Bedtime for Punk Rock Relevancy?
Spite. Look it up.
I was on the cusp of 15. About to begin high school. I’d be older than everybody else, but then, I always was.
The currents of fate and bureaucracy had decided not only would I be forced to spend the next four years at a high school with zero of my friends, but I’d also be jettisoning those relationships with gusto by spending my final summer before high school isolated some 881 miles away in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Fuck it. I’d be older. I’d be smarter. I’d be punk rock about the whole thing.
And I’d certainly need some spite to survive.
So, aside from a summer spent vandalizing the hallmarks and institutions of civil society in Cheyenne, I would also spend many many hours poring over the words of Noam Chomsky (for the knowledge), Richard Adams (to soften the blow of an imminent loss of innocence), Franz Kafka (masturbatory yet self-explanatory self-serving artistic self-preservation nonsense) and Jello Biafra (cue the spite.)
In a surprisingly well-lit basement I found myself alone and in the best of company.
Of course, Jello Biafra’s words came accompanied with music that sounded like Dick Dale on dextroamphetamine. These were your, our, the Dead Kennedys. America’s foremost political punk rock band and one of the most seminal groups of all time.
It was the purest, fastest, nastiest and most abrasive music still capable of retaining melody. And it came outfitted with anthemic battle cries, calls to action and instructions on how squares ought to fuck right off. I was no intellectual. But this was music with so much intelligence, passion and daring that it seemed as if Rimbaud picked up an Armalite and joined the fifth column.
I was a spite-ridden, angst-driven, punk rock-obsessed teenager with the world at my feet. I was ready to smash it.
But let’s pause before we get worked up into a frenzy of unhelpful imagery about what punk is and means.
From the beginning: the counter-cultural movement we’ve all come to know, understand, love and hate has been exactly that: a counter-cultural movement.
For the purposes of utilizing and becoming part of something bigger than one’s self (and surely some will differ, and many more will not) punk can and should be understood as an art movement with distinct and loud politics and myriad forms of music hustled underneath an edgy umbrella of defiance. Punk was heavily infused with the Situationist critique of capitalism and the requisite attention to destroying it with fun from the get-go. A way to create, form and sustain communities [Or 'scenes' as they came to be known. A term that attracts both affection and derision.] outside of the conservative, passive consensus of society writ large.
Punk has always been dangerous. (Or has at least considered itself to be.) Not for the nihilistic caricature conjured up/embraced by some or the tendency to gravitate towards small-scale brawls with cops or stake out emotional territory with a closet full of offensive t-shirts. Punk was dangerous then for the challenges it presented to the structures and assumptions of the days in which it was born and discovering what it stood for. It’s less dangerous now due to massive amounts of recuperation by the charlatans, corporations and, yes, the sell-outs who’ve decided to trade in complacency for cash. But whatever. Punk still retains a degree of danger for the alternative world in which it operates and still insists -demands- is possible.
The insistence on likening punk to nihilism is based on a cursory and intentionally ignorant misreading of a few wayward Sex Pistols lyrics taken out of context (and perhaps in tandem with the myopic notion of letting Sid Vicious ever speak into a microphone.) And sure, there are certainly nihilistic infiltrators ready to take any sort of anti-establishment concept and dilute it so much they mistake it for essence. Calls to "Turn on, tune in, [and] drop out," are always heeded by the self-absorbed no matter which decade they belong to. Some even take the time out to write on their clothes and purchase multipacks of safety pins.
In terms of music, nihilism is best embodied by the glamour, excess, materialism and self-indulgent drug use typified by the bloated rock stars that punk rock was and is still railing and reviling against.
If the scenes are stale (and they are) then the idea, never fully realized, is as fresh as ever: That a destructive force is capable of harnessing anger, rage and spite to build something new, different and maybe even better. At the very least it won’t be quite as boring.
Punk rock gave the world The Clash. And as we grew bored of bloated ’70s rock stars here in the States, The Clash grew bored of the U.S.A. and set a standard for purposeful defiance. You could have your punk and actually delineate your politics, too. It need not be vague. Without going off the deep-end of romanticized myth-making about Strummer, Jones, et, al. suffice it to say that there was a clarion call. And the guys who became the Dead Kennedys, led by Biafra’s vitriolic and acute tirades against empire and injustice answered that call and then some.
The Dead Kennedys helped any discerning punk understand the dictum made famous by Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that the passion for destruction can be a creative passion, too.
What gives the Dead Kennedys staying power and makes them so attractive to so many punks and other assorted margin-walkers is not necessarily the bizarre combination of surf-guitar, hardcore beats and full-throated rage–you can get at least two out of the three from so many acts of the era–but the words scrawled and wailed into the collective consciousness of all those within earshot of their lyricist, lead-singer and frontman Jello Biafra. Words that don’t simply cry or yearn for justice ?ber alles. Words that demand it.
Without getting mired in the intricacies of Biafra’s politics and song lyrics, suffice to say the Dead Kennedys were what happened when The Clash crash-landed in San Francisco, got louder, meaner and more direct. And railed against empire at home, conservatism in all forms, sacred cows of all stripes (especially within the punk scene) and decided that the destruction of society itself was the end goal…if we really felt like being decent human beings to one another. [For a lyrical primer check out "Stars and Stripes of Corruption".]
So, when I heard that Jello Biafra was bucking the BDS boycott and had even considered playing a show in Tel Aviv, I was quite simply heartbroken. I wanted to break a violin.
When I read his justification for deciding to cross the picket line I was moved to anger. This was a man from whom, quite literally, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of young people have, for better or for worse, and for decades, found at least the seeds of their own political and moral compasses. Midnight Apache helicopter raids against the civilian populations of the West Bank? I first heard about it on one of Biafra’s spoken-word albums. The image stuck. But now the source seems like a quivering and faulty projector.
Biafra’s justification is callow. It’s craven and self-serving. Most of all: it’s insistently wrong and timid.
Being insistently wrong and timid (re: conventional…or if you’re into that, read Time) is how the oligarchs, plutocrats and all their fawning, slightly-liberal court-jesters move up in the world.
Sure, punk rock can be wrong. It should be wrong on occasion. It takes leaps into crowds and ideas. It dares. Yet it also demands boldness. Playing a show in the de facto capital of apartheid Israel (after being begged not to by those on the front lines of the struggle) with the implicit and explicit suggestion of equivalency between Israel and the Palestinians is less than even the opposite of bold. It’s Tom Friedman. With guitars.
Jello Biafra is going to play a show in Tel Aviv first and foremost to play a show in Tel Aviv.
This isn’t the conundrum of whether Paul Simon traveling to South Africa to write and record with black musicians violated the cultural boycott of that apartheid country. There’s no debate to be had here. There’s nothing vague about what’s going on: Israel is an apartheid country and Jello Biafra wants to sell concert tickets there. He’s on tour. This isn’t a fact-finding mission. It’s a money-grab wrapped in the garb of measured and reasoned concern. In academic terms: It’s bullshit.
Jello Biafra is trying to act like a Very Serious Person. You know the type. They get to sit down for the Sunday morning talk shows. They get book deals, best-sellers and respectability. They dismiss activists and thumb their aging noses at new ways of resistance.
Much hay has been made (by outside detractors and navel-gazing punks alike) of the idea that punk rock is just canned rebellion. A product. An image without an idea. Something to temper and guide one’s adolescent urges to act out and then, to eventually grow out of. It’s always been a silly argument made by the cynical and defeated. It’s the refuge of assholes.
Jello Biafra, because of his elder-statesman, warlord-like status has the opportunity to weigh in heavily on that argument. By playing in apartheid Israel he just might win it for those same people who’ve always dismissed him, his life work and all the millions of people around the globe who’ve found something good and real and pure there.
Punk rock doesn’t need that. And if Jello Biafra refuses to see the light on the situation in Israel and Palestine, punk rock doesn’t need him either.
If this sounds particularly harsh and rigid, demanding and dogmatic, even frothing and fundamentalist, then let’s get back to spite.
And, finally, let’s simply quote Biafra at Biafra and anyone who defends his decision to play in the cultural capital of apartheid Israel at the height of a cultural boycott observed by the Pixies, Elvis Costello, Gorillaz, Roger Waters and the late Gil Scott-Heron amongst others:
Jello, if you play your scheduled gig in Tel Aviv and thereby normalize the standards of repression that you have always so fervently and forcefully spoken out against, you’re simply and forever a "chickenshit conformist like your parents."
Colin Kalmbacher can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.