“THAT’S THE REVOLUTION IN PUNK, IF THERE IS ONE”
There have been several points in my life where my family thought I was insane, we’re talking mid-to-late ‘70s and early ‘80s and no one is listening to punk in Montana. It wasn’t something my peers were interested in and if anything, they were disgusted by it. The music was full of anger, with lyrics that people would perceive as blasphemous or offensive and so naturally, people would be a bit concerned if they loved me, and would say, “Is he going to kill himself? Is he turning Communist? Is he a servant of Satan?” Punk spoke to me in a way that was deeper and more visceral than anything I had encountered at the time and nobody was going to stop me from participating. I grabbed onto it like a life preserver.
Growing up in the rural working class, the options in front of me at the time looked hellish. I was a weirdo kid. Looking at a lifetime of manual labor— why would I even live? When I was fourteen years old my first window into a world beyond was when I got into ‘60s rock music. That music is a time capsule of a time when people believed that music was more than just entertainment and part of some revolution. Part of why I got into Patti Smith was because she had the sense of passion and purpose that music had the ability to educate you, energize you, or transform you. In that sense it was almost a spiritual conception of the power of music. I was a lost teenager at the time so it meant everything— it was my reason to live.
Of course, shortly thereafter came the CBGB scene in New York and the London punk scene. Then emerged a “new wave,” and that was very disappointing because it was just becoming rock ‘n’ roll or pop music, if you will. Just a commodity. No danger. No revolution. No sense of striving for something more elevated than a career. It doesn’t have to be, “fist-in-the-air” or, “Revolution Now!” but there definitely has to be a sense that it’s striving to go past some boundaries because otherwise, why not just watch TV? And of course, music soon became TV…MTV…and people sat around watching and consuming instead of participating. It seemed to me that a lot of the ‘60s idealism had peeled away and what was left was a hedonism— “rock ‘n’ roll all night and party every day.”
We all have to take in raw material. No one comes into this world and makes some breakthrough in our inspirations without influences. I feel everybody has a responsibility to try and make this world better, whatever gift you have. I think artists in particular should strive to make more than just another product that keeps people fat, happy and sitting in their easy chair watching TV. Again, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to follow a particular line but it’s important to strive for something of transcendent worth. And for those who say that art and politics shouldn’t mix, and that music and politics shouldn’t mix— that’s a joke! Life is political. Music is part of life. Invariably it’s going to be political.
In 1984, I moved from Montana to Washington, DC and I don’t recall if I mentioned this in Dave Grohl’s HBO show or not, but the very first encounter I had with the punk scene was walking to a payphone in Dupont Circle to let my mother know I had arrived and I see this graffiti, “Nazi punks rule! Oi, oi, oi.” This was Washington D.C.’s vaunted punk scene? There was a “drunk punk” scene in Dupont Circle and there were lots of heavy drugs and stupid violence. Not only people in the punk scene fighting each other, but also “fag bashing” because the neighborhood at that time was a haven for the gay and lesbian community. Certain punks, mostly skinheads, would go there and attack gay men for no obvious reason. There was a punk rock uniform, and the slam dancing had kind of become standard, and if you step back and look, I saw: conformity, violence, drug abuse and a close-minded, retrogressive attitude. I saw the world that I had spent the last decade of my life rebelling against, under the guise of punk, but now it was punk.
One of the earliest shows I saw in DC was . It wasn’t the first, but my God! It was— “This is punk.” That immense feeling of possibility, way out of the control of the music business and even out of the control of the musicians themselves because that’s the punk ideal— it’s not just the people on stage. It’s all of us doing something that transcends commerce and that can open a window to a universe of possibilities. Even though the band is on stage and you’re a bit lower, there isn’t that sense of division. There is no essential difference between the people on stage and those in the audience. What you see happening on stage, you could do. And I think that’s the revolution in punk, if there is one. You need each other to make this extraordinary moment happen. That’s what that night was for me, and the first public meeting of Positive Force DC was held the next day.
Whether through music, organizing or photography or just the way you live your life, punk was what you were. However you expressed it. I think it’s cool that there’s an artistic element as well as the personal and the political— and that comes back to the music because there are political lyrics being expressed in a public way, but it’s also really more about the action.
If you’re focusing on your music, there is going to be less time to hand out food to hungry people, to march in a protest, for community organizing, or whatever you think is important. So how do you connect your art to other issues which you know are life-or-death essential when you don’t have time or aren’t good at those things? Well, you play your music and you give the money to organizations that do such work. You let them get up and speak to your audience, to educate the audience and hopefully activate the audience. That is the way that we help to bridge the gap between the rhetoric of punk and the reality of it. And there were examples before us, The Clash played Rock Against Racism shows and also played a benefit for a group called the New Youth Organization in San Francisco. That was certainly an inspiration for me.
I’m actually in the middle of writing a book about the last two years of The Clash and in Rolling Stone I came across this article in which they wrote, “The Clash ended with the US Festival show in 1983. That was Mick Jones last show.” Many people feel like The Clash ended when Mick Jones was kicked out but I’ll set that aside for a moment and just say that one particular thing Joe Strummer was wrestling with was: how can you be this
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