THE NOSTALGIA CYCLES are weirdly wound. Blank Generation Revisited, a photo exhibit on the Lower East Side punk scene of the late '70s, takes its name from Richard Hell's scabrous 1978 anthem "Blank Generation," a song that's become a totem for punk's nihilism, and, through the years, malaise-at-large. Today, long after punk rock's initial promise has been ground to sentimentalists' silt by generations of guileless guitar bands and dreary indie-ironists, Hell's swing line ("I'm a part of the blank generation/and I can take it or leave it each time,") rings with disabused resolution. Listen to it against the grain of the Newsweekified "Gen-X" rhetoric of a few years past, and "Blank Generation" becomes one of the least understood rock anthems this side of Louie, Louie.
"People misread what I meant by blank generation," Hell said in 1978. "To me 'blank' is a line where you can fill in anything. It's positive. It's the idea that you have the option of making yourself anything you want." In these dozens of shots of New York and U.K. punks, taken by a relatively interchangeable group of rock-journalism photographers, Hell's dictum gets realized in strange ways. Everyone on hand wants to fill in her blank, to cop significance--or at least get signed. Which all of them did, of course, in one way or another.
It's certainly fun checking out the byways of (anti-)rock star self-creation. The New York Dolls wait to become the Mott the Hoople clones Mercury Records always hoped they would; Johnny Rotten cuts an image of the ideal Dickensian villain (Uriah Heep times 50); the Ramones are rock & roll; Tom Verlaine is Poet; David Byrne poses as the first graduate of Geek Chic 101; and Patti Smith morphs into a bona fide queen-of-all-our-dreams. Neat, but not surprising.
Candid shots are a bit cooler. Punk magazine photographer Roberta Bayley snaps Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in the back of a limousine, as they wait for "Heart of Glass" to whisk them out of the Bowery that already bores them. Sid Vicious wanders the stage of Max's Kansas City, leering at the scum-rock groupies at the front of the stage, while future ex-wife Nancy stands glaring in the wings. Joey Ramone goes surfing at Coney Island in one shot and snuggles in bed with Debbie in the next. Hell duets with Elvis Costello. A warm sort of incest pervades.
This is all very cute, but there's something missing. Punk was also about another type of transformation. "Lou Reed was my Woody Guthrie and with enough amphetamines I could be the new Lou Reed," wrote Peter Laughner (a founding member of Cleveland's amazing Pere Ubu), whose fervor to accomplish just that led him to drink and drug himself to death in 1977.
Few, if any of the photos in Blank Generation Revisited say a damn thing about that other, bottomlessly sad, kind of punk ambition. Shots of shirtless, ambivalent Sids and Iggy Pops don't count. Where is Peter Laughner? Come to think of it, where is Laughner's hero, P-rock grandpappy sweet Lou Reed? Even Dick Hell, who successfully plays the roll of Baudelairean wonk, hard-core rocker, and half-naked nihilist, seems to represent a type of posturing Greil Marcus typified as "auditioning for careers as something else."
And while photographer George Du Bois makes room to incorporate a quaint band pic of a non-New York/U.K. group--Athens, Georgia's new-wave hit-makers the B-52s--no one bothered to track down (under)groundbreakers, like Boston's noise-defining Mission of Burma, or the Minneapolis anomaly Suicide Commandos, or the genius band on my radio right now: The Embarrassment, four un-chic geeks from Wichita who probably never saw New York. I guess those bands were out auditioning for careers as something else too, something a little less blank. Maybe, in some way or another, those nobodies are still living those invisible careers right now. Lord knows Sid isn't.
Blank Generation Revisited is currently on display in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul; call 696-6279.
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