I have a DVD on my shelves titled “American Hardcore.”
Yeah. I’ve had to explain it more than once to visitors who are the types of folks that browse bookshelves.
Like most documentaries, this one interviews band members from the “hardcore” (heavier, faster, angrier than earlier punk bands) scene who detail their experiences and memories of the early 1980’s. For those of us who had the albums or tapes of these bands and been to a show or two or 10, well, it was a fun ride down memory lane and even more fun to see how these guys had grown up and moved into various life-stations. These interviews were detailing a movement that certainly was furious and short (for reasons I’ll discuss), but when they give us their oral history of that time, well, they tell us the ingredients of the movement’s recipe.
The first ingredient is the motif of “Do It Yourself.” D.I.Y. is even mentioned early in the Wikipedia entry about “hardcore.” When the guys in Minor Threat scraped some money together to get their first “45” single recorded and pressed, they were handed the box of 1,000…and asked the guy where the “sleeves” were. You know, the paper that protected the record from scratches or dust or whatever. Well, they weren’t included. So, the boys in the band carefully deconstructed one from their collection, unfolded it, traced the outline on a piece of paper. Then they made copies, which included their own hand-drawn artwork, folded & glued the sleeve, and put the record in it.
And when you think about it, this keeps the movement’s innovation and creativity and adrenaline going full-throttle. You can’t afford to pay for graphics company to create your “brand.” You doodled on some paper, came up with a logo, made a stencil and spray-painted a bedsheet to hang behind the drummer. You cut & paste newspaper or magazine letters you cut with scissors and bummed somebody’s copier to make your band’s flyers. Bands had to make their own screen print machines and buy the ink to put t-shirts together. The fringe nature of the movement demanded resourcefulness and innovation. When I was with Youth for Christ and we struggled to make payroll & a budget for supplies was nonexistent, well, we were incredibly creative. A movement is going to thrive when you keep things simple, make it easy to reproduce and keep things as small as possible.
The second ingredient is that “Everybody Has A Role.” I have some friends in a band called Lost and Found who travel all over the country playing shows in churches and youth events/festivals. When asked what it is like being in a band, they respond with, “It’s a lot like working for a moving company. We spend most days driving a truck, moving furniture for the better part of the day and then making sure it all works like it’s supposed to. Then for 90 minutes a day we get to play music for friends.” They then sell their own t-shirts and merchandise (which they produce mostly by themselves or with the help of close friends) after the show.
That’s the heart of the punk ethos. A friend drives the band’s van. Another one runs the sound/mixing board. Another sells the t-shirt. Fans of the band walk up with art they created which becomes a cover of the cassette tape. The crowd that comes is not there to see a show but to BE the show. There’s room for everybody to do their thing.
The ties to the church are obvious. Everybody has a gift and should be joyfully and excitedly using it.
The third nuance of punk is to “Maintain Unity.” Because bands were the underdogs, they had to stick together for the good of the cause. They weren’t really in competition because there wasn’t money to be made. There wasn’t this drive to be the biggest band and make the most money and become big stars, so they didn’t care who headlined the bill. If a band was traveling across the country in a van, they knew they could count on their buddies in Minneapolis to house them for the night–and they’d gladly return the favor when the band from Minneapolis was in D.C. Equipment got stolen out of the van last night? No sweat. Use ours.
In fact, a lot of bands were proactive in mentoring the younger guys. The band Bad Brains asked the younger guys in Minor Threat if they’d like to learn a few tricks of the trade. Beyond that, Bad Brains was active in what would become the “straight edge” movement–a directed attempt to be drug-free, alcohol-free and even some had strict dietary requirements. Bad Brains even recommended a book about the power of positivity to their young proteges…and went through it with them.
They had little desire to compete or split into factions. The message and approach to life was of higher order than any ambitions or pride. They needed each other, so they didn’t bicker.
The fourth ingredient was Maintaining Authenticity.” It never dawned on guys in TSOL or Black Flag or X or The Germs that they would have a career. It never dawned on them that they would have a record played on the radio. They weren’t going to sell records or make a bunch of money. They didn’t try to build a fan-base or have a career. They weren’t going to get drugs or girls or fame. They simply wanted to live in the moment. They wanted to be true to who they were and what they believed and play because they loved to do it. Their motivations were reasonably pure and things grew organically. I don’t want to over-romanticize this point…but it’s when record labels started to see money could be made and A&R people could capitalize on the movement that led to…
…the “negative” lesson to be learned, which led to the death of punk:
You have to “Keep the Movement from Becoming a Monument.” Money came into punk. The Ramones started to sell some records and even had a movie made that featured them (“Rock ‘N Roll High School,” anyone? Anyone remember P.J. Soles?). The Clash was on the cover of Rolling Stone and referred to as “the only band that matters.” They got airplay on MTV, too. The Sex Pistols became a cartoon of themselves due to the money and drugs. Even bands like Black Flag moved from abandoned warehouses & gas stations to bigger clubs & bars.
One of my favorite bands, Social Distortion, is still going strong…but they even admit that now the scene is different. They’ve gotten a gold record. They played their first time ever on a late-night talk show. But now they do things at concerts like thank the parents for bringing their kids to see them so they can at least say they saw them live. I’m sure success is nice for them, and the critical acclaim is a reward (their last CD was listed as one of 2011’s 10 Best Albums) but it has come at a cost of sorts–even if that cost is that it became a business rather than being part of a movement…which ain’t all bad. But still some idealism has been stripped away.
As an aside, a movement built on anger will eventually get tired and become depressed. Enter grunge in the early 1990’s.
And any movement that constantly deconstructs without having a viable alternative will implode. Make no mistake. Those are two major factors as to why the movement died.
But, if you don’t stay attentive to the original ingredients that keep the revolution revolutionizing, well, you’ll wind up becoming a monument. CBGB’s, for example. The club that spawned so much of the movement because they were the only place to play for a while, is now reduced to one lousy wall as an allure to living in the upscale apartment complex that occupies the club’s locale in The Bowery. If you want, you can buy t-shirts and trinkets at the gift shop. Seems so un-punk, no?
It’s a monument to what once was instead of being a place where “what should be” or “what could be” was at the forefront. Which often gives me WELTSCHMERZ. Look that up. It describes what I feel so much of the time accurately.
And that what should-be/could-be when I think of the potential of the Church in America makes me wonder…
…if the Church has lost it’s D.I.Y. mindset. I mean, why write your own curriculum when it’s faster to buy a pre-packaged video series with the latest Christilebrity? Why not go to a national conference to learn how to create a megachurch by the numbers when it takes much more time to brainstorm and troubleshoot for the unique demands of your culture/community? Why not hire a PR firm and graphics agency to create our “brand?” Think about this for a second: The church in the United States spends $7 BILLION per year on “plant and resources” (buildings/salaries/support), but is still in decline. Hmmmm.
…if the professional class of Christians and the resulting dependence upon them is, in some way and shape, holding back the grass-roots nature of the movement of the Tribe.
…if the desire to grow and be successful and be bigger and better has kept us “off message.” What I mean is this: I live in an area with a lot of good churches and an inordinate amount of churches with attendance of 1,000 or higher. Some area youth pastors and I got census reports and deduced the total number of teenagers in our community. We came to the conclusion that if every one of them equally divided among 20 churches and showed up collectively one Sunday, there wouldn’t be room for all our student ministries to hold them. So why do we seem to be shuffling members from church to church, or from organization to organization? It’s like folks are going through the buffet line to “get fed” and grabbing a Bible study here, a small group there, a Young Life/FCA here, a worship service there.
…if we’re focused on The Kingdom, both on the large-scale as well as the individuals the comprise it.
…if we’re constantly questioning and challenging the status quo so we don’t become a monument, or if we’re, in the words of Hirsch & Cachim (who got it from Martin Luther), as a church, trying to be on permanent revolution (or Luther’s “reformed and constantly reforming”).
Punk is indeed a monument.
But it didn’t have to be.
And the biggest lesson to learn is to heed Luther’s words, IMHO.