It didn’t take an advanced degree in the humanities for me to realize that punk rock is a crock of shit. Just a sprained ankle. It wasn’t sour grapes, either, but dedication that broke punk’s fuck-it spirit wide open for me. For years I carried a big Fender bass amp–my only amp at the time, my precious–up and down the stairs to my Dad’s apartment. Every Friday and Sunday in 9th grade when it was time to visit Dad or go back to Mom’s, I dragged the damn thing like an Acme contraption from a Looney Tunes cartoon up those fourteen steep concrete slabs, heaving and cursing the whole way. Later, when I lived in the apartment and played in bands regularly, I lugged that heavy bastard up and down the stairs every other day like a religious ritual. It never got easier, and sometimes it lugged me down instead. But it was a price I had to pay. Asking Dad for a ride, schlepping the giant heavy box, looking like a fool, tumbling down the last three steps and limping for days afterward: far from anarchy, this was work.
Then there were the hours upon hours I had to spend practicing–an even more exhausting worship ritual than the semi-daily ritual of labor. Play the song; try the technique, again and again; pray the muscle memory remains the next day but keep trying anyway; do it over and over.
All of that work is why I can relate to the gracefully aging punks in The Guardian’s recent where-are-they-now profile, “Never Mind the Bus Pass.” 55 year-old former Alien Kulture bassist Aussaf Abbas knew, for example, that punk rock couldn’t pay the bills, so he went to work as an investment banker and has since “met prime ministers and finance ministers and CEOs of major corporations.” “This was unbelievable for an immigrant kid,” he insists, “who grew up in Brixton in a single-parent family.” One-time Au Pairs singer and guitarist Lesley Woods took a similar path to affluence. “After the band folded,” she explains, “my brain was quite scrambled and I needed to get my mind back, so I thought I’d do something really difficult and started studying law.” While she still “mucks about” with music, her work as a barrister is so intense that she only has time for a few recordings and “the odd performance.” Others in the profile tell similar stories.
The standard punk posture insists, outraged: Abbas, Woods, and their peers are sellouts, shills for neoliberalism. But for most people, music offers work—vast, endless vistas of work—with little more than a token spiritual reward at the end of the day. Investment banking may not be the best solution to the problem, but neither is Higher Education, which attracts an army of refugees from dive bars and touring vans every year. Everyone must negotiate neoliberalism on its own terms, and what choice does anyone have? Only those privileged with money or parents with money, a great deal of luck, or generous friends really have a chance to earn anything more than a few dollars and a few Facebook followers at the end of night. Most need all of these simply to live as a musician. Punk’s outrage and anarchy relies on an ocean of privilege, then. For the innumerable devotees whose parents and friends can’t or won’t support years of work without reward, punk rock’s promise of DIY catharsis is merely palliative. The truth beneath the posture gleams like a shiny nickel reflecting the inverse of the American dream: work all you want, kid. It ain’t enough.
To make matters worse, the posture has only ever been clear in retrospect. In an extraordinary piece in The Baffler last winter, “Punk Crock,” Eugenia Williamson wonders: “As punk pushes into its fourth decade, its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still murky at best. Does punk retain any meaning at all?” Despite the claims of passionate devotees–like the Noisey Facebook commenter she quotes who argues that “the complex ideology of punk goes way beyond the genre of music–it’s also about not giving a fuck and doing exactly what is authentic to you”–punk is hidebound by an inherent logic based on fictions of lost purity and dying scenes. Beneath the aesthetic, her article suggests, punk was never really there. Its earliest adherents lived like the coke-fueled arena rockers they despised; their descendants have “not only voted for Rand Paul but [are] raising children in a McMansion funded by festival dates.” So much for anarchy.
My own decade-long encounter with cathartic do-it-yourself anarchy was far from revolutionary. I repeated the upstairs and downstairs rituals of labor and repetition later, for example, when I was still a dropout working at Walmart by day and playing the bass by night in a band that pretended it could barely bash out the chords to “Blitzkrieg Bop.” That had been the appeal of the band, actually, when I tried out: their unapologetic badness. They had posted a to-hell-with-it ad for a bassist on Craigslist citing their inability to play but their desire to try anyway. I replied. Everyone was better than they had claimed, of course. They had performed the rituals too. So within a week I was lugging another huge bass amp up three flights of stairs twice a week to the drummer’s apartment across the street from the University of Florida. We called ourselves “Surprise Blowjob”–SBJ for short–and played a few shows over the course of a weltering Gainesville summer before going our separate ways. We joked about “punx” with one breath and rented a practice space with the other; paid for recording with one hand (well, one of us did: Thank you, Ryan, if you read this) and burned our own CDs with the other. We booked shows when we weren’t practicing; drove to Jacksonville to play for 15 people. I designed stickers and merch; stayed up a few nights after work to design a website. And then it was over. A new semester, job hunts, and grad school were looming for the students in the band. They left. Other bands were calling me. Like the individual rituals of labor and repetition, the group ritual of band-building has to be repeated like a rosary. Friends and strangers come and go from the devotee’s life.
I packed and unpacked, carried and setup my amplifiers, my gig bags, my cables and pedals in and out, up and down, through every change. I understand now that these rituals of individual dedication and group support were the only authenticity punk rock could offer. Everything else is just an argument about aesthetics.