Saturday, August 2, 2008

What Is Punk ?

What is Punk ? - Martin Bisi -- with quotes by Lydia Lunch and Legs McNeil

So who am I ?
Let's go where the bio doesn't take us. 1977 - I'm in high school. I ride the subway at night instead of giving 100% to my homework. uhh.. 'Why ?' you ask. Graffiti. Yes that was my empowering activity as a young man. I was contributing to the prodigious chaos that decorated the subway walls and doors of the day. Tellingly, we called this 'bombing' the trains This visual assault of color and seemingly meaningless words, was for the average subway rider, a perfect metaphor for the unhinging of society in the late 70's - the urban blight era that will surely have a mythic place in American history, similar to the Wild West. Well, where does Punk come in ?
It does, it was being born concurrently. Well, truthfully, to use the child-bearing metaphor, it had already been conceived invisibly somewhere, and had developed anonymously, and had now been thrust into the larger world, with a name and identity. Punk Rock was a living idea, something human beings bear into the world from time to time, and other human beings recognize as being 'of them'. That's what happened to me, and that idea was first articulated to me through the Sex Pistols. Punk appeared to be a musical extension of what i was seeking through graffiti. There were shared ethics of simple and neutral concepts - my tag was the utterly meaningless Tag-e - of self projection for it's own sake - you just want to 'get up' and that's all- and a common reveling in the human chaos of society. Graffiti collectively was a jumble, a mess, so as this was the year of Saturday Night Fever, of slick sharp clothing and dance moves, something downtown called me - loudly. Soon, I'd meet 2 or 3 punks, and found that Punk was a vague ideal, already morphing, but threaded through everything that was downtown and underground.
  When Downtown, I quickly realized I had to shut up about the the Sex Pistols. I also had to shut up about Punk. It wasn't till 5 years or so later -when it was timely to say 'post-punk'- that people from the Downtown scene I knew, would acknowlage the connection. But in the meantime, there was a scramble downtown to identify oneself with Punk-like movements. People who would later develop indie rock, made No Wave. Avant Gardists like John Zorn adulated Hardcore. I knew two places I could count on finding punks, Max's Kansas City, and hanging out upstairs at Mudd Club. They seemed to have their dedicated niches.
 So I'll tell you what I thought punks in '77, were like. I ran two of my dicier assertions past bona fide punks Legs McNeil, and Lydia Lunch and I'll also tell you what they said: 
*Punk was working class - there wasn't a high value placed on sophisticated, nuanced lyricism. *Punk was apolitical - since Punk saw itself as re-claiming youth culture and rock'n'roll from the 60's and the 'age of aquarius', punk wasn't wasn't very bleeding heart.
Legs McNeil, founder of Punk Magazine and coiner of the term 'Punk" - also author of Please Kill Me responds: "For the most part, punk in NYC was tired of the Viet Nam war and leftist politics that stifled creativity in the early 1970's, but that doesn't mean we were apolitical. And whoever wanted to be political was allowed to be. I mean, you didn't have to ask permission, that's what it was all about."
*Punk was masculine -men wore leather jackets reminiscent of 50's gangs. The masculinity affected women in that they were either bomb shell types, or fairly butch  -and of course an edgy, and socially outgoing personality was essential. The nerdy/ cool girl who was more bookish than brash, was celebrated in later post-punk/ indie rock.
Lydia Lunch,  front woman of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks responds: "-or were butch bombshells- when punk first hit, there was a squadron of Faster Pussycat Kill Kill types - tough talking bombshells who had graduated out of the glam scene which was all about style, sex and blurring the boundaries of what was accepted. Hot shit chicks who'd just as soon fuck you as fight you, or preferably both, simultaneously. Sex was still a pretty vicious weapon, especially when wielded as both bait and trap, wrapped in leather and tucked between a pair of thunderous thighs, whose greatest joy was squeezing the life out of an unsuspecting punk monkey." (yes indeedy)
*Punk bands put on a show -they may have eschewed large drum kits, fog machines and big lighting, but The Ramones still did similar rock posturing on stage to big commercial rock acts. Iggy the proto-punk, acted more like Mick Jagger on stage than Thurston Moore.
*Punks valued the will-to-do, over time perfected know-how.
*Punks felt spontaneity was the best context, therefor the presentation of anything was best left halfhazard and imperfect.
 So music related to the Punk movement, quickly veered away these original tenets. The Clash were punk, but the social consciousness so tiresome to the original punks, was part of their punk energy. The heavy dogmas of kids in the punkish Hardcore scene, were in contradiction to the nihilism of Punk. College educated and ironic indie-rockers like Sonic Youth, still did Ramones and Stooges covers. The grunge/Nirvana era essentially proclaimed itself punk in the film The Year Punk Broke ('91). Metal technicians Metallica, eventually cut their hair and covered Ramones songs. And recently The Dresden Dolls -with their heavy theatrical makeup, and moody tango/ ballad interludes- hyphenated Punk into their self proclaimed genre, punk-cabaret.
 Why is punk such a grand concept, that so many scramble to define it in their own way, and appropriate it ? Hyphenating punk (punk-blank) never goes out of style. Because punk directly reflected the vacancy of American life without truly escaping it.Because it gave the juvenile delinquent status as an intellectual. But were punks the first to do so ? -maybe not. But when Punk got it's name, straight forward, unembellished (in true punk fashion), and a face or two (or 9 or 17) to give it life, it became an archetype for Americans like me.

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