As an exercise in breaking down complex ideas into their component pieces, I used to play music in the Introduction to Theater class I taught once upon a decade. I started with Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection.”
I followed with the sort-of joke band, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, covering “The Rainbow Connection,” in a punk style.
Then I played The Clash’s “London Calling,” and I asked them, what do you think about when you think about punk?
I got words like angry, straightforward, and rebellious. They said “counter-culture” and “profane” and ” violent.”
We talked about thicker concepts like authenticity and rejection of authority, arbitrary social codes. We addressed visual codes like mohawks, colored hair, piercings, leather, torn clothing, and make-up. How much of any of those do you need to be punk? Do you need all? Just a critical mass? Are any one of those (or something else I haven’t mentioned) the necessary and sufficient condition?
When I listen to The Clash now, I marvel that they were ever not-mainstream. The music has a obvious melody. Vocalizations are clear. They’re political, sure, but big deal. Billy Bragg is political, too, and I don’t hear anyone saying that guy is punk. Dixie Chicks? Punk? Do tell.*
I did not see the driver as we pulled out of the parking lot of the co-op in our old neighborhood, just his car, carefully and casually left between the two yellow lines painted on the asphalt, the picture of a competent urban driver. Respectful of the neighboring vehicles and respectful of the potential vehicles that might park next to him.
The car was a light colored compact. I want to say it was a gray Honda Civic, but I can’t identify a car by its silhouette. If it wasn’t a Honda Civic, it was a car enough like a Honda Civic that I can say it was one. Relatively new. Apparently well cared for.
The license plate read LNDN CLLNG. Or something very close. I should have taken a picture. I didn’t.
To which I ask, what is farther from punk than a vanity license plate? Here we have a co-op shopping, sensible car driving, vanity plate buying dude (I assume the owner is a man; not sure why) who proclaims his allegiance via LONDON CALLING.
His allegiance to what?
Personally, I don’t think punk is most of the things I described with my students in that general ed class of not terribly long ago. I think most of them are symptomatic and that punk is primarily an attitude that embodies some of the thicker concepts I mentioned. A striking out against convention, against learned and unquestioned behavior.** One way you do that is by aligning yourself visually – your clothing and hair. But you could do all that and still be incredibly conventional in what you believe.
I believe my latter-day punk isn’t declaring his allegiance to an ethos, but to his musical tastes, and I don’t have any more information to work with beyond the car, the license plate, and the choice of shopping (buy local! support union workers!). Probably left on the political spectrum. But is he kind of guy to riot?
I kind of doubt it. We’re mainstream. We don’t do that.
What is this person like? Where does he work? Does he imagine himself to be a rebel in his soul? Is he, in fact, a rebel?
I wonder what kind of dialogue this guy would speak in a book. Or how she’d change in my expectations if she were a woman.
*Could it be that The Clash was never really punk in the way that the Sex Pistols were? Does being mainstream-able show a chink in your punk armor? Say it ain’t so!
**I think a strong case could be made that the Romantics (Byron, for example, or Karel Macha) were an earlier incarnation of this sort of notion – purity of spirit and ideal is more important than attention to hobbling and hypocritical social norms.