My First Time
A Collection of First Punk Show Stories
Chris Duncan, Editor
Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007
Yes, a review-essay on a new book about punk rock. So what’s that got to do with the blues? Plenty, as you’ll see below. This is exactly why my column is called “Blues and More.” Because, just as with the review last week of the killer CD by the Killer himself, classic rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lewis, I wanted to be able to explore far more that is relevant to the living soul of the blues than just genre-specific blues music itself. And a good look at My First Times fits this format of doing blues – and more – exactly.
My First Times is rich and intriguing, composed of 43 retrospective vignettes of the contributors’ initiation rite of passage as young adolescents and late pre-adolescents into what they all regard as a positive, life-changing experience, the punk rock scene from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.
Further, the book is graced by 20 photos of key punk rock bands in performance and significant punk personalities, a photo of punk pioneer Joey Ramone’s tombstone and four flyers of classic punk rock shows. And also, biographical notes on the contributors, many of whom went on to become significant players in punk bands and writers and editors for punk zines, founded punk rock record labels, and were otherwise continuing participants in the “scene” up to the present.
Living proof that the punk rock scene was anything but a transient fad. My First Times is saucy, irreverent, straightforwardly honest, and has an attitude—exactly like the music of which it is about!
I was an eager aficionado of punk when it first emerged, absolutely blown away as a 30-something, New Left veteran by the in-your-face directness of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”:
God save the Queen
The fascist regime
We have no future
We have no future
(The Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen”)
And I too had my initiation rite of passage as an adolescent and young adult when I discovered the music of my life, only it was 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B; Bealtlemania, the British Invasion, and Bob Dylan’s surrealistic folk-rock of 1964-1965; and, as a freshman in college in 1965, the electric blues.
And, in common with these young punkers 20 or so years my junior, I, too, was fleeing the “respectable whiteness” of “mainstream” social and cultural sterility, I, too, was a harassed pariah and outcast in the “mainstream” world in which I was forced to exist, but could never live in.
So well can I identify with the vignettes in My First Times. For me, Jerry Lee Lewis was my Clash; Solomon Burke and Ray Charles my Sex Pistols; Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf my Ramones; and the early Beatles, Kinks and Who my Circle Jerks.
But that’s enough about me. Let’s now turn to the contributors in My First Times and let them describe so tellingly what all this meant for them, and how, from these particular meanings, it crosses and encompasses generations for all of us “old enough” to never have abandoned our youthful ideals and dreams.
Andy Shoup writes, “[H]ow you can think the world works within certain constraints – according to certain rules – and then all of a sudden, you are exposed to a new environment that makes you feel like everything you knew before can get chucked right out the fucking window, and from that point on, you want only to think about the New Way.”
And Jillian Lauren, “At least when I went home the next day, to the purgatory of the suburbs, I wouldn’t feel as alone as I had before.”
Anna Brown relates it to the political: “The next morning my ears were ringing, I smelled like cigarettes, and I wanted more. Not more drugs, but more of the feeling that I was in the right place for once in my life. No one there expected me to look a certain way, to be happy or well adjusted. You weren’t supposed to be happy. Fucking Multi Death corporations ruled the planet; there were CIA-sponsored wars in El Salvador; animals suffered at the hands of factory farm butchers!!! There was nothing wrong with me that wasn’t wrong with all of us. Everyone’s parents were a drag and school sucked, but it was cool cause when you got to the punk show none of that stuff mattered. It wasn’t our fault we were pissed off—it was practically our duty. After all, I learned, society made us this way.”
Russ Rankin tells of how the legendary punk venue in Berkeley, the Gilman Street Project, personified “how a community of aware, like-minded people were able to create a space where a counter culture blossomed; where bands and audiences became one.”
George Hurchalla speaks of this community as an ocean where “the ocean would grow to be something even larger and more uncontrollable. Into this is where we would throw our beliefs, no matter how half-baked or ill-formed, and watch them collide and mutate and sometimes break. The best thing about the ocean was that it was ours. We had a motherfucking ocean.”
Sto Cinders relates, [T]his was where I truly belonged – not on a sports team or in the math league or hanging out with the preps at their lame parties. I was a punk and THIS was my family.”
Seeing the Ramones in Wisconsin shaped Steven Sciscenti’s life: “I did indeed become a Communist and did my level best to be a faggot.”
And Joe Queer sums it all best in the ending vignette: “It wasn’t a career move to be in a punk band then. It was either ‘Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order?’ or punk rock. No in-between.”
To be sure, the newly-emerging scene of the decade encompassed here wasn’t an idyllic youthful Arcadia. Slam dancing and moshing could cause serious bodily injuries, the anger expressed by audiences and bands alike mixed genuine rage with disingenuous posturing, there was drug and alcohol abuse, and dangerous elements attracted to the scene as well, with Nazi skinheads as much a part of the punk scene as the idealistic, commutarian young I’ve quoted above.
But dystopia sidled with utopia in the youthful counterculture of the New Left and hippiedom I was part of in the 1960s. My friend Joyce Stoller says it well about both the movement, and all movements against the status quo: “The movement attracts both the best and the worst in society.” Because we’re all drawn to it because we’re marginalized, outcast, despised and live as outlaws. Idealists and psychopaths alike. Nothing more – but also nothing less.
And the quintessential outlaw in U.S. society, both historically and to this day, is the African American. The original Blues People of Black poet and writer LeRoi Jones, the Invisible Man of Black novelist Ralph Ellison, the heroic sociopath of white proto-Beat Norman Mailer’s alternately insightful and silly “The White Negro.” (Alternately insightful and silly – a good way to sum up the recently deceased Mailer himself.)
Which brings us back to the blues. It’s everywhere, among all peoples. Robert Johnson is a punk, Wilson Pickett opens for the Clash, and we just as eagerly slam-dance to everything Black America created that made us little white boys and girls try to forget we were white by moving our feet and shaking our hips, be it Motown or Buddy Guy.
It’s there in the best of all music, and that’s why it makes no sense to be genre-specific about what is “real” and what is not. If it’s good, no matter what, it’s soulful, and we can feel it. Which is the essence of the blues. And rock ‘n ‘roll and rock. And jazz. And classical. And folk. And country. And ska and reggae. And all of it.
That is the blues, and this is more than just the blues, this is what makes it more than just the blues. Precisely because the blues everywhere is more than just the blues. Precisely because it is<.em> the blues.
George Fish can be reached at .
Fish photo by Greg Ballinger.