[3 December 2006]
A jaggedly arcing bolt of lightening hits the crumbling dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The illustration, used for the cover of the Bad Brains’ 1981 ROIR Sessions, is a hardcore punk icon, capturing the unadulterated energy, the sonic and cultural combustibility, that erupted in the District in the early 1980s. It shows a potent natural and organic force striking at the emblem of the establishment in an awesome adversarial burst. It reflected the desires of action kids for something new and authentic to supplant the sterility of their surroundings and the conformities of arena rock, disco and insipid singer-songwriters of the 1970s, a decade muted by eroding idealism and institutional criminality.
Given its general penchant for intensity and bluster, it is easy to imagine hardcore as an attempt to disavow influence, a shredding and thrashing toward the new in bursts, or as Los Olvadios state in song, a search for “Something New.” But even a scene seething with the desire for the new, unique and real can’t do away with the concept of influence. Harold Bloom, in the preface of The Anxiety of Influence, reminds us that within Shakespeare—and therefore within English-speaking culture—the word influence has two different, though related, meanings. One involves the troubling way an individual can be overtaken by something (traditionally, forces from the moon and other celestial bodies) or someone outside of self; the other more directly describes the welcome force of inspiration. The tension between these two meanings—one negative, the other exalted—mirrors the character of influence within hardcore punk rock.
Consider the song “Influenced,” by Scream, the chorus of which repeats the line, “Influenced to ignorance,” or Dag Nasty’s “Under Your Influence” which includes the lines, “Under your influence / right goes wrong / Under your influence / crossed my mind / Under your influence / you crossed my line for the last time.” Scream’s song expressed vulnerability, while Dag Nasty’s, a will to assuage that vulnerability. Both treat influence—be it from social forces or intoxicants—as something outside of self, as negative usurpation.
The Minutemen, who recorded for the SST label, one of the nexuses of hardcore punk, provide an example of the tension in the meaning of influence. Bassist Mike Watt explains, “There was a kind of respect you had to not be clone. It was like, If you were to be part of this, you had to contribute…. You had to come up with your own ideas. This is what the Minutemen were doing. You didn’t want to be a cookie cutter or Xerox machine.” George Hurley, the Minutemen’s drummer, adds, “You really make an overall effort to really try and make parts sound right; you come up with things that maybe someone never heard before…or you just find a way to make them work without being too influenced by other drummers.” Each points to the conscious resistance of influence that many hardcore bands sought. Interestingly, though, the Minutemen were also quite open to inspiration, that other meaning of the word influence. The band had a significant number of collaborators beyond its core three members, people who contributed lyrics, named songs, created images for record covers, recorded their music, released the records and helped them tour.
In their characteristically philosophic way, the Minutemen seemed to wrestle both conceptually and musically with influence, as is implied by the title of one of their records, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. They covered other bands’ songs (Blue Öyster Cult, Creedence, Steely Dan, Meat Puppets), sang lyrics not always their own (Chuck Dukowski’s “Nature Without Man” and “Little Man With a Gun in His Hand”, Henry Rollins’s “Storm in My House,” Kira Roessler’s “No One”, Joe Carducci’s “Jesus and Tequila”), wrote songs that referenced other musicians (“Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”), and yet created a sound that was unique. In an autobiographic song, “History Lesson Part II,” they even give a litany of some of those who inspired them: “But I was Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, John Doe.” The emphasis here is on “I was.” Within the same song, D. Boon sings, “Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me, my story could be his songs, I’m his soldier child.”
Literary critic Harold Bloom, who studied the nature of poetic influence, thinks the strongest poets can only read, in the deepest sense of the word, themselves. Because creators invest so much of themselves in their creations, any perceived dilution of their individuality via influence directly threatened their sense of self: If the individual can be influenced, and individuality is necessary in the creative process, than creativity itself can seem threatened by influence. “When a poet experiences incarnation qua poet, he experiences anxiety necessarily toward any danger that might end him as a poet.” Bloom quotes from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”
The Minutemen acknowledge such anxiety in “Anxious Mo-Fo”, from their landmark Double Nickels on the Dime:
Serious as a heart attack
Makes me feel this way
No device to measure, no words can define,
I mean what I’m trying to say is how can I express - let alone possess?”
Express, though, they did, even in their anxious state. Or, as Bloom asserts, the expression is that anxious state: “A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety.” That is to say, Bloom considers anxiety central to strong creative work. “Influence is a metaphor, one that implicates a matrix of relationships—imagistic, temporal, spiritual, psychological—all of them ultimately defensive in nature. What matters most is that the anxiety of influence comes out of a complex act of strong misreading, a creative interpretation that I call ‘poetic misprision.’ What writers may experience as anxiety, and what their works are compelled to manifest, are the consequence of poetic misprision, rather than the cause of it.”
Bloom is not entirely prepared to abandon the classic notion of poetic influence as filial loyalty. Rather, he characterizes it as a complex relationship more like a Freudian family romance, in which the poet is always on the verge of solipsism. The Minutemen, in many ways a singular unit, were eager to acknowledge bands and artists like Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust and Raymond Pettibon. These neighbors formed a close-knit group, sharing aesthetics and working relationships—a kind of family unit. This is consistent with hardcore punk on the whole, and the overriding importance of the concept of scene. Though adversarial to anything perceived as outside, hardcore nonetheless is exceedingly conspiratorial with those within the circle, the foundation upon which tight-knit scenes formed. This Rite of Spring lyric illustrates this circling-the-wagons sentiment: “And if you don’t now you better learn to believe me / When I say I’m gonna build a wall around this town, / Around these hearts and hands.” A scene would commonly be developed on the scale of a town (Boston), but sometimes it would be as small as a neighborhood (Lower East Side of Manhattan) or specific high school (Wilson High in Northwest Washington D.C.).
As a scene took on an identifiable character, record labels run by kids out of bedrooms or the backs of shops became the method by which the kids documented their scenes and reported them to others. Through records, fanzines, and the travels of bands and punks, networks formed. Inspiration traveled from one scene to another along these wires. Hence, you would see a sticker of the Washington, D.C. band Minor Threat on the guitar of a member of Boston’s SS Decontrol. SSD would release a record on Boston label, X Claim!, which had jointly released a record with Dischord, the D.C. label.
Certain records, as they disseminated through the various scenes, communicated unifying principles and strands of influence. Take, for example, the Damned’s 1979 album, Machine Gun Etiquette. The record opens with a question spoken by a mature, refined British male voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, how do?” Before the greeting can be fully conveyed, the band haltingly interrupts with a revving din. High-pitched guitars squeal atop the rumble of drums hit with abandon. Layers of screams and spoken phrases sit among the solid thump of the bass. These effusive bursts last for less than 20 seconds and unwind on a guitar flutter. As this overture settles, the opening greeting is recast in a youthful Americanized voice, “Hey man, what’s happening?”
The quick trajectory of the overture mirrors the transatlantic incorporation of this album into the sounds of the D.C. hardcore scene. Machine Gun Etiquette was a resource deposit mined by D.C. kids, yielding springs of punk energy. In 1980, shortly after the release of the Damned record, these kids formed Dischord Records to release the records made within their scene. Numerous moments and sounds on those records, from bands such as Minor Threat, Scream and Dag Nasty, have clear corollaries inMachine Gun Etiquette: the guitar tones on the Damned’s “Melody Lee” and that on Dag Nasty’s album Can I Say; the rhythm and tone of the four-note bass pattern that opens the Damned’s “Love Song” and that of numerous Minor Threat songs such as “No Reason” “Seeing Red” and “Filler”; the use of ambient sounds of footsteps used on the Damned’s “These Hands” and Scream’s “Influenced”; the word “Go” enthusiastically used as a cue at the start of songs by the Damned, Minor Threat, and Government Issue (and Henry Garfield aka Rollins of SOA inverting this to “Stop” at the end of “I Hate the Kids”). Consider the parallels between the Damned’s “Antipope”, which includes the lines, “Religion doesn’t mean a thing. It’s just another way of being right wing”, and Minor Threat’s derision in “Filler”, “Your brain is clay. What’s going on? You picked up a bible and now you’re gone. You call it religion, you’re full of shit.” Or the Damned’s “I Just Can’t be Happy Today” and Embrace’s “End of a Year.” These powerful Dischord recordings became sources of inspiration for others and were themselves considered unique and energized.
As this illustrates, influence rarely makes those influenced purely derivative, as inspiration is always joined with creative deviations. Bloom suggests that all poets, in the process of being inspired, basically misinterpret the poetry that has come before them, and each does so in a unique way. “Poetic influence, when it involves two strong, authentic poets, always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation.” Thus the kids, creatively strong and authentic, who heard Machine Gun Etiquette, (a strong and authentic record) made records of their own that included refracted and revised elements of what came before, yet also made records that were unique and new.
That’s not to say that clones and Xerox bands did not exist within hardcore. Bands such as BL’AST! and Uniform Choice were, for periods of their existence, derided by most as carbon copies of Black Flag and Minor Threat respectively. Not all bands are capable of transforming influence into originality; there’s no egalitarian distribution of talent or individuality. Imitation may result when a poet, in this case a band, is unable to maintain the relative position just at the edge of solipsism. But even these bands, through sheer perseverance, and the shifting nature of creative influence and process managed to move toward unique deviations from cookie-cutter sounds and to release records that embodied a character of their own.
The shifting complexities of influence as a family romance are apt in hardcore in another way. As a youth subculture, hardcore, by nature, was drawn to things as new as the kids who populated it. The template of family is dominant during childhood and into adolescence. But all new things eventually age. Templates expand. Depending only on the linkages within scenes produced an unsustainable, self-limiting system. Late 1980s hardcore band Ignition, a reconfigured group of D.C. punk rockers who were no longer kids, recognized this. In “Consequence” they sing:
It started small, the move for change
Then it learned to walk, then to organize
And contradict itself right before our eyes
A movement with a perfect flaw
A counter counter-culture
But all the while we held its hand
Helped it walk, helped it stand
We built it up, it let us down
We lit a fire that burns to the ground
The consequence of being heard
You can’t control how they hear your words
The consequence of breaking rules
It opens the doors for the copycat fools
The song ends with the lines, “As our numbers lower everyday, I question what I used to say.” But the images of breaking and self-purgation expressed within this song are consistent with Bloom’s theory. He suggests that the process of poetic influence, and thus the experience of the poet, is cyclical in nature. This cycle includes the, “revisionary movement of emptying” that’s of a piece with the theme in the Ignition song.
Influence within the hardcore punk scene was consistent with what we understand about influence generally: a combustible mixture of both positive and negative elements, producing polarized charges that create the conditions for lightening arcs of originality. Because of hardcore’s anxious desire to do something new, lightening could and did strike the dome in brilliant flashes.