Just Say No To Rock and Roll
Issue #27, September 1996
One way or another, all these folks are actively engaged in the construction of a new high culture. The only difference between the Gerard Cosloys and the Tim Yohannons of the world is how they want to do it. One group wants to preserve aesthetic purity by restricting access. The other wants to evangelize the ignorant mainstream by giving them great art to make them better citizens.
— Charlie Bertsch, at a stoplight in Toronto
What disturbed me most about the Nirvana phenomenon was the impact that the group's success had on people's lives. I had nothing against the band personally. I bought their first album when it came out. I taped most of their early singles like "Love Buzz" and "Sliver" when they first arrived as promos at the college radio station where I worked in Portland. While at the now defunct Pine Street Theater during a Screaming Trees concert in early 1990, I even got saved by Kurt Cobain from the hands of an angry skinhead who was beating me up because he didn't like my new dye job. "Are you okay?" asked Kurt after he delivered a swift karate kick to my fashion conscious assailant's bald head. "Yeah," I said, a little dazed, "thanks a lot Kurt, you saved my life." "No problem man, if the Nazi bugs you again gimme a holler." Kurt blended back into the crowd to watch the Screaming Trees as they roared into the epic "Black Sun Rising," off of their last great album Buzz Factory, eventually getting carried away by the swelling crowd who had not yet made him a rock star.
Like many people in punk and so-called alternative communities, two years later I became obsessed with the media circus surrounding Nirvana. Something about it made me very uncomfortable. One day, after reading Re/Search's Pranks in the Berkeley library bathroom in between theology classes, I decided to engage in a little experiment. I got on the telephone to my old college friend Mel, because his disinterested, out-of-breath voice reminded me of Kurt Cobain's. I told Mel I had this idea that we should call up local modern rock stations and record stores pretending to be Kurt. He would inquire about promotional opportunities in the Bay Area in advance of Nirvana headlining a Bosnian rape victims benefit concert with L7 and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
Amused, Mel agreed. After drinking a few microbrews he'd brought down from a recent trip to Portland, we got on the telephone and started calling everyone we could out of the phone book. I posed as a Sub Pop rep doing a study of sales patterns among punk retailers in the Bay Area. I called the Gap looking for authentic Calvin Klein grungewear I'd read about in the San Francisco Chronicle. Mel called up every radio station we could think of until one of them bought our schtick and allowed him to record several station identifications which he perfunctorily fucked up, making sure he sounded as totally bored and disinterested in the whole process as possible. "Make it sound totally painful," I whispered into his ear as I fed Mel his lines.
"Listen, I don't have all day," Mel said to one well-meaning station program director. "Contrary to what some stupid people here think, Sub Pop doesn't have all that much money. Despite the hype, they're still a poor punk label and it makes me really mad to hear what a yuppie outfit people think Sub Pop's become. I feel bad about using up their Sprint bill calling radio stations in California all day." "That's totally cool Kurt," said the engineer, "We gotta keep those indie labels from gettin' in the red. We'll speed this up so you can go home and not run their bills through the roof. Would you like me to call you back?" "Naw," said Mel, "I gotta few lines here Jonathan and Bruce gave me to recite so I'm just gonna deliver 'em and go home if you don't mind."
It worked. A week after calling the stations I thought were the worst offenders of my sensibilities, I was able to hear my friend Mel's voice on the radio in between Salt and Pepa and Wham saying "This is Kurt Cobain and whenever I'm in San Francisco I support the SF Needle exchange." It was my way of fighting back. And to think the guy committed suicide fifteen months later.
Shout At The Devil
It was too easy. After spending years being indoctrinated by late eighties college music culture, reading far too many copies of Maximum Rock and Roll, booking bands like NoMeansNo, Dead Moon and Negativland, I bought the advertising. Well, sort of. I am short, dark, chubby, and I never even liked Nirvana all that much. Rather, what I saw in the band's success was an opportunity to exploit the insincerity of the punk idea that musicians were common people who just wanted to be left alone and remain on an equal footing with their fans. What I thought I was doing by impersonating Kurt Cobain was reversing the ideological effects of being identified by the kind of fake bohemian advertising that made Nirvana popular. If Nirvana were an everyman's band that really did represent the yearnings of a generation, expressing all of their rage, sorrow, hopelessness and shame just like The Rocket told me they did, then I had the right to take on Kurt's identity and feed this nonsense right back to the Geffen executives, Time Magazine, Sub Pop, Rolling Stone, and even Kurt himself. Because somewhere, somehow I thought he'd approve of it. I said to myself, "If these people are telling me that punk is now acceptable, that my generation is finally being heard, that Kurt of all people is my generation's spokesperson because he really is me then I'm gonna do exactly what they tell me to. I'm gonna exercise my right to be a punk and fool them at their own game because they said I could."
Nevertheless, I still have a hard time explaining to people why I was upset by Nirvana's success. Two years after Kurt Cobain's suicide, five years after Nevermind first entered the top ten, the smokescreen surrounding Nirvana's significance has begun to clear. We are no longer subject to the endless barrage of daily pronouncements by rock magazines, music journalists, and weekly newspapers announcing that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution spearheaded by three young working class men from Seattle.
What could there have been to be happy about? Whose political victory was it anyway? Was it our twentysomething fight to be recognized as legitimate consumers by the establishment? Is that what the punk fight about good distribution was really all about? Or were we simply fooling ourselves into believing that we had finally broken through the grip of conventional class conflict politics? Had we moved into the 'higher' realm of cultural conflicts, having succumbed to the notion that all power is an end unto itself so we might as well retreat to aesthetics? The hidden Marxist model of a successful working class revolution which this celebration of Nirvana's success always alluded to made me really fucking irritable. I often asked myself "If this is how unfulfilled utopian expectations are being realized these days, then there are no real political alternatives any more because it shows how we've forgotten how to speak about political issues."
If we think hard about it, nothing could have been more reasonable, especially growing up a leftist during the eighties, watching a massive military buildup which the government told us was responsible for defeating the Soviet Union and spreading democracy around the world. Whatever objections we may have had to Ron and Nancy, The Moral Majority, Oliver North and his Macchiavellian display of realpolitik, conservatism always claimed to work even though its methods to achieve its ends were wrong. Or so the media taught us during the Gulf War. That really drove the point home didn't it? Instead of fighting a nuclear war with Russia we got to benefit from the symbolic apocalypse of annihilating a couple of hundred thousand supposedly fascist Arabs using up-to-date Soviet military hardware.
The eighties taught us to live with the temporary imposition of injustice in service of a greater good called the free market. Young Americans were taught to find their consolation in a mass culture produced by an endless supply of fashionably good looking dead people. Finally, we had it indelibly etched in our minds that capitalism and democracy were two different ways of saying the same thing even when we didn't like the folks who were running the show. The only remaining problem with the establishment was our suspicion that it had no sense of style. We had found our calling: our generational obligation was to give it to 'em whether they liked it or not, even if it took the most extreme measures possible to make that point absolutely and perfectly clear.
Maybe we just resurrected the ancient practice of worshipping the dead because the Son always has to sacrifice himself out of deference to the Father. It's no coincidence Jesus Christ is more popular than ever. That's why I always found it so ironic that Kurt Cobain called himself an "Unappreciative Pisces Jesus Man" in his suicide note. It isn't a far jump from Seattle to Waco after all.
Walking On The Peaches
America made the music its reluctant champion; grunge didn't. We were so disappointed that we never effectively challenged the new conservatism, and we pretended that we overthrew an establishment we were already a part of. No wonder all the new bands thrust into the spotlight were singing about their own impotence. The question still remains: why do we celebrate our powerlessness? The new punk of the late eighties and the early nineties was far more contradictory than that. When we listen to songs like Mudhoney's "In and Out of Grace," Killdozer's 1989 magnum opus Twelve Point Buck LP or Blood Circus' bludgeoning "Road To Hell," we actually get the impression that folks didn't feel as victorious as critics like Gina Arnold made them out to be. Nor, however, did they always feel impotent either — especially with Mark Arm screaming "Jesus take me to a higher place... Spill my seed, suck my waist"; or when we read reviews and articles where Arnold talks about the sociological meaning of Pearl Jam's Song "Alive," in which she would go on at great length about Eddie Vedder's triumph in becoming a man in a fatherless, single parent family as though a mother couldn't have done that by herself.
That was what was so weird about the whole grunge affair. One could almost assume that Arnold felt like Eddie Vedder had been through the Holocaust and come out a better person because of it. Maybe we all needed to 'feel the darkness,' to quote Poison Idea, in order to become a little more authentic. Maybe we were just looking for a pretext to legitimate our own disenfranchisement and Nirvana, with its obsessive preoccupation with personal failings, just happened to be there at the right time.
But that's not all. There was a subtext to Arnold's discourse. While she was talking about music, she was also telling us about America and how we had learned to feel good despite recognizing that it was futile to cope with injustice objectively, unless, of course, coping meant no more than learning how to have a desperately good time like The Replacements. Now that former lead guitarist Bob Stinson is dead due to years of overindulgence and drug abuse, Arnold's glorification of her so-called 'Mats seems a bit more suspect. But the punchline hadn't been delivered yet, and besides art never imitates life; it just makes it easier to endure.
There seemed to be something fundamentally contradictory about the way we saw ourselves: it appeared that we had won some significant, abstract conflict, while the only things people were singing about were their misery and how much they were looking forward to death (as Jello Biafra has sung). When we put two and two together and think about all the optimism that flows from the music section of a weekly newspaper, we get the sense that because critics have been socialized by tragedy to such a high degree that they're cheering the whole thing on, when all they're really doing is applauding the courage certain people have to kill themselves.
Just take a look at the way critics spend inordinate amounts of print space describing the frustrated utopian impulses of people like Kurt Cobain. The termination of every great rock and roll life always prevents a possible revolution in consciousness, right next to all the ads for mountain bikes, futon frames and local microbreweries. Nevertheless we are always better off for it because the lives of great martyrs advance the cause of progress. Now everyone can express their feelings more openly. Bah humbug. The problem is that the narrative never changes. Critics write the same epitaph for everyone every time, next to the same ads with the same discounts for the same lifestyle products whose only consistent feature is that they always get cheaper. There must be some correlation.
It isn't just the way utopian yearnings are sublimated in discourse about cultural questions that should upset us, because the most popular cultural narratives are always about death. The lesson to be learned is that we can't expect much more from people in such a Christian culture. The so-called avant-garde simply acts out the acculturation of too many years of worship services at the suburban churches their parents forcibly dragged them to as children. We still worship those who sacrifice themselves for our suffering. That's why I was always enamored of the title of Caroliner Rainbow's third album Strike Them Hard, Drag Them To Church: because I knew what they were referring to. What should really frighten us is the idea that ritual sacrifice resolves political problems like powerlessness and despair through culture. That, finally, is the danger inherent in the way many of us perceived Nirvana. The aesthetic emulation of political conflicts had been mutated back into the politics out of which punk arose. Suicide.
Only Right and Natural
Over the last couple of years our perception of the utopian possibilities punk once held out to us has changed. We ceased to believe that all the bands signed to major labels in Nirvana's wake would deliver on their revolutionary promise of a better tomorrow because we finally understood that they never wanted to deliver us from evil in the first place. It's hard to do that when people like Cobain kill themselves, when even political groups like Bad Religion realize that artistic ideologies of freedom and the political realities of the culture industry reflect one another. Every song from then on would be empty, but the persistence of style would make up for a lack of original, 'essential' punk content.
We admire groups like Green Day, Rancid and The Offspring for their energy, vigor and offensive demeanor because they remind us of a time when there were more clearly demarcated lines in politics: when we thought it was possible to distinguish between right and left. That was where all the trouble started; after the sixties many of us began to confuse rock bands with political parties. That was also the major problem with punk politics. While early punk bands like Crass, The Mekons, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys were able to understand capitalism with the sensitivity of Marxist philosophers, they had no overtly political framework within which to channel their revolt. Instead, this kind of post '68 political consciousness informed by Marxism and The New Left was replaced with a confusing critique of the culture industry in which questions of autonomy, independence and the distribution of music became the order of the day, not the legitimacy of wealth, power and poverty.
While many of us remember the time when a group like The Buzzcocks and The Gang of Four could somehow get to the bottom of things, we are stuck with the inevitable feeling that we are witnessing something that's been done before, perhaps even a lot better. And then of course comes the boring question of where that is going to lead us, especially given the perennial contradiction between the rhetoric of the first generation and the deeds of the second. None of it ever matches up until someone commits suicide to prove that we have forgotten how much things remain the same.
Maximum Rock and Roll's original sellout accusations in the early nineties anticipated this possibility. Unfortunately its editorial staff never moved onto the next stage of grieving where it could start reflecting on why our illusions were shattered in the first place in order to start figuring out what went wrong. That's either been left to others, or wholly ignored so that we can watch the whole cultural cycle repeat itself until we get another Nirvana, another Dylan, or another Sex Pistols. But for right now we're in a down time where we aren't actively searching for new heroes to magically transform our frustrated political ambitions into cultural capital. That is until someone at SPIN tells us to.
However, every once in a while we get the sneaking suspicion that despite how much the same things always appear to remain the same, there are slight fissures in the overwhelming monotony of cultural life that suggest the narrative might be slightly altered. After reading a recent article in the San Francisco Weekly on the Sex Pistols' reunion, I actually began to have such surprising thoughts. Reflecting on the Pistols' political significance, Andrew Goodwin concluded "Punk disappointed us because it promised something that music cannot deliver — a different world. It's not your fault that the return of a frozen moment can hardly fail to leave us feeling a bit cold."
Sheep Farming In The Falklands
It shouldn't have taken another rock and roll suicide to drive that point home to America's collective unconscious. I do not believe for one minute that anyone except the most snotty academic would have been prepared to make such a pronouncement during the fifteen years or so that punk flourished as an underground subculture in the United States and Great Britain. Not that punk didn't have its detractors. Most of them came from within the punk community itself. Witness the album title of former Crass lead singer Steve Ignorant's second band, Conflict: "Turning Rebellion Into Money." Or for that matter Crass' famous pisstake on commercial punk bands, "We're Crass, not The Clash." Fer Crissake, that was the late seventies. Such statements appear prophetic in retrospect.
The problem was that no one was listening. Crass were a great band to identify with because they were so militant. However, like every important political rock group, their politics were only influential stylistically, not educationally. Their great contribution to punk history is that they made it safe to be openly radical. However, Crass never defined what it mean to be a revolutionary. By making militancy popular, Crass paved the way for righteous conservative subgenres of the movement to develop such as Straight Edge, with its emphasis upon physical purity; Krishna Core, with its focus on spiritual enlightenment, and Grindcore with its advocation of noise, vegetarianism and communal living. In other words, when punk was at its most political, it offered nothing more than cheap facsimiles of antimodernist lifestyle politics espoused by more conservative establishment cultures like Born Again Christians on cable television and separatist Hippies who live in communes in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
With every new alternative group citing punk as a major spiritual influence that keeps them honest, I begin to wonder, especially when critics, and the fans whose opinions they form in the pages of magazines like SPIN, are so surprised when celebrated rock stars kill themselves out of an inability to reconcile commercial success with political impotence. Sid Vicious did it already and there was nothing political about his suicide. At least Vicious didn't lead us to think so. But The Sex Pistols' tangles with the music industry certainly did. That's why I always wished Nirvana would have written a song called "DGC," set to the tune of the Pistols' denunciation of their first label, "EMI." After purportedly agreeing to have the cover of their last studio LP In Utero changed so that the record could be stocked at Walmart, it came as no surprise to me that Cobain committed suicide several months later. As a musician of sorts, I'd be furious if someone did that to my album sleeve. But the great majority of punk and alternative music fans don't feel that way. They have too much invested in democratizing consumption to worry about the extent to which an artist would be deeply upset by market demands detracting from the presentation of their work.
As much as Maximum Rock and Roll and the so called 'East Bay Ideology' may condemn groups like Nirvana and their major label friendly, upwardly mobile brethren in every college town north of San Francisco, there was some substance to Nirvana's claim to be real punks who weren't in it for the money. They just wanted to democratize taste preferences, to make cultural alternatives possibilities for people who otherwise might never have known about them. That's what punk is really all about. In the absence of a labor movement, and in the presence of a non-existent political Left, in a country where the only sustained critique of capitalism comes from the Religious Right, it makes a lot of sense.
That's also what made Nirvana more important to Americans than The Sex Pistols, because we bought the dream — just like the British did before us — that there was something truly revolutionary about punk that would have more profound political ramifications than simply another cultural transformation that made teenagers look better and think more. While Nirvana never openly said this, the trials they went through at the hands of their critics certainly had this in mind, and so did the band. This has mostly to do with the historical significance of American punk rock because it is a product of the sixties. West Coast punk in particular carries with it a very strong memory of the failings of the New Left to effect a structural transformation in American political life. It seeks to revive the New Left project of creating social democracy in American by focusing on the symbolic redistribution of cultural capital instead of planning for a political revolution.
Punk discourse about individual autonomy, freedom of thought, self-promotion and individual ownership of the means of production is a direct answer to the New Left's failure to develop a sustained and redemptive critique of capitalism. Punk's proposal to do so on the level of culture — and only culture — is a reflection of our inability to make such proposals political ones because we simply can't think that way anymore: we're just too jaded. So we find other ways to express our egalitarian impulse to share with one another. Simply put, punk is not socialism.
That's why punks and music critics alike are so taken by debates within the punk community about signing with major labels, and the ethics of distribution processes and never about the contradictions of selling records through chain retailers or being a part of the global hegemony of American mass culture. A couple of years ago, when I posed this question to my old friend who used to drum for Portland's seminal garage punk rockers The Miracle Workers, Gene slyly responded with a knowing twinkle in his eye and a big grin bursting over that beautiful jaw of his: "That's beside the point because we sold more records in Belgium than we ever did in Seattle, Portland or Los Angeles."
It reminded me of a dream I once had after watching a documentary on the Chinese revolution where the film showed old Soviet military trucks carrying hundreds of pounds of rice liberated from Chiang Kai Shek's army barracks outside of Beijing. Beautiful women in green army fatigues wearing pig tails wave red flags from the end of their rifles while men throw free rice to the masses standing alongside the highway. In my dream, a little VW van from Mordam Records with Dead Kennedys stickers on the back driven by an elegant, striking woman with green hair delivers Bikini Kill and Nation of Ulysses records to Tower instead of a Time-Warner semi, while smiling teenagers with nose rings and combat boots cradling skateboards stand lined up patiently outside waiting to scoop up freshly delivered copies of the new Fugazi record.
Joel Schalit is a Ph.D candidate in the Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently writing his dissertation on the critique of secularization in The Frankfurt School. When Joel's not being serious he makes crank calls to Christian talk radio shows and loops muzak records backwards as a member of the anti-rock 'band' The Christal Methodists. You can prank Joel at email@example.com, or visit the Methodista's webpage for some real inspirational calls about overeating, Satan and more at http://www.kolazhnikov.com.