Tony Vomits Punk, the books

My friend and long-ago college tutor Randy Fertel is writing a follow-up to his well-received book of essays, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (see my review here).  The new book will explore the uses and abuses of improvisation as an idea and a strategy in the arts, popular culture, and politics, and what I’ve seen of it so far is both fascinating and directly relevant to our current predicaments.  Anyway, he texted me last night to ask if I could suggest a book on the history of punk music, which immediately sent me to my book shelves and to the composition of the list I’ve shared here, in case anyone else may be interested in this topic that has meant so much to me.

Interestingly, I’ve never seen a cohesive history that starts with the New York scene (CBGB), blends in the UK (Sex Pistols, etc.), and adds in LA, Cleveland, DC, Akron, etc. in that incredibly packed and explosive 2-3 years (oil embargo, gas lines, Drop Dead New York) made so depressingly indelible to those of us who graduated out of high school into it (1975-’77).  That said, here are my Top Ten books about punk, for your reading pleasure.

Homstrom, John, & Hurd, Bridget.  PUNK: The Best of Punk Magazine.  This is a hefty coffee table book that reproduces the New York ‘zine that coincided with the very beginning of punk in New York.  It’s fun to read, feels juvenile and clubby and silly.  But introductions to each issue throughout the book do a good job of pulling together what was going on in the streets, what mattered, and how the sound and look developed (first issue was January 1976).

Legs McNeil.  Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.  Legs co-founded PUNK magazine, was in bands, etc.  A little frustrating as the story is told in fragmented interviews and dashed off asides, but he was there, knew everybody, and paid attention.

Jon Savage.  England Dreaming. This may be the best punk history, fierce and on point, but its focus is the English scene, especially the shooting star that was the Sex Pistols, so it doesn’t catch that first ignition of punk in New York.  One of my favorite books about music and its impact on culture, back when music could do that.

Lester Bangs.  Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste.  Guessing you know Bangs, the mad king of rock critics, whose stream of consciousness writing and make it bleed tastes made each of his record reviews and interviews a punk manifesto (his review of James Taylor, for instance, is a hilarious plea for something please to come blow up the music scene).  Most of the reviews came pre-punk, but he was there when it happened, wrote the first review of Patti Smith’s Horses, traveled with the Clash, and even took a stab at an article called “The Roots of Punk” (in Mainlines, that doesn’t mention a single band but perfectly nails what it felt like to be a confused teenager of the era).

Patti Smith.  Just Kids.  I’d include this in a list of my favorite books of the century so far, just so achingly beautiful in its appreciation of youth’s glory and what comes after.  Have you read this yet?  Damn it’s good.  Patti, of course, was the first punk goddess (and there were a lot of girl bands in punk), put out the first punk single (Piss Factory), and single-handedly changed college fashion with Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo of her on her first album Horses

Richard Hell.  I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp.  If you ask me, Hell was the first punk punk (Warhol and Reed and Iggy and the Dolls his immediate influences, but let’s draw the line here).  And what’s amazing is that he’s aged into a sort of elder statesman of the scene, sober, articulate, and more clear-eyed than wistful over what he created and survived.  This autobiography is almost as well-wrought as Patti’s, and less insular.

Dee Dee Ramone.  Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones.  All four of the original Ramones are dead (one of their later drummers survives).  Dee Dee lived all the excesses of punk like a latter-day Keith Moon.  He wrote most of their best songs, could hardly play bass, and that was fine.  A line from the book:  “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds.  Punk comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”  The Ramones are a sort of miracle, the perfect punk band before punk even had that name, and they never made the mistake of evolving into something less crude.  I will always love them and their individual members in the same way I love all four Beatles.

Simon Reynolds.  Rip it Up and Start Again:  Postpunk 1978-1984.  Punk was dead in two years, so they say.  But most of the bands I love came after that, were just as punk as the originators, and even got record deals.  This is a highly readable straight history of punk’s splintering into hard core, ska revival, new wave, straight edge, etc., leaning towards all the amazing bands from the UK then.

Michael Azerrad.  Our Band Could Be Your Life.  This chronological history covers roughly the same post-punk era (1981-1991), but focuses on the American bands.  Title is from a song by The Minutemen, one of my favorite bands, and if they ain’t punk, what is?

Walking the Endless Wall

Just a couple miles away from the New River Gorge Visitors Center in West Virginia, the aptly named Endless Wall hiking trail offers vista after vista of the gorge, the famous arched bridge, and the rapid-churned New River far below.  It’s a well-marked, mostly flat four-mile out-and-back that your grandmother could do in sneakers, but its rewards belie its accessibility.  The trail begins amidst a surprisingly robust stand of hemlocks, some of the few left from the hemlock borer blight that has devastated so much of the Blue Ridge forests.  These graceful conifers stand tall and limbless up to a high canopy where their piney needled tops sway in a breeze.  At ground level, rhododendrons run riot across the stony ground, with nothing to block the view between them and the hemlock heads.  Chris and I walked in an almost cathedral quiet, sunlight shafting in between the narrow columned trunks, just a tinkling stream and the caw of crows to mark the stillness. 

Half a mile in, as we approached the “endless wall,” the hemlocks give way to the usual mixed deciduous forest of white oak, maple, and sycamore, their mustard, pumpkin, and occasional cranberry-colored leaves littering the path made a tunnel by over-branching rhododendrons (must be so fragrant here in springtime when they blossom!).  I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural trick, of narrow passageways opening onto high-ceilinged rooms as we emerged from this tunnel onto our first vista, a rock outcropping directly at the edge of the ridge, with a magnificent view of the fgracefully arching rusty bridge that spans the gorge.  Just far enough away not to hear the cars rushing along its arrow straight roadway, but not too high to miss the distant hushing churn of the river below.  We stood as if on the edge of the world up there, and the steeply sloping hills, dappled in autumn colors, seemed like some rumpled shag rug, hawks and buzzards swirling below and then swooping past us to circle even higher in the sky. 

New River Gorge Bridge seen from Endless Wall Trail

Every hundred yards or so for as long as we wanted to walk, another spur trail offered another outcropping and yet another magnificent gorge view.  One path goes to a climber’s ladder that disappears down a rock crack to a narrow ledge far below.  We didn’t see any climbers on our walk, but what a series of challenges that miles-long wall of rock must offer!  No kayakers on the river rapids either, as temps dipped down to freezing overnight, but it was easy to imagine our son Nick and his Passages Adventures crew blasting through the narrow white water channel there on that storied trip he took I think 3 years ago.  The brisk air and the bracing vistas made me feel almost brave enough to consider taking up white water kayaking and rock climbing myself!  Eventually we turned around, not even halfway through the hike, stopping on a broad flat rock and letting our legs hang over the edge, for lunch.  Here’s my favorite picture from the hike: 

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!