Anyone who remembers the punk and alternative rock scene of the late 1980s or early 1990s, can remember it mostly as an iconic era where freedom was celebrated, cheap beer flowed in endless fountains and many Clove cigarettes were smoked.
Unlike nearly every other musical genre at the time, which seemed to have their own style constraints for attending shows or being part of a scene (hair metal?), at punk rock shows no one gave a damn if you were straight or gay, liberal or conservative, a frat boy or hipster or the biggest math nerd on the planet. Everyone was there for the music, which also happened to be some of the best the world has ever heard.
The argument about the death of punk has been long and really varies depending on who tells the story. It would be hard to even get someone to tell you what punk actually is. Some would argue that the spirit of punk died as early as 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco when the Sex Pistols performed their last concert in front of thousands of hippies who alternately cheered and booed them and then immediately left after Johnny Rotten dropped his mic and quit the band.
Others argue that punk died in 1993 with the advent of corporate “punk” rock bands after Nirvana came along. Yet, I would argue that punk and the true essence of rock-n-roll started gasping for its last breaths after January 6th of 2021, when one of indie rock’s greatest artists, Ariel Pink, a quiet Trump supporter, was canceled and dropped by his record label just for appearing at the protest.
He didn’t even get close to the United States Capitol steps. When musicians with the integrity and genius of Pink start getting canceled for political beliefs, in Red Guard actions that reek of totalitarianism, you know you are in a desperate place.
Yet, for me, the whole concept of renegade, free rock n’ roll, which was encapsulated in punk rock, died last night at a show in my hometown. Despite revised CDC recommendations and the fact that none of these restrictions does any good for mitigating the Covid virus, one of my favorite bands, Built to Spill, required this of their fans to attend a show on September 20, 2022:
Per artist request, all fans are required to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of the event OR full vaccination for entry to all events in the venue. All patrons will be required to wear masks except while drinking. Additional policies may apply.
Back-story. As a lonely, disillusioned teen in 1988, I made the acquaintance of one Edward Verso, whose family was an early refugee from California to the Midwest. We constantly listened to the band The Minutemen and especially their first EP, 1980’s Paranoid Time, an EP that should be blared in our current president’s Strangelovian ears.
Paranoid Time was a blisteringly fast, anti-war, pro nuclear disarmament, Old Left polemic, aimed directly at the early Reagan years. When I first met Eddie, in 1988, it was in the dying embers of those Reagan years, and we viscerally related to The Minutemen’s alienation and discontent with contemporary culture.
We were mocked by other high schoolers for our musical tastes. People laughed in our face for wearing anti-apartheid buttons. Eddie was beat up constantly at the small rural high school he attended just because he had multiple ear piercings.
Rejecting conformity and sending a big middle finger at the establishment and especially anyone who told you how you should run your body was our modus operandi. Eddie turned me on to Husker Du, Big Black, Minor Threat and a whole host of other bands who, if anything, wanted to smash the establishment once and for all. Non-conformity ruled. Husker Du’s Grant Hart played drums barefoot, for God’s sake.
Fast forward to 2022 and a never-ending “pandemic.” What has become remarkably and painfully clear to me is that many artists who once represented the true essence of renegade rock and punk, those who embraced it early on (Neil Young is a great example from his wonderful Rust Never Sleeps) had actually become the establishment, clearly a group of people who would censor and even destroy if one did not follow the rules of the establishment.
In Neil Young’s case, it was his appalling attempt to cancel Joe Rogan. In a subsequent nasty tizzy when Spotify wouldn’t comply, he then jerked all his music off the platform, with artists like Joni Mitchell coming along for this ride of censorship. This unbelievable turn of events came directly after Dr. Robert Malone was hosted on Rogan’s podcast.
Dr. Malone was speaking painful truths about the efficacies, or lack thereof, of the mRNA vaccine and also about the benefits of natural immunity and ivermectin; all extremely useful information which has recently been validated, most particularly the recognition of natural immunity. This was stuff that people need to hear in order to make educated decisions and so that we have a functioning democracy and scientific community.
Rogan, whose podcast I adore mainly because of its iconoclastic nature, and who has interviewed some of my favorite people on the planet, has been reduced to a second-class citizen on the Spotify platform. Every one of his podcasts features a stamp of warning, not unlike the stickers introduced by Tipper Gore’s awful Parents Music Resource Center which were stamped on albums this group deemed morally inappropriate in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet, the PMRC was benign compared to our current age. It wasn’t invested in a terrifying, dystopian and quasi-totalitarian regime that actually censors thought, speech, scientific inquiry and even political action. The PMRC now feels like a band of relatively benign tut-tutting church ladies who just liked to meddle.
What we now have is far more dangerous: a radical “left” establishment (which I would argue isn’t even truly “left” anymore) that will censor and destroy unless we all follow the party line, a party line that is clearly in service of giant global corporations, the military-industrial “bio-defense” complex and their state actors and functionaries.
What is also clear to me is that this sort of faux-Jacobin fervor is actually all uniquely performative and brainwashed. I continue to come back to frightening similarities to Red Guard actions during China’s Cultural Revolution. Performative events happen all the time in my blue city, such as the marching in protest by high school students at my local high school not because they had to wear masks, but because the school system abolished the mask mandate.
Back to the band Built to Spill and their draconian request not only for masking, but also vaccine proof, to attend their show.
I did not attend this show. Neither will I buy Built to Spill’s new album, which I’ve heard is actually quite good and for which they are touring. I just envisioned myself at the concert, sipping my non-alcoholic drink with my mask askew, miserable in a hot venue trying to breath through a nasty piece of cloth, remembering the old days when a bunch of us stood at the front of the stage with our eardrums being wrecked at My Bloody Valentine’s first US tour, awash in beer and cigarettes and our own peculiar form of joy.
In the back of my mind I could see a bouncer smashing my head in not because I was trying to stage dive but because I wasn’t wearing my surgical mask correctly.
Punk is dead.