Why I tried to be a punk

Early punk was beautiful. It was irresistible. But it was a hard way to live

Topics: Since You Asked, Punk, punk rock, punk music,

Why I tried to be a punk (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

First, I’d like to thank you for your column. I am continually surprised and delighted by your generosity. I have no doubt that your words help many of your readers, and I hope that you know this.

OK, here goes. I am writing this letter to you as a way to try to respond to your request to punk musicians who are “trying to make a life on the outskirts of mainstream society.” Although I am not a punk musician (I am an artist), I believe many artists, intellectuals, queers and anti-establishment types of all stripes share a desire to create a different world for themselves, and, possibly, for everyone.

Some of us have had no choice BUT to do this. Inhabiting the margins is not always a place that one moves to intentionally or consciously. Many find themselves pushed there. Some names that the margin goes by are well known: the reservation, the ghetto, the prison cell, the other side of the tracks. These are some of the names that everyone knows about, but there are many others that are un-named or remain invisible. I know there are many out there whose very lifestyles bear witness to a struggle against the injustices of our society. But how does one battle weariness? How do I, in my exhaustion over my own daily struggle, continue to reach out to other groups and other individuals so as to join in the same cause?

I grew up in the South in the 1980s, and I choose now to identify as gay. I say it that way not because I have any doubt about my sexual identity, but because I prefer to assume as much agency for my own life as possible. I believe it is a source of power for me to suggest that I have a say in the direction my life takes rather than to cede that agency to biology, some higher power or fate. It is personally empowering to possess the luxury of positively identifying oneself, as well as politically empowering. This is something that marginalized groups have long known. Coming from the South, even today, it is also a politically charged assertion to suggest that I have chosen to be gay, not only among the socially conservative, but also, and perhaps especially, among the gay community itself. However, how can I “come out” as Gay, asserting an identity for myself and putting it on as a way to begin to seize control of my own body and life, to resist the violence, and yet simultaneously relinquish that control to the caprices of biology? Maintaining this fortress of identity, however, is often exhausting.

Still, the gay community in many ways now seems to be reaping the benefits of its past and present bravery of self-identification in threatening situations. People are still beaten, murdered, raped, mutilated and humiliated simply for being themselves; and clearly, the fight is nowhere near complete, as there are many young people still caught in such cruel circumstances, unforgiving families and soul-crushing communities. New spaces and larger and larger areas are now open and opening. Nevertheless, there are many areas in the world where communities and societies have hardly taken a single step. There is a long way to go.

But there are other groups whose personal and political agency has all but been stripped from them, despite centuries of fighting. I think of the young black men who must submit to random searching, the stop-and-frisk policies of so many areas, simply for having brown skin and living in an area labelled “marginal.” In this case, it simply means poor. They are locked up for the most minor of infractions, and yet the political justice system in this country has virtually eliminated the possibility of arguing racial bias in the conception and enforcement of its laws. If there is any doubt as to the ongoing racism in our country, take note of the constraints on even the president to refer to his own experience as a black man. Can he openly assert his “blackness”?

Despite the often harsh circumstances in the margins, there is also hope. People rally around each other and pool resources for support. Families, friends and communities help each other, books are written about injustices, music is made to provide joy and vent anger, art is created to provoke thought and allow for introspection; but I still often find myself tiring of struggle — and more and more so lately. I feel I already know the answer, but how do I go on? It always feels so hard.

Thinking About the Margins

Dear Thinking About the Margins,

Thank you for your letter, and thank you for your thoughts, particularly about the tricky contradictions inherent in living as consciously gay. Thank you, also, for suggesting how those of us who feel like misfits but have some socioeconomic power and choice can feel solidarity with those who have no choice, who live in the margins and cracks of this wealthy nation merely because of their material origins.

After Sunday’s column about the human soul’s urge for communion and how it finds expression in musical movements, I felt uneasy. There was some other more personal truth at hand that remained unreachable.

What I wanted to do was talk about my first experience of punk and ask what happened, why that exciting artistic movement left me exhausted and bereft.

Let us say that what I felt back then, over 30 years ago, when I saw my first punk show at the Temple Beautiful in San Francisco, was some kind of recognition. It felt like home.

What felt like home?

Seeing people crash into each other on the dance floor and hearing music that sounded violent and angry felt like home. It felt like the spirit that had been underneath was coming to the surface: The anger, pain, alienation, disappointment, incredulousness, rage and fear: All that had been stored up inside me for years was there. I realized then what I was: I was angry. I wasn’t “interesting” or “committed” or “intelligent” or “talented.” I was angry. I wasn’t “confused.” I was angry. Finally in that music something made sense. There was no modulation or balance; there was no “interestingness.” It was pure. It was pure emotion.

As such, it was like an intoxicant.

It has taken many years for me to face how I was back then. Recently, in a session with a psychiatrist, it was suggested that I look back on the person I was then with loving-kindness. As I look back on that person with loving-kindness, I can see that he was ill-equipped for the journey he’d undertaken; he was ill-equipped to live on his own. He did not know how to live. He did not know how to enter society and make money and keep a household and have relationships with other people. He did not know what he felt. He did not know how to feel and live with what he felt. He was lost and alone among people. And so when he saw this primitive, sustained burst of pure, loud sound and emotion, these bodies hurling themselves at each other, the screaming guitars and growling vocals, the speed of it all, the sheer intensity, he thought he had found home.

He also thought he had found an important urban artistic anti-status-quo underground movement, akin to other urban artistic underground movements such as Dada. It felt to him as though something remarkable was happening that would be written about for hundreds of years, and he wanted to contribute to it and be a part of it. Yet it frightened him, and he did not know how to conduct himself.

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He was not a punk. He did not know how to snarl or sneer or growl. His range of emotional expression was limited to ironic comments and quasi-spiritual pronouncements. He was also damaged. He was damaged by early marijuana and LSD use. And he was a budding alcoholic. He had never been able to drink alcohol normally with moderation and control. He did not drink all the time or even that much, but when he did, he lost control.

So the experience of punk was a revelation. In a way, it was a distillation of all the political disappointments and outrages of the preceding two decades, the pain and shock of living in a country whose policies seemed cruel and whose promising leaders had been assassinated and which seemed to threaten global nuclear annihilation, a country where he did not feel at home and which did not seem to offer safety. Living in America for him was like living in a house with a crazy, violent man upstairs who might do anything next, who could not be trusted or bargained with or understood and who offered no protection but only threat. He felt that the country he lived in was a bigger threat to him than anything from outside.

And so the snarl and roar of punk seemed like a proportionate response to the snarl and roar of the country with its monopoly on violence and power. It seemed like a way to assert the presence of the formerly voiceless.

That is how, in recollection, in speaking in the third person, it is possible to see how I responded to punk music. It spoke to my anger and outrage and it spoke to it in a way that I could not articulate at the time because I did not really know how I felt. I just felt it.

And so I spent the early 1980s in punk clubs, following punks around, trying to imbibe the freedom it seemed to offer, and making songs with a band. The songs were not punk. The songs were angular, strange combinations. As a person with highly developed ears, I was interested in harmony and melody. I had been trained in jazz. I liked folk music. I liked pop and show tunes and standards, and I liked folk-rock. So I was not a punk musician. I knew a lot of chords and how to read music and how jazz was constructed and how to improvise. I partnered with another musician, Susan Wood, who also knew these things and we wrote songs with Vicci Wong, who was a singer who was committed politically. We had a bass player named Linwood Land and a then a bass player named Paul Keister and then a bass player named Michael Wineke. We had a drummer named Danny and then we had a drummer named Lliam Hart, who still plays drums today. And we had a sax player named David Nelson who still plays today and records music as an engineer and producer. Our band was called the Repeat Offenders. There were other people who came through, people who offered to manage us and so forth. We made a demo with Tom Mallon and won the KUSF demo tape contest, which gave us more recording time. We made a small record on our own. Then we broke up.

The breaking up is a painful episode that I am still trying to get over, still trying to accept and not regret. In taking a measured view, it may be that I had reached the limit of my ability to work in a band. It may be that it was time for me to return to writing, to face the fact that the musician’s life was not for me. It may be that I reached my own limits as a musician, that I could not devote my life fully both to music and to writing, and so that the wrenching loss I felt when I left the band was a necessary cost of parting. For many years after leaving the band I felt guilty. I also felt that breaking up the band was part of my growing alcoholism because I remember having a tall Budweiser in my hand and a six-pack at my feet and feeling like I had to choose between the band and the Budweiser. On balance, it was probably just an off night. I was down and needed comforting and support and could not perform, but had no way to ask for support or to take time off in a measured way, or to comfort myself. Life then was all or nothing. It was an all-or-nothing time. Punk was an all-or-nothing commitment.

So I crapped out. I split and the band broke up. It was a sudden, traumatic breaking up followed by other sudden, traumatic breakages. I was beginning a fractured period of increasing drinking and drugs and seeking and disintegration during the 1980s. The pattern lasted until 1989 when I got sober. Underneath, I now believe, my psyche was trying to organize itself and find what it needed. I was searching, but I was searching in a debilitated condition. I was searching, but my vision was blurred. I was searching for something delicate with a hammer.

Well, I have done here what I wanted to do, or needed to do, which was revisit that time emotionally. And now I’m tapped out. Writing is emotional. I have a habit of trying to think things through whenever feelings arise, as a defense against uncomfortable feelings, and this can sometimes delay getting to the heart of the matter. It causes that uncomfortable early period, when new knowledge or memory is arising, of resisting, of “analysis,” of “trying to figure it out.” You can’t figure it out until you’ve faced it and felt it and let it in. So now I’ve let it in.

OK. This feels real. Remembering feels real and it feels sad. The sound of punk resonated and felt true.

My mistake was to believe that I could live life at that pitch, in that manner. Not me. I could not survive that life. I cold not live in a cold-water flat sleeping on the floor and doing speed. So bad things happened to me as a result of trying to live “like a punk.” But that is another story.

Today I view that young man I was with loving-kindness. He did what he had to do. He was not a hypocrite or a wannabe or a poseur. He was an outsider, but so was everyone else around him. There was no center. We were all outsiders from different places. There was no “authentic” punk. There were just people trying to find ways to be themselves. He was trying to understand who he was, and he was trying to live honestly in a country that he felt had betrayed him and threatened the world. He was trying to live in a country where it often seemed there was more wrong than right. He didn’t know very much. But he survived.

OK. Enough. That’s it for me on the punk thing. That’s what I was edging toward.

Iggy Pop has a new record out. I heard him on the radio the other day while driving back from the gym after the morning swim. He was being interviewed by Terry Gross. He carries the spirit. He has not drifted into insurance and real estate. It was wonderful to hear his voice. He hasn’t crapped out.

P.S. As a result of roaming the Internet trying to figure out when I first saw the Circle Jerks at the Temple Beautiful, I ran across the morethanawitness archive, and was treated to a soundboard recording of the Buzzcocks at the Roxy in London on April 2, 1977, doing “What Do I Get.” Sweet. Find it here.

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