Punk Rock Scholarship Is the Bollocks


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Here's the seller's description:


1975 Fender P-Bass That Sid Vicious had used during the time he had played with the Sex Pistols. The Bass is white and has stickers that Sid had put on just before his passing. The bass was aquired from Anne Beverly, (Sid's mum) The Bass Comes with the original strap that says "SID". The bass is as Sid left it, it still has some blood on the bass (His I presume). The bass comes with a notarized letter of authenticity and documentation. This bass is well documented and was Sid's no. 1 Bass (He had 2 including this one)...


George couldn't get over it. Imagine, $99,000-plus for a bass Sid never learned to play. Meanwhile, all those punk kids today are out there learning how not to play on $30 pieces of junk. A Sacred Sid relic, complete with his holy blood. What's next? Dead rock star body parts auctioned off like saints' knuckles?


George suggested eBay might be a handy way to assess how people value the whole range of rock artists. Name a band or star, chances are good somebody's selling something related to them on eBay. How much people are willing to pay for memorabilia might be a crude register of how important a given star or band is.


For instance, we found people bidding up to around $2500 for a plastic toy Beatles guitar. Not bad, but it's no $99,100. There was that Marky Ramone drum kit that fetched $3000 not long ago. Elvis items always do okay, naturally, as do the Stones'.


Black Oak Arkansas memorabilia, on the other hand, mostly goes for a buck or two.


What this says for Jim Dandy's legacy is obvious. It's a bit less clear why we couldn't find anybody outperforming Sid's bass. To George, this is no doubt proof that punk rock rules. But it might just be an indication that the punk generation, now in their mid-30s and up, have the excess shopping power to overbid on lost-youth nostalgia items.


That's the demographics of most of the writers in Punk Rock: So What?, a new British collection of academic essays edited by Roger Sabin (Routledge, 247 pages, $22.99). If it's axiomatic that very little rock writing has ever really rocked, it's even more true that very little writing about punk rock has ever been very punk rock. So far the big three tomes in punk rock scholarship or pseudo-scholarship?Jon Savage's England's Dreaming, Dick Hebdige's Subculture and Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces?have been pretentious, often hilariously wrongheaded (Hebdige has since, in effect, disavowed some major points in the 1979 Subculture), and in Marcus' case largely indecipherable wanks, yet they've been taken with extreme seriousness by subsequent punk rock scholars. Sabin says that one of his intents in organizing the essays here was to offer a next-generation counter to the Savage-Hebdige-Marcus junta, but he must have forgotten to tell his contributors; they're cited throughout Punk Rock like Talmudic touchstones, even when an essayist is, timorously, tendering a counterargument to one of them. Tabb would say that most of this has been written by "pussies," and if we take him to mean egghead geeks overthinking a simple subject, he's right.


This is especially true of British writing on the topic (cf. Savage and Hebdige), much of which has been by academic Marxists who even invented a whole new branch of study, Cultural Studies, as a venue for overthinking and overwriting about punk rock. By U.S. punk rock standards, people in the UK have always had some very wrong ideas about punk rock. For instance, that punk rock was a British phenomenon, and a specifically London one; that the Sex Pistols were punk rock, as definitive as the Beatles were of the British Invasion, and that therefore all its most significant characteristics can be seen by studying the Pistols and Malcolm McLaren; from which it follows that the "punk rock era" can be neatly dated as an historical period beginning with the rise of the Pistols in 1977 and "dying" when Sid did in 1979; and finally, that punk was a bona fide social movement, with an identifiably antiracist, feminist, pro-working-class leftist politics.


All of which, if you're a U.S. punk rocker, is bollocks. But if you're a Brit academic of a certain age, call them Late Boomers, naturally that's how you define punk rock, because that's how you want to remember it. It's the punk rock of your youth, and it ended, just happenstantially, when your youth did. It's a classic fallacy of rock histories. Beatles Boomers, like James Miller in his Flowers in the Dustbin, remember that their rock died the day punk rock was born. For the 50s rock 'n' roll fans who came before them, real rock was dead by the time Elvis went into the Army. Meanwhile, the foundations of an historical literature on The Day The Rave Died have already been laid. Et cetera. People miss their youth.


Again, Sabin promises in his intro that Punk Rock is going to be questioning and countering all that received wisdom about punk history. A few of his contributors do, a little, finally. But you could still come away from several of the 14 essays not knowing that there was ever any punk rock beyond London and the Pistols. There's no mention of the very sensible argument that the Sex Pistols, by virtue of being the biggest-selling, most commercial, most successful and quickest to sell out of all punk rock bands, were ipso facto the least punk rock of all punk rock bands. Only one contributor seriously addresses American punk at all, laying out the too-obvious facts that punk began in New York Fucking City in 1973, not London in 1977, and that its roots go back through the MC5 and Stooges to garage rock and early 60s surf-guitar-teen rock. End of discussion on that score.


Also, none of the contributors deals with the reality that numerous versions of punk rock continued to exist after 1979 and still represent some vital pockets of youth subculture activity today. No doubt the messy fact that some of the best punk rock being played now has skinhead-fascist, or at least patriotic and blue-collar-conservative, associations makes it so very difficult for these leftist academics to treat it qua punk rock. In effect they orphan this aspect of punk's legacy through the simple, ham-handed trick of declaring punk an historical epoch, so that everything after 1979 becomes post-, as in not-, punk, which therefore need not be written about in a book called Punk Rock.


Tabb is right: This is pussy. To his credit, Sabin takes a few steps in his own essay toward admitting that the swastikas, Dago jokes and flirtations with the National Front that were part of the London punk scene from the earliest days might have meant something more in certain cases than a simple fuck-off fashion gesture. But that's where he leaves it. I think Punk Rock would have been markedly strengthened by an entry tracking punk's politics (or its political descendants, if you insist) through the 80s and 90, showing how punk's fascination with extremism, with the marginal and the outcast, helps explain why the form offered itself to both the ultra-left dogmatism of DC hardcore and straight edge and the ultra-right rhetoric of skinhead, street punk and Oi! I'm sure such an essay exists somewhere?it probably ran in an issue of The Baffler or Bad Subjects or Maximumrocknroll I didn't see. It should be here.


Even granting that punk was more of an identifiable social movement in the UK, where everything is a more definable social movement than it is here (it's a small place crowded with people who take their group identity very seriously; cf. rave culture), the impulse to cast UK punk as an authentic revolutionary movement seems romantic and naive. One of the more reflective essayists here questions his fellow academics' need to identify an "authentic" ur-punk that was pure and revolutionary, and later sold out and commodified. Like there was an elite originating core of pure punk idealists, Situationists and revolutionaries, then all those other trendy kids and record label managers piled on and ruined it, maaan. This is the elitist, trickle-down, Great Man theory of punk pressed by Savage-Hebdige-Marcus?an art school version of punk. Actual practitioners?Johnny Rotten, Stewart Home, Siouxsie Sioux and others?always said it was bullshit, but it persists anyway.


David Grad recently lent me an old copy of John Sinclair's Guitar Army. The MC5's manager and White Panther Party guru, Sinclair was about as close to an actual rock 'n' roll revolutionary as rock ever produced. At a time when American rock's support of "the revolution" mostly came down to the bloated posturing of a David Crosby or a Grace Slick?"Up against the wall, motherfucker! AND HAND OVER THAT LAST SLICE OF PIE!"?the least you can say about Sinclair is that he was a true believer who literally put his ass on the line: Guitar Army was compiled in 1971, when he was in a federal prison as a de facto enemy of the state.


By '71, even Sinclair had reached the conclusion that rock was an imperfect tool of the revolution. He wouldn't have used a term like commodified?revolutionaries in his day read Marx and Mao, not Adorno and Habermas?but here's his short-form explanation of how the music was sold out:


[T]hey saw that our music was the lifeblood of the alternative culture, the thing that held us together and showed us how to live with each other outside the system, so they moved in and took it over by buying off the musicians and turning the music into a simple Amerikan commodity which could be bought and sold like anything else. They cut the bands off from their roots in the rainbow community and made them into big P*O*P**S*T*A*R*S who could be manipulated any way the owners wanted to use them, which was generally against the people who loved the music and wanted to believe it....


The greedheads might be able to buy off the musicians, but they can't buy off the people who live the music, and that's where the repression comes in.


The standard UK line on punk rock history is no more sophisticated and no less romantic. The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is just The Man Stole Our Music with a mohawk. Punk's negativity only made it seem more worldly. The party line on punk in the UK expresses a sense of youthful idealism betrayed?and has there been a generation who, reaching the end of their youth, don't feel betrayed?


A couple of Punk Rock's contributors do question the whole project, wondering precisely how much of this "historical analysis" is mere nostalgia or, as British journalist Suzanne Moore (one of the few nonacademics) puts it, "the romance of the real," the need for a bunch of aging academic former hipsters to authenticate their youth by turning it into history. "If punk was the ultimate fuck-off then what kind of truth are we trying to tell these days?" she asks. "That I truly understand the meaning of fuck off? That I fucked-off first? That once upon a time a 'fuck-off' meant something that it just doesn't mean these days?"


She might want to read Jim DeRogatis, a rock critic (formerly Rolling Stone, now at the Chicago Sun-Times and we reprinted his slam of Neil Strauss) I've tended to agree with more than most over the years. Last week a pithy commentary of his, "Hope They Die Before I Get Old," was posted on Ironminds, the new partner of Impression, the generally smart online j-school magazine.


The blurb summed it up this way: "Obsolete rock critics like Bill Flanagan, James Miller and Greil Marcus are proof that geezer rock stars aren't the only ones who've stayed too long at the party." He blasts Flanagan, formerly at Musician, now VH1, for his fawning and ultimately deceitful profile of the has-been Sting in Esquire. Of Miller's Flowers he writes it "can be summed up as follows: It wasn't me who changed, it was the music; rock 'n' roll 'died' circa Elvis in 1977.


"Yet another Baby Boomer refuses to grant that the sun doesn't shine out of his ass."


And in questioning the zombie reanimation of Marcus' old Artforum column "Real Life Top 10s" in Salon recently, he writes of the terminally out-of-it Marcus, the single most pretentious and faux-scholarly popular music critic writing in public in America today:


"It is safer for Marcus to ponderously praise...trivial junk than to attempt to offer insight into music that people actually listen to, because then his prose would have to be penetrable, and he'd risk being exposed as a bonehead a la Miller or Flanagan."


It's odd that DeRogatis doesn't mention the Voice's Robert Christgau; maybe he was just being polite to "the dean." And I'm sure DeRogatis is going to catch some shit from youngsters who figure that for a rock critic he's getting a little long in the tooth himself. But he was right anyway.


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