April 3, 1998: the day punk died

Tim Yohannon 1946-1998

Topics: Music,

Punk didn’t die on Jan. 17, 1978, the day the Sex Pistols imploded.
On that day it only passed from squalling childhood into a sulking
adolescence, and shifted its capital back to the U.S. after years of
schooling overseas. Nor did it die on April 3, 1994 — the day Kurt
left Courtney. It died this April 3, with the passing of Tim Yohannon,
of cancer, at 52.

Punk didn’t die with Yohannon in the physical sense: It died in the sense
that languages die. It now has no more native speakers left (of any real
account) who still carry on the daily business of living through its
conventions. Like Latin, punk is now left to be passed on, ossified, in
generational succession — as from Caesar, through the whole list of
Latin teachers of the Middle Ages, straight through to the character who
taught it in your high school. Those teachers will always be with us,
but the last great Roman is gone, and with him the flame that kindled
their torches.

Yohannon was the founder and grand eminence of MaximumRockandRoll, a punk zine
that runs undiminished more than 16 years after its founding. MRR
began as a radio show on KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., and first reached print as a
booklet of liner notes for a self-sponsored compilation album. Somewhere
around the turn of 1981-82, it reemerged as a fairly professional
newsprint mag, whipped up by a team of local scene veterans and
luminaries (including Jello Biafra, FidoNet inventor Tom Jennings and
author Mitzi Waltz). It was a damn good read — and the first punk zine of
any consequence to see nationwide distribution. But the rub was yet to
come.

During MRR’s first couple of years, scene reports began coming in from
Europe, Asia (mostly Japan), South America (mostly Brazil) and
Australia. Later, scattered missives filtered in from places like
Iceland, Micronesia, Saudi Arabia, Israel … Then detailed exegeses from
those places — and finally trade routes. Vinyl, cassettes and T-shirts
from a million great and horrible bands were dispersed over the globe.
Stickers and fanzines of every aspect and worth came fluttering from
dock to port to jungle clearing to yurt. The MRR radio show was
syndicated across America and Europe, and the zine took on an
internationalist slant.

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If this doesn’t seem like any huge deal, it was a HUGE DEAL. There was
no Web in those days, and no incessant crowing about global villages or
marketplaces. Most people didn’t have cable. There were no practical
laptops, cell phones or digital pagers. Foreign countries seemed
strange, inscrutable and very, very far away. For a teenage punk rocker
in the ’80s — a rare, thinly spread sort of demographic entity — to link
up with punks in Sao Paulo, Bangkok and Greenland was a world-changing
experience. The MRR explosion was the first truly global,
grass-roots youth phenomenon in history, and it did for some of us
what the Web would later do for the culture at large: It removed the
limitations of place and substituted for them an unplumbable pool of
information and discourse. It linked humanity — at least insofar as
humanity had a mohawk and wrote on its jeans with magic marker.
But in the sweep of things, the jeans and haircuts are incidental: The
international punk explosion of the ’80s was the opening salvo in the
battle of postmodernity. Most of the mainstream music and culture that
we now miscall “alternative” was there, in body or in spirit: Indie
rock, tattoos and piercings, extreme sports, girl-culture (riot and
otherwise), queer-culture, the 7-inch EP, Doc Martens, irony… All of this
was swirling through the ether while the rest of the world was
watching “Dynasty” and rocking out to Huey Lewis.

Yohannon was a ’60s leftist, which gave rise to his zine’s near-sterling
code of ethics, and to a pervasive anti-elitism that saw it slowly
transform into a nonprofit collective. MRR accepted no corporate ads,
and donated its (reportedly six-figure) profits to charity. Yohannon himself
worked a blue-collar job at UC-Berkeley when he could easily have lived
off his hobby. MRR did, however, buy his house, which was used as a
headquarters for operations for the MRR empire and as a way-station for
visiting bands.

But by the middle of the decade, MRR’s gathering populism had hurled the
zine into a douse of mediocrity. MRR became cute. Its graphic aesthetic
(once great, thanks to the monstrously talented Brian “Pushead”
Schroeder
) had fallen to the aw-shucksy, cartooney doodles of
Brian Walsby (later of Polvo). The even lesser Ace Backwords was
to take over from there. Worse still, independent music became
routinized and ordinary to the zine that was once its fiercest
partisan. Genre-tagging displaced criticism; a “you-silly-kids” attitude
crept into Yohannon’s writing, and genuinely silly people of various ages
were deputized as columnists and staffers. Yohannon still presided, but was
no longer at the helm — and the same ideology that had originally made
MRR great (and pure) allowed it to sink into grumpy, whimsical
irrelevancy.

A new, sanguine, meat-eating ethos and a provocative sex-positive slant
emerged in the MRR of the early ’90s (and continues to this day). But
punk, especially in America, would never again take itself seriously.
The hard-core music of the period of MRR’s decline was (and is) given to a mere formalism:
praiseworthy but never great; difficult but never dangerous.
In that regard, Yohannon was a patron and a benefactor of grand proportion,
but not always a wise or scrupulous one. He, with his compatriots,
changed history in the small, teapot-tempest way in which historical
moments are generally kindled, but he broke his tools in the process. In
the short term, he was often despised for that. In the long run, he
deserves unqualified respect. April 3 should henceforth be
celebrated as Thank-an-’80s-Punker Day. Well, you’re welcome. And thank
you, Tim Yohannon, for making it happen.

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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