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

Rendering of Johnny Ramone (partial) found on Alpha Coders.com-- 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.

This Ain't Pure-bred Anglo Anguish

Gray’s book successfully counterpoints these trends by examining how "London Calling" is a wide-ranging record that offers examinations of movie stars like Montgomery Clift (“The Right Profile”), long cool '50s cars (“Brand New Cadillac”), factory town racism toward Jews (“Clampdown”), poets like Garcia Lorca (“Spanish Bombs”), and the coming Cold War apocalypse (“London Calling”). But behind all that lyrical brouhaha and musical charm and finesse remains a core of studied black music: Toots and Maytals (“Pressure Drop”), Desmond Dekker (“Israelites”), Althea and Donna’s (“Up Town Top Ranking”), Sonny Okosun (“Fire in Soweto”), Matumbi (“The Man in Me”), and Danny Ray (“Revolution Rock”), just to name a handful.

Some of those tracks found daylight on albums like London Calling and Black Market Clash, others remained buried in rehearsals and sound checks, brought to light by Gray’s book only, or a rare bootleg, which fill in the gaps of history. Without such text or documentation, the Clash’s legacy remains rather cliché, even anemic. Once one understands the band’s full commitment to rich musical antecedents, the Clash’s output seems more seasoned and fecund.

Buying his first drum set with his Bar Mitvah gelt, Jeff Hyman (aka Joey Ramone) lit a path, translating his love of such music into his own special starry-eyed stab at the Jewish-American dream.
I Slept with Joey Ramone by Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh, who co-administers his estate as well, adeptly examines the real roots of the Ramones’ punk outpouring. For too long, people have routinely suggested that mid-'70s punk cut its umbilical chord to black music, which was promulgated from everyone from Bomp label, fanzine, and record store founder Greg Shaw to Maximum Rock’n’Roll columnist Mykel Board, and academics as well, like David James (“Poetry/Punk/Productions: Some Recent Writing in LA,” Postmodernism and Its Discontents, 1988). These voices effectively conjure up punk as white music, whose roots were closer to The Sonics and other Nuggets-era bands than to cotton fields, leaning back porches in the South, or Chitlin’ Circuit juke joints.

Luckily, Punk: Attitude does trace punk to Chuck Berry’s duck walk and Little Richard’s wild drag style, acknowledged in the film by none other than gender-bender David Johansen of the New York Dolls. That legendary proto-punk band readily indulged in covers of black music from the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley to the Coasters. But Leigh’s book cuts to the core, describing how Jewish kids from swampy Queens were riveted to Stax and Motown, even Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind LP. Buying his first drum set with his Bar Mitvah gelt, Jeff Hyman (aka Joey Ramone) lit a path, translating his love of such music into his own special starry-eyed stab at the Jewish-American dream. Along the way, I imagine, he tried to capture the original joy of seeing Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and the Temptations at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, his first concert.

Comic: Manchild 5: Rabid Pack

Writer: Brian Walsby

Publisher: Bifocal

UK Release date: 2011-01-25

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/e/ensminger-manchild5-cvr.jpgThe razory pop of the Ramones first record is no simpleminded aberration, no one-dimensional kink in the musical machine of the bloated '70s record industry. It's an incisive link, for me, between the shouted fervor of “Lucille” and the howls of bored youth seeking kicks in the haze of post-Velvet Underground New York. It coincides with the Cramps debuting their jungle beat punkabilly, which they aptly termed “psychobilly”, and the wayward sexual revolt of cross-dressing Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, not to mention the White Castle inspired musings of the Dictators, whom Letts documents as well. The Dictators were like the MC5, shorn of politics. They embodied an ethos of dope and fucking in the streets, but evoked no White Panther party tumult.

The Ramones stand out from this bunch, not simply because they were gawky gang-like hoodlums with primitive songs about other misfits, like pinheads and mental patients, but because they wore their roots on their sleeves with panache and fire in their belly. To hear Joey sing is to flash back, again, to those tough girl groups from the '60s. Like it or not, he had a big pop heart, which even cult filmmaker Roger Corman knew. The Ramones are perfect for Rock ’n’ Roll High School (reissued by Shout Factory, 2010), not because they were rebels without a cause but because they were transcendent high schoolers themselves, forever producing hit underground singles. They were the mutant Chuck Berry of punk. “Rockaway Beach”, “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, and innumerable other songs spoke to a world of surf, turf, problems, and freedom, all wrapped in the dented domain of pop.

Sure, Joey’s career was jumpstarted by other more frenetic tunes as well, like “Martian Bop” and “Surfin’ Bird”, and he never veered too far from those stylings, but he also melded and balanced those jarring tunes with truly melodic fare and vocal inflections that feel far more indebted to Marvin Gaye than the clunky frat rock of the Troggs. The book obviously explores Joey’s life in far more complete terms, such as his ongoing battle with an obsessive compulsive disorder, but the gaps it serves to fill in the musical history of the Ramones is essential and profound too.

Book: Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling

Author: Marcus Gray

Publisher: Soft Skull

Publication Date: 2010-10

Length: 532 pages

Format: Softcover

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/ashsmith-route19-cvr.jpgIn its own way, Brain Walsby’s Manchild, his most recent installation in the Manchild graphic novel series, is equally adept at making sure the voids of history, this time North Carolina in the '80s, are examined at length, with trenchant wit and insight. These are the territories that fall off the map of documentaries like Punk: Attitude. In essence, Walsby not only delivers an oral history and fanzine compendium of what small town America produced in the heyday of punk and hardcore, he also delivers keen comics as well, which he has produced for three decades.

Known for graphics that ended up on endless gig flyers and the records of 7 Seconds, and as a finely-honed drummer for Scared Straight, Polvo, and more recently Double Negative, his previous collections offered bucket loads of sly and sardonic antics and an insistent leveling of all icons and “punk stars,” including his graphic artist nemesis Pushead. In segments, he has poked at lame Emo, created fictitious girl superheroes like Jailbait Girl for bald men harboring adolescent fantasies, and detailed the origins of his early bands, such as garage rockers Zombie Clergy and posicore pioneers Scared Straight.

He has imagined faux punk “reunions” too – Minor Threat babbling about Saabs and SUVs -- and explored titans from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Jessica Simpson and Bono. No people or elements within the scene escape his eye, from never-ending punk house parties with cookie cutter bands or politics that stymie dissent as “uncool” and pump up “uniform thought” – lame codes that make punk seem extra enclosed and hermetic. For those of us raised on punk fanzine gossip, in-fighting, and territorialism, not to mention the comic work of Jaime Hernandez and Shawn Kerri, Walsby’s confessionalism, wit, and down-to-earth raps are engrossing.

This newest collection extends work previously published in Left of the Dial, my own magazine, years ago. As an oral history project, it traces the lineage of a peculiar Southern hardcore-meets-speed metal style, mastered by bands like Corrosion of Conformity. Other bands had certainly leaned in the metallic direction, including Suicidal Tendencies, the Accused, and Agnostic Front, but it was southern bands like Void, DRI (who resettled to San Francisco), Offenders, and Corrosion of Conformity that really fused the heavy riffage, acumen, and churn of metal music with the speed and harshness of hardcore. In fact, given the direction of Slayer, Metallica, and Anthrax, these bands were ahead of the curve and reached Middle America, trailer park and all, much more than punk purists like Crucifix.

While the book does offer revealing anecdotes about punk’s links to skateboard culture, tensions and ties to Washington D.C.’s scene, and the development of the crossover sound, it doesn’t quite explore the politics of Corrosion of Conformity. Their lyrics, peaking during the release of the genre-defining Technocracy (Metal Blade, 1987) album, grapple with pertinent issues relating to science, war, and industry while others punk bands of the era, from Black Flag and “new” TSOL, retreated to staid rock clichés.

Other anecdotes about the Bad Brains address lurking sexism in the scene, while interviews/oral histories with Honor Role, Stillborn Christians, Subculture, and No Labels reveal how Southern cities coped with isolation, nurtured visits by far flung bands, and made an impression nationally by releasing fanzines and records, like countless other youth hubs in the pre-Internet era.

For a folklorist, each of these works represents one important notion – punk is a history still in the making, with margins that await documentation. Stories continue to unfold, such as the impact of black culture upon the formation, formula, and function of punk rock.

The graphic novel may provide a synthesis between oral history and graphic action, a way of seeing what theorist Scott McCloud terms “a dance of the visible and invisible” that amplifies meaning and fascinates viewers because they can identify with universal features of the drawings (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, 1994).

Biographies like I Slept with Joey Ramone indulge readers not only with anecdotes but also offer a likeable, breezy, personal slice that cuts a personal and deep path, tempered by an affection for details that reveal Joey’s layered personality rather than bolstering an already redundant legend.

Lastly, films like Punk: Attitude spin their tales in a biased fashion, focusing on impressions of a select few with cultural currency, but at least the extras the DVD offers, like the short documentary L.A. Punk by Dick Rude, and clips assembled to discuss the roles of women and fanzines, not only circulate knowledge about gender roles and the material/visual culture of punk, they offer much-needed context. Punk is no vacuum, no airtight, sealed white music form. It is a repository of culture -- magnetized, manifold, and chock-full of merit – that was, and is, impacted by Jewish, black, and Southern experiences.

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