Interviewing an actress, bicyclist, Catholic Worker, chef, chocolatier, Cuban-American fan of Green Day, Fulbright Scholar working for Cambodia, a psychologist specializing in males, and lots of graphic designers, printers, and publishers, Joe Biel reveals the range of those who use the mechanisms of punk’s self-motivated and communally based ethos to change our world by action. Biel, as a filmmaker and zine journalist, collates his conversations from 2008-2012 with over 40 ‘punks’ who try to make a difference. He introduces this collection with an analogy to “relentless dandelions”, that is, tenacious “pioneer plants” dig in taproots deep to extract minerals below an exhausted topsoil, enrich their ground, host other creatures, and out of the darkness, nourish energy.
Aaron Smith, working for the venerable and often rabble-rousing Harper’s, connects its radical tradition within the mainstream to his own efforts to parallel the capitalist system. Yet, decades after punk first burst out, after there is “a ‘DIY’ section in every chain bookstore across the country,” he asks, what about its too-often “self-congratulatory impulse?” He elaborates: “The underlying assumption seems to be: If we form enough collectives, print enough stickers and get people reading zines, everything will be alright.” Detect Smith’s cautious tone and you will hear the theme of realism combined with the abundant idealism articulated by many in these discussions with editor Biel.
As punks age, the camaraderie and intensity which attracted them as teens to the movement shifts into a desire to branch off from the mosh-pit, the noisy clubs, and the relentless demands of life lived rough. You learn here how to assemble a light table from dumpster diving, and how police barricades can be dismantled for window frames when squatting. (While a sense of humor may well be recommended for punks, many in these pages—too closely typeset in a font difficult for greying readers like myself to easily navigate—appear very, very serious. Perhaps the disproportionate amount of interviewees who left the East Coast and Midwest for the Bay Area and especially Portland stands to blame or credit.) However, as some here gave up living rough circa the Reagan Administration, many of their lessons reflect years of paying bills, needing healthcare, raising children, or learning how not to do everything for free to help a community which may expect too much from too few over the long haul.
Illustrator Matt Gauck raises the moral dilemma: “Is it more punk to steal from Whole Foods, buy food for cash from a supermarket, or use food stamps at your local co-op? I love questions like that, because I’m not sure about the answers, but it helps define where punk fits into the grander social scheme” Biel founded Cantankerous Titles as an offshoot of his Microcosm Publishing to push such challenges into the movement, and to address the DIY system’s workings, which tend to be ignored by studies of punk emphasizing the music, the fashion, and the commodification of its sounds.
He highlights the spunk of the participants, and those who try to sustain workable solutions outside the mainstream. The problem, as the recent economic meltdown exposes, is the lack of viable, true, alternatives that can survive the capitalist crisis. Putting people before profit remains altruistic, rare, and fragile as a method to make a living in a harsh climate with frayed protection against disaster.
Anarchists typify one time-tested possibility. Ramsey Kanaan of first AK and now PM Press, Sparkplug underground comics distributor Dylan Williams, and successful mainstream (?) short story writer (and former guitarist for Hellbender) Wells Tower exemplify those able to continue careers. The NYC-based artist Fly, with her spirited if understandably weary tales of life lived rough on the Lower East Side, serves as a telling case study in the desire expended to carry on outside the typical trajectory, once launched by punk into the possibilities outside the expected path. Mark Andersen’s concluding essay, with its reference to Jello Biafra’s analogy of punk as a virus spread by intimate contact, demonstrates the force that pulls a boy out of 1977 small-town Montana into Positive Force DC, one of the first punk collectives.
Others may, to use a few of many examples: convert restaurant grease into vegetable oil for fossil-free fuel; co-found Dischord Records; star on Friday Night Lights; investigate political malfeasance on behalf of Pro Publica; start up not one but two enduring progressive publishers; edit zines; lobby for a skatepark in a barrio. That last example is from the neighborhood next to mine, showing how the punk-driven activism may well happen around the corner from where you read this.
Forging community spaces becomes crucial for many advocates. A bookstore, an alliance to fight sexual assault, a group therapy resource for non-profits, bio-energy, a radical d.j., or vegan dessert cookbooks show the ways in which better choices may enrich customers, clients, and consumers. Theories may attract some into these causes, but Biel stresses how action emanates from the grind, the discipline, and the motivation. These require commitment to a choice that makes the political slogans and catchy lyrics once shouted a more subtle, if no less compelling, call to transformation.