Toward A New Manifesto For Punk
I'm not going to write about the proverbial days and how it used to be. That's history, and we'll leave it to people like Jon Savage. Instead, let's take a quick look at the factionalized, fractionalized state of punk today.
See, I refuse to believe punk was ever supposed to be anything like the monster it has become. I refuse to believe it was the last haven for pretentious ideologues who seem to want to save it for their own turf, and I refuse to believe it exists for assimilation by meatheads who saw a video on MTV and think they know what constitutes proper behavior in a pit. I refuse. However, rather than point fingers at the usual suspects (MTV, major labels, corporate America, the government), let's just try to figure out what we can do to make punk better.
Let's start with a premise. When punk began in earnest (for sake of argument, I'm going to use 1977 as the date and England as the flashpoint, even though I'll argue 'til death that the Ramones started punk and should be enshrined as poet laureates, despite the lame music they've put out in the 1980s and 1990s), it began in a country which was economically depressed and offered, as Johnny Rotten put it, "No future." It wasn't a commercial statement, it was a reaction to boredom, the dole (read welfare) and a host of other social problems. Flash forward.
The early 80's. Los Angeles. X. Fear. The Germs. Black Flag. Ambulances rolling past the Whisky every five minutes. Cops shutting down Sunset and beating hell out of punks. Back East, bands like Minor Threat and Dag Nasty were forging new paths, new ideas. They weren't singing about six packs and TV parties. They were doing something ... well, as vague as it sounds, different.
Let's compare then to now - Green Day has sold millions of records, ditto the Offspring. Major labels buy and sell bands like Waterdog, Inch and fuck only knows who else, signing and dropping them with as much logic as a Zen koan, which is to say none at all. But this, while you may have been led to believe otherwise, has shit to do with punk. It has absolutely nothing to do with what's at stake in punk, what's really at issue. These things are the smokescreen preventing us from really understanding what punk is and what it's about.
To truly understand what punk is about, we don't start at 1977. Instead, we need to go back to people like Woody Guthrie, who once said, to paraphrase, that he hated a song which made people feel like they were no one and no good to anyone, that made people feel like they were born to lose and bound to lose. We need to review the work of bands like the Clash, which, in songs like "Lost in the Supermarket," examined the growing numbness in people. Dulled by commerce, media and increasing isolation - maybe Lester Bangs was right when he said no one wants to feel anymore in his interview with them. But Mick Jones' response was even more telling. "If it bothers you so much why don't you do something about it?"
The problem isn't the corporations. It isn't bands forming to leech off the success of some punk rock acts. It isn't the bandwagon effect. The problem lies within punk itself, and since punk is made by the people for the people, that means the problem is us.
See, punk, for me anyway, was never about being cool. It was never a fashion statement or something which was popular. When I got into punk, I went toward it because I had no other choice. It was the only music which spoke to me, which said the things that I needed to hear. It was the only music that told me I wasn't fucked up for feeling lonely, for not being able to articulate what I felt when I was face to face with someone, for choking when the words counted. It was the only music which told me it was okay to be alone, to hang out by myself and do things by myself. It was the only music which said, in short, that I was a person and just as valuable as everyone else. It was an affirmation for me, a validation that my existence was just as important. It was a fist of resistance, held in the air while administrators, jocks and everyone else in high school looked on. As I wrote in these pages a long time ago, Hüsker Dü got me through high school. I'd get up in the morning, listen to "These Important Years," and head off to my math class where I knew I'd get harassed. Sometimes a push, a foot in the aisle, tacks on the seat. The usual bullshit. It didn't matter what it was - a fist in the back when the teacher wasn't looking, books knocked on the floor, someone kicking my seat. I'd get through it, get through the rest of my day, come home and listen to "These Important Years" again, trying to remind myself that this would also pass, just like everything else in my life. I'd spend my afternoons listening to the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, X. I'd hang out in seedy record stores, buying used vinyl copies of "Under the Big Black Sun" and "It's Alive." I'd lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about it.
As I grew older, I learned more about punk. I started thinking about it and I realized that the punk which meant the most to me and the people I knew was encouraging, hopeful, optimistic. It was about getting over, getting by and getting through, and not only doing those things but doing them with dignity, pride and independence. It wasn't about surviving so much as it was about thriving in spite of the daily grind. It was about keeping souls intact and making sure they weren't too badly squeezed by the pressure. It was about community and having hands under you when you slipped in the pit, hands ready to pull you back up and make sure you were okay. That isn't too bad a metaphor, because the punk which really mattered to me and to many of the people I know and who I've had the good fortune to interview is like that - it's like a hand, lifting you up when you need it. It's a support system. Most of my friends I know through punk rock and we became friends because we found something in common - a band, an album, maybe a show. I do this zine because of punk rock and the D.I.Y., independent spirit it encourages.
I suppose the point I'm trying to make with this is that the rhetoric surrounding punk at the moment - people screaming about the evils of major labels, making videos and meatheads at shows - means nothing, because punk really wasn't about rejection to begin with. To me, it was about acceptance and welcoming. It was about meeting people who had nowhere else to go and forming a common bond, finding strength in unity and togetherness. It was about getting stronger and growing, progressing as a human and rising above all the petty bullshit, and because of that, being open-minded and tolerant, not to mention receptive, of others - people, ideas, whatever.
Somewhere along the line, it seems the words got in the way of the music. It seems the ideas started to overshadow the reason we all came - bouncing around in a pit, picking each other up, secure in the notion that, if only for a while, we were with people like us, people who understood what it was like to be someone no one understood, who knew how it felt to be rejected and an outcast, and people who were strong enough not to return those favors to others. Somewhere along the line, business became more important than a power chord. The label a band was on became more important than the music they released. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone - I have a Mary Lou Lord interview on tape which is sitting in my archives because I found out she's signed to the Work Group, a division of Sony. I'm just as much of a hypocrite as anyone else when I start talking about open-mindedness and tolerance and that tape is proof. I really don't have any excuse. It was all my choice. None of us have any excuse. Every time we sneer at someone at a show or treat someone like an outsider, or form stupid little cliques to prove how punk or indie we are and exclude people, we're hypocrites and violating the spirit of the music which accepted us and the people who brought us into the fold. We have no excuse for what we're doing because we're choosing to do it.
So please, just understand this - it doesn't matter where someone comes from when they come to punk rock, even if the only thing they know is "that song by the Offspring." If they're ruining the pit, show them how to slam. Hell, try something novel and show them how to pogo. Tell them about other bands they may be interested in. Yeah, maybe they're just into it now because it's popular, but this isn't about popularity, or an us vs. them mentality. This is about us, and anyone who shows up is one of us. Some may stay and some may leave, but some punks get older and leave anyway. It's nothing new.
In October last year, I had the chance to sit down with Mick Jones for a bit, just the two of us, and talk. It was late afternoon and we were sitting on the patio of San Diego Convention Center, watching an orange apocalypse sink below the Navy ships on the horizon. "This is what it's all about," he said, smoking a cigarette. We didn't talk about major labels - the Clash were on CBS, B.A.D. has bounced around a bit. We didn't talk about politics. We just talked about the music, because the rest simply wasn't as important.
Kindly allow me to make a request of all of you - open your minds again. Start having fun again. Dance at shows if you want. Don't worry about looking foolish; punk isn't impressed with itself. It isn't about being cool, wearing baggy pants or chain wallets. While it was originally manifested in fashion in the form of appropriated styles mixed in a pastiche of clothing which signified any number of things, it isn't necessarily about that anymore. Frankly, punk used to be pretty simple, and the years and people involved have made it more complex by developing and promoting ideas which have nothing to do with the heart of the matter - the music - so it's time to take punk back. It's time to open our minds, our ears and our hearts, not to mention our eyes. It's time to see the lies which have separated us and kept us occupied, squabbling about insignificant points of contention. It's time to understand that a straight-edge kid knocking a beer out of someone's hand is just as prejudiced as refusing to allow someone to see a show or eat a lunch counter due to the color of their skin because it removes the issue of choice. It's time to understand that sneering at kids who think the Offspring and Green Day are the first punk bands is pointless and a waste of time which could be better spent educating them.
Most importantly, it's time to stop being so fucking cool. It's time to stop caring about appearances and start having fun again. While this is music which has helped people survive, myself included, it's also fun to listen to. Some of the best moments I've had in my life have been at punk shows, pogoing while the band onstage erased the day, if only for a few hours. It's time to bring the fun back.