The Ethical Commitment to Be a Punk

The Ethical Commitment to Be a Punk

How 1980s punk music birthed its own kind of radical politics. 

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There are some people—those of a certain age and a certain disposition, mostly middle class and white, often male—who will always remember just where they were when they heard the news. I was working as a bike messenger in San Francisco that spring day in 1994, and I can still recall locking up outside City Hall, getting ready to make a court filing, when the boss came on the two-way radio and blurted it out. “It’s all over,” he said, delivering the grim news with an air of barely restrained, mordant self-satisfaction. “Kurt Cobain killed himself, put a shotgun in his mouth.” 

Cobain’s death wasn’t quite the generational marker laid down by the deaths of Kennedy, King, or Malcolm X, but it brought me up short nevertheless, at least for a moment. Even before that April day, Cobain was an ambiguous figure for many. It was hard not to like some of the bright, barbed, crunching songs he made with Nirvana, but he was mostly, and unfairly, a kind of cautionary tale. 

In the easy calculus of the indie and punk worlds I inhabited in those days, Cobain had most often been reduced to a simple emblem of corporate sellout—the traitor who finally took punk rock into the hot glare of the mainstream and left its overripe carcass to swell up and split open. Now that he had died by suicide, the reactions available to anyone concerned with wearing that self-assured armor seemed all but preprogrammed: There was a rush of grief for what had been lost, maybe, but just as likely was a kind of cruel dismissal—a bitter sense of just desserts earned. And now, over my radio, an equally cutting charge: Our silly little world was really and finally dead, brought to a close in the most clichéd, rock star fashion imaginable.  

All this would seem overdramatic, perhaps, had Cobain not rehearsed it for us. He has long been shoehorned between Hendrix and Tupac in the pantheon of romantic T-shirt icons, enshrined as a man who felt too much for this world—but Cobain had a very specific idea of where he first learned to put his cardinal virtue of “empathy” to work. His suicide note, we’re told in We’re Not Here to Entertain, Kevin Mattson’s overflowing, impassioned new history of punk politics and culture in the 1980s, reveals how Cobain’s own self-diagnosed failure to live up to the ideals he learned from punk contributed, at least in part, to his losing the will to live. There, Cobain wrote that “all the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years” had turned out to be “very true.” Without the “ethics involved with independence and embracement of your community,” making art, or a life, was no longer worth it. 

Mattson’s book begins and ends with Cobain’s death, but it’s really a kind of coda to the larger story he hopes to tell. It’s an indicator of the stakes of his fundamental argument: the little-understood punk rock world that nurtured Cobain was at the heart of a generation’s attempt to create an ethics, a politics, and a culture to counteract the brazen commercial sheen of the neoliberal Reagan era ’80s.

Mattson surveys the period between 1979 and 1985, the years after punk’s first wave in New York and London dissipated. He labels punk’s most familiar ’70s icons—Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols—“boomer punk.” The punk scene that arrived in the wake of these forebears was reborn in cities and suburbs across the United States, remaking what had been largely an avant-garde revolt in art and style as a homespun subculture obsessed with simple and speedy rock and roll, screamy confrontational lyrics, communal slam dancing, and fierce, DIY independence from the corporate music industry. 

The luminaries of this music scene—Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü— and its capital cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., will be familiar to anyone well-versed in rock history. Mattson traces the story from the sudden emergence of these new bands in 1979 and ’80 to a gradual denouement a half decade later, a moment when many punk bands embraced heavy metal, jocks and skinheads invaded the scene, Hüsker Dü signed to a major, and D. Boon of the Minutemen died in a car crash. 

Mattson, however, is after more than a story of bands and sounds. For him, punk is the scene of an underground economy: a nationwide network of performance venues and a series of collective spaces for living and making music and art, including the home-produced zines that sprang up to document the music and provide a rough and ready forum for debate over politics and community ethics. Diving into the archived remains of this world, Mattson illustrates how far the scene spread. Beyond the usual suspects, he touches down in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Dayton, Cincinnati, Akron, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor, Madison, Lawrence, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Austin, Houston, Tulsa, Miami, Tampa, Gainesville, Boise, and a host of suburbs in every region of the country.

All this unruly activity incited the inevitable backlash. Alarmed by the mosh pit swarm, the spray-painted scrim of graffiti left on walls and freeway embankments, the leather jackets, boots, studs, and chains, and the general current of disorder that trailed punk everywhere it surfaced, local authorities sometimes treated punk as a street gang. The LAPD, for instance, waged a campaign against Black Flag and its fans, descending in force on the band’s performances in 1980 and ’81. The pressure forced the band to “get in the van,” as singer Henry Rollins put it, and find shows beyond LA, where they would pioneer the nationwide punk-touring network. The FBI even shut down one punk zine, unwilling to hear the absurdist bombast of the editor’s threat to “Destroy L.A.” as metaphorical provocation. 

For the most part, however, punks in these years tended to stay underground, surfacing for national attention only momentarily, mostly as fodder for kids-these-days-style moral panic on talk shows or as extravagantly mohawked cartoon villains in B-movies and prime-time detective dramas. But viewed in another way, punk, by staying low, inspired an outburst of new insurgent culture. Mattson looks at how the punk rock world of the early ’80s organized the sensibilities of a microgeneration, providing fuel for a host of artists working in different mediums—the filmmakers Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch, and Penelope Spheeris, the writers Dennis Cooper, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and William Gibson, the visual artists Matt Groening, Raymond Pettibon, Winston Smith, and Bruce Connor—who shot a jagged current of dissonance into the airbrushed shell of ’80s culture. 

Most important for Mattson’s account is a disputatious cluster of organic intellectuals reared in punk. Some, such as Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Tim Yohannon of the long-running Bay Area zine Maximum Rocknroll (or MRR), and Ian MacKaye of D.C.’s Minor Threat, became known beyond the scene. Equally important to Mattson’s account are the lesser known Jeff Bale, Bill Brown, and Peter Titus (all connected to MRR), Dave Dictor (of Millions of Dead Cops), Shawn Stern (of Youth Brigade and the collective Better Youth Organization), and any number of other zine editors and writers, musicians, or other loudmouths with a penchant for rough-hewn political and philosophical argument. This list could include Mattson himself, who as a teenage punk was a cofounder, with Mark Andersen, of Positive Force, a Washington, D.C., activist collective that bridges the worlds of punk and radical direct action and organizing to this day. (Mattson, an expert on the history of the knotty relations between liberalism and radicalism in American life, is now a historian at Ohio University.)

These figures gave punk its explicit politics—and a series of fervent internal debates. Was punk cultural revolution or political dissidence? Should punks embrace anarchist communalism or Marxist social democracy? Could clean-living straight edge principles be more of a threat to authority than decadent rock and roll excess? Could any amount of cooperation with the corporate music business coexist with DIY independence? Were the small-scale cottage industries fostered by independent labels, performance spaces, and zines too much of a compromise with capitalism? Should punks dig in to squatter collectivism, direct action, and anti-capitalist organizing instead? Here were “the smartest kids in the history of adolescence,” as the Life in Hell cartoonist Matt Groening put it, a half decade before he created The Simpsons, working on the great dilemma of their times: how to revive progressive and radical culture in the face of the country’s swing to the right. 

For Mattson, Ronald Reagan looms largest over the action here. The target of countless zine editorials and barked-out lyrics, and even a traveling festival called Rock Against Reagan, the president functions as a kind of symbol of all punk stood against. Mattson calls his book “a punk (or punk’d) history of the president,” and he has mined the archives to show that the ethos of independence and community-making—whatever its ideological flavor—evolved as a counter to the black sun fervor of Reagan’s first term, with its renewed Cold War tensions, the embrace of politics as spectacle, and the revival of the corporate culture industry the president seemed to embody. 

Mattson intersperses the major events of Reagan’s reign with his survey of punk. The president fires striking air traffic controllers, ramps up the nuclear arms race, funnels overt and covert support to right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Nicaragua, invades Grenada, courts the evangelical movement, cuts taxes on the rich, and guts the remnants of the New Deal. Punks respond with a fusillade of brutal satire—editorials and lyrics and protest actions—lampooning the president, making common cause with groups such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and refusing to be drafted for a ground war in Central America or incinerated in World War III.   

We’re Not Here to Entertain shows how punk taught a new generation of white, middle-class suburban kids to critique US foreign policy or call out the military-industrial complex. The punk world emerges in Mattson’s telling as a definitive cultural formation—a successor to the New Left and counterculture of the ’60s and the Popular Front of the ’30s—that tried to arrange a rapprochement between anti–Cold War politics and homegrown cultural expression. Punk’s first “boomer” wave defined itself against institutionalized hippie bombast, but their ’80s successors tried to make common cause with the left-wing remnants of the ’60s and give them new grounding in a youth culture specific to Reagan’s America.  

Much of punk’s politics, however, was internal—and could easily devolve into mutual microcensure. For all its rage against Reagan, punk’s fiercest debate was over its own strictures: Zines were as full (if not fuller) with polemic over the truth of punk than attacks on Iran-contra. But all the closely argued diatribes about what was or was not punk in sound, look, and attitude or the bitter denunciations of poseurs, followed by desperate appeals to unity on the scene, were the messy stuff of community-building. As with punk music, snotty noise coexisted with a vivid reimagination of the given terms of everyday existence.

“I’m not into political protest,” said D.C. native MacKaye in 1985, “but I do consider my life a protest.” He would later revise the balance of that distinction, but it rightly captures one tendency in punk. The point of the subculture, MacKaye and others suggested, was to reinvent yourself and create a new world in the shell of the old in the process. But those kinds of prefigurative politics always set a high bar. No wonder Cobain felt himself to have betrayed them, or that so many in the scene took to them with such righteous fervor.

Mattson is impatient with any attempt to put a wall between everyday life and political protest. Given his own history, he tends to favor what used to be called “peace punk,” but he also sees punk’s community orientation, its “language of communal producerism,” as its greatest form of protest and most lasting rebuke to the political culture of Reagan’s America. Punk’s DIY ethos, he argues, existed as a stark alternative to ’80s corporate popular culture—cue new wave, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Live Aid, MTV, John Hughes movies—all of which figure here as the bread and circuses of a time when the president himself was eager to jump-start the engines of consumption after the doldrums of the ’70s. 

Mattson’s subtitle hails the punk v. Reagan showdown as the “real culture war” of the ’80s. But what of the other great confrontations of the era? Battles over free expression, “offensive” art and popular culture, history curricula, and the AIDS crisis made headlines because, more than punk could, they registered the ongoing shocks to the normative sex, race, and gender order unleashed in the wake of the ’60s. Punk was an internal battlefront in the culture wars: a partial mutiny by the young, white, middle-class suburban constituency Reagan hoped might dispel the influence of the boomer counterculture. But punk was itself disturbed by those shocks, too. 

The word “punk” had been cribbed from prison and city slang that went back to the 19th century. Once a cruel dismissal of a man forced to accept his own rape, ’70s zine editors repurposed the term to suggest a kind of upstart, nothing-left-to-lose spirit of defiance. The subculture profited from the frisson of danger the term evoked, but obscured the violence of its use as jailhouse argot or the currency it had in the queer underground to suggest sexual dissidence. This mixture of subversion and cooptation was emblematic of punk as a whole—and its relationship to the radical women, gay men, and people of color whose demands fueled the ’60s and ’70s social movements that most powerfully vexed Reagan’s hopes for a suburban utopia. 

There had always been women, gays and lesbians, and people of color in punk scenes. This was most evident in the ’70s, when the subculture emerged among the “downtown” art, fashion, and music worlds where avant-garde performance and gender experimentation flourished and artists, writers, and musicians attempted to make community on the fringes of hollowed-out, postindustrial downtowns. But they entered the scene as individual seekers like anyone else, and often found themselves on the fringe of a fringe movement. In most cases the subculture had little explicit concern for a politics that hoped to continue the freedom dreams nurtured by feminism, Black power, and the gay rights upsurge. 

What space there was narrowed in the ’80s, as hardcore brought in more boys, more aggro noise, and more suburban white kids looking to exorcise (and exercise) their own demons. Eighties punks were only fitfully aware of the problem, a fact that Mattson might have brought out with greater clarity, as it reveals much about punk’s possibilities and limits in the early part of the decade. The scene wouldn’t fully confront this until later, after the period Mattson surveys, when riot grrrls, queer punks, the Afro-punk movement, and a host of underground Latinx punk scenes began to force their way onto the stage and into the mosh pit. Those struggles continue today. They are the inevitable legacy of a movement that embodied the fault lines endemic to making new kinds of culture and politics in post-’60s America, when universalist projects of reform or revolution could no longer assume to speak for everyone.  

In the end, punks didn’t just scream at Reagan, Mattson suggests; they worked to counter the president’s attempt to take the country back to the future to a corporate-sponsored, ersatz redux of the ’50s. Faced with a conservative political culture that had arranged an unsteady detente between free market “yuppie” hedonism and defense of the traditional family, punks tried both unruly provocation and grassroots community building. Punk thrashed about in the ruins of the ’60s, trying to counter Reaganite lifestyle politics with a rough-hewn way of life, one that could harness countercultural energies to both disrupt the present and build an alternative future. That it failed is perhaps no surprise, but the noise punk unleashed still reverberates today, waiting to set off future provocation from peoples and places as yet unknown.

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