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The Butch Fantasy: America Goes Punk

“CBGB could become the Cavern of a new generation. The Ramones could become its Animals. And 'Punk' could become its 'Esquire.'”

by

Inside Keller’s, the air is stained with sweat and beer. Outside on West Street, a silent chorus line of denimed young men grip their beer cans and lean on fenders.

One man in the crowd seems overcome with joy. It is quite incongruous. He is large and well-built, like many of the others, but instead of the usual tight jeans he wears loose pajama pants, and instead of the usual crew cut he sports long blond locks that shake every time he moves. Which is often. He is doing some sort of demented psychedelic jig in the midst of this inebriated circle, and as he moves into the light you can detect something fetid in his ro­bustness. He has the air of one who sucks avocado pits for a living. Obviously from San Francisco.

On the Bowery, a mile and half across town from Keller’s, a smaller stand of denimed young men maintains an equally silent and hostile vigil outside CBGB, the biker hangout turned punk-rock capital of the world. Like their counterparts by the docks, these young men on the Bowery have mastered the art of aggressive lounging. It is waiting and not waiting at the same time, spurred by the realization that there is nothing to do except nothing, perfected by generations of rednecks who guzzled beer and collected dust by the side of the road. There is no remnant of a hippie dancing outside CBGB; if there were, one of these punks might make as if to beat him up. Punks love to threaten hippies, at least theoretically, but the butch numbers outside Keller’s merely suffer them in silence. The butch code prohibits violence outside of sex; the punk code promotes violence in place of sex.

The Bowery and West Street never cross. They are parallel boulevards which traffic in mythic projections of masculinity. These projections depend on swagger, beer, blue jeans, seaminess, nihilism and the threat of violence —   sexual violence with gays (how inappropriate the terms sounds for a butch), fraternal violence with straights. As one who does some hanging out on both sides of town, I have occasionally become confused. But is this really my fault? Of course not. It’s the natural response of one dropped into mirror worlds.

***

Christopher Street started going butch about three or four years ago, after an extended femme phase dating from the Stonewall Rebellion of ’69. The countercul­ture was reasonably tolerant of femmes — it was pretty femme it­self, after all — and in a couple of years femme chic became an item to compete with bell-bottom jeans. But about the time pugnacious straight kids started camping about in satin tights and feather boas, short hair and Levis started cropping up on Christopher Street. Now, insiders say, the butch look has peaked among gays and is ready to be replaced by a mysteri­ous “something else.” If so, that can only mean its imminent em­brace by the rest of the country.

The beginning of the end proba­bly came when the Eagle’s Nest started playing disco music. The Eagle’s Nest, named after Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, is the premier leather bar in the country. Once you could go there and watch a leather man grab another butch number by the crotch and squeeze until the guy was writhing on the floor; you knew the leather man had picked his slave for the night. Now you see more shorts than leather, as many hairdressers as cowboys.

It’s hard for a regular to feel ­intimidated at the Eagle anymore. It’s even harder at the Anvil, which stages a show-biz version of what used to go on all around you at the Eagle. It’s out of the ques­tion at the Stud. The Stud has a poster of Fonzie on the wall and is more likely to be filled with pretty boys than leather ones. They con­verge around a pool table in the front room (where the bar is) and around each other’s crotches in the back room (where the sex is). The Toilet, as the name implies, is a specialty house. You can check your clothes for $1, take a seat on the john and revel in the golden showers of a pack of beefy studs. Most visitors, prefer to keep their dollar and their clothes. Those who suffer inhibitions about urinating down a human throat have to content themselves with a tiny sink by the toilet-room door.

The streets, the piers, and the bars along the waterfront form a sordid world, romantic in its grim­ness, so stark and primitive it seems utterly surreal. Despite the trendies, the Dickensian murk re­mains. Walking down to the Eagle at night is like stumbling onto a deserted set: Walled in by empty warehouses, cut off from the river by the silent edifice of the elevated highway, picking your way through the shadows, you feel trapped in a cul-de-sac with only one exit available. So you open the door on the corner and enter a dimly lit room filled with strutting specters from a working-class past. It’s a vision of industrial America in a postindustrial age, a corroded vision which even the Ashcan School could scarcely have imagined.

***

Legs McNeil, the resident punk at Punk magazine, is sitting in a Penn Station bar, trying to explain what it means to be a punk. “It’s just being a normal person,” he says. “That’s what we are — normal people. We’re not perverts.”

When we left Punk‘s editorial offices — Tenth Avenue at 30th Street, only a few blocks above the leather turf — Legs started telling me about this dream date he’s just had in Cheshire, Connecticut, where he’d grown up. He took this girl to the swamp where he’d massacred frogs as a kid and the two of them got it on on a railroad track. The only drag was that his girl friend kept getting bitten on the ass by mosquitoes. The mos­quitoes didn’t bother him. What’s a few mosquitoes when you’re get­ting laid on a railroad track?

Legs agrees that the macho stance is gaining popularity and attributes it to a natural return from the excesses of the counterculture. The counterculture at­tempted a yin-yang symbiosis of male and female; now that’s breaking up and the male is com­ing out on top. “Punks are, like — ­the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks,” he says. “The macho thing is cool. It’s not so cool to go around busting heads, but … when it happens, it happens.”

Still, punks might not be con­sidered “normal” by some people. Legs grins, “My mother thinks I’m sick,” he admits “But, look — parents thought Elvis was sick; parents thought the Beatles were sick. What do parents know? Parents even thought the Stones were sick.”

Legs suddenly grows pensive. “You know … Mick Jagger might be sick. David Bowie’s real­ly sick. He’s such a faggot.”

Faggots are sick. Legs does have some friends who are faggots, but they don’t go around talking about it all the time. They’re cool. You have to be cool to be a faggot. The ­butch guys? “They’re nuts! Those guys are Nazis! They’re weird! The stories you hear about ’em — like those s&m places where they beat the shit out of people. Nobody can convince me that that’s nor­mal.”

I ask Legs about the Go Club, the notorious band of south Village punks who have gotten some bad press lately because of their al­leged involvement in various local beatings, etc. He hasn’t heard of them. But he does recall walking down Bedford Street late one night and encountering a sidewalk full of tough-looking guys who didn’t seem too thrilled by his presence. So he moved off the sidewalk and continued down the middle or the street. “I guess maybe I respected their code that way,” he offers.

Maybe they thought you were a fag, I suggest. Lotta fags in that neighborhood, you know.

He hadn’t thought of that. The notion disturbs him. “I don’t think so,” he says at last. “My leather jacket is different from a fag’s.”

***

Remember high school? Punks are like the guys we used to call greasers, although the updated version no longer uses grease. The stereotype casts them as street­-smart roughnecks whose goal in life is to get drunk, have fun, and look for an opening. Greasers have been around all along, but their numbers were depleted and their self-image badly battered ey the mass hippie conversion of the ’60s. Now they are coming out of the closet, as it were, nudged by a rapid succession of media images: Bruce Springsteen, Fonzie, the Beatles revival, Dion’s return, even Neil Sedaka’s (Sedaka was never a punk, of course, but his syrupy crooning fills a romantic void for chicks who know they’re chicks). The number of punks who consider themselves punks is still fairly small, but all that remains is for media image to reshape reali­ty. The long-haired kids who form the norm in every high school outside Manhattan might see themselves as latter-day hippies but they have a lot more in common with punks.

The international HQ of punks­ — their Eagle — is CBGB. CBGB is a dangerous-looking place which is really quite safe, a former Hell’s Angels hangout on skid row on the edge of the Lower East Side. The choice of locale is ironic: punks on the Bowery, broken youth stumbling into the home of broken age; gays on the waterfront, pretend men swaggering around the empty workshop of real ones.

The Bowery is home to kids whose masculinity is almost as heavily stylized as anything you’d see on the waterfront — to people who, in Nietzsche’s phrase, have been “dipped into the ether of art.” For some, it’s a literal home; for others, less adventuresome, it’s the Haight-Ashbury of ’76. They come in from the Island to listen to the CBGB bands. They’re not greasers any more than the gays on the waterfront are stevedores, and they don’t listen to greaser music. They prefer power-chord brutality and atonal disconnected­ness to streetcorner harmonies and shoo-wop heartache. But they’ve consciously adopted the style and the pose of greasers, updating where necessary.

At the moment, CBGB’s influ­ence is restricted to New York and its patronage is restricted to a few. Still, says Punk magazine’s editor, the idea is “definitely hitting a nerve.” If it hits the right one, CBGB could become the Cavern of a new generation. The Ramones could become its Animals. And Punk could become its Esquire.

Punk magazine was started last winter by John Holmstrom (a former student at the School of Visual Arts), Legs (who made educational films for the state of Connecticut after failing to get a high school diploma), and a third chum from Cheshire, Ged Dunn. They had just made a short film called ”The Unthinkables” — a takeoff of “The Untouchables” — and decided to do a magazine. Now, with five issues and a growing circulation, they find themselves at the forefront of the punk rebellion. They’re not quite sure how they feel about it. When asked if he thinks punks will be as big as hippies were, Legs says, “I hope not. That’d be a drag, like being a hippie in ’65. We do wanna take over the world, though. We wanna be able to do whatever we want.”

Legs draws an analogy between, punks and gangsters. especially the kind of gangsters you see in Jimmy Cagney movies. Gangsters become gangsters, he points out, “because they want to be like everybody else [i.e.. rich] and that’s the only way they know how.” Punks are natural hustlers. They don’t wear sneakers and dirty blue jeans by choice; what they really want is smoking jack­ets and Havana cigars and a Lear jet and a cellar full of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and a Swiss bank account and lots of beautiful women. If you had to form one image which would capture the punk cold, it would be this: a kid with dirt under his nails and ripped Levis around his ankles, jerking himself off while staring into the pages of Playboy.

Rock is as central to punks as sex is to butches. Each is a com­mon language and a means of escape. For butches — the majority of whom are successful, affluent achievers — sex is a ticket into sleaze, into a Dionysian playland where anything seems possible. But punks already live in sleaze. For them, rock is a ticket out, because it looks like the quickest and easiest war’ to get rich and famous.

Life is like a giant high school: When you get rich and famous, you become a senior. Never mind that any number of punks don’t even get to be seniors in high school. So what if you spend three years in 10th grade? As much as a punk wants riches and fame, he also wants to be a kid forever. Either option offers shelter, and rock stars have both.

John Holmstrom, sees the punk as a tragic figure — cold, violent, alienated, frustrated, nihilistic, self-destructive, yet undeniably romantic. Holmstrom is the editor of Punk magazine. A few years older than Legs, he sometimes got threatened by greasers as a teen­ager because of his long hair and hippie wimp attitude. “You’ve got to be really naive to be a punk,” he says. “It’s really violent, and you’ve got to be naive to be into vi­olence.”

Holmstrom has an ironic de­tachment which Legs, the gung-ho professional, lacks. Holmstrom sees the reality: that most punks grow up to be pathetic figures if they aren’t pathetic figures al­ready. Legs, like all punks, wants only fantasy. “That’s why today’s movies are so bad,” he says. “Who wants to know about reality? We want the good stuff. You have to create the most dangerous and threatening illusion.”

***

Stripped to its essentials, Legs’s dangerous and threatening illusion is the same as the Eagle’s, the same as John Wayne’s, the same as any man’s. It’s what a man has to create to be a man. A man acts out his vision of how a man is supposed to act, and the careful cultivation of fear provides just enough stimulus to provoke the best performance. Too much fear, and things might get out of hand; too much fear, and he might not act like a man is supposed to act.

This dangerous and threatening illusion is especially what a work­ing-class man has to create to be a man. The popularization of butch implies that it’s what a lot of nonworking-class males want to create, too. Unlike greasers, the punks of the present are frequently from comfy, suburban, middle-class homes. For these people, being a punk means rejecting mid­dle-class softness for lower-class virility while fighting for upper­class luxury. It’s almost like the voluntary poverty of the late ’60s, except that hippies thought they could transcend poverty; punks want the challenge and the strug­gle of transcending poverty, in a more concrete way. Money is to daydream; virility is to flaunt. And in the absence of real money, a strutting pose is what connotes virility.

There’s a basic elitism at work here, not only among bourgeois “punks” but among butch gays as well. The blue-collar guys — the hardhats, the rednecks, the shitshovelers — are perceived as noble savages, as primitives uncorrupted by money and status. The real blue-collar guys may be trapped by convention, religion, and right-wing politics, but the stud liberal living out his he-man fantasies has none of those bur­dens. He’s either a kid or a faggot; he doesn’t have in-laws. It’s a white man’s fantasy. You don’t see many black punks on the Bowery or many black cowboys on Christopher Street. Butches see other races as exotic, like Leni Riefenstahl among the Nuba. (I have a friend who spent months at the trucks trying to find a genuinely scuzzy Puerto Rican kid, but every one he picked up turned out to be a medical student.) Punks simply don’t see them at all. “We’re not racist,” says Legs, “we’re just more into our own thing. It’s like saying to an Italian, ‘What about Polacks?’ ”

Racism is the final badge of manliness, the final link between the intellectual gay or the suburban kid and the macho preserve, of the all-American shitshoveler. If you make that link — and it’s not hard for any white — you’ve made the working-class connection you need to be a man.

Nevertheless, a real gap re­mains: Working-class America just can’t meet the expectations of these self-conscious poseurs. I don’t know about the truck drivers you know, but the truck drivers I know all have bulges in their waistlines, not their crotches. Working-class America needs a little polishing up.

Which is just what the new butch could accomplish. It’s a difficult job, because it demands a self­-consciousness that most straight, white, male Americans are reluc­tant to embrace. They might be willing to put on a white belt and matching loafers in the name of fantasy, but a leather jacket? Punks are too self-conscious; after all, greasers, with their combs and their switchblades, were symbo­lized as much by vanity as by violence. Punks are too rebellious and too juvenile for adults, and maybe too urban for kids.

For years, kids across the country have been getting off on shitkicker bands like the Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. Not only is their image anti-urban (and, by extension, anti-intellectual as well); it has the­ added advantage of not demanding  a clean break with the Woodstock heritage of the ’60s (since long-haired are now an accepted phenomeoon). Evangelical punks have an uphill fight, because they demand just that break.

The prospects for proselytizing leather don’t look good either. But butch gays do provide a choice; they’re not locked into the leather look. There’s the construction-worker look, the cowboy look, and the truck-driver look. Forget con­struction workers: too prosaic. Scratch the cowboy looks; it may sell Marlboros, but most Americans couldn’t drive a horse to the corner store. But truck drivers? They have possibilities.

Truck driving is a supremely American activity. Its very existence is a monument to Manifest Destiny; if the country weren’t so enormous, it wouldn’t be any big deal. It looks dangerous, but just dangerous enough to provide a thrill. It’s romantic, but it’s inescapably masculine. It’s a job for the independent man. It’s lonely sometimes, but there’s always the truck stop just down the road with the cute little waitress — fleeting contact, no deposit no return. With the right sales medium, truck drivers could be as big in Middle America as they are at the Anvil.

Enter CB radio, the hula-hoop of hi-fi. CB is the perfect medium for selling butch to the silent majority. It has the lure of technology and gadgetry, but it’s also linked with traditional American values like freedom and rootlessness and red­necks. It couples the shelter of anonymity with the warm, cozy feeling of companionship. It offers all the rituals of a select society, with a secret mumbo-jumbo any­one can learn and a zipless antenna the whole freeway can envy. (How long before antenna on the left means dominant mama and antenna on the right means submissive good buddy?) It’s as American as Betty Ford. It’s truck driving without the truck.

Like rock and sex, CB. is both a medium of communication and a means of escape — a ticket to a fantasy world where men are men­ and chicks are chicks and humping is humping. To some of its habitues, CB radio must become public-access reality. But for most, its public-access Marlboroland. So what if the bulge is in your waist? Switch the dial: Suddenly you’re on I-15, pushing a load of goldfish to San Bernardino, and there’s smokeys on your right and a convertible full of naked cheerleaders on your left and you’re about to screw the double nickels and cream all over the speedometer. All in the comfort of your own living room.

Let’s face it: Butch is every­where. The President’s sons have become the biggest source of celebrity beefcake since Marlon Brando. An ex-leatherneck does a soft nudie for Playgirl and a hard one for a gay pornzine. Rugged young studs do for cigarette sales what buxom girls did 20 years ago. Harold Rosenberg once described masculinity as “a myth that has turned into a comedy” — and where there’s a comedy, somebody has to sell the tickets. There are bucks to be made out of this: so let’s not waste any time.

I have this friend who is addicted to Locker Room. Locker Room is the patchouli oil of the ’70s. It’s a colorless liquid that comes in a little vial and is supposed to smell like those places where men put on their jocks together. And it does. The funny thing is, one whiff of it from the open vial sends you reeling, just like amyl nitrate. Masculinity works the same way. Especially if you bottle it. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 2, 2020

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