Wannabe: Punk

I remember being at a family BBQ, and my dad called me over. Not adjusting himself, he read aloud the text on my Operation Ivy t-shirt: “Conditioned to self-interest, with emotions locked away, if that’s considered normal I’d rather be Insane (Insane was illustrated with all sorts of angry scrawling)”. He blankly looked at it as if he relaxed his eye muscles it would come into focus, much like a Magic Eye stereogram. It dawned on me then that if I was going was going to don such apparel, I should probably vet any text myself beforehand. Out of context, such a random plea to ‘be emotional’ probably seemed more align with Whitney Houston than a Berkeley sociopolitical ska band. What kind of petulant teenager rages against the world’s unjust by being more emotional? I think my sisters had more of that kind of anarcho-punk manifesto coursing through my veins than I did.

I suppose I came up at the cusp of 2nd wave punk/ska around ’94 or ’95, just as major chain music retailers were affixing pop-up ‘Ska’ tags to their bins of Goldfinger and Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Such a grand, calculated manipulation of ensuring disaffected teens searching for ‘that new sound’, those lil’ skankers without proper punk supervision. I got a lot of my punk mentoring second-hand from my friend’s older-brother, frequently dealing with mail-ordered 7-inches from DIY labels across the nation. They were the real deal, the studs and the greased hair, the non-bathing and the patches of every band they’ve ever heard of, the tattoos and the suspenders they never wore. I think I affixed a few studs to my wine-colored Eastpak, to no real celebration from the punk community.

I farted around with a few different kind of punks: the Crass diehards with such illustrative band names such as The Young Republipukes (their cover art to their LPs aping the Dead Kennedys cut n’paste formula of repurposing atomic family propaganda), the ska-revivalists who unfortunately later morphed into the swing revivalists, the stoner Bosstones fans with their mod/rockabilly aesthetics and ‘cool’ parents, and the suburban hardcore scene who were a hodge-podge of all the above, just angier (who unfortunately morphed into the rap/metal scenesters).

The ska revivalists seemed to have their act together the most, in that their shows were orderly, fun, heavy on merchandising, frowned on moshing (and I mean that in the mildest of disapproving sentiments), and did seem to convey a sense of family or ‘acceptance’. ‘Come as you are’, ‘skank the night away’, ‘look at my suspenders – I’m not wearin’ em!’, they’d say.

Unfortunately for Punk (PUNK!), by the time I was a senior in high school the idea that not bathing and name-dropping bands from 20 years prior that were well on their way with shameless reunion tours seemed well-worn and prescribed rather than antagonistic. You’ve already affronted most of your day-to-day people with your earnest efforts to signal a dissatisfaction and distrust of the status quo, such as dying your hair to a different color (rejecting genetics via Manic Panic), adhering to a uniform of black tank tops and steel-toed boots (rejecting arch support via Doc Martens), and blasting decades-old rocksteady reggae (rejecting the ability to create your own culture via working-class Britain). A creeping sensation of “Now What?” infiltrated the scene, and the posturing became innocuous and limp by the time Green Day was on the radio.

The final nail in the coffin for me was attending and co-organizing a lecture by Jello Biafra within a few weeks of starting college. I was eager to have my inner anger reignited, to feel that Punk was not Scottish plaid pants or putting safety pins in your nose or carefully fastening patches of your 20 favorite bands to your jacket but a more inherent, thoughtful rejection of years of calculated living. A low-level thought process that instantly saw restraint as a threat and order as boredom, a reminder that there was always a third option: get fucked up and fuck shit up. By the time Biafra was pulling out his A-material, calling Nike Swooshes “Swooshtikas”, I felt the realization: this is a colossal waste of time. I looked at the hordes of Carhartt hoodies doubling over, of peroxide spiked hair, of doubly-secured chain wallets, and thought, “What are they laughing at?”

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