Friday, 24 June 2011

I Live Sweat doublepost: Comic books and dancing like a twat

Both these posts are taken from things I've written for the excellent I Live Sweat where they cover comic books and actually important matters relating to punk rock, rather than just wittering on about half-forgotten songs by half-forgotten bands:


"There is no secret identity." - A review of Punk Rock and Trailer Parks by Derf

There’s a really good article by Charles Baxter in which he coins the term ‘Owl Criticism’, referring to the sort of critics that dislike a book for its content, rather than the way it deals with its content, the sort of people who might say “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”

I definitely get annoyed with reviews of art that don’t engage with the topic, and then refuse to analyse the reasons for this failure to engage, but it works the other way too. There are things we’re going to like because they’re in a certain genre we enjoy, or because they deal with a certain subject we’re interested in. That’s great. The problem there is, when we come to talk about them, we have to look at whether we love them for their merits, or just the topic they cover. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is like that. It’s a book I love, but I do wonder if there was ever a chance I could dislike a book where Joe Strummer and Lester Bangs get drunk and decide to slash the tires of Journey’s tour bus.

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is a bildungsroman set in and around the punk scene of late ’70s. It’s written and illustrated by John “Derf” Backderf, also known for his weekly comic strip The City, and his short graphic memoir about the weird kid named Jeffrey Dahmer he was friends with at school.

This is, for the most part, the story of Otto, a Tolkien-quotin’, beach-party-movie-lovin’, extremely tall, nerd, who, thanks to a couple of younger classmates, is drawn into the Ohio punk boom of the late ’70s that flowered in the wake of Devo and The Pretenders. Otto is, at heart, a traumatised victim of constant bullying, and has invented a ridiculous ‘cool’ persona for himself called ‘The Baron’ to take him away from himself. At school he’s still ridiculed, but as he gets drawn into the punk scene, finding himself as a bartender at the local punk club, The Bank, and eventually as a singer in a local band, he starts to take on this mantle for real. But as he becomes immersed in the punk scene, he’s still a nerd at school, and him and his friends have to negotiate creepy teachers, idiot jocks, unattainable crushes, sketchy neighbours, alcoholic uncles, and all the awkward travails of adolescence.

Like the songs of Craig Finn, another Midwestern chronicler of punk rock and youth, PR&TP is concerned with the pseudonymous power in punk rock; the same power that means a middle-class son of a diplomat can become ‘Joe Strummer’, living embodiment of the rhythm guitar; an angry DC white kid named Henry can borrow the name of a mysterious sax legend, and then pour the same amount of feeling that the old jazzman put into his horn into thrashing hardcore anthems of alienation; a fat kid can store up the names he’s been called and choose to wear it as a proud definition, striding onto the stage, axe in hand, as Pig Champion; and in this story, a bullied masturbation-obsessed high-school band-geek can take on the hard-rocking super-tough alter ego of THE BARON and become king of the scene. This is the key theme of the book for me, teenage reinvention of self and how far it can take you, what it’s limitations are, and how it both liberates and traps you. Maybe the central message is actually a wholeheartedly corny ‘be yourself’ but it blurs the idea of what that self is, because it’s neither the superstar or the geek. There is no secret identity. It’s about establishing a sustainable synthesis between these two conflicting parts of yourself.

The journey of Otto is chronicled in a Forrest Gump style trip through the scene of the time; meeting Wendy O. Williams, hanging out on the The Ramones tour bus, shooting the shit with Stiv Bators. There’s one panel where two of his friends fail to realise that his car isn’t finished and almost fall through the floor of it, later on, to show how far he’s come, that panel is repeated but this time with Strummer and Bangs in the car on the aforementioned mission to stop the corporate rock and roll machine in its tracks.

The art has a blocky cartoony style to it that emphasises the adolescent awkwardness of the leads, and probably owes something to the exaggerated physical attributes of Robert Crumb’s work (although less interested in tits, though this is a book which has three teenage boys as the main characters, so inevitably that obsession crops up). I really like the way it deliberately distorts perspective to highlight the juxtaposition of certain people or objects and their relation to each other. It’s one of those places where you can point at comics and say, “Look, this is not just a film storyboard. This is something you cannot do as subtly or effectively in any other medium.” And I like books where you can do that, because if you can’t do that, then what was the point of making it a comic? There are also cool touches like the Ramones’ amps bouncing merrily in the air like the anthropomorphic NPCs in 3D platform games, and I love the way the lettering is drawn as an integral part of the art style, taking up large portions of the page when it’s shouted by one of the punk bands we see in action.

One minor criticism is that sometimes it falls foul of the show-don’t-tell rule, with regards to both the symbolism and themes, and just basic images. Some of the things people say are overly articulate. It works alright most of the time with The Baron as that’s his character, an eloquent commenter on all the craziness he’s caught up in, but it’s a technique that’s overused. Some things that happen are obvious enough that they don’t need to be expounded upon by the characters. The first time we see The Bank, we don’t need one of the characters to announce “An abandoned bank turned into a punk club!” We can see that. Not just simple descriptions either, sometimes the motivations of the characters and the symbolic moments should be left for the reader to work out for themselves. Steve Aylett said of his slipstream science-fiction Accomplice quartet: “Unlike real life, most Accomplicers are aware of and ridiculously articulate about their own delusions, but like real life, they don’t change.” Except Aylett used it deliberately to great comic effect. In Derf’s writing it sometimes comes across like a lack of faith in his own narrative ability, which he shouldn’t have, as it’s a great story he’s telling, and he tells it well for the vast majority of the book. It’s just that sometimes we don’t need to be told what’s inside someone’s head, or what we can see happening right on the page.

The end of the book does conform to the narrative of a lot of punk rock stories with a moral that suggests this is all just a phase. To risk Owl Criticism, I’m not a fan of that do to my own personal preference for seeing punk rock as a living breathing malleable entity, but I recognise that it really works with the story here. And it’s not a depressing ending, it perfectly captures the wry mixture of knowing melancholia and stomping triumph present in these life-altering moments in the same way as The Clash’s Death or Glory. There’s a sense that something has gone, but that something just as cool is about to creep over the horizon. This sense of loss is only amplified by the post-story final page which notes that pretty much every single one of the punk rock icons of the time featured in the book are sadly no longer with us. This book is a hymn to the transformative powers of punk rock, and a story of all the weirdos and outsiders finding a place for themselves, not just for the glorious moment when the music rushes through their veins, but how they have to fight to keep that feeling alive in the everyday grind of society.


“Every bad thing I have is acknowledged as worth it, because it led to this moment.” You can dance if you want to...

I have seen a lot of people recently criticising violent dancing in punk rock, as sexist, as ableist, or as just plain selfish. and most of the time, when people tell me something makes them uncomfortable, for whatever reason, I am okay with appreciating their perspective and stopping doing it, even if I don’t agree with their reasons, because I do have a lot of privileges and if I can attempt to eliminate and nullify them then it’s great, but not with this one. While I do try to understand other people’s perspectives I have real trouble imagining someone who hears music that is this energetic and loves it and doesn’t want to move to it. I can totally get someone who’s weirded out by touching strangers or by crowds like that, but surely that can’t be everyone. So I acknowledge that I’m not going to be able to comprehend everything, this is one time where I just don’t get the opposing point of view, so I’ll just say to them something along the lines of “Look, I have no idea why you would consider standing still to be an appropriate response to a band you like, but if that’s your thing then go for it.” This doesn’t mean that I am going to stop to notice people who are not dancing and attempt to fit in with the way they’re acting, and there’s an extremely important reason for that.

When I dance, in some crappy basement or the grimy back room of a pub, surrounded by a dozen or a hundred people dancing like that with me, I am not thinking about someone who’s not dancing, and why they may not be dancing. I’m not thinking of anything but the words in my throat and my unsteady footing. When I am dancing like that, in a really good pit, that is boisterous but not scary, that supports all the crowd-surfers and immediately picks up anyone who falls, that is as close as I get to a genuinely spiritual experience. The one time in my life where I feel the tickle of what might be described as a higher-consciousness. That is the moment where all the effort, and hurt, and stress, and love, all coalesces into a greater whole and just pours out of me and I grin like a moron. Every bad thing I have is acknowledged as worth it because it led to this moment. The dark only made this light seem brighter. Every good thing I have is present and screamed at the top of my voice. All the time spent working soul-sapping dead-end jobs, all the mistakes and shitty things I’ve done, all the frustration, all the lonely desolation I’ve ploughed through, all the hours spent listening to punk rock and scrutinising lyrics booklets as holy texts, they all seem completely worth it. When I’m dancing and singing, with other people dancing and singing, I no longer feel as if I’m some isolated fuck-up who’s toiling in obscurity, destined to live and die frustrated and alone; I feel like I am kin with a million isolated fuck-ups who all feel these things. I am feeling the music. And the music is in part born of pent-up rage, and pent-up loneliness and despair and all that shit streamed into these coruscating anthems. I will not abase that part of myself before anyone who just wants to stand there, no matter how valid or important the reason is that they want to do that. Maybe that’s selfish to an extent, but it’s not lazy or ill-considered, it’s that core part of me that makes me me. It’s the one stand I will always take, because in the dancing exists the little unshakable nugget of hope and self-evident truth that makes me barrel out of the show drenched in sweat and want to change the world, want to write books, want to play music that connects to some lonely 15 year old and save them the way I was saved, want to rip apart racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and all these shitty destructive prejudices, want to shock oppressive arseholes with wild situationist pranks, and blow minds with truth, and burn down entrenched class systems with a song in my heart and a glint in my eye. And I’m supposed to reel that in, to stifle that sensation because someone, whoever they are, whatever their sex or experiences, feels uncomfortable with it? Because someone wants to stand still and drink a beer and take a crappy blurry cellphone picture of the band and feels that this raucous and beautiful music is best appreciated by head nodding? Fuck that.

I’m not alone in this. It’d probably be really cliche to quote Emma Goldman right about now but it probably fits. As well as that Pat the Bunny line and guys talking feminism to get into girls’ pants and quoting Emma Goldman without bothering to dance. And I’d point to the sheer amount of people my age seduced into the punk scene and its progressive politics by Against Me!’s romantic glorious vision of crowds of likeminded people dancing like no-one’s watching with one fist in the air. This is a quote from a piece entitled My First Punk Show written by Brittany Walenta, a good friend of mine, about why she loves punk rock:

“In the pit, i realized that, outside of the pit, I was wearing a leash that I had never noticed because I had not tested its length. I discovered just how glorious it felt to be rude, violent, and drenched both in my sweat and the sweat of others. How cathartic it was to shout along to songs with no regard for how it sounds to other people. How completely primal and desexualizing it can be to fight a crowd of people to music.

And that night I was reluctant to wash the perfume, of cheap cigarettes, and lone star beer, and gallons of sweat, away in the shower. And the next day at school I wore my bruises and aching muscles as a badge of honor, because I knew I had found something so much more satisfying and thrilling than fluorescent lights and class rank and “funny” student run morning announcements. And for the first time i understood wanting to run away and join the circus.”

I want to just address a couple of specific points here, that a moshpit is sexist and/or ableist. I don’t think it’s sexist. To characterise the pit as purely an expression of testosterone is an incredibly limited gender-normative viewpoint that is effectively attempting to shame women into maintaining a quiet, reflective, stand-in-the-corner, coatrack, appreciation of the music when they might want to release all their stresses, and demonstrate all their love for this music, by dancing freely with a bunch of similarly stressed-out and wasted punks, like a scarecrow caught in the wind, just as a guy might want to sit at the back and watch the music in peace.

And as for ableism, I once saw a guy crowdsurfing in a wheelchair and it was a wonderful thing. I got the sense from everyone around me that there was this real joy at seeing someone do this, at realising that a disabled person is connecting with the music in exactly the same way that all us more able-bodied people were. Now maybe that’s patronising in a way, most able-bodied people don’t really have an exact idea of how hard it is to live with a physical disability, but we assume it must be pretty fucking hard at times and we do try to make allowances, though it’s just great to see someone just doing what the fuck they want regardless of what the expectations of them are. My girlfriend has been whacked in the face by a guy with no hand, and smacked in the shins by a guy in a motorised wheelchair in a circle pit, but when she related these stories to me it wasn’t like “What are those people doing there?” but again this sense of “How fucking awesome was it that people who might be constrained by their physical disabilities and also the social pressures to play up the victim card as a result of those physical disabilities are getting in the pit and enjoying it the way anyone can?” It was taking great joy in a reaffirmation of the powers of this thing we love and believe in, that it can lift up and free people who will often face a much tougher day-to-day struggle than most of us on the most basic level.

Real violence born of malevolence or carelessness is a terrible thing, but the fantasy of it, the concept of a constructive upward-striking violence that we are all a part of is a beautiful idea, and the pit offers that. I have been assaulted in the street more than once, not for quite some time but when I was 17 an amazing string of bad luck led to me being attacked three times in two days, the first two within 15 minutes of each other, by three completely unrelated groups of people for three different reasons. This led to me barely leaving the house for quite a while. It was tough and I hated myself for it (one of the big issues was that I thought that as a man I should’ve been able to defend myself), but I did get over this paranoia, and agoraphobia, and self-loathing, and one of the ways I got over it was by going to punk shows and moshing, getting into pits, filling myself with enough adrenaline that I didn’t care when I was hit in the face, I didn’t feel pain or terror, just concentration and exhilaration. At one Zatopeks show I fell over on the beer-slick floor and didn’t notice until two songs later that I had a significantly sized shard of glass sticking out of my hand which I ripped out with my teeth and carried on dancing. I’ve had a friend hit in the head with the lead singer’s guitar and he barely cared because he was dancing and because he was having fun, and yes, because there is an odd badge-of-pride to shrugging off pain and injury that some would characterise as a pointlessly macho exercise, but to me represents a physical aspect of that desire to pull in all one’s hurt, and to stream it into songs, and art, and the expression of dancing, mind over matter, rhythm over the chattering spikes of the world.

The pit is violent, but it’s not a violence aimed at anyone. (Also, let’s not pretend that non-dancers are inherently non-violent, we’ve all encountered the dickhead who throws punches at people dancing too close to them and their girlfriend. That happened to me personally at an Andrew Jackson Jihad show.) It is a communal physical and mental catharsis that should be, in its most perfect form, open to anyone who’s willing to stream all the love and passion they have for this music into a chaotic slamdance. Yes, some pits are overly violent and macho and that might annoy me, but it also pisses me off when nobody in a venue wants to respond to a beautiful piece of music by throwing themselves around with reckless abandon. I think ultimately there should always a place for both sitting and absorbing in peace and someone who wants to release all their stresses and demonstrate all their love for this music by dancing freely with a bunch of similarly stressed-out and wasted punks, like a scarecrow caught in the wind, but I always know which one I’m going to pick given an absolute choice. In a perfect pit, the kind I’ve been in a bunch of times, there’s always support for crowd-surfers or stage-divers, people actively attempting to hit people (or to molest people) rather than just bounce and shove are treated with utter contempt and disrespect, and nobody ever fails to stop dancing and immediately go to the aid of somebody who’s hit the floor, which is inevitably going to happen sometimes because of the expressive full-contact nature of the dancing, no matter how friendly the pit is.

What I am always extremely quick to oppose is anything that seeks to sanitise and simplify the culture that I love. That I have invested myself in for about 40% of my time on this planet now, and all its stupidity and sweetness, all its intelligent activism and hard-fought communal spaces, all its noise. That it is a place for everything from gleefully pissy songs to a sustained self-interrogation of privilege and prejudice present within the scene. That it accepts and encourages all these things on a local and global scale. That it’s got bands ranging sonically from Ghost Mice to Threatener, from the simplicity of Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue to the sprawling epics of Fucked Up. In scenes from everywhere from Japan to Alaska. It’s a place for something as fantastically juvenile as the Hickey/Voodoo Glow Split or the music of Splodgenessabounds as it is for more stridently political or serious material like Crass or Bikini Kill.

I reject the attempts to dull the sharp edge of punk rock, not just from the co-opting powers of mainstream culture, and their desire to remove the serious radical politics, and package rebellion as a hairstyle and a power chord, but from the uncompromising drive for homogeneity-as-equality eroding the fact that the beautiful (and terrible but ultimately essential) thing about people is that we’re all from different places, and all have our different ways of expressing ourselves, and comprehending the world, and fighting to make it the better world that we want. How can we invite and welcome people into the scene by taking away some of the verve, and romance, and noise, which makes it appeal to the sort of people who want to get into it? How can we make punk a threat again if we systematically purge all that is wild and carefree in its adherents? The idea that everyone has to cater wholly to one perspective by limiting the freedom of expression of everyone else, or that we need to institute equality by forcing people to give up anything that might offend or disturb anyone else is pretty much Stalinist. It is so absurd that it’s like a stereotypical right-wing caricature of a left-wing position. It’s the mentality that Kurt Vonnegut so perfectly satirised in Harrison Bergeron and the Sirens of Titan.

Why should I be forced to acknowledge, and kowtow to, the possible misinterpretation of my dancing, and compromise this essential part of my being in favour of people who are crowing that a moshpit is anti-inclusive, as they completely fail to make the same attempt to understand the possible appeal and ethos behind something they disagree with, as I have done repeatedly with positions that are not my own; who have not made a single concession to the idea that what me, and my friends, and dozens of strangers who are for this moment my very best friend, are doing is not alienating in it’s intent, or even alienating in it’s execution, if you’re willing to understand it, but is in fact motivated by a constructive and inclusive desire to create, for one of these perfect moments that can occur when a band full of people as confused, and shitty, and broken as we are play their hearts out and everybody’s tumbling around the mic, these glorious fucking moments of equality, and joy, and freedom, open to all who wish to engage in it. The notion that we should stop that, and turn around and look for guidance from people who by all outward attributes appear to just not give a shit about where they are, and who they’re with, and what they’re witnessing, is lazy and selfish and anti-intellectual on your part and I reject it totally. Me and my fellow dancers and our pitborn friendships are Kevin Bacon and you are John Lithgow. And no-one roots for Lithgow.

I have huge problems with this piece. Maryam Hassan has thankfully already pointed out the inherent irony in the phrase “Consideration for others is punk fucking rock.” used in it, but there are bigger problems than that:

“I’ve never moshed because if you shove me, I am going to want to fight you. Because wanting to fight you is the natural reaction to being shoved. Now, you can kick my ass, no doubt. I’m an old lady. But I’ll still try to fucking fight you. Because you don’t just fucking shove people. What the fuck?”

Isn’t that your issue more than it is anyone elses? Because when someone shoves me at a show, I can recognise when there is intended malice and when there is not. Wanting to fight someone is not an all-purpose natural reaction to someone shoving you, it’s a selfish arsehole reaction. You’re mistaking your own views for the absolute truth.

“You are selfish. You are a selfish asshole, just like every selfish asshole you have ever complained about in your life. You are THE selfish asshole at every show you attend.”

Indeed.

How is you saying that people shouldn’t dance, or that people should dance in a certain way (telling people at a punk show to learn to dance is like telling a punk band to learn their instruments, enthusiasm over technical ability is kind of the bloody point of the whole endeavour) less selfish than me and my friends wanting to dance and wanting to dance in the way that we love? “What about you and your desires trumps me and mine?”

I’ve been moved to apologise to bands after shows where people didn’t dance on behalf of the crowd and the scene, because it just seems disrespectful to these people, who have travelled hundreds, or thousands, of miles to play their hearts out, in a tiny room, for little to no money. Some things are incompatible, sometimes ideologies and philosophies will clatter and clang against each other, and there can be no compromise or diplomacy, and we just have to live with that. People who don’t want to dance have to accept people dancing and just stand a little further back, just as I have to reign in my exuberance and accept people not dancing at shows when there’s a crowd that doesn’t want to move even though it makes me feel massively uncomfortable and never fails to really make me feel like shit in the one place that can often lift me from my lowest moods. It’s an unbearably complex world, and often we have to acknowledge other people’s feelings and maybe cater to them if we realise that something means more to them than it does to us, but almost nothing means more to me than dancing. It is my line in the sand. NO PASARAN!



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