Saturday, November 17, 2007

Punk rock in print

Punk rock saved my life; punk rock destroyed my life, or at least one (pretty boring) possible version of it. Punk rock was a challenge to my entire view of the world and my place in it. It made me question everything--all of my assumptions about who I was and the sort of existence I had planned--and revealed possibilities of action and expression that before I encountered punk had been unimaginable.

It also let me know that there were people out there--articulate and pissed-off people--who were just as alienated as I was. The only difference was that they were drawing on their alienation as a source of creativity.

Given punk's importance in shaping my sensibility, I'm a pretty critical reader of books about punk. I keep hoping that some brilliant book about punk is going to appear, and I'm usually disappointed. Books about punk tend to fall into two broad categories: journalistic retrospectives (Michael Azzerad's This Band Could Be Your Life, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming) or words committed to print in the heat of the moment (the Sniffin' Glue or Slash fanzine compilations, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' The Boy Looked at Johnny (first published 1978), Caroline Coon's 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (first published 1977), any Lester Bangs collection). I tend to prefer the latter, but two books I've read recently have tried to combine the forms, to (as you might guess) mixed effect.

Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World was first published in 1993. (In 2005 it was reprinted in a second edition with the better but still misleading subtitle The Birth of American Punk Rock.) It's a narrative of a countertendency in American rock music beginning with the Velvet Underground, continuing through the Stooges and MC5 and New York Dolls, and then focussing on the mid-1970s scene centered on the Bowery club CBGB: groups like Television, Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Heylin also writes about Cleveland bands like Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, and a little bit about Boston's Modern Lovers.

The book provides a corrective to the common idea that punk rock started in England. Even the punk look--spiky hair, leather jackets, and torn T-shirts with hand-scrawled slogans--is being modelled by Richard Hell in a 1974 photo included in the book at a time when the Clash's Mick Jones was still in his glam-rock phase of bell-bottoms and platform boots. Incidentally, Malcom McLaren, co-owner of what later became the Sex fashion boutique and future manager of the Sex Pistols, was in New York in 1974 managing the New York Dolls; he was acquainted with Richard Hell and would have been quite aware of Hell's anti-fashion statements.

Heylin didn't call his book an oral history, but he might as well have--his narrative contributions provide connecting paragraphs between extensive quotes from major and minor figures, taken mainly from other people's interviews at the time. While the interview material is fascinating, Heylin's writing is less so. He's a mainstream rock journalist who adopts what I'd call the liberal perspective on punk rock: that it was about "resuscitat[ing] rock & roll." As that mini-quote suggests, his writing too frequently falls into cliches and shorthand; he also has a weakness for lyrical allusions and puns (although weirdly he includes virtually no lyric excerpts), and can be repetitive: I stopped counting the number of times he refers to the (literal) collapse of New York's Mercer Arts Center as though he was telling us about it for the first time.

Perhaps because he wasn't a scene participant himself (I'm guessing), Heylin's perspective on the music is that of a record collector. And he's got a record collector's fascination for minutiae, documenting the most fleeting combinations of musicians (one Cleveland group he writes about lasted all of two rehearsals) and obsessively detailing demos, alternate takes and B-sides.

What he's less effective in conveying is why we should care or why any of it should matter two decades later (when written--now it's three and a half). What it might have been like to wedge yourself into a sweaty, smoky club and hear the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones or the Heartbreakers roaring through a set for the first time and sounding like nothing that you'd ever heard before is largely missing from Heylin's account.

To convey that excitement is clearly one reason why a few years after Heylin's book came out Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain published Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Despite the overarching subtitle, it focussed on the same time period, locations and bands that Heylin's book did (that is, it excluded UK bands) and was presented in a similar format. The only difference is that McNeil and McCain contribute even less prose than Heylin does: Please Kill Me is more of a collage of quotes. As in Heylin's book, the interviews were mainly cribbed from contemporary articles in Creem, Punk, and New York Rocker. The key difference is that Legs McNeil was a major scene participant: he had co-founded Punk magazine in 1975 to document the New York bands (and get free records and entry to shows), and was a CBGB regular.

But that participant's perspective is also distorting in a different way. It's been awhile since since I read Please Kill Me (the title is taken from a self-produced Richard Hell t-shirt), but I recall it as pretty entertaining, at least at first. Eventually, though, the endless stories of drug- and alcohol-fueled binges start to pall. Instead of feeling liberatory, "decadent," or even just fun, it all comes to seem a bit squalid and pathetic. Other people's experiences of substance or sexual excess are entertaining only to a point, and that point was reached for me with about 250 pages left to go.

The definitive punk history is unobtainable. It would have to combine Lester Bangs' brilliant word-riffing and his generosity of spirit, Jon Savage's and Clinton Heylin's appetite for detail (but adding a sense of why the detail might matter), Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain's sense of why punk was so exhilarating (but without the tedium of so many drug and groupie stories), Julie Churchill and Tony Parsons' skepticism about the whole enterprise, Greil Marcus' range of art- and music-historical reference (but without his deadening prose). It won't, and can't, happen, but--like the youth utopia punk promised and couldn't deliver--it's still a seductive dream...

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