Punk rock began in Britain 25 years ago with the PR stunts of Malcolm McLaren and his Sex Pistols. Punk rock began in New York City 25 years ago with glue-sniffing simpletons the Ramones. Punk rock began 33 years ago when Iggy Pop, front man of Detroit’s Stooges, rolled around in broken glass. Punk rock began 35 years ago when Detroit’s MC5 kicked out the jams, motherfucker. Punk rock began almost 40 years ago when Jack Ely, singer and guitarist of Portland’s Kingsmen, led his band in a cover of “Louie Louie,” modifying the rhythm, mangling its lyrics and creating the definitive frat-rock record. Punk rock began 45 years ago when Richard Berry — from L.A., via LA — actually wrote “Louie Louie.” Berry lived until 1997, taking the original language of the song’s unintelligible, allegedly pornographic lyrics to his grave. So it is: The definitive history of the punk rock sound will forever go untold.
Understanding what the words punk rock signify is a less elusive task. Punk rock is a musical genre whose proponents are willing to embrace the slur “punk,” a slang term for petty criminals, passive male homosexuals and novice youths of any persuasion. Punk rock is a bond based upon rejection, youthful rebellion and a certain kind of rage.
Punk rock is an aesthetic sensibility that usually finds form in the assertive three-chord rock & roll of short-lived bands. And it’s a fellowship built on the shaky allegiances of small groups of losers, nihilists, assholes and eccentrics. Punk rock communities incubate true punk rock sounds. But it’s strange, when bands dedicated to punk’s aesthetic mature beyond the limitations inherent in punk society, they inevitably come into conflict with, or outright reject, the communities from which they sprang.
The words punk rock have become so overused they’re practically meaningless now, shot through with the legerdemain of hipsters, marketers and publicists. When it took root in the dominant culture, that was the beginning of punk’s demise. We get Blink-182, pierced and tattooed poster boys preening on MTV and the cover of Rolling Stone. Even Green Day, a group that you can still squint and believe to have some affinity for real punk rock, are seamlessly integrated into the entertainment state. Their music can be played as background at the Super Bowl and for episodes of Friends.
Chatham, England’s Billy Childish and Berkeley, California’s Aaron Cometbus are two punks who have maintained the word’s true tang. Through the example of their own lives, they celebrate punk’s outermost boundaries, the potential in its limitations.
Childish debuted in 1979 with a band called the Pop Rivets. They titled their first LP Greatest Hits. This title must have seemed snarky, ironic, but it wasn’t. It was prophetic. Since ’79, Childish has released well over 100 recordings with groups like Thee Headcoats, Thee Mighty Caesars, the Milkshakes, and as a solo artist. Later Childish efforts — 1991’s 50 Albums Great and I Am the Billy Childish: 50 Songs From 50 Records, say, or the new Elementary Headcoats: Thee Singles 1990–1999 — mark his full-length debut as only the first of many greatest-hits collections.
The rationale behind Childish’s prolific output is summed up in the words of Pat Davies, Webmaster of www.theebillychildish.com, who writes on the site, “This took 2 minutes to think of/and 5 minutes to write down/a lifetime to reason/because . . .” It is one of Davies’ many poems or whatever on the site. His scribblings capture Childish’s punk rock thesis: Why try to think out a simple song when not trying can yield an equally appealing result and save you the two minutes?
On Elementary Headcoats, Childish expounds upon punk’s musical roots, motives and baser behaviors. In his lyrics, pain breeds violence. “Gun in My Father’s Hand” is followed by “The Day I Beat My Father Up.” “I can destroy all your love,” he sings in one song, “I’ve been fuckin’ your daughters and pissing on your lawn” in another. But as ineluctably angry as his verbalized bile is, it doesn’t compare to Thee Headcoats’ sound. An ominous revisitation of echo-drenched vintage Sun singles, the exaggerated reverb of Dick Dale and the eccentric details of the most banal novelty records, Childish’s songs cruise by at hardcore tempos in blaring low fidelity. “Neither Fish Nor Fowl” captures the chug of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.” “I walked the line,” Childish says on “Girl From ’62,” quoting Johnny Cash. “Do the hellhound bop,” he commands on “My Dear Watson,” one of many songs that draw their hoary, overblown style from Bobby Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers’ “Monster Mash.”
“My Dear Watson,” though, clues at how hard it is for any contemporary punk to avoid being a tad disingenuous in his “spontaneous” rage. Despite trumpeting the fact that he’s a severe dyslexic, Childish also knows that the silly hat he’s wearing is Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap (see Headcoats album No. 11: Deerstalking Men). He is hyperaware of his kinship with bands like the Kingsmen; Elementary Headcoats contains three “Louie Louie” covers. He even has his own art movement, Stuckism, whose manifesto states that its adherents are “against conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist.” That hasn’t prevented Childish from churning out over 40 books, a couple thousand paintings, and enough 7-inches, CDs, LPs and cassettes to make him one of the more prolific recording artists of all time. No ego there, eh?
Aaron Cometbus gets to punk’s roots in less self-conscious fashion. A veteran of various Bay Area punk bands (including Pinhead Gunpowder, with Billie Joe of Green Day), Cometbus has been publishing his zine under various guises since 1983, when he was 13 years old.
The size of a piece of letter paper folded in half, most issues of Cometbus are meticulously scripted in the author’s own hand. Almost always a solid tome of text wrapped in a black-and-white cover showcasing either a busy line drawing or taffy-pulled Xerox art, the zine’s format alone presents Cometbus as both an authoritative source and a do-it-yourself fringe statement.
Originally tracing the bands coming out of the lively East Bay punk scene, Cometbus is now filled with tales of punk rock communities, either diaristic jottings or anthropological explorations. Some issues contain accounts drawn from the author’s gypsy lifestyle as he crisscrosses America and the world. And, increasingly, the zine is devoted to Cometbus’ short stories — dry, cleanly written accounts of anarchistic group houses or the lives that flit through a small-town punk scene. The context alone, captured in Cometbus’ clear, nonjudgmental gaze, makes each issue burst with funny and absurd detail.
The newest issue’s 84 pages include 33 brief interviews with the workers of the Dead End: A Collective Café, a place that contends with crackheads smoking up in the bathrooms, co-owners with heroin habits, and Rex, a fill-in employee who gave up his membership in the collective after he began to fantasize about how to “kill everyone in the café.” (“Mines,” Rex says, “Little Tiny Mines. I wanted to put them under the floor tiles in the dining room.”)
With only words at his disposal, Cometbus is far more successful than Childish at offering an uncontrived and appealing picture of contemporary punk. Punk usually dies when examined in such detail. But punk needs light to provide a beacon, to make its message available to a next generation of punks, to help them through rejection and hardship. Cometbus’ world accepts all comers, while Childish, with his silly clothes and his manifestoes, spends much of his time scaring people away.
I’m coming to believe that punk has seen too many through the door, that maybe it can’t help us anymore, that it may be as moribund as the rock & roll sound to which it’s been tied. But then I read the words of one of Cometbus’ interviewees:
We just take care of each other, and make sure that everybody always has a home, food, whatever they need. Cigarettes. Or just a feeling of safety, a feeling of well-being. It’s like the inner-city Waltons on drugs.
It might not make a sound anymore, but punk lives.
Issues of Cometbus are available for $2.50, cash only, from BBT, P.O. Box 4279, Berkeley, CA 94704.
THEE HEADCOATS | Elementary Headcoats: Thee Singles 1990–1999 | (Damaged Goods)
COMETBUS | Written and edited by Aaron Cometbus