We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planetby Daniel Baird
Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews
Edited by Daniel Sinker (Akashic Books, 2001)
On a blistering day last summer, I was drawn to North 6th Street in Williamsburg by explosions of guitar noise and screeching feedback. There was a street festival of hardcore bands and spoken-word poetry, and the crowd was an idiosyncratic mix: old-style punks with great red spiked mohawks and studded dog collars, brooding crusties with piercings jangling and covered with botched Maori tattoos, as well as well-built frat boys and perky, tanned coeds in halter tops. People danced in the spray of an open fire hydrant; foamy keg beer flowed. Between bands a woman took the microphone and shrieked a poem that had something to do with sexual abuse, the global corporate fascist machine, and Mumia Abu Jamal, the woozy audience milling about indifferently. What was most striking about her performance and its histrionic politics of rage was its emotional vacuity, its lack of authenticity, and the sense that it was little more than an easy, if exhausting, rhetorical manner. Raw anger as pure style.
From its inception in the underground rock culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, punk combined angry, ecstatic, alienated youth energy with an instinctive radical anti-authoritarian politics and a cult of emotional integrity: raunchy guitar-noise rock was meant to be transformative and liberating. After all, Detroit’s MC5 lived in a communal house, were connected to the White Panther Party, and were the only band to play at the Chicago rally in 1968 before the cops started cracking heads and riots broke out; and a decade later in Britain, The Clash and The Sex Pistols emerged out of a stagnant, disenfranchised working class with anarchic rage against the ruling classes and a surprising identification with mystical, revolutionary strains of reggae. Founded in 1977 by Daniel Sinker, then a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Punk Planet arrived in a divisive, sectarian scene dominated by Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll purism and haunted by a monstrously seductive corporate culture industry, its mandate to give voice to the diverse phenomena surrounding punk, and to wed the independent, do-it-yourself punk sensibility to activist left-wing politics. The force of the interviews collected in We Owe You Nothing hinges on the claim that punk, as a style of music and life, has a coherent aesthetic and politics which goes beyond the destructive, adolescent rage and noise of its origins. Whereas Legs McNeil’s Punk magazine of the mid-1970s was local and insular, Punk Planet aspires toward an expansive, global reach.
We Owe You Nothing opens with a conversation with Ian MacKaye, founder of the original straightedge hardcore band, Minor Threat, and then of the still influential Fugazi. MacKaye is a model Punk Planet artist, making tightly wound, explosive music, while remaining strictly independent—Fugazi releases records on MacKaye’s label, Dischord, and books its limited tours on its own idiosyncratic terms. And as anyone who has either seen Fugazi live or at least watched Jem Cohen’s Instrument knows, MacKaye and his bandmates’ relationship to their audience is intimate and respectful, insisting on community over anarchy and violence: no gobbing, no violent dancing, no boot-kicks in the face or vulgar insults. The portrait of MacKaye that emerges in the course of the interview is of someone at once modest and willful, trying, as MacKaye says repeatedly, to find ways of making his life as a musician and producer both creatively vital and ethically significant. Ever-outspoken Jello Biafra, of Dead Kennedys fame, is openly contemptuous of the nasty Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll punk politics in which “the world’s most important issue is whether Jawbreaker sold out.” Ian MacKaye at times seems pious and idealistic; Jello Biafra, by contrast, is tough, pragmatic, and unsentimental. Biafra insists throughout that punk does not really form a community at all, and that so-called radical culture has no direct political impact; politics requires action, not style.
One of the most important interviews in We Owe You Nothing is with former Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna. The popularity of Bikini Kill’s anthemic call for revolution girl-style was co-opted by the media and marketed to teenage girls, but Hanna refuses to be reduced to trivial slogans and fashion images, and is not satisfied with pumping up young audiences into howls of “girls rule!” Hanna is intelligent, aggressive, and vulnerable. Revolutionary in her politics, and knowledgeable of Marxist and feminist theory, Hanna grasps the importance both of critically informed activism and substantial art. “I want to make art that’s really smart,” she says at one point, “art that references feminist art from previous times and feminist art that’s going on right now…. All I know is that I don’t want to make something that is totally one-dimensional.”
Music is the lifeblood of punk, but along with the bands come recording engineers, graphic designers, and even filmmakers. Founder of Big Black and now lead man of Shellac, whose punishing 1000 Hurts came out last year, Steve Albini is also one of the most respected recording engineers in the United States. Albini is known for his vehement and even paranoid views on the way major labels destroy inventive underground rock bands; for Albini, independence is not so much a matter of integrity as of creative survival. What is most impressive about Albini, however, is the sense one gets of his uncompromising commitment to the artists he records: every brick in his Chicago studio, every piece of equipment (all analog) has been carefully chosen to serve as an aesthetic vision that values raw power over slick surfaces. Art Chantry for his part contrived the jagged graphic look of the Seattle grunge scene of the early 1990s, doing album covers for bands like Mudhoney and countless posters for shows at The Rocket. Unlike the crude graphics of late 1970s punk, Chantry’s designs are at once handmade, precise, and saturated with ironical allusions to American popular culture. Chantry is a nerdy eccentric and much of his talk is taken up with why he continues work with the old-fashioned X-acto knife, Xerox machine, and glue, rather than the increasingly powerful graphics programs. Chantry is no more a Luddite than Steve Albini; he is interested in evoking the tattered feel of an American vernacular that slick, formal digital design erases.
Rooted in New York experimental film, Jem Cohen is best known for his music videos and his feature-length documentary on Fugazi, Instrument. Financed by Cohen and Fugazi and distributed by MacKaye’s label, Dischord, Instrument is less a documentary than a collaborative essay built up out of collaged fragments shot over the course of a decade. Cohen may be indebted to punk’s underground style and do-it-yourself ethic, but in the interview he sharply distances himself from the lurid trash aesthetics of both Richard Kern’s and Lydia Lunch’s punk films. Influenced by John Cassavetes, Cohen sets out to make films that are emotionally immediate, beautiful, and finely crafted, and the opening sequence of Instrument, with its grainy, smoldering, slow motion images of the band performing, set to crashing waves of guitar, is nothing less than ravishing.
Besides the watery, lukewarm beer and the raspy sound system, what most troubled me about the vague aura of radical politics at the neighborhood punk festival in Williamsburg last summer was the idea, shared by the editors of Punk Planet, that aesthetic politics are authentically radical and are a genuine outgrowth of underground music. We Owe You Nothing, to be sure, is always entertaining and informative, and it successfully reaffirms the importance of several dissident voices opposed to the corporate control of culture. But even though the book does include casual interviews with political intellectuals and hardcore activists like Noam Chomsky and Han Shan of The Ruckus Society, for the most part the politics is just good-hearted liberal democracy that has as much to do with punk rock as it does with hippie folk tunes: stop the destruction of the environment, resist the trade agreements which enrich multinational corporations at the expense of the poor, start small businesses which treat employees fairly and promote creativity, stop sexism, racism, and homophobia. Illuminating on this score is the interview with Matt Wobensmith, founder of Outpunk label and magazine and also of Queercorps, who has distanced himself from punk because of what he regards as its aesthetic conservatism and limited political possibilities as a mode of expression. We Owe You Nothing’s main weakness is that the interviews do not probe such questions, do not challenge the people being interviewed, and never risk outright conflict. Throughout one gets the sense of a groping and misguided effort to load big, global meanings onto an idiom that is in essence irreducibly experiential. Finally, the point of punk is for one’s mind and body to be rocked, scalded, and transported by its raw, visceral, anarchic energy. At its best, punk is too volatile and true to have a reliable politics. Put another way, radical culture does not necessarily lead to radical politics.