Twenty years of punk? There must've been ten years when there wasn't anything going on, right? There were a few years at the start, and now. What happened in between?
--Mick Jones of the Clash in
Let's see now, did Eighties punk really happen? I remember being scared and turned on by something--and it wasn't sex, not yet. You could smell the clove cigarettes and sweat inside the WilMar Center--an old converted chapel in Madison, Wisconsin, that usually hosted potlucks and bingo games. It was a warm night, and the space was crowded with kids in funereal clothes and burn-victim hairstyles. Two scowling girls wrapped in torn fishnets and "Sid Lives!" tees caught me staring at them, and sneered, "Fuck off."
"Poseurs," grumbled my mohawked pal Joel Paterson reassuringly. It was 1983 and we stood less than a block from where Joel and I had spent our preteens drawing Jaws comic books and listening to Jimi Hendrix. The lawns nearby were graveyards for our melted Fisher-Price action figures. Now he was initiating me into punk--and into my adolescence.
Without much fuss, he introduced an amiable kid with no hair named Roan, who welcomed me to my first "show." Then Roan excused himself to get onstage and set up. "You mean he's in the band?" I asked, taken aback. "It's a rock-star thing not to talk to fans," Joel explained.
Hüsker Dü had played here once, and Sonic Youth would play here a couple of years later. The stage stood only a few feet off the floor, making it relatively safe to hurl oneself out into the crowd. And that's exactly what kids started doing when, after the usual four clicks of the drumsticks, Juvenile Truth launched into their blur of punk rock. "We're sick of you laughing at us," they shouted over the roar. A number of boys, and some girls, began to shove one another playfully, circling around the center like planets in collapsing orbit. I remember thinking that I had stumbled across some sort of bizarre cult ritual--which, in a way, I had.
Then somebody pushed me into the "pit," and the dim, churchy light of the room was gone. I felt like a baby in a clothes dryer, hurled and knocked by bare arms and flannel backs. Thrown off balance onto the wood floor, I was surprised to see a hand extended to help me back up. Another image from that night: somebody's high-top Converse sneaker covered in band names and slogans ("U.S. out of El Salvador")--ideally positioned to catch the attention and raise the consciousness of a stunned, prostrate slam dancer.
For any young person who felt shut out of the Eighties--by adolescent conformity, by schools retreating from reform, by Reagan and Reaganism--punk was a way back in. And if I never felt completely part of punk, punk became part of me. It was whatever you made it.
"It's feminist, and yeah, there's a lot of anger," said a teenage Jennifer Leazer in the Madison paper Isthmus (today she's a Twin Cities antiwar activist). "But anger doesn't necessarily mean violence."
Violence came mostly in the form of other people's revulsion. Punk had infiltrated my middle school in 1981 when a quiet kid named Marcel scared the crap out of everyone by shaving his head and wearing a swastika--which got him suspended. A few years later, I learned that Marcel was a sweet kid, a left-winger like me, and not violent at all (you almost got the sense that he hoped provoking bullies would toughen him up). He was also Jewish.
I wonder how many zillions of kids had carved swastikas into their desktops by the time Marcel paused in the mirror to pin the symbol of human evil on his sleeve. It was hard not to view him as another mindless glitch of child rearing, like the wannabe hoodlums of the ages donning biker leather as the uniform of social withdrawal. But Marcel didn't run with a pack. He wasn't anonymous, and he didn't withdraw. He brought evil into the lunchroom and threw it on the table like a corpse.
I felt sorry for him then, but after my first slam-dance lesson I began to feel sorrier for the outcasts before punk--all those feathered-hair hopefuls trying to look cool in their yearbook photos. Like everyone else, I had been desperately trying to part my wavy hair. It wasn't until I cut it off and became a punk myself that I discovered it grew back curly.
Cutting it all off and seeing what grew back was what punk was all about. And hardcore--the punk of uncool America--slashed and burned itself along with everything else, collapsing No Future into No Past. It was America's response to the Sex Pistols, who were themselves a response to the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and the fact that the style originated separately on both coasts at once only made the spasm seem more organic. Blasting out of Hermosa Beach, California, were Black Flag, raggedy nerds who played rapid-fire blues to stave off Republican mellow. Much faster were the Bad Brains, black jazz-fusion musicians from Washington, D.C., who might have made a living as session men had they not acted on punk's stylistic dare.