It may have taken over 30 years, but punk music and fashion, once a grim specter threatening Western civilization (or at least adult eardrums and aesthetic sensibilities) have gone totally mainstream.
Day-glo mohawk hairdos and safety-pin studded cheeks may be as forgotten as episodes of Quincy, M.E. and CHIPs warning against nihilistic slam-dancing, but punk's do-it-yourself ethos, romance with skulls and corpses, and preference for pret-a-porter bondage pants are never farther away than the Hot Topic store at the local mall. Indeed, punk has become so mainstream that the trio Green Day, the successor to groups such as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, not only sells millions of CDs and scoops up basketfuls of industry awards. The band has even just debuted a Broadway-style musical based on its multi-platinum 2004 concept album, American Idiot.
Gimme Something Better (Penguin), an oral history compiled by journalists Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, focuses on the Bay Area scene that ultimately gave rise to Green Day and other acts. Like punk itself, Gimme Something Better is an intense, insular, ingratiating, and at times baffling and repulsive read (it abounds with stories about drug overdoses, cracked skulls, and public urination). But in charting the passage of a loosely defined but vital movement from the margins to the center of popular culture, the authors help to explain how America has become a much looser, individualized place over the past few decades. Just the names of the various characters and bands recorded in the volume underscores that: Jello Biafra, Klaus Fluoride, Insane Jane, Chicken John, Bob Noxious, Rancid, Vomit, Mr T Experience, Pansy Division, among dozens of others, testify to a playfulness and a penchant for self-invention that we now take for granted.
[Story continues after Friday afternoon sanity break, featuring TV's Quincy, Jack Klugman, trying to save a young punk girl from a possible "codeine overdose." Approx. 3 minutes, circa 1982]
In the beginning, or near the beginning anyway, were groups such as the Dead Kennedys, whose scandalous name was of a piece with a wicked sense of humor that produced underground hits such as "California Uber Alles" (an attack on liberal Gov. Jerry Brown as a crypto-fascist who forced kids to "meditate in school") and "Holiday in Cambodia" (which taunted left-wing poverty tourists). "We weren't trying to tell people what to do," explains member East Bay Ray. "Our thing was to try to get people to think." (Sadly, this last directive seems to have escaped the defunct band's lead singer, Jello Biafra, whose recent interview in The Daily Beast is chock full of banal observations about politics and contemporary America.)
Punk was always an overarching lifestyle and what united the San Francisco scene in late 1970s and early '80s were the same feelings at work in London, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles: youthful alienation, anxiety, and anger at a world that was simultaneously unstable and stultifying. Taking advantage of falling prices in musical gear and printing and near-abandoned buildings, Bay Area punks created their own bands, magazines (most notably Maximum RocknRoll, which is still publishing), clubs (the legendary Mabuhay Gardens and, later, the all-ages showcase 924 Gilman Street), and a rollicking, if highly dysfunctional community. As they had in earlier San Francisco scenes such as the beatniks' North Beach and the hippies' Haight-Ashbury, booze, drugs, and sex played an immense and ultimately destructive role while also fueling creativity and change.
Punk in general and the Bay Area scene in particular had (and has) more than its share of mindless and witless antics—at a 1987 show at Gilman, for instance, the band Feederz tossed a dead dog into the audience, which tore it to shreds. But even as Gimme Something Better exhaustively documents innumerable sick moments, it makes a strong case that despite all its outre trappings, punk is ultimately motivated by quaint, traditional notions of hard work and self-improvement.
"There were a lot of negative things," notes Danny Norwood of Social Unrest, an early punk band that influenced Green Day and countless others, "but mostly it pushed me in a good direction. It inspired me never to be ignorant. That's about as simple as it gets."