“Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage. ”
– Kurt Cobain, suicide note (1).
The real story of punk rock will, probably, never be told. I suppose that’s because most of the surviving participants have too much ego invested; or because, as the years fade, and the original social context disappears, the meaning of Punk – at its inception – becomes harder to decipher and easier to forget.
I was in NYC in ’76, when it was first breaking for the national press, and I hung around CBGBs under a number of pseudonyms, trying to write reviews and articles on bands that nobody ever heard of, many of them breaking up before I could dot the last “i” in the last paragraph. And I tried out a couple bands of my own (2), weird blends of Iggy Pop (3) and the Velvet Underground (4). But I was really an outsider (coming from upstate); and when the London scene started shipping singles over, I knew that, for whatever reason, my heart was really more into “Anarchy” (5) and “White Riot” (6) than the metal-surf-music of the Ramones (7) or early Blondie (8). But this disjunction of ‘right time wrong place’ or whatever, allowed me to see the development of Punk in a way others seem content to ignore.
The fundamental problem that Punk never resolved (and neo-punks struggled with it ever since), is, whether Punk was to be a continuance of the “counter culture” of the ’60s in different guise, or just another pop-music for sexually frustrated young people.
The ’60s counter culture, it may be remembered, offered itself as a ‘revolution’ of consciousness – free from the pressures fascistic politics, conformist culture and capitalistic economics, people could at last realize their full potential as creative souls and express the beauty within by enjoying all the pleasures the world had to offer – the dawning of the age of Aquarius (9).
We punks originated as a kind of antidote to much of the fuzzy-headed pretentiousness of the hippies of the ’60s. Too much of the ’60s counter culture simply ignored hard concrete truths about the kind of animal we are; about the cities we live in; about the problems with the various pleasures the world seemed to offer. Punk seemed, at first, to confront all these issues, while still offering a sub-culture in which we could survival as reasonably free from the demands of conservatism, conformity and capitalism. Unfortunately, the surrounding culture has a myriad ways to subvert and co-opt such offers, and Punk did not so much crash-and-burn as it bled into the surrounding landscape – and not without cost.
This sounds like an empty theoretical issue, but it has one all-important concrete aspect to it no one can ignore – money. Did (do) punks make music to make music – or to make money? That question was never answered; or, perhaps, every punk answered (answers) it in his/ her own way. Yet once we begin adding up all the individual answers, most of them sure come out sounding like “money”. Yet the memory of Punk survives largely because it seemed to be about anything other than money; so the dilemma continues.
That dilemma surfaces in the discovery of the wretched rip-off Pistols manager Malcom McLaren pulled, not only on the audience, but on the Pistols themselves (while he was signing contracts, Johnny Rotten was living on the streets). Watching the documentary “The Filth and the Fury” (10) again recently, moments from the (thankfully unfinished) “Who Shot Bambi?” (11) make it very clear that McLaren had not the slightest clue as to who the Pistols were, or what they represented. Yet he not only continued to guide their career after their break-up, but is warmly mentioned in Griel Marcus’ scholarly history of Punk, “Lipstick Traces” (12), which will probably bear influence on punk histories, long after the last “photo-album” paperback turns to dust. Yet it is clear that from the get-go McLaren’s only interest was the profit.
The Pistols were right, and are right, to ignore questions concerning their “materialism” or “selling out”, since they were never part of the hippies’ ‘anti-materialism’ ideal to begin with, and because they never denied a desire for some paycheck (which they almost never got from McLaren). But also plain is their desire to make the music of the UK working-class slums from whence they came.
All of this comes to a head in the brief yet unforgettable tragedy of Sid Vicious – for whom music meant freedom, and money meant – heroin. But junky ‘rock stars’ don’t play at commercial venues to make music. He ended up in NYC, which by then had a punk scene swarming with record-co.-exec vermin dealing dope and poseur sycophants trying to score. Eventually all that was left was the heroin, and it killed him (13).
The final performance at Winterland (14) is adequate reminder of why it was many of us thought, at the time (and still believe) that the Pistols were the most important rock band in history: same-old same-old music concerts are “no fun” and Steve Jones and Rotten (knowing they’ve been betrayed by McLaren into performing for the corporate music world they hated) rub our noses in it until they’ve had enough and stalk off. If you can see this – and know what it’s about – and still pay $200 to see Mick Jagger pull his wrinkled pud at you from his rocking chair (15), you either need to develop a deeper appreciation of history, with a greater sense of the social reality of professionally made music – or you need a psychiatrist.
(1) cobain suicide note:
(2) – when the moon turns to blood/free sex gum (a much later version!):
(3) – i wanna be your dog/stooges:
(4) – white light/white heat/velvet underground:
(5) – anarchy in the uk/sex pistols:
(6) – white riot/clash:
(7) – rockaway beach/ramones:
(8) – in the sun/blondie:
(9) – age of aquarius/fifth dimension:
(10) – the filth and the fury/trailer:
(11) – who killed bambi/clip:
(12) – lipstick traces/marcus:
(13) – lydon on vicious:
(14) – no fun/at winterland/pistols:
(15) – jagger turns 70:
(16) – lydon on cobain:
“Hope I die before I get old” – The Who, My Generation.