Punk and 40: A Mid-Life Opportunityby Antonio Lopez
I was in college when “thirtysomething” was on TV. At the time I was neither watching TV nor did I give a shit about 30-year-olds. But clearly my TA’s did, and they were growing up, so-to-speak, because they were now seeing themselves targeted as a primetime audience. They had become adult consumers. Little did I know that my time would come. This was the mid-80s, and at the time I could hardly imagine that my generation would be named, targeted, branded or marketed to. We were too cynical, too savvy (or so we believed), and too pre-occupied to care about TV. Despite the current crop of mainstream media nostalgia for the ’80s, for me that decade was even more of a wasteland than the ’70s. Little did I realize that my generation was the first to be fully mediated. We were blind to our own immersion in the sea of marketing and media. We were Mohawked fish who did not know the ocean.
I turned 40 this past summer, and I’ve been grappling with my peer aesthetic in the context of marketing forces that claim to know us intimately. In the context of mainstream culture I still don’t fit the mold. I’m neither married nor with children, but many of my brood are. I find it curious and fascinating to see the difference between homegrown punk DIY parenting and consumer marketing. On TV you see the parents in the garage still playing loud rock while the kids plug their ears and pray their parents can get it together to buy the correct household products to make them proper Americans. On the other hand, punk entrepreneurs who are clued into their tribal aesthetic are making cool kids clothes, like the company Lil Hellraisers that produce kiddie versions of punk Ts, like “Baby Flag,” “I’m just a Minor Threat,” or “DIY: dirty rotten infants.” Anarchy in the pre-K anyone?
There has also been press about the kids of punk rockers starting bands. I haven’t heard one yet, but if they do, I bet the music is pretty damn cool. Still, I’m reminded of my peers in New Mexico who grew up on communes, who have names like Ocean and Wave and Summer, but are now into real estate or day trading because the thought of hippie life is too disturbing to their sense of consume tranquility. What will our kids think of us as they are raised on the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Sonic Youth? As far as I can tell, so far, so good. Kids like that kind of stuff. Just don’t leave them at Republican homes for sleepovers because they may disturb harmonious TV viewing. One of my friends has a kid so media literate that he can deconstruct the fuck out of TV and movies to the point of shocking uninitiated hosts. The poor kid has been banned from several households.
As I enter into middle age, I wonder what I can tell today’s little punks. What have I learned? What is the legacy of my own cultural baggage?
Still part of an unnamed generation at the time, I first became aware of a peer gestalt in the early ’90s. There are several events that mark this period, but the most important contains four words: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Punk, in the viral guise of Kurt Cobain and Seattle grunge, had gone legit. What presaged this, though, was Sonic Youth signing with Geffen and bringing on their friends, Nirvana. In 1991 LA punk filmmaker Dave Markey (who I remember ten years earlier hawking ’zines at 2:00 AM at Hollywood’s perennial punk rock purgatory, Okie Dogs) made the documentary, The Year That Punk Broke, a document of the world tour of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and other zeitgeist bands of the early ’90s. By that point you could also get the grunge look at the mall, something hilarious considering that Doc Martins, laborer boots from England, and flannel shirts were cheap, working class clothes that were initially adapted because of their accessibility and affordability (granted, by the time Docs hit our shores, you could only get them at expensive punk boutiques, where you could also get spiked dog collars, bondage strap pants and band patches).
It was around this time, too, that Lollapalooza, bastard love child of Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Ferrell, hit the road. I caught the first round in Denver and experienced a musical hodgepodge that was unheard of when I was a teen punk. Back in the early days, punks were punks, hippies were hippies, and New Wavers were New Romantics. Never the nary met, and if they did it usually came to fisticuffs. I’m not proud of this, but I remember one of the slogans coming from Orange County (OC) punks (the more notorious and violent expression of Southern California’s punk tribe) was, “Black Flag kills ants on contact.” This was in reference to both Flag’s testosterone rep (with agro Henry Rollins’s sweaty, virile body at the helm) and the so-called “faggy” New Romantics who were into neo-Victorian clothes, make-up and Adam Ant. Ironically, in the end, metrosexuals (a regurgitated manifestation of New Romantics) became a more pervasive force in mainstream culture. Or did they?
Despite my pacifism, I relished scaring the crap out of people with my look. It’s hard to imagine now, but if you were anywhere in the country and you saw a fellow punk, you bonded with that person immediately because you knew he or she was the resident community freak. People were truly terrified by punks’ mode of visual terrorism. I’m not exaggerating. Consequently, in LA at least, of all cultural groups (with the exception of blacks and cholos), punks were hated most by cops. And punks, in turn, really hated cops. In a strange twist of fate, I was getting my hair cut at Patricia Fields not too long ago in Manhattan by a hairdresser who is also a 40-year-old punker from LA. We relished the fact that despite the war the cops raged against punks in the early ‘80s, we loved to riot and burn police cars. More exciting than slam dancing was the cat-and-mouse game with police that became routine at LA gigs. It was always a race in time for bands to get in their 20-minute sets (remember punk songs were rarely more than 2 minutes) before the cops shut down the shows and the fun began. Granted, it was scary to be chased by baton-wheeling men in black, but as a bunch of surfers, skaters and gang bangers running amok in southern California’s cool summer evenings, rioting was sport. Particularly memorable were the events at LA’s downtown Olympic Auditorium, which was also the home of Mexican wrestling. They had these slam-a-thons featuring a dozen bands that more or less sounded the same. The real action was gathering as a tribe and fighting the police afterward.
It’s ironic that some old punk friends got into the TV series, OC, because back in the day punks from behind the “Orange Curtain” had a terrible rap. Nonetheless, the more interesting artists and punk activists of the scene came from down there, including hardcore anarchists, and probably the most un-macho of LA’s underground, The Minutemen. And I’ll never forget The Adolescents, who to me capture the gestalt of the era best with their speedy anthem, “Kids of the Black Hole,” which is part-acid trip at Disneyland, part-dystopic allegory of strip malls and the pit-of-hell that most believed greater LA to be at the time. Remember, as kids coming of age in 1980, we were told that the ’60s were the best era ever, whereas all we saw now was recession, Reagan, the threat of nuclear annihilation and civil war across Latin America. To us, the world was a bunch of military dictatorships that fell in two camps: either backed by the CIA or KGB. Anarchism came naturally to us, and it was not unusual to hear 15 year-olds debate the merits of Kropotkin, Bakunin or Goldman.
Me, I gravitated to the subculture of Peace Punks, who were active in the anti-nuclear and Central American solidarity movements. Vegetarianism was big, and so too were the dreadlocks, although that’s not quite the right description. Hair went on a steady devolution from spikes that were so sharp they could cut you, to nasty, lice-infected knots of hair clumps. Kids used everything from egg whites to flavorless gelatin. In order to expedite their ‘do’s entropy, some would just put in anything from under the kitchen sink, including Ajax. I kid you not.
If Nirvana and Lollapalooza represented the surfacing of a generational spirit, the first time I became self-conscious of a peer aesthetic was in ‘91 with the release of two important films: Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99. They were two ends of a spectrum that was less rainbow, and more fractured laser. Slacker as a moniker, of course, famously became the handle for the Gen X cipher. It was a convenient, degrading name that was used to identify a listless position in middleclass society, one that neither totally embraced or aggressively rejected pop culture. Generation X, the name of a ’70s-era British punk band fronted by Billy Idle, was also the title of Douglas Copeland’s first novel. I never read the book, but gather that it’s about teens growing up in So Cal’s desert ex-burbs who are bored and tell each other strange stories.
For better or for worse, the prevailing myth of Gen X is one of apathy and inaction (despite its punk roots to the contrary). All we did, reportedly, was talk about shit. Though the movie Slacker is guilty of this, it subtly reflects the great deal of sophistication that made up our worldview at the time. It has no plot other than a daisy chain of connecting people and ideas through conspiracy, art and philosophy—without being self-consciously “postmodern.” What gets lost in the pejorative use of the term “slackers” is that we were well educated and very literate, albeit in a world of “outsider” culture that at the time was considered insignificant in academia or cultural discourse. We were into the cut-up writings of Burroughs; cyberpunk sci-fi by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson; paranoid fantasies of Philip K. Dick; dark humored paranoia of Robert Anton Wilson; anarcho feminism of Kathy Acker; hi-tech kookiness of Mondo 2000; kung fu and Chinese fantasy movies; B horror and zombie films; ’zines; “zipping” (phone hacking by using tones to break into long distance carrier codes); underground comics like RAW; Max Headroom; Blade Runner; robot machine destruction spectacles of Survival Research Laboratory; and ReSearch Magazine that celebrated JD Ballard, prank culture, modern primitives, industrial music, and my most favorite, Tiki lounges. If it hasn’t happened already, you will probably find a TV network devoted to each one of these subjects sometime in the near future.
The appealing, albeit slightly boring, aspect of the kids depicted in Slacker is that they were interesting. These are people you’d love to BBQ or drop acid with in the desert. No doubt the conversation, a listless discourse on the end of history, would keep you up past dawn. This was certainly the moody, strange ennui of Baldwin’s Tribulation 99. A found footage collage and hodgepodge of every possible conspiracy tale of the era, it combined the CIA, psychic vampires, the US military, monster movies, and alien lizards. It was ironically delusional, self-mocking, lo-brow, and cut like MTV. It was a drug-induced tour-de-force that was mind-warping and psychically exhausting. Just as the Sex Pistols sound laboriously slow these days, with editing and hyperstimulated senses in the media so totally amped up, Tribulation 99 now seems tame, too. If my friend’s five-year-old can love The Ramones, then this must mean the quickening has arrived; the harsh aesthetic of Tribulation 99, punk music, industrial art (such as Mark Pauline’s post-apocalyptic machine eating monsters) are hardly shocking compared to the “normal” reality of our age: 9/11, Abu Ghraib, the Iraq war, New Orleans, climate change. The people in power have outdone Generation X in the aesthetics of nihilism, and without nearly as much intelligence or self-conscious humor. In fact, perhaps the one saving grace of Gen X is that it never took itself too seriously, in contrast to some of the more militant tendencies that came out of punk. I say this because we don’t have to be shocked, like our hippie mentors were, about the inevitable market absorption of our sensibility. What is scandalous to me is how Gen X is recycled, not because I think it’s lame, but because it’s degraded, the same way that recycled paper decays every time you re-pulp it.
I’m proud of becoming a middle-aged punk. I survived, and those around me who seem to be resurrecting their bands or careers, are doing well through a variety of strategies, from sobriety to yoga, from activism to Buddhism. Just last year, when I joined an entire group of youth media teachers on a retreat for a media arts organization in Brooklyn, I realized that nearly all of us were ex-punks, ex-skaters or ex–hip hoppers, the “ex” being more a transient label. Though mellowed in age, none-of us were “ex” anything. We are still X, and most of us still believe in our power to change the system. But now that Gen X has hit mid-life, the state of our generation needs a re-boot, a call to action. This is no small measure.
Every society has its taboos. For the Pygmies it was to steal meat after the hunt. The punishment would be temporary exile from the community. For punks the ultimate crime was “selling out,” the penalty equally severe (just ask Green Day what happened to them when they went mainstream). Granted, what constitutes a sellout to a 15 year-old and a 40 year-old is vastly different, yet I feel we know when certain lines are crossed. Mainly, it’s being a stooge for the entertainment and marketing industry. I’m heartened by alum like Linklater who is using his Hollywood pull to make films like A Scanner Darkly; or Baldwin, who still runs an alternative community media center in San Francisco. Shame on those of you who sell out your values and experience to shill products like cars, pharmaceuticals, war and alcohol. I feel like a teen again when I say, enough of the bullshit, enough of the apathy. You want to market to us? Let’s play. We’re fucking responsible for spreading the aesthetic of irony, so it’s time to take it back!
I believe our role as DIY practitioners and savvy participants of our society is to rise to a challenge that no other society has faced in the history of the world, which is to facilitate and support the work of the greatest generation ever: the young folks who will guide this ship of humanity to survival. The awesome and fierce kids now coming of age will alter history, but they need mentors. They need us. Thus, we need to clean up our shit. I don’t want us to devolve into the ex-Yippie Jerry Rubins of the world, but rather to become more like the tireless activist Abbie Hoffman (without dying too young). We need to get in line with the purpose of our unfinished work and move beyond the limited construction of hipster parents playing out our societal roles of capitalist domesticity in a board game called Life. Time to break out the old, battle-scarred combat boots. Time to kick some cultural ass again.