May 27, 2024


Science It Works

The Education of a Part-Time Punk

My father’s favorite sound was the sound of the kora, a harp-like instrument with twenty-one strings held taut between a wooden neck and a calabash body. He was from the Gambia, in West Africa, a smart and peculiar boy who left his village for the big city, Banjul, and then left Banjul for college and graduate school and a long career in America as a historian of Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the kora reminded him of the village life he had left behind. He named me after a legendary warrior who is the subject of two important compositions in the kora tradition, “Kuruntu Kelefa” and “Kelefaba.” When I was a kid, in suburban New England, I thought of my dad’s beloved kora cassettes as finger-chopping music, because of the keening voices of the griots, who sounded to me as if they were howling. Everyone’s a critic. Especially me, it turned out.

Did I like music? Sure I did. Doesn’t everyone? In second or third grade, I taped pop songs from the radio. A few years after that, I memorized a small handful of hip-hop cassettes. A few years after that, I acquired and studied a common-core curriculum of greatest-hits compilations by the Beatles, Bob Marley, and the Rolling Stones. But I didn’t start obsessing over music until my fourteenth birthday, in 1990, when my best friend, Matt, gave me a mixtape.

Matt had been watching my progress, and he had noticed a couple of things. I was listening to “Mother’s Milk,” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a punk-rock party band that was mugging and wriggling toward mainstream stardom. I was also listening to an album by the rapper Ice-T which had an introduction that announced America’s descent into “martial law.” Matt knew the provenance of this speech, delivered by an ominous man with a nasal voice: it was taken from a spoken-word record by Jello Biafra, who had been the lead singer of an acerbic left-wing punk band called Dead Kennedys. From those two data points, Matt deduced that I was getting my musical education from MTV, and that I might be ready for more esoteric teachings. And so he gave me a punk-rock mixtape, compiled from his own burgeoning collection. Within a few weeks, I was intensely interested in everything that was punk rock, and intensely uninterested in just about everything that wasn’t. I remember pushing aside an old shoebox full of cassettes and thinking, I will never listen to the Rolling Stones again.

Punk taught me to love music by teaching me to hate music, too. It taught me that music could be divisive, could inspire affection or loathing or a desire to figure out which was which. It taught me that music was something people could argue about, and helped me become someone who argued about music for a living, as an all-purpose pop-music critic. I was wrong about the Rolling Stones, of course. But, for a few formative years, I was gloriously and furiously right. I was a punk—whatever that meant. Probably I still am.

Once upon a time, a punk was a person, and generally a disreputable one. The word connoted impudence or decadence; punks were disrespectful upstarts, petty criminals, male hustlers. In the seventies, “punk” was used first to describe a grimy approach to rock and roll, and then, more specifically, to denote a rock-and-roll movement. It was one of those genre names which swiftly become a rallying cry, taken up by musicians and fans looking to remind the mainstream world that they want no part of it. Among the bands on that mixtape was the Sex Pistols, who popularized the basic punk template. When the Sex Pistols appeared on a British talk show in 1976, the host, Bill Grundy, told his viewers, “They are punk rockers—the new craze, they tell me.” Grundy did his best to seem underwhelmed by the spectacle of the four band members, smirking and sneering. “You frighten me to death,” he said sarcastically, goading them to “say something outrageous.” Steve Jones, the guitarist, was happy to oblige, calling Grundy a “dirty fucker” and a “fuckin’ rotter.” A contemporary viewer might be less startled by the profanity than by the fact that one of their entourage was wearing what became an infamous punk accessory: a swastika armband. The next year, the band released “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” the first and only proper Sex Pistols album. It includes “Bodies,” a venomous song about abortion that has no coherent message beyond frustration and disgust: “Fuck this and fuck that / Fuck it all, and fuck the fucking brat.”

When my mother noticed that I was suddenly obsessed with the Sex Pistols, she dimly remembered them as the unpleasant young men who had caused such a fuss back in the seventies. I learned more by picking up “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century,” the first book of music criticism I encountered. The author was Greil Marcus, a visionary rock critic who found himself startled by the incandescence of the Sex Pistols. In Marcus’s view, the group’s singer, Johnny Rotten, was the unlikely (and perhaps unwitting) heir to various radical European intellectual traditions. He noted, meaningfully but mysteriously, that Rotten’s birth name, John Lydon, linked him to John of Leiden, the sixteenth-century Dutch prophet and insurrectionist. Marcus quoted Paul Westerberg, from the unpretentious American post-punk band the Replacements, who loved punk because he related to it. “The Sex Pistols made you feel like you knew them, that they weren’t above you,” Westerberg said. But the Sex Pistols and all the other punks didn’t seem like anyone I knew. They were weird and scary, and their music sounded as if it had crossed an unimaginable cultural gulf, not to mention an ocean and a decade, to find me in my bedroom in Connecticut.

I was born in England, in 1976, a few months before the Sex Pistols terrorized Bill Grundy, and my family lived in Ghana and Scotland before arriving in America, shortly after my fifth birthday. I understand why listeners sometimes hunger to hear their identities reflected in music, but I also suspect that the hunger for difference can be just as powerful. Like my father, my mother was born and raised in Africa—South Africa, in her case. They both taught at Harvard and then at Yale; they both loved classical music, and also “Graceland,” the landmark 1986 Afropop album by Paul Simon.

I was drawn to punk for the same reason that I was not drawn to, say, the majestic Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. Or the great composers whose work I practiced, inconsistently, for my weekly violin lessons. Or the kora. (As a teen-ager, I spent a surreal summer in the Gambia, taking long daily lessons from a kora teacher with whom I communicated mainly in improvised sign language.) I loved punk because I didn’t really see my family represented in it, or myself, at least not in some of the major identity categories that my biography might have suggested: Black, brown-skinned, biracial, African. It was thrilling to claim these alien bands and this alien movement as my own. Punk was the exclusive province of Matt and me and hardly anyone else we knew.

In the years after my conversion, Matt and I broadcast our favorite records to an audience of no one over the airwaves of our ten-watt high-school radio station. We formed bands that scarcely existed. We published a few issues of a homemade punk-rock zine, called ttttttttttt, a name we chose solely because it was unpronounceable. I also started dressing the part, a little. I modified my hair style, turning a halfhearted flattop into something a bit more freakish: I kept the sides of my head shaved and twisted the
top into a scraggly collection of braids, decorated over the years with a few plastic barrettes, a piece of yarn or two, a splash of bleach.

In the New Haven area, where we lived, punk concerts were rare, and most of the clubs barred minors. I found a loophole when I discovered that a nearby concert hall, Toad’s Place, allowed underage patrons if they were accompanied by an adult chaperon. Matt was evidently unable to persuade his parents that this discovery was significant, but I had more luck with mine: I took my mother to see the Ramones, the pioneering New York City punk band. While she watched (or, more likely, didn’t) from the safety of the bar area, I spent a blissful hour amid a sweaty group of aging punks and youthful poseurs, all shoving one another and shouting along.

Cartoon by Seth Fleishman

When I picture myself as a fourteen-year-old in that crowd, saluting the Ramones with a triumphant pair of middle fingers because it seemed like the punk thing to do, I think about the smallness of the punk revolution. In casting aside the Rolling Stones and adopting the Ramones, I had traded one elderly rock band for a different, slightly less elderly rock band. The appeal of punk wasn’t really the community, either, or the do-it-yourself spirit. For me, the thrill lay in its negative identity. Punk demanded total devotion, to be expressed as total rejection of everything that was not punk. This was a quasi-religious doctrine, turning aesthetic disagreements into matters of grave moral significance. Punk was good, and other music was bad, meaning not just inferior but wrong.

Punk rhetoric tended to be both populist and élitist: you took up for “the people” while simultaneously decrying the mediocre crap they listened to. For me, punk meant rejecting mainstream politics, too. I ordered a bunch of buttons from some hippie mail-order catalogue—anti-racism, antiwar, pro-choice—and affixed them to my nylon flight jacket, which was black with orange lining, in keeping with punk-rock tradition. I joined a new gay-rights group at my high school, and I started reading High Times, not because I had any interest in marijuana but strictly because I believed in drug legalization. On record-buying trips to New York, I picked up copies of The Shadow, an anarchist newspaper. Tacked to the wall of my bedroom, printed on sprocket-holed computer paper, were the lyrics to “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” by Dead Kennedys, in which Jello Biafra brays about the evils of the American empire and the passivity of a citizenry that doesn’t realize or care that it’s being “farmed like worms.”

I had three years left in high school, and I dedicated them to an ongoing treasure hunt: if “punk,” broadly defined, meant “weird,” then I resolved to hunt down the weirdest records I could find. Matt and I would head to downtown New Haven, to scour the local outlets: Strawberries, a multi-story place that was part of a regional chain; Cutler’s, a beloved mom-and-pop institution; and, best of all, Rhymes, a dimly lit punk shop above a movie theatre. My mother would give me five dollars, so I could buy lunch from Subway. But we had as much food as I wanted at home and not nearly as many records as I wanted, so I would skip lunch and invest the money in my musical education.

I was monomaniacal and, doubtless, insufferable. I devoted one of my bedroom walls to an enormous and unpleasant poster advertising a clamorous band called Butthole Surfers; it featured four grainy images of an emaciated figure with a horribly distended belly. I fell in love with “noise music,” experimental compositions that resembled static. Much of this was produced in Japan and available on expensive imported CDs, and I think part of what I enjoyed about it was the sheer perversity of paying twenty-five dollars for an hour of music that sounded more or less like the garbage disposal in my parents’ kitchen.

One day in 1991, I took a train to Boston to see a concert with a friend. The headliner was Fugazi, a band from Washington, D.C., that included Ian MacKaye. A decade earlier, with a band called Minor Threat, MacKaye had helped codify a style known as hardcore—a tough, tribal-minded outgrowth of punk rock. Now MacKaye was working to expand the possibilities of hardcore. Fugazi was one of my favorite bands: the music was restless and imaginative, with reggae-inspired bass lines and impressionistic lyrics, many of them murmured or moaned, rather than shouted. I was expecting an audience full of fans as reverent as I was. But Fugazi drew lots of unreformed hardcore kids, and so the atmosphere inside the club was tense. (It was St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, which tends to be a rowdy occasion, even when there isn’t a hardcore show going on.) I saw skinheads for the first time, and wondered how scared I should be. MacKaye regarded the crowd with patient disapproval, searching for some way to get everyone to stop shoving and hitting and stage diving. At one point, when the music calmed down but the slam dancers did not, he said, “I want to see, sort of, the correlation between the movement—here—and the sound—there.”

There must have been a couple thousand people in the crowd, and one of them was Mark Greif, a scholar and cultural critic, who later mentioned the concert in a perceptive essay about his experience with punk and hardcore. He adored Fugazi, and remembered being “mesmerized” by the “pointless energy” of the kids in the pit but also dispirited by it. “I sorrowed that all this seemed unworthy of the band, the music, the unnameable it pointed to,” he wrote. I had a nearly opposite reaction. The tension and hints of violence were thrilling, because they made me feel I was not simply watching a concert but witnessing a drama, and not one guaranteed to end
well. I heard the music differently after that—now it was inseparable from the noise and menace of that show.

Despite my immersion in punk, I was never possessed of anything like punk credibility, which meant that I had none of it to lose by enrolling at Harvard. I arrived in the fall of 1993, looking for punk-rock compatriots, and I found them at the college radio station, in the dusty basement of Memorial Hall, one of the grandest buildings on campus. Like most college radio stations, WHRB was full of obsessives who loved to argue about music. Unlike most college radio stations, it aspired to academic rigor. Students hoping to join the punk-rock department, which controlled late-night programming, first had to take a semester-long unofficial class in punk-rock history. Enrollment was limited to applicants who passed a written exam, which included both essay questions and a quick-response section, in which they—we—were played snippets of songs and instructed to write down reactions. I remember hearing a few twangy notes of unaccompanied electric guitar and immediately knowing two things for certain: that the song was “Cunt Tease,” a sneering provocation by a self-consciously crude group called Pussy Galore, and that I would never again be as well prepared for a test.

Years later, I was interviewed for the arts-and-culture magazine Bidoun alongside Jace Clayton, a fellow-writer and music obsessive, who also happens to be, very much unlike me, an acclaimed musician. Jace and I met at the Harvard radio station, taking that punk-rock exam, which repelled him as totally as it seduced me. “By the end of the test, I was just writing satirical, increasingly bitter answers to these ridiculous questions,” he remembered. He said that WHRB was the “worst radio station ever,” and he got his revenge by taking his talents two subway stops away, to the M.I.T. radio station, where he played whatever records he liked.

For me, though, WHRB’s devotion to punk-rock orthodoxy was a revelation. I had assumed that the spirit of punk was, as Johnny Rotten put it, “anarchist,” anti-rules. But every culture, every movement, has rules, even—or especially—those which claim to be transgressive. As aspiring d.j.s, we were taught that punk wasn’t some all-embracing mystical essence, to be freely discovered by every seeker, or even a universal ideal of negation, but a specific genre with a specific history. Each week that fall, we were presented with a lecture from a veteran d.j. and a crate of ten or so canonical albums; before the next lecture, we had to listen to them and note our reactions. We were free to say that we hated this music—no one there liked all the records, and some people disliked most of them. Once we became d.j.s, we would be expected to express ourselves by writing miniature reviews on white stickers affixed to the album covers, or to the plastic sleeves that held them. But first we had to study.

One of the most cherished records on the WHRB syllabus was “Wanna Buy a Bridge?,” which was new to me—hearing it was like hearing a secret history. It was a battered artifact from 1980, released on an English independent label called Rough Trade, and it gathered fourteen tracks from fourteen bands that were making scrappy but sweet music in the immediate aftermath of punk. Most of this music didn’t sound like punk rock but was still closely linked to it, a relationship reflected in a gentle, rather amateurish song by a group called Television Personalities. Dan Treacy, the main member, led what sounded like a bedroom sing-along, poking fun at young people practicing their “punk” moves at home—“but only when their mum’s gone out.” The verses were rather judgmental, but by the time Treacy got to the chorus he sounded like a small boy watching a delightful parade:

Here they come
La-la la-la la, la
La-la la-la la, la
The part-time punks

There were good reasons, no doubt, that a song like this would resonate with a bunch of Harvard undergraduates for whom punk indoctrination was merely one of many extracurricular activities. There was something ridiculous about the WHRB ethos—but there has always been something ridiculous about punk, which cultivated an image of chaos and insubordination that no human being could possibly live up to, at least not for long. What would it mean, really, to be a full-time punk?