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Where'd all the punk go?

By Matt Ashare

DECEMBER 15, 1997: 

KISS THIS: PUNK IN THE PRESENT TENSE, By Gina Arnold. St. Martin's Griffin, 205 pages, $11.95.

MAKE THE MUSIC GO BANG! THE EARLY L.A. PUNK SCENE, Edited by Don Snowden. Photographs by Gary Leonard. St. Martin's Griffin, 179 pages, $17.95.

If 1991 through 1996 were the years that punk broke, suddenly and unexpectedly feeding the mainstream with the formerly forbidden fruits of a decade and a half of underground ferment, then it appears that 1997 was the year that punk's always tenuous relationship with the commercial world finally broke down. The Northwest passage Nirvana blasted through in '91 is all but sealed up. Kurt's beloved Melvins are back (where they belong) on an indie label after an absurd couple of discs on Atlantic, Sub Pop is struggling to maintain its relevance with no flagship artists, and Krist Novoselic is playing in a mediocre punkish outfit (Sweet 75). Even Bush, the Brit band who made a bundle ripping off Nirvana, have conveniently scurried, like rats on a sinking ship, from poseur punk to electronica with their latest, the remix collection Deconstructed. As for California's big little three: Green Day's new Nimrod (Reprise) hasn't done half as much business as 1995's Insomniac, which itself fell short of Dookie's 1994 triumph; Rancid have been busy aligning themselves with the emerging ska nation (through Tim Armstrong's new Hellcat imprint label); and the Offspring, well, not only haven't they been moving as Columbia had hoped when the major label signed the band away from the indie Epitaph, but their power ballads sound more pop-metal than punk these days.

So where'd all the punk go? Some would point to the corrupting influence of punk's favorite faceless enemy -- the major label -- an argument that's been around at least since 1978, when CBS persuaded the Clash to retain the services of producer Sandy Perlman (who'd previously worked with Blue Öyster Cult) for Give 'em Enough Rope. Others might postulate that whatever made Nirvana punk vanished as soon as the band caught their first whiff of mass teen spirit, that Green Day and all their various offspring ceased to be "punk" the moment their CDs made it into the front-of-the-store displays at the local mall, regardless of whether the actual product was manufactured and distributed by a major label. All of which begs the eternally unanswerable question: "What is punk?"

In Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense, Bay Area-based writer Gina Arnold entertains various points of view regarding punk's ill health and attempts to zero in on what makes punk punk (fashion? ideology? musical style?). The book is a sequel to her Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, a rock critic/fan's memoir of sorts published in 1993 that traced the evolution of punk in America from the Sex Pistols' disastrous 1978 swan song at San Francisco's Winterland through a confused yet rewarding decade of insular growth in underground hardcore and college/indie-rock scenes across the country, and then on up to its early-'90s mainstream emergence in the form of Nirvana, Lollapalooza, and the alternative nation.

It should be noted up front that Arnold has an annoying tendency to get facts wrong: in Route 666 she identifies R.E.M.'s five-song Chronic Town as a "four-song" EP after going on at length about how often she listened to it when it came out; in Kiss This she erroneously claims that the only million-selling albums in 1996, the year both Metallica and Soundgarden released platinum-certified discs, were rap. Kiss This is also the victim of lax copy-editing -- you get "pad thai" and "pad Thai," an album titled "Pile Up" and "Pileup."

Arnold, as she points out in the final chapter of Kiss This, had considered calling the new book The Death of Punk, which certainly has a bolder sensationalist ring to it. But she ran into the same problem that confronted the feds who investigated the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa -- no corpse. So she embarks on a journey in search of punk in the present tense, one that takes her from, yes, the Sex Pistols' 1978 Winterland gig to their 1996 reunion shows at the Messila festival in Finland and a Finsbury Park extravaganza in London; from the 1996 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference to the Lollapalooza tour later that year (featuring Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, the Ramones, and Rancid); from an afternoon drive through Berkeley with the members of Rancid to a Pearl Jam tour that lands in the snowy Czech Republic in the fall of '96. Along the way she encounters fellow travelers struggling, with varying degrees of difficulty and success, to keep the faith: former Bad Religion guitarist/current Epitaph honcho Brett Gurewitz, troubled Rancid lead singer Tim Armstrong, Pansy Division frontguy Jon Ginoli, the members of Seattle's Fastbacks.

The result is a colorful and engrossing travelogue, in the tradition of Chet Flippo, a writer who spent the '70s and early '80s chasing the ghost of rock and roll on the road with the Rolling Stones, Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, and Tony Bennett. But just as Flippo, whose work is collected in Everyone Was Kung-Fu Dancing: Chronicles of the Lionized and the Notorious, was often searching for rock where he didn't necessarily expect to find it, Arnold seems to be looking for punk in all the wrong places. Festival concerts, media conferences, and reunion tours aren't where the punk Arnold chronicled in Route 666 happened, and they're not where it's happening now. Indeed, one of the central points of Route 666 is that this music took hold in backyards and basements and dorm rooms across the country while nobody important was paying any attention.

Arnold does her best reporting when she digs around Berkeley, her own backyard, and finds the all-volunteer punk club 924 Gilman Street (where Rancid and Green Day both got their start) battling it out with the Seattle-based Hart's Brewing Company at a zoning-adjustment-board hearing. Gilman Street, the pride of the East Bay punk scene, exists in an industrial wasteland, an oasis of urban ugliness in upscale Berkeley, where nobody would have dreamed of opening a rock club a decade ago unless he 1) didn't have any better options, and/or 2) wanted nothing to do with mainstream culture. As Arnold's story unfolds, Hart's, a successful microbrewer, wants to move in across the street from the club, and the Gilman punks see the writing on the wall: Hart's represents the encroachment of mainstream culture just as surely as the A&R scouts who showed up to try to sign Green Day several years ago. But whereas the A&R scouts flew back to LA the next day, Hart's will be a constant presence, one that will potentially destroy this punk stronghold by attracting the "wrong" element, raising rents, and bursting the fragile bubble that's existed around Gilman Street since its inception. (One glaring omission from Arnold's background reporting on Gilman Street is the story of how Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra was badly beaten on the premises several years ago by a group of punks who accused him of being a "sellout.")

In a strange twist, the zoning board almost sides with the punks -- apparently the hippie '60s have left their anti-capitalist mark on Berkeley's elders. But just as the ideological imperatives of punk never seem strong enough to keep bands like Offspring or Green Day from signing with major labels, no amount of political maneuvering ever seems to stop the spread of capitalist enterprises, whether it's a Gap in the Haight or a brewpub on Gilman Street. After all her travels, Arnold has stumbled upon a microcosm of the American punk experience in the '90s, a scene on the verge of being overrun by commercial interests, the termination of a unique set of circumstances that made Gilman Street possible. It will never, as they say, be same as it was back in the day.

But you have to wonder whether places like Gilman Street are meant to last. Isn't their fleeting nature part of what makes them so special? Arnold more or less reaches that conclusion at the end of Kiss This, where, paraphrasing Gurewitz, she decides that punk's "not dead . . . it's just resting," waiting for its next opportunity to shake things up again.

Punk scenes (or movements, or communities) have always come and gone, leaving behind little more than a few diehard bands, amusing stories, some classic albums -- the musical equivalent of fragmented anthropological evidence. One such scene is loosely chronicled in Make the Music Go Bang!: The Early L.A. Punk Scene, a collection of photographs by Gary Leonard and short essays by some of the people who were there, including bandmembers Exene Cervenka (X) and Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks), writers Don Snowden (the book's editor) and Kristine McKenna, and scenesters Pleasant Gehman and Claude Bessy. The book is filled mostly with trivial details -- half-remembered anecdotes about shows the cops shut down and clandestine parties, candid black-and-white photographs of dozens of not so famous people and a few famous ones, lists of the places the Germs and X used to hang out, pet theories about what made LA different from London or New York. And more than one contributor wonders why anyone who wasn't there would in the least care to read such a book.

But in 1997, a volume like Make the Music Go Bang has a unique relevance, if only because it offers evidence of punk's cyclical nature. Punk flares up in places where nobody is looking, burns bright and angry for a period of days, months, or years, and then fades away, only to flare up again in another time and place. And it appears out of necessity: as former Slash-magazine editor Claude Bessy maintains in his essay, "The late-seventies Los Angeles music thing would have happened no matter what. If it hadn't been punk (thank you England for the convenient label) it would have been something else, but IT WOULD HAVE BEEN."

What Bessy doesn't say is that it couldn't have happened the same way anywhere else or at any other time. In other words, the punk Arnold is searching for in Kiss This takes place within a certain social, temporal, and geographical context -- it's rooted in specific communities (X's first album, after all, was called Los Angeles). Once that context is violated -- by major-label outsiders, Hart's Brewing Company, or any number of other factors -- the punk ends and you're left with Green Day, Offspring, and Rancid: rock bands created by punk scenes. As Kristine McKenna writes in Make the Music Go Bang, "It's truly a gift to experience one of those brief moments in time when the culture splits wide open and all hell breaks loose. One of those moments happened in LA in the late '70s, and it's unlikely I'll be lucky enough to see the likes of it again."


Matt Ashare can be reached at mashare@phx.com.


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