<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Never Mind the Death of Joey Ramone, Punk Anarchy Lives On
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Never Mind the Death of Joey Ramone, Punk Anarchy Lives On

The death of Ramone, a true punk rock pioneer and prophet, is yet another blow to the culture and music popularized by the likes of Sid Vicious and his band the Sex Pistols in the late '70s and early '80s -- before glam-metal began dominating the airwaves. His death prompts us to reflect on punk rock music -- what it is, where it's been, what it means and, most of all, where it's going.

by Brian F. Hartz
Illustration by Kevin Carroll


This article was previously printed in The Synapse.

Joey Ramone died April 15 at the age of 49. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, here are a few hints: "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Blitzkrieg Bop," and "I Wanna Be Sedated." Ring a bell?

Ramone was the lead singer of the seminal -- some say first -- punk rock band, the Ramones. They came out of New York's seedy Greenwich Village nightclubs, most notably CBGB, in the mid 1970s and took the world by storm.

What happened to punk rock? Is it dead? If not, where did it go and will it come back? Is the term "punk" even relevant anymore? One is forced to ask such questions now, at the dawn of the 21st century, as pop-punk bands such as Blink-182 and Green Day achieve mega-stardom while their more impassioned, pioneering, and political forebears, such as Bad Religion and Rancid, are relegated to opening band status on arena and stadium tours headlined by their more youthful counterparts.

Punk is supposed to be a subversive, anti-establishment way of life. Its namesake music, punk rock, reflects these attitudes. When the Sex Pistols, The Clash, New York Dolls and -- of course -- the Ramones exploded onto the music scene in the mid and late 1970s, their music was loud, fast, crude, and rude. They didn't give a damn and it showed. The music was their lifestyle. It was punk and it was pure.

Times have changed. The corporate rock and pop music against which punk was aligned from the beginning is still with us. 'N Sync, Britney Spears and Ricky Martin dominate the charts with bubblegum, throwaway music that is, at its best, inessential, insipid and utterly vapid. Punk rock in the late '70s and early '80s offered a world view at odds with consumption and the pursuit of wealth. Its voice was loud and clear; its message and vision were powerful. Critics hailed The Clash as "the only band that matters." The Sex Pistols' hit song "Anarchy in the UK" ignited a punk rock firestorm -- the seeds of which had been sown in the late 1960s by such bands as the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop & The Stooges, and the MC5.

Music is part of our culture and is therefore rooted in and a reflection of our morality, politics, economics, religion, and philosophy. It can inspire us to rally for social change or reinforce the status quo. Punk -- the music and the world view -- is all about the former. But it doesn't have to be revolutionary or nihilistic. In fact, most punk rock music is positive and progressive. It often rails against racism, injustice, and prejudice. And music can be punk without fitting the three-chord guitar, bass, drums, and screaming vocals formula. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, U2, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen have recorded some of the most "punk" songs and albums in the history of rock 'n' roll.

How are all of these artists punk? First and foremost, their music has a distinct message about social conditions and events. Songs like Dylan's "The Hurricane," U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," are just as insightful, provocative and confrontational as anything that Black Flag or Bad Brains ever recorded.

So, what do the artists themselves think about the current state of punk rock? Greg Gaffin, the lead singer of Bad Religion, wrote an entire essay on the subject, entitled "A Punk Manifesto." In it he attempts to define punk. Punk is, Gaffin writes, "the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions; a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and by extrapolation, could lead to social progress; a belief that this world is what we make of it -- truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be; and a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature."

Sadly, the punk lifestyle is often one subjected to misguided stereotypes. Anger, violence, and hatred are associated with punk rock music. This is, according to Gaffin's essay, a misconception. "There are plenty of examples of violence among punks," he writes. "There are glaring examples of misguided people who call themselves punks, too. But anger and violence are not punk traits; in fact, they have no place in the punk ideal. Anger and violence are not the glue that holds the punk community together." What holds it together is what's missing from the new generation of punk rock bands: namely, skepticism of traditional authorities and social institutions, willingness to spread messages that are unpopular with or in opposition to mainstream or majority thought, and, simply put, passion. Blink-182 writes and performs songs about teenage romance, alien conspiracies, and their lust for Princess Leia. While on stage they tell fart jokes, insult each other and constantly talk about sex acts. Granted, their songs are fun and catchy. One of their biggest hits, "Adam's Song," is a sober tale about teenage suicide. But they are, overall, not punk. They could probably care less if their young audiences ever vote or even pick up a newspaper. Social consciousness is not on their agenda. But, then again, it doesn't have to be. Rock music can be and often is about nothing more than having a good time.

Musicians may have been drawn to the punk lifestyle because of its honesty and passion, because they wanted something new and pure, but why would critics and fans ever consider punk rock bands -- some of which could barely play their instruments -- viable or important to music and the arts in general? "Above all, punk offered a cure for boredom," A.S. Van Dorston wrote in his "A History of Punk Rock." "It offered an escape route for kids who weren't allowed to participate within commercial culture." Nowadays our commercial culture is aimed at children -- they are one of the most sought after demographics. Perhaps that's why punk rock has been so diluted. It's been picked up and sold as a commodity to an audience that's both willing and able to participate in consumerism, fed by a never ending, insidious cycle of promotion and newness that makes The Next Big Thing infinitely more important than social consciousness.

Maybe punk rock's relevance is dependent upon current social conditions. Times are good, people think, so why should we listen to bands like the Descendents, Anti-Flag, Minor Threat, or the Dropkick Murphys? The disaffected whining of Green Day and the silliness of Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish are much more fun and easier to digest than the political and social commentary of Agnostic Front, NoFX, and H2O.

True punk rock is challenging. It's often discordant and upsetting. It can be immaculately performed and recorded, but the message and the passion are of real importance. Slick, corporate punk rock will probably always be with us, but true punks shouldn't buy into the myth that the punk rock scene is dead or that it's been entirely co-opted by mainstream culture. True punk rock will always have a place in our society, because our society is imperfect and needs to be reminded of its flaws -- often, loudly and with great aplomb.

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