Punk Rock Scholarship Is the Bollocks

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



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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