A Punk Collage in the Spirit of Walter Benjamin

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?

A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982

Publisher: Continuum
Length: 320 pages
Author: Nicholas Rombes
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2009-07-10

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."

Rombes pinpoints the problem. The Clash hectored with slogans, but "politics always suggests 'right ideas,' doesn't it? And punk, at its dirty heart, was always about escaping the tyranny of authority, the tyranny of right ideas, the tyranny of those who would say, Here is how you are supposed to think." The Jello Biafras and Joe Strummers of the scene forced the message above the medium. Songs suffered.

Rombes' argument filters through dozens of his hundreds of entries. What I highlight here is the tone I tuned into. It remains one among many channels upon which this book broadcasts, in an alphabetized playlist of subjects. I scoured these pages as I once did -- and still do -- scrutinize my Wire, Suicide, PiL, the Fall, Throbbing Gristle, Gun Club, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Husker Du, or Joy Division records. That is, in this best music that for me does not date itself, I seek meaning. Punk rants by lyrical fragments, snippets of rage, passages from pain and raves into ecstasy.

Rombes mixes in his own reactions to his own favorite records. These spin into imaginary tales, autobiographical reminiscences, and critical exegeses. This seems right. Fans respond similarly to punk, for it reminds them of a time when a stack of vinyl and a lonely room more likely meant more than a club or a scene when, scattered across the world desperate for bits of information about releases, what to hear next, who to seek out, its community depended on fanzines, a radio show or two, the common interests with another malcontent out of a school of hundreds or at a college among thousands.

I plowed straight through, but sampling this compendium may be equally rewarding. I note, sharing as I do his profession (if at a less lofty level), that he has a couple of verb usages that may have passed his spellcheck but not my grammatical detector. Small slips surface: for example, William Hurt appeared in "The History of Violence" not "The End of Violence," but given the range of Rombes' references and devotion to detail, errors proved few.

Illustrations, in monochrome, capture the photocopied, cut-and-pasted aesthetic, but artists such as N.Y.C.'s Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom and L.A.'s Raymond Pettibon merit their own examples, alongside the welcome inclusion of Linder (Sterling) who created iconic record sleeves for the Buzzcocks. The illustrations chosen often seem random. While this adds to the ambiance, for a reference work, I expected more substance. I'm not sure if everybody will enjoy Rombes' short stories, but they enrich this eclectic book's expansion into art, poetry, novels, politics, and films. Rombes offers a treatise on cultural theory that avoids jargon or snobbery.

As the author of a book on the Ramones, Rombes notes in one entry on them: "great/trivial." I lean towards the latter, but to be fair Rombes addresses their prominence as a case study. Did punk need to shout its message as a political one or an aesthetic one? What happens when, as with the Clash, you mix the two intentions into a single delivery? Does the song wilt, or does it rise above?

The alternative to '60s-inspired consciousness-raising emerged from entertainers. Rombes incorporates totally obscure Midwestern garage bands. He champions with his Detroit loyalties the heartland's response as subtly Calvinistic, as if those Cleveland cadres knew that their "third-gen" rock revision would be overrun by a New York-led label, a marketer's remake, remodel. Seymour Stein of Sire Records peddled the "New Wave" category circa 1978 to widen the appeal of his punkier, artsier roster for that Middle America, that cautious heartland.

Why did punk burn out, and not fade away like the hippies? The Clash reacted against punk, "reintroducing the old '60s notions that music needed to be politically engaged." For the Sex Pistols, Slits, or Wire, Rombes asserts that "a tyranny of sound" allowed "no room for the old ways of thinking." Punk rallied against politics. As with the Jam, punk attempted to reclaim pop melody, a purity of motive before "Going Underground" by 1980.

What replaced this brief breakout? Hardcore took over the dispersed U.S. scene. L.A. spread the Germs; Henry Rollins from D.C. hoisted Black Flag. Hardcore, birthed by the violent sound inherent in the American reaction to punk-as-New Wave, nullified the New York-art school or London polytechnic aesthetic. It substituted rigor and conformity for gender-bending and sonic experimentation. "It is both anarchy and fascism, freedom and control."

Punk wore itself out. As early as late 1976, critics lamented its demise. Rombes muses why journalists appeared so determined to write off the nascent movement, and why his fellow scribes still seem so clueless as to understanding its tensions. He reasons that punk sped up the cultural and musical pace faster than the hippies did. It sold itself out within a few years, as Sire Records shows. Black Flag rejected "hippie softness" as did their predecessors from "classical punk," ca. 1975-77. Rombes accounts for their psychotic reaction: a dogmatic negativity. What happened to punk by the early 1980s? Rombes defines the backlash as "an almost militant orthodoxy enforced, dutifully and sometimes pitilessly, by its fans."

Perpendicular to this hardcore assault against non-conformity, the Clash refashioned their image. On the cover of Combat Rock (1982), they dressed as if in the fifties. Rombes tries to explain why. Not that the Clash's Sandinista! agitprop changed, but even they courted a broader pop audience. While Rombes speeds past the rockabilly spin-off from punk (he also overlooks the nascent goth movement's reclamation of the subversive ambiguity within the middle-class audience's confrontation with the postmodern, the macabre, and the technological), he does court attention by a provocative claim.

"What matters and is worth saying is that Reagan had things in common with the punk imagination: a return to the basics; a rejection of the excesses of the counterculture and the hippies; a mastery of performance; a do-it-yourself work ethic." This clarified, if at long remove, some of my own unstated but persistent ambivalence about coming of age in the Ford-Carter years, when America's political and military power had been weakened, and in which the somewhat more socialist alternatives of Britain and Western Europe faced their own attacks by discontented youth, full of confusion and restive for answers neither leaders nor gurus, rock stars nor mystery trends, could provide.

If the hippies could not solve the world's problems by the 1970s, their little brothers and sisters, the punks, failed to come up with a better plan. In their impotence and in their intensity, they did forge a weapon of sound, image, and fashion with which to bludgeon, for a few years scattered around the world, a brutal, but puritanical manifesto of reclamation, revenge, and renewal. Perhaps in both the 1960s and 1970s, the tender, yearning, stalwart visionaries suffered.

Rombes cites surprising predecessors. Richard Hell sent a letter in 1970 to Robert Bly: "still bewildered by the death-machine." In 1962, Anne Sexton to Tillie Olson's cited: "I waste hours keeping my soul out of the cauldron, but near enough the edge to hear any important messages." In 1978 at the Sex Pistols' show at San Francisco's Winterland, Rotten spoke the final words of their final concert: "Ever feel you've been cheated?" The intellectuals and the street poets agreed: the odds were stacked against the counterculture, clawing out of and then slipping back into the grasp of boredom.

Like the hippies, the punks hurriedly broadcast themselves as the avant-garde. This couldn't happen today, Rombes insists. When families share the Net and crowd the same media (and I can attest to this as an hour ago my teenage son told me about, via a click to Pitchfork, the upcoming releases for my favorite, some once classified as "alternative," bands), cultures cannot evolve out of the mainstream, more slowly, to gain subcultural traction. The public can leap upon a trend and turn it viral overnight, without time lag. Because punk could stay ahead of pop as the subcultural vanguard, it represents the last avant-garde.

Rombes asks "what social threat does alt-country pose? Or lo-fi? Or trip-hop?" My older son, nearly 18 and raised on my record collection, thinks that electronica's the future, not rock. My slightly younger son listens to hip-hop; few of his urban classmates here in L.A. bother with rock at all. They may hear "new wave" via Judd Apatow's archly chosen soundtracks or reruns of Freaks & Geeks.

The thudding thump of hardcore, as Rombes hears it, pummeled literate misfits. Rombes digs out unheard music from basement tapes that the most obsessive of fans has never heard. He credits each player from each unsung band. His humanism infuses this work, half-reference to complement Jon Savage's England's Dreaming or Clinton Haylin's studies, like his own compendium half-fan letters to this genre.

Rombes' tone softens as he looks back 30 years. I closed this book wondering what Professor Rombes would make of American Idiot by Green Day in its Broadway run. I suspect, like many of those who love punk as our older friends do the hippie efflorescence we were too young to fully enjoy or mock, that he's an idealist despite himself. "That's Entertainment" by The Jam earns this plaudit: "Like the best punk-era songs, this one is, at its heart, old-fashioned and tinged with regret."


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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