Do Not (Po)Go Gently Into the Night

Punk Rock(ers): Not Burning Out, Not Fading Away

illustration by Roy Tompkins

Saturday night, a few weeks back: The phone rings. It's a rather drunken acquaintance of mine, now living 90 minutes away in some town with a name that sounds like a horror movie title. He's about 26 sheets to the wind, and as his roommate raises holy Hell about the phone bill getting run up, he wants to vent about the death of Glen Taylor, the ex-Dicks guitar player who'd passed away the day before, a victim of kidney and liver shutdown caused by years of hard drinking. And as my friend gets increasingly maudlin over the subject, he mouths something about Taylor having "died for punk rock."

Glen Taylor did not die for punk rock. Glen Taylor died, pure and simple, and punk rock had nothing to do with it. No one dies for punk rock, and if they do, then they've become a martyr for a damned pathetic cause. What punk can do, however, is kill and redeem -- all at once. Both effects are of a spiritual nature, and can be blamed on what the music and lifestyle demand. We're talking about a medium that thrives on energy, intensity, and commitment, and the burn-out factor is high. This is why most punk bands peak with their first album, and if they're not as smart as the Sex Pistols and snuff it at their peak, the rest of their career can be a long decline from that initial burst of promise.

Perhaps that's why, in many eyes, punk is strictly a young man's game, and anyone who hangs onto that life past their mid-to late-20s is considered a loser. On top of it all, some people have taken to singing the umpteenth chorus of that most shopworn of standards, "Punk Is Dead." Since Green Day is now only selling one million albums rather than three million, it's officially all over for punk; electronica is finally gonna make guitar-based rock & roll obsolete and we should all relax, enjoy the ride, and maybe grow up, finally moving on to that job at daddy's stock exchange.

Gary Floyd, the 44-year-old wailing juggernaut who fronted Raul's-era terrors the Dicks, thinks people give punk its last rites only if they were into it for "fashion" reasons. "They were into it for some need," he chuckles, "some inability to cope with life. So, they get into a fad or something. And it's true: It's dead, for them, because they were never living with it anyway. Punk suited my general disposition, and I haven't changed."

Maybe, if punk rock was strictly about music, it would be dead. Maybe then, it would be just a silly youth phase, something to lock away in the attic once you've "grown up." But punk was never merely the saviour of rock & roll, nor simply a reason to wear a stupid set of clothes and act out misguided weekend Sid Vicious fantasies. There are people for whom punk reached down in their souls and touched something. These were weirdos, misfits, and outsiders who suddenly got validation, a license to wear their freak colors with pride, without fear of rejection. Sure, the world they encountered riding the bus or buying grapes at the market might still reject them, but the punk rock world was all-embracing; everyone in this community was just as much a freak as you were. And are.

Just ask Reclusives singer Tim Storm, who has spent 16 of his 34 years singing with punk rock bands in the midwest and San Francisco, from whence he relocated to Austin two years ago. "Sometimes I don't know why I'm still in punk rock," ponders Storm. "There have been times where I didn't want to be and tried not to be. But it really comes down to the fact that it's the only thing I know how to do. If I actually go out and try to do what `normal' people do, I can't. Sometimes I think, `Well, wouldn't it be nice to have a normal life?' But I have nothing in common with normal people, and if I spend a few minutes around them, I want to get away from them. So, the only people I relate to, and the kinda things I like to do tend to be shows and bands -- music -- people who are kinda crazy.

"Something I've noticed over the years," he continues, "is that we tend to insulate ourselves in our community or in our groups, and they're made up of people who are really creative, people who have a lot of ideas and a lot of intelligence. Not in all cases. But, spend enough time within our group, and when you find yourself in a room with `regular people' -- Joe Normal, Sally Lunchpail -- you'll realize just how without imagination these people are! That's why I keep coming back [to punk rock]."

The key word here is "community." What someone who developed a peripheral interest in punk because Green Day was splattered all over the national media possibly doesn't realize is that this is a tribe, with its own customs, rites and rituals, and a value system. It's a way of living life and looking at the world. And it's shaped by everyone involved, not just the people on the stage. The audience is as much a part of it as anyone.

Floyd agrees, but adds, "You can't really explain that to someone, because most people have no concept of that. People who -- I hate to use this term -- but people who weren't there, or aren't there, they're not there mentally. They can't possibly imagine a musician not being some kinda icon they can't touch. They need that separation. We always felt like, `Fuck it, man! I can do it as good as them!' Or, `I'll write a fanzine.' Or, `I'll make a flyer, or promote a show, or do this or do that.' Yes, the audience was just as much a part of the scene as everything else. But it took a certain kind of person to realize that, and those are the people who weren't into it for a fad."

"Many of these people are still producing," says 48-year-old Randy "Biscuit" Turner, still one of Austin punk rock's grand old men 13 years after the Big Boys ceased to exist. "Some are taking their honesty and energy into making great businesses. They've done stuff where they were there for the public -- they were there for everybody. Like Prince, who runs Atomic City. Like the people who run Flipnotics, Blue Velvet, Room Service. Those were people from around the Austin scene, and they're still doing what they want to do, as far as that alternative thang. Now, they're pushing towards servicing the weird!"

Even if they don't service the weird, even if it's been awhile since they've done the pogo and punk rock to them is merely a handful of neat oldies in their record collections and a few snapshots capturing their "wild and crazy" years, there are certain life lessons these people's service in the punk army taught them. Tom Huckabee, for one, went from drumming in the most notorious Raul's era combo, the Huns, to working in film, most recently supervising the music on the Bill Paxton film, Traveller. Huckabee says the most important things punk rock taught him were the "typical clichés," like Do It Yourself.

"Just do it," he says, before cracking up. "Maybe I should buy some Nikes!" Don't do it! The DIY philosophy has served you well.

"For Traveller, we also did a soundtrack album," explains Huckabee. "We had about 1,000 advance CDs made up to hand out in Austin [during the film's premiere at South by Southwest], and we didn't have artwork done yet. So, we were sitting around the table, talking about maybe doing some art, like taking the poster, which had been done, and maybe reducing that to a square size and then sticking them in the CDs. But everybody was talking about the right exact picture to stick into the package, and we had about five or ten prototypes for different artwork that the poster people had done. And I said, `Why don't we just use them all? Every one will be different! That's what we used to do in the punk rock days to make them collector's items,'" he laughs.

"They gave me a buncha shit about that. It was vetoed."

Jesse Sublett, who was a Skunk before he was a 43-year-old writer of detective novels, screenplays, and the like, says he's taken similar lessons with him from his punk experiences. Some of his work has been published by small presses, the literary world's equivalent of the indie label.

"It's funny, this indie thing has pervaded our culture, especially with computers and everything," says Sublett. "But it was just starting to get assimilated in the author business when my first book came out, which was '89. And people were saying, `Y'know, you need to self-promote. You shouldn't just wait for your publicist to get you things. You should do this and that. I said, `Man! I already know all this!'

"Because I feel sort of a rapport with writers anyway, if I wanted to make sure a critic heard my record or came to my gig, I'd call him up and say, `Hey! What's going on?' We did a lot of that with the books. We made sure the publishers would work for me, even though I wasn't a big name or anything. I got a little more out of them than I think the average nobody would."

Still, even if punk was/is an all-encompassing lifestyle, the music is always the original magnet. "Music is always the most popular artform," says Storm. "I don't know many people who would go someplace to hang out just to be around art or films. But that might just be me." Not really, Tim. Frank Pugliese, the 46-year-old lead spectacle of San Antonio's Sons of Hercules, snorts, "It was just rock & roll to me! Punk rock? That was just rock & roll, y'know? The Dolls and all that crap. It wasn't a fashion thing or a political thing or whatever. Yeah, it's a way of life, but I just didn't really put that much thought into it. I just did it."

Sublett agrees. "To me, it was just rock & roll, -- my idea of rock `n' roll. The state of things was so pathetic, outside of a few people like Iggy and Lou Reed and Bowie and the New York Dolls. Rock & roll had really become a joke. Suddenly, Never Mind The Bollocks and Elvis Costello came along, and that was our idea of rock & roll. When [the Skunks] started playing, we were playing Kinks and early Who and some R&B, and especially some Stones' songs off Got Live If You Want It. I thought that album was what those songs were supposed to sound like. We were playing that and people would get pissed off: `How dare you? You're making fun of the Stones!' So, to me, it was all reacting and enjoying the outsider role. Because Austin was such a small, hippy-dippy town -- outside of the blues scene, which I could relate to -- it was very easy to shake people up."

Apparently, it still is. Why else would people continually attempt to bury punk, especially with the vehemence they bring to it? Even if you don't hear the traditional Stoogenik idea of it, elements of punk rock blare loud and clear off the electronic surface of Prodigy or Atari Teenage Riot. It's audible in the trashy, avant-blues guitar work ex-Big Boy Tim Kerr brings to bands like Jack O'Fire or Lord High Fixers. You can hear it in the ugly drunken rush of Pretty Mouth, that band of ex-Dicks and various other Raul's vets.

illustration by Roy Tompkins

If you try hard enough, you can even hear punk erupt every time Randy Turner fires up his hot glue gun and begins assembling another batch of colorful bits-n-pieces in some artistic fashion. That punk spirit presents itself in a million and one guises, and it doesn't die as one gets older. Because the punk spirit is that outsider stance, Gary Floyd, who outlived the Dicks and Sister Double Happiness to make enough music to fill five CDs (see accompanying Dicks' review) and fuel eight European tours, sums it up well:

"My whole thing is, I've always done pretty much what I wanted to do. I never really gave a fuck if somebody thought, `Well, that's not really cool, or you're selling out, or you're doing stuff that's really old or this or that.' Yeah, I'm doing it! And if you like it, that's really wonderful that you can join me in enjoying what I'm doing.

"Why would you continue to do something you didn't like? That you didn't enjoy? In the same way, why would you stop doing something that you enjoy? If you like making music no matter what.... I mean, look at those old farts in the Rolling Stones: They run around and they still do that shit, whether you like 'em or you don't like 'em. They can still muster it up at 55 or whatever to go onstage night after night. I guess they don't want to quit! They have money. They don't have to quit. So, they don't.

"So, why would you stop doing what you enjoy because somebody told you you were too old or too young or too this or too that? The final word for me in everything is, `Fuck You!'" Floyd laughs. "I've always felt, through life studies and Buddhism and Hinduism and being in punk rock bands and making punk albums, it all comes back to the great philosophy of life: `Fuck off!' I don't care what you like or what you want. I'm doing what I want."

Jesse Sublett agrees. "There's something really empowering about rejecting standards, about self-belief, about trying to do things you really believe in instead of going the corporate route. There's a really great Raymond Chandler quote. It's from some essay he wrote about why he quit writing for Hollywood, and he said, `I'm tired of people looking over my shoulder. I'm tired of this and that. And when it comes down to it, I'd rather be alone in this room, doing my thing. It doesn't have to be great, it doesn't even have to be very good. At the end of the day, I want it to be me.' I like that. I thrive on being the outsider and doing my own thing and trying to make it that way."

Still, it takes a certain strength of character and a distinctive brand of intelligence to slip into the role of the outsider. Building your cabin right on the cliff is just asking for it, and unless your soul's a hardy one, it could easily walk out the backdoor and off into the chasm. The reason punk rock fathers like Wayne Kramer and Iggy Pop are still here to tell tales and make inspirational music -- while contemporaries like Johnny Thunders aren't -- is that Wayne and Iggy knew when life in that cabin was getting too much. They could see the cabin balancing precariously along the precipice, and that it was time to move out.

Some people never manage to make it out of the cabin, though. One guy who didn't was Bobby Soxx. A local character in the vintage Dallas punk scene, Soxx was the Johnny Motard of his day, drinking, scrapping, and screwing his way through life, living very much in public and being a disruption the whole way. He cut one of the most corrosive Texas punk singles, "Scavenger of Death" b/w "Learn to Hate in the '80s," then went on to front Stickmen With Rayguns, a painfully underdocumented outfit that was one of the scariest bands of all time, due mostly to the unpredictable Soxx. The last anyone had heard of Soxx, he was serving a long prison stretch.

Then, three months back, during a brief series of dates my band the Hormones played with San Diego's Humpers, we were about to face a group of Dallas skinheads who didn't take kindly to either our Black & Decker pop tunes or my Liza Minnelli eye makeup. As we were scrambling to get our gear onstage, we kept pushing past this stage hand, some skinny old drunk who'd obviously had the life beaten out of him over the years. He didn't look any different than any of the nine million career alcoholics living on the streets around the Blue Flamingo or on the Drag. Literally seconds before we went on, the drummer for the Boozers, the band who'd preceded us, threw his arm around this wreck of a stage hand and announced that he was forming a band "with my friend here, Bobby Soxx."

Holy shit!

illustration by Roy Tompkins

We quickly paid our respects, being the hero-worshipping little punk rock kids we are, and took the stage. One of the few amongst the 15 idiots up front who weren't hurling beer and abuse and taking exception to our 1997 thrashpop variation on the New York Dolls was... Bobby Soxx, who was pogoing and whooping and yelling like the Hormones were the best thing he'd seen in years. We talked after I'd ended our set with a suicide dive, smashing face first into the concrete and emerging a mess of blood and eyeliner. Soxx was appreciative and genuinely tickled someone remembered him, and rambled incoherently about seeing the Dolls in 1973 or '74.

Afterward, both us and the Humpers were invited back to some boozer or other's house for a party. I knew we were in trouble when it turned out our guide was Soxx. We were already over-crowded in a van borrowed from one of our drummer's deceased relatives, practically sitting on top of one another to make room for our equipment, and here was a very drunken Soxx in our midst, cackling dementedly about how we were gonna get cut up by a gang of renegade Meskins, our gear ending up in some pawn shop, and our van getting repainted down in Tijuana. In between bursts of such "humor," he recounted his life on the streets, in homeless shelters, doing oddball jobs like the backstage duties at the Galaxy Club to keep life and soul and liver together.

After 30 minutes of, "Take a left. Now take another left," it was obvious we were chasing wild geese. We finally decided we were never getting to this party, and might as well shove on to the tour's next stop, New Orleans. "Bobby," we asked, finally, "where can we let you off?" He sighed, muttering some assent, and told us to take a right for the first time in the last half hour. Ten minutes later, he got us to the party, where he promptly disappeared.

Bobby Soxx never moved out of the cabin. There, but for the grace of whatever higher power you recognize, go many of us. Spend a half hour with Bobby Soxx and you can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, if one isn't careful, punk can kill.

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