Wrong On Every Count no.5 – Am I Punk Enough?

I’m sat at home at my Mac, the summer evening cool and windy outside.  I’m just back from my summer holidays and so it’s taken some time to get back into the writing spirit again.  I’ve been listening this afternoon to the excellent Weasel Radio Podcast – specifically the Romney Vacation episode, for those in the know. 

For those of you who don’t know or care, Weasel Radio is a kind of talk radio show hosted by Owen Murphy, who is straight man to Ben Weasel.  Owen, a Sports radio jock currently resident in Shoreline, WA, sets up mainstream subjects [such as politics, sport news, as well as some punk rock issues du jour]  for Ben to pick up and pronounce on, takes Ben’s torrents of vitriolic abuse, and generally tries to make sure that the show manages to run and conclude within the 50 odd minute timescale they allocate themselves.  But the great thing is that they don’t just talk about music – indeed they often don’t talk about music at all.

The latest episode of Weasel Radio which I mentioned above is a sprawling discussion based on an article written about US Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s proclivities for wholesome, regimented family vacations, with a swerve towards the subject of sport and doping thrown in for good measure.  It’s always entertaining, [except for when Weasel starts to talk about his new found love for opera], and has become required listening for me, although I have to concede that DeHud is one of the show’s longest serving listeners, having threatened to insert something unsuitable up Owen’s ass if her ever played a record by Keane on the show again.

Ok, so why the fork is this relevant? Well it’s made me think about the nature of our beloved genre, punk rock.  Both DeHud and I have been involved in this thing for nearly 30 years – that’s kind of a long time, and it’s slightly scary when you put it into such stark terms.  But that means that, like a rescue home dog, we come with a ton of baggage.  You wouldn’t believe the discussions we have, usually sat in some Liverpool beer garden with hot sunshine burning our heads, the foam slowly oozing down the outside of yet another pint of the finest German lager; such – and – such is ok, but they’re not punk!  So – when it all started out, things were simple.  You had a leather jacket, you had spiked hair, you had a Ramones t-shirt, you wore baseball boots or Docs.  You were punk.  Then things started to get complicated.

I’d nail it down to a period in 1982.  I have mentioned this before – my buddy Pete played me this record, and on the cover was a skinhead guy, pictured from behind his shaven head, his fist rammed into a now shattered mirror.  Yep, stand up Hank Rollins [or Henry Garfield as he was known in the DC scene back in the day].  ‘Damaged’ by Black Flag was the album – on SST Records, with the great Gregg Ginn on guitar [soon to appear on the Spears’ new album by the way].  This was it.  As the first crazy, disjointed guitar chords hit me, I knew that in my little world, hardcore had landed.  On Rollins’ coat tails came Circle Jerks, Channel 3, Fear, The Germs, Flipper, Misfits, Adolescents, SSD, hey….you know the story.

So, we’re mid-80s, and hardcore has touched down on planet UK.  And, whilst the whole Anarcho scene in the UK was full of polemic and ‘holier-than-thou-ness’, hardcore seemed to bring a whole shitload of new rules and regulations.  Before, we had the Anarcho scene, headed up by Crass [who were never – may I risk saying – in my opinion anything more than a bunch of middle class hippy intellectuals].  But now, Hardcore had come along and whilst the likes of Keith Morris or Darby Crash were never going to harrangue you if you failed to boil your lentils for the appointed time, there were plenty in the scene, especially on the pages of our beloved MRR, who wanted nothing more than to tell everybody else how to live their lives.

Yeah, the thin, floppy newsprint that made up an issue of MRR would positively crackle with the ideology of this movement.  There were rules! Look at photos of Gilman Street from the late 80s.  The word ‘No’ was used as a general prefix.  Bejeezus, at some of the UK shows we went to, it was a bit like that old sign you used to see at swimming pools – ‘No Bombing, No Swearing, No Petting……‘.  We used to wonder – what’s happened here? Words such as Freedom, Anarchy, Individualism were all supposedly the basic principles of Punk, and yet all we get is people telling us what we should think and what we should act like.

Things got worse.

By the late 80s, we were going to shows in Leeds, and a significant Straightedge scene had blossomed.  I’m thinking about 1988-ish here.  Like all imported cultures, it had obviously been subject to the ‘Chinese Whispers’ syndrome, and what we ended up with in West Yorkshire was a gang of young, shaven headed boys, most of whom were too young to drink in pubs anyway, had they been so inclined.  But they would routinely confront ordinary punters enjoying a beer or two at a show, simply because their version of Straightedge meant that anybody who drank alcohol was ‘the enemy’.  Inevitably, combined with a gang mentality and lots of teenage testosterone, sometimes this led to violence.  Like, who gave you the right to decide my choices?  So then you had at one end of the room, the ideological crowd, preaching and pissed, while at the other end of the room you had the new young puritans denouncing any vaguely libertarian choices.  And we were somewhere in the middle, thinking ‘Jeez, why can’t you have your principles, and also have a good time?

Some years later, along came the internet.  And of course interaction became easy no matter where in the world you were.  But at the same time, the element of self-regulation we all employ when communicating with real people [because if we just said whatever we thought to somebody’s face, we would probably get punched on a regular basis] was missing. Which meant that people could abuse, attack and insult their peers online with no immediate sense of consequence.  And so an increasingly bitchy, cliquey scene got bigger – global in fact – but much more bitchy and cliquey.  You know the rest.

Are you still with me?  Where am I going here?  Well, I guess my point is this.  Like Owen and Weasel, I’m 45 years old now.  I’ve got a house, a job, a mortgage, a child and a partner both of whom I love to bits….a life, you might say. And punk still runs through my veins.  Same with DeHud.  We catch up and drink beer now and then.  We still run this piece of crap fanzine which we started in 1986.  We still go to shows.  We still get stoked when we hear a great new band.  Yet we don’t feel the need to live in a commune, join good cause X,Y or Z, fashion a mohawk, slag off the band who nets a good record deal as a sell out, denounce somebody who chooses to exercise their right to do something that falls outside the narrow, ageing accepted ‘wisdoms’ of what it takes to be ‘punk’.  We wear normal clothes.  We do normal stuff.  We have a raft of interests outside of music.  We enjoy bringing up our kids.

What eventually occurred to me whilst devouring Weasel Radio was that this is a great, involving discussion by two middle aged guys, one of whom just happens to be in a punk band, about a completely mainstream subject that I could kind of relate to and laugh about, even though I live a long way away.  And it was done in a reasonably open minded way, without the immediate and unthinking adoption of the ‘received wisdoms’ that the Scene seems to come packaged with.

And to me, that’s punk as fuck.

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