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Punk Rock? It's a Black, Jewish, Southern Thang

Rendering of Johnny Ramone (partial) found on Alpha artist unknown

Punk is no vacuum, no airtight, sealed white music form. It's a repository of culture -- magnetized, manifold, and chock-full of merit – that was, and is, impacted by Jewish, black, and Southern experiences.

In a Travel Channel segment, when maverick cook and writer Anthony Bourdain asks iconic drummer Marky Ramone to name a “desert island disc”, that silly but now ubiquitous catchphrase in pop culture, after a brief lull in their chat, Marky settles on Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits (Warner, 1977). Not because Spector produced The Ramones album End of the Century (Sire, 1979), which split their fan base down the middle due to its sometimes hammy wall-of-sound arrangements, but because the album captures a milieu of tough girls belting out taut songs with memorable melodies.

To me, that is also the essence of the Ramones, minus the coiffured hair and snappy downtown dresses. Yet, such punk antecedents go missing in the newly re-released Punk: Attitude (Shout! Factory, 2011). Luckily, books like I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Punk Rock Family Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2009) fill in the dire gaps in punk history, making readers aware that the such bands could never have really unleashed their white riot without the raw power of black music in their creative DNA.

This may unsettle some folks, but often punk rock is a black, Jewish, southern thang, to be sure. That’s not to blithely point out that Bernie Rhodes, the Clash’s barnstorming manager, was a pushy Jewish kid with street smarts and a head full of Marx that was enticed by the Paris revolts of 1968. Guitarist Mick Jones was half-Jewish too, and he lived with a Jewish grandparent when mustering up London SS, his pre-Clash band. Joey Ramone (Jeff Hyman) of The Ramones was Jewish, as was first drummer Tommy Ramone, though the band has become as whitewashed as Jerry Seinfeld.

Book: I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir

Author: Mickey Leigh and Legs McNeil

Publisher: Touchstone

Publication date: 2010-11

Format: Paperback


To be sure, hiccupy rockabilly, swamp blues, and androgynous southern rock ’n’ roll ala swaggering Little Richard, also gave punk rock some much-needed meat and soul in the '70s, when excessive, masturbatory stadium rock held sway over the FM airwaves. Plus, the South produced a bevy of bands like Corrosion of Conformity and DRI that bastardized hardcore punk into crossover speed-metal, forever changing the punk landscape.

Punk was never purely bred from Anglo anguish. In the recently released thesis “A Blacker and Browner Shade of Pale: Reconstructing Punk Rock History”, (Technische Universitat Dresden, 2010), German historian Franziska Pietschmann “probes how the music press, aided and abetted by academic texts, constructs punk as a white music mono-culture that such discourse historicizes, analyzes, and maintains” while largely ignoring or underrepresenting “the presence of people of color, especially black (American) as well as Latina/o participants, in punk rock culture.” This means writers have often downgraded or dismissed punk participants of color but also undervalued punk as an outgrowth of a hybrid American music culture fostered in disparate locales, in which punk maintains “a fluid social and musical convergence culture that continuously crosses unstable boundaries of genres, races, and genders.”

Punk unleashed a lot of pent-up disgust and vitriol, concur most historians, folklorists, and fans. Punk: Attitude partly errs, though, and somewhat revises history in the process, by suggesting that a lone loose-knit triangle occurred between London, Los Angeles, and New York City. These divergent points became a perfect trifecta of punk hostility, intelligence, creativity, and fusion. All the other efforts, from gritty Seattle to cowpoke gone crazy Austin, even Chicago’s barbaric midwest yawps, go unnoticed.

The talking heads in the film, culled from the ranks of favored bands like the Damned, Black Flag, X-Ray Spex, Agnostic Front, and the New York Dolls, paint the birth of hardcore and punk in broad terms. London was awash in unrest, dubbed the Winter of Discontent, which meant long dole queues, strikes by garbage men, race riots and, unmentioned in the film, a relentless heat wave as well. Culturally, the implosion of pub rock, unmentioned in the film too, and glam rock, vis-a-vis Bowie (who in the late-'70s aimed for austere German art rock and white funk) and Mark Bolan, meant that a hole existed in the youth scene, which punk quickly filled with savvy rancor.

That youth scene, by no means, was stuck in dirty, glamorous downtown London or lower Manhattan. Even former frontier Ohio gave rise to Pere Ubu, the Pagans, and Dead Boys, just to mention a few utterly seminal bands of the era. As Mike Hudson, singer for the Pagans, conveys in his biography Diary of a Punk (Tuscarora Books, 2008), meeting Chuck Berry at a Route 99 inn was one of the biggest thrills of his life. Punk might have declared itself the vanguard of the blank generation, the beginning of a new, blistering era, but it was deeply fond of black culture icons like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, despite posing otherwise.

That’s not to say that black filmmaker Don Letts doesn’t know his material. He was the house DJ at the Roxy, which was ground zero for punk rock – literally its fertile field or battle zone – for 100 eventful days in 1977 -- just like the Masque in Los Angeles became a West Coast vortex of angst festering under the sun. Not only did Letts escort members of the Clash to sound system parties, share his bluebeat and reggae records with them, he also spun such tunes at the Roxy, since punk records were few and far between. He ran Acme Attractions too, an outlet for all things hip, like proper punk clothes, which not only drew in folks like Patti Smith and Bob Marley but competed with SEX, the shop operated by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols.

DVD: Punk: Attitude

Director: Don Letts

Distributor: Shout! Factory

Release date: 2011-01-11


Letts is the actual figure standing in the middle of the riotous scene captured on the cover art of the Clash’s compilation Black Market Clash (Epic, 1980), former manager of the art-punk girl band the Slits, and an early chronicler of punk, whose film The Punk Rock Movie (Sun Video, 1978) set the benchmark for future independent lenses. While that film captures some of the earliest, and most potent moments, of first comers like Generation X and Slaughter and the Dogs, a criminally under-rated Manchester band (with whom Morrissey briefly sang), neither appear in Punk: Attitude, which also lacks any input from the Adverts and the Jam. Though interviews with the likes of Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks, Magazine) and Glenn Branca (Theoretical Girls) are revealing and give voice to artistic diversity, the aforementioned gaps yawn rather wide.

Many Clash enthusiasts know Letts’ footage of the Clash playing Bonds in New York City, which became the core material behind videos like “This is Radio Clash” and Clash on Broadway DVD. In Punk: Attitude, Letts pays homage to this time in the Clash’s career, when they were able bridge the hip hop style of urban graffiteros with the ‘three chords and the truth’ urgency and worldview of punk, which had set out to knock down barriers, both culturally and socially.

This synthesis – a kind of disco punk, or punkified rap – was sharpened by the band to an apex on “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Magnificent Seven”, replete with long surreal chains of lyrics and insistent grooves. Yet, as longtime Clash biographer Marcus Gray avidly paints in Route 19 Revisited his new depthy examination of the Clash’s London Calling double LP (Soft Skull Press, 2010), the Clash’s debt to black music arose much earlier. Joe Strummer’s squat days testify to this, for he honed a heady Woody Guthrie-cum-Bob Dylan persona. Leading the raucous band 101ers, he wholeheartedly mixed Chucky Berry riffage with British Invasion chops and grassroots, even zydeco, rhythm.

Since the formative days of the Clash, black music was a stimulus and a mile-marker. Honesty was necessary, though. They didn’t simply dole out white contraband of black music, or bare-bone white anguish and rebellion translated via black musical songs, stories, and spirit. They did emulate black musical practices, such as relentless touring and DIY forcefulness, but they also worked with an important gestalt and basic knowledge: rock ’n’ roll itself was a motley hybrid. They knew, instinctively, that rock ’n’ roll was a meeting ground, or bridge, in which youth of diverse stripes and origins, together forever, could render potent meanings from their lives.

If black America had given Western culture a heavy, indelible dose of “Sorrow Songs,” according to black philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois, replete with blood, sweat, and labor, then Western music culture, especially in the veins of blues, folk, and even rock ’n’ roll, stirred that sorrow, mingling it with fresh narratives and divergent musical directions. Punk was just an outgrowth of that seed. It might have been a mutation to some, a self-defeating gesture of noise and fury. To bands like the Clash, punk meant a chance to meet black culture in a merging of horizons. In songs like “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” they made punk reggae, not photocopied dreadlock rock.

The Clash’s fondness for black music was anything but one-dimensional. Sure, as Paul Simonon, who grew up surrounded by West Indian families, tells in Punk: Attitude, he learned to play bass by thumbing along to reggae records hour after hour. It offered exercise and skill sets, concentration and nimbleness, but instead of delivering his parts in rote boredom, like a kid studying a lesson on paper, he clung to it because it was vivid, alive, and pregnant with culture.

On the other hand, drummer Topper Headon was already a limber and learned player when he took over as drummer. His spaghetti arms could play an infinite variety of styles, even the very un-punk percussion of Weather Report, whose calculated modern jazz also drove the technique of the Bad Brains as well. By the late-'70s, the Clash were restless and soaked up sounds of their transatlantic travels (like cruising across America with Bo Diddley) and the poignant news of the street.

They pushed punk boundaries just as the second wave of British punk, like Oi boys Angelic Upstarts and Sham 69, provocative political pioneers Crass, and proto-hardcore contingents like the UK Subs began their full-frontal assault on the punk legacy. None of these bands even merit an interview in Letts’ film, which quickly shifts focus to nascent US hardcore bands like Dead Kennedys and Agnostic Front.

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