08 June 2008

Punk Rock Guilt II

Part one below need not be read first. There I basically say Brant Bjork is a top-drawer rocker of note, and hey, look at this righteous screed he wrote:

The inner line within myself dividing my reality and my idealism is very fine. As I assume it must be for others who would consider themselves “bleeding hearts, under-dogs, dreamers, or romantics”. I know deep down, none of these things ultimately define me but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel all of these characteristics inside myself at any given moment. Growing up in a capitalistic society is an intoxicating thing. Money. It’s a harsh reality. It wouldnt be so bad if our culture wasn’t so obsessed with it. Obviously I chose to follow my heart into the arts. Yes, I too obsess over money from time to time. but my priority has always been to maintain my path in art ...specifically music.
Art, to me, is spiritual and should remain so. There is nothing wrong with “making a buck”... but I simply feel it should not be at the expense of your spirituality, or...your art. There are so many paths to take that are entirely built for the pursuit of money, why some choose the arts as a way to “make money” is something I really don’t understand. When I was growing up, I was naturally attracted to “punk rock”...not just for the music but for the “effort”. It was a movement...at least I saw it as one. I saw Punk Rock as a place for the few who didn’t want to “walk the line”. It wasn't motivated by money. It was a natural attraction for me and my personality. Most of my closest friends at that time were into “it”. Punk Rock is my root and it’s the school that I came up in. It has a lot to do with how and why I play music today. I say this, not out of pride, certainly Punk Rock today is not something I am really interested in, but I am not in denial of my roots. Why specific people choose to dwell in the mainstream artistically is not something I can really answer.
For me...I simply don’t like controlling people and I don’t like people controlling me.
and as for “Punk Rock Guilt”. I honestly don’t even know what it is supposed to mean. To feel guilt for growing up on one of the only meaningful forms of rock music and art in the 80’s...seemed so lame that I had to use the term as a record title.
I second all that, heartily. I think Brant's a few years younger than me. I started young, first gig in late '81 at 15 years old with the Dark - so part of my root is also that between-the-eras time, when punk was assumed to be dead and the hardcore resurgence hadn't picked up steam yet. Point being, that was a time when so few independent records were released that I tended to buy just about anything that came out - which led me to waxings by oddballs like Factrix, Chrome, the Residents, Non, etc. The Drome, one of thee great record stores of the late 70s to early 80s, used to sell 3 packs of 45s at a sale price, and the mystery record in the middle that couldn't be seen in the store often turned out to be something very cool. That's how I wound up with a copy of Orchid Spangiafora's "Dime Operation" EP - Byron Coley's cut-up tape recordings. And in Cleveland itself there was always weird shit happening, hell, Johnny and the Dicks were a "band" that didn't play music, who released an album with no record inside (basically a 12"x12" cardboard flat with some glue, glitter and a photo pasted on it). One friend of mine actually bought one, but was so puzzled that his curiosity drove him to peel it apart, hoping somehow there'd be a record inside that 2-ply cardboard. I remember in '84 or so noticing that somehow a good number of people in the hardcore scene owned SPK's album "Leichenschrei" - and that strikes me today as being an illuminating and unique aspect of our mindset. You could do fucked up things, punk rock orthodoxy didn't have much pull with most of that first generation of NE Ohio hardcore bands, many of whom were better known for their low-rent hedonism than any political stance. Audiences at the biggest shows were another matter, but then you had lots of kids getting their first live exposure and all that goes with that. And the previous generation had given as such great bands to look up to - Pagans, Pere Ubu, Electric Eels, many many others, you know the list if you're here. Hell, probably the best band during that first hardcore era was not part of the scene at all, but from the old class of '77 (and earlier), the Easter Monkeys, and we all knew they were the fucking greatest.

In Cleveland, everyone understood on a near-molecular level that a band didn't have to be popular, even in underground terms, or conform to their era, let alone be acknowledged to exist by anyone beyond a 10-mile radius of the Terminal Tower in order to be important. If you didn't have a tape of Rocket from the Tombs' WMMS broadcast, you probably knew someone who did and it made your year to get a dub of it. Sure there was a party scene (hello, 1385) but when it came to music, most of us were dead serious, but also had zero expectation that anyone besides ourselves would really give a shit. Those who were just on the take or aiming for stardom were ruthlessly mocked when not entirely ignored (most of the time). I'd include Trent Reznor's old band Exotic Birds in that category, what knobs those guys were.

So there wasn't much political correctness in Cleveland, but a code was instilled nonetheless, and that was: be real, do your own thing, but please don't take yourself too seriously or we will cut you down to size, ginsu-knife style. I can't help but violate that last one, but I do so knowing full well the inconsequence of my labors.

On the other hand, it was the hard rock of my boyhood that made punk rock work for me. It clicked for no other reason than it was hard and passionate. I've been truly blessed by relatives and friends who turned me on to cool music from the git-go. Before I even started kindergarten, Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum was one of my favorite albums. Alice Cooper's early records were my grade-school bible, and I couldn't understand why so few of my friends bought albums, and when they did, they were kinda lame. I guess that was the beginning of feeling outside, apart from others. I vividly remember Andy Ferstman (sp? He played in some Florida punk bands and later played a bit on the glam metal circuit) calling me up from FL to play me records by these new bands Black Flag and The Eat. And there was also the radio - CKLW and WIXY in the late 60s and then WMMS' early prog years, establishing audiences for T. Rex, Bowie, Roxy Music and many others long before they could draw anywhere else. Plus the artists could stay in the old Swingo's, a rock and roll hotel/bar that rivaled LA's most debauched haunts. And although it's common wisdom that Cle radio did not support punk, it was M105 where I first heard the Dead Boys, which was then followed by the DJ taking calls on-air for reactions, most of which were along the lines of "this is the worst crap I've ever heard" - I called in too, I didn't get on the radio, but told them it was kick ass. Given the direction the station went (or continued in, rather), their listeners really didn't want anything to do with punk rock, just more Springsteen and Southside Johnny, thank you very much.

My point here is that there was a whole maelstrom of other unique influences on people in Cleveland during those days, some that you wouldn't associate with a smaller, down-on-its-luck city. That combined with extreme isolation and a shit local economy is the rosetta stone to understanding the otherness of much Cleveland music. Lots of outsider art/music came in, but what came back out was hardly broadcasted back into the larger world, and everyone seemed pretty much fine with that, wasn't that how it worked anyway, unless you just got really lucky?

Whether you ever liked punk or hardcore, Brant is right on when he portrays it as "one of the only meaningful forms in music and art in the 80s" - because that scene was to some degree a midwife to all the good rock-based musics of the following 10 years, and the art component is significant as well. But it's also why the current climate is so baffling to me. Indie labels with releases in the top 20? I love it that the money is not going into corporate coffers, and to a label that is probably better about paying royalties, but still... isn't Iron and Wine (or whoever) just the Seals & Crofts of the aughts? The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. Where did all the guts go? Where is the rock? Our descendants are the new purveyors of the MOR format? Fuck.

I'm not too interested in the false binaries of punk vs. indie, big business vs. small, but I am interested in Fucking Things Up (from either direction) in just the right way. Both chaos and deliberation are honored guests at our table. Both spontaneity and control, but not in opposition so much as the limits of a spectrum.

This all ties in a bit with our concept of "The Donk" - a marvelously versatile term whose root meaning is to do things wrong in just the right way, or to be perplexed and amused and maybe even enlightening at the same time... and lots of other more crass things. But as this post is already way too long, I'll deal with that later.

And to bring it all back home, one last Brant Bjork observation - the wife put on the PRG album last night and in all seriousness stated that the best lyric on the whole album was the first line of the first song ("Lion 1"), namely:
There's a bit more to that line ("...I know my rights"), but it follows a great introduction and build on a simple modal riff (do note the classy hi-hat work in that section - all foot, no stick), so that the way he delivers that word just oozes with feeling, which I hear as, "yeah, I know exactly how hot the last two minutes of rock were, and I'm just getting started... check this shit out..." The song is quite the opening salvo, not so much epic as sprawling, it keeps digging in a little deeper each time you hear it. The refrain of the song is, "I can be who I want to be" - which is the essential punk rock lesson, right? Dig it.


Frank/Smog Veil said...

Excellent post Robert. But, I must take exception with Brant's premise that punk was one of the only meaningful forms of music in the 80's.
Cleveland was without a doubt a special place in the era 1974 through 1987ish. Hell, maybe before '74 it was special: The Choir, Granicus, Damnation of Adam Blessing, et cetera et cetera. And, in a weird cross section of physics/alien abduction/alternate realities, it's a scene that grew out of a freakin' local late night TV program more so than wanting to be the next MC5. And, of course, I was a fan lapping it all up, especially once I became old enough to attend gigs, starting around 1981. And I too am guilty of something I call the myopia of punk: the state of mind, the opinion, that in the period in question, punk, and it's various permutations, was god and nothing else can touch it.
Myopia in that years later, we can see the lasting impacts, but more importantly, we can see what we missed. I really wish during that time way back when I would have been more of a metal head than punk rocker. Smirk if you will, but metal ruled in the 80's, and it's impact far exceeds that of punk. Metal kids sold more records, played more gigs to more people, and walked away with more chicks. Silly as that sounds, that's what rock'n'roll is ultimately about in my book. Don't get me wrong, punk is what I lived, loved, and listen to to this day (well that, and a ton of Scandinavian psych and prog), but the underground metal kids did it just a bit better.
Punk's impact today? I think it's about equal to metal's impact, but it's hard to say. That's the myopia at work. Metal kids today, and yes, there's a huge underground metal scene today, still sell more records and play larger gigs, maybe not just here in the States (except San Francisco), more so in Europe.
Honestly though, I have no idea what the kids like today. If American Idol is any indication, I really have no idea what kids find interesting. I mean, can you imagine even the corniest of nerds from Cleveland or anywhere circa 1982 listening to stuff as sickening sweet as the fluff passed off for rock'n'roll today? Can you imagine kids back then dressing in janitor clothes with expensive gender-confusing haircuts. What do kids even consider to be punk rock these days? I have no idea. I do have my favorites though, anything on Fonal Records, for example, and it seems those are often undiscovered, but maybe not. Yes, Iron & Wine is the new Seals and Croft, and given the choice between Trans Am 80's cock rock or 00's yacht rock (almost the second coming of MSB?), well, Stroke Me Stroke Me.
And then there's the Easter Monkeys. Myopia or not, they were without a doubt the best. The LP is of course a revelation, but anyone lucky enough to possess the mythical alternate mix, or a tape of their WRUW in-studio live appearance (name checking my band for 3 months, The Dissidents), knows that they were truly special. Want to hear a crazy one? Jimmy told me once the best gig they ever did was with Black Death! Metal love, baby.
Keep it alive Robert, looking forward to the next post.

the super across the way said...

Black Death ruled! The 80s underground metal scene in Cle was definitely significant. Whether you were into it or not, its presence and vitality could not be ignored. That was one of the first things I noticed after moving to StL - where are all the metal bands? I'd just assumed every town had a significant metal scene. And the scenes were much closer than you'd think - I remember being at Chris' Warped seeing metal guys buying Black Flag LPs, punks buying Venom, and gods know plenty of people were nuts for Slayer. And of course the Friday metal, Saturday punk booking policy at the Pop Shop. We may have been suspicious of each other, but there was so much more in common between those scenes than people saw at the time. How many bands were covering Motorhead back then? More than I can recall. And really, isn't modern black metal pretty much a dark & psychedelic version of hardcore? OK, it's more than that, and there are genuine differences too, but I see lots of parallels there.

So yeah, I've got plenty of love for the metal, if you want to hear interesting guitar playing in the 00's, there's more of it happening there than anywhere else. That new Leviathan album, Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, is a total mind-blower and the drumming is awe-inspiring as well. I also love Hammers of Misfortune, Slough Feg, Gates of Slumber, many others.

I don't know if the metal dudes got all the chicks though - those shows were just as much sausage-fests as the punk shows. But the metal chicks were more fun, heh.

Frank Mauceri said...

I noticed the same thing upon moving to Chicago. Chicago is the self-designated indie rock nexus of the universe. And, to some degree it's deserved. Judging by clubs alone, it's got a well deserved rep--Empty Bottle is the kind of place like the beloved Beachland Ballroom and Tavern: almost doesn't matter who's playing because it'll be a fun night just being there. Hell, they even allowed my indie rock art happening, the Complaints Choir of Chicago, headline with 1 song that lasted 7 minutes (but we sang it twice just to be sure people felt like they got their money's worth).

But, this place is devoid of metal. The planets are out of balance here. Losing oneself in the melodious strains of Helen Money is fine, but don't the kids want to rage once in awhile? Would it kill Pitchfork Fest to book Dragonforce? The answer is clearly, yes.

And yeah, the thing about the chicks and metalheads is more of a pop culture view than actual truth. Us punks had our share of new wave girls, as Ron House would put it.

the super across the way said...

What about Nachtmystium? And Trouble's reunion album that was so fucking awesome? All less visible than the indie rock I guess (which is mostly neither), but at least it's there. Pretty much nothing in StL, just a couple bands. And Chicago had that Alehorn of Power or whatever fest with Manilla fucking Road! And the Metal Haven record store... from where I sit, Chicago looks pretty damn good, metal-wise.