A sequel-of-sorts to this post from last year.
From the much-ballyhooed Metropolitan Museum exhibit on "Punk Couture" to the Bloomingdale’s thing to the CBGB movie, I’m getting a little tired of hearing about what Punk supposedly is/was from people who wouldn’t know the Dickies from the Dead Boys. When crucial landmarks like CBGB and, for that matter, Bleecker Bob’s can no longer exist, Punk is fucking dead in New York City, regardless of what Anna Wintour might be trying to tell you. And you’ll never find punk – sonically, aesthetically, attitudinally --- if you’re searching at places like the Metropolitan Museum or friggin’ Bloomingdales.
But in keeping with this tenor of the times (granted, punk nostalgia is pretty much a constant here on Flaming Pablum, although I do strive for pedantic accuracy) and being that this Sunday is Mother’s Day, I thought I’d dust off a little anecdote that involves both Punk Rock and … my mom.
Let’s go back to 1979…
By 1979, “Punk” was an established term, but it was an amorphous one. The Sex Pistols had flamed out messily, but the floodgates had been thoroughly kicked open and things were happening all over the map. All the same, while your average guy on the street knew the word, "Punk" still packed something of a scary, negative punch. The notion that, decades later, it would be the subject of a pricey fashion gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art would probably have prompted hysterics along the Bowery. As I mentioned in this post, in 1979, the very word “Punk” was still used as a shadowy pejorative.
Now, I’d love to say that while all this was going on, I was insouciantly hanging out at the Mudd Club with Lux Interior and Lydia Lunch, but the fact of the matter is that in 1979, I was a little twelve-year-old, seventh grade twit living with my family on the Upper East Side. As I mentioned in that earlier post, I was gradually nurturing my music fandom and exploring Punk Rock via comparatively established touchstones like the Ramones, The Clash, Devo and `Pistols, but things were now happening at a rapid rate, new scenes were developing and the term itself was mutating. But that was all happening outside of our apartment on East 93rd Street.
Up until that point, my mother had never been especially sympathetic to my musical tastes. While she certainly didn’t mind the Beatle records that my older sister Vicky and I had appropriated from her (I still find it hard to believe that my mother bought her own copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), she pretty much had zero tolerance for -- much less interest in -- my beloved KISS. Vicky had brought some early, crucial records by Blondie, the B-52s and The Police into the house, but what my mother knew of “Punk” all came straight from the headlines, and none of it was positive. She equated “PUNK ROCK” with safety-pins through the nostrils, talentless caterwauling, projectile vomiting and rampant, indiscriminate defecation (almost as if she’d willed GG Allin’s act into existence sheerly by the power of her imagination). “PUNK” was pointedly not something my mother was ever going to enjoy, endorse or ever try to understand.
That point is precisely why this one specific afternoon in 1979 sticks out in my head as so significant.
I walked in from school on some random Tuesday or Wednesday to find my mother in the living room in her usual spot. At the time, my mom had a nifty little sideline in painting ties. She painted other stuff too – like hats and belts and pillows and shit like that, but her big thing was ties. This being the heyday of the preppy (Lisa Birnbach’s jokey “Official Preppy Handbook” would be published a year later), Mom would paint things like little tennis-playing frogs or Canada geese with Christmas wreaths around their necks on neckties and sell them through a few insufferably precious little shops around the Upper East Side with names like The Wicker Garden and the like. Sure, it sounds awfully twee, but Mom made a nice little pile doing it for a while.
In any case, there was Mom with all her stuff set up. She'd sit at a little card table in the center of the room with a selection of brushes and paints and a mason jar filled with water. Around the room were ties and sun-hats and pillow cases all whimsically designed with frogs playing golf, mice drinking martinis, pigs playing tennis, etc., all drying. Directly in front of her was the television. Under normal circumstances, Mom would watch some Channel 13 stuff or a talk show (admirably, she was never into the soap opera scene). We had cable, but this was prior to the era of CNN and twenty-four hour news channels.
As I walked into the room, I was struck by the sound of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays." On the screen in front of us, Bob Geldof, Johnny Fingers and the rest of the `Rats were sneerily lip-synching to their signature anthem in what looked like a classroom. In retrospect, this may have been my very first viewing of a proper music video ... a good year or so before the launch of MTV.
"Mom?" I asked with some trepidation, worried that I might prompt her to turn the channel, "what are you watching?" Mom was only half-paying attention to the screen while painting the outline of a frolicking piglet on a necktie. "This is some program about Punk Rock," she said with wobbly, dramatically derisive emphasis. Admirably, Mom's intellectual curiosity was overriding her already-established prejudices.
As if on cue, the cable channel presenting said selection cued up a new clip of a band dressed like court jesters, ripping with comical velocity through a clangy cover the Moody Blues' stodgy, classic-rock warhorse, "Nights in White Satin." I plunked down my bookbag and assumed the floor about a foot away from the screen, amazed that I was seeing this stuff and doubly-amazed that I was watching it with my mom, of all people. When it was revealed that the the ensemble in question were called "The Dickies," I believe Mom let out an emphatic "Oh, for God's sake."
I didn't want the show to stop. Here was this amazing portal into a new world I'd already started discovering, but with all these new names and new sounds I hadn't yet heard of. The next clip in the rotation was by a band out of Philadelphia called The A's. Mom immediately chimed in with a "I bet I know what the A stands for!", seeming to suggest that these comparatively innocuous Philly power-popsters really wanted to call themselves "The Anuses." This insinuation coupled with the band's pouty preening firmly solidified The A's as my mother's least favorite act of the broadcast, and in retrospect, she was pretty spot-on. The A's never really amounted to much.
But it was what turned out to be the final video of the show (or at least the final video that my mother could tolerate) that really made the biggest impression. Against a black backdrop, this strangely solitary figure dressed in a shiny, radioactive suit started strutting around to a halting, staccato guitar riff. "I'M BORED... I'M THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BORED!" announced the singer, with a bug-eyed, pugnacious ferocity, his twitchy dancing and elastic writhing getting more spastic as the song built up steam. This, of course, was my first real taste of the force of supernature that is Iggy Pop. It was truly unlike anything I'd ever seen, and I couldn't take my eyes off of it.
Between Ig's menacing glare and the song's nihilistic message, however, my mom decided she'd had her fill and turned it off, invariably feeling that her initial hunches had been correct all along.
I, meanwhile, was newly hooked. And it would only get more severe from there.