Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982 By Nicholas Rombes

 The 1970s is remembered mostly for its incoherence, best expressed through punk music. The 70s are a bridge between the Madmen/JFK/Counterculture of the 1960s and the happy Reagan era of the 1980s. Nicholas Rombes, English professor at Detroit Mercy University makes his case in his truly iconoclastic history book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982.  

How fast were times changing in late 20th century America? In 1968, youth all over the world were challenging the status quo and considering how to bring revolutionary change to their societies.  Of course these movements were divided on the proper means to facilitate such change, an ambivalence best illustrated with the Beatles 1968 release, "Revolution."

John Lennon's song is not a call for Revolution and actually seems a little . . .  uncertain. It expressed a sympathy with need for change in the world and yet is hesitant on how best to get there with lyrics like:

say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

In the final verse John specifically references the ultra-violent cultural revolution in China with "If you're carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You're not gonna make with anyone, anyhow."  The song is, if anything, a plea for non-violence and self-empowerment. The gritty guitar sound of the single version is also a precursor to punk.  "Revolution" signals that drift into an age of incoherence.  There's a real ambivalence in it about achieving the hopes of the counterculture.  But one can change their internal world.  To exemplify how punk built on this idea and took it further and darker, one should look no further than The Buzzcocks 1976 punk anthem, "Boredom."

 By 1976, with western economies in paralysis, the new generation turned against any hope of changing the system and took the angst of the 1960s to a more existential level with lyrics like "I've taken this extravagant journey so it seems to me/I just came from nowhere and I'm going straight back there."

It is no coincidence that punk music emerged out of cities  like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and New York where the future seemed rather bleak.  In the Cultural Dictionary, Rombes chronicles every facet of this transition in a non-linear way.

 One of the overarching narratives of punk is its hostility to the whole idea of the 1960s counterculture.  The "Punk" generation had to stand by and watch as all the icons from the previous decade (without naming names) lived comfortably and basked in all their past glory.  By 1976, post-Sixties generation asked a pertinent questions of just like - what sort of change did flower power produce anyway?  The cities were crumbling.  The political order had no leg to stand on.  Small towns were falling apart.  If there is one common link that connects punk in all its incarnations it is a strong feeling about reality being controlled by all sorts of nefarious forces - you name it (government, Madison avenue, the culture industry, television).  Paranoia was a part of the scene that spawned an entire genre of films like The Conversation and Marathon Man and also in literature, most notably, Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.  Punk reveled in self-destruction and the creative need to destroy in order to create something new. But, what did it create?  The hardcore scene that arose in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. was like a final outburst of anger that almost cried for a father figure to restore law and order. That is exactly what they got.  Rombes writes of Reagan as like a "mythic figure out of some Utopian or dystopian fantasy."  

Riches of cultural history appear in the Cultural Dictionary that span music, literature, film, and art. In the midst of all this are some original political and sociological insights of that time.  For example, Jimmy Carter's presidency (1977-1981) epitomizes the punk era.  For starters he was an outsider who spoke the plain truth (which ended up hurting him in the end).  And, at least at first, seemed the perfect antidote for post-Watergate America.  Carter's everyman image suited him up to a fault as a candidate, but he pleased few as a commander and chief.  And his own gloominess about contemporary America oddly tied him to the punks.  On July 15, 1979 President Carter delivered an extraordinary national address that is known as the "malaise speech" (Carter actually never used that word) which challenged Americans to unite and solve problems despite a future that prmoised more pollution, gross consumerism, and a growing loss of faith in all institutions.  What makes the speech so astounding is its mixture of nostalgia, despair, pop psych motivational rhetoric, and its brutal honesty.  Reagan's folksy humor proved far more successful with voters.

Punk music reflected the "crisis of confidence" and made some great art out of that existential angst.  For example on the Ramones song "I wanna be well" each verse with ends with "my future's bleak/ain't it neat" taps into that joy of watching everything fall apart.  Despair is turned into a euphoria.  That is punk.

Rombes's non-linear approach serves this history book well.  Anytime you read a dictionary with consecutive entries on Nirvana, Richard Nixon (who shared the punk's disdain for the hippies), and Henry Rollins's Hardcore outit No Policy - it feels like a kaleidoscopic look back at the past.  Rombes also makes the book interactive for the reader.  For instance, ever heard of the Electric Eels?  They are a mostly forgotten band from Cleveland that recorded some truly anarchic music that sounds unlike anything before or after.  While listening to "Jaguar Ride" it feels as if there is something amazing happening between the lines of the glorious display electronic noise.  Can you imagine if this was played on FM radio today?

Another fun aspect is the continuity that comes out of Rombes's non-linear approach.  Like a novel there are recurring characters; some well known, some not.  There were some amazing personalities like Patti Smith, The Clash, and rock critics/musicians Lester Bangs and Peter Laughner  Bangs is more well known, who was memorably portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's film, Almost Famous.  His writings on the music scene from 1969-1982 were groundbreaking.  Bangs had a "beat" sensibility and an ironic touch.  Laughner is little remembered due to his untimely death at age 24.  He championed the rock scene in Cleveland as a critic and later recorded music on his own.  Although his style isn't punk per se, it is more in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. But what remains is pretty good. His recording of "Amphetamine" is a truly epic rock song.

All good things must end.  Rombes argues that as economic prosperity returned under the Reagan/Thatcher regimes of the 1980s, punk quickly faded.  It was over.  Even those in the punk scene were aware of it limitations like Patti Smith and The Clash and allowed their music to evolve.  But during its high point it punk stands as a stirring example of how music was a response to its own time, influenced the course of its own time, and helps us understand our own.  Plus, the book is much more than I just tried to describe - besides writing about punk seems so unpunk anyway.