Vans Warped Tour '01
at the Tweeter Center, July 15
Subtonix, Pink & Brown
at the Fireside Bowl, July 7
Fugazi, Shellac, the Ex
at the Congress Theater, June 24
The crowd danced--moshed, skanked, pogoed, fist pumped, devil horned, middle fingered, crowd surfed--all day, and it wasn't initially clear why. Were the songs that infectious, that unstoppable, in themselves? Did the people know all the words? Was this an alternate universe's Top 40?
Or was every song cut from an archetype they all knew by heart? The Vans Warped Tour '01 seemed entirely of a piece, or rather five or ten pieces--a single idea, "punk," jigsawed into a puzzle. Pop punk, skate punk, ska punk, ska-core, hardcore, New York hardcore, emotional hardcore, horrorcore, pop-hop, rap metal, punk metal, and so on. Lots of semimemorable variations on a few timeworn themes, a simulacrum of diversity to be sure, but a fascinating one.
It was a day of anarchy within the lines, and of standing in endless lines; chaos, at half-hour intervals on eight stages; community, for sale or free with a sponsor's name attached. But still: anarchy, chaos, community, despite the subclauses. Tiny record labels working three-for-$5 CD sampler deals and tiny bands pursuing their 15 minutes in their allotted 30; a few thousand kids in patchwork plaid and Day-Glo mohawks, sure, but also blue jeans and logo Ts, cargo shorts and undershirts, miniskirts and bippy tops, sweating together under the summer sun, dancing together to the should-be hits.
At 8:30 PM, the sun finally set and the last band of the night took the main stage: Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, the closest thing major-league pop punk has to an all-star team. Members of NOFX, the Swingin' Utters, No Use for a Name, and Lagwagon blenderized show tunes and pop chestnuts into punk karaoke: John Denver, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Novelty, the last refuge of scoundrels.
At 8:40, as the Gimme Gimmes tore through "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," I snuck away, squeezing through the crazed crowd and then through a side gate, past a tiny stage I hadn't noticed before. A hardcore band played fast and loud to a handful of diehards over the headliners' still-audible blare; as I walked through the gate, the last words I could make out were a chorus's final "FUCK YOU!" Walking through the parking lot, I passed another early exiter, wearing a shirt that said FUCK YOU, a band's name underneath in smaller type. As I neared my car, a white limo brushed me aside, its rear license plate ringed in neon green, the color of money.
Punk? Not quite, but then what is? This nostalgic saw: the spirit of '77, DIY, don't you dare sell out, three chords and a snarl, resistance to something (bullies, parents, cops, the new world order, humanity), circle A for anarchy? Preserved for posterity in portentous Joey Ramone obits, dressed up in safety-pinned Sunday best for Spin ("25 Years of Punk," with your choice of collectible covers)? The dictionary definition has hit 30 ("rock music marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent," first usage circa 1971), and you know what they say about trusting the middle-aged: don't. Why the urge to pickle punk into lifeless respectability? Does punk have to become anything in the future, or uphold anything from the past? Can't it just be here, now?
Fugazi is punk, it is generally agreed; so are Shellac and the Ex. But why, how? They hit plenty of the standard signifiers: Independent of corporate America? More or less, but that's a red herring. Politically admirable? Check, but another crimson carp. Aesthetically adventurous? Momentarily world-defining? Now we're getting somewhere.
Their sold-out show (the second of two) last month at the Congress Theater was punk. It also wasn't. Totally DIY, local merchants with booths set up in the lobby, $6 tickets, all ages admitted. All that's either good-hearted or good marketing, but punk? Nyaybe. The performances? In flashes, certainly: the Ex's joyous hand-signaled, jumping- up-and-down improv, Bob Weston's Q & A with the crowd, a masterful Fugazi feedback workout that pulsed in three dimensions, the crowd shouting down the house lights and canned music for a second encore--and getting it. The best moments, the punkest moments, were when a connection was made despite the room's horrible echo and the crowd's gigantic size, when everything consolidated to explode into big bang euphoria, momentarily.
But there was plenty that wasn't punk, because of the sound and crowd size, sure, but also for less immediate reasons: these bands mean too much to their fans, and have for too long. Everybody knows the words. "Waiting Room" was punk once. Now it's expected, demanded, received by a lot of happy lip-synching fans. That's not a bad thing, but it's not...you know.
Toward the end of tenth grade an acquaintance given to dyeing his hair invited me and my best friend to a Bouncing Souls show. Which was sold-out. We wasted time, wasted time, wasted time, until a large man in ragged sweatpants offered to sell us a group pass. He took a piss on a fire hydrant while we debated. We bought the pass; he took off down the street. The pass was fake, but the bouncer took pity on us and sold us real tickets at face value. The Souls came on as we came in and all the other 16-year-olds started pogoing.
The next day my best friend left for summer camp and I bought the Souls' second album. Maybe it was the loneliness of a summer spent commuting to wash test tubes at a lab filled with 50-year-olds, or just the memory of a memorable show. Or maybe the lyrics "He was only 16 and he knew he wasn't like anyone else" got me, despite my even-then better judgment. Regardless, I spent the summer wearing the ions off a tape dub of Maniacal Laughter and the Operation Ivy anthology (with a song, "Hoboken," about my Jersey hometown!).
And then September came around, my friend came home, I bought some other records, and my magical punk rock summer was over. But I bet that most of the Warped kids--average age of, say, 18--had had a punk rock summer too, except maybe they bought a good NOFX album instead of the crappy one I picked up, and maybe they made some punk rock friends. And I bet that most kids have a something summer, where that something fits just right and is able to masquerade as or even be a way of life--a Britney Spears summer, a hip-hop summer, a Dischord summer, a no-wave summer. No sense calling any part of it except the actual epiphany "punk"--after that, it's all pop, where pop means telling you what you want to hear, what you need to hear, now that "you" have been altered for good.
The Bouncing Souls played the Warped Tour, and I was happy to see them. Though they sounded pretty much like a million other bands--faster-is-better pop punk with a few ballads thrown in--Greg Attonitoi's vocals still hit me pretty hard, empathetic and sad and just this side of sentimental. The lyrics too, treading tried-and-true paths: world-against-me persecution ("Friends and jobs have come and gone / No matter what I do it goes on and on") into me-against-the-world self-assertion ("No one will ever be / Like me"), self-deprecating despair ("Born to lose / And now I'm losing you") into full-on catharsis ("East coast / Fuck you!") as a thousand kids gave him the finger and crashed the barricade.
Every other band aimed for the same targets, with varying degrees of maturity and charm. The Vandals' lead man-child sang about having a date as he mounted the PA and pulled his spandex shorts up over his bare shoulders, giving himself a painful-looking wedgie. AFI got angrier and metal-er, as denoted by all the black they wore; their primary audience was old enough to use "fuck" sexually but not quite old enough to be over the thrill of just saying it ("I don't want to fuck you / So fuck you!"). H20 did a Madonna cover NYC hardcore style. Good Charlotte, on a major and with a radio hit, came off as more styled, polished, and vague than their compatriots, the better to charm the Future Greeks of America. The Misfits, 24 years and several lead singers removed from their genesis, turned in a heavily made-up set, with Marky Ramone guesting, topped off by two Ramones songs and a Ritchie Valens cover. Ska-punk rabblerousers Less Than Jake brought their own confetti.
All instant pop, much of it hard to hate for its sheer self-evidentness, even easy to like for the same, up on a giant stage and rehearsed down to the wedgie. The day's only real excitement came from the River City Rebels, who played in a tiny tent at ground level about halfway through the afternoon. They had two horns and the slightest of backbeats--which automatically means "ska"--but also a hardcore crunch and a singer who sounded like he'd swallowed gravel. Their trombonist ran through the crowd, breaking the fourth wall, fans screaming into the singer's mike. Right there, in front of you, forget everything else. It's a punk rock party, everybody's invited.
That's it, maybe: a party. The best party ever, everyone dancing and touching and sweating, not because they know and love all the songs, but because they don't know 'em yet and never heard anything like 'em and are ecstatic about it.
The punkest show I've lived recently: at a greenhouse-humid Fireside Bowl, Pink & Brown, a guitar-drums duo in pink and brown bodysuits, set up on the floor. Pink duct-taped a phone mike into his mouth, and choked out, "If anyone wants to fight us or make out with us, feel free, because we hate the lot of ya." The music was one long seizure, the act of falling down and spazzing on the floor rendered into clatter and feedback nasty enough to kill a dog at 30 yards. (But fun! Fido's just playing dead!) Pink stuck his head through the suspended ceiling, tumbled through the fans, and handed his guitar off to one of them.
Then the Subtonix: red-and-black gothy, keyboard and sax dirge-thrashy, with a Grand Canyon echo on the mike sending the vocals in and out of sync with the music. Then the Flying Luttenbachers, drawing a jagged line through prog, no wave, and free jazz, disorienting enough to make a fan dive off the stage onto an empty floor, then get up and dazedly flip both birds at the band for the rest of the set.
And then Lightning Bolt, probably the land's mightiest live band, like Pink & Brown with a bass instead of a guitar and prog-hardcore musicality instead of noise twitchiness. They set up on the other end of the room from the stage with their gajillion-watt rig, starting seconds after the Luttenbachers finished, and the crowd rioted across the room to surround them. The drummer, a robot switched to self-destruct, sang-garbled-gargled through another phone mike while the bassist played everything in the red, from squiggle to fretboard freakout. The amps overheated, and the crowd pulsed in place as the drummer soloed and sang. On again, off again, then bam! on again, chaos or perfection, whatever, and louder than a bomb, so here and now as to be synesthetic, and gone again (except for the ringing in your ears) the second they stopped.
That's it: the definitiveness and transience of a sweeping gesture, good for nothing and good for everything, slippery but tangible, destroying the old and creating the new, fully experimental, fully accessible--totally present. It's what Jad Fair meant when he said he wanted to write the most popular song in the history of the world, even as he was practically banging on tin cans; what Lester Bangs meant when he ranted, "Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation." But it's not Half Japanese or the Stooges or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It's the sound of now. Right. Now.
Who cares? Why bother to slough the skin off a single overused word? If I felt like jargoneering, I could invent a new, clean one, and maybe it'd stick. Others have: "Postpunk" was attached to arty punk circa 1978, but now it's just as likely to mean emo with a Top 40 heart. "No wave," also born in the late 70s, got it half right--negation. "New wave" got the other half--creation. But scenester pretensions, teased hairdos, et al., did 'em both in. So maybe "now wave?" Which will become "then wave" in a second, and then where are we?
Back at punk, which represents such an important impulse that it needs to be reclaimed as such. To jive like ol' Manny Kant for a moment, I could say that punk aims to be good, sensual, beautiful, and sublime all at once--that is, morally unimpeachable, irresistibly desirable, contemplatively gorgeous, overwhelmingly and empoweringly dangerous. And since no one thing can even be purely good or beautiful or...being all four at once is a quadruple impossibility. So to defy it, even for an infinitesimal amount of time--well, that's punk fuckin' rock! i
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.