Genres of music ought to be classified by the emotions they inspire in their listeners. Joy, comfort, arousal, self-satisfaction—for rock music, those are emotions it’s easy to talk about.
Punk rock began for me with fear. The music arrived for me historically late, at the end of the 1980s, and personally early, when I was fourteen years old. I was a child. Rock is for children. You have to be that young to feel it with full intensity, to hear the drumbeat strike and think it is the world reaching out to punch you. With experience the nerves become sclerotic, and you learn that the promises of the lyrics are lies and posturing. By 28 you’re left with the knowledge that you’re the fan of a deficient art form. Your emotions have evolved to deny you rock music’s best benefits, and it’s become much too late to develop any comparably deep feeling from any other music. As a grown-up, still listening to the same stuff, you’re genuinely ruined.
At 14 I just knew I wanted to be ruined. Punk promised physical violence, a buzzing charge, like the wish that someone would hit you in the face. I desperately wanted the feeling of violence in my life, without the reality. There may be a personal mystery, of why this is what I wanted; or a social mystery, of why I seem not to have been completely alone in my desire, judging from the way other people approach rock and punk. Behind it is a bigger, more interesting mystery: how music, with the lyrics put to one side, can manage to contain “violence.”
Only heavy metal had promised anything comparable to punk up to that point in my life. But gratifying as I found the double-bass drum kick and guitar speed of Metallica or Megadeth, I could never find myself, my own conflicts, inside metal’s war-and-lunacy lyrics. I felt more at home in lyrics from the golden age of what’s now called “post-punk,” the eccentric independent-label music after punk that often turned back from insults to society to a hatred of oneself.
Punk and post-punk seemed to offer violence against the listener by the band and singer, and then violence against everybody else by the band and singer and listener all together. The lyrics often seemed aware that they couldn’t come up to the music, or that they only gained whatever power they had from the music behind them. They could be comic-aggressive, or they could be pathetic. In choruses like “Fuck school fuck school fuck my school/What’s the matter, buddy? Fuck you!” (the Replacements) to “I’m a leper … /Who should I believe?/Safest to wallow in my own esteem” (Dinosaur Jr.), you had the two lyrical poles of the songs I loved. But the music itself was neither comic nor pathetic. It was threatening, exhilarating. It let me lie in bed at night with the lights off, headphones on, in a state of genuine, crushing fear.
How do you explain this for the benefit of someone who has never pursued these feelings? You might have to swing the telescope around and let him see magnified the tiny dots of a whole archipelago of sociological facts about that child in bed: white kid, suburbs, middle-class, petted in school, bored, helpless, angry for no explicable reason. I would rather say, maybe too simply, that it was just something about 14, when you are old enough and strong enough to be capable of adult acts, and young enough and baffled enough to be totally incapable of accomplishing them, and thus you are a raging superman when listening alone to your Walkman and still a frustrated and thwarted child in real life. Anyway, that was fourteen for me.
There were varieties of mayhem in the music, and I became a connoisseur. Listening to early British punk, I made judgments about those first bands from the end of the ‘70s. The Sex Pistols offered nihilistic, careless, unspecific violence (“No future/No future for you!”). This meant little to me, and knowing nothing about them but what I heard on record I felt the Sex Pistols were slick, overproduced, and boring; I left that tape alone. The Clash, who had images of police riots lithographed on their record covers, were great, and delivered songs of militant resistance, like “The Guns of Brixton”—and it’s true that, while I rode the bus to school, I used to sing to myself: “When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come/With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?” But I also felt ashamed. I had a weirdly strong reality principle about certain things and by that age I had worked out a worldview that said that if the police kicked down my door, I would be a victim, not a freedom fighter. Straight to the concentration camp I would go. It was hard to sing along with songs that so obviously represented other people’s power fantasies, especially when they didn’t believe they were fantasizing. Yet I didn’t want to have to live with my own weakness, unexpressed, every day. That meant finding a fantasized violence that also acknowledged it was fantasy—the comic side of punk, again.
I fell in love with the Damned, from that generation of the inventors of punk. They spat on me in the right way, by which I mean neither cynically (like the Sex Pistols) nor over-earnestly (like the Clash), but for the sake of the fact that I was enjoying listening to them. And then the band and I were going to get together and fucking spit on everybody else! The Damned had produced these Grand Guignol visions of ridicule (“She can’t afford no cannon/ She can’t afford no gun at all”) and superpower (“I was born to kill”) and insults to their fans waiting outside the stage door (“Standing in the pissing rain/Must be a drag”) and then out-and-out cowardly murder (“Stab your back!/Stab your back!/Stab your back!”), and I loved them for it. The lyrics were bolted firmly to the music, which was so fast and so trebly (especially on the bad second-generation tape of an LP that a French-Canadian bunkmate gave me at summer camp) and so gloriously painful to listen to, that the absurd violence in the words matched a real musical violence—which, as I’ve suggested, is the connection that’s powerful in punk, that’s interesting, that scares.
In my early teen years, in those waning years of post-punk, listening to recorded music weighed about equally, at school, with attending weekend shows. (Nobody called these “concerts.”) People passed around cassette tapes of new music at the progressive, which is to say weird, high school I attended after years in public school—a sudden switch for me from Cat Stevens and the Steve Miller Band to Hüsker Dü and the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. And there was at least a little real violence to be had at shows, which was always a topic of interest. On Mondays at school, you’d hear reports of shows that had taken place over the weekend in which some stranger might have been hurt, pushed to the ground, bloodied by an elbow or a fist; and you’d hear what your friends had had to do with this, what they saw. Or if you’d gone out, well, then you had been there yourself, you’d heard rumors, or you knew. I never personally saw anyone badly hurt at a show, but there was always a kind of hope. I remember a concert at an ice rink, too big to be a real “show,” and therefore more dangerous, because there were college frat kids who didn’t abide by the semi-protocols of the weekend all-ages punk events, where at least if you knocked someone down you would put out a hand to pick him up. At this event, someone was reputed to have broken a leg, or his back, and been taken out on a stretcher; and a friend fought his way to return from the very front delighted with this news—”There’s blood on the floor! There’s blood on the floor!” In fact, blood could always flow because a head might accidentally fly into a nose in the late form of slam-dancing known as moshing. Moshers gathered together tightly, at the center of a circle, hurling themselves at each other, bouncing off shoulders, thrust out to the periphery and pushed back in again by waiting hands, flinging themselves at wherever the mass was thickest, in what was called the “pit,” and this was safe—I tried participating in this myself, warily. Or within the pit men faced off, sometimes just in pairs, sometimes even with a single sweat-soaked young man waiting for a challenger, and that scared me again.
One of the most thriving punk subgenres of my era was called “hardcore,” a music especially suited to moshing, and that was one of the genres with which my musical life restarted when I was 14. I was following up an immoderate prepubescent diet of Woodstock-era “classic rock,” the suddenly execrable music of mothers and fathers. Hardcore was awesome. It, too, was scary, because of the ultrafast repetitive drumbeat, the shouted lyrics, the chopped-up guitar, but also, at least initially, because of the shaved-headed culture surrounding the music. Shaved-heads meant skinheads to the child that I was, and skinheads in the 1980s meant neo-Nazis, young German and English Hitler-fancying hooligans who ran wild in the streets of Bremen or Leeds; National Front brutes, racists—the sort of people you watched 60 Minutes segments about with your parents, back then, in the embarrassments of the family unit. In between classes at school it was explained to me by my peers that not all hardcore was skinhead and that anyway there were antiracist skinheads, although there was racist white supremacist hardcore, too, in England especially, but that was hard to find, and … I was dubious. It seemed to me an unhealthy fixation, this focus on which shaved-heads were Nazis and which were not. Why not just have hair? I was told about a world called “straight edge,” a subculture of shaved-headed (or crew-cut) hardcore punks who not only were antiracist but additionally forswore drugs, alcohol, and tobacco (though not violence), and Magic-Markered Xs on the backs of their hands in imitation of the policy punk clubs employed to keep underage drinkers from the bar. I didn’t really care; I didn’t Magic-Marker any Xs on my hands. Assorted band cassettes came and went, and at some point my friend Becky K. gave me a tape of the complete works of the great, defunct D.C. hardcore band Minor Threat. Now, to that recording, I responded; I listened, stunned, and with very little idea what to make of it. When I run through it in memory—I’m certain that I haven’t played it in at least fifteen years—I always think first of some lyrics from “Out of Step”:
At least I can—fucking think!
I should add that Minor Threat lyrics were bellowed, as if at someone, ultraloud, with churning chords underneath. I didn’t smoke, drink, or fuck either—I looked forward to all three, but it wasn’t working out. It was evident that the people in the straight-edge world were radically unlike me, trying to get away from things I didn’t need to get away from. Most of the music I knew from those classic rock radio stations had a habit of inviting you in, colluding with you in the feeling that you could belong, could take the standpoint of the singer. When Mick Jagger sings to get off of his cloud, you know he’s not talking to you, he’s addressing some other person—basically it’s a song for you to sing along with. Much of punk was like this, too—a shifting river of bile that would run up against you for a moment, maybe, but then flow downstream to somebody else. Whereas if Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat told me to get off of his cloud, I knew I should get off. It wasn’t my cloud. I felt this all by means I didn’t understand entirely—in part by the tense regimentation of the music, in part by the stern expressions in the songs, not to mention the intensity of their strange subculture. Minor Threat managed to exclude me totally, and I responded to this with curiosity.
The gap became a little too wide for me, I thought, with the song “Guilty of Being White,” which shouted about the pain and rage of being guilty, simply by being white, for all previous white generations’ crimes. It seemed to fulfill the suspicion that hardcore and its shaved-headed practitioners were racist after all. I brought this up with Becky K. when I returned the cassette.
“Becky, like … they’re ‘guilty of being white.’ But aren’t they … trying to get out of their guilt? They’re, like, really mad about it?”
Did I mention that Becky K., also 14, was pierced, ultraleftist, and always way ahead of me? Her eyes started, from behind round spectacles, with perhaps the most perfect look of contempt I had received to that point in high school. I knew that I had exposed myself as inadequately punk.
“No,” she said. “They are totally guilty of being white. That’s the whole thing. They’re dead serious. They are guilty. We’re all guilty.”
Well, I knew I was guilty already. I was guilty of being white, just as I was guilty of being male, guilty of not being poor, guilty of being straight, guilty of everything that a good politically progressive kid could be guilty of. But Minor Threat managed something impressive: to make me feel really outside of their world, rejected by them, and at the same time guilty, reminded of forms of personal rottenness I could do nothing about, of which I knew I ought to remind myself more often. Here was something new: the violent rage and alternating hatred and self-hatred of other punk, but with some really good social reasons for hating yourself. This was a use of musical violence even the self-censuring and responsible part of me could get behind.
The other record I remember from when I was 14 that scared and alienated me in the same way as the Minor Threat album was Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I wasn’t black, Public Enemy didn’t want me, and the music had the same dual effect of righteous thrills and a sense of complete non-belonging. (That album, too, reminded you that white people ought to be hated.) Even today I wish there were more records, everywhere, that obstruct the identification process of rock, that teach more listeners not to identify. You don’t deserve it sometimes, and maybe singers should forbid it. This was a valuable piece of education for me. Not all feelings produced by art belong to you—even if in some measure only your own response brings them into being. Sometimes art-emotions have to be sequestered, moved into a different category of response, to free you to be a responsible human being: someone, that is, who knows to stand at a remove and appreciate others, while acknowledging that they don’t want you, they don’t care if you’re there.
Punk held all the satisfactions of starting violence in its music and then channeling or directing it by its lyrics—pinning it to the world, I liked to think. But if you left the realm of the comic, where so much of punk actually lives (the huge and unacknowledged majority of it, from the Ramones to Green Day), or left the realm of self-directed maudlin anger (from Dinosaur Jr. to Nirvana, its own line), it felt very strange to be preparing violence in the way that was described. In Minor Threat, there was a plausible, righteous violence with which I still couldn’t really identify—an interesting combination. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the music all that much. It seemed rudimentary. And the righteousness wasn’t mine, either. I wanted a better kind of musical fear and musical violence, ones that would implicate me to the right degree and in the right way—and alienate me, too, in the right way. Luckily Becky K. was ready for me. She had another tape at hand.
Minor Threat didn’t last long as a band. It was, though, as the music writers say, “influential.” Meanwhile, its young singer, Ian MacKaye, moved through several short-lived bands until he formed another stable group, which added a second, lesser known but highly emotional young singer, Guy Picciotto, from the even shorter-lived (but “influential”) band Rites of Spring. This was, as it turned out, a piling together of two geniuses on the Lennon/McCartney model—with a new rhythm section of comparable genius. They called their band Fugazi.
It chagrins me to be writing about Fugazi, since no one is less qualified than I am to do it. I wasn’t there in D.C. when they started, I didn’t see them on their first tour or their second, and I always had the profound and pleasurable sense that their music at least partly excluded me, because it was so tightly bound up with the post-hardcore and straight-edge world, a subculture I had nothing to do with. They were not commercial, they didn’t offer themselves to the world through radio or TV, they didn’t connect to anything else I knew or that felt natural to me. In fact, in addition to being a band, Fugazi was a kind of phenomenon known to many people who didn’t care for them musically: an anticommercial, ultramoral, somewhat puritanical outfit that toured constantly, often playing in such unconventional places as church basements and college rec halls; that insisted on an all-ages admissions to shows so that fans under 18 or 21 could attend; that held down ticket charges as low as five dollars, rather than raking in the money. It was the apex of do-it-yourself. The band also maintained absurdly affordable prices on their recordings, which came out on MacKaye’s own label, Dischord Record. (Dischord still survives, having released 157 albums and singles, mostly from other bands, over twenty-eight years of existence. They recently sent me a fresh cassette of the first Fugazi album for just four bucks, replacing the one I had dubbed without paying in 1989.)
I wanted a music whose formal violence would lead to something other than the demand for rioting, beating, or killing. I wanted … what? With Fugazi’s first EP, here it was, this thing I wanted inchoately, on a seven-song tape, without time enough to breathe between songs. It was repeated on two sides of the same cassette so you could just flip it without rewinding and experience the explosive sequence again. Fugazi is a record I haven’t been able to get out of my head for more than half a lifetime.
Return to that initial question: how does rock music produce the feeling of physical violence, especially if you subtract the lyrics for a minute before adding them back in? I’m afraid my answer is stupidly literal. I actually think it depends on rock being loud enough to cause aural pain, which it generally refrains from doing; and depends upon the instruments truly beating down on something, though not other human bodies.
The blues had the violence of threats, verbal promises of what was going to happen, echoed in the percussive guitar. But the promised violence also seemed limited in reach to the resonation of that wooden instrument, like the length of an arm or the extension of a shouting voice: it felt mano a mano. The bluesman might promise to cut you, and the ringing steel strings had the sound of cold metal. He could also promise to be Samson-like amidst Philistines; “If I had my way/I’d tear this building down,” Blind Willie Johnson famously sang. But then the music itself couldn’t produce that displacement of air, that concussion, of a wrecking ball that would put the building down. The speed-up of an acoustic guitar strum and the clang of the strings can always certainly be scary, or chill-inducing—in protest songs, too (take Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), which redress violence with righteousness—but nothing emulates a force that can really do damage, in a big way.
You need something properly loud to get more fear-inspiring effects. You need a bagpipe, a full symphony orchestra, or, in our time, major amplification. For the real violence of which rock is capable, you need an extreme degree of guitar volume and, I think, maybe above all, an amplified, highly articulated form of drum-kit drumming, learned from hard bop and everything that came after it, from such black jazz drummers as Max Roach and Art Blakey and Elvin Jones; a sound that then partially entered rock through such white players as Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of the Who and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A drummer in a rock band can actually hit objects with remarkable facility—can strike physically, can beat on skin—and this striking or beating, rather than falling into straight rhythm, can in its most effective instances hold onto a movement of the unexpected, as when a tom-hit or a snare roll or a cymbal crash drops in at any moment, and makes you feel it first as a kind of percussion upon or in your own body, and then as your own arm or foot punching down, to strike. A fully-amplified, distorted and fed-back guitar, rather than leading at all times, could follow such drumming as part of the musical fabric, emulate it and respond to it, lock into it—thud along with the bass drum at one moment, and scream tunelessly as the drumstick strikes a cymbal at another. Then you have a new kind of artistry, a terrifying rock n’ roll art of symbolized physical violence fully manifested.
The most interesting pop music is that in which the lyrics understand the moods made available by the instrumental parts, and then have a complex control over the encouragement of these moods, or a deliberate separation from them. The significance of Fugazi for me in 1989 was that they used an extreme, controlled musical violence to develop an ethos of separation—a combination of violent music and lyrics that opposed various forms of numbness and abuse that came violently, to everyone, from the outside: consumerism, sexual objectification, the obsession with sickness and health, and the use of drugs, legal and illegal, to drown it all. The music felt like a protective, preemptive assault, a use of musical violence, swinging outward, when the world would secretly do violence to you, pushing inward. Their sound was a bat skillfully wielded against projectiles; a cudgel to smash a kind of glassy or icy envelopment. Or, recognizing that the abuse had already inevitably made it inside you, they tried to make you puke it out.
Only years later did I hear on live recordings the proof of what I’d heard about in school-talk at the time: Ian MacKaye sir-ing and ma’am-ing his audience, polite to a fault, deliberately friendly (“Good evening, everybody. How are you this evening?”; “What the heck”), before launching into another song of devastation. The conscious gentleness seemed to confirm the possibility of a music that could put the channeled eruption of violent emotions to work, not to wear out civilization, but to make a differently civilized, more careful, and radically reformed society.
Am I wrong to hear Fugazi as a story of development? That’s how I’ve always interpreted it. “Waiting Room” starts with the well-known bass figure; then an off-time drumstick click; then the chugging guitar; until the song stops dead, proving total control. It restarts with a tattoo of drums. “I am a patient boy/I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait.” The song really is about a waiting room. The singer is a patient—in the doctor’s office sense—as well as someone forbearing to act. He watches everyone and everything else moving around him, but despite the movement, “they can’t get up.” The waiting room is like Plato’s myth of the cave, everyone watching the images on the wall, moving their feet along, apparently living an exciting life, secretly in chains. Only MacKaye promises he’s getting out, with youthful certainty: he’s going to fight “for what I want to be.” “And I won’t make the same mistakes,” he declares. To which Picciotto, singing backup, lisps, “Yes, I know”—in what has always sounded to me like a duplicitously, satanically soothing voice. Won’t he make the same mistakes?
On “Bulldog Front,” Picciotto tries out his own song of self-certainty. He’s addressing a bad “you,” an ignorant individual, someone who accepts everything as it is and defends his own turf. “Ahistorical …” he sings. “My analysis: it’s time to harvest the crust from your eyes.”
Picciotto again on “Give Me the Cure.” He delivers an absolutely direct lyric, as if his own eyes have now cleared, and he’s discovered something worse than he’d ever imagined. “I never thought too hard on dying before.” Face to face with the fear of sickness, he sings of the ways society promises it could fix it, should fix it—and can’t or won’t fix it. These are the lyrics that always get to me:
But you’ve got to—
Give me the shot
Give me the pill
Give me the cure
Now what you’ve done to my world?
Ian comes back in, and shouts the lyrics along with him, as the bass, guitar, and drums reach their most concerted attack, ending on a drum roll and the entire combo stopping short as Guy screams: “Give me the shot!”
I took the album literally, as being about a society in which you’re fixed; even your actions, even your violent actions, are fixed; and wherever you would get up, or speak, you are forced to watch; and the ultimate model of it all is medicine. Behind the album, for me, lurked the doctor’s office (and his waiting room), and the medicine a doctor could give, and how little this would help. I also knew when I was listening to the album that I was so far alienated from the culture from which the music was speaking, that, probably, I was completely wrong interpretively—this was only how I felt. I presumed they were thinking of drugs, intoxicants, hard living—things I didn’t know. Lacking a context to bind me, I figured it could be about medicine, about a medicalized society, about the fear of death managed and organized to make us beg constantly for help that won’t come. That’s certainly what scared me, where my fears lay.
Where MacKaye went in another song, “Suggestion,” was pure late-‘80s cultural politics. The protagonist wants to know why he can’t walk down the street free of sexual suggestion. He is singing, it becomes clear, as a woman. She ought to be free of male harassment, objectification, of an entirely false vision of “what it is to be a man.” It’s a use of the bellowing violence of hardcore to argue for restraint and politeness and righteousness: a paradox. At the end, MacKaye steps out of this weird ventriloquism into the cool third person, seeing the man’s sense of entitlement, the woman’s being herself and only herself, and how, because the rest of us keep quiet and won’t speak up, this all ends in evil, maybe rape. “We keep quiet like they taught us … . /We blame her for being there/But we’re all here/And we’re all—GUILTY!” Exactly the words Becky K. had spoken to me to explain Minor Threat.
I finally saw them in 1991, at the Channel, a now-defunct rock club along the Fort Point Channel in Boston. I stood back from the stage about forty feet, to the side of the second of two mosh pits that had developed. Nightclub-type tables had been moved aside and grouped around the piers that held up the ceiling, which gave the shaved-headed, shirtless male dancers extra platforms from which to dive into the crowd, when they weren’t confronting each other in a battering-ram whirl, soaked white t-shirts swinging from their belts. I’ve read now how unpleasant it could be for the band to play in front of jerks at rock clubs, once they grew too big to play the church halls. They did it so they could be heard by their new larger audience of suburban lunks like me, for which I’m still grateful.
And yet, in front of this crowd, as opposed to on my headphones, the whole point of the music seemed lost. The sense of exclusion was in the music, somehow, but by letting us all in to hear their message the message was wiped away. I remember the band as bored or annoyed. They were as great as they should have been, but with this crowd they seemed to know there could be no transcendence. They barely spoke, and eventually gave up most of their pleas to get people to be nicer to each other, to be mindful of the mixed boys and girls at the front of the stage singing along, to stop shoving into them—they had made these pleas often enough, to enough crowds. And yet it didn’t seem to work.
There was no blood on the floor, there were just people constantly colliding in the pit, and lone young men like stags lifting their knees in a fright-dance, heads down, waiting for someone else to charge them. I remember the scene, I remember a couple of songs, but the one truly dramatic moment I think I remember is when Fugazi stopped playing, and there was no change or loss of intensity in the violent moshing. “You don’t really care what we do?” asked Ian from the stage. “You don’t care if we play or not?” And at that moment—when, in the lore of Fugazi, it would seem the crowd should have come to its senses, become ashamed, settled down—it seemed true, that those moshing teens really didn’t care. The musical violence just seemed to allow a game of simulated violence on the dance floor. It seemed to me that maybe Fugazi really wouldn’t play anymore; it seemed like the thing they should do, to just pack it up and leave, if this was what they were in the presence of. But, presumably for the benefit of everyone who’d paid and stood listening, they played the rest of their set, and got their applause at the end.
So this, I thought, leaving, crestfallen, is still what the world is like. I was scared again, not from the music, but from the kids I had seen, and the sense that even in the presence of the “best” kind of musical violence, purgative, restorative, political, instructional, guilty, my little ideas or hopes didn’t always work.
For some reason—bullheadedness, or stupidity—I’ve held to an idea since, and always believed there is pop music that must do something. Specifically, it should reform people’s ideas, or at least remind them of what they already ought to know; preserve for them a certain mood, or thought, or hope, which they need to have. It ought not just be a joke, to say that there are albums that can change your life. But this may have been the ultimate fantasy, from the get-go; and if I had accepted the unreliability of pop, its falsity, at fourteen, maybe there would have been less heartache since.