(Our story so far: In the previous installment, I was living in Rochester, NY, lamenting the pitiful music scene of the mid-70’s. But as the summer of 1977 ended, I was catching a whiff of something new and exciting coming up -- yes, punk rock. I still hadn’t heard much of it (just the 1st Blondie and the new Iggy records), but I was reading about it in the rock press, and getting eager to hear these new sounds.)
That fall, I was back at Hampshire College, in Amherst MA, and suddenly I was surrounded by punk rock. Almost literally surrounded: one of my hall mates, Kevin, was a huge punk fan, and he blasted all the latest bands into the hallway. (I remembered Kevin from my first year; he liked to play Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” out his dorm window at full volume, something I appreciated, although I doubt many other students did.)
But Kevin was certainly not alone. The other students around me took to it far more quickly and eagerly than the general public at that time. Hampshire College, one of the most liberal Liberal Arts Colleges in the country, attracted students from the fringes of society. It’s not surprising that they listened to radical, fringe music. This was not at all limited to punk, but punk had many fans there.
It also helped that Amherst, in the middle of Massachusetts, was only two hours away from Boston and four hours from New York City, the hub of American punk at the time. This meant that most of the bands came through town on a regular basis. The Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, David Johansen (lead singer for the New York Dolls) and Elvis Costello all played at one or more of the colleges in our immediate vicinity. And for those bands that didn’t come to us, like I said, New York was just four hours away. During my last three years of college I saw all the bands just listed, plus the Dead Boys, Iggy Pop, The Clash, Blondie, John Cale, Pere Ubu, the Stranglers, and PiL, many of them multiple times. It was a great time for live shows.
My frequent trips to New York often included a pilgrimage to CBGBs, whether I knew the bands playing there or not. CBGBs was, of course, the home of New York punk. By any objective standard, it was not a good place to see a band. It was a long narrow bar with the stage at the far end of the room. There were a handful of tables in front of the stage; if you scored one of those, you were set. Otherwise, sight lines pretty much sucked from anywhere else in the bar. Acoustics weren’t much worse than your average dive bar (which is what CBGBs, in truth, was), which is to say, they sucked too.
It did have plenty of atmosphere, which was more important than sight lines or acoustics. Especially if you consider a smelly, graffiti plastered bathroom atmosphere. Or a dark bar with a ton of neon beer signs. Not to mention the wonderful neighborhood it was located in -- The Bowery, a name synonymous with drunks passed out in the gutter.
But none of that mattered, because it was CBGBs, the place where it all started. Despite the lousy acoustic, bands just sounded better there.
Over those three years I certainly saw some great shows, at CBGBs and elsewhere. I saw great moments of punk rock attitude: Stiv Bators, lead singer for the Dead Boys, tearing a huge hole in the ceiling of the (Rochester, NY! -- I was home over the summer) Penny Arcade, looking for a beam strong enough to support his grand finale, hanging himself with his mike cord. Wendy O. Williams, of the Plasmatics, sawing a live electric guitar in half with a chainsaw (one of those random CBGBs shows). Paul Simonon of the Clash smashing his bass guitar (yes, I saw the cover of London Calling happen). Elvis Costello cutting his show off at 45 minutes, although I was never sure if his anger was real or feigned, or if 45 minutes was a normal show for him.
There were even great musical moments: The full body slam of the Ramones relentless beat. Jimmy Destri’s perfectly simple, and simply perfect, keyboard lines in a Blondie show. Patti Smith playing clarinet on “Poppies.” Talking Heads opening their show with the soaring arch of “Big Country.” John Cale’s hardcore attack on “Fear” and “Pablo Picasso.”
But in a way, concerts were a small part of the excitement of punk. The true excitement was that of discovery. The true excitement was hearing a new song for the first time, that moment when someone returned to the dorms with a new 45, and played it for everyone (whether they wanted to hear it or not).
45’s were the currency of punk rock. A band could afford to put our a single. Releasing a 45 was, in a way, the equivalent of posting an MP3 on a website. The music was now out there for people to discover, although it did take a little more effort to discover the great ones. Either your heard about them from some other fan, or you spent hours in the record stores which specialized in punk (which often entailed another journey to New York or Boston). But that was the fun of it -- the thrill of discovery, of finding a great song and passing it on to your friends. Of hearing, for the first time, a slice of music so radical you almost didn’t believe it existed.
And there was so much of it to discover. Thanks to Kevin, the halls of my dorm were permeated with new songs and sounds. Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation”, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” (about the transplant recipient of said organs) by Adverts, or some goofy song about buildings and civil servants by a new band called Talking Heads. There was Iggy Pop taunting his audience relentlessly on the live album Metallic K.O. The brilliant stupidity of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” (“Some guys try to pick up girls and get called asshole/ this never happened to Pablo Picasso”) or the totally weird remakes of 60’s hits on The Residents’ Third Reich’n’Roll.
Here I must make a couple of important points about early punk. The first thing (and this is no secret) is that it was energetic. It rocked hard. For a variety of reasons, the whole energy level of rock music had dropped considerably over the course of the 70’s. Folk-rock and prog rock, however different they were, were both meant to be listened to, not danced to. And certainly not danced to maniacally. That attitude had infested much of rock.
Then, suddenly, there was punk rock.
Punk restored that lost energy. Energy which the bored and cynical youth of the late 70’s desperately needed to burn off. That, in itself, was a huge step towards making music interesting again.
Much more important (and perhaps surprising to today’s listener), punk also restored innovation to rock music. This may be hard to imagine today, when punk is one of the most rigid forms of rock music. But back then, punk wasn’t just The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned -- the bands who created the blueprint for today’s punk. Talking Heads, Blondie and Television were all considered punk. As were Patti Smith, Devo and Elvis Costello. And many more.
Having a D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself, just in case there’s anyone out there somehow unfamiliar with the expression) attitude made you a punk band, far more than how your band actually sounded. D.I.Y. often meant putting out your own singles, and even albums, without the help of a large record label. But it also meant playing whatever the fuck you wanted to play, damn the tastes of the record companies, the critics, and even, often, the audience. That attitude lead to a huge variety of music.
Punk, therefore, embodied the two qualities I value most in music -- energy and originality. It taught me that there was a lot of intriguing music being produced on the fringes, and that it just took a little effort to find it. I was drawn to punk by the loud, fast aggressive stuff -- The Ramones, The Dead Boys, The Pistols, early Stooges (my original introduction to punk). At twenty I had a lot of angst and anxiety desperate for explosive expression.
But the truly original bands were the ones which stuck with me. Patti Smith’s poetry. The intertwining guitars of Television. Pere Ubu’s mix of straight ahead rock’n’roll and pure noise. The Contortions’ free jazz. The amazing wordplay and songwriting ability of Elvis Costello. The way every Talking Heads album built on the previous one, but added something new to the mix.
To tell the truth, the immediate effect was to narrow my musical taste. I became quite the punk rock snob. I was proud of the fact that the only non-punk (or non-New Wave) acts I saw during those four years were The Stones, The Who, and The Kinks (all of which were considered, by punk fans, to be at least acceptable as forerunners of punk music). (Oh, and Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but that’s very much a different story.) I had nasty musical arguments with my friends who possessed different tastes. I was unrelenting in my scorn for any music which did not conform to my tastes, not just obvious targets like disco and jazz fusion, but Billy Joel, Steely Dan, The Eagles, The Grateful Dead.
Moreover, punk became the first (and only) time I found my identity in a form of music. All the time I was a big BOC fan, I was never a metal head, or anything resembling it. But for my last couple of years of college, I was a punk. That is how people knew me, as “that scary punk rock guy.”
Becoming a “punk rock guy” was easy. I declared my love for punk every chance I got. I blasted punk rock in my dorm. I slam-danced to everything they played at college dances, punk or not.
And I dressed the part. At this point, I need to make a quick comment about punk fashion. Just as the rigid style of the music had yet to solidify, the notion of punk fashion was still pretty fluid too. Although the various fashions we associate with punk were starting to appear -- Mohawks, studded leather, dog collars -- all it really took in those days was a pair of torn jeans and you were punk. (And you had to actually rip them yourself; no one sold already ripped jeans back then.) It also gave all us ex-hippies an excuse to cut off our long hair, which, frankly, we were getting pretty tired of anyway. Or maybe that was just me. Anyway, if I wore ripped jeans, old t-shirts and a couple of strategically placed safety pins, I was set.
As for the “scary” part, well, I did like to break things.
Of course, much of this was a front. People who knew me would say stuff like, “You’re not a punk. You’re a romantic.”
But the key is I accepted it. I was perfectly happy being “the punk rock guy,” even “the scary punk rock guy.” Why? Frankly, because it was better than being nobody. I was still unsure, or insecure, about who I really was, so I gladly took an external identity. At least people recognized me as I walked across the campus.
The punk explosion lasted pretty much through my college years (1977-1980). There was a near constant stream of new bands and new styles to discover. However, after about the first year, one major change occurred. It was merely a matter of nomenclature, yet it made a huge difference. Someone invented the phrase “New Wave” to cover all the “punk” bands who weren’t playing “punk” music.
Although it took a couple of years to play out, that effectively killed punk as a broad and innovative musical force, and made it into a narrow and rigid genre. Sure, some great punk bands arose in the years ahead (especially in Southern California, which got a little later start on the whole things than the East Coast), but most of them were following the now established punk rock blueprint, rather than creating anything truly new.
Meanwhile, the New Wave bands were freed to follow their more commercial instincts. Many of them (The Cars, Blondie, The Police) became the dominant pop bands of the early 80’s. And the truly interesting and original stuff -- The Residents, Pere Ubu, PiL, The Contortions -- faded back into obscurity.
As for the D.I.Y. attitude, it faded from prominence, but never went away. Throughout the 80’s it continued to produce such bands as R.E.M., Sonic Youth, The Pixies, and, yes, eventually, Nirvana. The fact is, D.I.Y. has always produced some of the best rock music, including the garage bands of the 60’s, and going all the way back to the original blues recordings of the 20’s and 30’s which eventually birthed rock’n’roll. Remember, at least in the beginning, Sam Phillips’ Sun Records (which started the careers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, among many others) was a D.I.Y. enterprise.
Over the next few years, I too moved on from punk rock. But I cannot overstate the importance of punk rock to my musical taste. The classic rock of the 60’s is the bedrock I built my taste upon, but punk is the lens through which I have interpreted everything since. It not only introduced me to new music, but new ideas about music (including some, frankly, discordant ideas which, for whatever reason, I took to immediately). Punk rock was the first music which really spoke to me (that is, to the frustrated, insecure, energy-to-burn me).
It was an exciting time to be a music fan. I could actually feel like I was part f this new music trend. There was that thrill of discovery, and the thrill of seeing bands while they were still fresh, while they played dive bars.
One of my favorite memories of this time has nothing to do with the bands I saw, or 45s I found, or anything like that. One of the local bars tried out a “Punk Rock Night” despite the fact that their regular clientele had not interest in it. A group of my friends would take over the bar, and especially the dance floor, on those nights, slam dancing wildly, appalling the regulars, and having a great time.
Punk rock was fun!