By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
At work here is a delusion over-25s will recall from the hippie days: the we-are-youth line. To their credit, punks don't pretend to be everybody's brothers and sisters. They savage contemporaries who don't share their self-intereststhe grammar-school boys, the art students, the revitalized tedsand they savage each other with continual exhortations to cut the shit. "Try to evade reality/And now you're just a novelty," warn the Killjoys, and when punks at the Vortex cheered the news of Elvis's deathanother old fart goneDanny Baker of Sniffin' Glue grabbed the mike in a rage and reminded them just where they'd be without him. But like most minority groups, they take comfort in the thought that their situation is not only of central social significance, but also the source of magic powers. The notion that Everypunk can just walk off the dole queue and make great rock and roll is essential to their sense of themselves.
Behind punk's belief in its own magic is the old idea that if you live close enough to the edge of reality you gain some special grip on it. But despite the legend their edge doesn't turn out to depend on brutal poverty. Poly Styrene, the mulatto who leads X-Ray Spex, giggles that compared to where she grew up council flats are pretty soft, and Joe Strummer jeers at the way Americans romanticize Britain's plight: " 'Ey fink it's really orful over here, don't they? 'Ey fink we can't afford 'arf a pint o' beer." In fact, many punk musicians live at home and spend their meager dole or boring-job or gig money on themselves, and not all boast impeccably impecunious pedigrees. Joe Strummer has been exposed as the son of a career diplomat who was himself born working-class (as well as the former lead singer of a band of hippie squatters called the 101'ers), the parents of the Damned's Rat Scabies invited disc jockey John Peel to a sherry evening in a well-to-do London suburb, signing the engraved card "Mr. and Mrs. Scabies"; the Cortinas are middle class boys from Bristol; Chelsea's Gene October, author of the militant "Right To Work," is reputedly of moneyed stock. So when reporters discover middle-class thrill-seekers at punk gigs, that's hardly surprising. Only because the punks themselves have made an issue of posing does such evidence appear damning to those who'd just as soon dismiss them anyway.
Perhaps the way to understand it is this: Rather than a working-class youth movementpotentially revolutionary, proto-fascist, or symptomatic of the decadence of our timespunk is a basically working youth bohemia that rejects both the haute bohemia of the rock elite and the hallowed bohemian myth of classlessness. Not that it's purely working-class (or purely youth, for that matter). But it gives the lie to the (basically Marxist) cliché that bohemia must always be petit-bourgeois. For punk, class replaces such bohemian verities as expressive sexuality and salvation through therapy/enlightenment/ drugs. It is a source of identity and a means of self-realization. So the Cockney accent replaces the blues voice, and disdain for luxury becomes an affirmation of fellowship with one's allies' rather than a withdrawal from the economic world.
Punk doesn't want to be thought of as bohemian, because bohemians are posers. But however vexed the question of their authenticity, bohemias do serve a historical functionthey nurture aesthetic sensibility. Punk definitely has attracted musicians hiding arty little secrets; if Mick Jones acknowledges having gone on scholarship to art school, that unfairly discredited rock institution, can Dave Vanian be far behind? Nor is it surprising that the best punk retailer-distributor, Rough Trade, is run by an idealistic Cambridge lit grad in the boho stronghold around Portobello Road. That many entrenched (and lapsed) bohemians regard punks as mindless yobs doesn't mean half as much as the observant participation of disaffected university students, restless suburban teens, and assorted dropouts. Most of the hip folks I know could use a shot of punk, which revives the oldest bohemian traditionartists with no visible means of support banding together against the cruel world.
Of course, most of these kids aren't artists, and they often enjoy invisible support from their parents or the state. But it's equally obvious that for talented working-class rebels denied access to Britain's scarce, narrow, and overcrowded escape routes, bohemianismin which poverty is no bar to freedom, identity, and the pleasures of the momentpresents a way out. A recent study among the supposedly middle-class hippies of Birmingham, for instance, revealed that most of those who'd stuck with the lifestyle had working-class origins. Of course, Marxists can dismiss hippies and punks alike as lumpen because, unlike real working-class people, they're not interested in work. But it remains true that for punks class is a charged category. They have raised both their own consciousness and that of the participant observers who are now part of their movement, and it's at least conceivable that when they all grow up they'll unite to marshal their energy into a real attack on the system they detest.
I'm as skeptical as the punks are, and I hardly expect this to happen. But I do think punk represents an advance in sensibility. Those punks who aren't direct victims of the economic rationalizations that have been wreaking drab havoc over Britain have certainly been induced to think about them a lot. The edge they all claim, their magic handle on reality, is that they're painfully familiar with powerlessness. And they want no part of it.