Via Open Culture again, musicians from Tel Aviv cover Radiohead’s “Karma Police” in a beautifully shot video.
What has punk rock done for us? Did it defeat Reaganism and Thatcherism and end the Cold War? Has it brought us social justice? Did it smash the state, prevent in any way the 12 years of the Imperial Bush dynasty, galvanize youth, subvert the dominant paradigm, or for one minute prevent the total commercialization of culture and the chemical digitalization of music that happened under its watch? Did it even produce good art beyond a few unintentionally hilarious ‘zines and the first-rate performance art of Courtney Love’s 25-year disintegration into a caricature of the exact kind of drug-addled, silicon- and Botox-enhanced, vacuous and babbling rich housewife that riot grrrls hated most? No. Unequivocally no.
This is what John Roderick has to say in his Seattle Weekly piece, “Punk Rock is Bullshit: How a toxic social movement poisoned our culture.” The article surprised me because mere weeks before I’d listened to an episode of his podcast (Roderick on the Line) and agreed with much of what he had to say on the subject. At least, I found what he had to say smart – much smarter than what I see in the article.
I am still wading through my feelings — “unpacking” it as I seem to say in every post here — but I wanted to address the question at top: what has punk rock done for us? The best way I know how to answer this is writing on the effects of my own punk years.
To begin with, I was something of an outsider even to punk. My once-popular local band, The Sods, drew more inspiration from The Pogues and Violent Femmes than from Crass, Rudimentary Peni, Black Flag, The Misfits, or the other punk staples that our peers identified with. But from 2002-2005 we were a part of a thriving all-ages scene that largely centered around punk. We might have been folk punk, but we were punk in our eyes of our friends. We sang about the Black Bloc and the still painful 2000 election. Our only album was published under a copyleft license, and the legal text directed listeners to “stop sell-outs before they start” and copy the disc. We booked shows at The Art Factory here in Fort Wayne (once Rupert Bomb passed the torch) and were partly responsible for organizing what was to be the spiritual successor (though it would latter fall apart). We flyered at the mall and anywhere else we could find young people gathered. We gave every upstart 17 year old with a guitar a chance to perform and helped a few bands record for the first time. We weren’t unique in any of this. All around us our friends set up Food Not Bomb tables, protested wars, and spun those first glittering spokes of the local Critical Mass. One of our mottos was “Fuck the World” – a less-than-clever play on our hometown’s initials and a statement about how much support we expected to receive from mainstream channels, local or national.
But without having experienced that phase, I wouldn’t be a musician today. I wouldn’t have half the friends I have today. This is not mere accident.
We didn’t know what we were doing. Most of the Art Factory shows were a chaotic, noisey mess, and the all-ages venues that came immediately after weren’t much better. The Sods were terrible. Nigh unlistenable. Most of our friends’ bands were too.
But still, we came to every show. We came because it was our chaotic, noisey mess.
Emo, screamo, hardcore and hip hop groups mingled with crust, and we never saw any contradiction in it because these were our friends, our bands. Punk wasn’t about creating something for yourself to us. It didn’t mean erecting walls around subsubsubgenres, around politics. We could hate another band but still come back next week. We could disagree about economics or immigration until dawn but still attend the next house party. Punk was about creating something for your community. With your community. If the spread of punk’s influence is as pervasive as Roderick alleges, then it should be inconceivable that an indie band could fail to grasp the basics of fan-funding and creating a tribe. Yet that aspect of the DIY spirit is something many bands struggle with.
If we didn’t know what we were doing, it only helped us realize that no one in a position of authority really knew what they were doing either. Not because everyone over 30 or with bank account was suspicious, but because we knew every situation was unique. We were creating spaces and music for ourselves, and we knew what we wanted better than anyone else. I don’t know if punk is still of interest to 17 year-olds, but I hope they are finding ways to learn the same lesson: don’t rely on your elders to give you permission to create. I can’t imagine any working artist who would disagree with that.
Nothing we created outlasted our involvement, but we honestly never expected that. If the effects of punk are personal or local, that still doesn’t justify saying it’s done nothing. Today I may joke about things not being punk or about losing punk rock points, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Addendum: It occurs to me that one difference between my experience and others’ might be that I came from a city neither too small nor too large. In a way, we couldn’t afford to splinter, but we were still many.
I’ve become addicted to documentaries on musicians in the recording studio. The Classic Album series (much of which is on Netflix) has been my main source, but their idea of classic cuts off at about 1977. So it was good to see behind the scenes on an album from my own teenage years: Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister.
I appreciate when a documentary is forthright about a band setting goals and making business decisions, as this one is when discussing the major label interest in Belle and Sebastian after Dog on Wheels. No press, no photos, no singles on albums. The band did everything wrong but accepted the short term loss in an cash advance in order to keep the band on track.
Ben Gibbard and Peter Buck join The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Jenny Conlee, and Nate Query for a cover of R.E.M.’s fantastic “You Are Everything.” Not too many songs about elderly couples in love in pop music, and even fewer covers of them.
Stealing the Guardian’s Facebook-linked email-snatching Six Songs of Me list.
1. What was the first song you ever bought?
I never bought singles as a tween or teen. I owned two cassingles. One from Pizzicato Five and one from zero-hit wonders Frogpond, neither of which I paid for. The very first time I threw down my hard earned lawnmowing money on CDs instead of Tintin or Batman comics was to purchase Weezer’s blue album, The Cranberries No Need to Argue, and R.E.M.’s Monster.
“Zombie” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” were the only singles out from the latter two. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer was one of the first songs I learned on guitar (properly), and I think we could say it holds up the best.
(Have you guess the year I graduated middle school yet?)
2. What song always gets you dancing?
Assuming I’m allowed to add an “in private” at the end of that, Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon”.
No, I don’t know all the moves from the video. Yes, I strain my voice terribly trying to sing that in the right octave. Eric and I have jammed out to it at practices a few times.
And a few more times during sound checks.
3. What song takes you back to your childhood?
Lots of themesongs and movie-musical songs could go here and a lot of Weird Al and other Dr Demento favorites. Two songs run the risk of forcibly putting tears into my eyes.
Yes, that’s America. Whatever they lose for being Crosby, Stills, and Nash wannabes in most people’s eyes, America regain for making more magical the childhoods of so many 80s-born geeks.
The other song involves a frog and a banjo.
4. What is your perfect love song?
So many inspiring songs that are not love songs. So many true songs about love that aren’t about pefect love. So many fantastic breakup songs. I am tempted to pick a song not in English just to not have to justify the lyrics.
But here’s Jonathan Coulton with “You Ruined Everything.” Written for his daughter, but it works for loves non-parental.
The guy who writes songs about monkeys, squid, and robots? Yes. But robots with FEELINGS.
Second pick is the best song David Bowie’s ever written for a thirteen year old girl. So just accept this one.
5. What song would you want at your funeral?
I answered this as part of that Facebook 30-day song challenge thing, back when we all still used Facebook. My answer’s still the same: Stereolab’s “Cybele’s Reverie.”
As I said then, it is probably wrong on some level to chose a song about childhood, especially one with lyrics like these.
Que faire quand on a tout fait
Tout lu, tout bu, tout mang,
Tout donn en vrac et en detail.
Quand on a cri sur tous les toits,
Pleur et ri dans les villes et en campagne.
The year I first heard it was a pretty good year for me.
6. Time for the encore. One last song that makes you, you.
The Innocence Mission’s “Lakes of Canada.” It’s ambiguously major-or-minor. Nice guitar tones. And lyrics with great images. All things I love.
“Look for me another day. I feel that I could change.”
(via Culs de Sac)