The Return of Sacripolitical

It’s been 25 years since my old band, Sacripolitical, played its final show at Club Chameleon in San Francisco. Chalk it up to punk nostalgia, middle-aged ennui, or simply an excuse to hang out with old friends; whatever the reason, we’ve recently been having a fun time getting together again and practicing some of our old songs. The newly reconstituted Sacripolitical is made up of: John Marmysz (vocals), Matt Schmidt (guitar), Mark Wallace (bass) and Gary Benson (drums).

When I was in my 20’s, the band was an important part of my life. In existence for almost ten years, Sacripolitical offered a cathartic outlet for my raging emotions as well as an opportunity to work together with good friends, creating music that still means something to me today. We played songs about the meaning (and meaningless) of life, sex, hope, crime, politics and war – always infused with a good dose of humor and irony. We performed in a lot of nasty little clubs, warehouses and living rooms for nothing more than the enjoyment of getting in front of a sympathetic audience and making a racket.

Now, in our 50’s, the band offers a similar kind of fun: bonding with old friends, sharing memories, and creating music for its own sake. At a time in life when so much of what we do seems focused on “sensible” and “practical” goals, it is nice to have a creative outlet that is its own goal and that needs no justification beyond itself.

In addition to the old songs, we’ve also started to write some new material. Here are the lyrics to Gogol’s Nose, a song inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story. It is something that Matt and I started to conceive in the 1980’s, but which only now, in the 2000’s, we have started to develop in earnest:

Gogol’s Nose

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

Opened up my eyes to the early morning rays,

The best night of sleep I had had in days.

Hopped out of bed and looked at my face,

Screamed in shock at what was not in place!

 

A void had opened up right above my lips,

A blank space, flat flesh! I started to flip!

The thing that allowed me to breath in fresh air,

Was completely gone; it was no longer there!

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time being so debonair,

Life could be so easy if you just didn’t care.

Make the right impression, you’re in a rat race.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [4 X]

 

I thought to myself, “That fuckin’ nose!

He’s taken off, stolen some of my clothes!

I’ll need to track him down before he gets too far,

And leaves me with this embarrassing scar.”

 

So I ran out on the street and it was there in the news,

The headline in the paper was my very first clue,

My nose had been spotted wearing my cape,

Boarding a carriage and making his escape.

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time trying to be a big shot,

Life is so short, appreciate what you got.

You’re rushing here and there; haste makes waste.

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose [4 X]

 

I hailed a ride and without a pause,

I yelled at the driver, “Follow that schnozz!”

He looked at me strange, but I gave him some dough,

And with that we lurched forward and started to go.

 

It turns out that my nose was impersonating me,

Buying fancy clothing, booze and jewelry.

My reputation was on the line,

I must stop that proboscis and end his crimes!

 

I found my nose at work, insulting my boss.

I got him in a bear hug and I started to cuss:

“Listen motherfucker, this nonsense must stop!

Get back on my face, take a place in your spot!”

 

He broke from my grip and tried to get away,

But I punched him in the nose and blood started to spray.

My nose was now defeated and passively,

He whined, “Why on earth would you do this to me?”

 

[Chorus]

Spending all your time playing to the herd,

And you think that the story of my nose is absurd?

Don’t do nothing special, don’t step out of place,

You’d cut off your nose just to spite your face!

Gogol’s Nose! [8 X]

 

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Summer Road Trip

Despite having spent the bulk of our lives as residents of California, my wife Juneko and I had never visited San Diego, the state’s second largest city. In order to correct this oversight, we decided to make it the destination of a summer road trip. We would follow Highway 1 south from Marin County, stopping for a couple of nights in Morro Bay – another town we had never visited – before continuing on to our final destination. After three nights in San Diego, we then would head back north, stopping for a night in Pismo Beach.

The first leg of our journey took us through one of my favorite cities, Santa Cruz – where we stopped for coffee and pastries – and then through the Big Sur region of the California coast. Here, Highway 1 curves along the shoreline, elevated atop cliffs that drop off into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This is where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin lived, where the Manson Family lurked for a while, and where members of the Esalon Institute still meditate and frolic in New Age bliss. The views are amazing, but you have to keep your eyes glued to the road in order to avoid plunging to your death.

Near San Simeon – the location of Hearst Castle – we pulled off the road to take a gander at a long stretch of beach that has become a resting place for a colony of elephant seals. Lined up on the sand like slick, leathery logs of driftwood, the seals lay on the shoreline, taking in the sun while ignoring tourists who stand overhead snapping photos. They (the seals, not the tourists) reminded me of our own lazy dog who likes to bask in the heat on the deck at home. Replace our dog’s legs with flippers and he could join this sea-going pack; though he probably wouldn’t last long. I think these seals are much too rough, vulgar and wild for our civilized chihuahua.

We arrived in Morro Bay around 4pm, and after checking into the motel, we walked a few blocks down to the harbor to take in some sights and eat some dinner. The Morro Bay harbor is a working harbor busy with fishermen hauling in their catches. It is home to a Coast Guard station as well as an abandoned power station with three imposing smoke stacks. It also, incongruously, is a protected wildlife sanctuary. The tour book we carried with us takes a subtly disparaging tone toward the place, describing it as “working-class,” but for me, it was actually a refreshing change of pace from tourist locations like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Seattle’s Pike Place. The Morro Bay harbor is small, uncrowded and unpretentious. While I would not recommend the restaurant that we ate at our first night (I was served a weird, tasteless and unpleasantly mushy dish that was a combination of ground up abalone and scallops; something my wife described as “jackalope”), I would recommend spending a day wandering around the docks. As the men clean their equipment, sea lions swim about, lounge on the piers and bark at one another. Meanwhile, rafts of sea otters float on their backs, cleaning their fur, snoozing and eating. It’s really a very cool sight.

The next day, we went back to the harbor and walked to Morro Bay’s landmark: Morro Rock. Sitting on the coastline and jutting about five hundred feet above the water, Morro Rock is a volcanic plug so distinctive that it has been used for centuries by seamen as a navigation marker, and thus has been dubbed “The Gibraltar of California.” In the early 1900’s nearly half of the rock was blasted away to provide material for the construction of Morro Harbor, but in 1963 it was designated a national landmark. Visitors are not allowed to climb the rock, which is a nesting place for peregrine falcons and other sea birds, but you can hike to its base, becoming acquainted with hundreds of overfed ground squirrels that reside there and beg for food.

Morro Rock looms in the background wherever you go in the town of Morro Bay. It is always there, either appearing in the distance or hiding behind trees or buildings, just waiting to be revealed as you change your perspective. One especially good vantage point comes from taking a short hike up to the top of Black Hill in Morro Bay State Park. If the fog has cleared, from the peak of Black Hill you get panoramic views of the shoreline – punctuated by Morro Rock – as well as the town, the harbor, and in the opposite direction, the other volcanic plugs making up the “Nine Sisters” that stretch all the way down to San Luis Obispo. Climb back down the hill, and you can hike along trails that run along the Morro Estuary. Here you can take in bay views while encountering rabbits, birds and some of the most prosperous succulent plants that I have ever seen in my life. At the Bay View Café, located in the State Park, my wife and I ate clam chowder mixed with green chilies, a plate of fried clams and fish and chips. It was all reasonably priced and quite good.

The next morning we hit the road at around 9am, hoping to get past Los Angeles before 3pm. We had been warned after that time the traffic could become an almost impossible impediment. Despite arriving in the LA region well ahead of deadline (1:30 pm), we nevertheless did end up stuck in a traffic jam on Highway 101 that did not come to an end until we passed through Long Beach. There was nothing we could do except sit tight and repeatedly mutter, “Fuck!” as we spent about three hours slowly inching forward in southern California traffic, finally arriving in San Diego at around 6pm.

I had booked a good online deal at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gas Lamp Quarter, not quite understanding the atmosphere of the place. It’s a rock and roll themed hotel catering to party-goers and rowdy college students that is apparently bent on encouraging guests to overindulge in booze and sex. Along with wine and liquor, the rooms are stocked with condoms and lubricants! When we checked in, the concierge informed us that as guests, we were invited to attend their rooftop pool party the following evening. “There will be a DJ and half-priced drinks,” he informed us. Then he asked what kind of music we preferred to have piped into our room. When I said, “Punk,” he shot me a confused look. “That’s the first time anyone has asked for that. Sorry, but we don’t have it. Anything else? Heavy Metal perhaps?” My wife suggested Alternative music, which was a genre that did make sense to our friendly host.

Ironically, when the doors of the elevator opened onto our floor, the first thing we were greeted by was a wall sized photo of punk icons Sid and Nancy! In fact, photos of the Sex Pistols, The Ramones and Blondie appear throughout the property. Given this, I think the management of the Hard Rock Hotel needs to rethink some of their policies. I advise them to treat punk rock as something more than just a historical museum piece. Offer the option to have hardcore punk music piped into the rooms. Get rid of the condoms and lubricants and instead stock the mini bars with Guinness, Pabst Blue Ribbon and hypodermic syringes. Drain the pool and invite guests to use it for skateboarding. Instead of rooftop parties, set up faux dive bars with filthy bathrooms and urinals that won’t flush. This would open up a whole new marketing strategy, I assure you.

That night, we ate some terrible tacos at one of the numerous restaurants on 6th Street near the hotel and then spent a few hours sipping drinks and people watching from the front porch of an Irish pub. The Gas Lamp district is a bustling location, crowded with people of varied ages drinking and socializing late into the night. There are a lot of college kids, but also older folks and service members from the nearby Navy and Marine Corps bases. Tough looking, thirty-something men with shaven heads, baseball caps and tattooed arms saunter along next to softer looking, long-haired twenty-something young men dressed in kakis and collared shirts. The young women are dressed up in fancy dresses or dressed down in cut-off shorts and skimpy tops. Tattooed flesh is abundantly on display. Mixed in among the youngsters are middle-aged folks that might be the parents of college students. There is also a heavy law enforcement presence, which might be one of the reasons why the situation on the street did not feel like it was going to spin out of control despite all of the youth, hormones and booze. When I was a teenager, I would have hated this place. Now that I’m fifty four, it was actually quite relaxing to hang out until well past midnight, detached, watching the people pass by.

The next morning we ate breakfast at The Hob Nob Hill Restaurant, a place featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The food was fine, but not outstanding. It was the atmosphere of the place that was the real attraction, with its 1950’s style décor and upholstered booths. Afterwards we drove through Balboa Park and went to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This is the largest zoo I have ever visited (also the most expensive!), covering over one hundred acres and housing more than 3,500 animals including capibaras, elephants, gorillas, and orangutans –and that’s not counting all of the bald, tattooed tough guys who wander the grounds drinking beer with their tattooed wives and tattooed children in tow. We spent about four and a half hours meandering along the paths, throughout the aviaries, and past the enclosures before getting on the “Skyfari” gondola that offers a bird’s eye view of the park from about one hundred feet above the ground.

After leaving the zoo, we ate dinner at another Guy Fieri endorsed restaurant called the Crest Café. I had a vegetarian sandwich that was very tasty and my wife had breakfast tacos, which she said were OK. Afterwards we walked around the Hillcrest neighborhood; a place that felt like a small Haight Ashbury, teeming with a wide and varied assortment of alternative-type people. Taang! Records is located here, and we spent some time browsing through their vinyl, which includes $300 copies of old punk records and $5 CD reissues of old Oi! Classics. The walls of the store are covered with records by bands from the old days: The Mentors, Slaughter and the Dogs, Cock Sparrer, GG Allin. There are posters, cassette tapes, old children’s record players, buttons, patches and all sorts of other punk ephemera for sale. If you are in San Diego, you must visit this place.

For our final day in San Diego, we drove to Coronado Island and visited the Hotel Del Coronado, a national historic landmark that was built in 1888. The hotel is a Victorian style building with red turrets that sit atop its white washed walls. The dark, hardwood interior of the lobby makes you feel as if you are in a cave when you first enter from the front steps, but once you exit the main building toward the rear, sunlight pours out over the lawns, the landscaping and the beach. There is a walkway lined with overpriced bars and food stands stretching along the shore next to the sand. The Hotel Del Coronado has appeared in movies such as Some Like It Hot and My Blue Heaven, and in television shows such as Ghost Story and Baywatch. Rooms at the hotel range from around $300 a night to over $1,000 a night. For that price you could buy some vintage punk vinyl.

We crossed back over Coronado Bridge for a final visit to Balboa Park, ranked as one of the best parks in the world by the Project for Public Spaces. Balboa Park covers fourteen hundred acres of land, and is home to a variety of museums in addition to the San Diego Zoo. We wandered through the lush grounds of the park for a couple of hours, looking at the Spanish inspired architecture and pausing next to the reflecting pools, before eating some excellent seafood tacos at Oscars Mexican Seafood and then heading back to our hotel for the evening.

The next morning we drove north on Highway 101, thankfully avoiding the awful traffic that delayed us when we were southbound, and headed toward our final overnight destination: Pismo Beach. Our stay here was not during the peak season, so the town was relatively quiet and peaceful. We were told by a shop owner that in July, things get pretty crowded and crazy, so I’m glad we visited when we did. The town is located right on the beach, which features waves for surfers and a long pier for those of us who just want to gaze at the ocean. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck intended to vacation here in the cartoon Ali Baba Bunny, but they made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

If they ever do make it to Pismo, they would enjoy the food at Cracked Crab, on Price Street. I’m still thinking about the deep fried brussel sprouts, a dish that is probably one of the best things I have ever tasted. The chioppino was also incredible, brimming with crab legs, mussels, clams, and shrimp. I felt like one of the otters that we saw in Morro Bay as I dug through the shellfish and stuffed my belly. Juneko had a crab sandwich that was also delicious.

After dinner, Juneko and I walked out into the darkness and onto the city pier, reminiscing about our thirty three years together. We talked about death, love and hope. Engulfed by the evening gloom, listening to the lapping of the ocean waves on the wooden pilings, the two of us gazed out at the black waters stretching out toward the horizon. The sea was virtually indistinguishable from the night sky, making it seem as if we were suspended in the midst of a shadow. Thin lines of white foam formed on the surface of the black water below, outlining waves that moved toward the shore, breaking and disappearing into nothing. Again and again, the same cycle of wave after wave erupted out of the watery void, repeating endlessly. Currents that led nowhere, accomplishing nothing, moved this way and that.

“We’re kinda like that,” I thought.

Ludovico Teknique

(Note: This is part of a larger project chronicling the history of punk rock in Marin County, California during the 1980’s.)

After the breakup of UXB in 1983, Peter Hansen, Derek Johnston and Scott Williams formed Ludovico Teknique. In need of a new rhythm guitar player and bassist, Derek posted flyers in local music, record and book shops, advertising for musicians friendly to the band’s punk influences, which ranged from Iggy Pop to The Angelic Upstarts.

It was during this period that Derek first met Mike Crowell at the Rafael Book and News, a beloved Marin newsstand and meeting place on 4th Street in downtown San Rafael. Located next door to the Rafael movie theater, the Book and News attracted a wide and diverse variety of patrons in search of everything from paperback novels and pornography, to movie and music magazines. It went out of business in the late 1980’s when George Lucas bought the building in order to expand his film archive, but in its heyday, this was where you could hang out, socialize and browse through magazines such as Violent World, Hammer’s House of Horror, Cinefantastique, UFO Report, Creem, Punk, Slash and hundreds of other titles. Juneko Robinson recalls that, “it was filled with a lot of stuff that appealed to young people. As a teenager, I remember saving my money so that I could buy a copy of The Encyclopedia of the Occult there.” The place was crammed full of books and periodicals found nowhere else in Marin. With narrow aisles that could accommodate only one person standing sidewise, the store was definitely not wheelchair friendly, and with about 500 square feet of tightly packed books, newspapers, magazines, tobacco, lighter fluid and matches, it was a also a fire hazard. Nevertheless, it was a one-of-a-kind gem that many long-time Marin residents still, today, remember fondly.

Derek was in the Book and News one day when he encountered a couple of metalheads who were looking through music magazines. “I heard one of them say ‘Judas Priest,’ so I leaned over to him and said, ‘Lame.’ Then he said something about The Scorpions, so I leaned over again and said, ‘Lame.’ Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Motorhead?’ I gave him the thumbs up.” The metalhead was Mike Crowell, who recognized Derek as the guitar player from UXB. Derek invited Mike to audition for the new band, and he soon became Ludovico Teknique’s first bassist. He also exchanged his long hair for a skinhead haircut. Kent Cates joined as rhythm guitarist, but was replaced by Ronnie Montana before the band’s first gig.

Ludoviko Teknique’s musical style was in some ways stylistically continuous with UXB, but it also in some ways took a different, more polished and experimental turn. “UXB’s songs were machine-gun like,” says Derek. “If you listen closely, a lot of the guitar parts actually resemble songs by the Circle Jerks. With Ludovico Teknique, I wanted a more ethereal sound. I was looking to do something a little bit different; something more arty.” The “artiness” of Ludovico Technique was reflected in many of the flyers that Derek made to advertise the band’s gigs; one of which invited audiences to “An Evening with Ludovico Teknique” against a backdrop of Greek statuary. The band bio – written by their “press guy” Lon Huber, a cashier at the Book and News – emphasized the band’s synthesis of arty inventiveness and punk belligerence:

“This power-mad, high-energy rock assault team has been known as an art band (tell that to the lead singer Peter and he’ll show you why he has a criminal record), but Ludovico Technique’s music is aesthetically confused enough to drive audiences to frenzies of “dancing” otherwise associated with animals lacking complex nervous systems.”

The bio goes on to suggest that, among all of the band members, it was only Derek who had “a complete sense of the unit’s direction, often sharing his personal philosophy with audiences by whipping full cans of Econobuy beer between songs.” At once aggressive and reflective, raw and polished, the contradictions in Ludovico Technique’s music sought an uneasy compromise between elements of 1970’s British Oi! and street punk (as evidenced by the band’s Clockwork Orange inspired name) and art-rock.

For some fans of UXB, the “ethereal” transition made by Ludovico Teknique was not immediately welcomed. Derek recalls the band’s first performance in 1983 at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax. Instead of a ripped t-shirt, he had decided to appear dressed in a collared shirt and blazer in honor of their new image, but was greeted by jeers from a member of the audience taunting them as “sellouts.” As the band started playing their new set of songs, Derek remembers hearing that same voice yelling, “Play Jesus! Play Jesus!” The reference was to a song that UXB would regularly cover: the incredibly vulgar and sacrilegious Jesus Entering from the Rear, by the Phoenix punk band The Feederz. Derek could see that Peter was getting agitated by the heckler, and in exasperation Peter finally handed the microphone over to the obnoxious audience member, telling him, “You go ahead and sing it!” before storming off stage. Unsure if the other members of the band knew how to play the Feederz song, Derek nevertheless launched into Jesus Entering From the Rear, and John Marmysz, the obnoxious heckler, jumped up on stage to sing the song that would bring their first show to an end.

Ludovico Teknique went on to play regularly in Marin and San Francisco, garnering a dedicated following of fans and good reviews. One critic wrote, “Peter Hansen, formerly of UXB, is a strong lead sing, not too hysterical but histrionic enough for proper entertainment. Excellent lead guitar by Derek, very sensitive for hard rockin’.” When their music started to get local radio play, Derek reports feeling as if things were moving in the right direction. “After we played at the VIS Club one night I was approached by the club’s owner who told me he was interested in promoting us. I thought, ‘this could be good!’” In the end, despite their ambitions, and though Ludovico Teknique would be in existence a year longer than UXB, they would remain an underground, Bay Area phenomenon.

Over the course of three years, Peter and Derek were the band’s core members. Mike was eventually replaced by Darcy ? on bass, and just like UXB, Ludovico Teknique went through a long string of drummers – including Tony Short (from 5th Column and the Toiling Midgets) and Brookes DeBruin – until finally Gary Benson took over as their last drummer. Mike returned to play bass in the band’s last year of existence, 1986; an incarnation that Derek judges to be the band’s finest.

One of Ludovico Teknique’s best numbers, which received a lot of radio play on KUSF, was Blind Justice. Accompanied by a harmonica and female back-up singers, in this song Peter’s vocals fluctuate between punk-rock rawness and operatic grandeur. Peter and his wife had recently had a child, and his lyrics reflect his experience, lamenting the oppression of struggling, working class families by the rich and proposing a revolutionary change in leadership that would balance the scales of social justice:

Blind Justice

Your time has come to pay!

 

I see you drive by every day,

But you don’t ever stop and look my way.

Behind the blackened windows in your Mercedes Benz,

You secretly do condemn.

 

You rob our families, one at a time,

You’ve ripped off everything but our pride.

Well now finally on top and feeling free,

I can see you but you can’t see me!

 

You can have this for free,

A little shot of reality!

Righteous leaders for me!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Now I’ve got you in my sights,

And I think I’ll take my own sweet time.

Don’t you worry about your family,

Because you’ll get your justice tonight!

 

It’s a golden opportunity,

To return all the favors that you did for me.

Return your money with lightning speed!

The secret is a shot of reality.

 

Your time has come to pay!

You won’t have to suffer,

I will make you pay!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Your lawyers they can buy you time,

But there’s no place left to hide.

You will pay your debt to mankind,

‘Cause justice is no longer blind!

 

They can’t control the masses,

Or any man.

They don’t know the masses, NO!

It’s just an unpaid plan!

Blind Justice illustrates some of the ways that, while rooted in the hardcore punk sensibilities of UXB, Ludovico Teknique’s music was also evolving in a different direction. Their songs were becoming more musically complicated, and their lyrics, while still political and angry, started to focus on the personal struggles and frustrations of adult life.

Ludovico Teknique. From left to right: Mike Crowell, Derek Johnston, Peter Hansen, Gary Benson.

Peter’s appearance and behavior also started to evolve with the band. He grew his hair out, and, as Derek states, started to cultivate an “impressive set of dreadlocks.” His usual mode of dress was no longer “punk,” but was characterized by regular work clothes, and sometimes by a fedora that he would wear on stage. Derek reports that toward the end of the band’s existence, Peter became increasingly distant from his bandmates. Whereas in the past he had been very easygoing and tolerant, he began to exhibit a temper, which Derek recalls once seeing on display at a party. “He was holding his kid and someone sneezed right next to him. Peter blew up, yelling at the guy and threatening him with violence. Peter had always been someone you didn’t want to mess with, but I had never seen him react like that before.”

In addition to the pressures of adult life, it may have been the influence of drugs that were a factor in Peter’s changing demeanor. Peter had developed a heroin habit, and both Derek and Gary recall that this was something that increasingly became a problem for the band’s practice and performance schedule. Derek recalls one show, when they were headlining at the 16th Note in San Francisco, that the band was forced to take to the stage without their lead singer, who was nowhere to be found. They began playing their set, not sure what to do, when finally Peter appeared halfway through the first song. As he began to belt out the lyrics, Derek looked over, and Peter stared back at him wide-eyed, gesturing to his own rear-end. After the gig, Derek learned that Peter had shit his pants on stage.

Another time when Peter was shuttling band members and equipment in San Francisco, Gary recalls that he made an unannounced stop, double-parked his truck and ran into an apartment building. When he came out, he jumped back into the truck, and started speeding down the road. As he drove, Peter threw a heroin filled rig to the person riding in the passenger seat, ordering the passenger to inject it into Peter’s arm. After his fix, Gary reports that Peter acted normal, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Regularly, according to both Derek and Gary, Peter would disappear when they went into the city, saying that he would catch up with them later, but never reappearing. “We knew he was out looking for dope.”

“I don’t want to make Peter look like the only guy who did drugs,” Derek cautions. “We were all pretty loaded.” But it was Peter’s obsession with heroin that had the most profound impact on the group, affecting both their performances as well as influencing the message of their music. Take, for instance, the lyrics to the song Everything, which Derek calls “Peter’s ode to heroin”:

Everything

 

I run up the stairs, third floor on the right,

Give you a call and I walk up inside.

Surrounded by videos and blinking Christmas lights,

You’re perking your soup there in the candlelight.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie there on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re right beside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

When I see you, you always make me wait,

But I know you’re up to something now behind that iron gate.

When I try to phone you, you pretend like you’re not home,

Leave me freezing and shakin’ all night alone.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

Walk through back alleys in the early morning light,

If I don’t see you everyday I just don’t feel right.

Keep me awake as I knock up on your door,

I see you laying there stretched out on the floor.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

Ludovico Teknique continued performing into 1986. One of their last performances was on the bill with The Pukes, Sacripolitical, Victim’s Family and Fang at the Warehouse in San Rafael. It was a packed show with an enthusiastic crowd. Despite an ungrounded microphone that sent electric shocks through anyone who touched it, all of the bands played their hearts out, putting on tremendous performances; except for the headlining band Fang, whose lead singer was so intoxicated that he was unable even to stand up on stage. After the end of the show Derek and Mike approached the organizer, Mike Kavanaugh, asking to be paid, but Kavanaugh complained that Ludovico Teknique had not put on a very good performance. Besides, he pleaded, he had to reserve enough money to pay the “big name” act that evening, Fang! As a consolation, he offered them $7. Outraged by the injustice, Mike Crowell began yelling at Kavanaugh and spit in his face before storming out of the warehouse. Outside, he discovered the members of Fang crouched inside a sports car doing drugs in the parking lot. Still seething with anger, he proceeded to kick out their headlights with his steel-toed Doctor Martens before stomping away from the scene!

The year after the breakup of Ludovico Teknique, Peter Hansen was killed in a construction accident in Davis, Ca. He fell from the roof of the house that he was working on, hitting his head and dying at age 30. Despite his later drug problems, his bandmates remember Peter warmly and fondly as a friendly, kind and talented man. “He was just this very fatherly, nice sort of guy,” Gary recalls. Derek remembers him as “a really nice guy,” while Mike Crowell says, “He was a fantastic lyricist.”

After Ludovico Teknique, Derek Johnston went on to play guitar in a series of San Francisco acts, including The Noise Boys and The White Trash Debutants. Mike Crowell started a number of bands, the longest running being the Reducers SF, who still perform about once a year. Gary Benson continues to play drums, most recently in the band Earstu. Kent Cates currently plays in Altar DeFay. The other members that made up Ludovico Technique remain MIA.

The Nihilist @ Bound Together

I dropped by Bound Together Books in San Francisco on Sunday and was pleased to find that my novel The Nihilist has continued to do good sales. I’ve sold books and fanzines through this store for decades, and I hope to continue supporting them for a long time into the future. It’s one of my favorite bookstores anywhere!

Home and Homelessness in Punk Rock

“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”

–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1

Introduction

Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.

But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.

In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.

Homelessness

Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold ­– as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.

However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.

When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.

This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4

As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.

Home-building

Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.

The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.

Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.

The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.

We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.

Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.

Subcultures and Home

When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.

Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.

As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.

Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.

But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.

In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.

Punk Rock

There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.

This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.

The Swastika

A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:

It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13

Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.

In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:

You still think swastikas look cool?

The real Nazis run your schools.

They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.

In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16

Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.

The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.

Underground Clubs

The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.

The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.

Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.

Fanzines

Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.

The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.

And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.

Notes

  1. Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.

 

  1. Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.

 

  1. Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.

 

  1. Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.

 

  1. Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.

 

  1. Plato, 31.

 

  1. Hebdige, p. 63.

 

  1. Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.

 

  1. Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.

 

  1. Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.

 

  1. Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.

 

  1. Griel Marcus, p. 118.

 

  1. Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.

 

  1. Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.

 

  1. Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.

 

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).

 

  1. Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.

 

  1. Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Ibid.

The Avengers

Since I was a teenager, I have adored the legendary San Francisco punk band The Avengers. Their self-titled pink album – released after their breakup in the early 1980’s – was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Whether it was on the stereo at house parties, on the cassette deck in the car, or on the sound system at local clubs, songs like We Are the One, I Believe in Me, The Amerikan in MeOpen Your Eyes, Second To None, and Fuck You always seemed to be there, playing in the background. Often, these songs refused to remain in the background, as the defiant passion of the music had the power to get everyone within earshot to stop and sing along. These were songs of unity, self-confidence, and rebellion against the corrupt, adult world. It was music that united young punks like some sort of alternative national anthem.

I was too young to have seen The Avengers perform live in their original incarnation, but now, almost 40 years later, I got the opportunity to see a reformed version of the band play at The Ivy Room, a small, intimate club in Albany, CA. The new lineup retained Penelope Houston as lead singer and Greg Ingraham on guitar, while adding new members Joel Reader on bass and Luis Illades on drums.

Two opening bands – The Neutrals and The Smokers – began the evening with some rousing punk numbers. The Neutrals somehow reminded me of the British band XTC, though they cite Wire as one of their influences. A three piece band whose British lead singer was at times snotty, at times aloof, at times frantic, The Neutrals played a simple, tight and aggressive set of songs. Following them, The Smokers, a four piece band from Oakland, roared through their repertoire of punk songs with great gusto and enthusiasm. They were also very enjoyable. These are two bands I would go out of my way to see again.

When The Avengers took to the stage, it felt as if I was in some sort of wonderful dream. The familiar songs of youth filled my ears. As one, the crowd sang along with Penelope Houston (who seems to have lost none of her passion and energy), raising fists in the air while swaying back and forth like waves on the surface of a single body of water. The strangers around me were mostly my own age, making me imagine that they – like me – were also reliving some of their own youthful, teenage punk rock memories.

But what made the evening especially terrific was to be with some of my old friends; people with whom I share concrete experiences and memories. My wife Juneko Robinson (who I first met when I was 17), my old friend Matt Forristal (with whom I have had many teenaged adventures), and Derek Johnson (whose bands UXB and Ludovico Technique were among my favorites in the 1980’s) were all there, sharing in this punk rock communion. For the duration of The Avengers’ performance, it felt like we transcended current time, entering a trace-like state separated from the worries and obligations of the present.

The wonderful dream came to an end after The Avengers concluded their encore and left the stage for the evening, forcing me to wake up to the realities of the present: going home to let the dog out, getting some sleep, and anticipating work that would have to get done the next morning.

I look forward to more dreams.