In the late seventies, New York City was dropping dead. Residents fled for the suburbs. The tax base disappeared. Fire departments and sanitation collapsed. In July 1977, the city lost electricity in a citywide blackout. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, more than 70 buildings caught fire.
The New York City punk scene was born from this decay.
As Sonny Vincent of The Testors describes it:
The city was rough: gangs roaming, junkies everywhere. Forty-Second Street was worse than movies portray. The city was in default, the middle class had moved out. Graffiti everywhere, garbage, violence, drug deals on the street. You name it. But it was ours. There was a flourishing music and art scene and cheap rents.
From Patti Smith to The Talking Heads, the Ramones and The Velvet Underground, punk began as an act of rebellion against hippies and flower power, the next generation’s revolt against the previous generation’s wisdom. Hippies thought that we could all get together and things would be all right. Punks thought it was impossible to get together.
Punk rocker Guys Gash remembers:
Punk was not a fashionable movement. It wasn’t this social scene — it was people who were social cripples. It was a lot of sad, angry, damaged, misfit kids that were not pretty or cool — women like myself who were not beautiful or Playboy Bunnies or models; the shy, angry kids, the ones that never fit in. That’s why there was so much drug use. It fit perfectly with that kind of mindset.
Misfits, social cripples, drug use. A dangerous city. If that doesn’t add up to art, what does? Or maybe the better question, almost 50 years since President Ford refused to bail out a bankrupt city, is how long does art remain authentic when the misfits become the mainstream and the counter-culture becomes the culture?
What are we to make of any spiritual rebellion when David Byrne can appear at Met Gala 2023 and look like this?
New York City had been left behind, just like the artists that moved to the city and found inspiration in the decay. It was rebellious simply to exist in one of the country’s forgotten and misunderstood spaces. As Joey Ramone from The Ramones, explains:
We were a reaction to all the pretentiousness and clichés and all the bullshit. It was at the beginning of disco, the beginning of corporate rock, like Journey, Foreigner, all that shit. You know, five or six tracks on an album, 45-minute guitar solos or drum solos. All the mega-bands were content writing the worst shit possible and selling billions of records, and they didn’t have to get off their asses and do anything. We cut that shit out. We made it fresh again, like it originally was.
Today, The Ramones can be discovered by new listeners as background music for skateboarding video games, a Jimmy Neutron movie, a Spiderman movie, and a Go-Pro commercial. Today, the act of rebellion is only a click away.
New York City archivists and prose-gifted change denialists like Jeremiah Moss make sure we never forget how bland the birthplace of punk has become. If we really want to relive the glory of the seventies, when neighborhoods burned from the Bronx to Bushwick and the murder rate was 400% higher, we only have to listen to “Life During Wartime” (1979) by The Talking Heads, an anthem to the dangers of living in Alphabet City on an album that would reach number 21 on the Billboard 200.
“Life During Wartime” was released forty-four years ago. The East Village is now a neighborhood where brunch menus offer omelettes for more than twenty dollars.
David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads, recently starred in his own Broadway musical, “American Utopia,” where orchestra seats range between $500 and $900. In explaining the meaning of the show, which should be watched with at least one to three bottles of wine, Byrne had this to say:
So, after all this, what do I think this show is about? I won’t say—that’s like putting the nose on the clown—but I will say the title is not ironic.
Unwilling to give us definitions of his art, one thing must be appreciated: Byrne, who is worth $60 million, could be said to be living the real American Utopia. After all, if anyone won the war, it was him.
Is purpose corrupted by profit? Is purpose corroded by power? Is punk pointless?
Punks must be rationalists above all. If we are to be rational, then punk must logically be pointless if it is proven that all performers become puppets in the carnival of our cannibal culture. How else can we rationalize the multimillionaire rebels in our midst?
The more gentle germination is that we are all doomed to watch our movements and our meanings and our messages become memes. To become a meme is to become a symbol, a hieroglyph representing something beyond the self. The power of any movement is in the performance, not the performers, because the performance is what actualizes the purpose. The performers, eventually, must reveal themselves. Just ask Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who is worth $40 million but helpfully strums during big events such as 2011’s Occupy Wall St., where he told protesters, “Take it easy, but take it.” His performance is the purpose: the average ticket price of Rage Against the Machine concerts is now $300, but the performance of rage is priceless. Three hours later, listeners can return to the machine feeling vindicated by the performance.
The unquestioned comfort of conformity has now birthed a counter-culture music movement where language is an artifact of abstraction and sensation. DJs play the sounds of a thousand plates breaking to herds of empathy-enhanced, tranquillized listeners who chant to bass beats and squirm to squiggling sounds in which the human movements are the meaning because living in the moment in a connected culture is now the revolution.
In St. Marks is Dead (2015), East Village native Ada Calhoun reminds us that even in the glory days of punk, when authenticity seemed authentic and performance paralleled principles, one person’s movement is, always and forever, another person’s noise complaint:
While the decrepitude of the neighborhood was an aesthetic plus for the new arrivals, for the mostly working-class Polish, Ukranian, and Puerto Rican families who had been there for decades, it was a soul-crushing grind. They tried to scratch out a living in the decaying, filthy city living alongside this nightmare in black leather.
Beneath the clouds of any performance, there is always life waiting on the ground.
Punks complained in catchy songs that life was hard in a broken city, but did they bring back the city from the brink or just provide a soundtrack for it? Was it Wall Street? Was it London-born New York Governor Abraham Beame? Was it the immigrants arriving for the American Dream that became their destiny? Was it 1977’s release of the “I Heart NY” icon? Was it all the New Yorkers who simply didn’t leave New York for dead because it was their life, whatever the performance?
Since punk reviled profits but eventually become profitable, we must preserve the integrity of the punk movement by believing that, in any endeavor, the performance, not the people, is the product and it is performance that becomes purpose. We are all magicians who make the magic of meaning in the motion, not the movements and maybe not even the moments.
Did punk ever make a difference? Did it give us purpose or personality? Was the performance of those principles enough?
As David Byrne would put it: it’s the same as it ever was.
This is great. I'd never paid much attention to the Met Gala Ball until all the news a few years back about AOC showing up in a hilarious show of hypocrisy. Then, this year, I've seen photos of some artists I like and some I love. Maybe they've been to the Gala before but this is the first time I've seen evidence. And it makes me sad to see them there. They're mainstream artists, decidedly mainstream, or they wouldn't be at the Gala, but there is such a thing as being too mainstream for their own artistic good, right?
Interesting takes as always. I've no doubt the punks were and are sincere in their intentions, but if there's one thing Byrne, Morello, and Joey Ramone's experiences confirm, it's the old truism that aging out of idealism and embracing conventional visions of success is an inexorable process. The bills keep stacking up, long after the fires of counter-revolution go cold. That, and that Live Nation still owns our performative asses six ways to Sunday.