Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Spitting Image of Despair

I suspect teenagers still suffer from despair, but back in the 70s, teen despair coincided with a national despair. For a brief cultural moment—no more than two or three years—that despair was one and when put to music was proclaimed by some as Punk Rock. Everybody else—and that else included many of my fellow teenagers—resented this embodiment of despair. Malcolm McLaren, who died last week, identified that despair and rubbed it in the face of the world by turning Punk Rock into a peculiar form of glamour and celebrity. Either as cause or effect—take your pick—he also was behind the creation of one of the greatest Rock & Roll records ever made, Never Mind The Bullocks, by of course, The Sex Pistols.

One immediate result of the 60s was that by the mid-70s, every body was sick of youth. Beatlemania was over, drugs were no longer new and Nixon was driven out of office. The hippie generation hated you because they weren’t young anymore. Only a few years earlier their revolution went from Woodstock to Altamont, their politics went from Be-Ins to the Days of Rage. They woke up with a hang over and exhausted with being freaks. The older adults were so fed up with the hippie generation they expected nothing better out of you. The economy was in a tail-spin, factories closings, jobs going over seas, cities in decay. Turned out, things were even worse in Britain.

It was an ugly time. When Johnny Rotten & company intoned the truth of that moment— No Future for you!—your despair suddenly had a context of a greater despair. You felt less alone. You still were angry and sad, but those feelings were now at least vindicated.

American Idiot, Green Day’s classic concept record is the latest manifestation of Punk Rock. It is coming to the Great White Way of Broadway and that seems as it should be. Malcolm McLaren, who died last week, made that possible and it’s not because he made Punk Rock palatable. He did not. I’m not even sure you can say he made it popular. What he did was make the entire world aware of the phenomenon and by doing so, gave Punk ethos a staying paying. While the look and the publicity and the celebrity of the Sex Pistols contributed to the lasting impact of Punk, it was their one—and only one—Rock & Roll album, Never Mind The Bullocks that is why we still care. This recording is as much as a touch stone for Rock & Roll as any record prior—this includes the Sun Sessions, anything by the Beatles, Highway 61 and The Band (the brown record) and anything else that you might want to name. The classics on that album, God Save The Queen, Anarchy in the U.K., Bodies, Pretty Vacant, and Seventeen (the other songs are pretty good too)—are etched into the pantheon of Rock & Roll—etched with hydrochloric spittle, but etched nonetheless. The Sex Pistols tapped into the collective despair of the era, especially as it was felt by Brit Working Class kids. They captured the briefest of moments—it was somewhere between 1977 and 1979—when despair permeated the psyche of western civilization. As soon as you said right on, that moment had passed.

I sometimes think the secret of punk is not just honesty, but a paraphrase of that old line about show business: if you can fake honesty, you got it made. Punk started in the U.S.. The Velvet Underground, Iggy & the Stooges, and the MC5 were direct forefathers but it really began with Patti Smith, the Ramones and Television, you know, CBGBs. In a weird quirk of history, Television was actually the first band but the last of the founding trio to get a record deal. At its core, Punk was about subjective and objective truth—trying to find and celebrate that universal experience when no distinction exists between the subjective and the objective.

The world is cruel and survival is tough. Punk celebrated the idea that you can inflict more pain on yourself than the world can. That idea can be weirdly empowering, especially when you are a teenager and think you will live forever and that nothing matters outside your own personal dramas.

Patti Smith, a Symbolist Poet, took Punk concepts towards mysticism—the protagonist in the song Horses, a rape and stabbing victim, escapes into the land of 1,000 dances, a kind of Sufi escapism. The Ramones narrowed their world—Queens was the Universe and all the laws of the Universe were determined by the junk pop culture of the 60s. Teen Love was the only salvation. On their self-titled first album, The Ramones tell us “I just want to sniff some glue, I just want to have something to do,” then the only thing they can find to do is her—“Hey Little Girl, I want to be your Boyfriend, what can I say?”

The simple chord changes, the often fast and aggressive tempos all freshened up Rock & Roll, made it fun again, made it relevant to young people (at least young white people) again. It also turned Rock & Roll into an art form. It always was of course but Punk ensured that it became undeniably performance and conceptual art. The fact that Punk was born in downtown Manhattan, a hot-bed of artists and artistic ideas for about century, made that fate inevitable. Patti, the Ramones and Television were able to make both great music and interesting art, that is they were able to make statements that were musical, yet also conceptual. Other bands around the same time or soon there after chimed in. A thousand flowers bloomed, many wilting almost immediately. Something was happening here and the rest of the world was Mr. Jones.

The look, sound and attitude of Punk have been present in some form or another for decades. It is easy to not realize how truly new and fresh—and thanks to the Sex Pistols, shocking—Punk was in 1977. All ages may have been diggin on Star Wars that Summer in movie theaters. The generation gap may have been fading away as the 60s generation finally accepted adult responsibilities and folded away their Freak Flag. Then, we had guys with dyed hair and singers spitting on the crowd.

The aging hippies became incensed that with Punk, a very different freak flag was flying. The older generation was sickened, throwing up their hands with the attitude that here was more of the same. What the conceptual art approach to Rock & Roll expressed was the fact that given the state of the world at the time, this particular edition of teenage alienation resonated on a universal scale. Everyone was too alienated to admit to the pervasive alienation.

If indeed there was “no future,” why the hell would you want to pogo to that idea? Why do you want to do sex, drugs and rock & roll to such a nihilistic idea?

Why? Because it is now and we are young and you are not. It was what we had. All the hippies had left us was a Drug Culture (and several really awesome LPs).

It is the age-hold conflict of generations, but what made it maddening was that the older baby boomers showed their hypocrisy. After going through so much crap for their hair and music, they turned into their parents when it came to your hair and your music.

As much as I love Patti and the Ramones—and the Clash for that matter—it’s really the Sex Pistols, when all is said and done, that epitomized Punk. For that we have to thank, Malcolm McLaren. Many Punk Albums are as good as Never Mind the Bullocks, but none are better. McLaren was not the first to see Rock & Roll as Art, or at least, as conceptual art. But the way he realized that concept is why Punk ethos reverberated over the decades. He is why we have Punk artists today.

The Sex Pistols were pure Nihilism, Only Europeans could achieve such purity. “We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski!”

The Sex Pistols is the sound of destruction for its own sake.. Vandalism was rampant in the 70s, a sure sign of social despair. McLaren understood the Sex Pistols had their audience, and he figured out a way to make a lot of money off that audience. He took the alienation of the Ramones (not to mention Iggy and Alice Cooper) and applied a decadent, Old World veneer, but also saw pop culture more comprehensively than the CBGB’s scene makers. A fashion designer by trade, McLaren took that Ramones look—skinny ripped jeans and leather jackets—and tricked it out with a Post-Mod, British sense of fashion statement. The Pistols looked great in photographs. Torn clothes, the safety pins, the dye hair—all the motifs you still see today—that was because of the Sex Pistols. Look at the photographs of pre-1977 New York Punks, they don’t look any different than other kids of the era. Then look at the post-Sex Pistol pictures, the audiences is coifed out—spiky Mohawks, purple hair, the body piercing—and that was the Punk look in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Minneapolis. New York understood the music, maybe even some of the anger and because of Patti Smith and Jim Carroll (probably due to Lou Reed), knew literature. But fashion and media and celebrity culture—McLaren brought all that to Punk and Punk to all that.

The original punks didn’t care how they dressed—as long as it wasn’t bell bottoms or earth shoes. McLaren knew the look had to be as deliberate as the sound. Young people loved it simply because it gave them something of their own.

In 1978, the Sex Pistols embarked on their famed U.S. tour, which was covered by news outlets. At the time there was very little celebrity or show business news so it was the mainstream press. Music news rarely was covered beyond Random Notes in Rolling Stone. It is telling that the Sex Pistols were the first punk rockers on the cover of that magazine—even though the Ramones and Patti Smith had already been around for three or four years prior. On the U.S. Tour, it was not just their so called outrageous behavior—which with the perspective of time just seem like young celebrities being egocentric, something we’re all used to these days—but their concerts depicted as riots. Police were being called in. Johnny Rotten spits on audiences. Audiences spit back.

Ten years before, rock and roll criticism in major newspapers and magazines was begrudgingly done by the staff jazz critic, itself a relatively new position. By the late 70s, popular music critic was close to a masthead mainstay as society at large seem to agree that the Beatles were beloved and Dylan sang poetry. But comparing James Taylor to Stephen Foster—or even name-checking what you could recall from a bygone Intro to European Lit Class for an article on Patti Smith—was a far cry from the Dadaistic performance pieces put on by drug-crazed, ill tempered working-class brits who showed disdain for everything—America, the paying crowd, musicianship. They were a runaway train. A car wreck. McLaren created this, set it in motion upon America and it was like the Mirror-Mirror version of the Beatles in 64.

Alienation was a social concern back then. It hardly seems mentioned these days. The Punks reveled in the alienation the rest of society either scoffed at or fretted about. The Sex Pistols were simply outside the scope of aesthetic references of mainstream journalists. They were scorned and feared, their music, their look, their every gesture was met with derision. What the critics and reporters at the time could not grasp at all was how well the band thrived on all that derision. The more we hate them, the more outrageous they act.

Showing an artist gratitude with applause was seen by some Punks as an out-dated 60s ideal. One of the weirdest bands from the New York scene was Teen Age Jesus & The Jerks, headed by Lydia Lunch. The songs were purposely without melody or anything resembling music, the lyrics lacked imagery. They revived Dada, as if that was a good thing. It was music that made you want to punch out the person making it. I had the misfortune of seeing them two or three times. They would be the first act on a line up of punk acts like the Erasures or Student Teachers, some of whom were really good although forgotten today even as foot notes. The whole point—the entertainment—was to boo the band off stage. Lunch and the audience would shout curses at each other. People bought tickets just to boo an Electric Dylan in 1966, so it’s not like there was no precedent.

Antagonism as a Punk Rock audience experience didn’t start with the Sex Pistols, but with their adrenaline saturated performance, the acerbic charisma of J.R. and of course, Sid Vicious and his death-wish demeanor, the Sex Pistols perfected it. Most of America was ready to buy a ticket to see the spectacle, and likely to boo. Mutual antagonism between the audience and the artist was intrinsic to McLaren’s Rock & Roll project.

And of course, the spitting. The spitting was big news. I don’t think there was spitting at CBGB’s before McLaren encourage that behavior. I just remember it being a major point—Johnny Rotten spits on audience, audience spits on Johnny Rotten—in the news coverage of the Pistol’s tour. An act so banal and vile, just a basic gesture, it seemed to get the most press, until the band broke up after Johnny Rotten walked off the stage at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and a year later, Sid stabbed his girlfriend to death before over dosing from drugs. Think about that, Vicious died in 1979. The U.S. tour was in 1978. The record was released in 1977. A two year run—and the meaning of which is still being discussed—and the music is still being listened to.

I think the last authentic Punk record was Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy, which came out in 1980. By then Patti Smith had begun her prolonged hiatus, Television disbanded, New Wave hit. Bands like the Clash, Blondie and the Talking Heads moved far beyond Punk Rock before themselves disbanding. The Los Angeles punk movement, which produced some great music, it self petered out by the mid-80s. Only the Ramones soldiered on, putting out great but ignored records throughout the Reagan era and into the early 90s. There were hardcore bands in the 80s like Husker Do and the Minute Men that are of note, but never gained much traction. I like some of their stuff, but I can’t say I play them much these days. Nirvana, Hole, Pearl Jam and all them northwest Grunge Bands revived the punk sensibility in the 90s. Green Day has staked out new territory. All those bands have improved on the original idea. Many of their tracks deserve to be cited alongside Never Mind The Bullocks, which means they deserve to be listed along with best Rock & Roll has to offer.

Now, it is easy to say the Ramones were the first—and they were—but the Ramones never made the social impact of the Sex Pistols. I’m not sure if this three decade continuum of Punk-inspired Rock & Roll would have taken place if it was just the Ramones. In the great documentary on the Ramones, End of the Century, the Ramones say that the Pistols ill-fated, highly publicized tour of the U.S., turned off promoters, venues and the press against Punk just at the moment the Ramones were ready to hit the big time. It’s a valid point but since the Pistols were basically inspired by the Ramones, you can’t quite blame the Brits for holding back the Yanks. The Brits were able to get a degree of exposure that it seems the New Yorkers never tried for, although the reality was that McLaren strived towards debacle, rather than success. The U.S. Sex Pistols tour was legendary near-rioting by the audience, the band acting with disdain for everything in their path before they walked out on their touring contract. Punk as it existed could not survive this debacle. While some of the style of punk remained, musicians looked for other genre monikers to rally around. A page had turned, a fad had faded. Even by 1980, a skinny kid with bright orange hair screaming obscenities and of course, spitting, was a parody of itself. Despair had to look for another form of expression.

But Never Mind The Bullocks survives. The Sex Pistols, we later found out, were as contrived as 1the Monkeys. It may have been anti-matter, Euro Show Biz, but it was show-biz nonetheless, wallowing in as opposed to concealing its cynicism. McLaren did the contriving, and the confrontational aspects of Punk would have made the papers. There would have been publicity and public outcry no matter what. But the fact he came up with a great record to boot makes the Sex Pistols one of the most unique tales in all of Rock & Roll.

The Sex Pistols came out of this guy’s head—a trust-fund impresario with a supremely insightful take on the zeitgeist of British culture and politics of the moment. He took some working class kids and formed the most famous Rock & Roll project in the history of conceptual art. Much to the chagrin of New York Punk originators, the self-destruction, the dyed hair and Mohawks, the chains on the leather jacket, the safety pins and the spitting—things so identified with the Punk were all started by the British, mainly by McLaren.

McLaren knew that the nihilism at the core of what the Sex Pistols expressed had to be more than an act. Never Mind the Bullocks is a heart-felt record—and when Johnny Rotten screamed, “God Save the Queen, She Ain’t No Human being, she Made you a Moron,” it was shocking, a nation was appalled. But it wasn’t just shock for the sake of shock, it was a an honest criticism of the state of England and it went right to the core of the culture—the monarch herself! The fact the Queen has outlived McLaren underscores his quixotic effort. That Britain has long re-embraced the sovereign ruler in the wake of the Princess Diane death can be attributed somewhat to the Pistols. Look at England before the Pistols, and after and one is compelled to think the nation did in some regard, heeded the clarion call. England has never gone back to being a country where the youth grow up to feel there is “no future.”

And what is weird is that the Sex Pistols eventually became embraced by the left and the right, cheered by Thatcherites and Billy Bragg!

McLaren came up the Sex Pistol, conceived of their sound, songs and look, then let the fates take their course. The fates were not kind. The fact that one of the souvenirs of the project is also a classic Rock & Roll album is why the whole saga still fascinates. It’s easy to make fun of Punk. It soon was a parody of itself anyway. But the attitude and the genre of music remains with us today. McLaren brought a genuine expression of Alienation and Nihilism into pop culture and for a short amount of time, shocked much of the world. For my generation it was a shock of recognition. The world felt the same despair that I felt and all you had to do was play the Sex Pistols to prove it. I don’t feel despair anymore, but I haven’t forgotten it. When I heard about McLaren dying, I remembered a time when despair could still shock.

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