What is punk?

Is it music, a fashion statement or a way of being? And where do you go when the punk house folds?

Published May 10, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

This letter is not really a question and my response is not really an "answer." It  is just the beginning of a conversation that will continue off and on in the weeks to come. -- ct

Dear Cary,

I'm actually pretty skeptical you're going to respond to this. I'm 22 -- so I'm pretty used to being rejected by now; it comes with the territory of "youthful" inexperience. Most people ignore me, some don't -- I try not to take either one too personally. Anyway, I am glad you have recovered from cancer, and I am (sorry? what is the right word for "distantly but authentically sad and empathetic for a stranger whose column you read") about your dog.

You asked to speak to musicians, and I am not one. I am a writer -- I do a lot of things with my writing, but one of them is talk to a lot of musicians. (I could send you my interviews, but it seems tacky to pimp my writing in this letter...)

Anyway, from what I can tell you, this is how young contemporary punk bands work. First, the best ones all live together -- they get a cheap house, they name it something cool, they open it up for informal shows that get pretty wild. I live in Buffalo -- the biggest one (the Turnaround) just closed as the members are moving on and graduating and metamorphosing into beautiful punk-rock butterflies.

Don't let the recent Met gala fool you -- when punk grows up, it becomes an array of things, and very rarely does it involve Sarah Jessica Parker in a Mohawk.

Some of them are going to California, some of them are becoming more involved with Buffalo's political and anarchy-oriented bookstore, and some are simply moving to other punk houses -- Northrup, Flower House, the Funeral Home (also closing) and -- my favorite, and maybe the least known locally but the most known widely -- Bird House. When they aren't fighting and covering each other in beer, you can find the local musicians doing things like guerrilla gardening and knit-bombing.

We all deny being hipsters, but really, anyone punk rock, alternative, indie, etc., is a hipster -- that is, we are the gentle form of the generations before us. We don't put flowers in tanks; we can our own jam. We're really pretty lame, especially compared to the big and bold Margaret Thatcher-era punks -- I mean, I did get punched in the face during a mosh pit the other day and get a bloody lip, but on the off-hours, we're pretty laid back. This generation seems to be quietly contemplating and carefully executing, whereas our parents were all brash force and bonfires: That approach was showy and effective for its time, but no longer useful for the world we live in, where the most deadly things are as quiet as the clicking of a keyboard.

The other thing that punk-kids do is travel. They train-hop, they tour with their bands, they do whatever it takes to get out there. Oftentimes, they just play a series of basement venues all across the country, coast, world -- you might not have heard of them (admittedly, their music may suck) but they are appreciated and welcomed by the fans of the lifestyle. It's a sort of silent bond that is hard to explain, and it's pretty new (or maybe pretty old -- what do I know? I just got on the planet, I don't know how it works) so you don't get a lot of effective writing about it.

Thank you for helping people with your column. You are wrong sometimes, but so is everyone -- and it's nice to see you put it out there. Dear Abby would be proud (hope that's not an insult -- my mother used to read me her columns, and I loved them).

Have a great day,


Dear M,

Thank you for your letter. Though it is not a question, strictly speaking, there are some questions latent in it, and perhaps it will spur some punk musicians to write and further the conversation.

I admire young people who set out to live in concert with their feelings and inspiration, with their immediate responses to our culture, which can be deadening and perverse.

But dangers and problems erupt when one tries to live an idealistic life in America. I'm interested in that. I'm interested in the obstacles to living a non-mainstream life. Because if one can continue living according to one's deepest values, one will eventually have an effect on the larger society. But one must outlast that society, in a way; one must survive its initial attempts to crush what is strange, to cleanse itself of your presence. One must resist and survive. That is hard. Temptations abound. We are a lazy and narcotized culture and it is hard to not just go to sleep.

Most relevant to me and my own experience are questions such as, What do you do when your life activities don't support you economically? This is a question I've had to face more than once. What do you do when your need for comfort and security exceeds your need for excitement and your tolerance for danger? How do you maintain the values of an alternative scene -- the openness to ideas, the energy, the spontaneity and easy bonding -- while also maintaining a household and an income, and protecting those close to you?

I'd like to have this conversation. Perhaps this column can help people who are facing the inevitable pathologies that arise in alternative lifestyles -- the personality struggles, the risk of addiction and dependencies of various sorts, the need for balance.

Some of what I have to say will sound simplistic to people directly involved in alternative scenes. That's OK. I'm not pretending to be cool, or involved. I'm just interested.

Thanks again for your letter. I particularly like how you say, "We are the gentle form of the generations before us." I like that phrase a lot and it captures a cyclical process, as I have observed it since World War II.

I also like how you say, "This generation seems to be quietly contemplating and carefully executing, whereas our parents were all brash force and bonfires."

So if there are punk musicians out there trying to make a life on the outskirts of mainstream society, I would be interested to hear the perils you face, the difficulties, and your critique of the society out of which you have sprung, in which you must live, with which you struggle.

Please put letters in the form of a question, if possible, so that I can write my response in the form of an answer.

By Cary Tennis

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