My five favorite Punk things are John Coltrane’s album Meditations, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the film Vanishing Point, the film Cool Hand Luke, and the Velvet Underground’s song “I Heard Her Call My Name.” We’ll get around to all five in detail, but before I can begin, you’ve got to understand Punk…
What Punk Ain’t
“Punk rock music” is supposed to embody the Punk spirit, but it usually falls glaringly short. After all, punk rock is just rock music named so because of the “punk” kids that play it (as in, “Hey you punk kids, clear on out of here!”). But most “punk” kids lack the subtlety and mental instability it takes to be truly Punk. By now, Green Day and other such bands have marketed the “punk sound” so nauseatingly that re-defining Punk in the public eye will take some doing. But when I was growing up, to be Punk meant so much more than playing Sex Pistols covers. To us, the Sex Pistols weren’t really that Punk at all. Sure they did the backwards peace sign, said “oi,” and destroyed themselves on drugs. But so what? To a kid growing up in the `80s, heck, Boy George did all those things and more.
Punk is more than being angry and rebellious and yelling at the top of your lungs. Anyone can buy a guitar amplifier and turn it up to 11. But such volume is merely a pathetic, impotent wail – a wail that represents the lame (albeit slightly tragic) efforts of lower-middle-class kids to express their imagined oppression. But Punk it ain’t. Neither is Punk the cry that arose from blacks in the South during the `60s. To call such a demand for basic human rights Punk is to demean the Civil Rights movement. True, Punk is born out of deep alienation and frustration, but Punk ain’t exactly the universal heart cry of the oppressed human spirit.
What Punk Is
Punk is a playful (psychotic?) tweaking of the ridiculous and established norms of society, but to such a degree as to be deemed downright wrong. Punk is like a prank that’s gone too far, yet hasn’t even begun. Punk is burning out in style and burning out intentionally. If you let your life just happen to you, and you just happen to burn out, that doesn’t count (thus disqualifying Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, etc.). But – and here is an important distinction – Punk is never overtly destructive of others. Punk is intense self-destruction as protest, so much so that it can’t help but spill over and destroy others. Punk bothers normal people.
Growing up in south Alabama, the most “Punk” punks we knew were just rednecks who had thrown in their lot with us because they enjoyed the potential violence that slam-dancing afforded them. Before Joe Redneck’s punk-ization, he was just another drunken idiot yelling too loudly during the quiet parts of “Freebird.” Now he was admired and emulated by our posturing lot. To be really Punk, then, was to already have been Punk. It wasn’t something you put on as a show. It was something that years in this crazy world had made you. You were born with a penchant toward the skewed, you’d been tweaked in just such a way by who knows what series of wild events, and now you were Punk. A true Punk didn’t have to lose the overalls. Indeed, to continue wearing them was a sign that you were a true Punk. Concern with either fashion or personal hygiene was a sure sign that you weren’t a Punk at all, but that you were in fact the dreaded… POSER!
Now as I turn 30, I find the spirit of Punk still lurks in some unlikely places, few of which have anything to do with punk rock music. Indeed, the five most Punk things I know all existed before 1977.
1. John Coltrane – Meditations – 1966
John Coltrane was revered as a spiritual man in search of spiritual truth, but sitarist Ravi Shankar pegged him correctly: “I was much disturbed by his music. Here was a vegetarian who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad Gita, yet in whose music I still hear so much turmoil.” On Meditations, recorded near the end of his career, Coltrane basically abandons his life-long pursuit of a pure lyrical melody and instead chooses to flail in the void – and not resignedly either. Coltrane already had a drummer who played as busily as three drummers (Elvin Jones), but that wasn’t enough. Wanting to surround himself with rhythm, Coltrane shifted Elvin to one speaker and added a second drummer to the other speaker. On Meditations, these two drummers aren’t collaborating; they are warring. On top of this downtown rush hour din, Coltrane adds saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, whose played notes are distinguishable only in that they sound like very squeaky high-pitched farts. If you think I’m joking, listen.
On his earlier and much acclaimed A Love Supreme (1964), Coltrane waded in and out of several fixed musical themes whilst embarking on numerous improvisational solos in a ground-breaking but not terribly disturbing way. Here, there are no themes except for one brief motif that sounds like “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and the solos are so erratic that they border on noise – a border on which the entire band rides non-stop for most of the project’s duration. The only real sense of composure on this album comes during McCoy Tyner’s piano solo, which still sounds like the yearnings of a god in pain.
When a punk rocker strums an electric guitar, his anguish is five times removed from the sound he makes. His anguish has to travel from his soul to his fingers to his pick to his strings to his amplifier. On Meditations, Coltrane’s anguish travels from soul to lips to saxophone, and it sounds as if Coltrane’s soul is already right there in his mouth.
Meditations records the raw graspings of a truly great musician – graspings made toward a sound he knows he’ll never find. That’s what makes the album so Punk. It’s not just “free jazz.” It’s not a new experiment. Coltrane has consciously given up the search for Beautiful Tune Nirvana, but he’s not just rolling over and playing dead. Nor is he retreating to his old style that impressed so many but left him personally dissatisfied. No, it’s better to burn out. On Meditations, Coltrane is a big noisy hog rutting and wallowing in a churning sonic sty of his own devising. Sid Vicious, eat your poser heart out.
(Tune in next time when our lone driver reviews two Punk films, a Punk novel, and a very Punk song.)