Salvos Punk Crock

Whistling eternal yesterday

Eugenia Williamson

For a movement that famously proclaimed there was no future, punk rock has had a remarkably durable half-life. Forty years after Television’s legendary residency at CBGB, the world is awash in punk. In the last twenty months, former Village Voice rock critic and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a memoir about his downtown New York youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell released the paperback edition of his, Patti Smith released the follow-up to her National Book Award–winning memoir, and HarperCollins signed Lenny Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, to write a memoir of his own.[*] Ramones fans can look forward to a forthcoming Martin Scorsese–helmed biopic and a documentary promising new footage of the seminal band, whose last founding member perished in 2014.

Punk has cracked the upper echelons of the tech sphere too. Earlier this fall, in a pictorial called “The Stylish Men of Tumblr,” the New York Times introduced the world to Pau Santesmasses, a thirty-nine-year-old product manager whose own Tumblr account is devoted to “modern architecture, skateboarding, and punk rock”—thus apostrophizing a movement of self-professed anarchic rebellion as if it were a tasteful accessory. Photographed atop the grand, dramatically lit staircase in his employer’s Manhattan offices in a pristine gingham button-down, skinny khakis, and shockingly clean sneakers, Santesmasses described his shirt as a “punk-slash-mod thing.”

Such sanitized invocations of punk have overrun what the Times would doubtless call stylish street fashion—thereby, of course, enacting the final consumerist enclosure of a movement that began as street fashion. This summer, walking near my old apartment in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just outside Boston, I spotted a wholesome-looking college dude in expensive glasses, spotless sneakers without socks, and a Ramones T-shirt tucked into a pair of pressed, front-pleated khaki slacks. Although the Ramones’ presidential eagle had long joined the Rolling Stones tongue and the Pink Floyd prism in the pantheon of meaningless, ubiquitous screen-print designs, something about seeing this particular prepped-up lickspittle in a Ramones T-shirt gave me pause.

Having come of age well after punk did, I have no good reason to be startled by a dork wearing a Ramones T-shirt or a tech executive name-checking punk in the Times. I started high school in 1992, the year in which two punk-inspired records, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, outsold Whitney Houston, Eric Clapton, and almost everyone else. As a result, self-identified punks—apparently a clannish lot—spiraled into a recursive identity crisis brought about by the sudden omnipresence of fuzzy guitars, anomie, and sock hats.

People like me—young teenagers who came to Nation of Ulysses when Sassy anointed the band’s frontman Ian Svenonius the “Sassiest Boy in America,” and who wore Dinosaur Jr. T-shirts because they liked cows—should have been free to enjoy the music playing at keggers and in parking lots, but our elders discouraged us at every turn. I remember reading an interview with Ian MacKaye in which the Minor Threat founder, Fugazi leader, and de facto punk ethicist bemoaned the sudden omnipresence of facial piercings and shaven heads. The new superficial vogue for such signifiers meant, in MacKaye’s view, that their deeper cultural significance had been lost in translation—a sentiment akin to the mournful Don Henley lyric about seeing a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.

Punk, we greasy teens soon learned, was once the rightful province of a worthy few able to discern reality from simulacrum, irony from sincerity, punks from poseurs, shit from Shinola. Punk was diametrically opposed to massification; like an ailing Victorian child, it would die if exposed to the slavering crowd. The thrust of this purist insider aesthetic was neatly summed up in the first track of the debut (and only) album from L.A.’s great crash-and-burn hardcore punk outfit the Germs—“What We Do Is Secret,” a dictum that was almost instantly repealed in a series of cinematic and literary productions devoted to the sainted memory of martyred Germs founder Darby Crash. (The Janus-faced nature of punk’s tetchy relationship to commerce was also embedded right there in the Germs original lineup, which featured Belinda Carlisle, who would go on to front mega-pop New Wave leviathan the Go-Go’s before posing for Playboy, marrying a Republican fund-raiser, discovering Buddhism, and—of course—publishing a memoir.)

Territorial Pissings

As for us Gen-Y rebels, we learned the tenets of punk purism from Rolling Stone interviews with Kurt Cobain, whose suicide would later be ascribed to the unfortunate clash between the singer’s hard-won punk values and the acclaim of the uninitiated masses (i.e., us). In those days, a band’s coolness seemed directly proportional to the years its members spent languishing at small clubs and the depth of the trauma they had suffered at the hands of their Baby Boomer parents, gorgons all. Sleeping under bridges and shooting heroin seemed particularly glamorous, especially to suburban girls whose mothers drove them to see Nine Inch Nails and waited for them in the family minivan.

A good part of alterna-rock’s appeal stemmed from the total inaccessibility of its ideals: not only had we discovered these bands long past their prime, but, confused suburban rebels that we were, we were also unlikely to suck dick for a fix—let alone commandeer the Doc’s time machine to see, say, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner shoot up in some Minneapolis basement or, like, whatever it was the Butthole Surfers did in Austin in the ’80s. Therefore, we were unable to experience authentic punk rock culture and were banished to an ultra-lame shadow world in which obvious poseurs like the Offspring scammed millions of lunkhead skaters and Paul Westerberg crooned soporific AOR. Nothing we did, including but not limited to dyeing our hair pink and getting spit on at a Sonic Youth concert, could improve our wretched lot.

At the time, clued-in punks—universally dismissive of the alterna-rock craze—could turn to zines like Maximumrocknroll and Punk Planet to determine which of their contemporaries fit the narrow criteria required for legitimacy. As increasing numbers of dumb kids sought to appropriate punk ’tude for their own ill-conceived aims, debate raged within their pages.

This is what makes the current casual mass reappropriation of punk so strange—and so galling to we (now) battle-hardened veterans of the grunge wars. Today, punk neophytes face no such barriers to entry. Latter-day Mohicans Green Day have a long-running rock opera, tirelessly flogged in Broadway touring shows and a behind-the-scenes documentary easily queued up on Netflix. Virgin Money recently licensed Sex Pistols album art for a punk rock line of MasterCards. In a post called “Miley Cyrus Is Punk as Fuck,” no less than the punk editor of Noisey, Vice Media’s music site, declared the millionaire exhibitionist ingénue “the most punk musician around right now.”

“There’s a difference between punk and being a slut,” argued Facebook user Danika May. But judging from the other comments on this piece—each clearly from the social media account of a passionately invested young person—it seems the general culture has at last fully embraced punk. Here, for instance, is the cri de coeur from Facebook user John Law:

I’d say the image miley is going for is a version of punk that people born in the Gen Y can relate to . . . the complex ideology of punk goes way beyond the genre of music—it’s also about not giving a fuck and doing exactly what is authentic to you . . . Miley is punk in the sense that she’s not afraid to piss off the establishment and rebel against the bourgeois values of the mainstream and say FUCK YOU to people who expect from her to conform to what it is to be the ideal role model for little girls—and since she’s successfully managed to enrage millions (including all the haters in this comment thread) with her twerking and naked Wrecking-Ball-Riding, she’s successfully pissed off the establishment, and that’s pretty fucking punk y’all!

Despite the self-assurance of the Noisey commentariat, countless articles, dozens of trade books, and several scholarly tomes, confusion remains about what, exactly, fucking punk is, y’all. As punk pushes into its fourth decade, its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still murky at best. Does punk retain any meaning at all?

Memory Holes

In 1996—five years into the mainstream blitz on punk rock purity and a year before Limp Bizkit dethroned sad-sack alterna-rockers with nu-metal—Penguin Books published Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Although books such as In Contempt, Christopher Darden’s courtroom memoir, and Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook eclipsed it in sales, authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s exhaustive account of punk’s origins would go on to become a highly regarded example of the oral-history narrative popularized by Studs Terkel, as well as a classic rock history. It remains in print, with a second reissue due on its twentieth anniversary next year.

For the layperson, Please Kill Me offered the delights of vicarious sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll: Johnny Thunders’s swollen hands wept blood as a result of his heroin addiction. Dee Dee Ramone’s girlfriend shoved his face into the grille of a Cadillac. Underage groupies with brightly dyed pubes swam naked in Iggy Pop’s pool.

As we greasy teens soon learned, punk was the rightful province of a worthy few who were able to discern irony from sincerity and punks from poseurs.

For the punk initiate, however, Please Kill Me promised more meaningful rewards. Finally, here was a canonical account of the source of so much hand-wringing. Like a long-hidden plate from the Angel Moroni, the book had the potential to redefine the tenets of an entire way of living.

As far as I know, it didn’t live up to its promise. In fact, when I read it (the first of at least ten times, since it’s one of my favorite books), it struck me that, with few exceptions, the people present at the beginning of punk had only nominally political and social aims, and the moral imperative to forswear major labels, money, and fame asserted itself only in retrospect. Although endearingly gross, the thoughts and actions of the people who followed the Modernist edict to “make it new” and had the best and most authentic punk experience were in no way prescriptive.

Indeed, as they presented themselves in this initial round of movement reminiscence, the fearless progenitors of first-wave punk rebellion seemed hardly to distinguish themselves from their despicable Baby Boomer peers. It almost goes without saying that saying FUCK YOU to the establishment and pissing off the squares were aims held over from the radical individualism of the 1960s. Left to its own devices, punk would totally vote libertarian—think of David Thomas, frontman of the four-decades-and-counting épater-le-bourgeois “avant-punk” ensemble Pere Ubu, who has recently come out as an antigovernment individualist in the rawest American grain (even though he’s lived in England for the past two decades).

Besides, anyone who’s seen the Ramones documentary End of the Century knows that punks weren’t entirely free from rules, even within the confines of their small domain. In one of the film’s saddest sequences, Dee Dee Ramone—the band’s lovable, goofy bass player and resident junkie sexpot—tries to set out on his own as a white rapper. By the time he hit his forties, he had grown tired of the bowl haircut, tight jeans, and leather jacket dress code enforced by Johnny Ramone, a man who thanked George W. Bush at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chastened by the verdict of the market—and it must be conceded, abundant evidence of his absent rapping talent—Dee Dee fatalistically dons his bomber jacket and returns to the Ramones fold, never again to depart from the prescribed formula in the short balance of his life. So much for punks doing whatever the fuck they wanted.

Another common understanding about punks is that they alone railed against the anodyne, relentlessly cheerful culture of the 1970s. Even if one were to ignore the disdain all postwar American artists expressed toward anesthetized happiness, a quick survey of films from that era proves this is utter bunk. John Cassavetes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre aside, even the relentlessly bourgeois Annie Hall, a film written and filmed in Manhattan during CBGB’s heyday, showed a pronounced contempt for unthinking chirpiness. Pretension too: in its most famous scene, Annie and Alvy wait in line at the movies in front of a blowhard pontificating loudly about the films of Federico Fellini. Alvy, Woody Allen’s stand-in and, as such, a great admirer of Fellini, grows increasingly exasperated with the man’s bloviations. “He’s just so indulgent,” the man crows to his date, whose face is entirely obscured by Woody Allen’s hair.

Being There

Like Woody Allen, the punks interviewed in Please Kill Me were a mess in the realm of sexual politics. “I think our scene was probably the first scene where guys and girls hung out as friends, equally,” says Elliot Kidd, lead singer and guitarist of the Demons. Please Kill Me contains little evidence of this assertion. For every Patti Smith or Debbie Harry, there were dozens more strippers and groupies whose value was bound up in the accessibility of their ladyparts and their willingness to spend their tips on intoxicants and crash pads for the boys onstage. What’s more, the book’s subjects expend an inordinate amount of energy dumping on Nancy Spungen, the teenage, schizophrenic, heroin-addled prostitute who dated and was probably murdered by Sid Vicious. Please Kill Me, indeed.

Even punk’s exclusive claim to the legacy of the life and work of William S. Burroughs can be easily contested. “The word ‘punk’”—a phrase lifted from the Burroughs novel Junky—“seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked—drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side,” McNeil explains. But not only did 1970s virtuoso jazz-rock band Steely Dan name themselves for a dildo from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, their songs were just as absurd, funny, ironic, and dark as most of the original CBGB offerings. (Not to mention that the polished underground cynics at the helm of Steely Dan were known to take heroin too.)[**]

For every Patti Smith or Debbie Harry, there were dozens more strippers and groupies whose value was bound up in the accessibility of their ladyparts.

Although Please Kill Me raised more Talmudic debates about punk authenticity than it resolved, it did provide a lasting template for subsequent punk narratives. Thereafter, any living person who endeavored to recall his time as an original punk[***] was obligated to discuss heroin, Nancy Spungen, CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, and all the other people from that era who’ve written memoirs of their own; at this point, nearly everyone who stepped through the door of CBGB from 1974 to 1976 has either written or been interviewed about it. The result has been the present-day flotilla of books and half-baked documentaries, their nadir a terrible film about the history of the Chelsea Hotel, the highlight of which was watching two old hippie gents discuss third-hand information about Nancy Spungen’s murder. (Though the 2013 CBGB biopic rates a close second; it’s little more than an extended Behind the Music episode with irritating comic book captions strewn throughout.) It’s easy to imagine a time in the near future when U.S. punk documentaries will reach the same level of formalism that they have in England, where every film, regardless of its subject,[****] is obligated to note that punk changed everything, show the same five-second clip of Johnny Rotten lurching bug-eyed over a microphone, and use Big Audio Dynamite toaster Don Letts as the all-purpose talking head.

This endless retelling of the same stories from every conceivable angle lends itself to the kind of didacticism that also plagued the pop music uprisings of earlier, less self-aware eras, ones far less preoccupied with shrugging off the shackles of ’60s hegemony. Punk is now the province of the rockists—people who adore lists and minutiae as much as they do rock music and who know the intricacies of Television set lists as intimately as they know the different kinds of pedals Hendrix used at Woodstock.

How else to explain Martin Scorsese’s interest in the Ramones? Scorsese, the man who immortalized The Band in The Last Waltz, made the Rolling Stones a film score cliché, and subjected Goodfellas viewers to the interminable guitar solo at the end of “Layla,” continually strives to define the hopes and dreams of his age bracket through its songs. The pop music he reverently ransacks in his film soundtracks doubles as a one-stop shop for Baby Boomer self-expression and turns his films into an image-laden K-Tel anthology for the reflective sixty-plus set. Now that the Ramones are safely dead and embalmed as the latest means by which earnest retirees may spin out reveries of their rebel selves, Scorsese is free to annex their struggles into the grand Baby Boomer narrative. No doubt he’ll produce an epic hagiography that will tell the nuanced story of not just a band but of a generation—one whose story we’ve heard a million times before.[*****]

No, Fuck You

Some punks of my generation—young X-ers, Ys, X-minus-1’s, whatever—slake their unquenchable thirst for authenticity by handcrafting small-batch mustard in exquisitely designed jars. Others funnel their anarchic desires into disruption, screaming a hearty FUCK YOU to things like widget factory protocols and the U.S. education system. Still others hold onto a distant dream of fundamentalist punk rockerdom.

And they do so without any modicum of public embarrassment or basic adult self-awareness. In 2011 the punk-rock nation saw the release of The Other F Word, a documentary about middle-aged, latter-day punks who have become, yes, fathers. Through interviews and performances interspersed with footage of them playing with their children in lovely suburban homes, these tattooed men hope to reconcile their punk ideals with their parental obligations, so as (one assumes) to aid similarly situated restive punks in reconciling themselves to facing up to their responsibilities. If these fellows are the last true adherents to punk’s legacy, it seems punk has not only voted for Rand Paul but is raising children in a McMansion funded by festival dates.

The generic quality of the whole exercise is conveyed, by the way, via a weird sort of documentary mimesis. Filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins relies on her viewer’s fanboy knowledge of the bands she features, only erratically bothering to identify her parade of punked-up talking heads onscreen. Considering most of her subjects are of the Warped Tour variety—a coterie of bands whose music I can’t stand—you’ll have to forgive me for not identifying these people by name. The only one I recognized was Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who is quickly becoming the American equivalent of Don Letts by virtue of his propensity to appear in any and every Yank punk-documentary product. (It must further be grudgingly conceded that he also comes across as a nice, thoughtful dude, which only deepens the mystery of the popular appeal of the Chili Peppers in the asshole-dude demographics.)

“You can do any fucked-up thing you want to do and say, ‘It’s punk!’” says one spiky-haired, tattooed middle-aged man explaining the precepts of his lifestyle. “It’s about going against the grain, no rules,” says another skinny, tattooed, middle-aged talking head. “Punk rock was really nihilistic and it was just about doing whatever you want,” says a tattooed guy in a Thrasher logo cap, with the Blink-182 lyric “I fucked your mom” playing in the background.

As The Other F-Word demonstrates, living punk is indeed about FUCK YOU. But, as the viewer soon learns, it is also about the personal pain brought about by the divorce epidemic of the ’60s and ’70s.

“Our dads weren’t there, man, so fuck you!” says some guy wearing a Stasi cap with a teardrop tattooed underneath his eye.

“The divorce rate! You’re promised the American Dream but get a nightmare,” says a middle-aged tattooed guy, who may have been one of the same guys I’ve already quoted, but I’m not sure. A different middle-aged tattooed guy is forced to square the American Dream with the American Nightmare in real time when his tiny, adorable daughters try to put their Barbie in his suitcase. “Bad things might happen to Barbie on the tour bus,” he says, laughing to himself.

Still, fatherhood has the power to redeem even the most rebellious and alienated. “When the parents saw me pick the kids up, they said, who is this man with earrings and tattoos?” says a man with earrings and tattoos, recalling his first trip to daycare. “But once they saw me holding my baby, they know I’m a dad.” Punks: they’re just like us!


Unlike the comfortable punkers of The Other F-Word, the dangerously thin denizens of mid-’70s punk remain beacons of shabby glamour due in a large part to their world having disappeared. CBGB is gone—and worse, its awning is now preserved within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose values punk was nominally intended to oppose. The Chelsea Hotel was slated to become yet another Manhattan condo development, but the project stalled before it could be converted into pieds-à-terre for Russian oligarchs; it’s set to reopen next year. Some punks died young, some died in middle age, and some live on. But none of this matters: according to punk gospel, real punk disappeared very shortly after it began.

“The scene got polluted by the press,” the painter, Guggenheim fellow, and erstwhile punk scenester Duncan Hannah explains in Please Kill Me. “Suddenly, people from uptown were coming downtown and it was really a shame to me. Suddenly, CBGB was packed.. . . I remember punk was in Vogue, and when that issue came out, I saw Diana Vreeland at CBGB and all these tourists, right? Slumming—in the Bowery. And I just thought, ‘Ah, forget it. You know, if they’re gonna do this, I quit.’”

The notion that reproduction pollutes art dates back to at least the Romantics, but the ramifications of Hannah’s statement are clear: identifying with punk means absolution from the shifting winds of popular taste. To venerate some brief, gone thing spares the supplicant the grief and embarrassment of change. Furthermore, it staves off what the kids are calling FOMO, or the fear of missing out. How can you worry about missing out on something long gone?

On a recent trip to New York, Ariel Pink, a musician I like very much, played a secret show a few blocks from where I was staying. I found out about it on Twitter hours after the fact and I just felt lame. Had it been 1975, I would have remained blissfully unaware for days, maybe years. First-person accounts of the past allow the beholder to believe she would have been alongside the people that mattered, not left in the dark. In the end, this non-exclusive sense of belonging is the great benefit of any lingering purist allegiance to punk, no matter how commodified, cynically exploited, or otherwise doomed it proves to be. As that embarrassingly decrepit Boomer icon Mick Jagger put it a half-century ago, in a line almost certainly repurposed in a Martin Scorsese soundtrack: “Our love is like our music—it’s here and then it’s gone.”

[*] Viv Albertine’s and Kim Gordon’s should not be lumped in with mere rock memoirs, since they are explicitly feminist works that interrogate their authors’ work and lives as rock stars in the context of feminism; their stories belong to feminist, punk, and cultural history—whereas Chrissie Hynde recently said girls in short skirts deserve to get raped.

[**] There is also an argument to be made about Steely Dan’s lack of pretension, but it’s not one I can win.

[***] With the exception of Patti Smith, God bless her. Just Kids is a really great memoir that does not discuss CBGB much at all.

[****] Even Genesis!

[*****] Really, nothing against Martin Scorsese except this one tiny quibble.