punk irascibility can remain.

Both hatred and anger belong to the province of the sad passions. Before anger or hatred there is grief. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Audre Lorde writes in her keynote presentation to the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981.5 She continues, in the same text, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” This phrase, “grief of distortions,” exactly captures punk’s utopian rage. From grief and distortion, from anger and a wild commitment to new sights and sounds, punk came into existence. 

It is crucial for me here to recognize that I am using Lorde’s text recklessly. While her theory is enormously important for any historical inquiry into the meaning of anger, she is referring to a very specific kind of rage, in the brutal context of anger against white supremacist, patriarchal, and heretonormative imperatives. Anger, whatever it is, is obviously not a homogenous substance which exists free of human agents in history, even if it persists as a not-dead lingering thing punks repeatedly draw from to make themselves a life.

It’s actually a (racist) mistake to consider punk a lily white enterprise

Indeed, the conservative tendency of punk does little to differentiate or honor the rage Lorde attempts to legitimize and espouse.  That being said, it’s actually a (racist) mistake to consider punk a lily white enterprise, even as a critique, as such a critique simply ignores the fact that even in its highly racialized, apartheid capitals of London and New York, many artists and practitioners of color made punk scenes what they were. Secondly, from its inception, punk has been an infectious international phenomenon, spreading out far and wide from those two cities.  And yet for all punk’s talk of permission and liberation, for its generally anti-racist attitudes and global reach, for all of the utopian promise realized in any given scene, there is so much work to be done.

There are critical new materials that address the complex and problematic history of punk scenes and race, including contemporary scenes.  In a remarkable new book, Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour stage a conversation about punk as a “moving target,” a difficult topic to study “because of fictions that circulate as truth.” Nguyen and Nikpour’s longstanding commitment to punk is an important intervention into the mythology by which punk’s not-deadness constitutes a conservative movement.

These new materials corroborate (too little and too late) increasing visibility for punk made by musicians of color in the United States.  This version of punk—if it hearkens to some of the sights and sounds which characterize canonical and mostly-white punk music—differs primarily in that its oppositionality is intersectional in scope. Bands like Aye Nako and Pure Disgust make these themes explicit in their songs. A band I’ve been obsessed with this year, Downtown Boys, made a truly perfect punk album, Full Communism. An album full of jubilant negativity and anti-racist and capitalist rage, Downtown Boys also have two saxophone players, recalling the affect of “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” in a radically specific, new milieu.

Punk’s contribution to the history of anger has been to try and reimagine how we might express grief and hatred in new chords and threads. Punk reappropriates the power of distortion in order to vent grief in a way that aims to change human social life. And yet, generally speaking, it does not appear under the delusion that a record or outfit can bring down the conditions that generate the grief in the first place. Nor does punk’s utopian impulse detail the better future it aims to incite after the existing world has been torn down. Some distance, somedistortion, remains. Punk, as Jose Esteban Muñoz writes, “renders blueprints of a world not quite here.”6

Last year, I went to my first punk show in a very long time. Some friends and I drove up to Petaluma to see Against Me!; they were playing in Oakland, too, but I’m glad we made the drive. Seeing that show in Petaluma made it feel intensely familiar. The band was fabulous. As the members took the stage, a huge banner with their syntactically sense-defying name unfurled with a blast. The bass player had a Dee Dee Ramone haircut and mien. They ruled.

For the encore, the lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out alone and played the band’s best-known tune, “Baby I’m An Anarchist,” on an acoustic guitar. It’s a perfect song to play acoustically, a kind of super-pissed Pete Seeger tune, spelling out oppositional politics by means of an unbelievably catchy polemic against disappointing comrades. Even without sonic distortion, the anger in the song was unmistakable. Everybody sang along: “Baby, I’m an anarchist / you’re a spineless liberal.”

By this time, I was leaning against the back wall; my knees were hurting. I watched the dense crowd of young bodies swarm in front of Grace, ecstatically singing along, nailing the difficult tempo of the verse: “But when it came time to throw bricks through that Starbucks window / you left me all alone.” But none of us were alone. In the middle of the floor, rising a foot above most heads, was a crimson mohawk, bobbing and howling with anger and joy—completely out of step with the world, completely in time with the band. 

Notes

  1. This poem is usually referred to as Fragment 16. Translation by Brandon Brown.
  2. Interestingly, this refusal to die is countered in punk iconography by the almost compulsive references to death in band names, books, and concert graphics. Punk’s fundamental orientation of refusal refuses not only death but also non-death. 
  3. Helen King, “The Strange World Of… Billy Childish,” The Quietus, March 31, 2015, http://thequietus.com/articles/17528-billy-childish-interview-2.
  4. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (New York: Penguin, 2005), 111.
  5. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing, 2007), 124–133.
  6. Jose Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU, 2009), 97.  

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