WHAT IS PUNK?
1977—I’m in high school. I ride the subway at night instead of giving 100% to
my homework. Uh… “Why?” Graffiti. Yes, that was my empowering activity as a
young man. I was contributing to the prodigious chaos that decorated the subway
walls and doors of the day. Tellingly, we called this ‘bombing’ the trains This
visual assault of color and seemingly meaningless words, was for the average
subway rider, a perfect metaphor for the unhinging of society in the late 70’s—the
urban blight era that will surely have a mythic place in American history,
similar to the Wild West.
Where does punk come in? It was being born concurrently.
Well, truthfully, to use the child-bearing metaphor, it had already been
conceived invisibly somewhere, and had developed anonymously, and had now been
thrust into the larger world, with a name and identity. Punk rock was a living
idea, something human beings bear into the world from time to time, and other
human beings recognize as being ‘of them’.
That’s what happened to me, and that idea was first
articulated to me through the Sex Pistols. Punk appeared to be a musical
extension of what I was seeking through graffiti. There were shared ethics of
simple and neutral concepts—my tag was the utterly meaningless Tag-e—of self
projection for its own sake—you just want to ‘get up’ and share a common
reveling in the human chaos of society.
Graffiti collectively was a jumble, a mess, so as this was
the year of Saturday Night Fever, of
slick sharp clothing and dance moves, something downtown called me—loudly.
Soon, I’d meet two or three punks, and found that punk was a vague ideal,
already morphing, but threaded through everything that was downtown and
When downtown, I quickly realized I had to shut up about the Sex Pistols. I
also had to shut up about punk. It wasn’t ‘til five years or so later—when it
was timely to say ‘post-punk’—that people from the downtown scene I knew would
acknowledge the connection. But in the meantime, there was a scramble downtown
to identify oneself with punk-like movements. People who would later develop
indie rock, made no-wave. Avant-gardists like John Zorn adulated hardcore. I
knew two places I could count on finding punks, Max’s Kansas City, and hanging out
upstairs at Mudd Club. They seemed to have their dedicated niches.
So I’ll tell you what I thought punks in ’77 were like. I ran two of my dicier
assertions past bona fide punks Legs McNeil and Lydia Lunch and I’ll also tell
you what they said:
—Punk was working class. There wasn’t a high value placed on sophisticated,
—Punk was apolitical. Since Punk saw itself as re-claiming
youth culture and rock n’ roll from the 60’s and the ‘Age of Aquarius’, punk
wasn’t very bleeding heart.
Legs McNeil, founder of Punk Magazine author of Please Kill Me—and coiner of the term ‘punk,’ responds: “For the most part, punk in NYC was tired of the Vietnam War and
leftist politics that stifled creativity in the early 1970’s, but that doesn’t
mean we were apolitical. And whoever wanted to be political was allowed to be.
I mean, you didn’t have to ask permission, that’s what it was all about.”
—Punk was masculine. Men wore leather jackets reminiscent of 50’s gangs. The
masculinity affected women in that they were either bomb shell types, or fairly
butch—and of course an edgy, and socially outgoing personality was essential.
The nerdy/ cool girl who was more bookish than brash, was celebrated in later
post-punk/ indie rock.
Lydia Lunch, front woman of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks,
responds “…Or were butch bombshells—when punk first hit, there was a squadron
of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Types—tough-talking
bombshells who had graduated out of the glam scene which was all about style,
sex and blurring the boundaries of what was accepted. Hot shit chicks who’d
just as soon fuck you as fight you, or preferably both, simultaneously. Sex was
still a pretty vicious weapon, especially when wielded as both bait and trap,
wrapped in leather and tucked between a pair of thunderous thighs, whose
greatest joy was squeezing the life out of an unsuspecting punk monkey.” (Yes,
—Punk bands put on a show. They may have eschewed large drum
kits, fog machines and big lighting, but The Ramones still did similar rock
posturing on stage to big commercial rock acts. Iggy the proto-punk, acted more
like Mick Jagger on stage than Thurston Moore.
—Punks valued the will-to-do, over time-perfected know-how.
—Punks felt spontaneity was the best context, therefore the presentation
of anything was best left haphazard and imperfect.
So music related to the punk
movement, quickly veered away these original tenets. The Clash were punk, but
the social consciousness so tiresome to the original punks, was part of their
punk energy. The heavy dogmas of kids in the punkish Hardcore scene, were in
contradiction to the nihilism of punk. College educated and ironic
indie-rockers like Sonic Youth, still did Ramones and Stooges covers. The
grunge/Nirvana era essentially proclaimed itself punk in the film The Year
Punk Broke (’91). Metal technicians Metallica eventually cut their hair and
covered Ramones songs. And recently The Dresden Dolls—with their heavy
theatrical makeup and moody tango/ ballad interludes—hyphenated punk into their
self proclaimed genre, punk-cabaret.
Why is punk such a grand concept, that so many scramble to define it in their
own way, and appropriate it? Hyphenating punk never goes out of style, because
punk directly reflected the vacancy of American life without truly escaping it.
Because it gave the juvenile delinquent status as an intellectual. But were
punks the first to do so? Maybe not. But when punk got its name, straightforward,
unembellished (in true punk fashion) and a face or two (or nine or 17) to give
it life, it became an archetype for Americans like me.
Martin Bisi is an American producer and songwriter. Visit him at