The Blog


12:00 AM, Aug 26, 1996 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Punk, the most notorious pseudo-movement in the history of 20th-century popular music, is becoming cuddly with age. The Sex Pistols, punk's most outrageous act, has reunited after almost two decades to travel the United States in the aptly named Filthy Lucre Tour. The Pistols are without their famous bassist Sid Vicious, who could not join his former colleagues because he died of a heroin overdose in 1979 while awaiting trial for the murder of his wife. Even so, the Sex Pistols tour has generated friendly and amused press coverage about the bald spots, pot bellies, and mellow attitudes sported by these once-vilified nihilistic revolutionaries. And if you just can't get enough romantic celebrations of junkies and speed freaks, you can turn to Please Kill Me, a brand-new oral history from punk journalist Legs McNeil.

I was a part of the punk scene in late 1970s New York, where it was invented -- fast, brief songs which playfully evoked rock 'n' roll's preacid- rock Age of Innocence. The New York scene had an ethos different from the militant class-consciousness of the British punk the Sex Pistols represented. New York punks were unapologetic about their comfortable suburban origins, playful and irreverent in tone, and pretty affirmative about modern American life. Indeed, in many ways, New York punk represented a first skirmish within American popular culture with the then-gathering forces of political correctness.

A small but very influential segment of the punk community (centered around the group known as the Ramones and the fanzine Punk, the closest thing there was to an encyclical for orthodox New York punks) explicitly rejected at one time or another just about every one of the reverse pieties then associated with the Left: anti-commercialism, anti-Americanism, reverse racism, you name it. This was coupled with an assault on the stale residue of the sixties counterculture, the whole sleepy, slit-eyed, vegetative, sexually, intellectually, and emotionally subdued, value-neutral, tie-dyed, and forever-fried cannabis cult that worked its way through suburban basements and college dorm rooms in the seventies.

While Malcolm McLaren, the anarchist conceptual agitator behind the Sex Pistols, may have scorned "commodity capitalism," New York punks breezily celebrated consumer sovereignty. Mary Harron, a journalist who interviewed the Ramones for the first issue of Punk, described it this way in Jon Savage's book England's Dreaming: "For the first time Bohemia embraced fastflood. It was about saying yes to the modern world. Punk, like Warhol, embraced everything that cultured people, and hippies, detested: plastic, junk food, B-movies, advertising, making money -- although no one ever did. You got so sick of people being so nice, mouthing an enforced attitude of goodness and health."

Many punks left suburbia for New York, and when they left, they left behind liberal white suburban guilt. While McNeil is mysteriously reticent about punk political leanings in his own book, he described them explicitly in Savage's:

"We all had the same reference points: White Castle hamburgers, muzak, malls. And we were all white: There were no black people involved with this. In the sixties hippies always wanted to be black . . . . We had nothing in common with black people at that time: We'd had ten years of being politically correct, and we were going to have fun, like kids are supposed to do. It was funny: You'd see guys going out to a punk club, passing black people going into a disco, and they'd be looking at each other, not with disgust, but 'Isn't it weird that they want to go there.' There were definite right-wing overtones."

Consider. The Ramones' third album was called Rocket to Russia. Its back-cover cartoon provides a punk map of the world: An ICBM has been launched at "Russia" from South Florida. Pacing his island, Fidel Castro looks up nervously, scared the missile might drop on him. Russia is depicted as a giant labor camp, with a slave-laborer hauling a bag marked "Salt" groaning under the whip of a slave-driver. Other regions are denoted by ethnic caricatures of the kind that were staples of Saturday morning cartoons in the sixties, were subversively insensitive in the seventies when they were drawn, and would today be grounds for a lawsuit. Punk, the fanzine, regularly tweaked "commies," Russia, hippies, drug addicts, High Times magazine, the Village Voice, "lesbos," and "faggots."

Savage is embarrassed by such attitudes. He interprets them in terms of " put-on" or the "excitement of the broken taboo." In the case of, say, the anti-gay stance, he's right. There were too many gays involved in punk as performers and fans for that stance to be taken at face value.