The Chicago-based magazine Punk Planet–nominated for the past two years in Utne Reader‘s Alternate Press Awards for “General Excellence,” along with such better-heeled competition as The Nation, Mother Jones and The Ecologist–recently celebrated its fiftieth issue and the publication of a well-received collection of interviews: We Owe You Nothing (Akashic Books). The magazine’s name poses a question–what exactly would a punk planet look like?–that its contents answer in ways that will surprise any reader for whom punk inspires visions only of loud guitars and torn leather jackets.
I asked the magazine’s editor, Daniel Sinker, about his operating definition of the term as he took a break from moving offices to a new space three times as large: that is, with room for three human beings at once, rather than just one at a time. “At this point the definition of punk matters very little to me. It’s a means to an end more than anything else. A way of filtering the world.” He adds ruefully, “Of course, punk is one of those things where everyone believes their own definition is the right one.”
Punk is, of course, a musical and subcultural tradition established around 1976 by bands like the Ramones in New York and the Sex Pistols in London. But punk has also evolved, for some, into a much broader category: a lifestyle, an ethic, a worldview. Reading through We Owe You Nothing and recent issues of Punk Planet, you encounter repeated references to punk as, above all, a principle of countercultural openness, heterogeneity and action. For poster designer Frank Kozik, responsible for some of the most memorable graphic design of the 1990s underground, punk was originally a salon des refusés: “What I remember from the early days of punk [in Austin, Texas] is that you’d go to a show and everybody would be there. Every outcast got to go: the fags, weird leftover hippies, new wavers, confused jocks, proto-punk rockers, bikers, skinheads, Mexicans–all these freaks would go to these shows.”
According to this perspective, punk’s meaning has always resided less in any particular style than in an attitude of creative volatility: “I would go there and think, ‘This is like science fiction…’ It was exciting to go to a show, because something was going to happen.” Something: not any one thing, and nothing predictable ahead of time, but something. Punk Planet also, however, regularly receives complaints from readers who see punk as a single, conservative tradition. Here’s one prompted by the magazine’s (wonderful, I think) all-Chicago issue #50: “You couldn’t actually find anything PUNK to write about, so you write about a bunch of fucking country bands like the Mekons and Bloodshot Records or fucking wank-music like Tortoise? And”–the offended reader alludes here to a profile of Hot Doug’s, an independent Chicago hot-dog stand–“what the hell was that hot dog bullshit?”
Punk Planet‘s first issue–as an undistinguished newsprint fanzine–came out in 1994, when Sinker was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago. It was originally published by a collective, but Sinker quickly filled a leadership vacuum and became the editor in chief; since then, the magazine has depended to a large extent on his personal dedication. In his introduction to the fiftieth issue, Sinker hazarded an analogy between the magazine’s worldview and “the ethics of the Chicago underground.” “In Chicago, you do your work in an honest fashion…. you do your work because it’s the work that defines you.”