I’m pleased to say that the essay “The Right Kind of Pain: On Punk” moved me a bit more than the first two we discussed. I’m always a bit apprehensive about reading American writers on punk, and to be honest I wouldn’t describe most of the bands he discusses as punk either, but I think he made some interesting points. I was particularly grabbed by his discussion of a gradual shift in young people’s political affiliation away from traditional party politics and towards subcultural identification. This ties in with the increasing gap we see between young and old voters in the EU Referendum, for example, and I think even drives the existence of groups like Momentum, as a subculture within a more traditional political structure. It also reminded me of John Higgs’ book Stranger Than We Can Imagine, which argued that the primary intellectual and artistic developments of the twentieth century, from psychoanalysis to LSD, encourage us to privilege individuality over collective identification.
Discussing The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead, who Greif argues are far more similar than their status as leaders of the mutually antagonistic punk and hippie movements would have you believe, Greif points out that both were championed by key figures in this cultural shift towards the individual: Ken Kesey and Andy Warhol. Kesey and Warhol both understood that music could be used as a Trojan horse, to bring countercultural ideas into the mainstream. This happened on the other side of the Atlantic too; reading Greil Marcus’s Year Zero, a day by day record of the UK punk scene in 1976, I was struck by how often Marcus referred to the visual impact of early Sex Pistols gigs on attendees, and his references to their shows as a form of performance art: the music as a conduit for a broader attack on the suffocating culture of late Seventies Britain.
Although he doesn’t really make the point explicitly, I think there’s a comparison to be made between the Sixties folk culture that he references early on in this essay, and the punk scene he describes later. In Britain, the folk circuit was heavily influenced by the Communist Party, and performers were expected to play a specific style, Appalachian or whatever, rather than a broad repertoire.
Failure to comply would mark you down as inauthentic, and get you banned; no wonder someone as irreverent and restlessly creative as Dylan kicked back against it. You see the same thing in punk, on both sides of the Atlantic: whether it’s the ideological influence of magazines like Maximum Rock and Roll in the States, or The Sex Pistols being expected to operate in a way that would please ‘two imaginary cunts in a squat in the East End’, as Steve Jones puts it in his new autobiography.
There’s a line that I love in a Fosca song: “rebel regulations are regulations still / and rebel regulations leave me nervous and ill”.
All this is reminding me of a documentary, The Punks Are Alright, from 2005. It took an obscure Canadian pop-punk bank, The Forgotten Rebels, who had bizarrely become really popular in Brazil, inspiring a band called Blind Pigs, who played a more hardcore, politically conscious style. Then it moved on to Jakarta, where Blind Pigs had become very influential for a further wave of groups. Alan Lomax, the folk historian, observed that there were great and unlikely similarities between work songs from Northern Africa and Japan, despite the lack of interaction between the two cultures, which he said was a result of the universal tempo of physical work, which the songs were designed to regulate. What the film suggested was that punk provides a similar framework to express the feelings of angry young people across the planet: the right sort of pain, as Greif says.
There’s still something nagging away with these essays though. I feel like there’s a lack of discipline; this one, for example, starts off with some observations on the difference between rock and roll, the main body compares The Velvet Underground with The Grateful Dead, and then ends with some personal thoughts on hardcore, straight edge and Fugazi concerts, and each section is fine, but I never feel as though there’s a strong line of argument running through the pieces that we’ve read so far. Still, I’m enjoying picking at the strands. Shall we talk about Radiohead and rap next? I’m surprised we haven’t got onto the sex essays yet, are we working up to that?
As the American here, I have to say that on reading “The Right Kind of Pain: On Punk”, I found myself thinking about authenticity in punk, and one’s identification to what they feel is punk, as opposed to what may be a more genuine (for lack of a better word) version – something that arises from a real socio-political dissatisfaction rather than simply a general one. As such, I recognise that my experiences can only have been further along what I think of as ever-increasing circles of detached authenticity. That isn’t to say that what I felt wasn’t authentic in its way, but punk as a response to the state of the UK as it appeared to youth in the late 70s is necessarily going to be different to punk as experienced by a Midwestern middle-class (in the American usage) girl without any real pressing political concerns, and it certainly wasn’t seen as some sort of threat to most of our parents or authority figures (as we presented it); probably just bemusement. The only person in our little city who we all agreed was the most punk, Eric C., qualified because of his sky-high mohawk – but even so, he was probably much too good-natured and respectful of his elders to ever be considered the real thing. Perhaps it’s coming from what was a relatively comfortable, safe life, where you didn’t wonder about your parent’s job security, etc. We all live in bubbles, and precarious as they all are, some definitely feel more secure than others. Maybe the idea of real punk is to burst the bubble before it can do the same to you, and continue to live outside of it.
But something resonated quite strongly with me in Greif’s essay, and that was the part where he talks to his historian friend – where they both have that same longing to be able to articulate that feeling they got from listening to the first Dinosaur Jr. album (not sure I ever thought of them as punk, myself). As if being able to explain the essence of that was somehow the key to some enlightened thinking. And I suppose that comes back to both drugs (specifically LSD) and also a Breton quote about Dada mentioned by Dick Hebdige (the Dick from I Love Dick) in Subculture:
“. . . punk might seem to ‘open all the doors’ but these doors ‘gave onto a circular corridor’.”
He goes on to say, [o]nce inside this desecrated circle, punk was forever condemned to act out alienation. . . to manufacture a whole series of subjective correlatives for the official archetypes of the “crisis of modern life”. So it’s suggestive that punk, in spite of its wish to burst bubbles, is also within its own, one that, just like the others, isn’t necessarily visible to the inhabitant. But more than that, it also implies that punk as well as other more extreme (ones that rely on a large degree of discomfort) movements, ISMs, or subcultures are possibly not a sustainable state of being; inevitably one must move on, whether materially, emotionally, or both. The alternative is, how do you maintain that level of discomfort, or a ‘balanced imbalance’ of material comfort and worldly dissatisfaction? That got me thinking about what you said in an email about Ian Mackaye from Fugazi being a millionaire now, and also Joe Corré’s recent burning of all his punk memorabilia. Can you be punk with stuff – and if you are the progeny of a couple who embodied punk for a lot of people, are you forever destined to never be as punk as they were (note that his Wiki refers to him as a “social militant”)? Corré’s lineage (his parents are Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren) made it such that it must have been hard for the media to see him as anything other than trying to make a cultural impact in that same way. Unfortunately, how it came across (deliberately or not) was of someone who was labouring under the weight of their parent’s infamy. What I do agree with, however, is his statement that “[p]unk was never, never meant to be nostalgic”. Corré of course is not unsuccessful in his own right; he founded the luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur with his now ex-wife Serena Rees, and at the time the UK didn’t really have their own luxury lingerie, bar Rigby and Peller, which apparently are the Queen’s official bra fitter (‘establishment’ lingerie). Agent Provocateur is based in Soho, home of the seedy lingerie and sex toy shop, so yes, in a way, he tried to make luxury punk – in the way his mother did with fashion. But as I can’t afford £300+ bras and suspenders, is this capitalist voyeur punk, in the way that the aristocratic used to tour the spectacle of Bedlam – to get that ‘authentic’ experience on their own terms? Instead of gawping at the mentally ill, one simply steps out of their chauffeured Range Rover into the delightfully seedy (alright, maybe not so much anymore) Soho street and into a haven of ultra-pricey lingerie that excludes any regular of that area, that may or may not be near to an upstairs apartment offering ‘exotic massage’ or ‘young Oriental/Eastern European beauties’.
It feels like punk should be minimalist in possession, but taking the Mackaye example, it seems that you can live a fairly quiet, unobtrusive life with money, and perhaps still be, if not outside of the bubble, then at least still wary of it. Does punk have to be loud, then? Is it anti-punk to be anything else? Remember the uproar when John Lydon did the butter advert? Here was the punk who famously remained (publicly, at least) curmudgeonly and outspoken as he grew older, and now he’s ‘sold out’. I wasn’t so sure about that, as he must have made enough from his musical ventures, it’s just that people don’t think of music as a commodity in the same way as foodstuff. Where’s the socio-political dissatisfaction in butter? There it is again: in punk, as in all other similar subcultural bubbles, one can’t be seen to be happy or amused; it suggests a complicity with establishment. But I think that’s wrong: at a certain point, that keeps one static, and unable to retain the essence of punk.
So going back to LSD, you take it to ‘drop out’ (to use a rather antiquated phrase, but no less relevant), to set yourself apart from the cultivated way of thinking, to see what is ‘real’.
But you can’t stay under the influence forever; the best you can do is take from the experience and incorporate it in a life, that for now, at least, will follow some pretty standard paths from time to time. I don’t see it as defeatist or compromising with the enemy – rather, that’s the most punk thing of all, isn’t it – to adapt that thinking to who you are at any stage in your life?
To continue to exercise your free will and shape your life as you want to in spite of establishment, in spite of having to pay the rent or go to work. Like Greif says, “. . . do something worthy . . . one thing worthy of all this beauty before I die.”
So enough of that. I’m really enjoying the essays so far: the mark of good ones is how much they make you think, and question how you already think, and these are doing exactly that. Yes, let’s talk about Radiohead and rap next – then sex, and after that, experience, which I’m very eager to talk about.
Mark Greif is a founder and Editor of the journal n+1. He lives and works in New York, where he is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. He is the highly acclaimed author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, and his criticism and journalism have appeared in publications including the London Review of Books, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.
In the kingdom of kitsch Thom Cuell would be a monster.
Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews, essays, and non-fiction can also be found at Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq.
Against Everything is published by Verso Books. Author bio courtesy of the same.