As I write this, I’m about halfway through a master’s program in art history. And for the most part, I like it a lot. I like being exposed to new art and new ways of thinking and being able to get into deep discussions with smart people about works of art and lesser-known artists.
There is a side of it I don’t like, though – one that doesn’t come up in class too often, but dominates when I’m talking to people outside the program about it. If I mention that I’m studying art history, people naturally seem to want to jump to talking about classifications. Is Van Gogh impressionist or post-impressionist? Is Frank Gehry a deconstructionist architect?
I know there’s some value to that kind of discussion, but I think it’s minimal. It’s more interesting to talk about Frank Gehry’s architecture itself than whether it fits into an arbitrary category (a category made up, in this case, retroactively for a museum exhibit, borrowing a really unrelated term from lit theory). And more importantly, these discussions remind me of another ongoing argument that’s been annoying me for years: is Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” a punk song?
This argument pops up in punk circles endlessly. It’s a punk song because the chords are few and simple and the beat is driving. But it’s a metal song because Motorhead are a canonical metal band. But Motorhead were present in the formative miasma of London’s punk scene. But most of the rest of the Motorhead catalog sounds way more like metal than punk.
The best answer to this (pointless, unresolvable) debate comes from the late, lamented Motorhead frontman Lemmy, who famously stated that “there’s only two kinds of music- music ya like and music ya don’t.”
Arguments about what is punk and what isn’t, and what the boundaries of punk are, often seem to be the defining feature of punk itself. If you spend any amount of time at all engaging with punk culture, you will unavoidably come across heated arguments about whether a band or a song is punk or not; if not a heated argument, than an ex cathedra statement of fact that will inevitably turn into a heated argument whenever the right person comes across it. One of punk’s seminal moments was fanzine editor Mark Perry’s dictum that “punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS.” Consider that – people were sniffily drawing boundaries the second one of the movement’s foundational bands signed their first record contract.
My first entree into the world of punk, before really engaging with the music as music, consisted largely of heated, uninformed arguments over whether Green Day got to call themselves punks or if they were horrible posers for doing so. I would bet cash money that anyone who’s ever considered themselves a punk waded into (or started) the same sort of argument very early in their punk phase. If you’re an angsty young hothead, it just goes with the territory.
What am I getting at here? Simply that gatekeeping, and arguing about exactly where that gate is and what gets to go through it, seems to be a defining feature of punk. And that it’s tiresome and reductive. And unfortunate, because every second spent in unwinnable boundary arguments is a second not spent on either enjoying the music for what it is or not engaging with the other, more positive aspects of punk identity.
Which are (or can be, depending on boundaries, circumstance, and consensus): distrust of authority. Pragmatism. Sarcasm. Rough-edged humor. Grit. Self-reliance. Independence. Righteous anger. Do-it-yourself gumption. Groundedness. Concern with sincerity and humanity over perfection. And some negative ones, like nihilism, pointless brutality, corrosive cynicism, exclusive obsession with ideological purity, and hipsterism (as defined by dismissively establishing oneself as more of an initiate and further from the mainstream than whatever sheep is being talked to).
I love the Sex Pistols (or at least there are a lot of Sex Pistols songs I love), but it’s very easy to create a sort of mental yin-yang symbol for punk duality where the Sex Pistols embody those last negative aspects and the Clash represent the positive, caring, righteous side. But that, again, is a silly construct. The Pistols were cynical nihilists, yeah, but their work legitimately inspired people. The Clash were angrily positive and life-affirming, but they recorded weird polemics against birth control and eventually dissolved into ego-driven rock-star squabbling.
None of which invalidates what I see as the positive aspects of the culture (or the awesomeness of the Sex Pistols and the Clash). But again, it highlights the absurdity of trying to pin big, universal statements on the work of what ultimately were edgy, hopped-up kids well under the age of 30 (how the HELL was Joe Strummer able to write something as wise as “Death or Glory” at the age of 27?). For every Joe Strummer, David Byrne, or Jello Biafra who has a pile of somewhat-thought-out grand statements they want to make, there are way, way more Sid Vicious and Dee Dee Ramone types who just want to play fast and loud. Really, the list of positive (and negative) punk associations are things that grew up fuzzily and inexactly out of a community, generally not things that a punk authority sat down and dictated. Despite what Ian MacKaye (or Malcolm McLaren, for that matter) would have you believe.
But we’re talking about gatekeeping and exclusion. Is it traditionally part of punk? Unfortunately, yes. Is it a part we should honor and perpetuate? It is not. If the stupid history of exclusion within punk itself isn’t enough to convince you, look at what other subcultures are doing to themselves right now in the name of boundary enforcement. Look at the toxic assholes trying to keep “gamer” culture pure. Do you want any part of that?
It’s easy to exclude a “wannabe” on the basis of you being more hard core than them. But I guarantee you that you know people much more hard core than you (I know I do). And if they’re honest, they know people much more hard core than them. It goes on forever in both directions. Where’s the boundary? I don’t know, but the law of averages says it doesn’t just happen to lie right in between you and the wanna-be you want to lock out.
Was Blondie ever a punk band? Were the Police? How is there any unity in a movement that’s agreed to contain both the Minutemen and the Dead Kennedys? Are people just engaging in wishful thinking when they try to tie Bowie in? Jeff Tweedy said he thought of Uncle Tupelo as a punk band when he was in it – was he right? Did the Clash stop being a punk band at some point in the middle of London Calling? What were/are Sleater-Kinney? Why does Kim Gordon seem so dismissive of post-punk, at least as a label? Is there a meaningful boundary between punk and hardcore? Does it make sense that some bands classified as New Wave or postpunk were active at the same time as or even before some of the punks that theoretically preceded them? What am I to make of the fact that a self-identified punk friend said in all sincerity that Dean Martin is “punk as fuck” (Nick Tosches’ book Dino definitely establishes that Martin leaves Johnny Rotten in the dust when it comes to nihilism)?
Does it maybe make more sense to say that an individual song is or isn’t punk, not a band or an album?
Is there maybe not a definite answer to any of this, but the asking is part of the belonging?
Maybe the key to being a punk is just caring enough to ask questions about it.
MY PUNK HISTORY
I can’t remember for sure when I started self-identifying as a punk. I know it was towards the end of high school, or maybe even as it was ending. I know I loved the Ramones the first I heard them. I thought the Clash were crap, but that was because the sum total of my exposure to the Clash consisted of Omaha’s classic rock station playing “Rock the Casbah” into the ground, sandwiched in between Foreigner and Billy Squier.
As I finished high school, my friends and I underwent a sort of musical evolutionary burst, suddenly listening to things we wouldn’t have imagined a year earlier (and this was pre-internet rural Nebraska, where U2 was on the outer fringes of non-middle-of-the-road music one was likely to encounter; I’ve always been fond of saying that I knew who Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, was years before I’d heard of Lou Reed). The aforementioned Ramones. Social Distortion, somehow. The Sex Pistols crept in at the edges. The Pixies. Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du project, Sugar. An older friend who’d gone off to school in St. Louis brought back word of a thrashy group down there called Uncle Tupelo that seemed pretty rad. Not punk bands, mostly, but bands with lots of signposts embedded into their music pointing back to punk if you cared to follow them. I wound up liking a lot of music that I guess you could at least argue was punk (see, there’s that is-it-or-isn’t-it trope again), but I didn’t really consider myself a punk, even when my friends and I started doing extremely punk things like putting on DIY rock shows in hay barns.
Uncle Tupelo wound up being the real gateway. I went deep into their world in my early 20s, perfectly tuned to receive their transmissions about aggressive drums, thrashing guitar, and disaffected vocals about life in the rural midwest. The first time I heard Uncle Tupelo’s “Gun,” I honestly felt like my brain was going to melt. The same thing happened shortly afterwards when I heard “The Long Cut.” If you put a tiny camera on a rod and wormed it into my ear when I was 23, I’m pretty sure the inside of my head would have looked exactly like Uncle Tupelo’s four albums sound.
So of course I started a band (I played bass then). And of course that band, Red Hay, tried our damnedest to sound exactly like Uncle Tupelo. And Husker Du. And the Replacements (the cause-and-effect between those last two elements and the fact that Red Hay was constituted in Minnesota is a murky thing to pin down). Were those three bands punk bands? Sort of, at least. You could make the argument in good faith. Usually, that’s the best you can do.
I don’t think all of Red Hay, if asked, would have said that we were a punk band. I would have – after all, Jeff Tweedy was on record saying that he thought Uncle Tupelo was a punk band, so QED – and I think my friend Erik would have. But the other two guys, Grant and Dale, wouldn’t have. I guess there’s another front for the endless punk-or-not-punk arguments. I know that one of my first Red Hay songs contained the lines “I don’t think that you should be shocked / when I say I love punk rock” so there’s Exhibit B for the defense.
Red Hay fell apart after a few years. You could say it was for extremely punk rock reasons: we got blackballed from First Avenue and decided that, with the best venue in Minneapolis permanently off the table, it wasn’t worth dealing the shit of grinding out shows in the scabbier venues. Or you could say that it was for extremely un-punk reasons: said blackballing occurred because our drummer had to skip a show to go to a school board meeting in Verndale, Minnesota. It all comes down to interpretation. All I know for sure is that somewhere in there I started self-identifying as a punk.
But it was – and is – a weird self-identification. I’ve never had a mohawk (if I tried now, it would be a weird mohawk punctuated by baldness). I’ve never dressed in any sort of punk signifiers, except for a marked preference for heavy black boots. If I’m a punk, I’m a very midwestern punk who dresses, looks, and acts like a big number of educated, middle-class south Minneapolis liberals, keeping the anarchy inside my head unless I happen to be holding a guitar (on the other hand, look at any Husker Du era picture of Bob Mould: he looks like the chunky, ordinary-unless-he’s-holding-a-guitar guy from St. Paul that he was). If I found myself in a situation where people were gobbing at me, I’d run like hell.
My second band, Derailleur, was not a punk band (once, when I brought in the chords for the Clash’s “Clampdown” to fart around with in rehearsal, my friend Grant wisely observed that Derailleur just wasn’t disciplined enough to be a punk band- and he was right. Minimalism takes discipline). But we certainly played some punk songs. Any fast-tempo song that has 3 chords, rests largely on the old I-IV-V progression, and is about huffing a drug made from fermented fecal matter is hard to deny as a punk song.
Like the end of Red Hay, my whole punk history can be looked at two ways- pretty punk, or ridiculously unqualified as punk. But everyone’s history is like that. How you interpret your life is a choice. It’s better if you make that choice consciously and do it in a way that works for you, rather than drifting or letting someone else make it for you. To be honest, that idea itself feels pretty punk to me.
What all of this adds up to, I guess, is a simple set of questions: Does it make sense for a 41-year-old who works in an office making webpages aimed at convincing people to get MBAs to consider himself a punk? Can you be a punk if you’ve made mortgage payments for ten years and keep an eye on property value trends in your neighborhood? Is arthritis in your hand an insufficiently punk reason not to play guitar for a while?
My punk credentials: I’ve written, recorded, and performed songs that you could in good faith argue are punk songs. I’ve played dozens of feisty little DIY set-up shows in basements, parties, and shitty official venues. I’ve stayed skeptical about power and authority systems. I stay wedded to loving imperfection over gloss and rooting for the little guy. Although I listen to all kinds of stuff, the music I make tends to be loud and simple. My spoken language tends to be pretty goddamned foul. I still spend hours every week working on a low-readership comic strip about rocking. I, whenever possible, jam econo.
I’ve already cited “Death or Glory,” and that’s for a reason – it’s probably Strummer’s wisest song. And it’s all about the fact that compromise is baked into the whole punk notion.
I feel like I could talk to Mike Watt about my life choices without feeling too ashamed. That may be the bottom line.
These are my credentials. I’m sure you have yours, and they’re just as valid.
WHAT I GOT FROM IT
People are naturally tribal. That explains pro sports (as I write this, tens of thousands of people in Minneapolis are getting ready to sit for over three hours in an open-air stadium to watch the Vikings play the Seahawks on a day when the air temperature is ten degrees below zero; this behavior only makes sense if you see that the Vikings are a vehicle for people to feel like they belong to something). That explains the current state of American politics. For reasons of basic personality wiring, I’ve never been a joiner. But deep down, everyone needs to feel like they’re part of a tribe. Punk, as a tribe for people who aren’t joiners, built on aggressive music and giving authority as much of the finger as you can get away with, is the natural place for me.
So from calling myself a punk I got (get) to satisfy that need for a tribe. That matters. Not being a joiner means occasionally feeling like an outcast, which is a very hard thing over the long haul. Feeling like a part of a group that’s distrustful of groups mitigates that. And that’s not all: I got (get) a channel for creative impulses, and have a natural conduit for hearing new music (and old music that’s new to me). For all this, the main downside was that I spent a lot of my 20s a little too obsessed with Keepin’ It Pure And Real, closing my mind off to some music that I would later go on to enjoy. That’s bad, but it’s a small price to pay and the problem mostly corrected itself with time.
(I wish I’d read Jaime Hernandez much sooner, like in high school. If anything, I don’t think there’s a word of this essay that isn’t expressed better, more joyfully, and with more clarity in his comics.)
I guess in the end I get to call myself a punk because it doesn’t mean anything in the big picture, but doing so gives me a little bit of extra strength to face the world by being part of a self-chosen tribe. So I’m going to keep doing it. And as a bona fide punk, I guess I welcome you to do it, too, if you feel like it. If you’ve cared enough about punk to read this far, you are certainly qualified.
Don’t take it from me. No less august a punk than Iggy Pop said, in “Punkrocker,” his magnificent collaboration with Teddybears: “I’m listening to the music with no fear / you can hear it too if you’re sincere.” If Iggy’s going to hold the gate open for anyone who cares to come in, who the hell are we to disagree?
UPDATE: The death of David Bowie prompted my friend Andrew – whose punk cred is far more unimpeachable than mine – to write a very good, extended piece which includes this:
Even if Bowie’s intent behind his various reinventions was calculated self-marketing — and I’m not sure even the man himself actually knew for sure at times — their effect on the individual beholder was a very real and transformative force. That, not the musical component of his career, was Bowie’s real “punk” legacy. It didn’t matter what the folks on stage believed as long as it made you believe in your own agency. You could shed the skin you were locked into and simply be, and realizing that such a shift could be an ongoing process.
And that’s the main thing I want to say here, just much more concisely. All that matters is that you wind up believing in your own agency.