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