From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bad Brains: Hardcore of Darkness

Hardcore? I can’t use it. Not even if we talking Sex Pistols. ‘Cause inner city blues make me wanna holler open up the window it’s too funky in here. And shit like that. Or rhythms to that effect. But listening to the Sex Pistols is like listening to a threat against your child, your wife, your whole way of life: You either take it very seriously or you don’t take it at all. Depends on whether or not you’re truly black or white I guess. Or so I thought. Because never mind the Sex Pistols, here come something for the ass. Namely, the Bad Brains. Baddest hardcore band in the land, living or dead. So bad bro that even if you ain’t got no use for hardcore on the blackhand side, you’ll admit the Brains kick too much ass to be denied for the form. Whether you dig it or you don’t. Besides which, sis, sooner or later you got to deal with this: The Brains are bloods. That’s right, I’m talking a black punk band, can y’all get to that? Because in the beginning, the kid couldn’t hang — I mean when I was coming up, you could get your ass kicked for calling an­other brother a punk. Besides which, very few black people I know mourned the fact that Sid Vicious fulfilled his early promise. But, then, being of black radical-profes­sional parentage, the kid has always had the luxury of cultural ambivalence coupled with black nationalist consciousness. That’s why my party affiliation reads: Greg Tate, Black Bohemian Nationalist. Give me art or give me blood. Preferably on the One, but everything I do ain’t got to be funky. So, a black punk band? Okay, I’m game.

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Dig: Formed in District Heights, Mary­land (a black low-moderate income D.C. suburb) around 1977, the Brains turned to hardcore from fusionoid-funk after getting sick of the AM/FM band and hearing a Dead Boys LP. Or so the story goes. Less apocryphally, virtually anybody who cares will tell you that Chocolate City’s hardcore scene begins with the Brains. Which means that to this day defunct punkateers like Minor Threat, Teen Idles, S.O.A., and the Untouchables still owe the Brains some play for being the first to say “Let’s take it to the stage, sucker!” Or however one punks out to that effect.

Now when spike-headed hordes of mild-mannered caucasoids came back from the Brains’ first gigs raving that these brothers were ferocious, I took the brouhaha for okey-doke. Easily in­timidated, easily titillated white primitivism is how I interpreted that mess. Just some freak-whiteys tripping behind seeing some wild youngbloods tear up white boy’s turf. No more, no less. But when my own damn brother — Tinman we call him — came back raving the same shit, I had to stop and say, well, goddamn, these furthermuckers must not be bullshitting. And now that the Brains got this 14-song cassette out on ROIR, it’s for the world to know they ain’t never been about no bull­shitting. Hardcore? They take it very seri­ously. You say you want hardcore? I say the Brains’ll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I’m talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Mean­ing that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain’t, funk it ain’t hardly, and they’ll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain’t that a bitch? Especially considering that sound unseen some y’all could easily mistake these brothers for soulless white devils. Because unlike Hen­drix or Funkadelic, the Brains don’t trans­mute their white rock shit into a ridimically sensuous black rock idiom: When I say they play hardcore, I mean they play it just like the white boy — only harder. Which is just what I’d expect some brothers to do, only maybe a little more soulfully. Complicating this process in the Brains’ case is that while 95 per cent of their audience is white, they’re also Jah-­praising Rastafari who perform hardcore and reggae (albeit discretely). Making them two steps removed from the Funk, say, and a half-step forward to Mother Africa by way of Jah thanx to the Dead Boys. Or more specifically the British Rasta/punk connexion.

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While only three tunes on the Brains’ cassette are Ital — if mediocre — roots mu­sics, Rasta permeates their hardcore via a catch-phrase they use liberally: P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude. In practice, this means that unlike many of their hardcore contemporaries the Brains don’t shit on their audience — which last time they played D.C. was two or three dreads, a whole lotta skinheads, lunatic funkateers, heavy-metal rejects, and some black fash­ion models — but instead reason with them in hardcore dialect, a messianic message of youthful unity, rebellion, and optimistic nihilism. Which is somewhere not even a “progressive” punk anarchist like Bellow Appalachia of the Daft Kindergarteners has gotten to yet. In The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige says that the critical dif­ference between Rasta and punk re­bellion — one life-embracing, the other death-defying — derives from Rastas hold­ing to the dream of an African utopia and punks seeing themselves as locked into a culture without a future. The Brains’ ex­traordinary synthesis of the two is of course made possible by the fact that they’re black. Nobody seems to know how or why they arrived at this synthesis — ­apparently not even them. But the contradictions such as fusion reconciles are not only profound but very handy: How to be black (not Oreo) punks and how to be punks and look forward to waking up every morning.

And while that may just sound like some seriously schizzy shit to you, sis, I don’t think the Brains’ mutation into tri­ple-identity Afro-American/Rasta/punk was brought on solely by an identity crisis. It was also encouraged by their convic­tions. Because when the Brains adopted British punk’s formal conventions and “classic” thematic antipathies — toward mindless consumerism, fascistic authority, moral hypocrisy, social rejection — they took to them as if they were religious sacra­ments. And when the Brains play hardcore it is with a sense of mission and possession more intense than that of any of the sadomasochistic Anglo poseurs who were their models. And yet, though locked into the form by faith and rebellion, the Brains inject it with as much virtuosic ingenuity as manic devotion. Their hardcore jux­taposes ergs of sonic violence against a surprisingly inventive slew of fusion-fast sledge hammer riffs, hysterical stop-time breaks, shrieking declensions, and comic asides (like the surf harmonies and soul arpeggios in “Sailing On” or bassman Dar­ryl’s gonzo Segovian intro to “Banned in DC”). And onstage, the band’s Scot­-screeching frontman H.R. throws down like James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, backflips, splits, and skanks.

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Ironically, the Brains’ genuine feeling for this music isn’t unlike what British rock’s first generation felt for the blues. Ironic because the Brains are black; hard­core is white (and no matter how much Hendrix and Berry they ripped, it still ain’t nothing but some whiteboy sounding shit now) and who would’ve ever thought that one day some bloods would go to the white boy looking for the spirit? Not to mention the revolution! I mean, if the Brains wasn’t so serious I’d think they were trying to revive minstrelsy. Because while they play hardcore as good as any white man ha ha, like it was in fact second nature, their reggae ain’t shit. Not only does it have less bottom than their punk, it also sounds half-assed and forced; more an outgrowth, like Dylan’s nascent gospel, of sanctimonious intent than of innate reli­gious fervor. Signifying, if nothing else, how far down river the Brains’ missionary work has taken them from the wellspring of most black music’s spirituality — ­namely, the black community. Because where punk’s obnoxious energy is an at­tack on the parent-community, Rasta-in­fluenced reggae draws strength from the ideal of a black community working in harmony. An ethic which isn’t foreign to black music not from Yard either: the Funk Mob identified it as one nation under a groove, James Brown called it soul power, and I call it doowop tribalism. The need for which makes even such outre individualists as Jarman-Moye-Favors­-Mitchell-Bowie bind into “Great Black Music” ensembles; makes Cecil Taylor work himself into a “Black Code Method­ology/Unit Structure”; makes Ornette Coleman improvise a funk-based, demo­cratic system of notation. The need, in other words, for a unified black community respectful of both holy tradition and indi­vidual expression. An ideal which leaves me respecting the Brains for their principled punk evangelism and worried for their souls. ❖


The Butch Fantasy: America Goes Punk

Inside Keller’s, the air is stained with sweat and beer. Outside on West Street, a silent chorus line of denimed young men grip their beer cans and lean on fenders.

One man in the crowd seems overcome with joy. It is quite incongruous. He is large and well-built, like many of the others, but instead of the usual tight jeans he wears loose pajama pants, and instead of the usual crew cut he sports long blond locks that shake every time he moves. Which is often. He is doing some sort of demented psychedelic jig in the midst of this inebriated circle, and as he moves into the light you can detect something fetid in his ro­bustness. He has the air of one who sucks avocado pits for a living. Obviously from San Francisco.

On the Bowery, a mile and half across town from Keller’s, a smaller stand of denimed young men maintains an equally silent and hostile vigil outside CBGB, the biker hangout turned punk-rock capital of the world. Like their counterparts by the docks, these young men on the Bowery have mastered the art of aggressive lounging. It is waiting and not waiting at the same time, spurred by the realization that there is nothing to do except nothing, perfected by generations of rednecks who guzzled beer and collected dust by the side of the road. There is no remnant of a hippie dancing outside CBGB; if there were, one of these punks might make as if to beat him up. Punks love to threaten hippies, at least theoretically, but the butch numbers outside Keller’s merely suffer them in silence. The butch code prohibits violence outside of sex; the punk code promotes violence in place of sex.

The Bowery and West Street never cross. They are parallel boulevards which traffic in mythic projections of masculinity. These projections depend on swagger, beer, blue jeans, seaminess, nihilism and the threat of violence —   sexual violence with gays (how inappropriate the terms sounds for a butch), fraternal violence with straights. As one who does some hanging out on both sides of town, I have occasionally become confused. But is this really my fault? Of course not. It’s the natural response of one dropped into mirror worlds.

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Christopher Street started going butch about three or four years ago, after an extended femme phase dating from the Stonewall Rebellion of ’69. The countercul­ture was reasonably tolerant of femmes — it was pretty femme it­self, after all — and in a couple of years femme chic became an item to compete with bell-bottom jeans. But about the time pugnacious straight kids started camping about in satin tights and feather boas, short hair and Levis started cropping up on Christopher Street. Now, insiders say, the butch look has peaked among gays and is ready to be replaced by a mysteri­ous “something else.” If so, that can only mean its imminent em­brace by the rest of the country.

The beginning of the end proba­bly came when the Eagle’s Nest started playing disco music. The Eagle’s Nest, named after Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, is the premier leather bar in the country. Once you could go there and watch a leather man grab another butch number by the crotch and squeeze until the guy was writhing on the floor; you knew the leather man had picked his slave for the night. Now you see more shorts than leather, as many hairdressers as cowboys.

It’s hard for a regular to feel ­intimidated at the Eagle anymore. It’s even harder at the Anvil, which stages a show-biz version of what used to go on all around you at the Eagle. It’s out of the ques­tion at the Stud. The Stud has a poster of Fonzie on the wall and is more likely to be filled with pretty boys than leather ones. They con­verge around a pool table in the front room (where the bar is) and around each other’s crotches in the back room (where the sex is). The Toilet, as the name implies, is a specialty house. You can check your clothes for $1, take a seat on the john and revel in the golden showers of a pack of beefy studs. Most visitors, prefer to keep their dollar and their clothes. Those who suffer inhibitions about urinating down a human throat have to content themselves with a tiny sink by the toilet-room door.

The streets, the piers, and the bars along the waterfront form a sordid world, romantic in its grim­ness, so stark and primitive it seems utterly surreal. Despite the trendies, the Dickensian murk re­mains. Walking down to the Eagle at night is like stumbling onto a deserted set: Walled in by empty warehouses, cut off from the river by the silent edifice of the elevated highway, picking your way through the shadows, you feel trapped in a cul-de-sac with only one exit available. So you open the door on the corner and enter a dimly lit room filled with strutting specters from a working-class past. It’s a vision of industrial America in a postindustrial age, a corroded vision which even the Ashcan School could scarcely have imagined.

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Legs McNeil, the resident punk at Punk magazine, is sitting in a Penn Station bar, trying to explain what it means to be a punk. “It’s just being a normal person,” he says. “That’s what we are — normal people. We’re not perverts.”

When we left Punk‘s editorial offices — Tenth Avenue at 30th Street, only a few blocks above the leather turf — Legs started telling me about this dream date he’s just had in Cheshire, Connecticut, where he’d grown up. He took this girl to the swamp where he’d massacred frogs as a kid and the two of them got it on on a railroad track. The only drag was that his girl friend kept getting bitten on the ass by mosquitoes. The mos­quitoes didn’t bother him. What’s a few mosquitoes when you’re get­ting laid on a railroad track?

Legs agrees that the macho stance is gaining popularity and attributes it to a natural return from the excesses of the counterculture. The counterculture at­tempted a yin-yang symbiosis of male and female; now that’s breaking up and the male is com­ing out on top. “Punks are, like — ­the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks,” he says. “The macho thing is cool. It’s not so cool to go around busting heads, but … when it happens, it happens.”

Still, punks might not be con­sidered “normal” by some people. Legs grins, “My mother thinks I’m sick,” he admits “But, look — parents thought Elvis was sick; parents thought the Beatles were sick. What do parents know? Parents even thought the Stones were sick.”

Legs suddenly grows pensive. “You know … Mick Jagger might be sick. David Bowie’s real­ly sick. He’s such a faggot.”

Faggots are sick. Legs does have some friends who are faggots, but they don’t go around talking about it all the time. They’re cool. You have to be cool to be a faggot. The ­butch guys? “They’re nuts! Those guys are Nazis! They’re weird! The stories you hear about ’em — like those s&m places where they beat the shit out of people. Nobody can convince me that that’s nor­mal.”

I ask Legs about the Go Club, the notorious band of south Village punks who have gotten some bad press lately because of their al­leged involvement in various local beatings, etc. He hasn’t heard of them. But he does recall walking down Bedford Street late one night and encountering a sidewalk full of tough-looking guys who didn’t seem too thrilled by his presence. So he moved off the sidewalk and continued down the middle or the street. “I guess maybe I respected their code that way,” he offers.

Maybe they thought you were a fag, I suggest. Lotta fags in that neighborhood, you know.

He hadn’t thought of that. The notion disturbs him. “I don’t think so,” he says at last. “My leather jacket is different from a fag’s.”

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Remember high school? Punks are like the guys we used to call greasers, although the updated version no longer uses grease. The stereotype casts them as street­-smart roughnecks whose goal in life is to get drunk, have fun, and look for an opening. Greasers have been around all along, but their numbers were depleted and their self-image badly battered ey the mass hippie conversion of the ’60s. Now they are coming out of the closet, as it were, nudged by a rapid succession of media images: Bruce Springsteen, Fonzie, the Beatles revival, Dion’s return, even Neil Sedaka’s (Sedaka was never a punk, of course, but his syrupy crooning fills a romantic void for chicks who know they’re chicks). The number of punks who consider themselves punks is still fairly small, but all that remains is for media image to reshape reali­ty. The long-haired kids who form the norm in every high school outside Manhattan might see themselves as latter-day hippies but they have a lot more in common with punks.

The international HQ of punks­ — their Eagle — is CBGB. CBGB is a dangerous-looking place which is really quite safe, a former Hell’s Angels hangout on skid row on the edge of the Lower East Side. The choice of locale is ironic: punks on the Bowery, broken youth stumbling into the home of broken age; gays on the waterfront, pretend men swaggering around the empty workshop of real ones.

The Bowery is home to kids whose masculinity is almost as heavily stylized as anything you’d see on the waterfront — to people who, in Nietzsche’s phrase, have been “dipped into the ether of art.” For some, it’s a literal home; for others, less adventuresome, it’s the Haight-Ashbury of ’76. They come in from the Island to listen to the CBGB bands. They’re not greasers any more than the gays on the waterfront are stevedores, and they don’t listen to greaser music. They prefer power-chord brutality and atonal disconnected­ness to streetcorner harmonies and shoo-wop heartache. But they’ve consciously adopted the style and the pose of greasers, updating where necessary.

At the moment, CBGB’s influ­ence is restricted to New York and its patronage is restricted to a few. Still, says Punk magazine’s editor, the idea is “definitely hitting a nerve.” If it hits the right one, CBGB could become the Cavern of a new generation. The Ramones could become its Animals. And Punk could become its Esquire.

Punk magazine was started last winter by John Holmstrom (a former student at the School of Visual Arts), Legs (who made educational films for the state of Connecticut after failing to get a high school diploma), and a third chum from Cheshire, Ged Dunn. They had just made a short film called ”The Unthinkables” — a takeoff of “The Untouchables” — and decided to do a magazine. Now, with five issues and a growing circulation, they find themselves at the forefront of the punk rebellion. They’re not quite sure how they feel about it. When asked if he thinks punks will be as big as hippies were, Legs says, “I hope not. That’d be a drag, like being a hippie in ’65. We do wanna take over the world, though. We wanna be able to do whatever we want.”

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Legs draws an analogy between, punks and gangsters. especially the kind of gangsters you see in Jimmy Cagney movies. Gangsters become gangsters, he points out, “because they want to be like everybody else [i.e.. rich] and that’s the only way they know how.” Punks are natural hustlers. They don’t wear sneakers and dirty blue jeans by choice; what they really want is smoking jack­ets and Havana cigars and a Lear jet and a cellar full of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and a Swiss bank account and lots of beautiful women. If you had to form one image which would capture the punk cold, it would be this: a kid with dirt under his nails and ripped Levis around his ankles, jerking himself off while staring into the pages of Playboy.

Rock is as central to punks as sex is to butches. Each is a com­mon language and a means of escape. For butches — the majority of whom are successful, affluent achievers — sex is a ticket into sleaze, into a Dionysian playland where anything seems possible. But punks already live in sleaze. For them, rock is a ticket out, because it looks like the quickest and easiest war’ to get rich and famous.

Life is like a giant high school: When you get rich and famous, you become a senior. Never mind that any number of punks don’t even get to be seniors in high school. So what if you spend three years in 10th grade? As much as a punk wants riches and fame, he also wants to be a kid forever. Either option offers shelter, and rock stars have both.

John Holmstrom, sees the punk as a tragic figure — cold, violent, alienated, frustrated, nihilistic, self-destructive, yet undeniably romantic. Holmstrom is the editor of Punk magazine. A few years older than Legs, he sometimes got threatened by greasers as a teen­ager because of his long hair and hippie wimp attitude. “You’ve got to be really naive to be a punk,” he says. “It’s really violent, and you’ve got to be naive to be into vi­olence.”

Holmstrom has an ironic de­tachment which Legs, the gung-ho professional, lacks. Holmstrom sees the reality: that most punks grow up to be pathetic figures if they aren’t pathetic figures al­ready. Legs, like all punks, wants only fantasy. “That’s why today’s movies are so bad,” he says. “Who wants to know about reality? We want the good stuff. You have to create the most dangerous and threatening illusion.”

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Stripped to its essentials, Legs’s dangerous and threatening illusion is the same as the Eagle’s, the same as John Wayne’s, the same as any man’s. It’s what a man has to create to be a man. A man acts out his vision of how a man is supposed to act, and the careful cultivation of fear provides just enough stimulus to provoke the best performance. Too much fear, and things might get out of hand; too much fear, and he might not act like a man is supposed to act.

This dangerous and threatening illusion is especially what a work­ing-class man has to create to be a man. The popularization of butch implies that it’s what a lot of nonworking-class males want to create, too. Unlike greasers, the punks of the present are frequently from comfy, suburban, middle-class homes. For these people, being a punk means rejecting mid­dle-class softness for lower-class virility while fighting for upper­class luxury. It’s almost like the voluntary poverty of the late ’60s, except that hippies thought they could transcend poverty; punks want the challenge and the strug­gle of transcending poverty, in a more concrete way. Money is to daydream; virility is to flaunt. And in the absence of real money, a strutting pose is what connotes virility.

There’s a basic elitism at work here, not only among bourgeois “punks” but among butch gays as well. The blue-collar guys — the hardhats, the rednecks, the shitshovelers — are perceived as noble savages, as primitives uncorrupted by money and status. The real blue-collar guys may be trapped by convention, religion, and right-wing politics, but the stud liberal living out his he-man fantasies has none of those bur­dens. He’s either a kid or a faggot; he doesn’t have in-laws. It’s a white man’s fantasy. You don’t see many black punks on the Bowery or many black cowboys on Christopher Street. Butches see other races as exotic, like Leni Riefenstahl among the Nuba. (I have a friend who spent months at the trucks trying to find a genuinely scuzzy Puerto Rican kid, but every one he picked up turned out to be a medical student.) Punks simply don’t see them at all. “We’re not racist,” says Legs, “we’re just more into our own thing. It’s like saying to an Italian, ‘What about Polacks?’ ”

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Racism is the final badge of manliness, the final link between the intellectual gay or the suburban kid and the macho preserve, of the all-American shitshoveler. If you make that link — and it’s not hard for any white — you’ve made the working-class connection you need to be a man.

Nevertheless, a real gap re­mains: Working-class America just can’t meet the expectations of these self-conscious poseurs. I don’t know about the truck drivers you know, but the truck drivers I know all have bulges in their waistlines, not their crotches. Working-class America needs a little polishing up.

Which is just what the new butch could accomplish. It’s a difficult job, because it demands a self­-consciousness that most straight, white, male Americans are reluc­tant to embrace. They might be willing to put on a white belt and matching loafers in the name of fantasy, but a leather jacket? Punks are too self-conscious; after all, greasers, with their combs and their switchblades, were symbo­lized as much by vanity as by violence. Punks are too rebellious and too juvenile for adults, and maybe too urban for kids.

For years, kids across the country have been getting off on shitkicker bands like the Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. Not only is their image anti-urban (and, by extension, anti-intellectual as well); it has the­ added advantage of not demanding  a clean break with the Woodstock heritage of the ’60s (since long-haired are now an accepted phenomeoon). Evangelical punks have an uphill fight, because they demand just that break.

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The prospects for proselytizing leather don’t look good either. But butch gays do provide a choice; they’re not locked into the leather look. There’s the construction-worker look, the cowboy look, and the truck-driver look. Forget con­struction workers: too prosaic. Scratch the cowboy looks; it may sell Marlboros, but most Americans couldn’t drive a horse to the corner store. But truck drivers? They have possibilities.

Truck driving is a supremely American activity. Its very existence is a monument to Manifest Destiny; if the country weren’t so enormous, it wouldn’t be any big deal. It looks dangerous, but just dangerous enough to provide a thrill. It’s romantic, but it’s inescapably masculine. It’s a job for the independent man. It’s lonely sometimes, but there’s always the truck stop just down the road with the cute little waitress — fleeting contact, no deposit no return. With the right sales medium, truck drivers could be as big in Middle America as they are at the Anvil.

Enter CB radio, the hula-hoop of hi-fi. CB is the perfect medium for selling butch to the silent majority. It has the lure of technology and gadgetry, but it’s also linked with traditional American values like freedom and rootlessness and red­necks. It couples the shelter of anonymity with the warm, cozy feeling of companionship. It offers all the rituals of a select society, with a secret mumbo-jumbo any­one can learn and a zipless antenna the whole freeway can envy. (How long before antenna on the left means dominant mama and antenna on the right means submissive good buddy?) It’s as American as Betty Ford. It’s truck driving without the truck.

Like rock and sex, CB. is both a medium of communication and a means of escape — a ticket to a fantasy world where men are men­ and chicks are chicks and humping is humping. To some of its habitues, CB radio must become public-access reality. But for most, its public-access Marlboroland. So what if the bulge is in your waist? Switch the dial: Suddenly you’re on I-15, pushing a load of goldfish to San Bernardino, and there’s smokeys on your right and a convertible full of naked cheerleaders on your left and you’re about to screw the double nickels and cream all over the speedometer. All in the comfort of your own living room.

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Let’s face it: Butch is every­where. The President’s sons have become the biggest source of celebrity beefcake since Marlon Brando. An ex-leatherneck does a soft nudie for Playgirl and a hard one for a gay pornzine. Rugged young studs do for cigarette sales what buxom girls did 20 years ago. Harold Rosenberg once described masculinity as “a myth that has turned into a comedy” — and where there’s a comedy, somebody has to sell the tickets. There are bucks to be made out of this: so let’s not waste any time.

I have this friend who is addicted to Locker Room. Locker Room is the patchouli oil of the ’70s. It’s a colorless liquid that comes in a little vial and is supposed to smell like those places where men put on their jocks together. And it does. The funny thing is, one whiff of it from the open vial sends you reeling, just like amyl nitrate. Masculinity works the same way. Especially if you bottle it. ❖

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

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Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

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Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

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Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

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It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

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The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

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This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

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Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

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Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

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Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.


Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

Two years ago, standing on a pier jutting into Delaware Bay, I told Legs McNeil, the “Resident Punk” of Punk Magazoon, the most moral thing I’ve yet said in my journalism career.

Legs and I were in Wilmington, Delaware, for the “First Annual Sleaze Convention.” Legs was the “Con Special Guest Star.” This owed to his then-inflating reputation for doing nothing much but drinking, eating in McDonald’s, watching television, and reading comic books. Those days Legs’s professed only goal in life was to sing the theme song from Eva Gabor’s TV show Green Acres before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. He had also been known to take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, look out on a perfectly clear city night, and say, “Wow, you can see Nathan’s from here.”

This was very impressive to the organizers of “Sleaze Con,” a group of Delaware weirdos who edited a magazine called the Daily Plague. Legs was the embodiment of sleaze, a true citizen of the Modern World. They treated Legs and me to an annotated tour of an all-night supermarket. All nine brands of pork rinds were identified and labeled. A boys’ choir sang recipes for “mock apple pie” off a box of Ritz crackers. Later, Richard Nixon sugar packets were passed around. It was all “random American rot,” the Sleaze Con people said.

Now Legs and I were waiting for Godzilla. There was some hope the great beast would raise his head above the electric green waters. After all, the entire state of Delaware is the personal playground of the Du Pont family, and the city of Wilmington puts up signs on Interstate 95 saying, WELCOME TO WILMINGTON, THE CHEMICAL CAPITAL Of THE WORLD. These factors seemed to produce a unique environment. Not long before Sleaze Con, the Wilmington city fathers paved over the decaying downtown streets where blacks hung out. Shiny malls full of potted oak trees and contemporary supergraphics were put in. The idea was to get white people to shop downtown, and that worked, but there was a problem. The development was overrun by Mall Monsters, a mutant strain of huge cockroaches. Supposedly swollen to an incredible girth by the concentration of test-tube runoff in the area, the giant bugs were the scourge of Wilmington’s urban renewal plans. Baskin-Robbins employees reportedly got plenty of overtime sweeping the roaches away with push brooms.

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Legs and I, both hypersensitive to the thickening rumble of the apocalypse, took the insects as a sign. Our sources had informed us that there was enough witch’s brew in the Delaware River to make a comfy home for any Oriental radiation monster that no longer got high off the atomic surf in the Sea of Japan. Legs and I felt that if we watched the water long enough, things would begin to cook. The air would get dank and expectant. The water would begin to crash against the hulls of supertankers. Soon the trumpeting ring of raging foam would begin to form. And then, there he’d be — ­Godzilla, sardonic and magnificent, the soul of the Modern World, the patron saint of the postatomic age. Just sitting there, staring at the smelly water, made Legs and me feel like Wise Men, searching the skies for the right bright object.

But Legs, with an attention span as long as a manic-depressive’s fingernail, got bored. He bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and drank it all, just the way he always did. Soon he was raving, screaming his usual shit about teenagers taking over the world. Shut up, I told him, yelling was spoiling the vigil. Fuck that, Legs said, he wasn’t waiting for Godzil­la, like some asshole in a play. He was taking matters into his own hands. Seconds later he jumped off the pier and disappeared into the murk. Next time l saw him was a minute lat­er. He had his spindle arms wrapped around a piling. Bright algae was smeared across his face so he looked like a messy kid eating a blue ice. After I helped him onto the dock, he looked at me with a desperate horror that had my socks going up and down. “I saw things down there,” he said. “I saw things, but I didn’t see him. I didn’t see Him.” Then Legs collapsed. I had to carry the jerk back to the Lord Della-Warr Motel, the hooker­-infested joint where we were staying. It was then, as I recall it, with Legs over my shoulder like a harpooned carp, his spittle dripping on the back of my knee, that I said my most moral thing. I said, “Legs, you asshole. I am not doing this story on you. I am not taking the responsibility for making you famous.”

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It wasn’t until later that night, only after he had rolled out of bed, located a Sleaze-Con groupie, taken her back to the motel, and was interrupted fucking by members of the Blondie band who broke into his room and threw ice cubes on his kitty back, did Legs get the gist of my meaning. Those days I was working in the Felkerian salt mines for New York  magazine. The Felk, frothing to finger still another trend, sent me to “identi­fy” punk, the crest of which was then beginning to media crash. Legs liked the idea of New York magazine, he thought it was toney.

Back then Legs was devoting most of his ferret energy to becoming “famous.” He used to crawl around the beer­-dripped floor of CBGB, biting people on the calf. When they looked down, Legs would be there with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Hi, I’m famous,” he’d say, and scurry away. After the Godzilla incident, however, Legs and I weren’t so tight. He’d see me on the Bowery and shout, “There goes the guy who didn’t want to take the responsibility for making me famous.”

Legs will never believe it, but I held off for love, because there’s something about Legs McNeil I really love. I used to think that someday I’d write a novel with Legs as the leading character, and the book would contain everything I know about living in the Modern World. Legs’s character would be similar to the one Ray Milland plays in the Roger Corman film X — The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. In that movie Milland is a doctor who discovers a special serum that enables him to see “what others cannot see.” In the beginning Milland has fun. He cheats at cards and looks through blouses. But eventually he sees too much. He sees the center of the universe, the driving force of the galaxy. “No one,” he says, “should see so much.” The last scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting. The harrowed and half-crazed Milland tells his problem to the brimstone preacher, who says, “If thy eye offends you, pluck it out.” Milland does.

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Talking to Legs has always given me the ghostly feeling of being with someone who knows too much for his own good. In Legs’s case, it is knowing too much about the true horror of his generation. That, as it turns out, is a road to madness.

Legs could have avoided this if he didn’t have such a crazy desire to be cool. Legs has got to be cool, or Legs isn’t anything at all. Once Punk ran a contest asking readers to write in why they were punks. The best reply came from somewheres in Queens. It said, “I’m a punk because I’m cool and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”

That was Legs. He grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburban town that has DENTIST written all over it. The streets in Cheshire are neat and Waspy. The kids go to college and have fathers like Jim Anderson. Legs’s life, however, did not follow that pattern. He lived across the railroad from the manicured lawns, in the hollow of swamp bog. His father died of cancer when he was two months old. Before that, his grandfather blew his head off in the family chicken house, and his grandmother committed herself to a mental institution. Throughout his childhood Legs always asked his mother where his father was and why his grandmother’s house had bars. His mother worked as a secretary to make sure the McNeils would always have a home in Cheshire. But they never really belonged there. Legs’s face tells you that. It is a shanty-­Irish face, the kind that rides a forklift in Fall River, Massachusetts. But Legs wasn’t born for the treadmill. He felt a tiny artist’s pitter-pat in his cholesterol-influxing heart and wanted desperately to have something to show for being cool.

To Legs, teenagers were the coolest. All the Archie comics he read and TV he watched in Cheshire told him that. He saw how the big kids drove cars and took chicks to the Fillmore blasted out of their gourd. He figured that must be what cool is. But by the time Legs got to be a teenager, in the early 1970s, everyone was telling him he was too late. All the cool stuff was over. The Summer of Love, acid, battling the government, splitting for the Coast, none of that was left.

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Legs couldn’t believe it. Waiting all this time to be cool and getting gotz. There had to be something to break him out of Cheshire, something cool to call his own. The radio and everything else were still jammed up with the flotsam and jetsam of another generation. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my asshole — Legs knew a burnt-out case when he heard one. He tried glitter rock, but he couldn’t make his butt fit the French cut.  And everywhere they were talking about how this new batch of youth had the “new seriousness”; how kids today only wanted to get good grades and be corporation lawyers. No doubt, Legs thought, these have got to be the uncoolest times ever to come down the pike.

Desperate, Legs dommied up in his room overlooking the swamp and proceeded to go into one of the longest wigstretches on rec­ord. II ow could a cool person be cool in an uncool time? It was a skull buster and Legs schemed far and wide. He went out into the stratosphere, the zoneospbere, the goneos­phere, and the way-goneosphere. When he came back and dug what he had brought back with him, it knocked him under the bed covers for another two weeks. Cool, Legs psyched out, is an arbitrary thing. Anything could be cool if you say it is. Hitler said hating Jews was cool, so the German teenagers said, hey, lets stop painting our toenails and go hate some Jews, it’s cool. That nugget buzzshotted Legs’s gray curls. So he stayed home another week and spun out another mess. He furthermored, it wasn’t so much the things you thought were cool that made you cool, it was the feeling of being cool — ­when you know you’re cool — that really made you cool.

This month-long head session gave the teenage McNeil a blueprint for action. In­stead of apologizing for being born too  late, Legs railed against his smug ’60s-loving eld­ers. “What do you love?” he demanded. “Pot, long guitar solos, battling the govern­ment, wearing bright colors, being mellow? … Well, I hate all that. All that sucks and is uncool.”

“And what do you hate?” Legs went on. “Television, burgers, drinking, violent beha­vior? … Well, I love all of that. I declare these things to be mine. I appoint liking Ho­gan’s Heroes and McDonald’s to be cool. I love America, too. I love everything about Modern America, the long freeways, the whole bit. Any country that produced Eddie Haskell has to be cool.”

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Legs’s coolness cosmology was, of course, total reaction. But anyone without his brains buried on the Upper West Side has to realize the necessity and logic of it. I mean, the kids have to dance. But who would have figured Legs’s coolness would turn out to be brave? By deciding the Modern World was his Godhead, Legs decreed that, in order to be cool one had to be hip to how to live in such a contemporary landscape. It was a task an entire generation had called impossible, choosing instead to label the Modern World “plastic” and cuddle themselves in the fantasies of “going back to the land.” Legs had picked a rough road to ride. But at least it was convenient. To be cool, Legs wouldn’t have to go to Mexico and get the runs under a volcano. Nor would he have to give pennies to belly-swelled babies in Calcutta. Legs grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. His muse was all around him, inside and out.

It didn’t take Legs long to realize there were other disgruntled, would be cool teenagers who shared his search for the hip. There was John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, his buddies from Cheshire. They wanted to be cool, too, albeit without Legs’s manic desperation. Better adjusted to the middle class, they dug Legs because he did reckless things like talk the local high school into giving him money to make a class film and then get expelled for spending all the bread drinking. One night, when the three friends were driving down the Wilbur Cross Parkway with nothing to do, Legs grabbed the wheel, swerved the car across three lanes of traffic, and drove it into a ditch. Then he jumped into the back seat, stuck his nose into the crease, and started whimpering about how he was having a “coolness freakout.” He needed an outlet for his coolness or he’d commit suicide.

To save Legs’s life, Holmstrom and Dunn decided to move to New York and start a magazine. At first Holmstrom wanted to call the mag Teenage News because they were only interested in teenage issues. But it was eventually changed to Punk because Legs was a big fan of a Dictators song, “Weekend.” It goes: “Eddie [Legs’s real name, sort of — his actual name is Roderick Edwin McNeil. He took Legs because he loves Ray Danton] is the local punk / throwing up and getting drunk/ eating in McDonald’s for lunch.” Dunn, a budding capitalist who compared Punk‘s mimeograph machine to a Carl Sandburg steel mill, became the publisher. Holmstrom, a genius cartoonist, and Harvey Kurtzman disciple, made himself editor. Legs, however, couldn’t figure out what to call himself. He couldn’t draw and had no head for business. Finally he decided on “Resident Punk,” a combination “secret agent”/ Alfred E. Newman title calculated to make him a legend by age 19.

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At last, Legs was cool. It was mid-1975, the beginning of the CBGB punk emergence that Punk would help turn into a national media phenomenon. Legs was key on the scene. Any night you could see him standing in front of CBGB, a loose cigarette hanging from his lower lip, two punkette groupies on either arm of his leather jacket — the one with the rips under both armpits — cutting a wicked figure.

Those days Legs’s brain cooked like a burning idea factory. On the Bowery he met other suburban kids who had suffered the uncertainty of cool through their early teenage years. Kids who had also racked their brains for an answer to the question: How to be cool in an uncool time. Many of them, like the Ramones, the members of Blondie, and the Dictators, had come to the same conclusions as Legs and thrown themselves headlong into study of the Modern World. Legs spent those early CBGB nights discoursing on Bullwinkle Moose and TV commercials with Joey Ramone. To Legs, these conversations had the momentous freshness of Mao and Chou revealing their similar passions for ideas by the light of one candle in a cave.

One night Legs found out that he, Joey, and two members of Blondie had all had the same dream. They dreamed of Monty Hall saying, “Well, would you trade your life for what’s behind that curtain?” After that, Legs knew that his generation, the first ever to grow up completely within the Modern Age, had acquired a huge collective subconscious. The power and vastness of this concept made Legs burst with creativity. Often he would sit in the back of CBGB, listening to the Talking Heads sing “Don’t Worry about the Government” and make up his “Famous Persons” interviews for Punk. Legs did straight Q-and-As with “personalities” like Boris and Natasha and the cast of Gilligan’s Island. He treated people like Carl Betz as if they were real. Which they were, to Legs. Once he said “I am exploring an alternative environment. It’s love a world like ours, but not quite. It’d the kind of place you could wake tomorrow and think you’re home but actually you’d be just part of the boot heel of some asshole in another galaxy.”

I remember the day Milton Glaser came by my desk and picked up an issue of Punk. He thumbed through it, looking at the hand-printed features (it was Holmstrom’s master stroke that made Punk the best magazine of neo-literate times — he made the whole thing look like a comic book; that way he could print the theory of relativity and kids would read it), the illustrated interviews with Lou Reed, Legs’s craziness. Glaser sat down, visibly shaken. “These guys could put me out of business,” he said. If Punk worried Milton Glaser, I knew here was something big.

This was the beginning of my appreciation of punk as a spectacularly American way of cool. How fabulous to have something new to dig after years of mealy-mouthed postmortems in Berkeley. All that baloney by drones like Norman Plodmorris about the essence of the 1970s and here it really was. I loved that the Ramones’ first record was made in 18 hours and cost only $6000. Figures like that cut away the flab of indecision. So did the music. The Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which has the lyrics, “I don’t wanna walk around with you/ I don’t wanna walk around with you/ so why you wanna walk around with me?” boiled away any other, superfluous ideas I had about high school cool. It was all I needed to know about adolescence in general. It was as if the Ramones, none of whom were named Ramone, were saying to the dull sixties establishment: “See, we can express ourselves fast, cheap, and good. We’ll tell you about our own experience as teenagers, and it will be real.”

The hipness of this idea pulled my coat no end. Like Legs said, “We don’t care what no one says. Sure, things are supposed to be shit now. But, fuck it. We’re here and we’re gonna have our fun. We’re gonna be cool.” The audaciousness was super; Legs and his buddies were reinventing cool before my eyes. They were accepting the crap of the Modern World, all that mind rot, and they were celebrating it, not protesting against it. What a brilliantly existential decision! How modernistic a concept!

I thought back to all the philosophizing I’d once read about what was hip and what was not. And dredged up an old quote from Norman Mailer. Big Norm said, “For Hip is sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle … ” Who else was Legs? This described him and his fellow punks to a T.

It was early 1976, the Five Spot, where so much bop was played, had just closed for the last time. It was replaced by a clothing store called the Late Show, which catered mostly to the CBGB crowd and played Ramones records constantly over its booming speaker set. I made this a sign. And envisioned a whole generation of hipsters lurking along the Bowery in black leather jackets. A collection of wise primitives making incisive comments about a culture nobody even wanted to admit existed. To me, it was very moving.

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Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

Legs became the spokesman, such as it was, for this new generation of hipsters, partially by default, since most of the band members were into catatonia, and partially due to his zeal for self-promotion. Legs would sit under the Fonz poster in the “Punk dump,” the storefront “office” he, Holmstrom, and Dunn kept underneath the approach ramp to the LincolFcarlinn Tunnel, and pontificate for the pop-culture reporters. About hippies he said, “A bunch of yin wimps. Woodstock was a hip capital pajama party.” About glitter rock, he said, “Homosexuality shouldn’t be pushed on 15-old kids.” About the future of visual expression, he said, “I think movies should only be thirty minutes long and be in black and white. Kids don’t have the concentration for more.” About himself, he said, “Every time I look in the mirror it’s like watching a home movie.”

One of the classic Legs McNeil interviews appeared as part of an August 1976 Voice article by Frank Rose. Rose was trying to decipher punk’s effect on the supposedly large issue of “butch,” a term Frank described as “self-conscious masculinity.”

At the time, Legs was on a search-and-destroy mission against disco, which Punk had described in an editorial as the source of “everything wrong with Western civilization.” Legs said disco was the creation of synthesizers, a fact he claimed left the limp shit devoid of human energy and turned listeners into “zombies.” Disco, Legs asserted, was an uncool Communistic plot invented by jaded grown-ups to rob teenagers of their naivete. But more interesting and inflammatory was Legs’s conjecture that disco was the product of an unholy alliance between blacks and gays. Neither of these groups was currently in favor with Legs, and he routinely called them niggers and faggots. If Legs was the next big thing, as Lester Bangs and others suggested, then Rose was worried about this.

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Rose’s story had Legs saying all kinds of apparently reactionary and reckless things like, “Punks are normal people, that’s what we are, normal. We’re not a bunch of perverts” … “Punks are like — the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks” … “David Bowie is really sick. He’s such a faggot” … Also, about blacks, he said, “We’re not really racist …. We’re just into our own thing. It’s like saying to Italians [why don’t you like] Polacks?”

Rose concluded, not incorrectly, or surprisingly, considering the evidence he was given, that Legs was a blue­-collar poseur who saw life as “giant high school.” Legs’s racism and gay-baiting, portrayed as borrowed from Irish bars in Ridgewood, were simply attitudes to fill in the image of a man’s man. This seemed true enough on the surface, but I couldn’t help feeling that in Rose’s rush to tenderly put Legs and his punk crew down as still another potentially brutish terror a gay man in New York has to contend with, Frank had taken McNeil’s quotes far too seriously.

I thought back to a night at the 82 Club. The Dictators were playing. Punk had run a “Punk of the month” contest. Readers were asked to send in pictures of themselves proving they were more punky than anyone else. One Ronald Binder won three months in a row. He sent in low-angle pictures of himself eating chains. Sent telegrams threatening to blow up the Punk camp if he didn’t win. Holmstrom said, “Wow, we got to give it to this guy. He’ll kill us if we don’t.” Still, no one had ever seen Ronald Binder in the flesh. Until that night at the 82. Binder came over to Holmstrom and said, “Hi, I’m the punk of the month.” One look was enough. Binder was maybe five feet tall, he weighed plenty. He looked completely harmless. Holmstrom was beside himself. “My God,” he said. “I thought you ate dead babies for breakfast … This is terrible. Don’t tell anyone who you are, you’ll make us look bad.”

Binder seemed hurt by Holmstrom’s abuse. He went off in a corner and hung his head by the 82’s Ukrainian wallpaper. He stayed there until Legs, who had seen the whole confrontation, came over and said, “Don’t let it get you down. I’m a fake, too.”

This was no surprise. Self-mockery has always been Legs’s meat. He wore his leather jacket as a cocoon of fakery. He was to a real street punk as Goldberg’s is to a pizza pie: a witty but not particularly faithful parody. Legs has never been tough at all. He weighs about 110 pounds. He couldn’t break his own nose. As a macho aggressive, he’s never been confused with a tiger fighting for his mate. That, of course, was the whole joke, the ironic core of the coolness.

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But this didn’t make Legs a clown. To me, his self-mockery recalled the way Thelonious Monk plays the piano or Earl Monroe dribbles the basketball. With those two there has always been a tension between the dead seriousness of technique and the ironical understanding that in the scope of the universe all those hours developing a style like no one else might mean nothing. They could drop a bomb on you. You could get hit by a truck. The only sane way to deal with this looming spectre of random destruction was to have a sense of humor about yourself.

This, I figured, was the key to Legs. No matter how ardently he argued his perceptions about the world, he didn’t want to be held to them. For him, proselytizing was technique, but none of it was hard and fast. It was Legs’s hipster nature, I thought.

But it also caused problems. If Legs was a hipster, and CBGB a hipster scene, where were the blacks? I can’t remember seeing more than three or four black in any CBGB crowd. Not one punk-rock band has been dominated by black musicians. No CBGB band even seems to borrow firsthand from traditional R&B or blues sources. The only noticeable influence down at CBG are the fall-down guys who drift over from the Men’s Shelter. This, coupled with Legs’s remarks about how “blacks have their culture and we have ours,” seemed to contradict everything I know about white hipsters.

Everything I know about white hipsters, theoretical-wise, comes from Big Norman’s famous essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. And I knew I’d have to go to the woodshed with Mailer if I wanted some enlightenment on this Legs puzzlement. Written in 1957, Norm’s essay says the hipster was a man who realized “our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war.” This fact was particularly distressing to white men ticketed for two cars in the garage and a neat hedge around the lawn. With the threat of death haunting every moment, middle-class striving seemed a waste of time. According to Mailer, the only sane thing to do was “to encourage the psychopath in one’s self, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory of planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat … ”

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This road, especially for the passel of Brooklyn-Queens Jews and Texas gays who felt compelled to take it, was totally uncharted. A guide was needed, and in the Negro these searching whites found one. Spades had been living with the knowledge that they could be wiped out at any given moment for 350 years. Mailer called this “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy.” He also said the blacks had produced an entire culture based upon living on the edge. They traveled light, spoke a secret and flexible language, gambled, and wore orange pants with green shirts. It was living on the brink, but their constant state of “psychopathy” had also produced the wondrous jazz, the perfect “orgasm” of brinksmanship.

Hipsters, or whites who recognized the descending sword for what it was, understood and dug the brilliance of the blacks’ achievement. “So,” says Big Norman, “there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night, looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro and, for all practical purposes, could be considered a White Negro.

I was a White Negro for the better part of my consciously hip life. Probably still am. I worked as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal so I could do a black man’s job. I began smoking Pall Malls because the blacks did. Along with my other White Negro friends, I lived at the Brittany Hotel on 10th Street. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought their blues band to stay at the Albert, we supplied them with smoke.

We hung around with as many jazzmen as would have us. Major Holley, who played bass with Roland Kirk occasionally back then, was our buddy. He knew we were just another bunch of hopeless Queens Mezz Mezzrows looking for a taste of the millennium, but he was sweet and let us play our game. In return we would sit ringside at the Five Spot and, when Holley soloed, we’d shout, “Major, you so fucking good, they ought to make you a general.” Once, the Major must have been bugged because he put down his bass during a Jazz Interactions concert, went to the microphone, and said, “Damn, I am all tuckered out. So let’s meet and greet Jake the Snake, who will provide us with some meal ticket in the meantime.”

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I didn’t want to go onstage, I had never even held a bass before. But my buddies pushed me to it. I picked up the big momma and plucked it a couple of times. Then Roland Kirk turned to me. With the cigarette smoke around his beret like gauze, three fat horns stuck in his mouth, and wraparound sunglasses across his blind eyes, Kirk was a vision of boogie hell. But it was okay. He said, “Shit, sounds black to me.”

This, I have always felt, was one of the crowning moments of my life. But Legs would not buy it. Explaining why spades were cool and worth imitating was a pointless conversation to have with Legs. As pointless as trying to explain why Dylan going electric was important, as pointless as explaining why getting arrested at People’s Park was both useless and consummate at the same time. Legs simply refused to comprehend why my generation of hipsters dug blacks. He would not even accept such seemingly irrefutable black-coolness raps as George Carlin’s schoolyard scene. Carlin said put a bunch of white kids and a bunch of black kids together and after a week the whites will be talking like the blacks. But none of the blacks would be saying, “Golly, gee, we won the big game.”

To Legs, blacks were mostly on the radio, making the rotten disco music he hated, or in the first three pages of the Daily News sticking 9mm guns into people’s chests. He said he had “no guilt.” The only other thing he’d say about blacks involved a bizarre theory about why listening to their music was so repugnant to him. He said that because of “racism, or whatever,” most blacks didn’t get on the radio until they were 30 or 40, so they always sang about 30- and 40-year-old concerns. He said this was alien to him. If all blacks were teenagers, like the Jackson Five, singing “like A­ B-C, One-Two-Three,” that would be all right with him. Otherwise, blacks didn’t interest him in the least.

This troubled me. Racism, or whatever, is understandable, even poetic, in the mouth of a blue-collar worker or a southern sheriff — it’s an integral part of their worldview. But this attitude of racial indifference coming from a hipster hit a discord. If Legs McNeil were a hipster and he didn’t think blacks were cool, my universe was about to go into a tilt.

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Actually, I had been busting my brain with certain notions about the apparent de-emphasis of blacks in the Hip and Square cultures respectively for some time.

Mailer’s essay was better than a nice sum-up of ’50s attitudes. He predicted the ’60s, too. Norm drones on in The White Negro about hipsters relentlessly seeking their “orgasm,” which I have always taken to mean the sexual­-emotional act or state that would give meaning to their “psychopathic” position on the edge between oblivion and the security of the middle class. For me — and I assume this is true for most White Negroes of my generation — the entire ’60s experience was an “orgasm.” After all, what were hippies if not white kids acting like spades? It horrified me when sign-wavers chanted about “student as nigger” and the rest of that. But there was a basic truth to it. We were smoking dope, being casual about sex, pretending poverty so we might be niggers.

Blacks, not surprisingly, were aghast at this national insanity. They might hang around Hippie Hill for some white pussy, but they had to be wondering why people with money were trying to act like niggers. Once, when I thought I was a dope dealer, I got ripped off in a Stanyan Street apartment by a black guy. I was supposed to pick up 10 keys of Michoacan from the guy. But as soon as I got into the room, he stuck a gun in my ear and took the $750 my friends gave me. He tied me up so I wouldn’t “even think” about following him and put a Jimi Hendrix record on the box. Then he looked at me, like this is just too easy, shook his head in sympathy, and said, “You know, I just don’t understand you people. Don’t you know this is dangerous?” Then he split. A few minutes later a paste-white chick with drugged eyes and matted hair came out from behind an Indian-print curtain. She squinted into the red light bulb, said it was cold, and lit the stove. After she untied me, she said, “Doug is really a dynamite guy, he just gets wild sometimes.”

I don’t know what I was expecting: to sit down with the ghetto guys, talk about the impending shadow of night, and have them say, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat, welcome aboard”? It was never going to happen. Knowing handshakes and slick words didn’t make you cool. Besides, the “psychopathy” in the blacks that we admired was not calculated to produce white-man-lovers or even very nice guys. You could dig their orgasm, feeling passionately about the plight that made them crazy men, but you had to be wise. Wise that getting next to them was like cutting your own throat.

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Also, sometime in the early ’70s, blacks began doing things that might be considered uncool. Their horrendous affectations of the worst parts of the hippie movement were embarrassing, no lie. Talk of astrology and wearing medallions didn’t fit the image of the existential hero. What were the Temptations doing singing about “Psychedelic Shacks”? I felt like grabbing black kids with Robert Indiana LOVE pins stuck to their double knits and saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t go down that road. It’s shit. I know.” This was distressing. Blacks acting crazy, like psychopaths, made sense: being black drove you crazy. But blacks acting dumb was another thing; these were the people who were supposed to understand the secret of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. When you have Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in a movie made by blacks, when a WBLS destroys WWRL in the ratings, when macho singers get pushed out of the foreground by violin strings, it’s pretty clear. The Nat King Cole element of black culture is overrunning the James Brown segment. Black culture is redefining itself in a middle-class mode. This, of course, is the blacks’ right as Americans. In this country all immigrants — even ones who were brought here in chains — are allowed to become consumers.

But this produced a serious dilemma for White Negroes. If ghetto blacks were simply too dangerous to deal with, the middle-class ones, with their “crossover” concerns, were no longer compelling. George Jefferson wants the same things as my parents; his cleaning lady steals, too. This is not acceptable. It brings to mind the old hipster saw about blacks with seemingly white values: “What an Oreo. He’s not a spade at all.”

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Doing a little cultural cross-referencing, I dug that so-called “Squares” had also made a shift on black people. During the civil rights time in the ’60s, when the closet Commies and liberal types still had pull in showbiz, media blacks pretty much got the Eleanor Roosevelt treatment. Between them, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones produced more guilt through dignity than a million Jewish mothers could through nagging. But now, it’s almost as if the guilt-exorcising Squares are saying, “Well, we gave these guys their chance. We highlighted their struggle. What did they do? Gave us Rap Brown, the ungrateful loudmouth, and mugged our grandmothers.”

Therein, I think, is the basis for the elevation of the Italian-­American in the mass media. With a self-propelled reputation for toughness and the supposed ability to call their Uncle Vinnie at the drop of a confrontation, Italians are perceived by black-fearing Squares (as well as black-fearing hipsters) as the only group of whites capable of fending off the onrush of “them.” How many times have you heard the joke, “Well, I guess this is a safe neighborhood” while walking by Bella Ferrara? If you’re dumb, that means Italians don’t like “yoms” much and are willing to fight them on their own physical terms. Blacks know this, and they also know Italians are some cold-blooded motherfuckers (what they didn’t know they saw in the Godfather movies, which were big in the black ghettos), so they stay away. This set of pseudo-facts is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that many of the TV cops — Baretta, Petrocelli, Delvecchio, and Columbo — are some have-been Italians. Who else can be depended on to keep the blacks in their place?

To facilitate this myth-making, the media moguls have imbued Italians with much of the “soul” that used to be the exclusive property of blacks. This is quite clear in the seminal work of revisionist racial theory, Rocky. You’ve got to figure Stallone knew what he was doing, I make him that cynical. He portrays Rocky as a guileless but lovable blue-collar plodder who has an indomitable spirit. The major black characters, the champ and the female TV reporter who interviews Rocky, are both seen as slick, hollow hustlers. Stallone’s attitude toward blacks is similar to that of Americans toward Commies in the fifties: they’re smarter and sneakier than us, so we have to stick together and be pure of heart.

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A White Negro, even a disillusioned White Negro, watching the meat-packing scene in which noble-savage Stallone pleads to the middle-class black reporter, “Just don’t take no cheap shot, please,” is stunned by the manipulation of racial images since the ’60s. It is almost as if whites have been given the message: You don’t have to pretend to like “them” anymore. Now, to whites, blacks are either the faceless unmentionable or just another creep trying to take your job. Either way they are better off forgotten.

Eyeballing all this, Legs’s indifference to spades was more understandable. Legs is a hipster who takes his input from Square sources. If TV tells him Italians are cool, he may adopt their way of saying “fuck you” — a short, blunt blast as opposed to the sultry, many-syllabled “fuck you motherfucker” of the blacks — but he’s not taking the whole thing. Catholics are far too earnest for a hipster like Legs; that’s what he’s trying to get away from.

But blacks have never even entered his mind as a role model. How could he dig jazz when the radio no longer plays jazz? Blacks had essentially been wiped out as a compelling cultural force before Legs ever got a chance to appreciate them.

But the more I dug, the more I realized blacks would have been irrelevant to a ’70s hipster like Legs anyway. The old White Negro looked to the blacks to lead him through a landscape that was in the midst of total change, due to the introduction of the atomic bomb. That was 25 years ago, when the apocalypse was a new idea and truly existed as a meaningful force only in the minds of a few “urban adventurers.” America still operated by pre-atomic rules. Buildings were still made out of bricks; people still read books, ate in real restaurants, and had families.

Now, of course, much of the above is gone. America has adjusted in profound ways to the spectre of the apocalypse. Now we have throwaway television, throwaway burgers, throwaway housing. None of it has the permanency of the pants your mother bought an inch too long so they’d fit next year. The society has caught up to Hiroshima. We are living, as Legs and I learned at the Sleaze Convention, in a fully fleshed-out post-atomic world. Everything we touch, eat, and see has the singe of doom on it. So Legs doesn’t need anyone to tell him secrets; he knows the score in this world as well as anyone. He needs no guide; he’s on his own.

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Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

Today, two years after we waited for Godzilla and I declined the responsibility for making him famous, Legs McNeil is in my kitchen, telling a tape recorder why the teenagers did not take over the world. 1977, Legs says, was a terrible year. Punk almost went broke. John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn battled. Holmstrom claimed Dunn’s grandiose ambitions to make Punk another Rolling Stone within a year overextended the magazine’s meager resources. Legs figured John was the talent and Ged was the business, and in that case you got to go with the talent, but it hurt him to have to make the choice.

Also, the CBGB rock scene had disintegrated before Legs’s eyes. Many of the first-generation bands, the ones Legs thought spoke for him — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and the Dictators — got recording contracts and went away on tour. Legs was all for that. Hipster punks knew that the popular culture created them. And they were determined to do something — anything — to make their mark on it. The bands, Legs and Holmstrom figured, were the best bet to express “teenage” obsessions. The media never seems to outgrow its need for rock and roll. Sooner or later, Legs thought, the punk bands had to become the next big thing.

But once Joey Ramone and Chris Stein went out of town, Legs had no one to discuss Jerry Paris with. His fellow hipsters were disappearing. Everyone cool seemed to be. Who else but Handsome Dick Manitoba would go around blustering about how he could break Buddy (Nature Boy) Rogers’s figure-four leg vine and then get himself flattened by a drag queen like Wayne County? What a punk. But now he wasn’t around. The punk bands were diving into the nexus of the popular culture they worshiped like the sun, hardly ever to bubble up above the Hot Hundred again.

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Those who came to replace them were a drag. Legs hated the British punks. They came humorless, snarling the same anti-establishment rant of the Animals a dozen years before. Don’t things ever change in England, Legs wondered. The youth is always discontented. They always hate the government and punch each other about soccer. Rockers aren’t supposed to care about sports, especially soccer. The Brits also brought bleached hair and a pile of punk paraphernalia. Legs saw what was happening. Punk was becoming a movement of mindless followers. Anyone who stuck a safety pin in his nose could be a punk.

This offended Legs’s hipster nature. He never really quite decided whether he wanted punk to turn into a ’60s-style movement or not. But now he’d be sitting with Joey Ramone, and some Westchester kid would come and say, “Hey, you’re Joey Ramone. Hey, I’m a punk, too. I got a band. We cut up our cocks onstage.” Then Joey would make with his Martian reflex and say, “Why do you do that?” The kid would say, “Because I’m a punk.” And Legs would know that Hip cannot be a movement. Because if Hip is a movement and everyone’s the same, that’s not cool. Like Big Norman said so long ago, ” … and, indeed, it is essential to dig the most, for if you do dig, you lose your superiority over the Square, and you are less likely to be cool … ”

Legs understood coolness isn’t something that comes easy. His cool had been achieved through spiritual agony, which led him to the basic precepts about how to be hip in post­atomic America. The Brits’ egalitarianism was all wrong. First of all, they knew nothing about America. They didn’t watch the same shows, they ate weird things. And in their knee-jerk rebellion they offered a bunch of asshole kids who did nothing to try to deal with their existential place in the universe a chance to be as cool as Legs. Now Legs says, “I hate this punk thing these days. The kids at CBGB aren’t cool. They don’t have any opinions about anything. They just sit around saying, This place sucks,’ This place is beat.’ They all smoke pot and wear stupid clothes. It’s just like the fucking hippies. Just like them.”

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The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.

From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearl­handled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”

One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”

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Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”

Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.

Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.

That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.

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Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”

Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.

Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.

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Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.

Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop­-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.

Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. Besides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”

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Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”

Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda­-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖


The Clash See America Second

N’I like to be in Africa
A beatin on the final drum
N’I like to be in USSR
Making sure these things will come
N’I like to be in USA
Pretending that the wars are done
N’I like to be in Europa
Saying goodbye to everyone

— “Guns on the Roof”

‘Course we got a manager
And though he ain’t the Mafia
A contract is a contract
When they got em out on yer

— “All the Young Punks”

At 5 p.m. February 16, as I knocked on Caroline Coon’s door at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Cambridge, the first Chinese troops were advancing across the Vietnamese border, but of course we didn’t know it yet. What we did know — me because I’d reached her by phone earlier — was that snow and cold had delayed the Clash’s equipment truck on its overnight Washington-Boston run. Coon quickly informed me that at showtime minus two hours it still hadn’t arrived. She was ob­viously overextended, and obviously worried that I expected her to entertain me in some way, but I just wanted to make contact with the band and split, which is what I did.

By around 7:30 I was inside the Harvard Square Theatre, an 1800-seat venue that astonished promoter Don Law by selling out in an hour for an English band that was on only one commercial Boston radio station. I’m told every new wave band in the city was on hand, which is over a hundred tickets right there, but even more numerous than punk types were short-haired, unstoned­-looking (I said looking) versions of the kind of high-IQ fan Bonnie Raitt gets. This was a crowd that liked to read music — I had my own moment of astonishment when someone asked for my autograph. But it was also a crowd that liked to listen — kids who hadn’t been born when Bo Diddley first recorded clearly knew his beat as well as his name. In the row behind me sat Boston’s pioneering new wave disc jockey, a mild young man with pink hair named Oedipus. A few hours before, he and several others had been fired from the only commercial Boston station­ — one of three major FM outlets in the U.S.A. — that was playing the Clash, but few in the audience knew it yet. There was that feeling in the air that we used to call good vibes, only the anticipation was sharper, the kilowatt potential more focused.

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Coon had made clear that the concert was doomed to start late — the P.A. finally got in at 6:30 — and the sound check was just end­ing as I arrived. Recorded music, all titles an­nounced, began with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone,” and reggae by Dillinger. At around 8 the local opener, two girls and two boys called the Rentals, kicked off hard, dragged into some arty slow stuff, and came back up to a climax entitled “Gertrude Stein”: “Coca-Cola Coca-Cola/Pepsi-Cola Pepsi-Cola/Orange soda orange soda.” Their set was not enhanced when eight Cambridge cops and a platoon of Don Law’s beefy red­shirts ejected two punky nuisances — who’d been hitting on people as if they’d read how in an old N.M.E. — with the kind of en­thusiasm we used to call brutality. After what was literally a brief intermission, Bo Diddley and an all-black trio surprised me pleasantly by rolling the audience down some funky grooves, easy blues lopes as well as variations on Bo’s signature shuffle.

Less than half an hour later, the Coasters’ “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” blared out of the P.A. as the crew lowered a back­drop of stitched-together flags and the band advanced from the wings. Joe Strummer came on denimy, still bezippered and fati­gued, but Paul Simonon’s slash-necked red uniform was even more glamour-boy than the fishnet item I’d seen him wear in Leeds 16 months before, while Mick Jones, whose turquoise shirt was not only unbuttoned most of the way down but also turned up at the collar, seemed to have achieved most of the evolution from ’70s to ’50s punk — all of the Clash had slicked-back hair, but Mick’s was almost long enough for a d.a. with sly teddy-boy overtones. Glaring riot lights searched out these details as the musicians paced the stage. Then Strummer and Jones sheared into the chords of “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” and we were off.

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No one has ever made rock and roll as in­tense as the Clash is making right now — not Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, not the early Beatles or the middle Stones or the in­spired James Brown or the pre-operatic Who, not Hendrix or Led Zep, not the MC-5 or the Stooges, not the Dolls or the Pistols or the Ramones. On a brute physical level, their combination of volume and tempo is unrivaled. Anybody with capital can turn up the amps, of course — the hard part, as an im­pressed Stanley Crouch theorized after the band’s Palladium appearance, is for the mu­sicians to turn themselves up even higher, something not even Robert Plant and Jimmy Page ever try for more than a minute or two, despite the cushion of heavy metal’s rhinoce­-beat. And fast heroes from Little Richard to the Dolls and beyond have known when to slow down, resorting to the change-of-pace much more readily than the Clash, whose dip into “Stay Free” and a speedy “Police an Thieves” induced no one in the orchestra at either concert I attended to sit, although by then simple fatigue had dropped a few. Even the Ramones do ballads and medium-tempo rockers, and the Ramones’ formalistic poses enable them to generate exhilarating music with almost no expenditure of interpretive emotion, while the Clash’s dense and expan­sive song structures, freer stagecraft, and ur­gent verbal messages demand interpretation. For the Clash, every concert is an athletic challenge far out on the shoals of expressionism, whence few new wavers return without a mouthful of brine.

And as usual, Joe Strummer seemed to be spitting something out. But his muttered im­precations about orchestra pits and Harvard City Rockers were part of the fun, and if his largely incomprehensible intro to the ob­scure “Capital Radio” — only the first few words, “Complaint time, complaint time,” emerged loud and clear from between his stumpy teeth — in fact referred to Oedipus, nobody (including Oedipus) let it get him or her down. Words, wonderful as they may have been, weren’t the point. Clearly, these first-hour ticket-buyers were among the 50,000-plus purchasers of the U.S. pressing of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, on CBS’s Epic la­bel, and the almost 50,000 who have made The Clash, on English CBS, the largest-sell­ing import album ever in this country. They were familiar with the five singles too; they probably knew half the words by heart, which is all you can expect without crib sheets. But what gave the event its drama wasn’t just the singalong cheers and out­cries — “Guns Guns shaking in terror/Guns guns killing in error”; “This is the city of the dead”; “Need a little jolt of electrical shock­er”; “Clang clang go the jail guitar doors” — ­or the clamorous, life-giving onrush of the music. It was the natural theatrical force of Strummer himself, not so much exhorting the audience directly as alerting it to the sym­bolic world it shared with him. In his most characteristic move — which he can ease with a modified buck-and-wing or heighten by collapsing toward the floor — his shoulders hunch, his eyes narrow and peer upward, and his finger points as if bombs have just darkened the ceiling. His concentration is awesome. Even during instrumental breaks or the songs Jones sings, he is a fierce pres­ence, scowling while he thrashes out his rhythm part or communing with drummer Topper Headon as if to get closer to the god of beats-per-minute.

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On our side of the P.A., this was an ecstat­ic experience. But behind the fucked-up mo­nitors, trying to make sense of the guitar Mick had borrowed after finally demolishing his decrepit ’52 Les Paul, the band felt they were putting out a lousy show, and they brooded together as press and friends abided first in the auditorium and then backstage. Eventually Mick sauntered out and took me aside for a spliff. The last time we’d seen each other, in Max’s last fall, we’d discussed fas­cism. This time Mick regaled me with a tale of love, hate, and Les Paul. “It was older than I am,” he kept saying, and it had sur­vived a broken neck at the hands of a stoned-hippie Dutch theatre manager, but the night before, in Washington, after going out of tune throughout the tour — a friend who’d caught the band’s disappointing U.S. debut in Berkeley complained about just that — it had started giving him shocks, one or two per song. So Mick, figuring one of them had to go, smashed the thing to bits; his first stop in Manhattan would be 48th Street. Telling me about it cheered him up. I asked after his mum, and learned she was flying in from Ironwood, Michigan, to see her boy play for the first time the next night. He’d be (1)  breaking in a new guitar (2) at the Palladium (3) for his mother. Pressure.

There was a lull during which I wished Oedipus luck in what he regarded as a union­-busting dispute. Then, suddenly, the whole Clash entourage was trooping off to the tour bus, so quickly that the seven minutes it took me to get my stuff from a nearby parking lot almost weren’t enough. I was last aboard, with three of the Clash already behind closed doors in the bunk section. Only Topper Hea­don remained in the bow. I later learned that he’d suggested shoving off without me if I was going to be fucking late.

“Hello, I’m Bob Christgau,” I said, stick­ing out my hand.

“Hello, I’m rude,” said Topper Headon.

In England, the Clash are now much more than the great punk inheritors — they’re a ma­jor pop group, complete with an album that entered the charts at number two and a bit of backlash in the only trade press in the world that regularly accuses artists of undue com­mercialism. Not that that’s the Clash’s crime, exactly — it’s more their failure to resolve contradictions that only they were brazen enough to confront forcefully in the first place. Like everyone else, they watched in frustration as punk disintegrated into faddish sectarianism. Despite their commitment to Rock Against Racism, their pilgrimage to Ja­maica was summed up in a song about “a place where every white face/Is an invitation to robbery.” And worst, in a time of rampant nationalism in British music they softened on America. The producer of their second al­bum turned out to be Sandy Pearlman, American ex-rock critic of Blue Oyster Cult fame (and Pavlov’s Dog infamy), apparently nominated by the band’s U.S. label. While recording they split with manager Bernard Rhodes, a former used-car salesman whose hostile, obscurantist style — like that of his mentor, Malcolm McLaren — made it seem that he’d just as soon tour Patagonia as Penn­sylvania. Then Jones and Strummer spent weeks mixing down with Pearlman in San Francisco, and dallied in New York as well.

No one misses Rhodes, now etching himself on musical memory the way Mike Appel did with Bruce Springsteen — in court. New manager Caroline Coon has been close to the band personally as Paul Simonon’s (somewhat) regular companion, but her credentials are far more substantial than that: She was both head of a hippie-era legal services program for drug arrestees and one of the first rock journalists to lay out the standard class analysis of punk. In short, her radicalism would seem to have deeper roots in a lived life than that of Rhodes, who has attacked the band’s American overtures bitterly. Yet she clearly agrees with her group that American rock and roll is barely breathing and that no one is better qualified to resuscitate it than the best rock and roll band in the world. Not surprisingly, it was Coon the administrator, rather than Coon the ideologue, who was I running what they called the Pearl Harbour Tour.

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Sitting across from me in Waylon Jen­nings’s plush outlaw bus, rented out of Nash­ville for the duration, Coon began to com­plain —for the first time in public, she insist­ed — about Epic Records. This was no shock. The parent corporation has always seemed quite unimpressed with English CBS’s plum. After rejecting the band’s magnificent debut album, first on the product-think grounds of sound quality and then because it had already sold so much as an import, Epic shilly-shal­lied for a long time on tour support for Give ‘Em Enough Rope. The predominant feeling in the company is simply that it will cost too much to break the band here. The same money — between $50,000 and $70,000 for this abbreviated swing through presold loca­tions (every venue was full), with $30,000 or so covering actual travel debits and the rest going into auxiliary promotion — could have been invested in a more established band, say a pretty good one like Cheap Trick, with a far more certain payback in additional units sold. Or it could be used to hype more pre­dictable new hard rock product like Trillion or the Fabulous Poodles.

Not that Coon was running down this kind of bottom-line reductionism to me. Her beefs were more in the area of day-to-day cash flow, and they were completely credible. If she hasn’t convinced Epic by now that these aren’t musicians whose great dream in life is to puke on their grandmothers, she’d do well to take her wares elsewhere. Coast-to-coast by bus with one plane hop from Oklahoma City to Cleveland, eight appearances in seven cities in 15 days, is a cruel grind. But the band stayed up, the Clash stage crew works faster than any I’ve waited for in years, and even the snow-delayed Cambridge show went smoothly. I’ve heard a few reports of blown interviews, and the press doesn’t seem to have made press conferences in California very interesting, but the group definitely made a sweeter impression than it used to when Rhodes was in there pitching. These were decent lads who knew what they were about. I’ve never encountered a more efficient tour.

I say this as someone who proceeded to spend over 13 hours getting from Cambridge to Manhattan. The first delay came when the driver spent an unaccountable stretch of time out of the bus. Eventually it developed that his bags had been stolen, a disclosure that stopped all conversation and so alarmed Hea­don — who’ d suffered a similar loss on the fall tour — that he was soon whispering to Coon that maybe the few dollars he’s won from tour manager Ace Penna could go to the driv­er. Still feeling Jones’s spliff, I offered (over Coon’s protestations) to put up 10 bucks my­self before discovering that I had only a five, four ones, and some 20s. Headon bid valiant­ly for 20, got nine, and disappeared into the back, returning 15 minutes later with a col­lection of about $80 for somebody who prob­ably made more in a week — after expenses, of course — than any of them.

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At around two, Jones and Strummer came forward for take-out food, and shortly after the fried egg and American cheese sandwiches, Headon set off a firecracker that scared the shit out of Jones. Both Headon and Strummer seemed genuinely concerned about this, and spent some time comforting their mate, patting his thigh and apologizing with surprising fervor. Then Jones and Strummer returned to the bunks and Hea­don, who’d been poking fun at my note-tak­ing all night, told me how at 14 he’d earned five pounds a night in trad bands around Dover, unable to leave the stage for a piss be­cause he was underage. After years of tae kwan do, a Korean martial art, his slight body was all sinew. His great dream in life was to break 15 sticks, to skins, and a frame in one night without making a mistake. Only Billy Cobham, Headon told me, has ever bro­ken a frame. Cobham, of course, is built like a football player.

Soon the bus halted again, this time for real — the brake linings had frozen. A few of us sat around a restaurant until 6, when I suggested to Strummer that he’d better get some sleep. There was room in back for me — Bo Diddley finds bunks confining and spent the night in a big corner seat — and I sacked out till 11. When I got up, I found the following additions to the cursory jottings in my notebook:

Skiddley Daddeley
Hamster Fur
Webbed Feet
473 Miles — Texas
Long Hair — Bear
Sid Vicious over …
Manhattan skyline …

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It was not until 4 o’clock, back in my apartment, that I learned — from a friend, by telephone — that China had invaded Vietnam. As it happened, my wife and I had just been getting ready to make love; instead, we tuned to WINS and sat on the bed, holding hands and talking about the end of the world. Apo­calyptic melodrama, I know — the world is never going to end. Of course not. But that was how it struck us at the time. And as the radio wound around to local news I was pos­sessed with the need to get up and put on Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the side that begins with “Guns on the Roof.” I put it on loud. It made me feel better.

Like almost all Clash fans except product-think symps, I was a little disappointed in the follow-up to The Clash, which (tinny sound be damned) may well be the greatest rock and roll album ever recorded. I mean, ordinarily I seek verbal wisdom in books — ­what rock “poetry” really involves is slogan and images and epigrams, or else settings that transfigure ideas and emotions sorely in need of some transfiguration. But on The Clash, the words did more than specify the tremendous force (and subtler cleverness and difficulty) of compelling music. They made you think all by themselves. “The truth is only known by gutter snipes,” Joe Strummer asserted in “Garageland,” and although the street roots of this rebellious diplomat’s son turned out to be hippie-squatter rather than dole-queue, his gutter truths were convinc­ing and gratifying. The working-class youths he and co-composer Jones imagined didn’t let their grim analysis get them down. Simul­taneously (even clashingly) truculent and cheerful, cynical and fraternal, they refused to become immobilized; their actions may have struck more experienced (and privileged) well-wishers as primitive — “If someone locks me out I kick my way back in”­ — but at least they were actions. Here at last was art with access to a contemporary, white, English-speaking proletarian culture. It pos­ited kids whose very determination to survive took guts and whose unwillingness to give up the idea of victory was positively heroic.

On Give ‘Em Enough Rope this generous vi­sion was stymied by perplexities all too famil­iar to experienced well-wishers. This major (and privileged) pop group sounded as wea­ried by the failure of solidarity, the persist­ence of racial conflict, the facelessness of vio­lence, and the ineluctability of capital as some bunch of tenured Marxists, and I wasn’t ready to settle — they’d amazed me by coming up with a new beginning, and just like my English colleagues I wanted them to amaze me again by carrying it through. But the familiar contradictions followed upon the invigorating gutter truths for excellent rea­son — they were truths as well. And at a time when two supposedly communist nations were girding up to ravage each other (not to mention me) I found that the way Give ‘Em Enough Rope transfigured its old ideas and emotions was useful in a way I hadn’t felt much need of before. The music channeled my fear into anger and lent me the spirit to do what I had to do. Which was go to another Clash concert, and if you weren’t there I’m sorry. As Alan Platt put it in The SoHo Week­ly News: ”It would be a pity if the impending nuclear holocaust prevented you from seeing this band.”

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I found the vibes at the Palladium inauspi­cious, not because of potential H-bomb but because the edge of anticipation was dulled by curiosity-seekers — bizzers, celebs, plain old rock and rollers. Opening were the Cramps, who are finally achieving the contemptuous rigidity they have sought so faithfully for so long; I’m glad the Clash tried to hire local bands with women in them, and would suggest the Erasers, Nervus Rex, or even DNA next time. Bo Diddley was backed by an intriguing combo — four black men and a white woman guitarist — but (with no help from the show-mes in the audience) couldn’t make it jell. Yet from the moment the Clash came on the crowd was on its feet, and that this was only to be expected says a lot in itself. Perhaps heightened expectations were why the seen-it-all audience was still holding back a little at the encore of a perfor­mance the musicians themselves thought the best of the tour. That was when Strummer announced (quite undefensively, I thought) that New York was as tough as London. Shortly thereafter the Clash broke into a brief rave-up on “London’s Burning” that scorched New York good. I’ve run across those who were basically unmoved. But I’ve heard stuff like “swept away,” “almost-tran­scendent,” “left me slack-jawed” from doz­ens of others.

Those not too familiar with the band re­ported themselves transfixed by Strummer, but the more knowledgeable raved about Jones, who had some night. In Cambridge his spare leads had worked almost sublimi­nally, skimming the edges, but at the Palladium he cut through the tumult, intensifying both the concentration and the canny disarray of the music with his clangorous counter-statements. He also sang as if his mother might be listening, getting through the tricky “Stay Free” — a greeting to a mate out of jail that translates the band’s new political wari­ness into personal warmth — without a clinker. What impressed me about Strummer was how his strumming drove the band, freeing Simonon’s bass for the military embellish­ments he favors and allowing Headon to nudge the music toward an occasional Jama­ican accent. Not that there’s too much of that yet. These boys force the rhythm for sure.

I’d hoped the Clash would commemorate the onset of World War III with a well-chos­en propagandistic flourish, but it could almost have been any rock gig that happened to feature lines about wealth distribution and letter bombs. When Mick came center stage to sing “Hate and War” — “An if I close my eyes they will not go away/You have to deal with it/It is the currency” — he mentioned that the song had special meaning on the day China invaded Vietnam. And that was how he dealt with it. But after the concert, in a dressing room crammed with paparazzi bait, he flourished a paraphrase of the old Tempts’ song: ”If it’s war that you’re running from,” he sang without a clinker, “There’s no hiding place.” Then he cited Nostradamus, not my idea of a reliable source, and offered his own prediction: “I figure they’ll pick off two or three cities by the end of the year. Or do you think I’m doomsayer-mongering? Am I some kind of nihilist, Christgau?”

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Obviously, people who go out and do what they have to do with as much determination as the Clash aren’t nihilists. A harder-line po­litico than me might even suspect they’re get­ting too goddamn constructive. Do they want to turn into the Who or something? Well, in 1979 terms, maybe they do. This band re­vives insurrectionary international conscious­ness as a rock dream. And puny as any rock dream may seem in the face of World War III, that one is a long way from where we are. Epic apologists talk about how the Clash start out from “below ground zero” as a result of all the punk stuff, but in fact the band has a deeper hole to deal with — the one in which the music biz, records and radio both, hoped to bury the kind of rock and roll that is an abrasive, and/or inspirational force in peo­ple’s lives.

I’m a skeptic, but I find it hard to believe that a band this good isn’t going to dig its way out. They’ve clearly impressed Epic, but if Epic doesn’t take the shot — the band wants additional support for “a proper tour” begin­ning in June — someone else will. And then maybe they can get to the place Strummer described a few months ago in the British magazine Time Out: “All we want to achieve is an atmosphere where things can happen. We want to keep the spirit of the free world. We want to keep out that safe, soapy slush that comes out of the radio… All we’ve got is a few guitars, amps, and drums. That’s our weaponry.”

What else can a poor boy do? Lots of things. But these particular poor boys have their work cut out for them. ♦


Richard Hell: An Antidandy at the Peppermint Lounge


It was the only area appearance of rock bohemia’s legendary symbol, but on June 25 the spanking-new downtown Pep was crowded with refugees from 45th Street — ­rock and roll youth out to get laid, lighter on hitters than the Ritz, but nowhere near as effete as Danceteria or as schlumpy-­collegiate as Irving Plaza or CBGB. The one familiar face I spotted was that of Terry Ork, Richard Hell’s original im­presario. At two Hell came on with his latest band, who aren’t called the Voidoids even though they feature Ivan Julian and aren’t called the Outsets even though that’s their name, delivering a brief intro in his patented kindergartener-on-the-nod drawl: “Hello ladies and gents — we were children once.” Then they launched into “Love Comes in Spurts,” the song Hell chose to kick off his debut album almost five years ago. As the set rocked on I no­ticed a few ravaged old-timers observing from the sidelines. I also ran into Giorgio Gomelski, the Rolling Stones’ original im­presario, who dubbed Hell “a symbol of elegance,” spraying me with saliva as he did so.

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As we collegiate schlumps often forget, it’s not impossible to symbolize bohemia and elegance simultaneously (cf. Walter Benjamin on the Flaneur). But though Hell apparently values his red top, which he wears on the cover of his follow-up album, it proved less noteworthy than the black leather and ripped T-shirts out of which he constructed the avant-punk anti­dandy back when Malcolm McLaren was strictly a haberdasher. Hell put on a strong show, but he made no waves in a casually dressed-up audience to which he related only as the professional entertainer he’s never much wanted to be. Once he defined, and I quote, a blank generation; now he disparages, and I quote again, the lowest common denominator. Over a five-year haul, symbolizing bohemia can get to be depressing work.

At the time of Blank Generation, Hell really was the quintessential avant-punk. With no more irony than was mete, he presented his nihilistic narcissism not as youthful hijinx but as a full-fledged philos­ophy/aesthetic, and though he never quite put his heart into proselytizing, he was perfectly willing to go along with im­presarios who considered his stance com­mercial dynamite — and to con others when the money ran out. Nor was he merely purveying a stance. Though it was the musicianship of Bob Quine — a much denser, choppier, and more nerve-wrack­ing player than his romantic rival, former Hell associate Tom Verlaine — that made the Voidoids the most original and accomplished band of the CBGB era, Quine was and is a sideman, worth hearing in any context but lacking the visionary oomph to create one. The band was Hell’s, and that it embraced former Foundation Ivan Julian, whose slashing leads I’ve misiden­tified more than once as Quine in a warm mood, and future Ramone Marc Bell, a converted heavy metal kid of surpassingly simple needs, says a great deal for his ambition and his outreach. That it sold bubkes, of course, may say just as much for his laziness and his hubris. But the prob­lem didn’t begin, or end, with Hell. The impresarios were just plain wrong.

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So Blank Generation stands off in its own corner of the boho cosmos as the ultimate CBGB cult record. It had no ap­parent antecedents, and until Destiny Street was finally released by Marty Thau, the New York Dolls’ original impresario, its only descendant was Lester Bang’s Jook Savages on the Brazos. If the new album feels just a little tired despite its undeniable attractions, it’s not because Hell’s musical concepts have been lowest­-common-denominatored. With Material’s Fred Maher replacing Bell and postpunk engineer (Y Pants) and bandleader (China Shop) Naux on second guitar, it’s fuller and jazzier than Blank Generation with­out any loss of concision or toon appeal. Although producer Alan Betrock is a noto­rious pop addict, it was Nick Lowe who added ooh-ooh backups and cleanly articu­lated thematic solos to “The Kid with the Replacable Head,” back when Jake Riv­iera was doing time as Hell’s impresario; the version Betrock oversaw is chock full and coming apart, a real New York rocker. What’s changed is Hell’s head. He’s matured, as they say, and I’m not sure it suits him.

The problem begins with the two theme cuts — the title parable, a vamp-with-talk­over in which nostalgia and ambition are rejected in favor of the good old here-and-­now, and “Time,” in which an inescapable medium-tempo melody is attached to lines like “Only time can write a song that’s really really real.” Both are grabbers, and both soon let go, as music and poetry re­spectively. Elsewhere, the bohemian sym­bol’s destiny seems bitter indeed, as a glance back at Blank Generation makes clear. “Lowest Common Denominator” is the only all-out putdown, but where “Liars Beware” reviled power brokers, Hell is go­ing after scenemakers this time, no doubt the hitters and collegiate schlumps who’ve ruined his favorite hangout and orgiast’s dream. In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” “sexy love” was communitarian “fun,” but now he prefers to “get all de­-civilized” at a “dropout disco” that sounds more like some after-hours hideaway than the Peppermint Lounge. In fact, all the old escapes have lost their magic. “Ignore That Door,” a throwaway rave-up that’s the most sheerly fun thing on the record, op­poses scag as unambivalently (vaguely but unmistakably) as “New Pleasure” praised it, and twice Hell complains of feeling “alone.” So where “The Plan” and “Be­trayal Takes Two” equated private sex with Faustian sin, these days the poéte maudit manqué is looking for love that doesn’t come in spurts. In “Staring in Her Eyes” he explicitly surrenders his narcis­sistic nihilism (and his “looking around”) to achieve the bliss described in the title, which sure as shooting he takes to an un­healthy extreme: “Stare like a corpse in each’s eyes/Till you never want to come alive and rise.”

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Admittedly, the song is affecting even at that, its lyricism intensified, as so often with Hell, by the yearning inexactitude with which he pursues its melody. And I sympathize in principle with Hell’s new head, as you probably do. I just don’t feel he has his heart in it. “Betrayal Takes Two” is a genuinely evil song, a seducer’s alibi worthy of Kierkegaard before Christ, while “Staring in Her Eyes” is sweetly creepy at best — a little easier to sell, perhaps, and a real truth for the chastened Hell, but with less to express and hence less to tell us. And no matter what Marty Thau thinks, it won’t be very easy to sell. Hell might conceivably follow in the foot­steps of David Johansen, the New York Dolls original, who now makes a decent living as a legend, but there’s a big dif­ference between the two — Hell’s aversion to the lowest common denominator. He’s just not a professional entertainer, and though his regrets over the multiplication and fractionalization of rock bohemia may be justified, his potential audience is no blank generation. Yet it was with that anthem that Hell tried to climax his show. It went over all right, of course — it’s a good song. But the audience remained rock and roll youth out to get laid, and the Pep didn’t look any more like a dropout disco when he was through. ■


Blondie Is More Fun 

Punk rock was kind of a joke in the first place, as a listen to Count Five or the Seeds makes clear, and given the campily ironic distance most CBGB groups bring to it, it becomes a joke once removed, which is like seeing the punch line approaching from a mile away. It’s been said that the punk rock “renaissance” is really just an invention of media in desperate need of something new to pretend to be saying about American youth; the trouble with that theory is that most of the bands seem to be buying the hype. If that’s the best anybody can come up with to say about this generation, then this generation may not be very interesting in the first place.

But all of that might be a blessing in disguise. Because, as we all know, if you’re not expecting anything from a record, you’ll be doubly pleased and surprised if it’s wonderful. Blondie is the second group from the New York “underground” club scene (discounting Patti Smith and the Dictators) to get recorded, and when I called up my friends to tell them what a delight I thought their album was, they sniffed, “Oh come on, haven’t you seen ’em live?” No I haven’t, but then I don’t care much for most live rock anyway and I know a great album when I hear one.

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Like most of the other stuff coming out these days, Blondie’s album (produced by Richard Gottehrer, who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and produced the original “Hang On, Sloopy”), is a pastiche of ’60s rock moves. Debbie Blondie herself has the Shangri-Las/Crys­tals girl group sound down to a perfect snotty whine, but unlike Patti Smith, she never comes across as snotty or pretentious, and, as “Man Overboard” and “In the Flesh” respectively demonstrate, she knows it’s not uncool to sound like Cher or Kathy (“A Thousand Stars”) Young once in a while. She gets off her best Shangri-Las moves in the single “[Se]X Offender” and “Rip Her to Shreds,” where I’m sure all of us of whatever sex will be able to empathize with her reaction to an urban archetype: “Red eyeshadow, green mascara/Yecch! She’s too much!”

The band have hauled all their ’60s readymades out of the toy chest, polished them up so they don’t sound like nostalgia or some horrible “tribute,” and set them spinning around one [an]other like so many tops in solid two- ­and three-minute cuts. “Rifle Range” spotlights Jorgen (“Apache”) Ingmann style guitar, while in “Rip Her to Shreds” I count (besides a fine mixture of Velvets and Shangri-Las vocal flourishes) some “Shakin’ All Over” guitar, a Question Mark and the Mysterians organ break that will reappear in various contexts throughout the album, and ensemble touches highly reminiscent at various times of the Doors, the Seeds, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. And I mean good Strawberry Alarm Clock! The Spectorish “X Offender” contains the best roller rink organ since the Sir Douglas Quintet, the best drums since “Born to Run,” the best castanets since “Mother of Pearl,” and the best surf guitar break since “I’m Set Free.”

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What makes Blondie’s first set more than just a fanzine-mentality collection of 10-year-old styles by 25-year-old diehards is that it consistently conveys the same energetic conviction in its dumbness as the original punk rockers, yet like, say, the New York Dolls, the group are implicitly intelligent enough not to ram their understand­ing of earlier rock ‘n’ roll down your throat. Like the Ramones, they have both drive and a sense of humor. Unlike the Ramones, they don’t condescend to their material, even when Debbie Blondie’s singing, over a Latin beat and “Arriba!” type cries, “Giant ants from space/stuffed the human race/Then they eat your face/Never leave a trace/La la la la…” Cap that one and the album with an ending that perfectly parodies Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow,” and you’ve got what rock ‘n’ roll has always really stood for: the sort of unselfconscious fun that transcends both scenes and generic restrictions.


We Have to Deal With It: Punk England Report

I recently spent nine days pursuing punk rock in England without once trying to contact the Sex Pistols. I just didn’t have the time. The Sex Pistols are superstars, at least momentarily, and contacting superstars is more trouble than it’s worth even when nothing else is happening, which was hardly the problem in London and the other English cities I visited. Anyway, second-hand contact with the Pistols was as inescapable as tales of the Weathermen used to [be] around the Movement in 1970.

Paranoid Backbiters

Many informed sources offered tidbits about drugs and sex, said to interest the Pistols more than they pretended, and about record producers and movie directors — Cambridge rock avant-gardist Fred Firth, a hero of Johnny Rotten’s, was in contention for the first job, while Hollywood decadent Russ Meyer, who had wanted to set Sid Vicious to fucking his (screen) mother, was on his way out of the other. But one theme overshadowed the gossip: failure. Again and again the fear was expressed that the Pistols had blown it. Having replaced bassist Glen Matlock with nonmusician Vicious in February, I was told, Rotten had deprived the band of its most gifted composer, and now a Rotten-Vicious faction was feuding with a Jones-Cook faction and with manager Malcolm McLaren. The Pistols’ long-awaited album would include only three songs written since Matlock’s departure and cost as much to produce as a Richard Perry extravaganza. It was even reported that the Pistols’ deal with American Warners had been finalized only because McLaren and his minions had already gone through the 150,000 quid advanced them by EMI, A&M, and Virgin in England. The original strategy had been to postpone the assault on the U.S.A. Now, suddenly, it was sink-or-swim time, for the Pistols and maybe for everybody.

It’s only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and more — they live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they’re resented: If we are to believe that punk’s future is up to the Pistols — and that is definitely the conventional wisdom — then their fall could well precipitate everyone else’s. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.

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What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.

The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punk — vocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bands — the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinas — put on hotter shows than any I’ve seen from the year’s newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. What’s more, punk was clearly making itself felt in the other music I saw. Weirdos like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric do not sell out Birmingham Town Hall when the pop environment is stable. All-female French blues-rock bands like the Lous do not open major concerts if some Wardour Street money man controls the bill. Bluegrassers turned pub-rockers turned hit journeymen like the Kursaal Flyers do not dirty up their guitar sound and smash television sets on a suburban stage just because the fancy strikes them.

But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototype — not because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters’ scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you’ve seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that’s been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.

In fact, one thing that has made English punk so attractive — both to well-wishers like me and to full-time recruits — has been its idealism. Despite all the anti-hippie feeling, it really is Haight ’67 that it most recalls — not in content, but in form. It’s a new counter-culture; the sense of ferment and burgeoning group identity more than compensates for the confused sectarian squabbling, although maybe I’d be harder to please if I’d been around when hopes were highest. And in a way, it is the tragic end of hippie — not the disintegration of a generation the punks were never part of in the first place, but the way longhaired guitar assholes have continued to preach their hypocritical go-with-the-flow — that has imbued punk idealism with its saving skepticism. These kids may be naive, but they’re not foolish. They know the world is a hostile place.

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First Person Plural

Having watched the Lous (enjoyed with no audible sexist remarks) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (received with fair enthusiasm in back and moderate-plus pogoing up front) from a limited-access balcony, I decided to take my notebook down into the Clash crowd at the University of Leeds, 200 miles north of London. The capacity of the room, which looked like an old-fashioned church rec hall only bigger, was officially 2200; 1800 tickets were sold to a crowd that appeared to break down two-to-one student-to-punk and at least nine-to-one male-to-female. Everyone was standing, even though it was intermission, and the rear half of the hall was mostly empty. I’d found out that as a competent New Yorker I could push to the front of most English crowds, but that was out of the question in this press so I stood toward the back and listened to two students behind me talk like upper-class twits. Phil Spector and even some Kraftwerk came over the P.A. to augment the customary dub, the bass-based reggae English punks love the way early hippies loved blues. But as the wait stretched past 45 minutes push began to turn to shove up front, and I wrote with some annoyance: “an intermission worthy of Black Sabbath.” That was the last time I thought of my notebook until after the Clash had finished.

The beginning I remember clearly. The band came out looking quite hale in what might almost have been store-bought punk safari gear, shirts and chinos with lots of zippers; the sole bizarre touch was the artfully tattered fishnet top on bassist Paul Simonon. Straightaway, using a conversational version of the friendly, stump-toothed, wet-mouthed, muttery snarl he sings with, Joe Strummer leaned into the mike and said, “We’ve come to play some of the heavy metal music you love so well.” Then there was a rush of fast guitar noise and everything became an exciting blur. I remember a lot of up-and-down motion in the audience — timid bobbing to the balls of the feet in back, wild pogoing up front. I remember the twits behind me singing along. I remember thinking that it was quite good, but not mind-blowing, and going upstairs to be with my wife. I remember the entire crowd shouting along — “I’m so bored with the Yew, Ess, Ay,” “White riot, wanna riot” — with no coaxing from the stage. I remember wondering how I would feel when they finally got to my favorites — “Career Opportunities,” “Garageland,” “Janie Jones.” And I remember my mind gusting away when they did.

Before I left the States, The Clash had replaced the Vibrators’ Pure Mania as my favorite English Punk LP. Apparently tuneless and notoriously underproduced, it was, I knew, a forbidding record, especially since the mix was dominated by Strummer’s vocals, which I loved for an unmusicality others found ugly. Because of Strummer’s cockney pronunciation and bad teeth, lyrics were hard to make out; my enjoyment increased markedly after I obtained a crib sheet, but I was annoyed at times by the band’s more cynical me-firstisms. After seeing them, though, I stopped hedging.

Visually, the three front-liners — guitarist Mick Jones, Strummer, and Simonon, the cute one — generated a perfect, condensed punch. They occupied their far-flung locations on stage like a unit of partisans charged with some crucial beachhead — instead of roaming around to interact, the way most exciting rock groups do, they held to their posts. Yet at the same time they seemed to be having lots of fun, with Jones marching jubilantly behind his mike, Simonon executing flashy Cossack split steps in his big boots, and Strummer eventually falling to the floor in an elation that seemed entirely of the moment. It became clear that many of the bitter lyrics that had always made me laugh — “I wanna walk down any street/Looking like a creep/I don’t care if I get beat up/By any kebab Greek” — were in fact intended to be funny. Also, I began to hear what was missing in the album’s sound — there was a lot more guitar in the live mix, good punk guitar, chordally elementary but rejecting hip musical platitudes, with Jones’s terse leads clanging irrepressibly against Strummer’s below-the-belt rhythm. This music lacked neither craft nor melody; it did what it set out to do with formidable verve. The songs were about as cynical as one of the football cheers they recalled, and they had a lot more content.

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For me, the Clash are almost a return to the time when I had to see A Hard Day’s Night before I could tell Paul from George. They are the Clash, not four guys who play in the Clash — not a star-and-support outfit or reconstituted supergroup. Drummer Nicky Headon, much the last to join, has yet to achieve his place in the gestalt, but the three front-liners form an indivisible body; their separation on stage (which isn’t always absolute, I’m told) strengthens the group’s structural unity. Perhaps this is simply because Simonon, the most visual of the three and one of the many punk bassists to reject Bill Wyman–style immobility, makes it impossible for Strummer and/or Jones to take over. But that it should work out this way reflects the English take on the punk attitude, in which hippie love-in-the-sky is replaced by provisional solidarity, alliances no less potent for their suspiciousness. I feel confident that next time I see the band, Nicky Headon will have gained full partnership. That’s the kind of lads they are.

After the gig, about half of the eight or so groupies I’d spotted — including the one who’d been trying unsuccessfully to crack a whip backstage — were visible at the hotel. Joe was obviously proud of his catch, announcing genially: “She’s a college girl. She speaks French.” Then he whispered a message to me in her ear. The young woman — nervous, attentive, and dressed (like most of her sisters) in Frederick’s of Hollywood support garments and Threepenny Opera cosmetics, translated: “Tu ressembles à Woody Allen, mais tu as les cheveux longues.” Later I had a talk with Mick about his hobby, which is reading; he recommended Brighton Rock, Decline and Fall, and his favorite, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. We discussed the Socialist Workers’ confrontation strategy for defeating the National Front. And he told me about his mother, a former movie actress who lives in Michigan and sends him Creem. Recently she mailed off some song lyrics; they were, Mick sighed, “all about the desolation of living in the city with safety pins.” He’d encouraged her to continue writing, though. He just advised that she try to keep things more optimistic.

Except for the Sex Pistols, the Clash are the biggest punk group in England, but that’s not as impressive as American punk fans imagine. Punk is very much a minority music in England; while the Clash were not quite filling a 2200-capacity venue in Leeds, Yes was selling out six nights at London’s Wembley, which seats 6000. Anyway, to call the Clash number two is stretching it, like saying the Stones were number two in 1964, when the Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers were both doing better on the charts. United Artists’ Stranglers have outsold CBS’s Clash by far and may even pass the Pistols. But (as with Gerry and the Pacemakers) nobody takes the Stranglers seriously because (like the Hollies) they commercialize what should be a music of discovery. The Clash have status, significance, symbolic clout. They are the class of the field, defining its possibilities; most of the punk peoples I spoke to in England — hardly a cross-section, but an influential minority — preferred them to the Pistols. So do I.

Because its suppositions are critical and apparently pessimistic where those of Beatlemania and hippie were full of hope, punk turns ideas upside down. The Stranglers, who sing about fucking rats and assaulting women, qualify for vilification as commercial because their subject matter recapitulates the received, best-selling, megapolitical macho of heavy metal. And a revised definition of commercial makes for an even stranger reversal: Although the Sex Pistols definitely got there first, always the prime issue in the Beatles-Stones rivalry of the ’60s, the Pistols are to the Clash what the Stones were to the Beatles in both musical strategy and general scariness. The switch is that this time the buying public prefers the Pistols/Stones. After all, in a world where nihilistic offensiveness has become a popular option, they offer a relatively uncomplicated message dramatized by a single, visible antihero. And in that sense they’re easy to sell.

It is because the Pistols are more accessible that the committed English punk tends to identify with the Clash. For him, it’s simple: they’re his. But for participant observers like me, it’s more complicated. Say that the Pistols’ negativism — passionate, closely observed, and good to dance to though it certainly is — seems a bit facile compared to the Clash’s jubilantly militant ensemble aggression. Even better, say that in 1965 we loved the Beatles’ ebullience but found that we wanted (and needed) the cautionary, hard-edged, rather dangerous irony of the Stones, while in 1977 we get off on the Pistols’ promise to tear it all down but find that the Clash help us imagine what it might be like to build it back up again. Of course, what makes my first person plural more satisfying is that one can imagine both participant observers and committed punks sharing in the building. But it’s best to be careful with what is basically a rhetorical device, a revised version of the rock and roll “we.” The solidarity it implies is so theoretical it makes the provisional solidarity among the punks themselves seem as irrevocable as Arthurian fealty.

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Participant Observers and La Vie Boheme

After my crash course in English youth culture, all I’m clear about is that it’s much more complicated than anything we’re used to here. I don’t know how many kids actually perceive all the arcane detail, but some obviously do. Accustomed to rigid tracking in the schools and a class system unashamed of its name, they define subcultures for themselves; these are picked up in the popular press and thus propagated, formalized, and put to death. Yet of the six big ones — teddy boys, rockers, mods, hippies, skinheads, punks — all but the mods and rockers are still around. (Those who presume the skinheads extinct didn’t confront 80 of them marching out of a Sham 69 gig two months ago; for that matter, enclaves of rockers are said to survive at motorway cafs.) Except for the hippies, who began in America, each of these groups crystallized around the style innovations of working-class teenagers, who dress just as obsessively as black and Latin kids do in this country, and a lot more regimentally. But because street fashions have some of the same sort of upward mobility in England that they do here, these uniforms are no more likely to remain purely working-class than are the subcultures they symbolize.

For the punks, this sociological fact of life is traumatic, because the punks are ideologically working class. There was a certain ambiguous nosethumbing in the outmoded posh of the teds’ Edwardian gear, and the rockers probably resented the implicit upward mobility of the mods as much as the skinheads resented the putative classlessness of the hippies. But despite the English tradition of resenting the rich and an adolescent anti-establishment bias that alienated them from anyone with power, these groups took class pretty much as a given. No so the punks. Punks are equally scornful of the scant material rewards of welfare capitalism and the boredom that inevitably deadens what rewards there are; they’re hostile to America and hate the cultural imperialism of television with a passion that elevates cliché into myth. But more than that, they place blame. Their us-against-them isn’t young-against-old or hip-against-square, but a war of the deprived against the privileged.

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It would be nice to say that punk’s class consciousness arose spontaneously from the dole queues and council flats and dead-end educational levels of a depressed Britain. But since most working-class kids, including those without work, don’t really identify with punk, it’s more accurate to credit the musicians themselves with the analysis, and in fact a lot of it has come from participant observers — semi-official theoreticians in management and journalism. Malcolm McLaren, the self-described anarchist who launched the Sex Pistols from his anti-couture boutique (called first Rock On, then Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, then Sex, and currently Seditionaries) understood early on how butch working-class fashion iconography might épater le bourgeois. Caroline Coon of Melody Maker and Jonh Ingham of Sounds (a couple at one time) perceived punk as a movement that could only occur in a deteriorating economic environment — although it combined the hoodlum-friends-outside youth politics of rock and roll with more “bolshie” counter-culture ideas. And Bernard Rhodes, a East End Jew who worked for McLaren before he began to manage the Clash, gave the music a more explicitly leftwing cast.

But especially significant, I think, was a “real” punk proficient at both journalism and music business — Mark P., who brought all this raw art and rough theory together in his Xeroxed fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, and then, with the help of rock-biz pro Miles Copeland, became the finest of the punk a&r men on his own Step-Forward label, responsible for strong singles from Chelsea, the Cortinas, and the Models. A teen genius with vanguard instincts in both music and politics, Mark P. was the East End council-flats guyser that punk legend is made of, and as near as I can tell, it was from Sniffin’ Glue that the whole issue of class authenticity in punk, the anti-poser ethic, really took off. I did it. Mark P. said, and now you should. And so fanzines sprouted by the score, and pioneer fans organized pioneer groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, and the Slits. Outsiders became more and more suspect.

Because they are interested in survival as well as boredom, English punk bands have never pretended to be dumb. Sentimentality and intellectualism are out, but the prevailing mood encourages the (admittedly satiric) Snivelling Shits to attack “Terminal Stupid” and the (admittedly demi-commercial) Boomtown Rats to boast: “I’m gonna go somewhere where it doesn’t stink/Away from the alleys, somewhere I can think.” What does slip into the rhetoric, however, is the implication that Johnny Rotten or Mick Jones or Mark P. is an ordinary guyser, a bloke who goes to see bands like anybody else. Needless to say, this is nonsense. Despite the usual lemmings, loonies, and losers, the fringe people that fringe movements like punk always attract, punks tend to be bright and sensitive — they have to be, to detach themselves from the accepted belief that one’s lot is one’s just dessert unless one manages to work one’s way out of it. Nevertheless, Rotten and Jones and Mark P. are a lot more gifted than most punks — and probably than you or me as well.

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At work here is a delusion over-25s will recall from the hippie days: the we-are-youth line. To their credit, punks don’t pretend to be everybody’s brothers and sisters. They savage contemporaries who don’t share their self-interests — the grammar-school boys, the art students, the revitalized teds — and they savage each other with continual exhortations to cut the shit. “Try to evade reality/And now you’re just a novelty,” warn the Killjoys, and when punks at the Vortex cheered the news of Elvis’s death — another old fart gone — Danny Baker of Sniffin’ Glue grabbed the mike in a rage and reminded them just where they’d be without him. But like most minority groups, they take comfort in the thought that their situation is not only of central social significance, but also the source of magic powers. The notion that Everypunk can just walk off the dole queue and make great rock and roll is essential to their sense of themselves.

Behind punk’s belief in its own magic is the old idea that if you live close enough to the edge of reality you gain some special grip on it. But despite the legend their edge doesn’t turn out to depend on brutal poverty. Poly Styrene, the mulatto who leads X-Ray Spex, giggles that compared to where she grew up council flats are pretty soft, and Joe Strummer jeers at the way Americans romanticize Britain’s plight: “ ’Ey fink it’s really orful over here, don’t they? ’Ey fink we can’t afford ’arf a pint o’ beer.” In fact, many punk musicians live at home and spend their meager dole or boring-job or gig money on themselves, and not all boast impeccably impecunious pedigrees. Joe Strummer has been exposed as the son of a career diplomat who was himself born working-class (as well as the former lead singer of a band of hippie squatters called the 101’ers), the parents of the Damned’s Rat Scabies invited disc jockey John Peel to a sherry evening in a well-to-do London suburb, signing the engraved card “Mr. and Mrs. Scabies”; the Cortinas are middle-class boys from Bristol; Chelsea’s Gene October, author of the militant “Right To Work,” is reputedly of moneyed stock. So when reporters discover middle-class thrill-seekers at punk gigs, that’s hardly surprising. Only because the punks themselves have made an issue of posing does such evidence appear damning to those who’d just as soon dismiss them anyway.

Perhaps the way to understand it is this: Rather than a working-class youth movement — potentially revolutionary, proto-fascist, or symptomatic of the decadence of our times — punk is a basically working youth bohemia that rejects both the haute bohemia of the rock elite and the hallowed bohemian myth of classlessness. Not that it’s purely working-class (or purely youth, for that matter). But it gives the lie to the (basically Marxist) cliché that bohemia must always be petit-bourgeois. For punk, class replaces such bohemian verities as expressive sexuality and salvation through therapy/enlightenment/drugs. It is a source of identity and a means of self-realization. So the Cockney accent replaces the blues voice, and disdain for luxury becomes an affirmation of fellowship with one’s allies’ rather than a withdrawal from the economic world.

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Punk doesn’t want to be thought of as bohemian, because bohemians are posers. But however vexed the question of their authenticity, bohemias do serve a historical function — they nurture aesthetic sensibility. Punk definitely has attracted musicians hiding arty little secrets; if Mick Jones acknowledges having gone on scholarship to art school, that unfairly discredited rock institution, can Dave Vanian be far behind? Nor is it surprising that the best punk retailer-distributor, Rough Trade, is run by an idealistic Cambridge lit grad in the boho stronghold around Portobello Road. That many entrenched (and lapsed) bohemians regard punks as mindless yobs doesn’t mean half as much as the observant participation of disaffected university students, restless suburban teens, and assorted dropouts. Most of the hip folks I know could use a shot of punk, which revives the oldest bohemian tradition — artists with no visible means of support banding together against the cruel world.

Of course, most of these kids aren’t artists, and they often enjoy invisible support from their parents or the state. But it’s equally obvious that for talented working-class rebels denied access to Britain’s scarce, narrow, and overcrowded escape routes, bohemianism — in which poverty is no bar to freedom, identity, and the pleasures of the moment — presents a way out. A recent study among the supposedly middle-class hippies of Birmingham, for instance, revealed that most of those who’d stuck with the lifestyle had working-class origins. Of course, Marxists can dismiss hippies and punks alike as lumpen because, unlike real working-class people, they’re not interested in work. But it remains true that for punks class is a charged category. They have raised both their own consciousness and that of the participant observers who are now part of their movement, and it’s at least conceivable that when they all grow up they’ll unite to marshal their energy into a real attack on the system they detest.

I’m as skeptical as the punks are, and I hardly expect this to happen. But I do think punk represents an advance in sensibility. Those punks who aren’t direct victims of the economic rationalizations that have been wreaking drab havoc over Britain have certainly been induced to think about them a lot. The edge they all claim, their magic handle on reality, is that they’re painfully familiar with powerlessness. And they want no part of it.

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The Bad Stuff

I’m aware that I’ve made the punks sound like poverty-stricken lads who only want to build a better life for themselves, and that this probably doesn’t jibe with your preconceptions. What about the safety pins and dog collars, you must be wondering. What abut the violence? What about the misogyny and pathological anomie? What about that groupie with the whip?

Well, my guess is that six months from now safety pins and dog collars — but not the wonderful spikey punk hair — will be as passé as platform shoes, replaced by less disquieting concepts in costume jewelry. But the rest of the bad stuff seemed durable enough. I saw fans betoken their affection by gobbing — spitting, in thick gobs — at their idols, I saw X-Ray Spex abandon the stage to their own rampaging fans, and I saw little Kevin Roland of the Killjoys placekick one kid off the monitors without missing a beat. I witnessed numerous fistfights. I learned that punks sometimes pogo with their hands at each other’s throats and embrace in holds that resemble hammerlocks. And I read both Strummer and Rotten On Love. Strummer: “I can love them providing they don’t come near me.” Rotten: “Love is what you feel for a dog or a pussy cat. It doesn’t apply to humans.”

Yet none of this was anywhere near as appalling as I’d expected. I mean, I almost didn’t bring my down jacket for fear someone would knife me and the feathers would all fly out, but the most antagonistic remark any punk offered in nine days was when some youngster addressed me as “Guv’nor” after I declined to share my beer with him. Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time with the punk on the street, and I worry that I’ve somehow been hoodwinked by the British music biz, which is now taking the line that punk is nothing more than teenagers venting their (oh so sociologically justified) frustrations. But while I continue to find some punk music frightening, I am no longer very scared by the punks themselves. On the contrary, I consider their hostility healthy, especially in view of how much they’ve been maligned.

Gobbing I could do without, as could the gobbed-upon, but even gobbing carries metaphorical weight, a weight that reaches its zenith in the pogo. The pogo is more than oafs jumping up and down; its reputation as an idiot dance preceding a punch-up misses entirely the joy, humor, and madness of the real thing. Pogoers don’t just jump — they leap, as high as they can for as long as they can, exhilarated to the point of exhaustion. The dance is very physical, with much flailing and crashing near the center, and most pogoers are male. At first they flew strictly solo, but soon couple-dancing began, and with it the stranglehold developed. It was startling to see two 16-year-old boys, their faces shining with sweat and glee, pretending to throttle each other in what amounted to an airborne playfight. But I hadn’t encountered such joyful-looking kids at a rock concert in years. This dance did justice to something about rock and roll that all the fast steps and sexy grinds ignored — its exultant competitiveness, its aggressive fun.

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Not that pogoers confine themselves to playfighting. People trip and tromp on each other and come to blows — less often than has been reported but more than at a Renaissance concert. Only who needs a Renaissance concert? This is rock and roll, and in England rock and roll (like football, only less so) has always occasioned violence. Yet there were only one or two scuffles a night at the gigs I attended, and I neither saw nor was told about anything to compare, for instance, with the Beatles’ second professional engagement, where a 16-year-old boy was kicked to death. I would describe firecrackers at Bad Company concerts as violent, and I would describe Johnny Rotten’s vocal attack as violent. But I would describe punk as rough.

It is also of course predominantly male. But this, too, must be understood in the context of England, which has produced a rock folkway without exact parallel in the States — the boys bands, with their all-boy audiences. “Quo, Sabbaf, and ’Eep” — a legend you can still see on the backs of jackets — were and are boys bands; so was Mott the Hoople, the group Mick Jones used to follow around. This sort of fandom is clearly much like rooting for a football team, with the ominous difference that rock’s sexual content — admittedly downplayed among the four boys bands I’ve mentioned — might be more sanely absorbed in a coed environment. Jones was amused that the Clash now seemed to be a boys band, and expressed the hope that the photogenic Simonon would break the pattern via the teenybop magazines — not so much to up the band’s market share as to humanize its audience.

But beyond such camaraderie there is a lot of woman-hating in English punk — not as much as is reported, once again, but more, among significant groups, than in America. Lately the Stranglers, who can be passed off as pseudopunks, have given up their Gold Dildo to Eater, who cannot: “Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Why don’t you get raped/Go and get fucked.” You can call this underclass scapegoating, you can talk about the virtues of irony, you can talk about the virtues of candor, you can even praise certain artists for exposing misogyny as the anti-sex sociopathy it is. Say anything you like — those lyrics are still hateful.

They’re not the whole story, though. On specific songs — the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” for instance — the power of the statement does, I think, justify and perhaps even necessitate the hatefulness. And there’s something more important, especially if you believe, as I do, that an aggressive popular art like rock and roll is a better way to fuse righteous anger than acoustic folk songs or documentaries about the siblinghood of humankind. For coexisting with the misogyny is an unprecedented opportunity for women to make rock and roll. Mick Jones voiced the prevailing attitude: “There ought to be as many girls in bands as boys by now. But if I’m gonna like ’em, they gotta be as tough as we are.” In addition to the all-female Lous and X-Ray Spex (led by a young woman who braved the onstage pogoing of her admirers long after her male musicians beat their retreat), I ran across a bassist and two keyboard players in three other bands. That’s not exactly a population explosion, but it does represent a significant increase over the number of females who played electric instruments at the Palladium in 1977, one, a punk, Patti Smith, because in punk conceptual energy does the work of chops, which means you needn’t have decided to be a rock star 10 years ago to become one now. Not that punk women seem any more inclined to be feminists than punk men. They choose names like the Castrators and the Slits. They talk about free sex like acolytes of the Playboy Philosophy. And they believe in looking out for themselves. Says 16-year-old Arri Up of the Slits: “The reason there’s hardly any girl rock ’n’ roll stars is because most girls are not strong enough in their own minds.”

I hope Arri figures out sometime just why girls have this problem, insofar as they do, and insofar as it’s a problem. I also hope Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten change their hearts and minds about love. The fervent alienation that fuels such ideas suggests an egoism and a crippled capacity for outreach that alarm me. The most encouraging note I can add is that egoism and crippled outreach are no less adolescent than idealism and a desire to reach out, and that maturing — exotic term — is basically a process of becoming aware that other people exist. Hippie romanticized youth’s potential for good and continually foundered on its gift for evil. Punk errs in the other direction, but the good is there too, however reluctantly acknowledged, and it may develop more naturally if not too much is expected of it. The thought of punk growing up is not an altogether happy one — its energy is almost as rooted in self-centeredness as its strength is in solidarity. But I hope it does grow up, because it’s going to get older regardless.

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What Is to Be Done?

The word “punk” can refer to a music and/or a youth movement because the two are inseparable. Not even rockabilly or disco, and certainly not “psychedelic” rock, have enjoyed such a clear, before-and-after, cause-and-effect relationship with a support subculture. In fact, punk rock was conceived by Malcolm McLaren and Bernard Rhodes (out of the intuitions of avant-punks like Iggy and David Johansson) to inspire, or to give shape to, such a subculture. Not that it turned out exactly the way its prophets imagined — the unpredictability of talent was essential to what they wanted to instigate. Still, their ideas have had appreciable effect.

While in England I looked up pioneer punk propagandist Jonh Ingham. Ingham was a student of mine at the California Institute of the Arts when he decided to change the spelling of his name in 1970. This precocious bit of image-building was typical of both his sharpness and his shallowness, but punk has clearly deepened him. The apolitical acidhead now wears a Marx patch, and the lines around his eves belong to someone who’s discovered passion. Not that he’s so passionate any more. For Ingham, the turning point came last January, when McLaren, instead of investing the Pistols’ settlement from EMI in a punk counter-economy, chose to expand punk — or at least his punks — on establishment capital. So it was going to limit itself to good groups after all, Ingham said to himself. Within months he was managing Generation X, now signed to Chrysalis.

The punk counter-economy, such as it is, was destined to arise anyway. “It was easy, it was cheap, go out and do it,” sang the Desperate Bicycle, who produced their own single for £153 in March, 1977, basically to show people it could be done, just as the Desperate Bicycles themselves might have learned from Australia’s Saints (who scored a 1976 counterhit by mailing their 45 to U.K. journalists; and Manchester’s Buzzcocks. Many of these instant labels record one group exclusively, but others go on from a profitable sale — 10,000 is pretty good, 20,000 not unheard of — to work with others. It’s likely that one or two of them — London’s Deptford Fun City? Manchester’s Rabid? Cambridge’s Raw? Edinburgh’s Zoom? — will join the worldwide trend toward specialty labels for minority popular musics. In this they will be following two somewhat older indies, Stiff and Chiswick, which although they’re known here as punk labels actually cater to the audience of rock ’n’ roll discophiles who supported pub-rock.

One implication of independent production is that punk too could turn into a collectors’ music, a hobby, as is brought home by such frivolous marketing devices as the 12-inch single (saving vinyl is for hippies). But independent production doesn’t reflect punk’s eccentricity, or its idealism, so much as its refusal to withdraw from the economic world. It’s a trick of survival, a way to prepare your own demo at a profit. Mark P.’s backer and boss at Deptford-Fun City Records, Miles Copeland, is typical; he has placed his managerial clients the Cortinas with CBS and is codistributing a 12-incher with Sham 69’s new label, Polydor. Copeland, the son of a CIA bigshot, calls class consciousness “England’s big sickness” and used to advise Wishbone Ash how best to carry their hods; he struck me as one of the more dismaying professionals now attached to punk, but his business ideas are the norm. He describes how the Cortinas “wanted to go pro” and “wanted the strength of a major worldwide,” while the Buzzcocks’ manager — a 24-year-old art drop-out named Richard Boon who oversaw their debut EP on New Hormones and then signed the band to UA — talks coolly about doing an album only when the time seems right. But neither can imagine a new way to get this music out there.

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Not that I have any bright ideas. My first minutes with Joe Strummer were spent in praise of medium-sized halls, an article of faith with the punks now as it was with the Who and the Grateful Dead a decade ago, although it’s not hard to figure out that if you sell 3000 tickets a night for a brutal 300 nights a year you still don’t play to a million people, a rather small-scale cultural crusade. Strummer went along with me — modest venues were best. But then he was apparently afflicted with a racial memory of the Grateful Dead: “Nah, you do it too much that way and you get just like the hippies. Keep it small, keep it efnic…” Basically, Strummer didn’t see any way to avoid turning into what he’d rebelled against. No matter how staunch his own idealism — not that he made any inflated claims for it — someone would always be checking his rear for him. “People say, if you don’t do that the So-and-Sos are gonna catch up. You don’t wanna get behind the So-and-Sos, do ya?”

Like Jonh Ingham, I really wish it could be different, and I’m somehow disappointed with the punks for not cutting through the old masscult paradoxes. If powerlessness is your secret, shouldn’t you have something more to say about power than vague plans to recycle your capital and specific promises never to own a Bentley? But in the absence of such miracle, I agree — better the Clash than the So-and-Sos, whether the So-and-Sos are good guys like the Jam (Who-style punks-as-mods not averse to Bentleys) or the Vibrators (Velvets-style metaphysical sex on the surface and a perfect blank ambition underneath) or guys as bad as the semi-fictitious Pork Dukes, who offer a record sleeve and T-shirt depicting a woman sucking off a pig, and who are rumored on excellent authority to include two moonlighting folk-rockers from that apogee of rock gentility, Steeleye Span. But the very profusion of so-and-sos is positive, especially since even the so-called posers — both the Jam and the Vibrators are dismissed that way by much of the punk hard core — can make wonderful rock and roll. Punk really is a new wave — a new wave of musicians. Some of those so-and-sos are going to be playing the English rock and roll of the ’80s.

Which raises two questions: One, will this rock and roll remain strictly English, and two, will it remain punk rock? As extraordinary as the Clash are, they’ll have to do for an example. The Clash may be the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but they haven’t conquered Britain yet, and if they gain a following over here — which they seem in no special hurry to do — it will be proportionally smaller. Their fierce national identification strengthens their music but narrows their American potential, because our class system is afraid to speak its name. Even if their second album, unlike their first, is picked up by American Epic or some other U.S. label, I’ll be pleased if they gain enough audience to support an annual tour, perhaps inspiring some young American rocker to translate the English punk way of seeing things into terms as fiercely national as the Clash’s own. But the sustenance that keeps whatever dozen English punk bands eating and recording over the next few years should come from England.

Because finally it’s the sensibility that must survive — the sensibility that thinks in terms of class and means to bring home to us the conflicts that underlie every one of our lives. If it comes to that, I’ll even settle for hobbyists, a few genius musicians making overpriced direct-to-disc collector’s items for 10,000 connoisseurs of raw power. That’ll be enough to keep the word alive. As the Clash sing on — and about — “Hate & War”: “And if I close my eyes/It will not go away/We have to deal with it/It is the currency.” No matter how many people are resisting right now, they’re going to find out eventually that these ill-mannered boys are right.

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Punks are so much a counter-culture that they’ve produced a reaction — the teddy boys, regrouping and recruiting at an amazing clip in direct response to punk’s explicit contempt for the racism and dumb violence of working-class youthcult tradition. In Coventry, an auto-manufacturing city where I saw two punks pogoing to the Boomtown Rats in a disco, the teds were down to a few pathetic father-and-son pairs plus some stragglers only six or eight months ago. Now they dominate many youth clubs. The only music they’ll listen to is rockabilly. Another favored pastime is beating up punks.

Dirty Minds
Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 says he got the name off the wall of a loo; it sounds good and means nothing, he insists, specifically including fake blow job. Pete Shelly of the Buzzcocks says the name of his group came from a caption in the London entertainment weekly Time Out: “Get a buzz, cock” (“cock” means roughly the same thing as “fellow” in working-class slang). When I told him that many Americans took the name as a sadistic play on “buzz saw” he seemed to feel it spoke poorly for this nation.

To call something extraordinary in hippie argot you would say it was “far out.” Among punks, the term is “over the top.”

Poly Styrene is a plump young woman the color of Kraft caramel who brings a pop-art kind of pop sensibility to punk. She prefers “synfetic” clothes and wears braces on her teeth. Reputedly a former reggae singer, she’s vague about how she made money before X-Ray Spex. But she did tell me that her manager, Falcon Stuart, used to direct films, and I know this is true because I’ve seen one — French Blue, a rather arty and off-putting exercise in king porn. This could make you worry about lyrics, like “Bind me tie me/Chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave to you all.” But they continue: “Oh bondage up yours/Oh bondage no more.” Poly says she tries to make sure her lyrics aren’t obvious; they’re collections of images. Her artistic aim? “I try to make people fink.”

Fashion Plate
For five minutes after we were introduced, Bernard Rhodes, the Clash’s manager, subjected me to skeptical questions and comments implying that I was a poser. I held my ground, which was apparently what he wanted, because soon he was treating me to the English teen version of Sartor Resartus. “The differences are so subtle,” he told me. “Shoelaces — you can spend half an hour deciding what shoelaces to wear.” Rhodes was wearing aviator glasses, a bezippered gray cloth jacket, a Clash T-shirt, a large digital watch, jeans with rolled cuffs, chartreuse socks, and black oxfords. I did not notice anything special about his shoelaces.

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Consumer Guide
Although the exceptions are significant, most English punk is unreleased in the Yew Ess Ay, and some of it will remain so. That puts the seeker at the mercy of importers and makes genuine discount buying next to impossible. Many Village record stores now stock some “new wave,” but the best selection by far is at Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies, 179 MacDougal, 475-9677. Discophile, around the corner at 26 West 8th, employs a well-respected enthusiast named Michael: you should ask for him if you phone (473-1902) or drop in. Both shops charge around $7 for an album, $3 for an EP, and $2 for a single. Cheaper but more out of the way is Fantasia, at 4752 Broadway near Dyckman Street in Washington Heights, 942-9188. The two major import distributors — the rock-oriented Jem (Box 362, South Plainfield, New Jersey 07080) and Peters International (619 West 54th Street, NYC 10019) both do retail mail-order. Rough Trade, 202 Kensington Park Road, London W11, England, will also mail, and is worth visiting should you find yourself nearby, as is Rock On, 3 Kentish Town Road.

There are two essential albums in English punk: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, available on American Warners, and The Clash, a CBS import that may well never be released here. Hard rock fans should pick up one and seek out the other. I know no one who was bowled over by The Clash first listen, and I know a lot of people who love it now; it’s one of my favorite records of the decade. Give it some time.

Also recommended are Pure Mania by the Vibrators (Epic import due for domestic release on Columbia January 9), revved-up and slightly arty, showing roots in pop r&b to great advantage; In the City and This Is the Modern World by the Jam (domestic Polydor), in which a very bright, very ambitious working-class rock and roller writes relevant songs because that seems the thing to do and proves so honest and thoughtful he renders all questions of posing, well, irrelevant; and side one of The Boomtown Rats (domestic Mercury), raw, nasty, relatively unhistrionic, and not without melodic appeal. The Heartbreakers never got to me in New York, but side one of L.A.M.F., a Track import recorded after their move to London, is a perfect, catchy version of (to borrow Caroline Coon’s phrase) MOR punk, in which (to borrow Greil Marcus’s image) the guitarist lays down a line of fire to cover the vocalist; side two ain’t so catchy. I am less impressed by The Boys (Nems import), Eater’s The Album (The Label import), and the two Damned LPs (Stiff import), but all have virtues and supporters — as do the Stranglers, I suppose. I don’t know anyone who likes either Eddie and the Hot Rods album.

A punk anthology I’ve been playing a lot is Streets (Beggars Banquet import); its 17 independent label cuts include no instant classics, but the overall quality, especially on side two, indicates how vital punk is as a movement right now. I find The Roxy London W.C. 2 (Jan-Apr ’77) (EMI import), a live anthology, valuable primarily as documentary. Most of the great punk on New Wave (Vertigo import) is American. And three pub-to-punk compendiums deserve mention: A Bunch of Stiff Records, Hit’s Greatest Stiffs, and Submarine Tracks & Fool’s Gold Chiswick Chartbusters, Volume One. All have been constructed with discophiliac attention to detail and all are proof that rock and roll, of all sorts, is here to collect.

With albums, idiosyncrasies of taste tend to even out over 10 or 12 cuts; singles are more hit-or-miss. The ones I happen to love are: “Complete Control”/“City of the Dead” by the Clash (CBS); “2-4-6-8 Motorway” by the Tom Robinson Band (EMI): “Oh Bondage Up Yours”/“I Am a Cliché” by X-Ray Spex (Virgin – try to find the seven-inch version); “New Rose” by the Damned (Stiff); “Johnny Won’t Get to Heaven”/“Naive” by the Killjoys (Raw); “Can’t Stand By My Baby” by the Rezillos (Sensible); “Don’t Dictate”/“Money Talks” by Penetration (Virgin); “Right To Work” by Chelsea (Step-Forward); “Do Anything You Wanna Do” by Rods (domestic Island); and “Television Screen”/“Love Detective” by the Radiators From Space. The latter was dismissed in Sniffin’ Glue as “a moronic mess”; Michael at Discophile thinks it’s worse; and on their second single and album their producer, Roger Armstrong, has slowed down the Radiators’ r&b clichés to accentuate their songwriting. I find the songs mediocre and everything but their mad debut disappointing. “I guess you haven’t had as many fast guitars in the States as we have,” Armstrong explained. Never, never — give me more.

Finally, a book: Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. It’s no musicological classic, but for an exploitation quickie it’s well-informed, intelligent, passionate, and good to look at. The interviews — especially with the Slits — are uniformly fascinating, if partial. Ask for it at Bleecker Bob’s. It’s an import, too.


The White Noise Supremacists

The White Noise Supremacists
April 30, 1979

The other day I was talking on the phone with a friend who hangs out on the CBGB scene a lot. She was regaling me with examples of the delights available to females in the New York subway system. “So the train came to a sudden halt and I fell on my ass in the middle of the car, and not only did nobody offer to help me up but all these boons just sat there laughing at me.”

“Boons?” I said. “What’s boons?”

“You know,” she said. “Black guys.”

“Why do you call them that?”

“I dunno. From ‘baboons,’ I guess.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Look, I know it’s not cool,” she finally said. “But neither is being a woman in this city. Every fucking place you go you get these cats hassling you, and sometimes they try to pimp you. And a lot of the times when they hassle you they’re black, and when they try to pimp me they’re always black. Eventually you can’t help it, you just end up reacting.”

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Sometimes I think nothing is simple but the feeling of pain.

When I was first asked to write this article, I said sure, because the racism (not to mention the sexism, which is even more pervasive and a whole other piece) on the American New Wave scene had been something that I’d been bothered by for a long time. When I told the guys in my own band that I was doing this, they just laughed. “Well, I guess the money’s good,” said one. “What makes you think the racism in punk has anything special about it that separates it from the rest of the society?” asked another.

“Because the rest of society doesn’t go around acting like racism is real hip and cool,” I answered heatedly.

“Oh yeah,” he sneered. “Just walk into a factory sometime. Or jail.”

All right. Power is what we’re talking about, or the feeling that you don’t have any, or how much ostensible power you can rip outta some other poor sucker’s hide. It works the same everywhere, of course, but one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power: Look at me! I’m a cretinous little wretch! And proud of it! So many of the people around the CBGB and Max’s scene have always seemed emotionally if not outright physically crippled — you see speech impediments, hunchbacks, limps, but most of all an overwhelming spiritual flatness. You take parental indifference, a crappy educational system, lots of drugs, media overload, a society with no values left except the hysterical emphasis on physical perfection, and you end up with these little nubbins: the only rebellion around, as Life magazine once labeled the Beats. Richard Hell gave us the catchphrase “Blank Generation,” although he insists that he didn’t mean a crowd with all the dynamism of a static-furry TV screen but rather a bunch of people finally freed by the collapse of all values to reinvent themselves, to make art statements of their whole lives. Unfortunately, such a great utopian dream, which certainly is not on its first go-round here, remains just that, because most people would rather follow. What you’re left with, aside from the argument that it beats singles bars, is compassion. When the Ramones bring that sign onstage that says “GABBA GABBA HEY,” what it really stands for is “We accept you.” Once you get past the armor of dog collars, black leather, and S&M affectations, you’ve got some of the gentlest or at least most harmless people in the world: Sid Vicious legends aside, almost all their violence is self-directed.

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So if they’re all such a bunch of little white lambs, why do some of them have it in for little black lambs? Richard Pinkston, a black friend I’ve known since my Detroit days, tells me, “When I go to CBGB’s I feel like I’m in East Berlin. It’s like, I don’t mind liberal guilt if it gets me in the restaurant, even if I know the guy still hates me in his mind. But it’s like down there they’re striving to be offensive however they can, so it’s more vocal and they’re freer. It’s semi-mob thinking.”

Richard Hell and the Voidoids are one of the few integrated bands on the scene (“integrated” — what a stupid word). I heard that when he first formed the band, Richard got flack from certain quarters about Ivan Julian, a black rhythm guitarist from Washington, D.C., who once played with the Foundations of “Build Me Up Buttercup” fame. I think it says something about what sort of person Richard is that he told all those people to get fucked then and doesn’t much want to talk about it now. “I don’t remember anything special. I just think that most people that say stuff like what you’re talking about are so far beneath contempt that it has no effect that’s really powerful. Among musicians there’s more professional jealousy than any kind of racial thing; there’s so much backbiting in any scene, it’s like girls talking about shoes. All musicians are such scum anyway that it couldn’t possibly make any difference because you expect ’em to say the worst shit in the world about you.”

I called up Ivan, who was the guy having trouble at the pinhead lunch counter in the first place. “Well, I was first drawn to this scene by the simple fact of a lot of people with musical and social attitudes more or less in common. No one’s ever said anything to my face, but I overheard shit. A lot of people are just ignorant assholes. I don’t think there’s any more racism at CBGB’s, where I went every night for about the first year I lived here, than anywhere else in New York City. Maybe a little bit less, because I find New York City a million times more racist than D.C., or Maryland and Virginia where I grew up. There’s racism there, outright killings around where I lived, but here it’s a lot more insidious. You get four or five different extremes, so many cultures that can’t stand each other. It’s like, when we toured Europe I was amazed at the bigotry between people from two parts of the same country. They’d accept me, but to each other they were niggers, man. And at CBGB’s it’s sorta the same way, sometimes. Mutants can learn to hate each other and have prejudices too. Like Mingus said in Beneath the Underdog: 40 or 50 years ago, in the ghetto, the lighter you were the better you were. Then you’d turn another corner and if you were somewhat light, like Mingus, there’d be a buncha guys saying ‘Shit-colored mutha’ ready to trash your ass. My point is, regardless of how much people might have in common they still draw away. There are certain people on the scene, like say this girl in one band who’s nothing but a loudmouthed racist bitch — it’s obvious we want nothing to do with each other, so I stay away from her and vice versa.

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“I’ll tell you one thing: the entrepreneurs, record company people and shit are a hell of a lot worse. People like Richard Gottehrer, who produced our album, and Seymour Stein and a lot of the other people up at Sire Records. They were totally condescending, they’d talk to you differently, like you were a child or something. I heard a lot of clichés on the level of being invited over to somebody’s house for fried chicken.”

I was reminded instantly of the day I was in the office of a white woman of some intelligence, education, and influence in the music business, and the subject of race came up. “Oh,” she said, “I liked them so much better when they were just Negroes. When they became blacks.…” She wrinkled her nose irritably.

“Race hate?” says Voidoids lead guitarist Bob Quine. “Sure, it gives me ’n’ Ivan something to do onstage: The Defiant Ones.”

But the ease and insight of the Voidoids are somewhat anomalous on the New York scene. This scene and the punk stance in general are riddled with self-hate, which is always reflexive, and anytime you conclude that life stinks and the human race mostly amounts to a pile of shit, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for fascism. A lot of outsiders, in fact, think punk is fascist, but that’s only because they can’t see beyond certain buzzwords, symbols, and pieces of regalia that (I think) really aren’t that significant: Ron Asheton of the Stooges used to wear swastikas, Iron Crosses, and jackboots onstage, but I don’t remember any right-wing rants ever popping up in the music he did with Iggy or his own later band, which many people were not exactly thrilled to hear was called the New Order.

In the past three years Ron’s sartorial legacy has given us an international subculture whose members might easily be mistaken at first glance for little brownshirts. They aren’t, for the most part. Only someone as dumb as the Ramones are always accused of being could be offended when they sing “I’m a Nazi schatze,” or tell us that the first rule is to obey the laws of Germany and then follow it with “Eat kosher salami.” I’ve hung out with the Ramones, and they treat everybody of any race or sex the same — who they hate isn’t Jews or blacks or gays or anybody but certain spike-conk assholes who just last week graduated from The Rocky Horror Picture Show lines to skag-dabblings and now stumble around Max’s busting their nuts trying to be decadent.

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Whereas you don’t have to try at all to be a racist. It’s a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual. But there’s a difference between hate and a little of the old epater gob at authority: swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue on what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. “It’s like a stance,” as Ivan says. “A real immature way of being dangerous.”

Maybe. Except that after a while this casual, even ironic embrace of the totems of bigotry crosses over into the real poison. Around 1970 there was a carbuncle named Wayne McGuire who kept contributing installments of something he called “An Aquarian Journal” to Fusion magazine, wherein he suggested between burblings of regurgitated Nietzsche and bad Celine ellipses that the Velvet Underground represented some kind of mystical milestone in the destiny of the Aryan race, and even tried to link their music with the ideas of Mel Lyman, who was one of the prototypes for the current crop of mind-napping cult-daddies.

On a less systematic level, we had little outcroppings like Iggy hollering, “Our next selection tonight for all you Hebrew ladies in the audience is entitled ‘Rich Bitch’!” on the 1974 recorded-live bootleg Metallic K.O., and my old home turf Creem magazine, where around the same time I was actually rather proud of myself for writing things like (in an article on David Bowie’s “soul” phase): “Now, as we all know, white hippies and beatniks before them would never have existed had there not been a whole generational subculture with a gnawing yearning to be nothing less than the downest baddest niggers… Everybody has been walking around for the last year or so acting like faggots ruled the world, when in actuality it’s the niggers who control and direct everything just as it always has been and properly should be.”

I figured all this was in the Lenny Bruce spirit of let’s-defuse-them-epithets-by-slinging-’em-out — in Detroit I thought absolutely nothing of going to parties with people like David Ruffin and Bobby Womack where I’d get drunk, maul the women, and improvise blues songs along the lines of “Sho’ wish ah wuz a nigger/Then mah dick’d be bigger,” and of course they all laughed. It took years before I realized what an asshole I’d been, not to mention how lucky I was to get out of there with my white hide intact.

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I’m sure a lot of those guys were very happy to see this white kid drunk on his ass making a complete fool if not a human TV set out of himself, but to this day I wonder how many of them hated my guts right then. Because Lenny Bruce was wrong — maybe in a better world than this such parlor games would amount to cleansing jet off-takes, and between friends, where a certain bond of mutual trust has been firmly established, good natured racial tradeoffs can be part of the vocabulary of understood affections. But beyond that trouble begins — when you fail to realize that no matter how harmless your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any shit that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. Took me a long time to find it out, but those words are lethal, man, and you shouldn’t just go slinging them around for effect. This seems almost too simple and obvious to say, but maybe it’s good to have something simple and obvious stated once in a while, especially in this citadel of journalistic overthink. If you’re black or Jewish or Latin or gay those little vernacular epithets are bullets that riddle your guts and then fester and burn there, like torture-flak hailing on you wherever you go. Ivan Julian told me that whenever he hears the word “nigger,” no matter who says it, black or white, he wants to kill. Once when I was drunk I told Hell that the only reason hippies ever existed in the first place was because of niggers, and when I mentioned it to Ivan while doing this article I said, “You probably don’t even remember—” “Oh yeah, I remember,” he cut me off. And that was two years ago, one ostensibly harmless little slip. You take a lifetime of that, and you’ve got grounds for trying in any way possible, even if it’s only by convincing one individual at a time, to remove those words from the face of the earth. Just like Hitler and Idi Amin and all other enemies of the human race.

Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them, you can’t say them without risking misinterpretation by some other bigoted asshole; your irony just might be his cup of hate. Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they toked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mindlessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool. “I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce free-spleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W.C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as — or more real and vile than — anybody else’s. But when I got to New York in 1976 I discovered that some kind of bridge had been crossed by a lot of the people I thought were my peers in this emergent Cretins’ Lib generation.

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This was stuff even I had to recognize as utterly repellent. I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB’s bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit — put on soul records so everybody could dance — I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”

“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us. The music editor of this paper has theorized that one of the most important things about New Wave is how much of it is almost purely white music, and what a massive departure that represents from the almost universally blues-derived rock of the past. I don’t necessarily agree with that — it ignores the reggae influence running through music as diverse as that of the Clash, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and the Police, not to mention the Chuck Berry licks at the core of Steve Jones’s attack. But there is at least a grain of truth there — the Contortions’ James Brown/Albert Ayler spasms aside, most of the SoHo bands are as white as John Cage, and there’s an evolution of sound, rhythm, and stance running from the Velvets through the Stooges to the Ramones and their children that takes us farther and farther from the black-stud postures of Mick Jagger that Lou Reed and Iggy partake in but that Joey Ramone certainly doesn’t. I respect Joey for that, for having the courage to be himself, especially at the sacrifice of a whole passel of macho defenses. Joey is a white American kid from Forest Hills, and as such his cultural inputs have been white, from The Jetsons through Alice Cooper. But none of this cancels out the fact that most of the greatest, deepest music America has produced has been, when not entirely black, the product of miscegenation. “You can’t appreciate rock ’n’ roll without appreciating where it comes from,” as Pinkston put it.

Musical questions, however, can be passed off as matters of taste. Something harder to pass off entered the air in 1977, when I started encountering little zaps like this: I opened up a copy of a Florida punk fanzine called New Order and read an article by Miriam Linna of the Cramps, Nervus Rex, and now Zantees: “I love the Ramones [because] this is the celebration of everything American — everything teenaged and wonderful and white and urban…” You could say the “white” jumping out of that sentence was just like Ornette Coleman declaring This Is Our Music, except that the same issue featured a full-page shot of Miriam and one of her little friends posing proudly with their leathers and shades and a pistol in front of the headquarters of the United White People’s Party, under a sign bearing three flags: “GOD” (cross), “COUNTRY” (stars and stripes), “RACE” (swastika).

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Sorry, Miriam, I can go just so far with affectations of kneejerk cretinism before I puke. I remember the guy in the American Nazi Party being asked, “What about the six million?” in PBS’s California Reich, and answering “Well, the way I heard it it was only really four-and-a-half million, but I wish it was six,” and I imagine you’d find that pretty hilarious too. I probably would have at one time. If that makes me a wimp now, good, that means you and anybody else who wants to get their random vicarious kicks off White Power can stay the fuck away from me.

More recently, I’ve heard occasional stories like the one about one of the members of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks yelling “Hey, you bunch of fucking niggers” at a crowd of black kids in front of Hurrah one night and I am not sorry to report getting the shit kicked out of him for it. When I told this to Richard Hell, he dismissed it: “He thinks he’s being part of something by doing that — joining a club that’ll welcome him with open arms, trying to get accepted. It’s not real. Maybe I’m naive, but I think that’s what all racism is — not really directed at the target but designed to impress some other moron.”

He may be right — Frank Collins looks a lot like that to me — but so what? James Chance of the Contortions used to come up to Bob Quine pleading for Bob to play him his Charlie Parker records. Now, in a New York Rocker interview, James dismisses the magical qualities of black music as “just a bunch of nigger bullshit.” Why? Because James wants to be famous, and ripping off Albert Ayler isn’t enough. My, isn’t he outrageous? (“He’s got the shtick down,” said Danny Fields, stifling a yawn, when they put James on the cover of Soho Weekly News.) And congrats to Andy Shernoff of the Dictators, who did so well they’re now called the Rhythm Dukes, for winning the Punk magazine Drunk as a Skunk contest by describing “Camp Runamuck” as “where Puerto Ricans are kept until they learn to be human.”

Mind you, I like a cheap laugh at somebody else’s expense as well as the next person. So I got mine off Nico, who did “Deutschland Uber Alles” at CBGB’s last month and was just naive enough to explain to Mary Harron, in a recent interview in New Wave Rock, why she was dropped by Island Records: “I made a mistake. I said in Melody Maker to some interviewer that I didn’t like negroes. That’s all. They took it so personally… although it’s a whole different race. I mean, Bob Marley doesn’t resemble a negro, does he?… He’s an archetype of Jamaican… but with the features like white people. I don’t like the features. They’re so much like animals… it’s cannibals, no?”

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Haw haw haw, doncha just love them dumb kraut cunts? And speaking of dumbness and krauts, my old pal Legs McNeil has this band called Shrapnel, who are busy refighting World War II onstage in dogtags, army surplus clothes, and helmets that fall over their eyes like cowlicks, while they sing songs with titles like “Combat Love.” Personally I think it’s not offensive (well, about as offensive as Hogan’s Heroes) that they’re too young to remember Vietnam — it’s funny. The whole show is a cartoon (it’s no accident that they open their set with the Underdog theme) and a damn good one. Musically they’re up there too — tight dragstrip guitar wranglings that could put them on a par with the MC5 someday, combined with a stage act that could make them as popular as Kiss. The only problem, which has left me with such mixed feelings I hardly know what to say to them, is that the lyrics of some of the songs are nothing but racist swill. The other night I sat in the front row at CBGB’s and watched them deliver one of the hottest sets I’ve seen from any band this year while a kid in the seat right next to me kept yelling out requests for “ ‘Hey Little Gook!’ ‘Hey Little Gook!’ ” the whole time. Christgau, who considers them “proto-fascist” and hates them, told me they also had lyrics on the order of “Send all the spics back to Cuba.” I mentioned this to Legs and he seemed genuinely upset: “No,” he swore, “it’s ‘Send all the spies back to Cuba.’ ”

“Okay,” I said (Christgau still doesn’t believe him), “what about ‘Hey Little Gook?’ ”

“Aw c’mon,” he said, “that’s just like in a World War II movie where they say ‘kraut’ and ‘slants’ and stuff like that!”

I told him I thought there was a difference between using words in dramatic context and just to draw a cheap laugh in a song. But the truth is that by now I was becoming more confused than ever. All I knew was that when you added all this sort of stuff up you realized a line had been crossed by certain people we thought we knew, even believed in, while we weren’t looking. Either that or they were always across that line and we never bothered to look until we tripped over it. And sometimes you even find that you yourself have drifted across that line. I was in Bleecker Bob’s the other night, drunk and stoned, when a black couple walked in. They asked for some disco record, Bob didn’t have it of course, a few minutes went by, and reverting in the haze to my Detroit days I said something about such and such band or music having to do with “niggers.” A couple more minutes went by. Then Bob said, “You know what, Lester? When you said that, those two people were standing right behind you.”

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I looked around and they were out on the sidewalk, looking at the display in his front window. Stricken, I rushed out and began to burble: “Listen… somebody just told me what I said in there… and I know it doesn’t mean anything to you, I’m not asking for some kind of absolution, but I just want you to know that… I have some idea… how utterly, utterly awful it was…”

I stared at them helplessly. The guy just smiled, dripping contempt, “Oh, that’s okay, man… it’s just your head…” I’ve run up against a million assholes like you before, and I’ll meet a million after you — so fucking what?

I stumbled back into the store, feeling like total garbage, like the complete hypocrite, like I had suddenly glimpsed myself as everything I claimed to despise. Bob said, “Look, Lester, don’t worry about it, forget it, it happens to everybody,” and, the final irony, sold me a reggae album I wondered how I was going to listen to.

If there’s nothing more poisonous than bigotry, there’s nothing more pathetic than liberal guilt. I feel like an asshole even retelling the story here, as if I expected some sort of expiation for what cannot be undone, or as if such a tale would be news to anybody. In a way Bob was right: I put a dollop more pain in the world, and that was that. There is certainly something almost emetically self-serving about the unreeling of such confessions in the pages of papers like The Voice — it’s the sort of thing that contributed to the punk reaction in the first place. But it illustrates one primal fact: how easily and suddenly you may find yourself imprisoned and suffocated by the very liberation from cant, dogma, and hypocrisy you thought you’d achieved. That sometimes — usually? — you’ll find that you don’t know where to draw the line until you’re miles across it in a field of land mines. Like wanting the celebration of violent disorder that was the Sex Pistols, ending up with Sid and Nancy instead, yet realizing the next day that you still want to hear Sid sing “Somethin’ Else” and see The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, and not just because you want to understand this whole episode better but to get your kicks. These are contradictions that refuse to be resolved, which maybe is what most of life eventually amounts to.

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But that’s begging the question again. Most people, I guess, don’t even think about drawing the lines: they just seem to go through life reacting at random, like the cabdriver who told me that the report we were listening to on the radio about Three Mile Island was just a bunch of bullshit dreamed up by the press to sell papers or keep us tuned in. And maybe if you go on like that (assuming, of course, that we all don’t melt), nothing will blow up in your face. But you may end up imploding instead. A lot of people around CBGB’s are already mad at me about this article, and the arguments seem mostly to run along the lines of why don’t you can it because there’s not really that much racism down here and all you’re gonna do is create more problems for our scene just when this Sid Vicious thing had blown over. I mentioned Pinkston’s experience and was told he was paranoid. Like the people at Harrisburg who didn’t wanna leave their jobs and actually believed it would be safe to stick around after the pregnant women and children were evacuated, these kids are not gonna believe this stuff exists until it happens to them. Hell, a lot of them are Jewish and still don’t believe it even though they know about the neighborhoods their parents can’t get into.

When I started writing this, I was worried I might trigger incidents of punk-bashing by black gangs. Now I realize that nobody cares. Most white people think the whole subject of racism is boring, and anybody looking for somebody to stomp is gonna find them irrespective of magazine articles. Because nothing could make the rage of the underclass greater than it is already, and nothing short of a hydrogen bomb on their own heads or a sudden brutal bigoted slap in the face will make almost anybody think about anybody else’s problems but their own. And that’s where you cross over the line. At least when you allow the poison in you to erupt, that can be dealt with; maybe the greater evil occurs when you refuse to recognize that the poison even exists. In other words, when you assent by passivity or indifference. Hell, most people live on the other side of that line.

There is something called Rock Against Racism (and now Rock Against Sexism) in England, an attempt at simple decency by a lot of people whom one would think too young and naive to begin to appreciate the contradictions. Yippie bullshit aside, it could never happen in New York, which is deeply saddening, not because you want to think that rock ’n’ roll can save the world but because since rock ’n’ roll is bound to stay in your life you would hope to see it reach some point where it might not add to the cruelty and exploitation already in the world. In a place where people are as walled off from one another as we are in America now, all you can do is try to make some sort of simple, humble, and finally private beginning. You feel like things like this should not need to be said, articles like this should perhaps not even be written. You may think, as I do of the sexism in the Stranglers’ and Dead Boys’ lyrics, that the people and things I’ve talked about here are so stupid as to be beneath serious consideration. But would you say the same thing to the black disco artist who was refused admittance to Studio 54 even though he had a Top Ten crossover hit which they were probably playing inside the damn place at the time, the door-man/bouncer explaining to a white friend of the artist, “I’m not letting this guy in — he just looks like another street nigger to me”? Or would you rather argue the difference between Racist Chic and Racist Cool? If you would, just make sure you do it in the nearest factory. Or jail.


Punk ’77: A Cult Explodes, and a Movement Is Born

1. Avant-Punk Lives

One day a few months ago it dawned on me that this time it was different. Ever since hearing the MC5 in Detroit after Chicago ’68 I had been waiting, hoping, or at least rooting for a new, clamorously urban style of rock and roll to, as they say, take over the world. All those who worked in this style consciously allied themselves with avant-garde movements in music, poetry, and/or the visual arts, and I believed that even at their most apolitical they were politically avant-garde, too, because they were uncomplacent and anti-liberal without being reactionary. These artists were always controversial. They always gathered enthusiastic journalistic support. And they always went nowhere commercially.

Detroit was not the birthplace of this avant-punk style, of course: the MC5 and the Stooges represented the second phase of a music that began in New York with the Velvet Underground. But just as the Velvets might well have originated avant-punk without thinking too much about its obvious precedents — the dirty rave-ups of the Yardbirds and the early Kinks and the garage-band one-shots of the original punks collected on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets anthology — so the Stooges and the 5 might well have been all but unaware of the Velvets. Put young, relatively unskilled white musicians from an industrial city together with some electric guitars, grant them aesthetic acuteness by nature or nurture, and eventually it’s bound to happen: rock and roll that differentiates itself from its (fundamentally black and rural) sources by taking on the crude, ugly, perhaps brutal facts of the (white and urban) prevailing culture, rather than hiding behind its bland façade. The underlying idea of this rock and roll will be to harness late industrial capitalism in a love-hate relationship whose difficulties are acknowledged, and sometimes disarmed, by means of ironic aesthetic strategies: formal rigidity, role-playing, humor. In fact, ironies will pervade and, in a way, define this project: the lock-step drumming will make liberation compulsive, pain-threshold feedback will stimulate the body while it deadens the ears, lyrics will mean more than (missing).

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The rarity of avant-punk made it seem more precious. Between the time the Velvets formed in 1966 and the time Patti Smith began to assemble her group at CBGB in 1975, only four other bands of any consequence entered the tradition: the MC5, whose unironic crusade for hip was aestheticized by the sloppy, almost aleatory power of their feedback; Iggy and the Stooges, whose command of every star quality except fame made them the most influential of the avant-punks between the Velvets and the Ramones; the Modern Lovers, whose sole hard-rock album wasn’t released until well after Jonathan Richman’s brain had softened; and the irrepressibly irresponsible New York Dolls.

Of course, a similar buzz was provided by more profitable musicians, most prominently Lou Reed, who professionalized the Velvets’ style; Blue Oyster Cult, who aped a host of more naive groups with such immaculate impassivity that in the end they convinced not only the audience but themselves; and municipal parking garage bands like Alice Cooper and Kiss, heirs of the original punks who weren’t above stealing from their bohemian cousins. Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal is keen heavy metal; the Cult’s Agents of Fortune is history as farce; Alice’s “I’m Eighteen” is a direct forerunner of “Anarchy in the U.K.” Yet in retrospect they lack any flash of radical individualism. Not so with the avant-punks. Detractors labeled their basic approach monotonous, but the distance within what was a relatively unexplored musical territory proved vast; Emmylou Harris will satisfy your yen for Linda Ronstadt a lot better than — to choose the closest pair I can think of — the Velvets’ “White Light/White Heat” will satisfy your need for the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” And because details of approach differed so, all these bands were possessed of rock and roll’s secret: they played a supposedly uninnovative style as if they’d invented it.

Needless to say, the art-commerce dichotomy was one reason the style remained so rare; a young musician might admire Lou Reed or Iggy, but following in their footsteps required conviction. As the Dolls and Patti Smith played their rock-star roles with ironic abandon, landed big-money deals, and made second albums that sold worse than their first, it seemed painfully probable that the avant-punks’ infatuation with teen America would go forever unreciprocated. As an addict of the music, I was pleased when CBGB turned into a venue for inheritors like Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Tuff Darts, and gratified when Blondie and Mink DeVille came up with better-realized albums, artistically and commercially, than I would have predicted. Maybe the heartland would finally be moved. I rooted, and I dared to hope. But I wasn’t placing bets.

That was August or so. Now, a couple of months later, avant-punk seems likely to make some sort of breakthrough. I don’t know how big it will be or whether I’ll like its shape when it’s over. All I know is that I haven’t been this excited about rock and roll in at least 10 years. I’m buying records, calling people up to announce finds, playing the Vibrators and the Radiators From Space for everyone who walks in the door. First it was isolated artists, then a vanguard, but now it looks like a movement. When dozens of groups are out there making certifiably exciting music, it’s hard to believe there isn’t also a real audience — bigger than a cult, smaller than a mass —ready to make exciting noises of its own.

2. Creative Misapprehensions

Unless you memorize Additional Consumer News and the Pazz & Jop Product Report, or peruse rock magazines other than Rolling Stone, you probably can’t quite place the Vibrators or the Radiators From Space. That’s because they’re based in England, land of the Sex Pistols and home of “new wave” “funk rock” as a social rather than a strictly artistic phenomenon. For despite all the publicity Johnny Rotten has received, the movement he symbolizes is still local to Great Britain. In the U.S., it’s “underground” — it has to be sought out. And it is.

As with Haight-Ashbury, which inspired instant on-the-spot obituaries and scant recorded music during its earliest notoriety, the British new wave is already being mourned by those who discovered it first and has occasioned only a few American-release albums so far. British punk records are available, of course — mostly as singles, mostly as imports. But their notoriety precedes them. Anyone who’s read 500 words about Johnny Rotten knows that this music embodies an uprising against youth unemployment in Britain and that the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” hit big despite a blackball by the BBC and major retailers. And anyone who ever glances at the British music press, which caters to both fans and the trade, knows punk is the hottest news in British rock since Liverpool. It’s my guess that these success stories have done more to fuel the latest burst of enthusiasm for punk in America than all the imports put together — and more, too, than any of the excellent non-hit LPs to come out of CBGB. Rock and roll has always thrived on star fever.

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Yet avant-punk began in America, and star fever was not how it spread to the U.K. When conceptually sophisticated local art movements disperse, distortion or vulgarization can result, but so can a kind of creative misapprehension that rolls right through apparent formal cul-de-sacs. That’s what happened when the Ramones toured England. The Ramones exploit the standard ironic strategies — role-playing, humor, and extreme rigidity — to make a powerful but ambiguous statement that both celebrates and mocks the frustrated energy of the ordinary American teenage male. But so unmistakably did they imply that any leather-jacketed geek can master three-chord rock and roll that in England, where teenage males were desperate for mastery in any form, all their other messages were ignored. In the wake of the Ramones summer ’76 tour, bands playing Ramonseish avant-punk sprang up all over Great Britain. But where the Ramones distanced themselves from their own vaunted dumbness (it’s not Joey Ramone the fictional character, much less the 25-year-old cat-owner behind the pseudonym, who beats on the brat or doesn’t wanna be a pinhead no more), the English punks preferred simply to flaunt theirs. In comparison, the Ramones seem attenuated — wonderful, but arty. When the Clash snarls, “I get violent/When I’m fucked up/I get silent/When I’m drugged up,” they’re saying what they have to say more directly than anyone in avant-punk since the Detroit days, and it works.

I’m not convinced, however, that the misapprehension of English punk by Americans will prove equally creative. The general jolt of activity and excitement is welcome. The kids at Max’s who recall a B side by Chris Spedding — “Do the pose/All you have to do is wear the clothes” — have vulgarized what began as brutally witty street fashions, and star fever could distort an avant-garde scene that became healthy only when it faced up to its own modest commercial potential. Although I approve of the British-inspired vogue for independent singles, I worry about how the music on the albums I hope follow is going to sound.

The irresistible straightforwardness and conviction of so much English new wave goes with an energy that is political rather than aesthetic, and no less advanced artistically for that. But the source of this energy is a state of class warfare with no real parallel in this country, where repressive desublimation still has enough money behind it to make obliqueness aesthetically appropriate. Translated into American, the sincere rage of Eater and the Clash is likely to issue in molten-metal torrents of boredom and misogyny that lack even the justification of metaphorical license. I find it ominous that when England’s Damned came over to CBGB, the opening act, Cleveland’s Dead Boys — a runty cross between macho Ted Nugent, decadent Iggy, and the despicable Stranglers — established themselves as the hottest new punks in the land.

None of which has diminished my excitement yet. English punk turns everyone who likes it into a helpless fan; because it’s still so local, there are only second-hand experts here. So I buy singles on the basis of gossip or title or picture sleeve or Pazz & Jop rating, and read whatever comes my way — Simon Frith’s column in Creem, one issue of the Xeroxed London fanmag Sniffin’ Glue, a July piece from Time that Sire Records sent me in late September. And even though Ira Robbins of Trouser Press claims it’s all over but the selling, even though a few recent parody records muster enough musical authority to excite the skepticism they intend, I’m hot to get to London and see for myself.

Meanwhile, I cling to my scraps of plastic and print and attempt my own creative misapprehension. I keep thinking of Kingston, where I spent eight days in search of reggae roots in 1973. I found then that there was no guided tour, no way to hit the record companies, radio stations, and retailers for a guaranteed overview. The roots were too deep and various to be rationalized so easily. Almost any persevering rudeboy could connect with one of the dozens and dozens of small-time record producers, plug a topic or image of the day into a rhythmic formula supplied by a community of poorly paid session men, and come up with an arresting or even important piece of music. The English punks (most of whom are reggae fans) provide their own formula — Sniffin’ Glue published a diagram of the basic chords — and sometimes scare up enough capital to become entrepreneurs themselves. I bet not all of them are poor. But they share with the rudeboys their inexperience, their threatened maleness, their potential for demagogy, their need to reconcile class identification with professional/artistic ambition, their inchoate politics of rebellion, and their ultimate vulnerability. And so they are worthy of pity and awe as well as skepticism.

To a lover of avant-punk who holds proudly to his square politics — his belief that only collective action will enable the mass of dispossessed people to attain personal power — this is a reasonable facsimile of a dream come true. I don’t expect it to last. It’s only culture, flawed culture, ridden with evident contradictions and resting on a material substructure of monumental inertia and fearsome ill will. But for the moment I’ll settle. Rock and roll!

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3. Fascism, Sexism, and Old Farts

I am not a punk. I am 35 years old, fervently attached to my marriage and my work, and better off materially than I could have wished or imagined in 1970. But someone once flattered me (inordinately) by writing that I seemed classless and almost ageless, and my excitement over this music no doubt connects with the fact that I can create such an impression. Conversely, much of the resistance avant-punk inspires, although expressed in careful musical or sociological formulations, has an ad hominem dimension of age or class. About music I could go on forever, and about age there isn’t much to say — perhaps having to keep up with a couple of kids will eventually dispel my feeling that rushes of musical adrenalin are good for the system, but I doubt it. The sociological misgivings of the anti-punks, on the other hand, seem to me quite substantial.

In a world where lib-rad goody-goodies compare rock concerts to Nuremberg rallies and dismiss all electric guitarists as phallic narcissists, it’s not hard to understand why so many bright young avant-punk musicians and fans consider abstractions like “fascism” and “sexism” squarer than love beads. Not that such terms can’t refer to anything real. But they’ve turned into scarewords, deployed by comfortable hypocrites who pretend that to name a manifestation of horror is a meaningful way to control it. Nevertheless, I don’t buy the (always unstated) defense of fascism and sexism as they manifest themselves in avant-punk. This isn’t merely another ironic confrontation with brutal facts that are prettied up and exploited by mainstream hard rock. For one thing, whether such horrors are disarmed by aesthetic means is even more iffy than it is in the case of mechanical cacophony or adolescent aggression. Worse still, for American-style punks even to admit that disarmament is their purpose — if indeed it is — is to violate their own ironic strategies, while for the English to abandon their straightforwardness in such contexts, as they sometimes do — or claim to — is at best a questionable tactic.

Avant-punks’s vaguely Nazisymp reputation seemed mostly a matter of aura until recently. Given the disciplined brutality of the basic style and the S&M flirtations of first Lou Reed and then Iggy (both sometimes sojourners in Berlin), those who get nervous whenever 500 people chant in time were sure to see the worst in David Johansen’s goosesteps or Brother J.C. Crawford’s exhortations to kick out the jams. The rest of us, however — especially those who believe that sometimes collective violence worked for good — were not obliged to agree. But then the Dictators, counted by some as another seminal avant-punk band, made this aura their central “joke,” to the point where songwriter Adny Shernoff placed a racist remark (about Puerto Ricans) in an early issue of Punk. And then came the Ramones, with three songs referring to Germany on their first album; an especially charming couplet, “I’m Nazi schatze/Y’know I fight for the fatherland,” highlighted their climactic “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” which regularly moved a few aspiring punks to heil-Hitler salutes. In England, where the Ramones have been so influential, swastikas are even more popular among punks than they are here; to middle-class people who have confidence in such formulations, the English punks, with their defiant lumpen nihilism, might well recall “the growing masses outside all class strata” described by Hannah Arendt as “natural prey to Fascist movements.” So it’s no surprise that an English band, the Cortinas, has released a single called “Fascist Dictator,” the boastful momentum of which recalls the Stones’ “I’m a King Bee” done double-time: “I’m a fascist dictator/That’s what I am/I’m a fascist dictator/Ain’t like no other man.”

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None of this looks very good, but none of it is as bad as it looks. If anything, the new punk is consciously anti-fascist, which is a step up from the apathy and complacency of most rock and roll. Unless you think the Ramones identify with Charlie Manson, the Texas chain-saw killer, CIA men, SLAers, geeks, glue-sniffers, and electroshock patients — an absurd misreading as far as I’m concerned — then you must conclude that their intention is satiric, and the same applies when they turn to fascist characters. Meanwhile, England, unlike the U.S., faces a clear, self-identified fascist threat, the National Front, which most punks take the trouble to oppose explicitly; when Johnny Rotten calls Queen Elizabeth’s government “a fascist regime” it’s fair to assume he wants no part of it. Even the Cortinas’ song works as a Ramones-style irony.

The problem is that irony is wasted on pinheads. The Cortinas’ protagonist is like no other man for two reasons — he’s a fascist dictator and he gets no pleasure from love. Even if the Cortinas do intend an invidious equation, each side of which devalues the other, those of their fans who get no pleasure from love — victimized by one of the brutal modern facts that made punk necessary — may not see it that way. They may conclude that if the loss of pleasure is their fate, they might as well, in the classic fascist pattern, seek power instead. Considering how many hippies ended up in authoritarian religious movements when they discovered that enlightenment did not solve their problems, it seems likely that a few of those saluting Ramones fans will undergo a comparable political life-change when they discover the limits of energy. Beyond the liberal-baiting, beyond the image of horror, avant-punk is forebodingly ambivalent here, with a complexity barely suggested by this one stanza of Iggy Pop’s “China Girl”: “My Little China Girl/You shouldn’t mess with me/I’ll ruin everything you are/I’ll give you television/I’ll give you eyes of blue/I’ll give you men who want to rule the world.”

The parallel issue of sexism, implicit in the roots of rock and roll, is even knottier; but here, too, the evidence is mixed. In New York, the two most prestigious bands, Television and Talking Heads, avoid both macho and wimp and are notably unantagonistic toward women. Ironic strategies abound, especially from the Ramones and Blondie, who puts on her bombshell image so convincingly that she’s turned into a rockmag pinup (how do you jerk off ironically?), and whose theme song rips “Miss Groupie Supreme” to shreds. In England, the Sex Pistols and the Clash direct their underclass rage, so often deflected toward women in rock and roll, right where it belongs, at the rich and powerful, and social-problem clichés are invoked much more often than women-problem clichés. But irony is double-edged, and the mechanical, pleasureless, hostile sexuality projected by names like Vibrators, Sex Pistols, and (get this one) Buzzcocks is, once again, more than liberal-baiting. The avant-punk scene is certainly no better place for women than any other rock scene and in crucial instances it’s worse.

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“Some day I’m gonna smash your face,” barks 27-year-old ex-schoolteacher Hugh Cornwell of the (talkin’ ’bout the Boston) Stranglers in his first words to an American audience, and he’s echoed by young short and whiny Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys: “Don’t look at me that way bitch/Your face is gonna get a punch.” I am assured that such metatheatre, the candor of which is new to rock and roll, merely desublimates an adolescent fantasy that has always fed into the music’s aggressive sexuality, and is directed solely at the kind of fucked-up female — vain and slavish, sucking after any connection to power, and (to quote Bators) “born with dishpan hands” — who afflicts the scene. Only I don’t believe the fantasy to be adolescent — gender, not age, is what’s relevant — and I wonder (rhetorically) why more putdown songs aren’t devoted to fucked-up male hangers-on. I do make a distinction between the Stranglers, posers with the gall to claim their misogyny constitutes a positive political protest, and the altogether more desperate and vulnerable — hence revelatory — Dead Boys. But I don’t want to listen to either. I got loads of hostilities, but my need to beat up women is repressed, and I hope it stays that way. It’d be some world if we all went around killing our fathers.

If it appears that I’m confusing art with morality, or with life, well, I didn’t start it. This is the Stranglers and the Dead Boys I’m talking about, not Oedipus Rex or Céline or, for that matter, the Rolling Stones, and if the confusion of art with life is common on a scene which becomes ever more unsophisticated as it expands, that’s at least partly the fault of the second-rate artists who are being misunderstood. Desublimation my ass. Tales of affectless protopunks in jail for beating on their girlfriends (how do you punch someone ironically?), or of the varieties of consensual stoopidity, remind me that the only reason no woman was ever seduced — or raped — by a book is that books don’t have penises. Art is only art, but it can really damage people anyway. Avant-punk sexism not only repels those smart, unmasochistic women who don’t choose to cultivate the cool that plugging safely into the scene requires, it also has the effect of encouraging less savvy and independent women to fulfill its prophecy. And while it may be true that the only way to defuse certain fantasies and forbidden ideas is to bring them into the open, it’s dishonest to pretend that such idealistic motives — or such ideal results — are usually present here.

So it isn’t just goody-goodies and old farts who stay away from CBGB. All good rock and roll risks fascism simply by generating mass energy, and much of it flirts with sexism simply by exploring the music’s traditional subject matter. Sometimes the risks are worth it, sometimes they aren’t. It’s not enough to argue that the Dead Boys pervert the Ramones — not when the Ramones’ deadpan invited the perversion. I love the Ramones myself. I think the settled over-25s (and sensitive under-25s) who equate the Ramones with the Dead Boys are wrong. But their mistake is at least as understandable as the mistake of bright young avant-punks who think abstractions like “fascism” and “sexism” are squarer than love beads.

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4. The Next Medium Thing

It really is different this time, because the music will be there. Over the next six months, Americans will have a chance to purchase albums by dozens of artists who spit at the conventional wisdom of the record industry, or seem to. Many of them will reflect signings made possible by the most recent punk explosion, and almost all will share with punk its paucity of sophisticated production techniques, such as chords. But not all of them will qualify as avant-punk. England’s Elvis Costello is more pub; Boston’s Loco Alexander is basically an eccentric white r&b stylist; the lead singer of New York’s Shirts has a big part in Hair; Los Angeles’s Runaways are punky female Monkees created by a record producer. And even bands that clearly are in the style hedge their bets. The first two British albums in the U.S. sweepstakes, by the Jam and the Stranglers, were accompanied by press material making it clear that these boys were really “new wave,” not that nasty old punk.

In other words, the record industry is playing it both ways. Not many music execs like the stuff, which is designed to blast away every “artistic” standard they hold dear. But unlike the actual standard-bearers — established rock musicians like those who reportedly put together a protest petition when English A&M briefly signed the Sex Pistols — the executives don’t feel threatened where they live. If it makes noise, they’re set up to make money off it. Many of them sense that Johnny Rotten is something special, perhaps unprecedented, and all of them have heard that the two giants, Warners and CBS, are vying for him. They’re also aware that Warners has picked up the American punk company, Sire, from ABC, and that CBS has been dealing with Britain’s pub-to-punk Stiff label and is preparing a major push with the Vibrators. Still, they have their own tastes and truisms. They know that the Sire catalogue also includes Renaissance and old Fleetwood Mac, that Stiff means an in with Graham Parker, that English phenoms like T. Rex and Slade have fizzled here. They know the radio stations and their own distribution networks are filled with the kind of tasteful rock fans who are outraged by punk. And they know — or think they know — that the rock audience is as put off by the rough, the extreme, and the unfamiliar as they are.

This rock audience is the one the execs created — more passive and cautious than that of a decade ago not just because kids have changed, although they have, but because it is now dominated statistically by different, and more passive, kids. My first assumption about punk is that it will attract new blood to rock and roll, and my first question is whether a transfusion is possible. Will the marginal fans of boogie and heavy metal decide they’re tired of all that calculated spontaneity and putative self-expression? Will they turn from those big, thick cushions of loudness and decorative licks of musicianship? Will something real be forged from the surviving dogmas of teen rebellion? Or will punk artists who only appear to spit at the conventional wisdom of the industry sneak between instant oblivion and world takeover?

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The prime contenders for such compromised punk superstardom are the Stranglers and the Dead Boys, either of whom could convert to modishly bombed-out heavy metal inside of two months, and the Rods a/k/a Eddie and the Hot Rods, basically a double-time boogie band. In America, any grander artistic hopes must rest with those hard-working heroes of concept punk, the Ramones, who have charted a single and attracted the biggest booking agent in rock, both inconceivable feats a year ago. Among the English bands the fate of the Sex Pistols is crucial; Johnny Rotten looks like a rock star who could matter, and he might ease things for the Jam and the Vibrators, both pop-based, hook-prone hard rock bands of a sort that has proved too tough for comfort before, and even for the Clash, so crude and unpretty that they qualify as protest music in every sense of the word. Rotten is so special, though, that his commercial impact might have negative musical effects — so far, he’s found truth in the kind of overstated self-dramatization that has killed so much rock and roll, but I don’t look forward to his imitators. That’s why I’m rooting for the Ramones — they suggest a way out of his expressionistic cul-de-sac, just as Rotten suggests a way out of their formalistic one, and the syntheses could be stunning, as Television, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads have already demonstrated.

By experimenting with certain implicit imperatives of rock and roll, punk cleans out the ears. It’s one thing to theorize that most of what is called hard rock these days is really a species of MOR, another to recoil at the goo of Foreigner after scouring yourself with the Clash for a week. It’s one thing to know that great stylists are born of the sort of naive audacity that’s unhampered by technical preconceptions, another to hear Tom Verlaine turn into a great rock guitarist who owes almost nothing to blues beyond bent notes. It’s one thing to believe that music need not swing to activate, another to pogo up and down to the Clash while some Italian Communist who likes Pink Floyd — a combination that would ordinarily seem wondrous — complains about “the rhythm of death.” I mean, this music definitely decreases your tolerance for sentimentality.

Sentimentality has its uses, of course. Basically, it is sentimentality that enables us to believe in things, to get through life, and because these are artists who don’t yet believe in very much, I worry about how they and their audience are going to manage. Think of it — they don’t even claim to believe in rock and roll. Yet that too I find cleansing, because the music business has transformed believing in rock and roll into the most odious sentimentality of all. Rock and roll isn’t something you believe in, in that onanistic, self-reflexive way that has vitiated so much modernist art. It is something you do to get somewhere else, until the doing becomes a kind of belief in itself. That, after all, is the avant-punk attitude, and at this pregnant moment it seems at least possible that these rock and rollers won’t end up where they began.


This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.