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.
But was it all put-on? Johnny Ramone described his politics as " ultraconservative" in an interview with a college newspaper in Oregon in 1985, long after it could have been considered fashionably outre. "I like Ronnie," he said of Reagan. "Except he's a little liberal." Punk, for its part, even attacked the Clash, then England's biggest (and most dogmatically left- wing) band. "They started with 'I'm So Bored with the U.S.A,'" a highschool student named Jolly wrote in a concert review. "I didn't like it as a song to start with, because it's anti-America and they're playing in America, so if they don't like it then why did they come?"
In an interview, Jolly and Punk editor John Holmstrom make militant Clash frontman Joe Strummer look like a posturing blowhard. In one exchange, after Strummer comes pretty close to condoning political terrorism, high- schooler Jolly lowers the boom:
Strummer: Anyone who goes into a terrorist action has gotta be on his own. He's got to have thought it through. It's such an extreme action -- pullin' out a gun and shootin' -- right. . . . We play with these symbols because we feel there's some kind of reality that's our lot. We've had explosions in London -- waves of them.
Jolly: From what?
Strummer: From the I.R.A. They come over and bomb London because they're tryin' to get attention. They're tryin' to get some support for their cause -- which is the wrong way to go about it.
Jolly: They should raise their hand!
Elsewhere, Holmstrom keeps interrupting a disjointed Strummer rant about capitalism to point out the obvious: England has been living under degrees of socialist paternalism since just after the war.
Jolly: What's all this communism jazz?
Strummer: Let me tell you my politics are and have always been and always will be to the left. . . I'm not into f--ing people working away in factories doing useless boring jobs just for some c-- to take the rake off. But I don't want to say that I'm a socialist or that I'm a communist, "cause I f--in' hate parties and party doctrine. . . . So that's what it is, the communist jazz -- the fact is we are left and that we ain't into any sort of capitalist scene like it's set up so they say what they want in the papers. They con everybody and they've got control of the media and they can say what they want you to think.
Holmstrom: You think that's capitalist?
Strummer: Yeah, they're capitalists.
Holmstrom: I don't think so. . . . Capitalism is a way of distributing wealth.
Strummer: Yeah! But look at the way it operates in England -- lorry drivers on strike, right?
Holmstrom: That's socialism.
Strummer: All the press has printed strike stories just to whip up the feeling of -- Bring in the army! Break up the strike! When all those f--ing guys wanted was 60 quid a week and that to me is the way the capitalist system works.
Holmstrom: But you're talking about newspapers in a socialist system.
Strummer: But we ain't got no socialist system in England. Now they're talking about socialist millionaires. I've read that countless times. What the f-- is a socialist millionaire?
Strummer was soon to find out what the f-- a socialist millionaire is. He became one. Alone among the first generation of British punk bands, the Clash ultimately made it very big in America. Their diatribes against American consumer culture and paeans to Castro and the Sandinistas endeared them to America's leftish rock critical establishment, which gave them a free ride long after they had grown musically insipid.
For a long time after racial injustice or fear of the draft had stopped pushing the young into the arms of the Left, a kind of lingering countercultural sex appeal continued to seduce them, well into the 1970s. But then the punks came along, and almost overnight, it seemed, that mystique evaporated.
It started in the Bohemian circles of the Lower East Side, and I saw it unfold after a lag of a couple of years on the Columbia campus. Suddenly, the undergraduate activists who spent summers harvesting coffee in Nicaragua were devoid of any romantic allure; they were just badgering mouthpieces of a Left rapidly institutionalizing itself in the academy. And the freaks, amiable and inoffensive though they were, seemed less like intrepid cultural explorers and more like cultural museum pieces -- something out of a Cheech and Chong movie.
There was in punk a recurring note of revulsion at what the liberal permissiveness of the sixties and seventies had wrought, whether it was the blissfully zonked inertia of the "freaks" or the middle-aged lewdness and collapsed nasal septa of the disco scene. For example, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers were punk pioneers, and their anti-drugs, pro-monogamy, pro- parents, pro-America messages expressed a basic decency and respect. It is a measure of the times that such attitudes could be considered either a little reactionary or cutting-edge. In "Someone I Care About," Richman sang:
I don't want some cocaine-sniffing triumph in the bar
I don't want a triumph in a car
I don't want to make a rich girl crawl
What I want is a girl that I care about
Or I want nothing at all.
In "I'm Straight," he told a girl he liked why she should lose her hippie boyfriend and take up with him:
I saw you today walk by with, y'know, Hippy Johnny
Look, I had to call up and say I want to take his place
See, he's stoned -- Hippy Johnny
Now get this, I'm straight, and I want to take his place.
The bits of anti-drug rhetoric scattered through punk would crystallize a few years later into the strict no-drugs, no-booze regimen of the hardcore bands, punk's immediate successors. In "Modern World," Richman implored a college girl to drop out and leave all that mopey undergraduate negativism behind her:
I'm in love with the U.S.A.
I'm in love with the modern world
Put down the cigarette
And drop out of B.U.
The modern world is not so bad.
Christian Hoffman, leader of a band called the Swinging Madisons, once described himself as a "punk prude." His band's songs included "Guilty White Liberal" and a little valentine to feminists, "Put Your Bra Back On."
In England's Dreaming, Savage explains that among British punks too there was some disgust with the extreme sexual license sanctioned by Britain's liberal consensus. But this disgust was expressed in terms that exploited the extreme license granted to creative expression by that same liberal consensus. Savage ignores the song that best exhibits punk's use of liberalism's expressive license to indict liberalism's relaxed standards of personal morality, the Sex Pistols' "Bodies." Punk legend had it that "Bodies" was anti-abortion. Rock critics have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to deny it, but they've got it wrong:
Dragged on a table in a factory
Illegitimate place to be
In a package in a lavatory
Dying little baby screaming
Bodies -- screaming . . . bloody mess
I'm not an animal
It's an abortion
Bodies -- I'm not an animal
Mommy -- I'm an abortion.
The explicit politics of punk should not be overemphasized. Punks were pop formalists, and most of them, like most formalists, were either apolitical or at least careful not to mix their politics with their aesthetics. If for the New Left and the hippies the personal was the political, then for many in or influenced by the New York punk scene, the political was strictly personal. One effect of this was that punk was pretty ecumenical politically. People in bands were commonly inspired, but the common inspiration was only infrequently political. The only revolutionary ideal that commanded the allegiance of all punks was a revolution in the record companies and album- oriented rock radio stations that would march the Eagles and the Bee Gees and the like off to a rock gulag and usher in a millennium of the Dead Boys and the Damned.
But this apolitical chic was not without its indirect political significance. First, the only really politicized people one ever encountered in this milieu were on the left. So if punks shunned politics, they were effectively shunning left-wing politics. Second, punks replaced raised political consciousness with style consciousness. Objectively, this concern with form, attitude, look was a rejection of a hippie counterculture premised on authenticity. The quality that probably mattered the most for hippies in rock was all the feeling that went into it, while one of the most distinctive things about early Ramones was all the feeling that was left out.
I have been told that long ago it was generally understood among educated young males that "Communist girls put out." It is hardly a secret that generations of young American males picked up a cultural signal that if you wanted sex, it was probably a good idea to get involved with some chic leftish causes (if you've ever wondered why it is that for a long time the Right won all the arguments and the Left won all the fights, you could do worse than to begin here). Maybe punk sent a cultural signal that this was no longer necessary, and in the process made for a fairer fight between Left and Right.
It is possible that the emergence in the late seventies of a hip youth subculture less left-wing than any before it had no influence on the awakening of a young conservative presence in the country more hip and culturally aware than its conservative predecessors. I think it did. Punk was both hip and very anti-authoritarian. Imagine a hypothetical college conservative in the early eighties. He's muting himself to "pass" in a social and academic environment ruled by an intolerant Left. Then along comes this new sensibility that is both hip and very anti-authoritarian but isn't hard- wired with the usual politics, and -- Liberation! You Get the Girl and Question Authority and -- Say it Loud: I like Ronnie, and I'm Proud.
Of course, there's no way to prove this, and it may simply be a post hoc argument. Perhaps it's enough to say that in the eighties, a lot of young conservatives came out from behind the pillars, and America won the Cold War -- without ever having to fire a "Rocket to Russia."
Daniel Wattenberg is a contributing editor of George.