What is Punk

What is Punk
by ron provine

"They're too busy, fighting
For a good place, under the lighting…"
	--The Clash, White Man in Hammersmith Palais

This is not another diatribe from an antiquated scenester lamenting the slow, painful death of punk rock. I didn't have to watch it die. I was 3 in 1979, when CBGB's was in its heyday. I have no firsthand knowledge that punk rock was ever really alive. I have heard stories, true enough, secondhand accounts of the good old days, campfire legends at best. Punk rock seems rather like Jesus Christ-the things I have heard make it seem cool, but in looking around at present day believers, the results are mostly very disappointing.
Saturday night, for a severe want of anything better to do, some friends and I ended up at a show. Now this is Normal Illinois, so I was not expecting to see an ocean of true class consciousness or spirited rebellion, but the farcical circus of privileged teenaged smugness into which I stepped took me aback. There were maybe 200 kids there, and every last one of them was in a clean, well-pressed punk uniform. Many had professionally dyed hair. Five or six of them looked exactly like members of Korn, down to the expensive baggy jeans and carefully braided hair. There were a few girls there in Abercrombie and Fitch get-ups. These kids had things wrong-they weren't supposed to LIKE punk songs, they were supposed to be the INSPIRATION for punk songs among their less privileged and attractive classmates.
The show-it was hard to concentrate really, amidst the baffling menagerie of well-scrubbed punk rockers. Every now and then one of them would decide it would be funny to push their girlfriend into what passed for a mosh pit. Sometimes, they would curse a lot for no real good reason. They sang along to the band's newer songs. Maybe one or two of them had convinced an older brother to buy some beer, because a few of them were staggering as though drunk. Or perhaps it was only the shiny new chains most of them had on one side of their crisp new jeans that made them lean to one side.
Now as I say, I can't say whether this is how it was in the good old days or not. Maybe Darby Crash's mom laid his clothes out for him before a show. Maybe Jello Biafra's dad drove him to his first punk show in the family power wagon. Maybe the typical audience for a Clash show was comprised of Oxford girls and Eton boys. I can make no comments about the 'scene' of yore that have any veracity, really.
Nor am I saying that the rich and the pretty have no right to like the same music as me. It's a free land and they have as much right to like punk music as I do to like tennis. And I love tennis.
But here's the thing: Like I say, I can't speak about what the 'punk movement' was like. Wasn't there. No clue except what I read, which could be a romanticized version of a fundamentally bankrupt movement. And anyway, what drew me to punk in the first place wasn't the hair or the leather or the smokey clubs-it was the songs. The words. So when I talk about what punk means to me, I am not talking about the politics of punk, but the political and social message of the songs.
And to me, there have always been two messages that come through in most of the songs that I love. One is the great fun you can derive from being a brat, and the other is the real value and worth of the lower class, the working class, the being-pissed-on-by-everybody class. Everybody gets the 'it's fun to be a brat' part, because it is fun to be a brat.
A quick true story. I used to ride a train a lot to visit my then-girlfriend in a suburb of Kansas City. These were 10 hour train rides. Sometimes I would get to take them with a bunch of punk kids. These were middle class kids, but socially very awkward, and they made up for it by being incredibly obnoxious. Well one ride there was this chick who decided that she wanted one of the punkers. She talked to him for 2 or 3 hours until he got tired of her. We were all standing in line for the dining car when the train hit a bump. The girl, trying to be shrewd, staggered backward so that the kid would have to catch her or she would fall. The kid stepped gingerly out of the way and she fell flat on her back. I spent much of the rest of the ride giggling over the image.
The lesson this teaches us is that brattiness is immensely rewarding, both personally and to onlookers. The problem is, most people overlook the less popular part of the equation, that the people who get shit on the most still have fundamental value. As much value as anybody.
Too often, people mistake this belief for a general 'fuck the rich' belief. Well, it's easy to say fuck the rich, because nobody thinks they ARE rich. A good friend of mine has about a 7 figure trust fund, his family has a summer house on the Vineyard, and he insists he is middle class.
There's nothing wrong with being rich-there's something wrong with treating workers like shit to get rich. There's something wrong with inheriting a huge amount of money and never doing anything to earn it and THEN thinking that the money makes you better than other people who didn't have the common sense to pick a rich old fuck as a father.
Anybody who loves punk music, especially the foundational songs and bands, surely knows that their economic lot in life means nothing, has nothing to do with what sort of person they are. And knows that punk clothes, punk haircuts, anything else that you can buy with money mean nothing compared to your strength and character as a person.
Sure character means something different for a punker than it does for your third grade teacher-maybe character means exactly the opposite in fact-the ability to not follow rules, to make up your own mind, to act as an individual. But that doesn't mean that honour is dead for a punk-it just means that honour springs from a different source-a more natural source. Honour is just upholding the natural freedoms and dignities to which we are all entitled as humans. I can't say for sure if punk has ever been concerned primarily with uplifting the masses of suffering people as a movement, but I do know that at one time it was concerned with bettering their lot in life according to the songs that used to be sung. And until punk rock can again mean BOTH celebrating in not doing what authority figures tell you to do AND realizing that everybody is a worthwhile human being until they do something to call that worth into question, then punk will remain dead. Maybe it never really lived at all.
home...columns index...author's index