Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

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A high price to pay: “What’s Left?” November 2013, MRR #366

My parents were Polish immigrants, European refugees from the second World War, survivors of Hitler’s forced labor camps. My dad joined the US Army while in UN Displaced Persons camps. He and my mom traveled to America, became US citizens, and settled in San Bernardino at the time of this anecdote. Both my parents spoke English with heavy Polish accents and had only the most basic comprehension of American culture. My mom bought Mahalia Jackson’s vinyl album on Columbia, “Silent Night – Songs for Christmas,” around 1962. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember my mom playing that album over and over in a respectful reverie. A year later, somehow, somewhere, in San Bernardino, my mom managed to find out that Mahalia Jackson was performing in a Southern Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Watts, I think. She corralled my dad into taking our whole family, which included my sister, to drive to the performance.

I have only the vaguest of memories of the drive, of Watts, and of the church. I do, however, remember that we were the only white people in the entire event. I also remember that everybody, all the black people, were incredibly welcoming and polite to my parents, to us. And, I remember Mahalia Jackson singing live, her stupendous voice raising the hair on the back of my neck time and again. My parents had virtually no prejudice against black people at the time. They acquired some in the years afterwards, especially my mom. But, to this day, when I hear beautifully performed gospel singing, I’m roused, I get goose bumps, and my hair on the back of neck stands on end.

This happens even though I remember that Malcolm X once dismissed gospel music as slave music.

Music has always produced visceral responses in me but, unfortunately, I’ve acquired a few prejudices against certain types of music over the years. When I initially heard Beethoven’s brilliant symphonies, I was moved to tears. Yet I considered the music of Brahms to be treacle, despite understanding his virtuosity. Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix induced rapture when I first heard them. I dismissed the Grateful Dead as utterly moronic. Anything with a disco beat I think of as vacuous, and I like to quote Quentin Crisp that: “A lifetime of listening to disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexual preference.” Before I came to love Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., I thought all country western music was inbred redneck hillbilly music. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols gave me such an adrenaline rush when I was introduced to punk. But music from the likes of the Cure or Spandau Ballet or Flock of Seagulls? Pour molten lead into my ears and put me out of my misery!

I’ve got wide ranging, eclectic musical tastes. But I also have rather strong, somewhat intolerant opinions about music. I’m trying not to be so judgmental, at least not so openly snide and derisive. Once, when I was reminiscing about the hippie music I used to listen to, I proudly proclaimed: “I drew the line at the Grateful Dead. They were fucking horrible musicians.” One woman in the conversation chided me back: “No one said the Dead were good musicians. That’s not why people followed them around. That’s not what they gave their fans.” That’s when I realized people listen to music for a variety of reasons, only one being the technical expertise and stellar musicianship of those playing said music. I’ve needed to ease up and back off when I praise certain kinds of music and critique others. What I listen to on Pandora isn’t necessarily what you listen to, so let’s give each other a break.

I’m off to Paris for a vacation. November, I sum up international insurrection over the past five years. December, I feature plans for the upcoming year. January, I do some longterm New Year’s resolutions. The last two columns are intended to be suggestive, jumping off points for more comprehensive work. At least, that’s the plan. There might be a surprise or two in the process.

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