There is no punk without its music.
There are forms and styles of rebellion other than punk, and though their success or failure may be measured along the same lines as those of punk, if they have a music at all, it is usually complementary to their fundamental missions. In punk’s case, the music is the primary expression of the mission.
There is also fashion but what an outwardly punk look brings first to mind is aggressive music, or at least a taste for aggressive music whose simultaneous shock and recognizability ensure that the audience knows it’s being attacked. To be punk is to possess an ability to repeatedly embrace and sustain the shock until it becomes the recognizable element itself.
Each region’s musical contribution was drawn from what made its place of origin unbearable.
Initially, then, punk was a revved-up and less polished version of things that were handy: blues-rock (Detroit), pop/art (NYC), class conflict and morality (London), boredom and neglect (LA), etc. If one was inclined to take part in punk for any reason, it wasn’t too great a leap from 60s guitar-rock or pop to punk. The means of passage was even less mysterious. One simply showed up. My own experience was precisely that: I started playing music and spending more time with my punk friends and became, in relatively short order, punk.
It wasn’t simply an urgent need to take part in something active and lively; it was also an opportunity to start over and to do so more or less anonymously. Reinvention from square one, the practical assumption that one’s activity is the first of its kind, is among punk’s chief and guiding qualities. Another of its fundamental characteristics is the assumption that, by virtue of one’s sense of outrage, abandonment, disenfranchisement, or ostracization, one will fit in immediately, or even better, won’t need to fit in at all.
This piece was inspired by three consecutive events, which occurred over the course of three consecutive months.
First, I was interviewed on the subject of punk’s death, a topic I found especially quizzical since a) it hadn’t occurred to me that punk was ailing; and b) punk’s general state didn’t seem to differ much from what it had always been, an ongoing struggle against the mainstream, the terms of which were clear to anyone who was taking part in it and indecipherable to anyone who was not. The interview went well enough, I guess, though I’m not sure when or if the article it contributed to will appear.
Punk is something that occurs conspicuously outside the mainstream.
Punk was couched as rebellion, and even was rebellious in some cases, and quickly became a division in entertainment offices and therefore subject to the needs of those offices. Subjecting one’s needs to the status quo is antithetical to rebellion. In which light, the first wave of punk wasn’t substantially different from any other popularized genre.
It’s worth noting, though, that unlike its approximate contemporaries — reggae, disco, hip hop, L.A. pop, glam — punk seemed to come from all sides at once, with no allegiances, laying no particular claim to anything but its own cage-rattling noise. It was essentially reactive, an unfocused cultural conniption.
That punk’s founding purveyors, with whomever and wherever one wishes to start, were outside the accepted notions of then-current conventional taste did not preclude their assimilation by the culture at large. Punk emerged, that is, from the minds of people who sought conventional success or alliance with such success.
Eventually, however, the agencies which sought to capitalize on punk’s novelty found that although punk didn’t always pay off as expected, its artists weren’t always that far out after all. Widespread success for many of these acts was only a few musical and performative changes away. With the initial shock absorbed and new work moving closer to popular music in both sound and execution, several of the original participants found lasting mainstream success. But an idea began to take root that once everyone knows about something, it isn’t punk anymore.
Since then, in part because of the work of the agencies described above, the term punk itself has, for many, come to signify a conscious evacuation from much of what the success they offer might entail, and further, what it might cost. This text grew directly from my own experience with that evacuation, my own assessment of those costs.
Second, a friend and sometime collaborator began work on a children’s book, a history of punk. It will no doubt be a delight to punk or punkish parents to share with their children. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but think about who I would include in such a book and why.
All social and/or cultural rebellion can be bought if it is understood to be for sale.
As in any uprising, the existing economic powers found ready and willing participants among punk’s rebels. This was, at one time, a source of cultural betrayal, an impetus for local scenes to sprout up autonomously and get in touch with each other. Zines appeared, shows were booked, bands toured. An entire circuit driven by the need to assert freedom from conventional entertainment and culture was established almost globally and in the course of less than a decade. The politics of these scenes was explicitly and uniformly anti-corporate. If their other interests diverged even to the point of conflict, punk scenes were in agreement that corporation-generated economies and cultures were at the root of ongoing political and social deterioration and repression.
Though such scenes may continue to exist and appear in some areas, the larger cultural shift has come to exclude them in favor of whatever the mainstream, after decades of exposure to its own definition of punk, decides protest should be and how it will be sold.
That is, we rarely notice anymore that the quality of rebellion is frequently measured by the culture it seeks to dismantle. The victory of mass media supports the persistent disenfranchisement of those who cannot or will not take part in the culture at large by reinforcing that they are not worth knowing or knowing about. Punk, it turns out, can be quite profitable if its audience is not limited to punks and if its practitioners are visibly “punk” from a distance.
The third event was the death of Lou Reed. My clearest memory of him is shilling for American Express, and though I was not unaware of his music prior to that campaign, the only prominence it ever held for me was tacked up on the wall in the living room of my first punk group house: a poster of a lone figure under a streetlamp, as I recall, with the lyrics from either “Heroin” or “Waiting for the Man” confirming the photo’s urban defeat and desolation. Mr Reed has never been more than an image, or an image of an image to me, however fulfilling. I had my own now-I-really-live-in-New-York moment the first time I passed him and Laurie Anderson on the street, for example, but it wasn’t appreciably different from the first time I tried to ignore the Empire State Building’s Fuji-like ubiquity. Both experiences were necessary but only the latter endures as an emblem of why I love this city and call it home.
Not so, however, for several of my friends, collaborators, and favorite artists, some of my chief punk mentors and allies, who were saddened by Mr Reed’s passing. It was difficult to reconcile his influence on these people, his presence in their lives. After all, it was, and is, these same people from whom I learned and learn to articulate and enact my distaste for the mainstream, my commitment to cultural activism, who deeply felt the immediacy and permanence of his absence as a figure to whom they attributed not only artistic, but in some cases spiritual, inspiration. That they could hold a representative of self-interest and blatant 80s consumerism in such high and personal regard was baffling.
Which is to say, this piece did not unfold as I expected. Rather than organize my thoughts into some kind of coherent causal history of punk, I found the text falling into a pattern of statements that proposed truths one might hold about punk regardless of where and when punk first entered one’s life. Not surprisingly, boiling this text down to such statements and a minimum of commentary proved much better suited to describing how I think punk has developed so far. The caveat? My position in regard to this subject is not, it turns out, unlike that of the fish and the water. There is very little, if anything, here that does not continue to inform and define my life, and from the inside of it, I’m increasingly suspicious that there isn’t much to say.
Punk is no more the province of celebrity without talent than it is the province of talent without celebrity.
Punk is instead, like its more popular counterparts, a combination of both celebrity and talent but according to its own rules and scale. Its chief accomplishment in this way is a willingness to eschew inflated or hyped presence in favor of a system in which audiences and performers have a choice and are free to determine their own engagement without being subjected to mass-marketing or airwave- or bandwidth-saturation. Not everything, punk teaches, is for sale or for everyone. It is, by this default, less greedy. It is also, by this default, limited in its reach, perhaps now more than ever.
Still, questions persist: what is punk? How did it happen? What has it done? The answers are subjective but since no one is punk alone, it’s a fair assumption that whatever follows applies to more than a single individual, that a given parsing of punk and its meaning will be true for several people at a time.
Why any of this matters is another question. Mostly, in a certain light, it doesn’t. Whether or not anyone ever again puts together a historiographic view of punk seems of little great consequence, in and of itself.
And yet, punk has provided three generations of music listeners with an entry point into politics, economics, aesthetics, spirituality, and every other aspect of their societies and cultures, emerging, finally, as its own society and culture. So in the end, I trust that it does matter.
We are like the stranded particle, the isolated island of the whole, which refuses to expire in the midst of the normal confused plane which must exist—in order that we may, but with which we are constantly at war. We are trying to balance an unbalanced situation that is prevalent in this society.
— Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, 1936-2013
(Photo by Cary Conover)
Mark Strand once said that poets reach maturity when they move from saying private things in a public language to saying public things in a private language.1 I understand this statement to mean that a poet matures into not only a sense of scale wherein his/her work comes to describe more universal things than personal feelings or personal feelings as universal things; but, simultaneously, a style.2
We see this kind of development equally among all artists, I think, and a mark of the maturing, as opposed to fully mature, artist is that his/her work remains a kind of test, a challenge to the audience to decode and interpret his/her effort. Though this might yield some reward for artist and audience, s/he is nearing the state of maturity that will free him/her from the need to obscure his/her subject (frequently with objects) but isn’t quite there. My own maturation as an artist and an audience member has been characterized by impatience with this kind of obscurantism, even when I can parse the clues. One is always hip to some reference or other but it shouldn’t be the full price of the ticket.
For better or worse, I tend to approach most art literally and let it go to work on me from there. My own musical preference for ensemble composing and performing without vocals stems from this condition, as it supports an it-is-what-it-is art, contingent only on what the group plays, not on what the audience might think about what one of us is saying. In this way, my mature practice, such as it is, is marked by collaboration, understanding that what one is trying to get across benefits in every instance from direct involvement with and the ideas of others: the audience collaborates, exhibitors and distributors collaborate, one’s inspiration and aspiration collaborate. One way or another, the art experience is always shared.
That said, art work begins with inspiration and aspiration. One is moved to get something across, an image, a sound, a structure, or whatever else, as Denise Levertov put it, raves to us for release. In my work, what, exactly, do I try to get across? It’s fairly simple: we must be good to each other.
Two examples of the basic philosophy behind this idea take G-d as their object, not their subject. I suspect you’ll catch my drift when you have a look at them.
The first is from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time,
If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he can no longer do this then it is time we got rid of Him.
The subject of this statement is our inspiration, aspiration, humility, and selflessness. Its object, on the other hand, is G-d, who we are free to embrace or deny according to our need. This sort of statement, a benevolent subject paired with a provocative treatment of an ideal object typifies certain of Mr Baldwin’s statements, especially as he reached his artistic maturity. During his peak, he was a master of this kind of statement.
Another example is Nick Cave, who in a lecture he delivered on writing love songs said,
Actualising of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist. The love song is perhaps the truest and most distinctive human gift for recognising God and a gift that God himself needs.
I won’t make any proclamations about Mr Cave’s faith but I will point out that the role he assigns to G-d is similar to Mr Baldwin’s in that they both invoke G-d’s mutual need for us, as conjurers or gift bearers.3 That they speak of G-d only matters here insofar as he represents an ideal, either an ideal inspiration (Baldwin) or aspiration (Cave). Each man’s use of a mutually held ideal — held, that is between the idealizer and idealized — affirms the necessity of striving or longing and a goal. In other words, the gap between the effort and the object is the subject. The effectiveness of the work is defined by the ability of its audience to recognize and identify with the effort, not the object.
This kind of connection speaks to the variety of music, poetry, or other art that initially captivates us: we respond to the uncommon relation of common reactions to common things.The things in question likely appeal to us specifically at a certain point in time, regarding death, injustice or oppression, a favorite location, a favorite car, or an especially difficult break-up, for instance, but the stuff that stays with us does so even after these events have receded into the past. So one might be struck by a poem that speaks to one’s immediate circumstance but what will keep one interested in the poem is what it tries to do, and as we mature, what it continues to do.
A related idea is the preference for genres. If we cling to the event or time during which we were first captivated by a work, we will seek similar-sounding or similar-looking material to repeat or revive both the original experience and the captivation. This is distinct from the relationship described above in that it asks art to seize an experience rather than develop as we ourselves mature.
Because our general understanding of humility is calibrated by its outward expression, it seems arrogant when an artist is sufficiently satisfied with her or his own work to eschew the conventions of approval and praise.
The failure in this understanding is to recognize that humility exists not in the face of praise or recognition for or of one’s work but rather in the respect for the work’s materials, deference to the practice of making art in the first place, the pleasure of the work, the labor, the creation itself.
Which is to say that there are reasons to make art independent of having its final outcome seen or heard by other people.
In my experience, most recording has been a matter of capturing a given group’s routine at its best, by which I mean the performances we’ve been after were essentially definitive versions of the songs we’d rehearsed or performed prior to the session. Some of this was no doubt financially-driven. Studio time is not cheap and except for the two LPs I recorded when I was in Jawbox, much of my recording has been fugitive, donated, committed on the fly or in off-hours, in friends’ home studios or with portable gear. This mode, given that I’ve almost never been in improvisational groups, generally requires readiness, organization, and rehearsal. 1 At the least, one doesn’t want to prevail over an engineer-friend’s generosity, and besides, the music one writes for such sessions is prepared to be recorded quickly. 2
In any case, two major changes in our band’s life determined the course of this session. First, we lost some of our equipment and our rehearsal space to hurricane flooding. Second, we underwent a lineup change. Each of these circumstances brought its own consequences to bear. In the case of the hurricane, we were shocked when we first saw our space, and later depressed when confronted with what was lost and the prospect of not rehearsing before our session. As for the lineup change, we weren’t shocked by it but we were saddened and at something of a loss as to how exactly we would move forward.
There was nothing to do but accept the storm’s toll, replace or repair what we could. The work and generosity of several friends, some of whom we had not seen or spoken to in several years, closed the gear gap with surprising ease. Similarly, we found that, for the purposes of the session, we were not lacking a bass player after all, and though the tunes would eventually undergo some radical changes in both tone and spirit, we were and are quite happy with the results.3 Each guest player/collaborator who joined us did so with everything he could muster, each of their presences was unique and varied, each profoundly personal, and each dedicated to helping us makes our music the best it could be. We finished 7 songs in all, perhaps fewer than we’d thought we’d have when we booked the studio time last summer but no doubt more than we thought we’d have in early November.
As for the album’s future, its release is still up in the air but we’ll get it out there one way or another. For the time being, it’s mixed and at the mastering studio.
There are three exceptions: The Night Is Now, with whom I played in Minneapolis and who made a single, improvised, as-yet-unfinished recording at a farmhouse in Hanska, MN; my bi- or triannual work with Kevin McKeendree and, sometimes, Steve Mackey (neither the guitar player/composer nor the member of Pulp) as the E Fowlkes Trio or Sextet; and Kill Dalton Ames, with whom I improvised the score to Christopher Ernst’s In Carcosa.↩
This concept, that music is *designed* with one sort of recording or another in mind is not new, though it usually associates with works created, frequently over weeks or months, in the studio. For most musicians or artists without free access to a studio or large sums of money, this method is prohibitively expensive.↩
Grateful acknowledgement to Eric Dixon, Keith Larsen, and Darren Zentek for thorough and generous drum support; and to Michaels Honch and Pahn (Argos), J. Robbins, and Gordon Withers for their friend- and musicianship.↩
The Platters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” 1958.