When I first became aware of punk rock, it was more than just the music that commanded my attention. The artwork on the records and fliers, the clothes that people in the bands were wearing — it all made for a powerful combination.
Like rock & roll, punk looked as cool as it sounded. It was easy to tell that beyond the music, there was a real and powerful artistic element at work. For every hastily made flier or garment torn apart and put back together with staples or safety pins, there were images that were truly gripping and clothes that carried an obvious brilliance and sophistication.
The look of punk rock became so intertwined with the music, seeing someone who looked “normal” listening to a band like The Clash made you question their commitment to the cause. It was this that almost immediately marginalized the music and those who liked it. In schools and on streets all over the world, bullies had the kid with the blue hair as a new and highly visible target. (Being self-conscious and afraid of getting punched out, I never went for the look nearly as much as I went for the music, fliers, posters and record artwork.)
To this day, I think punk rock is the coolest-looking genre as far as creating a lasting impact. A lot of the imagery strikes me as coming from a smarter, more streetwise point of view. As soon as I saw punk rock fliers popping up on light poles and record stores where I grew up, I grabbed as many as I could. I would look at them for hours; decades later, I still do.
How I feel about all this isn’t at all unique. The proof is how much you can pay for items from the early days of punk rock. At auction sites like eBay, people sometimes throw down startling amounts of money for a shirt or a poster. What is the actual worth of these things? Whatever the highest bid was. The point is, a lot of people feel this era of music has a place in their lives.
Items or, at this point, artifacts from the early days of punk rock are as scarce as they are in demand. Over the years, I have asked many members of the first wave of punk bands if they still have any of their own records or other miscellany. The answer is as consistent as it is disappointing: no.
What’s kind of cool are the reasons why. Many of them have told me that they weren’t interested in hanging onto anything, that they were living in the moment and to keep things would be anathema to what it was all about. I get that, but at the same time, it’s too bad. When I ask them if they wish they had kept some of these things, I usually get a shrug. Fair enough.
There are some who consider the posters and the fliers from this era of music to be free of nostalgic longing and just great art. They seek to preserve it and sometimes display it for others to enjoy. More and more universities and galleries have punk collections, which draw a lot of interest.
Unsurprisingly, there are people who think that to put these items on exhibit in a mainstream venue such as the Museum of London is a nightmare example of everything punk set out to destroy. This point of view was demonstrated last month when Joe Corré, the son of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, took his collection of punk memorabilia, said to be valued at around $6 million, on board a boat on the Thames River — and set it on fire.
Corré was seemingly angry that the 40th anniversary of punk was being celebrated at all. His corny stunt was made even more pathetic when, just as the fire was picking up momentum, the fire brigade pulled alongside the blaze and put it out.
Thinking how much fun it would have been to see all the Vivienne Westwood (Corré’s mother) clothes and Jamie Reid posters from back in the day makes Corré’s act seem cruel and incredibly selfish. Not only did he prove nothing but he showed great disrespect to the artists who created all the things he set ablaze, as well as depriving people from all over the world of the joy of getting to look at it.
Corré might be against his warped idea of nostalgia but he’s obviously all for making a profit.
There is a backstory to Corré’s act that is as repellent as what he did. Corré sold a lot of the pieces, took the money and created an underwear line called Agent Provocateur, which he sold for approximately $74 million. He took some of that money, bought back the items, then set them on fire. So he might be against his warped idea of nostalgia but he’s obviously all for making a profit. There is some hypocrisy in there somewhere and you don’t have to look too hard to find it.
It was sad to see that Ms. Westwood was also in attendance for the conflagration. She and Corré proved nothing. I wish Ms. Westwood — such a creative force — had seen things differently. I think that now and then, someone is part of something that becomes bigger than themselves and with that comes a responsibility to maintain the work, thus allowing others to draw inspiration. The perfect way to not overestimate your importance in this case would have been to put it all on exhibit or sell it all off and do something philanthropic with the proceeds.
Corré and Westwood might think they have taught everyone a lesson in what punk’s all about, but all they did was show off their massive egos and how much they’ve lost the plot.
Maybe it was something else, too. Perhaps it was an emotional response to the fact that McLaren cut Corré out of his will.
It doesn’t matter now. It’s yesterday’s garbage. Ooh, how punk.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier