Saturday, July 30, 2005

When Punk Was Political


no war30, originally uploaded by Cool Auntie.

Saturday morning, crack of dawn the morning after a rock show night... a sure sign you're getting old is that you wake up early or at least on time to get things done. Just when I thought I was the only one awake, an email from Margaret & Wayne Kramer is delivered.

The MC5, the Detroit proto-punk-as-agitprop rock band born in the '60s, is playing a free show in Central Park today. Margaret and Wayne sent a reminder and a nice note that there are guest passes. That means possibly a bleacher seat, and better, shelter from the bright sunlight!! Another sign you're getting old: you want to sit down at general admission shows. Not the Five though! Those guys, Wayne Kramer, Mike Davis, and Dennis Thompson are in better fighting shape than kids half their age.

The MC5's modus operandi, in addition to kicking out the jams, was to agitate. Not unlike Woody Guthrie before them, or The Clash many years later. Like religion, politics is a topic best left out of social situations but they both find their way into the arts.

This photo was taken in winter 2004 in Detroit, at 1515 Broadway in the Cass Corridor. The layers of meaning are many...for me, at least. The address, 1515 Broadway is also the address of MTV Networks in New York City. It is a building I worked in for about five years, for the biggest media company in the world. The one you can blame for pinball graphics and the quick edits that can give you ADD. The one that doesn't seem to play music anymore. Once upon a time, the network I worked for tried to do a series called "Rock n Roll Cities." Pilot episodes on Austin and Detroit were produced.

Fifteen years or so after VH1's attempt to chronicle the rock n roll city that is Detroit, an independent director has taken it upon himself to document the garage rock scene in an in-progress work called It Came From Detroit. That guy is James Petix and he's shot some great performance and interview footage. When you get a chance, click on the link and see his trailers. You'll really enjoy them. If you thought punk was dead in the 2000's, just catch Clone Defect/Human Eye player Timmy Vulgar!

Anyway, "punk rock" the term and the genre mean so many things to so many people.

To me, an impressionable but left-leaning troublemaker at 18, spending time in the UK, I responded to the political and philosophically nihilist message of the Sex Pistols and Clash. The "No Future" acknowledgment painted a realistic rather than a rosy picture of the state of the state and what the state was doing about it. Later, my Woody Guthrie-loving buddy, Billy Bragg would carry on the Clash's torch.

Back home in sunny Southern California, my peers responded to the power and fury of the music more than the message, and of course to the about-face in fashion that punk rockers threw out there with their music. I think Californians had their own brand of teenage ennui and we bred bands like X, the Dils, Avengers and Nuns who responded appropriately for the middle class.

Even though they were on my radar (and especially when Patti Smith kept reminding us they were great), I never paid the kind of attention to the MC5 back then as I should have. Today, its easy to see how their involvement in the race/class thang that tore Detroit and other urban centers apart in the 60s helped raise youth culture's awareness of politics. It is easy to write, 30 years and more later, that rebellious rock n roll was one of the unifying voices, a spokesman for a generation could be identified in a rock band. But back in their day, the MC5 and their political counter-parts, the White Panthers were merely troublemakers and agitators. They were miscreants and malcontents, and oh, yeah... drunks and druggies. The cops noticed them! Some of these people did hard time.

Well these meandering paragraphs are getting to the point that I find it ironic to photograph a homeless man in front of a yuppie restaurant in the Cass Corridor (one of Detroit's notorious ghettoes)that bears a NO WAR sign in its window. Just a rich image to me. A vision just as rich as many of the protest songs I knew and loved that rocked...from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, folkies who rocked like punks in both attitude and performance and songwriting so much so that you could make a case for them as early proto-punks, before there was a name for that attitude in rock n roll. From the MC5 to the Clash to the Dils ("Eat the Rich")to the Avengers and Billy Bragg and now with bands like the Libertines (courtesy of the Clash's Mick Jones's production chops, the tradition of protest and politics carries on.)

Even though mainstream and mass culture has co-opted so much of the edgy, outsider, renegade aspect of protest music, punk rock and rock n roll culture in general (look at the way people dress these days, or the way our advertising graphics look), there will always be something to rage against and we can find a way to sneak our message to the masses by way of rock n roll.

I think we may have won... perversely... subverting from the inside, one malleable listener at a time. At least I hope so.

It takes me back about 20 years ago or so when U2 was in the position to anchor for their hometown of Dublin and event called Self Aid. A not-yet-Sir Bob Geldolf was also involved in this - an event raising money for and encouraging the self-determination of Dubliners to get out of the No Future mind set and situation. No matter how mainstream you find U2 and Bob Geldolf, you do have to give it up to them to lend their celebrity for good rather than evil in trying to help their deteriorating city.

I wish that cities like Detroit and Cleveland and other Rust Belt towns could have a from-within Renaissance that we could attribute in part to the efforts of their rock n roll community.

I guess you can call me a dreamer...
a line from the guy who asked you to "give peace a chance"

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