I picked up a copy of rock critic Gina Arnold's second book, Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense, the other day and was surprised to find that the premise of the book appeared to be that punk -- the philosophy, the spirit -- was dead.
"...in March of 1996 I suddenly became aware that punk rock -- heretofore the ruling concept of my whole persona -- was now a meaningless philosophy," wrote Arnold in the introduction to the book, which was published last fall. "It had lost its grip on its own internal tenants; as a descriptive, it meant nothing. Like all great art movements that came before it, punk sowed its seed and the seed came up, and then it was harvested and the land became fallow."
This morning, in the L. A. Times, rock writer Steve Hochman offered a brief wrap-up of the South By Southwest Music Conference. Hochman's report has a snide spin to it: He uses a comment made by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore at SXSW ("Thanks for skipping out on dinner to come see us.") to underline the contention that SXSW has changed. "...thousands of record-company professionals, music critics and industry schmoozers [visit Austin] for four days to, it seems, consume as many free barbecue ribs, enchiladas and margaritas as humanly possible."
Punk dead? SXSW bankrupt?
No, I am not surprised. Just as I am not surprised when, predictably every year or so, another pundit announces that "Rock is Dead!"
I am still reading Arnold's excellent, thought provoking book (I may not always agree with her opinions, but she nearly always gets me thinking), so I don't know yet if by the end she has an epiphany regarding the eternal spirit of punk living on, or if she relegates the whole think to the scrap heap of history. (knowing Arnold, I have to think it's the former...)
In any case, it is not Arnold or Hochman that I'm writing about here; it's the idea that what happened in the past is somehow better -- more pure, more real, more uncommercial -- than whatever is happening RIGHT NOW.
I am old enough to have not just been alive, but to have been paying close attention during the birth of punk (and I'm talking here about the second birth of punk, 'cause the first wave began in the late '60s with the Sonics and all the cool garage bands), in New York not London, in the mid-'70s. I can tell you that from day one, there were longtime rock fans insisting that the (then) new music was garbage, unlistenable, noise.
One day in 1976 not long after I'd purchased a copy of "Anarchy in the U.K." (I'd been into the Ramones and Patti Smith for some time.) I sat a friend down and played the Sex Pistols' statement of purpose and then the Who's oldie, "My Generation." I said something to the effect of "How can you say that 'My Generation' is something great while writing off the Sex Pistols" to my friend. Played side by side, these songs -- the Who in their prime and the Sex Pistols in theirs -- were a one-two punch; each song annihilated everything around it, each song reinvented the world.
The power of the music, the edge in the two singers voices, and the words! These two songs were miracles. They were proof that the spirit of rebellion, the spirit of punk was as alive in now (1976) as it had been a decade earlier. When the second song was over, I sat back. What more needed to said.
But it was no use though, my friend hadn't heard what I heard.
Reading some reports from SXSW, I had to wonder if myself and these writers attended different conferences. The three nights that I spent club-hopping were incredible. Whether digging into a set by the still-revelatory Sonic Youth, or discovering the Kowalskis, tripping to Altamont and Acid King or rockin' to The Friggs and Nashville Pussy, I found SXSW to be an amazing affirmation that the spirit of punk lives in 1998, as it did in 1976.
There have been "industry schmoozers" since the beginning of the record business, and so what? Sure thousands of clowns descend on Austin, and more than a few use the conference as an excuse to party. And still others manage to juggle their partying with checking out dozens of bands they've never heard before. And all of that is beside the point.
SXSW continues to prove that there are bands -- lots of them -- making great music. And they're doing it RIGHT NOW. Punk nostalgia is no different than new wave nostalgia or '60s nostalgia. It's still nostalgia. It has nothing to do with the spirit of punk, which is, in fact, the true spirit of rock 'n' roll (you think Elvis and Little Richard weren't punks back in the mid-'50s?).
The thing about the spirit of punk is that it shows up in the damnedest places. It probably isn't dressed up in a leather jacket and a mohawk at the moment (although it could be). Its more likely to be using a sampler and a drum machine (but you'll find it with guitars and a drum kit too).
Know this: as long as some band can be preparing an album called All Hopped Up On Goofballs (as The Kowalskis are doing), punk is still screaming and kicking and causing trouble. Right Gina?