American punk rock offered me a way out: 'Our band could be your life'. This was a new route, now that I had abandoned all hope of finding a door to another world. (Elidor would have been nice: it's good to feel like you're important, and that your life is being well scripted.) But this was different, this punk music. 'You could be my open road/You could be the reason why.' It was all about a search for reason, a search for a life that I could live without bogging myself down in the arbitrary.
(Received opinion interjection: Kafka was the soul of the 20th century because his work not only pre-empted the full-on horror of Nazism, but also the muted, bewildering nonsense that makes everyday life so damned excruciating.)
When Fugazi sang 'You can't be who you were/So you better start living the life/That you've been talking about,' I should have listened harder. After all, the clues were already there in Waiting Room, when Ian MacKaye sang 'I've gotta fight/For who I wanna be.'
And that was what punk meant to me, during high school and early University. It wasn't about that horrible hardcore nonsense, or even about the social conflict of early Brit-punk (though I do love that version too). I loved punk because it said you didn't have to settle, that you could make your own little world, and on your own terms. That you could succeed without being a 'success'. I loved punk because it loved freaks, women, gay people, black people, and because more than that it seemed to be a haven for these people, a cultural space in which they could make music and mess about. If you didn't like the way the big record labels operated, you set up your own labels. If you didn't like to see violence breaking out in the audience, you interrupted the gig to confront the offending parties. Punk said that you didn't have to be a mega-star, that it was in fact desirable to be just part of the scene. Punk promised me a lot of things, and (realistically) promised me nothing at all. They were only records, after all; some great, some just kind of okay. Too bad I couldn't get my head round that back when I was a callow seventeen-year-old.
About halfway through University, I couldn't ignore the cracks any more. The window had been almost entirely smashed, and I could feel the wind blowing through just a little bit too vividly, y'know? I could see that earnestness was no guarantee of greatness, that self-expression for its own sake was onanistic and vein. I could see also the ways in which punk limited itself, cut itself off from the outside world, and was actually kinda snobby about people. Musically, too, I could see how it often walled itself in, and excluded all of that black/gay/feminine stuff I'd read into it. I felt a little betrayed, which was my own fault, really. Like I said, these were records, just records, and I kept on listening to them, the good ones at least. Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, Fugazi... all the obvious ones, plus little bits of other bands like At the Drive-In and The Dismemberment Plan.
I looked around and found a whole world of colour out there; a world of pop records, big-assed novels, comic books, hip-hop songs; pop culture commentary, burlesque shows and sub-dadaist art pranks. You know, the usual. Good times ensued, engaged times, times where it felt more important to shake your ass and have a laugh than to worry about whether or not the various artists you were into formed a cohesive personal aesthetic.
Lately, however, I've gone back to the Fugazi and the Sleater-Kinney, and it's ringing true again. For all that I can still see the same problems there, I can also see why I liked this stuff so much in the first place, both sonically and thematically (and aren't those two things the same here?). I need to take a little bit more control of my life, to fight just a little bit harder for who I want to be, to make some new space for myself. It's good to keep yourself open to the world, but you just can't keep on smiling through the shitstorm. Or at least, that's not the only way to do it.
Yeah, it's still just music, but sometimes that's more than enough. Too bad I couldn't get my head around that back when I was a callow twenty-two-year-old.
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