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.
Both emerged at a remove from hip America, and both inspired teenagers who were suffocating in a similar vacuum. Their common aesthetic was speed, something so basic to my musical education that I remember thinking Never Mind the Bollocks sounded slow. As deeply underground as a terrorist cell, the new punk became more international than any terrorist network Reagan could imagine. By 1985 you could multiply the WilMar scene by hundreds of towns across the continents. Japanese fanzines brimmed with American hardcore logos. "Punk's not dead!" could be found scrawled across French lavatories. Kilroy had a mohawk.
To rock history, all this was a long drum roll for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--flyover territory between the Clash and Blink-182. Even the classic 1984 records that hardcore made possible--Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, the Replacements' Let It Be, and the Meat Puppets' Meat Puppets II--have been reclaimed as "indie rock" by anyone who cares enough to remember them. There's the possibility that I blew it all out of proportion: Was my first musical kiss better than riot grrrl's? Or hip hop's? Every time I have the urge to write about the Eighties, I can hear Bratmobile's eternal taunt: "I don't want to sit around and talk about the Wipers--weren't those the good old days!" Old boys have a way of forming old boys' clubs.
So why drag you through my childhood now? The real reason is that everything hardcore abhorred is still with us--social artifice, arbitrary authority, the Bush clan--and the ways the music attacked it are still exciting. But, for the moment, let me give you the consumerist reason to revisit Eighties punk: The story is a good one, and some old boys (and girls) are finally beginning to tell it in print. Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown) takes its title from the only song I ever learned on guitar, the Minutemen's "History Lesson--Part II." It's a tune that sentimentalized the Marcels in your school by recounting the band's own punk deliverance from tract-housing geekdom. The book details similar transformations in 12 other bands: Black Flag, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening. If that weren't enough, Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins recount the transformation of a whole subculture--Washington, D.C., "harDCore"--in their new book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital (Soft Skull Press). (Andersen will be speaking Wednesday, September 12 at Intermedia Arts.) Their scene could be your life.
Both books begin before my punk and end after the feminist take-back-the-punk rally of riot grrrl. And their composite tale is a hilarious page-turner whether you think Dischord is a misspelling or you just finished your volunteer shift at Extreme Noise Records. Neither account quite takes in the national culture punk created--how could they? But their labors of love seem well-timed: The Minneapolis scene is now the subject of exhibits at both the Hennepin History Museum and the Minnesota History Center. Both the Dead Kennedys and the Replacements--two legends that couldn't be less alike in their relationship to hardcore--are reissuing their indie catalogs. Another book, We Owe You Nothing; Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews (Akashic Books), collects (you guessed it) interviews from (you guessed it) Punk Planet, examining how the hardcore generation aged and compromised. The secret cult has been delivered to the coffee table and the collector's shelf.
Still, to employ a punk phrase: Why the fuck should you care?
This was exactly what I asked myself a month ago when the Dead Kennedys reissues arrived on my desk from Manifesto Records. The idea that the tuna-tin production of 1982's Plastic Surgery Disasters needed digital re-enhancement is absurd. I hadn't listened to Jello Biafra's clown gurgle for years, and his band's purposely annoying surf-thrash is a source of contemporary inspiration only to those still waiting for Noam Chomsky's comedy album.
Yet listening to the attack on part-time punks in "Halloween" brought it all back: The song elevated punk style from a schoolyard provocation to a crucial life choice. Would you reject "social regulations," or accept a life sentence of business-class conformity? There was no middle ground: If you shrugged off this cackling joker, you might as well join the cool-jazz yes men he had already sent down for reeducation under Pol Pot in 1980's "Holiday in Cambodia."
The reason hardcore's challenge still gnaws at us is simple: The cool-jazz yes men are now hip-hop yes men, and rage-rock yes men. Is America really less racist than when Biafra looked up from the stage at 1983's Rock Against Reagan concert in D.C. and called the Washington Monument "the Great Eternal Klansman"? Perhaps the satirical brilliance of translating "Eat the Rich" into "Kill the Poor"--as one Biafra tune did--has suffered in memory as hardcore's perverse sarcasm has devolved into the bland irony of David Letterman.
Yet hardcore gave white people their only morally defensible identity politics. And white America has been retreating from it (and into other people's narratives) ever since. L.A. punk's self-satire was perfectly captured in Repo Man--a 1984 cult movie that became a slumber-party favorite among hardcore kids. One scene featured a gunned-down criminal wannabe who gasps, "I blame society," only to be corrected by Emilio Estevez's Otto: "Bullshit. You're a white suburban punk like me."
From the start, Black Flag had combined the negations of the Pistols with the confessional fight songs of the Clash to make a new time bomb: middle-class self-negation. And because their maniacal work ethic ensured that they would reach most American kids in person before any other live punk band, the bad news spread. Instead of screaming for a white riot, hardcore longed to be a "White Minority." "Gonna feel inferiority!" shouted (Puerto Rican-born) Black Flag singer Chavo Pederast in 1980.
Our Band Could Be Your Life makes this running auto-critique seem heroic. Azerrad can't resist the myth-making details of subsistence touring: Minor Threat getting by for a weekend on government cheese; Jello Biafra helping Hüsker Dü collect food stamps; Black Flag's Henry Rollins scamming on girls for dinner ("you'd hang out all night waiting for that plate of fries," he says). A bit of USDA largess aside, hardcore was a lean life to choose. But as the punk movement of America's privileged suburbs, these kids needed the challenge.
No one in Black Flag welcomed the harassment and brutality showered on them by the LAPD--accounts of police beatings outside shows were legion. Yet many punks welcomed violence as a rite of passage. Soon the fisticuffs that plagued L.A. shows (where the music was banned in clubs) were stylized into dance moves and intellectualized on the street by the wholesome, soda-chugging Bad Brains fans of Georgetown who came to make up Minor Threat.
The thrill of retaliation was learned and passed on by Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye, who went to the West Coast and returned in awe of how punks there bashed back. "I don't think we'd been home three days," he remembers in Our Band Could Be Your Life, "before we were walking down M Street or something and somebody says, 'Hey, fag!' And six lightbulbs went on over six little heads and six little guys trounced somebody. And it was a very powerful feeling." The Ian MacKaye of today's Fugazi who pointedly glares at roughhousers in his audience is very much staring down the teenage version of himself.
One reason you don't know this story is that this sort of behavior was exactly what scared away many of the cognoscenti that supported 1977's punk revolution. Where Pere Ubu's David Thomas once lamented that new wave gave creative geeks something to thoughtlessly copy, hardcore was worse: Now the Marcels of the world had a gang. When the D.C. kids brought slam-dancing to CBGB, even the habitually rebellious Lester Bangs thought them "muscleheads." The Washington scene's rep was such that, according to Dance of Days, John Belushi phoned MacKaye to round up a posse to appear on Saturday Night Live as the frightful audience for L.A.'s Fear.
Another reason you don't know this story is that a lot of hardcore punk sucked. The malaise of violence and machismo that D.C. invited is well chronicled in Dance of Days, which remembers 1984 as the year that the national hardcore periodical Maximumrocknroll asked: "Does Punk Suck?" (Soon after, letters tackling that question nearly took over the zine.) MacKaye, whose songs rejected drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and casual sex as a form of fake rebellion, recoiled as both "Straight Edge" and unnecessary roughness became punk dogma.
In the end, hardcore hated hardcore more than you ever could--violence was a cheap way out of teenage insecurity. This brand of punk lacked the grounding class bitterness of doled-down Brits--even in the hands of the Minutemen, who hailed from the navy ghetto of San Pedro, California. Yet confusion improved the flailing culture, and the self-criticism became part of the fun. I still remember loving the anti-fashion of the "post-hardcore" bands--Black Flag showing up with long hair, playing Dio riffs; Hüsker Dü dressing like truck drivers, destroying the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" to save it; and Minutemen, king dorks of them all, using their instruments to bore through the musical deadwood of folk and funk fusion like voracious punk termites. To me, hardcore became about defying your expectations of hardcore.
If this music still has power, it's because white kids can sometimes defy our expectations of America, and in ways that run deeper than the common slogan "No Nazis! No KKK! No fascist USA!" At its best, hardcore was a critique of American freedom, from L.A. band Saccharine Trust's "We Don't Need Freedom" to Hüsker Dü's "In a Free Land." And no one dramatized the limits of freedom better than the Replacements, whose youthful violence was always directed at themselves.
I can hear your objections already that the 'Mats were about as thrash as John Denver, but please: Hardcore put these yaps to work. It kicked their ass and sent a kamikaze bar band that otherwise wouldn't have annoyed anyone outside Fernando's careening into the national culture. Their daring barely concealed fear and sadness, and their songs came to dwell on both. In the end, they were punk because punks listened to them. And they seemed to sense this early on. "Kids Don't Follow" was a response to U2's "I Will Follow" (which the 'Mats destroyed live) and perhaps also a warning against making Ian MacKaye a personal savior. Singer Paul Westerberg assumed the mantle of generational spokesman even as he shunned it--clenching the idea as if it were an electrified mic stand.
Azerrad writes that the Replacements "never even got close to a political song," but many punks would disagree. Let It Be was its own little opposition rally in teenage wasteland. "Seen Your Video" trashed MTV; "Androgynous" showed tender solidarity with the post-gender punkers. And buried deep within the lap-steel drone of "Unsatisfied" you could hear a mumbled summation of everything punk had helped me feel about America: "Everything goes, anything goes, all of the time. Everything you dreamed of is right in front of you. Liberty is a lie."
Of course, Westerberg quit the job we gave him--who needs it? And years later, when Spin dubbed him the "soul" of rock 'n' roll, he seemed only bemused. "It's sad for the...Replacements that they are so revered and yet they got so little to show for it," says guitarist Slim Dunlap in an audio clip featured at the Minnesota History Museum. "They have this reputation, but what do you do with it? Does it help you in your current work? No, it doesn't. If anything, it hurts it."
The punker in Westerberg would probably just as soon jettison the past. After signing to Sire/Warner Bros. in 1985, Westerberg and his mates waltzed into Twin/Tone, grabbed their master tapes--all four indie albums, including Let It Be--and tossed them in the Mississippi. Though Azerrad writes that "the tapes were only safety masters," Greg Calbi, who remastered the albums for Restless Records, confirms that he worked from digital copies, not the original masters (which apparently couldn't be found). In December old friends will gather at the Turf Club to remember Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson, whose drug addiction overcame him in 1995. The bands' self-destructiveness--their most hardcore trait--was the theft that keeps on taking.
Let It Be was hardcore's to be or not to be--and characteristically, many punks answered in the negative. The Replacements didn't even call themselves punks, so why should we? I can remember Ruth Conniff--future editor of The Progressive--balking when I predicted the Replacements would inspire slam-dancing. As it turned out, their 1985 show at a gymnasium near WilMar was the most playfully chaotic concert I have ever seen. (Favorite moment: Stinson tossing inflated inner tubes into the audience, along with bucketfuls of water provided by road manager Bill Sullivan.) Yet while I was happy to see non-punks excited about the band, I sensed with ambivalence that hardcore was graduating into college rock--on its way to corporate Nirvana.
Neither Westerberg nor Hüsker Dü wrote as powerfully once they shed hardcore's yoke. And as they entered the major-label arena opened up by R.E.M., who brought the Replacements and Minutemen on tour with them, both the 'Mats and Hüsker seemed to stop mattering. By the end of the Eighties, the Minutemen's D. Boon had died in a car accident, the Dead Kennedys had disappeared, and hardcore had hardened into just another musical genre. The subculture's DIY model would go on to inform indie pop, just as its politics seeped into other realms: crusty vegetarianism, WTO theater, homocore queer pride. But as a collective expression of suburban blues, hardcore evaporated.
My friend Joel grew his mohawk into a pompadour. And I was initiated into irony. When a high school friend, Madison's future rave godfather Nick Andreano, dragged me to a Beastie Boys concert in 1987, it was a distancing experience--as if I was finding a way out of the punk cult and back into the religion of mainstream America. Nick was the briefcase-toting head of Students for Nuclear War (a response to the group I had joined, Students for Peace)--and yet he found the cage dancers and giant inflatable penis onstage hilarious. Deflating that scene would have to wait until the Nineties.