Punk as the Establishment

February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian.  I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs.  Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more.  And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work.  It got published today.

Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

Acura #Fail

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Acura is a luxury car maker, owned by Honda Motor Company.  It has a new ad on TV I’ve seen a few times, and every time I see it, I’m completely gobsmacked.  The ad, which I’ve posted below, shows a generic luxury car, but it’s the music that shocks.  That’s Sid Vicious, former “bassist” for the Sex Pistols, mangling “My Way,” Paul Anka’s song made famous by Frank Sinatra.

Vicious, real name John Simon Ritchie, wasn’t a musician.  His bass was usually unplugged when the Pistols played live.  He was a junkie and a general degenerate, what would today be called a ‘gutter punk.’  On 12 October 1978, Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in a drug-stupor in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.  He stabbed her once in the abdomen, and she bled to death.  Vicious was arrested.  He eventually died of a drug overdose on 2 February 1979.  No major loss, really.

Aside from the fact that Acura has clearly missed the point of 1970s punk, a movement against corporate rock and other creeping commercialisation, Acura has completely lost the plot in casting a girlfriend-killing junkie’s music as a means of selling a car.  This is a complete and utter disgrace and a #fail.

The Death of the Artist

December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole.  What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art.  It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes.  Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent.  We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.

I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality.  What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality.  Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out.  But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same.  Sort of, anyway.  In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke.  Love sang:

When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!

And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter.  We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else.  I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s.  Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality.  We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.

But now, it’s 20-30 years later.  What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream.  Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver.  As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).

Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter.  This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure.  Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines.  These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos.  We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings.  When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same.  They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses.  And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.

Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset.  I wish I could disagree with her.  But I can’t.  As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world.  So it turns out I still have a little punk in me.  Who knew?

“We Jam Econo” D Boon and the Minutemen

February 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

While laid up sick this week, I finally got to see “We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen,” about the iconic punk band, the Minutemen.  The Minutemen came to an untimely end on 22 December 1985 when frontman and guitarist, D Boon, was killed in a car accident just outside Tucson, Arizona, as he and his girlfriend made their way to visit her family for Christmas. The other two members of the Minutemen, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley, were devastated, of course. To this day, everything Watt produces is dedicated to D boon’s memory.

d-Boon-Dennes-Dale-Boon-April-1-1958-December-22-1985-celebrities-who-died-young-30595186-700-556I first got into the Minutemen a few years later, around 1990 or  so when I got my hands on fIREHOSE’s 1989 album, fROMOHIO.  This was the band that Watt and Hurley formed in the aftermath of D. Boon’s death with Ed Crawford.  I was drawn to the mixture of Crawford’s jazzy guitar, combined with Watt’s amazing bass sounds.  But, what attracted me the most was Hurley’s drumming.  I honestly don’t think there’s another drummer I’ve ever heard that touched Hurley, except for maybe Jimmy Chamberlin in the Smashing Pumpkins.  But as I obsessed about fIREHOSE, I was directed towards the Minutemen by one of the guys who worked at the old Track Records on Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver.

The Minutemen blew my mind.  D. Boon’s was already legendary.  Vancouver had been central to the development of North American punk in the late 70s, and the city’s biggest band, DOA, had shared several bills with the Minutemen down in California.  Track Records even had a Minutemen poster on the wall.  I quickly became obsessed with the Minutemen’s 1984 double album, Double Nickels on the Dime.  I loved Watt’s explanation of how this title came about; it was a response to Sammy Hagar’s complaint that he couldn’t drive 55.  Apparently ‘double nickels” means 55mph, the speed limit in those days.

Every time I listen to the Minutemen these days, I just get incredibly sad.  D Boon has been dead for longer than he was alive by this point, he was 27 when he died 28 years ago.  Watt has aged, he still makes incredible music.  But, simply put, and as trite as it sounds, D Boon never got a chance to age.  His music always had a sneer in it, but what I loved most was always his political bent.  He was a good working class boy (as were Hurley and Watt), and the politics of the working classes pervade his music.  I was always drawn to this as a working class kid myself.  In fact, this is what drew me to punk in the first place, it was a working-class movement.  D Boon sang about how the working classes got screwed, his music reflected his own values of hard work, something instilled in him by his mother, who had died young herself, in 1978.  More than that, D Boon was articulate, he didn’t look like a dumb punk trying to find big words when he spoke, he sounded like a smart working class dude.  I liked that most about him.  Too many other working class punks sounded like stupid mooks when they spoke (I’m looking at you, Hank Rollins).

But the Minutemen weren’t just anger.  Their music was smart, a mixture of punk, funk and jazz, anchored by the incredible skill of Hurley.  This jazz and funk influence (especially through Watt’s bass) added a level of fun and bounce to the music that other punks lacked.  And Watt and D Boon were also just as influenced by The Who and Credence as anything else.  These influences made them probably the most musically and technically proficient punk band of the era.  They also mellowed as they got older, as both D Boon and Watt grew into their talent.  This is what makes Double Nickel so sad for me (to say nothing of Three Way Tie (For Last), their last album, which came out a week or two before D Boon died).  The Minutemen were evolving away from punk, they still sounded so unlike anything else out there.  They weren’t becoming a basic rock band, they were far too smart for that.

Watt carries this spirit on in everything he does.  His bass guitar was instrumental to the Minutemen’s sound.  This is precisely what makes it all so sad, I always imagine what Watt would sound like if he and D Boon and George Hurley were still making music together. The Rolling Stone review of Three Way Tie (For Last) prophecies that “You can bet that in ten years there’ll be groups who sound like the Minutemen — maybe they’ll even cover their songs.”  In 1996, no one sounded like the Minutemen.  In 2006, no one sounded like the Minutemen.  And in 2016, no one will sound like the Minutemen.  They were a unique, one of a kind band.

This last clip comes from an interview the Minutemen did in the early fall 1985, just a few months before D Boon checked out.

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