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by Susan Carpenter - Los Angeles Times (MCT)

9 Sep 2011


Photo: Autumn De Wilde

LOS ANGELES — A baby is snatched by crows. His sister treks into the woods to find him and is followed by one Curtis Mehlberg, “son of Lydia and David, resident of Portland, Ore., comic-book fan boy, persecuted loner.”

Wild adventures ensue.

If the story sounds like modern-day folklore from the band the Decemberists, it is, in a way. The sturm und drang just isn’t set to a catchy blend of the band’s bouzouki and harmonized vocals. It’s the premise of a new book series for middle-grade readers from the Decemberists’ front man, Colin Meloy, and his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis.

Why did punk implode so rapidly? Why did its bands flare up and fade out? And how did this movement resist yet revamp the hippies they rushed to replace?

In A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982 Nicholas Rombes, a professor of English, assembles a collage in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, a “montage and passageway of quotes” alphabetically arranged. He integrates primary sources, illustrations, his own fictional and factual stories. He constructs an alternative history: “In your dream, punk stayed a secret forever.” He emphasizes punk’s ephemeral arc, which failed to sustain its own outbursts of anger, shards of melody, and frustration with the malaise of the “post-Watergate, pre-Reagan” years when its earliest audience grew up.

Punk’s outbursts reacted to the failure of the ‘60s. Asked in 1977 “What do you want?” Johnny Rotten replied: “Freedom, I think they call it. The hippies used to call it that. But I bet there’s a better word for it.” Rombes stresses the split nature inherent in those born slightly too young for the Aquarian Age. This cohort resented the idealism turned commodification and complacency of the hippie era, but it yearned for the period prior, the clean nostalgia and pop sensibilities of the ‘50s. The cartoonish poses of the Dictators and Ramones signaled this reversion to melodic, aggressive, and funny messages. These bands, Rombes suggests, produced songs that spoke for TV-party, couch potato slouches: “that’s me.” However politically charged bands such as Avengers or Gang of Four challenged the listener to wonder: “maybe that could be me.”

by Steve Almond

7 Jun 2010


Image (partial) found on Institute for Cultural Diplomacy -- photographer unknown.

Because my wife and I have friends who are foreign-born, we often wind up at parties with guests from other countries. I enjoy these parties – the food is always great – but I also tend to feel slightly ashamed of being an American.

I realize that looks bad on paper. Let me try to explain.

It’s not that I don’t love my country, or feel lucky to live here. I do. It’s just that Americans’ international reputation isn’t exactly sparkling at the moment.

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