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Dance of DaysTwo Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital
By Mark Andersen Mark Jenkins
Akashic BooksISBN: 1-888451-44-0
Chapter OnePunk Beginnings: 1975-1976
A prairie wind blew autumn's leaves down the streets of Plentywood, Montana. A longhaired kid in dusty jeans and cowboy boots, crouching against the frigid breeze, stepped through the doorway into a tiny record store.
The heat of the cramped room that was Garrick's Records and Tapes fogged the boy's wire-rimmed glasses. After taking off his work gloves and wiping the haze from the lenses, he shuffled through the bins, pausing to pick up one particular LP. The boy studied a stark black-and-white photograph of a woman with a defiant gaze and disheveled hair. As he did, excitement flickered in his eyes, and a faint smile crossed his face. It was the record he had been looking for.
The year was 1975. The album was Patti Smith's Horses. I was 16 years old, taking a break from hauling grain to the nearby Farmers' Union Elevator. The youngest child in a farm family, I lived out in the countryside on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, 15 miles from the nearest town or paved road.
I had grown up immersed in conservative Christian pieties and love-it-or-leave-it patriotism. By the mid-'70s, I was estranged from those beliefs, feeling suffocated by the narrowness of my world. From what I knew, Patti Smith seemed like a kindred spirit. When I first played Horses on my plastic dime-store stereo, it took only Smith's deep, sandpaper voice and the lines "Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not mine" to know that I had been right.
I grew up feeling that nothing "fit," especially me. When I showed my treasured new album to a friend, he took one look and said crossly, "Doesn't she ever comb her hair?" I was hurt by his reaction but not that surprised. In music, as with most things, I was used to feeling at odds with my peers, my world.
My alienation went to alarming, inexplicable extremes. As strange as it may sound, sometimes I could hear the rage roaring in my head - a dark, screaming noise. At times, it blocked out everything else. More than once, I feared for my sanity.
Rock music was one of the few things that gave me hope. As a kid in the late '60s and early '70s, I would hear reassuring sparks of rage and melody on the radio - songs like the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" - mixed in with body counts from a war in a far-off place called Vietnam, reports of student protests, famine in Biafra, and more - during the dusty bus trip home after school.
By the mid-'70s, my anthem was the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." I first read about the song in Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, one of two books - Buried Alive, Myra Friedman's biography of Janis Joplin, the other - that I stole from the Sheridan County Library, sure that I could never find them elsewhere.
Marcus's description alone convinced me this was my song: "A fearsome, ferocious bit of hard rock ... singer Ray Davies opened the song as a sickly kid pushed up against the wall by a gang of thugs - that is, everybody else - then broke wide open with a rage that negated the whole world he wouldn't serve, that he wouldn't and couldn't change into. By the fiery last chorus, he was free ..." Months later, I managed to find the song on an LP nestled in a Woolworth's cutout bin in Williston, North Dakota. I rushed home, played it, and was transported. It didn't matter that no one else I knew would even want to hear it. The song told me that I was not alone, that the pain I felt was real, that the world was insane, not me.
It's hard to overstate how important rock music became to me in those years. In the Doors' "When the Music's Over," Jim Morrison sang, "The music is your only friend." For all the song's morose self-absorption, those words expressed exactly how I then felt. There were entire summers when I basically stayed on the farm, going into town for only a couple hours every week or two. I didn't go to church, I didn't drink or smoke, I had no girlfriend, I wasn't an athlete. Thus, I wasn't really part of any of the existing teen social groups. My peers respected me as a good (if fairly lazy) student, but mostly I was alone.
My tastes tended to accentuate my isolation, for I disdained current music in favor of older, more obscure rock and blues artists. A small paperback, Rock Revolution, became my Bible, particularly sections entitled "The Heavy Metal Kids," "Glitter Rock," and "Rages to Come: Predictions of Rock's Future," all written by one loopy, lovable Lester Bangs.
Bangs's crazed but compelling descriptions of the MC5, New York Dolls, the Stooges, and more soon had me in hot pursuit of these underground heroes. At the time, the '60s were not yet a profitable nostalgia-commodity. Moreover, I lived in one of the most rural parts of America, hundreds of miles from any serious record store. Thus, my musical interests compelled me to rummage through cutout bins. The extra effort, however, made the discovery of gems like the MC5's Kick Out the Jams, or the Dolls' Too Much Too Soon, or the Stooges' first album even more sweet. From Melanie to Ted Nugent to Jefferson Airplane, '60s-related performers became my heroes. My love for rock of that era and subsequent excavation of its history provided a tenuous center to my life.
That search nurtured a budding awareness of a world beyond the one I knew. Rock music had been deeply intertwined with the political and cultural struggles of the 1950s and 1960s as well as with the ennui settling over America in the mid-'70s.
Although little of the original wave of rock was explicitly political, culturally it was revolutionary. Rock was the bastard child of black rhythm and blues and white country music, its rise coinciding with the Montgomery bus boycott and the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ordered school desegregation. Aware of this, conservatives denounced rock with racially charged terms like "jungle music."
Rock's irreverant lyrics were also filled with references to sexuality. In their time, songs like Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" ("you sure like to ball") were considered obscene by some. Even Elvis Presley's dancing was seen as too lewd for prime-time TV audiences. Although the limitations of the sexual revolution that would flow, in part, from this emerging new culture would become obvious, rock's refreshingly frank sexuality was a healthy tonic at the time.
Less obvious but just as real was the fact that the new music initially came largely from independent channels like Chicago's Chess Records and Sun Studios in Memphis. As Martin and Seagrave argue in their book Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock'n'roll the corporate powers of the day were concerned that the new music was out of its control and might undermine the appeal and profitability of its existing pop wares.
Soon enough, however, those powers had gained control over this new form. The raw music and lyrics were toned down. By the early '60s, much of what was termed "rock'n'roll" had more in common with the pop pablum that had predated rock than with bawdy originals like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee Lewis.
This sad state of affairs was reversed by a second wave of rock that began with the Beatles and the British Invasion. Soon, the rebirth of American rock followed, largely in countercultural enclaves. As the "baby boom" generation grew up, so did its music. Instead of bemoaning the "Summertime Blues" or celebrating "School Days," many songs spoke a disturbing, almost secret language championing drugs, sex, personal freedom, and a new culture in opposition to the old.
By the late 1960s, "rock" and "revolution" had become synonymous in the minds of many. The civil rights struggle together with the Vietnam War had produced committed youth activists who meshed more or less easily with a burgeoning counterculture. The rude rebel voice of '50s rock was now transformed into the radical challenge of artists like Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix. Rock now seemed the voice of the new consciousness, the harbinger of a new age.
But money was still to be made. CBS Records - home of Joplin, Dylan, and other key '60s artists - boasted "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" in ads that ran in the tumultuous year of 1968. While it was amusing to see one of the world's largest entertainment corporations claiming to be antiestablishment, it wasn't convincing. Most efforts to co-opt '60s idealism weren't so clumsy. While many performers may have felt they could use the established structures to further the cause, clearly the labels were equally sure that profits, not revolution, would be the result.
With the immense turmoil created by the war, the spread of new forms of recreational drugs, and the artificial security of college life, there was plenty of fuel for countercultural illusions. In 1973, however, when the direct US troop involvement in Vietnam and the radicalizing threat of the draft finally ground to a halt, the equation shifted.
Much of the '60s ideology seemed, after all, to have been tainted by simple hedonism and self-interest. As the drug culture generated casualties and transformed once positive energy into crippling addictions, and the economic demands of career and family reared their heads, life didn't seem so open-ended. While the case of Jerry Rubin - from Yippie leader screaming "Do it!" to well-groomed Wall Street type - is extreme, it became clear to the rebel children of "Amerika" that talking about revolution is far easier than living it.
Rock took the fall too. In part, this was due to the untimely deaths of some of its creative leaders. Even before that, however, a gradual divorce of rock from the radical politics of the counterculture was underway. The interests of the rock star would hardly be advanced by the destruction of the machinery that made his or her lofty lifestyle possible. With little effort made to build an alternative to the industry, there were few institutions to turn '60s rock's idealism into lasting practice. The simple fruits of success combined with the demands of the business tended to propel rock rebels into the establishment.
An anecdote recounted in Abe Peck's book Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press illustrates this tendency with painful acuity. Jeff Shero, a writer with a popular underground newspaper, The Rat, had known Janis Joplin since their college days together in the early 1960s. By 1968, though, Janis was a star, the most celebrated female rock singer in America. When Shero called to ask for an interview, she coyly replied, "Well, honey, I'm talkin' to Time and Newsweek. Why do I want to do an interview with a li'l ol' hippie publication?"
When Shero responded quickly with the obvious appeal to countercultural solidarity ("Because rock music is part of our culture"), Joplin replied with an equally apparent point of view: "Hell, millions of people read Newsweek. I'd rather do that." Though it must have been bitter for counterculturists like Shero, this was the cold reality of competing self-interests lying just beneath the illusion of rock/revolution solidarity.
As the dreams of the late '60s faded, rock again became mere popular entertainment. Some stars like Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison became icons, saved from the embarrassment of faltering creativity and commerical debasement by their deaths. However, as artists like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Dylan lived jet-set lifestyles, cushioned from the world by their wealth, their music lost its urgency. At the same time, mountains of money were being spent on recording, packaging, and marketing rock. By the mid-1970s, rock music was highly profitable, professional show business - and boring as hell.
The transformation was jarring. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, the Rolling Stones toured the US with lead singer Mick Jagger wearing a mock Uncle Sam hat and the omega symbol, the sign of draft resistance. By 1975, the Stones were a show biz circus act, replete with a gigantic inflatable phallus. Jagger's increasingly affected vocals betrayed not a whit of sincere emotion or meaning. If that weren't enough, the sight of the Stones hobnobbing with the social elite (including Princess Margaret of England) was alone sufficient to send shivers down the spine of any unrepentant counterculturist.
Ian Hunter, the creative force behind the potent early-'70s rock band, Mott the Hoople, capsulized the moment perfectly in the song "Apathy 83." Written in 1975 after seeing a halfhearted Rolling Stones show, the song's chorus - with the line "and it's apathy for the devil" - parodied the Stones' incendiary classic, "Sympathy For the Devil." It was a bitter eulogy, not only for the Stones as an artistic force, but for rock as a whole.
Over a sinuous, mournful bass line, Hunter sang with a hungry expectation ("I'm standing on the edge of Vesuvius/My mouth is running dry") that, by the song's end, had been replaced by horrified realization: "Nostalgia is starting to focus too late/Imagination is starting to itch/There ain't no rock'n'roll no more/Just the music of the rich ... apathy's at a fever pitch." Such an attack on one of the reigning "gods" of rock was then unheard of - but it spoke the truth. "Apathy 83" was a believer's epitaph for a fallen faith.
Hunter's song helped me understand why so much rock seemed tame and uninteresting. At the time, I wrote a telling journal entry: "There has to be real emotion, that's why I listen to music, to be freed from my limited existence, to broaden my horizons ... that's why I love the blues and the music derived from it, because they are so intense and emotionally involved. That's why the music of the '60s has such a great fascination for me. It was done in a time of ideals, high hopes, great expectations, and tremendous sincerity and intensity. That's the trouble with today's rock music, nobody believes enough and is willing to sacrifice, to stand up and be counted."
Patti Smith, of course, was an exception to my indictment. Her 1976 LP, Radio Ethiopia, struck me as even better than Horses. Beyond its more focused, aggressive music, I was transfixed by Patti's liner notes about artistic freedom, her struggle with a Christian upbringing, and the legacy of the 1960s. What Patti seemed to be saying was that the idealism all-too-neatly allocated to that rapidly receding moment could still exist in our own lives. I was captivated by her galvanizing version of "My Generation" on Saturday Night Live, and I bought every magazine that mentioned her, searching for her debut 45, "Hey Joe/Piss Factory," as well as bootlegs like Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night.
Excerpted from Dance of Days by Mark Andersen Mark Jenkins Excerpted by permission.
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