Tuesday, January 3, 2012

From the School Book Depository to Rock n Roll Suicide: A Review of White Riot

The following review was originally published in Political Media Review.   Yet, I wanted to bring some of the story to this venue for storytelling.

Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay (eds.)
Verso, New York. 2011, Paper 370 Pages
Reviewed by Benjamin Shepard

Thursday, September 22, 2011, I headed out by bike to ride up to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where my buddy Ron and I planned to attend the book party for Stephen Duncombe and Max Tremblay’s new work, White Riot, a collection of first-person writing, lyrics, letters to zines, and analyses of punk history on issues of racial identity.  Bringing together writing from leading music critics, personal reflections from punk pioneers, scholarly essays from academics, and reports on punk scenes from around the world, the book offers a new perspective on a movement which many of us thought we already knew.

I have loved writing about, as well as listening and performing the music since some time between sixth and seventh grade, three decades ago.  My love affair with this music started the morning I walked downstairs for breakfast to witness my mother crying as she watched the Today Show delivering the news that John Lennon had been killed.  Darby Crash of the Germs died the same week, icons of flower power and punk tripping off into a whirlwind as violent and colorful as the lives they long lived.  I would not hear about Crash’s suicide until reading about it in Belsito and Davis’sHardcore California, a history of punk and new wave.  And I was blown away by the coincidence.  There was something powerful in the synchronicity of this moment that could not just be chance.  Books such as this helped usher me into a world outside of my own life in suburban Dallas, Texas.  They brought me to new ways of looking at the world, reading, points of departure for my bike trips around the city, as well as new destinations.  I would ride my bike to VVV Records in Dallas’ gay ghetto of Cedar Springs. Along the way, they helped me see the pearls in the seaweed, in between the cracks in abandoned vacant lots where I had previously only seen weeds.  They helped me see some of the secret treasures.  I rode to Greenville Ave to check out Metamorphosis Records and to a thrift shop which sold Vivian Westwood designs.  It was owned by Peggy Sue Fender, the widow of James Honeyman-Scott, the base player with the Pretenders who had died of a drug overdose the previous year.  It reminded me there was a power in rebuilding lives outside of what he previously thought we had.  These stores had flyers advertising shows, retro movies, and late night screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture, which at the time had been showing in Dallas for some seven years straight. What punk offered was a whole other way of experiencing the city and the suburbs, of challenging the injustice supporting silences, the blandification, the monoculture.  Punk reminded us there was always something below the surface of the pretty picture of the suburbs, a dark underbelly with luscious blue velvet.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung would describe this underbelly as the shadow of this experience, the unhappy doppelganger lurking in the periphery of our existence, yet all too often ignored. There in Dallas, the shadow was what put the city on the map three decades prior with the assassination of a young president.  We’d pass the Texas School Book Depository, where one of JFK’s assassins was thought to shoot, each night we drove to see shows in Deep Ellum in Dallas.  By then, two decades after the assassination, a different kind of shadow extended itself over the region, with a rash of teen suicides in the Dallas suburb of Plano (28 in 1982), which drew national attention to the problem of teens who felt isolated from the football-loving suburban culture. “Number of Teen-Age Suicides Alarms Parents in Texas City,” declared The New York Times on September 4, 1983.  Everyone in Dallas could feel the tension between those competing social forces that year, two decades after the president’s assassination.

This feeling was certainly on my mind when the iconic San Francisco punk band the Dead Kennedys planned to play in Dallas that spring.  One of my neighbors scolded me for wearing my DK t-shirt a week before the show.  Driving to the show with my older brother, I felt butterflies.  Entering the club, I felt like I was part of a new world, which felt real and foreboding. It was a little scary to watch people hurl themselves into each other, “slam dance” as they called it back then.  I watched in awe as person after person hurled his body off the stage into the amoeba like scene of the crowd. Yet, they trusted the crowd, which most of the time held them. It was a scene both tender and violent.  This was a space for difference, a space to express some of those “burning ambitions” for something bigger, brighter, and more real.  It was something to really feel.

Much of this was on my mind three decades later as I rode through the rain up to the release party for White Riot, held in Death By Audio, a club on South 2nd Street in Greenpoint/Williamsberg in North Brooklyn. Arriving, Ron was inside drinking a beer.  And Steve walked up and gave us a hug.  We’d known Steve since our days with the Lower East Side Collective and Reclaim the Streets back in the late 1990′s.  Duncombe had contributed to our anthology, From ACT UP to the WTO, published the same year as his collected volume, Cultural Resistance Reader.  Since then, Duncombe published The Bobbed Headed Bandit, with Andrew Mattson, and Dream, his work on the politics of fantasy and creativity, inspired in part by those late 1990s activist groups.  White Riotclosely resembles Cultural Resistance Reader.  Both include eclectic collections of essays and studies on the role of culture in social and political movements, with extensive notes and introductions before each essay.  The effect is to connect the stories into a larger cultural study.

Duncombe and Tremblay both read from their wonderful introduction, their words offering a homage to punk and the politics of race in aesthetics, music, and the culture industry in the U.S.  I had never really thought much about punk and race until Duncombe started reading about his memories of performing with his short lived high school band, White Noise, sometimes with a Swastika on his shirt. “For us, the swastika was nine parts shock value,” confessed Duncombe.  “The 1970’s marked the beginnings of the postmodern playhouse we live in today, where seemingly anything can be appropriated, recouped, and made safe.  In the swastika we were looking for something that would resist appropriation and commodification,” (p.5).

Listening to Duncombe read I remembered that uncomfortable feeling of watching the bald headed white men with shaved heads known as “skinheads” at that Dead Kennedy’s show back in ’83.  What was it about those skinheads which bothered me?   In later years, I would learn more and more about the ways machismo worked as a cover for an espousal of racial purity.

One of the fun things about seeing the final product of a book such as this is to reflect on the ways one has heard the authors discuss the inherent ideas represented in other venues— walking the streets, at coffee sheets, etc.  Earlier in the year, Duncombe previewed his argument for White Riotas a group of us sat at my house watching old movies, including Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization.  I recall watching the black and white previews of bodies lunging to and fro in the 1981 film in the Inwood Theater in Dallas.  Watching a vhs copy of the movie decades later with a group of friends, Duncombe pointed out the second singer for Black Flag, Ron Reyes, was from Puerto Rico.  He railed against a “White Majority” and eventually quit the group when the white Surf Punks started dominating their shows, in a frenzy of violence. In the 1950′s, LA surfers had taken to horsing around in Nazi uniforms their fathers had brought back from the war.  Two decades later, their sartorial gestures felt anything but frivolous.  Watching the film, one can see the multi-racial, multi-gender image of punk shows overwhelmed with images of white bodies, as skinheads from Orange Country start to dominate the scene, bringing racism, misogyny, and homophobia with them. Darby Crash of the Germs is seen contending with objects hurled at him during the shows.  He would kill himself in a Bowie-inspired “Rock and Roll Suicide” the week John Lennon died.  He was gone by the time the film was released in 1981.  Along with him, the image of queer bodies would be obscured from the scene, as images of AIDS and Reagan marked a new decade.  The Germs served as a bridge between the liberation politics of the genderfuck Cockettes of the early 1970’s and the DIY world punk, activism, and Queercore of the late 1970s and 80’s (see Shepard, 2010).  Their dada like screams an homage to cultural resistance which would become Duncombe’s long term subject.

“This isn’t white reggae,” Duncombe quoted Joe Strummer introducing the Clash’s anthem “Police and Thieves.”  “This is punk and reggae.  There’s a difference between a ripoff and bringing some of our culture to another culture” (p. 7).  For Duncombe, this meant “’Punk and reggae’ not one culture subsumed by the other, but both standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder.  Featured on the band’s self-titled first album, “Police and Thieves” was my favorite Clash song.  I had stumbled across it on a trip to the record store to buy “Cheap Trick Live at Budokan.”  Along with the Ramones, their music provided the emotional resonance for the 1979 teenage gang rebellion movie “Over the Edge,” about biking together, hanging out, rioting, and building community – instead of caving into the ennui of the suburbs like the Plano kids had done that same year.  With kids on bikes locking their parents in school during a PTA meeting, they smashed cop cars and eventually burned down their own recreation center. The film pointed to something exciting yet ultimately nihilistic in the milieu of suburban life and resistance culture. Watching the bike chase scenes through suburban California, this scene did not feel that much different from the mall rat like existence I knew in Dallas.  While the adrenaline of those scenes and the music was tantalizing, there had to be something more to this passion, which walked the line between destructive and a creative forces.  As Bakunin would famously describe: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

Unable to put my finger on the paradoxical nature of Bakunin’s sentiment, I was drawn back to the Clash, which offered an outlet and direction for this passion. Part of what drew people to the Clash was the intelligence they brought their passionate music.  Paul Simonon, the band’s base player, was intimately aware of the racist subtext of a small subculture of Nazi punks, the edge of which pushed Darby Crash to the brink and drove Ron Reyes out of Black Flag.  Some of these Nazi punks were even drawn to the Clash, even as they flirted with the British National Front. “[W]hen we play reggae, it’s sort of  like turning them on to black music – which helps lead them away from that racist feeling they might have,” noted Simonon in a 1978 interview featured in the collection. “Which is like changing them.  Also from what we’ve done, it’s made loads of kids that would normally go around wrecking up streets and fucking up cars, form groups.  They’re doing something creative, which I think is really important – and they’re doing it and they’re enjoying it…” (p. 170).

Of course, this is the point of DIY culture – to take what one has and build something with that, regardless of the barriers.  This is the spirit of both punk and hip-hop (which feels strangely absent from the volume).  It is also the bridge between Duncombe’s work playing music, DIY culture, and his first book on zines, Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Underground Culture.  The year this book was published, 1997, Duncombe helped form the Lower East Collective, an organizing collective which seemed to embody this DIY ethos.  “All of us with a relationship to the punk scene brought something to it and took something from it,” note Duncombe and Tremblay in their intro. “Punk mattered, and it still matters.  There is something to that, when it works, is incredibly effective.  Take, for example, the efforts of punk-influenced political gestures like Reclaim the Streets, Food Not Bombs, and the Icarus Project or even the mass globalization protests, which applied punk style, strategy and infrastructure to other forms of organization,” (p. 17).  It meant a lot for a lot of us.

I’ll never forget buying that first Clash album.  In an interview in the mid-1980’s Elton John talked about how he used to ride his bike to the record store and buy the new Beatles album whenever it came out.  Looking at the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, he said he was blown away looking at the cover, before even putting the album on the turntable.  I felt the same way when I bought that first Clash record.  It was through the Clash that I learned what Sandinista meant.  It was through this music that I learned that the irresistible creative force inside us can be channeled in a positive direction. In listening to their music or watching films with their members  – such as the movies Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains or Suburbia– I felt like I was connected to a larger narrative of resistance culture, yet this one could take us somewhere. What were we resisting – monoculture, racism, misogyny, homophobia, capitalism – all of these things, yet there was more to it.

Walking a fine line between creativity and destruction, so many from the movement were consumed.  One of the last songs recorded by Joy Division before Ian Curtis killed himself, was “She’s Lost Control,” a song about a client Curtis had known when he was a social worker.  Like him, she suffered from epilepsy and finally died.   Curtis wrote the lyrics, which feel like they could have been about him:

And she showed up all the errors and mistakes,
And said I’ve lost control again.
But she expressed herself in many different ways,
Until she lost control again.
And walked upon the edge of no escape,
And laughed I’ve lost control.
She’s lost control again.
She’s lost control.
She’s lost control again.
She’s lost control.
I could live a little better with the myths and the lies,
When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried.
I could live a little in a wider line,
When the change is gone, when the urge is gone,
To lose control. When here we come.
The force to create is the force to live, even when one is losing control.

Finishing their reading, Duncombe and Tremblay passed the mike to journalist and music writer Siddhartha Mitter, who read from his hilarious and potent essay on Taquacore, a punk genre which builds on and rejects both Muslim tradition and white culture.  “If there was any music capacious enough for all of this, it to be punk – with its embrace of contradiction and its zest for the absurd, the historic, and cultural references making energy out of collision like bodies in the mosh pit” (p. 235).  This collision of bodies is part of what gives the movement its democratic vitality, for at its core this clash between audience and performer implies that neither can really create resistance culture absent each other.  ”We are all the show,” we declared at Occupy Broadway, a 24-hour performance in a privately owned public space a few weeks back, as a new social movement took steam in the streets of a New York City neighborhood where the Clash played for weeks.   Everyone is the show.  This is part of the horizontalism that propels this movement, connecting 1968 with 1999 and 2011.

Watching the London riots of Notting Hill in 1976 inspired Joe Strummer to write the song “White Riot” from their first album.  Before he died, Joe Strummer mused that he really became who he was watching the events of 1968.  The Clash seemed to channel the fury of the MC5 performance during the Democratic National Convention of that year.  “The music is the source and the effect of our spirit flesh,” MC5’s John Sinclair wrote in the liner notes for Kick Out the Jams, featured in White Riot. “[J]ust as you are.  Just as I am.  Just to hear the music and have it be ourselves, is what we want.  What we need.  We are a lonely desperate people, pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition, and we need the music to hold us together.  Separation is doom… [W]e demand a free music, a free high energy source that will drive us wild into the streets of America yelling and screaming and tearing down everything that would keep people slaves…. There is no separation.  Everything is everything.  There is nothing to fear.  The music will make you strong, as it is strong, and there is no way it can be stopped.  All power to the people!  … Go wild!  The world is yours! Take it now and be one with it!  Kick out the jams, motherfucker! And stay alive with the MC5!” (p. 29).

Rare does a reader bring a new perspective on a genre of writing and cultural criticism that has already produced so much over the last four decades.  But this is what White Riot does.  It helps us see punk as a resistance narrative with deep roots and burning ambitions still inspiring, chronicling, rioting, grieving, fighting the power, and kicking out the jams!  As the reading ended on September 22, Max Tremblay’s band, the SLEEPiES, took over.  It was an apt ending for a night of reading, stories, rain, and homage to those performing through the flames.

Joy Division. 1980.  She’s Lost Control. Unknown Pleasures.
Shepard, B. (2010). Play and World Making: From Gay Liberation to DIY Community Building. In Dan Berger. The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism (p.177-94). Rutgers University Press.

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