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.

Analog radio politics: “What’s Left?” January 2015, MRR #380

I started listening to the radio to fall asleep at night when my parents moved back to southern California. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, living in Ventura, California. At first I listened to commercial AM radio; Top 40 and pop crooners. My parents’ radio stations. Then I discovered the Mighty 1090, XERB, out of Tijuana with Wolfman Jack, a growling, gravely-voiced disc jockey who specialized in “race music” that was quickly transforming into rock music. He played both black rhythm and blues and the white pop versions, Elvis-inspired rockabilly, doo wop, and the beginnings of rock’n’roll way past midnight. XERB was Mexican border blaster radio powerful enough to be heard well into Canada.

Those were the days of analog radio, when you could fine tune the dial with the slightest touch to catch radio stations that were too distant, interstitial, or so weak you could only find them late at night. FM radio was in its infancy, and often so low-powered that its line-of-sight signal meant that LA stations and their broadcasts were largely confined to that smog-choked metropolis. Early FM radio in LA was news-based or education-oriented or ghettoized into specific musical niches, like classical or jazz.

KMET started transmitting in 1968 at 94.7 as one of the first “underground” FM rock music stations, freeform, and relatively commercial free. Known as The Mighty Met, I only got its signal after 10 or so in the evening, when atmospheric conditions allowed it to bounce off the ionosphere and reach beyond the LA basin. Rock’n’roll was the soundtrack to my involvement with the New Left and hippie counterculture, and KMET allowed me to discover music that never got any airplay, commercial or otherwise. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I first heard the intro storm-and-bells to Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, which was then played over the air in full. And then there was the utter wackiness of the Dr. Demento show.

The wide open free-wheeling nature of FM radio rapidly evaporated during the ‘70s. Commercial advertising was less prominent on the FM airwaves, corporate sponsorship of FM stations and networks was more low key, and the listener/community supported model of Pacifica and NPR was going strong. But true underground radio was essentially dead by 1975. Eventually, FM radio became more popular and commercial than AM radio, marginalizing the AM band to talk radio, news and sports broadcasting, and religious and ethnic programming. So let’s turn to one of the metaphors generated by the FM radio experience. When Pacifica-affiliated KPFA (94.1) in Berkeley or NPR-associated KQED (88.5) in San Francisco conduct pledge drives, they often allude to the fact that their call numbers are on the left-hand side of the radio dial, implying that they are politically to the left as well. This coincidence also holds for music, with both KMET and the original KSAN (94.9) in San Francisco, not to mention the many Bay Area college radio stations, residing to the left of the dial. I’m told that this is a happenstance of FCC allocation, nothing more. And I’m not interested in making the left-right nature of the radio dial into an analogy for some overly simplistic left-right political spectrum in this country. Instead, consider that the 88-108 MHz portion of the FM radio spectrum represents the full range of political discussion and debate in the United States. My subject this column is how different forces in our society fight over dialing politics either more to the right or further to the left.

FDR’s New Deal was at the center of the dial at the end of the second World War, but working people in this country had dialed politics significantly to the left by 1945, after over fifteen years of grueling class struggle waged in the midst of economic depression and then world war. Fascism had been soundly defeated and the Soviet Union was widely praised, some 35% of the American working class was unionized and more were organizing, industrial actions and nation-wide strikes were regular occurrences, and talk of socialism and calls for revolution were commonplace. The capitalist ruling class was in fear for its power and position, so a concerted effort was launched by the bourgeoisie to dial things back to the right. The Truman administration initiated a concerted anti-Soviet, anti-communist campaign that climaxed with McCarthyism’s purges during the Eisenhower era. The results were a 1950s marked by conformity and conservatism, Cold War and capitalist consumerism, as political discussion and debate shifted markedly to the right.

The decade from 1965 to 1975, known as the 60s, witnessed a political and cultural explosion that reset the dial to the left once again. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the counterculture led, while JFK’s liberalism and LBJ’s Great Society followed. However, with the demise of Nixon, America’s last liberal president, the capitalist ruling class regained the ascendency. For the past forty-odd years it’s been dialing things back to the right, dismantling the welfare state, exploiting the collapse of Soviet communism, and deconstructing liberalism into neo-liberalism. The so-called Reagan revolution went so far as to threaten to demolish the New Deal altogether. When it comes to the Democrats, Carter dialed it to the right of JFK/LBJ, Clinton dialed it to the right of Carter, and Obama dialed it to the right of Clinton. That’s where we’re at today, the 2014 election hiccup notwithstanding.

Now, personally, I think that American politics lurched a little too far to the right in 2014, and that moderation will prevail once more in 2016. But it’s important to realize that this supposed moderation is actually solidly right wing when compared to the ‘60s, let alone the ‘40s. The political discussion and debate in this country has shifted, and continues to shift, to the right, thanks to the power and influence of the bourgeoisie. Returning to the radio analogy, where we once listened to Hank Williams Sr and country western music, we’re now tuned into Brad Paisley and fatuous country rock. Where we once grooved to John Coltrane and bebop, we now enjoy Winton Marsalis and vapid cool jazz. Where we once got high on Jimi Hendrix and rock’n’roll, we’re now buzzed by Yngwie Malmsteen and heavy metal noodling. And where we once thrashed to Black Flag and hardcore punk, we now politely consume Green Day and vacuous pop punk musicals. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

Waiting for my man: “What’s Left?” January 2014, MRR #368

The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

Brian Eno

Lou Reed died on Sunday, October 27. I have been reading the laudatory obituaries, and listening to his more memorable tunes. Instead of praising him as dark, edgy, way ahead of his time, and the like, I’ll attempt something a bit more contextual.

It’s not that I haven’t eulogized individuals who have personally influenced me before, as when I did a column on Spain Rodriquez. Nor that I don’t find Lou Reed’s oeuvre inspirational and that he can be considered, among a handful of other people, the father of punk rock. Yes, Lou Reed’s solo career was powerful in its own right. But he was also one of the original five members of the Velvet Underground, two of whom were arguably as significant as was Lou Reed, even while he came to dominate the band. The Velvets were precursor to art rock, punk rock, Goth, New Wave, alt rock and indie rock through their infamous New York fuck you attitude, their use of noise, thrashy distorted guitars, grinding rhythms, atonal vocals in music, and their willingness to experiment instead of strive for mainstream commercial success. And, they were never a commercial success in their own day. Without the Velvet Underground, it’s safe to say that this magazine wouldn’t be here today. Or, perhaps it would have been called Maximum Doo-Wop, or Maximum Rockabilly, or Maximum Psychedelia.

This is the wrong way to contextualize Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, however. The Velvets were part of a 60s rock and roll explosion that, in the United States, included the psychedelic bands of the west coast, the garage/noise sounds emanating from the Detroit area (as exemplified by the MC5, the Stooges, and The Up), and the Western pre-country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few of the musical styles and regions in play at the time. There were plenty of precursors to go around, as well as plenty of progeny in terms of post-60s rock trends and tendencies.

The best way to characterize this phenomenon as a whole is by analogy. Excuse me if I’m a bit too over the top with this equivalency. Consider the political powder keg that developed after the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In Western Europe, where bourgeois society and liberal democracy reigned supreme, Marxist social democracy was in full bloom, itself the champion for materialist, rationalist, objectivist and positivist thinking. Anarchism was often second cousin to social democracy with regard to intellectual influences and political power, prior to the 20th century. Now, toss in the rivalry posed by the development of a profoundly pessimistic political culture labeled fin de siècle, which revolted against the politics of its day and which trumpeted irrationalism, subjectivism, emotionalism and vitalism. Then violently stir everything together through the first World War, which wasn’t worldwide at all but which was incredibly destructive of human life, society and culture across Europe. The consequence was a period, lasting roughly from 1917 through 1945, that witnessed a prodigious political proliferation and reorientation. There was a vast number of conservative revolutionary, proto-fascist, and nationalistic socialist variants vying for attention, if not power, out of which Fascism proper, and its vicious kin Nazism, triumphed. What’s more, Leninism emerged out of social democracy, as did a genuine ultraleft in the form of Left Communism, even as anarchism gained a true historical moment, however brief, with the Spanish civil war. National-Bolshevism came into its own during this period, as did socialist struggles for national liberation.

Kevin Coogan has characterized such times as “periods of ideological decay [which] often breed strange new variants […] which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.”* Perhaps, but it was also a time of delirious political expansion and creativity as well. So, maybe “periods of ideological decay” is not quite the way to represent the period book-ended by the first and second World Wars. “Interregnum” might be more appropriate. What’s more, is anything applicable by analogy to music from 1945 until 1975? The popular American song (as developed on Broadway and in musicals), classical music in minimalism, atonalism, even the beginnings of electronic music, modern jazz in its orchestral as well as bebop styles, country/western music (starting with the Bakersfield sound), and rock and roll from its 50s birth to its 60s evanescence, all flourished and proliferated during the period from the second World War to the mid-70s. Does this creative expansion of so many types of music simultaneously mark some sort of musical decay? Or is this all a kind of musical interregnum in which everything splinters and mixes before coming together into some grand synthesis? Or, perhaps I’m just over thinking this.

Lou Reed is dead. The message to take away from his death, and his life, is nothing so simplistic as the “don’t do drugs” warning of Nancy Reagan types who would point out Reed’s liver failure due to excessive abuse of hard drugs and alcohol. But maybe the message shouldn’t be that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the lone font, the sole inspiration for everything original, influential and rocking musically speaking since 1975. “Of course Reed sang about drugs, transgressive sex, and the druggy, pansexual transgressions of the Warholian party set.” Jody Rosen writes in “Rock-and-Roll Heart: Remembering Lou Reed, a Pop Star for Adults” (New York, 11-11-13). Aside from his preoccupation with death, “he sang about lots of other stuff, too: egg creams, high school football, Edgar Allen Poe. He sang, surprisingly touchingly, about marriage.” Lou Reed didn’t just produce rock’n’roll for youngsters in the 60s and 70s. He created music for people of all ages living their lives here and now. Patti Smith writes, in the New Yorker (11-11-13) that: “Lou brought the sensibilities of art and literature into his music. He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.” Reed’s wife, Laurie Anderson, presents a far more complete portrait of him:

Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates, traveled, listened to and criticized each other’s work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking). We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other. We were always seeing a lot of art and music and plays and shows, and I watched as he loved and appreciated other artists and musicians. He was always so generous. He knew how hard it was to do. We loved our life in the West Village and our friends; and in all, we did the best we could do. (Rolling Stone, 11-6-13)

Rest in peace, Lou.

*[“Today both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called ‘the two poetries’ of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ […] What is especially worrisome is that much of the left has today so deteriorated that it may well lack the capacity for understanding, much less fighting, new forms of fascism that incorporate ‘leftist’ rhetoric and ideas.” Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International]

PERSONAL NEWS… December/January is usually the time for news and resolutions of a personal nature. After a years-long hiatus, I’ve started up my blogs once again. At leftyhooligan.wordpress.com, you’ll find my latest MRR column, appropriately delayed so as not to run ahead of the one in print. I intend to gradually fill in the columns between the present and when I stopped posting my columns online. Also, my personal blog can be found at gamatiasz.wordpress.com, and I expect to keep posting away there for the forceable future. Finally, a second novel that has been fifteen years in the writing, but mostly in rewriting, is approaching completion. Thanks to former Salon columnist Cary Tennis and his Finishing School (carytennis.com/finishing-school-complete-writing-projects), and with a bit of luck, this second novel should be completed and ready to publish in early 2015.

Western Civilization in Recline: “What’s Left?” November 2011, MRR #342

The jukebox was playing rock—music for civilizations to decline by, man.

Ross Macdonald, The Ferguson Affair (1960)

Steve Allen used to do this bit on his show in the early ‘60s where he would recite the lyrics to rock’n’roll songs as if they were serious poetry. Just imagine The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” treated thusly to realize how vapid the words to most rock music are. Allen was the liberal side of the attack on rock music in those days. He personally despised rock’n’roll, considered it juvenile and untalented, and thought it beneath contempt as music. Rock wasn’t art, nor would it endure the test of time. Yet this was a far cry from the conservative perspective that saw rock’n’roll as immoral, evil, and a threat to the fabric of society. Rock’s overt association with sex and drugs were a particular anathema; an explicit attack on American civilization born of the devil.

Today, of course, rock blares from fundamentalist Christian churches, and family values politicians illegally appropriate rock songs for their electoral campaigns, until sued by the musicians who created them. Roberto “Tax” Farano, guitarist for Negazione, wrote music for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, and The Clash’s “London Calling” is now the official jingle for the 2012 London Olympics. Not only is rock no longer a threat to the social fabric, punk rock has become, not representative of “the decline and fall of western civilization,” but a stellar example of its commercial success.

Me, I used to take pride in being a “barbarian at the gates” in the days of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and anarchy in the streets. I would have seconded John Sinclair’s contention that rock was the weapon of a thoroughgoing cultural revolution, if only to throw the fear of god-knows-what into my elders. Emotionally, I resonated with nihilism, which proclaimed the need to “annihilate the idea of God, or there can be no freedom; annihilate the idea of right, which is only might; annihilate civilization, property, marriage, morality, and justice; let your own happiness be your only law.”

I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I’ve come to appreciate many things about the American society I call home, as well as to respect much bestowed upon the world by the Dead White European Males held responsible for Western Civilization. Yes, I understand the sentiment of Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about western civilization, answered: “I think it would be a good idea.” After all western civilization is based upon rape, plunder, devastation and genocide. Show me a civilization that isn’t. But as for Buenaventura Durruti’s famous quote:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.
I have come to take his nonchalant attitude toward such wholesale destruction with several grains of salt.

I have no interest in seeing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Rodin’s The Kiss, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or Welles’ Citizen Kane, or the Chrysler Building obliterated, even if their destruction would herald the arrival of a stateless, classless, communist paradise. Images of Mao’s Red Guards rampaging during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, gleefully smashing the precious artifacts of China’s past, now sicken me no less than news footage of Afghanistan’s Taliban solemnly dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. That existence is emptiness means that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent. That life is meaningless demands that we create its meaning. Death and destruction are incredibly easy. Anything else is painful and hard.

An SF movie that I like is Cuarón’s Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel of the same name. It’s 2027, and no children have been born anywhere for almost two decades. In the face of humanity’s impending extinction, the world is fast collapsing into riot, terrorism, and environmental catastrophe. Britain alone survives, a bastion of stability, but at the cost of having become a police state that rounds up and imprisons immigrants seeking asylum. Nigel, the cousin of the film’s protagonist, Theo Faron, is a minister in the British government who is obsessed with collecting as many of humanity’s great artworks as possible, despite the fact that in less than a century, no one will be around to enjoy them. Michelangelo’s David stands in his foyer, with one leg shattered and splinted because Nigel was unable to snatch it before rioters attacked it. Nigel and Theo dine beneath Picasso’s Guernica. And out a window, amidst a landscape of industrial smokestacks, floats one of Pink Floyd’s inflatable flying pink pigs.

Street fighting spirit: “What’s Left?” April 2011, MRR #335

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
No

Written about British Pakistani New Leftie Tariq Ali, this tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones ditty remains a rousing anthem to a familiar type of political testosterone. I remember that, during the 1970 Isla Vista riots, a local record store hoisted massive speakers onto their roof and blasted “Street Fighting Man” full blast as students battled police in the winding streets of that soporific beach town. Covered by folks as diverse as Rod Stewart and the Ramones, the version done by Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine embodies the bombast, if not the fury, intended by the Stones.

An acquaintance once commented that politics is a young man’s game. From the Paris riots of 1968, which inspired my initial interest in politics, to the current Cairo riots, young people dominated the streets. And by young people, I mean young men. For while the 60s saw a considerable uptick of female participation in what, at the time, we all considered to be revolutionary activity, the campus occupations and street fighting were still a man’s world. Similarly, reports from Tahrir Square at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak uprising described a surprising sexual equality in the numbers participating in the occupation. But when Mubarak’s supporters, with the help of the secret police, assaulted the protesters with horses and camels, and then laid siege to the square with rocks, molotovs and guns, the complexion of the protest quickly changed to mostly male. Excuse me, but since I don’t give a flying fuck about what’s politically correct, I’m not beyond crediting biology for differences in strength, and testosterone for increased levels of aggression to account for the dominance of young men in street politics.

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Street politics is the crucial referent here. To be young, able to hurl abuse and more at the cops, then to outmaneuver and outrun their fat, riot-gear-encumbered asses; that’s what’s thrilling about being a street fighting man. It’s what, approaching 60, with bad feet and a bum knee, I can appreciate only vicariously, or as ever-receding personal memories. I mean, it’s not like I can’t participate in politics per se. Much like war, in which old men make the decisions while young men do the fighting and dying, politics entails the young in the streets and the old in the smoke-filled back rooms. But politics without the streets—the politics of meetings, deal making and compromise—was always an absolute bore to my way of thinking. So, that leaves me on the sidelines, taking in the only politics that truly matter—street politics—as a spectator sport.

Whether as a spectator or as a participant, being a partisan of those who take to the streets to fight the powers that be can produce a skewed view of things. Siding with rioters against the police is like being a Mets or a Red Sox fan in that you’re bound to be on the losing side most of the time. For every Cairo, there are ten thousand Tehrans. Yet such persistent defeat never seems to dampen an irrational optimism among sympathizers whenever and wherever rioting breaks out. I’m in a radical reading group whose ultra left members invariably go into paroxysms of adulation every time a bunch of students go on a rampage, break windows, block traffic, burn dumpsters, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This exercise in youthful excess, in turn, has been elevated to the absurd heights of a revolutionary strategy by the current crop of insurrectionary anarchists and left communists. Oddly however, Glenn Beck seems to be the only one serious about a specter of permanent insurrection, seeing in Egypt the hand of the Invisible Committee and “the beginning of ‘the coming insurrection.’”

Such surprisingly naïve enthusiasm, and sadly infantile rebellion, is far better than the opportunistic instrumentalism of much of the Leninist Left. When not considered cannon fodder for the party and the revolution, street politics are judged progressive so long as they strike a blow against US hegemony, and insurgents, whatever their political persuasion, are defined either as “objectively anti-imperialist” or in terms of “the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.” Thus, Leninists of various stripes defended the Islamic students who took American embassy personnel hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 as radical, even as those students pledged their undying loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite revolution.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Leave it to Leninism to squeeze all the juice, all the insurrectionary spirit, out of street politics. If the Left were honest, they would take Bakunin’s infamous remark that “the destructive urge is a creative urge” and admit that the destructive urge is sufficient unto itself. There is something absolutely elemental about the whirlwind of destruction unleashed by taking to the streets, and taking them away from the powers that be, even momentarily. We’re not talking about simple hormones here, but about something deeper, Freudian, archetypal; something that transcends human biology to reach what is essential to life. The desire to reduce illusions to ashes, power to shambles, civilization to smoking ruin must be seen in the light of the sheer aesthetic joy in the conflagration itself. It is the stuff of the demiurge, which in Christian mythology goes by the names Satan and Lucifer. Or, as it goes in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds,” which Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased upon witnessing humanity’s detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’ve communed with this deity of destruction perhaps a dozen times in my life thanks to my involvement in radical street politics. An intoxicating experience each time. Which is why this armchair stuff is such a drag.

The universal language of music: “What’s Left?” April 2009, MRR #311

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
He sounds too blue to fly.

—Hank Williams

I hated country music.

I considered it the epitome of a reactionary, racist, redneck America I was doing everything in my power to rebel against in the ‘60s. The only parts of country music I had any respect for were those elements, like rockabilly, that owed a good deal of their success to black music. Even though I understood that rocknroll had emerged when rural blues and country music moved to the city, I argued that the only authentic basis for rock music was black music—the blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, early jazz, and swing. I tolerated folk music because, after all, it was the voice of my generation rooted in the working class struggles of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I’ll admit to having had a love for Buffalo Springfield that became an unhealthy indulgence in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. At the same time, I despised country as that white, whiny, “I got drunk, beat up my girl, got thrown in jail” cracker type of sentiment that was to Negro blues what white gospel was to black gospel. A pale imitation. I hated when the Byrds released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” under the influence of Gram Parsons. The twang of a pedal steel guitar made me cringe.

Then, I heard Hank Williams do “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Admittedly, I was at an impressionable moment in my life. I’d been dumped by a girlfriend of seven years, who’d moved out just days before. I was a little drunk, and very stoned. Hank’s plaintive vocals, the song’s deceptive musical simplicity, the forlorn lyrics all combined to take me in. I felt that song down to my bones. I got country music, for the first time.

Now, Hank himself had been no stranger to black music, having learned how to sing and play the guitar from Rufus “Teetot” Payne. Maybe his blues sensibilities were what allowed me to experience the plain, unvarnished sincerity that, at its best, is what country music is known for. This was before I got into punk rock of course, and well before I moved up to the Bay Area to start volunteering for that bastion of punk rock purity, Maximum Rocknroll.

By the time I moved to Oakland, I had a modest appreciation for certain country musicians—Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson— as well as for the subgenres of western swing, honky tonk, and the above mentioned rockabilly. The fact is, I enjoyed a wide variety of music, though not without discrimination. In classical music, it had to be Beethoven and after, with a particular interest in composers like Bartok, Copland and the like who incorporated folk themes into their music. It was Parker, Coltraine, Gillespie and Monk, be-bop and straight ahead jazz. I liked the Juju hi-life music of King Sunny Ade, the rai music of Cheb Khaled, the desert blues of Hamza El Din. Blue Oyster Cult circa 1972-74, and Metallica circa 1982-84. As for punk rock, I had a predisposition towards hardcore, though I really dug some of punk’s edges like Operation Ivy’s ska punk and The Cramps psychobilly.

Which is why I couldn’t take Tim Yohannan’s punk purism too seriously. To be fair, Tim judged what was punk on at least three separate levels. The music is the most obvious, and the most fundamental. Tim considered only the most basic, raw, and primitive rocknroll to be truly punk. His opinion led to his decision to purge MRR of several types of punk music because they were no longer punk enough. I’ll return to the subject of music in just a moment.

Tim also had political and social/cultural criteria for punk. He was no anarchist, but he considered some form of leftwing class politics to be essential to punk, in addition to the youthful rebelliousness that said to the world “fuck off and die.” Combine the latter with a “DIY or die” sentiment and you have what Tim considered to be the social/cultural basis for punk.

Having had some experience with the previous period of youthful rebellion and independent activity known as the 1960s, I heartily agree that these are, indeed, the social and cultural foundations to punk, or to any dynamic counterculture. But even though I came out of the ‘60s a hardcore politico, I know full well that most of my fellow “rebellious youth” of that day were monumentally apolitical, or at most they considered getting high on pot to be a supreme political act. I spent a decade in the punk scene in San Diego, going on two in the Bay Area’s scene, and I’ve come to the same conclusion. Most punks get their politics out of a 40-ounce bottle of cheap malt liquor. So, while youthful rebellion, nihilism, DIY independence, and general obnoxiousness are essential to punk, politics, let alone leftist politics, isn’t.

Which brings us back to the music. It’s impossible to conceive of the ‘60s without rocknroll, and the same is true for punk. In my opinion, this fact should be descriptive, not prescriptive. There are a number of reasons why a whole lot of effort should not be spent in trying to define or enforce what is punk, musically speaking. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it’s impossible to do. Tim once did an all-black cover of the magazine, with “The Bible” printed in large white letters above smaller lettering that read “of punk rock.” But when he tried to lay down the correct line on punk rock music, he spawned a half dozen contrary magazines, among them HeartattaCk, Punk Planet, Shredding Paper, and Hit List, all with their own, quite different, understandings of what punk was all about.

That’s because punk rock itself has several different origins, a variety of influences, and progeny too numerous to mention. As such, punk reflects the reality of most music in this country, which is subject to a high degree of cross-pollination and amalgamation. Take country music, which has its roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, with influences from the blues, rhythm and blues, Hawaiian slack key, and jazz. There’s just no way to have a pure type of music, even if it’s reduced to three-chord simplicity. The people who play, and compose, punk rock are themselves molded by influences outside of punk, which comes out in their music. Aside from the impossibility of boiling down punk rock to its essence, whatever that might be, the question becomes, why would anyone want to?

Music is a near universal source of enjoyment that frequently transcends culture and language. It’s absurd to limit one’s pleasure by insisting on listening to only one kind of music, and by insisting that that kind of music be further narrowed to a particular style. I look on all the years I disdained country music as outright foolishness. I could have kicked back, with a beer or a joint depending on what I was into at the time, and enjoyed some good tunes.

Lifesavers for a new life: “What’s Left?” March 2009, MRR #310

I moved to Oakland from San Diego in 1991. In my initial exploration of the Bay Area, I discovered two invaluable resources I relied on for many years to come. The first was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, printed both sides, in very small type, called the Bay Area Progressive Calendar. Produced by Ken Cheetham, it detailed every progressive event brought to its attention and offered, by mail, a directory of local progressive groups and organizations. Incredibly cool. I first encountered the Progressive Calendar in the free literature zone at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, and I made a point of seeking out this valuable little ecumenical leftie calendar.

The second was The List. In the day, it was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, folded widthwise, printed in colorful, incredibly small type, as a smart little four pager produced by Steve Koepke listing all the punk, hardcore, ska, rocakabilly, yada, yada, yada shows in the immediate Bay Area. Incredibly cool. I came upon The List at MRR HQ on Clipper Street, as a shitworker typing, scanning, and laying out the magazine’s now extinct Classifieds Section. I regularly attended shows back then, so I kept a copy of The List handy.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, so I can’t recall if these were weekly or monthly publications, or something in between. Both the Progressive Calendar and The List augmented their street presence with mailed subscriptions and, when it became common, emailed information. And both eventually dropped their physical distribution altogether to bookstores, record shops, political events, shows, and other venues. The Bay Area Progressive Directory and adjunct Calendar are now entirely web based, and can be found at bapd.org. The List still can be had via snail mail by writing The List, P.O. Box 2451, Richmond, CA 94802. You can also get it through email by writing to skoepke@stevelist.com. This information is obtainable online at calweb.com/~skoepke/, and several www versions of The List are available, most notably at foopee.com/punk/the-list/ and kzsu.stanford.edu/~calendar/orig_list.html.

The Progressive Calendar and The List were my lifelines when I moved to Oakland. They helped me get established and oriented, meet people, find things to do, and make the Bay Area my home. They required that I make an effort to go out and about to initially find them, and to subsequently keep track of them. Hunting down a copy of the Progressive Calendar or The List got me out of my tiny apartment to experience the weather, other people, the Bay Area in all its disappointing glory, and the real world. Eventually, I subscribed to both by mail, and I still occasionally refer to them online. What I miss though is that street presence, their physicality, the ability to walk into my local bookshop or record store and find them in with all the other free literature.

It’s the disappearance of a physical geography implied by the evolution of the Progressive Calendar and The List that most upsets me. Now, it’s all about an amorphous digital geography, which I found troublesome. Those who champion cyberspace and tout the virtues of the virtual would call me old fashioned, and point out how much more accessible and available both the Progressive Calendar and The List are, now that they’re online. No doubt, these are some of the same folks who defend CDs over vinyl, and MP3s over CDs.

Personally, I never could tell much of a difference between music on vinyl versus CDs. But I can hear the difference between MP3s and these previous media. The digital revolution is turning the music I like to listen to into low quality crap, much as it’s converting physical community into that sorry-assed excuse for human interaction called the online community. Anyone who has attended a real, live record swap, book fair, concert, or farmers market and then dares to compare them to the shadowy, flame-ridden, cowardly and anonymous, so-called community of your average online chatroom or forum deserves the lobotomy that prolonged internet exposure all but guarantees.

On an unrelated note, I did a column awhile back on political syncretism in general, and the rise of national anarchism on the fascist right in particular. Spencer Sunshine has written a comprehensive article on the latter, called “Rebranding Fascism,” for The Public Eye Magazine, available at publiceye.org/magazine/v23n4/rebranding_fascism.html. A rather anemic debate on the article took place on infoshop.org (news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20081220225130728), which has only reinforced my disdain for modern anarchism. Anarchists no longer have the cajones to defend their politics from such vile interlopers, and thus anarchism fully deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

National anarchists have established a nominal presence in the Bay Area, and they’ve already publicly attended an all-too-conventional, ANSWER-sponsored anti-AIPAC protest in San Francisco on December 11, 2008. Presumably, they also participated clandestinely in the anti-authoritarian bloc called by UA of the Bay for the equally stodgy January 10, 2009 ANSWER demo protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least the national anarchists advertised the call on their website. No one can tell what kind of anarchist you are, whether anarchist at all, if you’re dressed all in black and wearing a black bandana over your face. Australian national anarchists who’ve jumped into Leftist demos explain that “we cover our faces to protect us from the persecution of the other political groups.” Meaning, they dress anarchist in order to avoid getting their asses kicked by Leftists, and other anarchists. And rumor has it that black bloc participants in the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy on August 23, 2001 weren’t all anarchists or autonomists. Aside from the usual quota of police agent provocateurs, a number of young Italian fascists swelled the ranks of the black bloc, in the guise of national autonomists.

I’m looking forward to the day when a group of national anarchists openly try to join a regular local anarcho event, such as the ho-hum December 20, 2008 SF march in solidarity with Greek anarchists and the New School occupation. I bet that such an attempt will produce general consternation and confusion, not to mention much hand wringing. But in the end the regular anarchists will wimp out and let the national anarchists join in. Unchallenged. Any takers?

For someone who has just decried the pernicious effects of the digital over the real, I sure use a lot of internet sources.

UPDATE FOR 2014:

Most of the links mentioned in this column have held up quite well over the years. Can’t say the same for the postal addresses. Even more digital versions of The List can be found by simply googling.

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