Punks and Film

Last week was the Little Rock Film Festival (May 11th-17th) — the annual event in which the city’s cultural movers and shakers come out to socialize and see independent films. I put my normal routine on hold (as I am wont to do) so I could attend a handful of the festival’s films and parties, justifying it as a networking opportunity. Though I probably just wanted to get out of the house and see people, I did in fact end up meeting or reconnecting with a number of writers, musicians, actors, directors, program directors, and venue owners who were eager to talk about their craft and mine; cards were exchanged, facebook invites were sent, and gigs were offered. Little Rock is a small pond— if you want to get plugged in to the music and arts community here, it is relatively easy to swim around and meet the right fish. I can’t expect for my music to be supported unless I too am supporting the arts and investing time in meeting my audience and potential collaborators. So in the spirit of mutual support I’d like to express my appreciation for a handful of things I experienced during the festival:

  1.  The short film “The Dealer’s Tale”— a sleek and enjoyable adaptation of a story written by my friend Frank Thurmond.
  2. The short film “Monotony Broken”— I had no prior connection to this two person silent film, I just sincerely liked it and ended up having good conversations with both the director JC Cocker and the male lead Kristof Waltermire (it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to talk to the female lead either).
  3. The KUAR radio program Arts & Letters— I met the host Brad Minnick at the premiere of the previous two films, and he told me all about this wonderful radio show which features local artists, musicians, and authors.
  4. Cache Restuarant and Lounge— the location of the film festival’s opening night party, and consistent host and supporter of local musicians.

But most of all, I just want to talk about punk rock.

On Monday I saw the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) at the Ron Robinson Theatre. True to it’s title, the film documented the rise of such DC punk bands as The Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, and Fugazi, most of whom released their records on the local independent label Dischord Records. Some people sitting in the theater with me were audibly nostalgic, greeting certain people, pictures, and comments in the film with warm knowing laughter; many of them lived through the period, collected the records, and perhaps even saw some of these bands live. I on the other hand, having neither lived through this time (I was born in late ’88) nor listened to the music, approached the subject as an outsider eager to learn about a musical culture different than my own.

One thing struck me as encouraging: the idea that anyone can and should play music if they want to. The punk scene allowed young people a new avenue of musical expression that didn’t require one to conform to the pop-music standards of the time; you didn’t necessarily have to be an adept musician to play in a band or make a record— the DC scene offered a community of support for anyone who wanted to get on stage and make some noise. Furthermore, if you didn’t want to be in a band, you could make a fanzine, or engage with the band at shows— there was a way for everyone to actively participate in the music and lifestyle. One former punk rocker in the film insightfully pointed out that it is common in most musical cultures throughout the world for everyone to play or participate in music. In this sense, punk rock is perhaps more in line with the traditional communal functions of music than other Western music genres which essentially adorn certain musicians as untouchable genius superstar gods. I too believe that everyone should be given opportunity to play music, and any community or genre that allows for that is certainly doing something positive.

One thing struck me as interesting: almost every band member interviewed in the film defined themselves against someone or something else. There were few if any actual affirmative definitions of the music and lifestyle, but a multitude of “I am not them” definitions. Early on in the film, the first wave of punks defined themselves against the musical and societal norms of middle-class America. Henry Rollins, then front-man for the band State of Alert, recounted a belligerent confrontation with a muscle-car driving jock-type who was “probably listening to Boston or Kansas.” The implication was that this was precisely who the punks were not. As the punk scene evolved, bands began to define themselves not only against the music and behavior of society at large, but even against other punk bands. Ian Mackaye, founder of Dischord Records and then front man for the band Minor Threat, famously wrote a song called “Straight Edge” in reaction to the heavy drinking and hardcore drug use in the punk community— exclaiming in the first lines of the song that “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do, than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead.” Yet shortly after the “Straight Edge” movement spread throughout the DC punk scene, other bands in the scene such as Black Market Baby arose in opposition to the straight edge movement, claiming the title “Bent Edge,” representing their open indulgence in drugs and alcohol. This trend of counter-definition (and subsequent counter-counter-defintion), continued as mini-movements like girl punk, positive force, revolution summer (1985), and emo ebbed and flowed throughout the DC punk scene; punks consistently defined themselves by what they were not.

This style of defining oneself and one’s music is ultimately neither good nor bad. Surely it can sometimes be counter-productive to be overly invested in trying not to be something, but deciding who you are not is a useful step in uncovering who you are (whether musically or personally). Furthermore, if you think beyond its capitalistic, religious, or cathartic purposes, Western Music has essentially been a progressive dialogue about what is possible in and good about music. Original music can either affirm a tradition or challenge and expand it; this has been happening throughout music history. So many of our culture’s great musical icons have engaged in defining themselves and their music against the trends of the time and were made greater for it (Beethoven bending the rules of the classical symphony, Bob Dylan adopting the electric guitar, etc…). And sometimes the greatness of an oppositional musical act is not measured in personal fame, but in the endurance of that act; e.g. the relatively unknown Grand Wizzard Theodore utilizing the turntable as an instrument rather than merely a passive audio player by inventing the technique of scratching. Music evolves through challenge and opposition to existing musical forms and methods. The DC punk musicians, with their many schisms, were simply continuing to do what countless composers, musicians, and artists have done or tried to do throughout the ages: challenge and expand music and art.

Either that, or they were just being punks. Which brings me to the one thing that struck me as problematic: most of the music was pretty bad, and some of it bad by design. In saying this, I do realize that musical taste is subjective and that many people sincerely enjoy what I am deeming “bad”— yet to me there are certain qualities that make some musical performances better than others (i.e. rhythmic accuracy, correct pitch, dynamic range, melodic and harmonic variety, etc…) which seemed to be lacking in most of the songs I heard in the film. So often drummers sped up past the starting tempo, guitars were out of tune, band-mates were not synced up rhythmically with each other, and there was essentially no dynamic variation (abrasively loud was the preferred volume). It was a deep breath of fresh air when the film explored the punk fascination with Washington DC Go-Go music, and I got to briefly listen to danceable grooves and accurate melodies. I understand that punk is deliberately rough around the edges, yet I disapprove when some members of the scene deliberately eschew technical proficiency in music. One former punk band member stated in the film that “there was this idea during the time that you had to be like Jaco Pastorius to be in a band. Well we knew we weren’t very good, and we didn’t care.” This statement does partly articulate the inclusionary nature of the punk scene (which above I claimed was a positive trend), but it also ignores the legitimacy of trying to improve at the craft of music. I am not indicting punk as an entire genre; of the DC bands featured in the film, I do really enjoy Fugazi. Yet I don’t think it is a mistake that they became the most famous and successful of the bunch; musically they were the best band. Their bass player and drummer (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty respectively) each had great musical chops and locked in with each other to form the tight rhythmic foundation of the band, and singers/guitarists Ian Makaye and Guy Picciotto were veteran punk rockers of over half a decade when Fugazi was founded who each wrote and performed songs with catchy hooks and dynamic changes. Some punk bands may embrace shoddy musical performance, but those are not the bands which succeed. Regardless of the genre, if you want to be a good band, you have to play music well.

As I said at the beginning of my philosophical foray into DC punk territory, I am an outsider. I’ve attended some house parties with punk bands, and even briefly performed with a punk-ish band, but I’ve never been immersed in the community. I admit that my opinions on this issue do not come from a place of deep experience or emotion. It is clear to me that punk rock is meaningful to a large number of people, and I invite any of those people to talk to me about what they feel I’ve missed or misunderstood about the scene. I don’t mean to temper my stance too much— I still believe everything I just wrote is true and am ready to defend it, but I recognize that my education is incomplete. I would love to hear from anyone with different theories about punk— feel free to drop me a line.

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