Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Punk Rock: US, UK, and San Francisco-style

The following is an extract from, Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, a perhaps unlikely source for a chapter featuring a mini, concise history of punk rock, with a San Francisco-bias.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in since Patti Smith’s Horses reached me in the Summer of 1976. On September 24, I will be among the panelists at SF Punk Renaissance for Punk:  What Went Wrong…or Right? a discussion on the music and movement that inspired my generation.

All over the world, youth were collectively inspired to take back rock and put it into the hands of their generation, and they did it themselves, without corporations or websites or even a whole lot of love behind them. They did it with spit, muscle, sweat, and even Sid Vicious’s blood, and a couple of copies of Raw Power between them.

220px-Spiralscratch“It seemed like it had to go back to the three-minute song, something immediate and direct,” says Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle.  “And from that people came alive again.”

Among punk rock’s targets was the comfortable numbness of quotidian life, partially provided by expensively produced (Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Steely, Dan, and Fleetwood Mac) and lightweight (James Taylor and Carly Simon) rock.  The back-to-basics music style combined with the anti-authority philosophy meant punk was largely a scene without leaders, organization or infrastructure.  It can’t be said enough that in the United States there was virtually no commercial airplay for the music and there was very little in the way of favorable aboveground rock press for it either.  But self-starting had its own rewards.

“People gained confidence in who they were, even ourselves, even with all our insecurities,” says Diggle.  “It wasn’t like we were the big show business act to come to entertain people, it was more like…These guys are the same as us,” he says.  “It was real people singing about real things and when we go up on stage we just put on guitars and there’s no big act.”

The do-it-yourself directive also lead to the resurgence and proliferation of the self-released seven-inch single, a format that had virtually become extinct with the popularization of seventies album rock.  Buzzcocks was one of the first bands of the punk surge in England to release its own record, debuting with their Spiral Scratch EP in January of 1977.  That spring the Ramones, with the Nerves and Pere Ubu, took the first murmurings of punk all across the USA.  Though at the surface the punk pop of the Buzzcocks wasn’t political, “It was about personal politics,” explains Diggle.  “It questioned things on many levels.”  A song like “Autonomy” was about “self-rule.”  And ‘Fast Cars’ was about the business of having a fast car,” he says.

Whether it was the words they sang—at once passionate and dispassionate—the way they sang them, or the fact that they sang them at all, songs like “Fast Cars” telegraphed something that went beyond the general speed limit:  It confronted individuality and choice in a market-driven culture.  “I hate fast cars!” was a radical statement, a rejection of values prized by a capitalist society.

The Ramones and the Sex Pistols have both been called the Johnny Appleseeds of punk, crisscrossing their respective countries and crossing the Atlantic while punk bands were breaking out like a spotty rash in places likely (London) and unlikely (Akron, Ohio).  The Ramones brought their show to San Francisco’s Savoy Tivoli in 1976 and inspired a few artists and musicians to form bands of their own.  The Sex Pistols did the same, bringing their show to the United States in early 1978, though the resulting media circus marked the end of the Pistols and the death of the early phase of punk.  penelope-houston-the-avengersPenelope Houston’s band the Avengers opened the last-ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco.  Less influenced by the entertainment of the Sex Pistols and the fun of the Ramones, Houston was a punk rocker of the battling kind. “I definitely recognized that Dylan was fighting against the things he saw as wrong but I would say my biggest singing influence would be Patti Smith,” she says.

The blank generation, a term coined by poet Richard Hell, found its muse, its voice, and its generation’s answer to Bob Dylan in Smith who released her first punk single in 1974. Having escaped a New Jersey childhood for the Chelsea Hotel, the young poet was also the girlfriend of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and together they made art before she ever had the idea of making a record.  Through the course of her bookstore clerk days and Max’s Kansas City nights, Smith emerged an androgynous, rock ‘n’ roll type, a person with more in common with Dylan and Keith Richards than any woman in rock.

Smith went to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974—high Watergate season—to perform at Rather Ripped Records on the North Side of Berkeley campus.  At the time, it was one of the few places you could buy an independent seven-inch record, what you might call the broadside of the late seventies.  Smith’s new single was “Hey Joe,” the song with which Jimi Hendrix had ended his fateful set at Woodstock in 1969.  The A-side began with a poem titled Sixty Days:

“Patty, you know what your daddy said, Patty, he said, he said, Well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child , and how here she is with a gun in her hand.”

The Patty to whom she referred was Patricia Campbell Hearst, the newspaper heiress who’d taken the name Tania following her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an armed band of radicals, one group among a host of urban predators and terrorists raising hell in the Bay Area during the protracted aftermath of the Summer of Love.  Tania had seemingly joined her captors in the class war struggle; “Hey Joe,” marked the official arrival of the new generation.

“I’m nobody’s million dollar baby, I’m nobody’s Patsy anymore, and I feel so free.”

From the decaying urbanscapes epitomized by the rotting Big Apple and the Rust Belt cities, and especially in hippie haven San Francisco, the post-sixties air of revolution hung heavy; Smith was the something new that blew in, wild, from the streets.  San Francisco would remain the scene of more high times and inexplicable crimes throughout the decade.  Home to the historic free speech and antiwar movement gatherings in the sixties, the Bay Area continued to be a place where minds behind movement and invention—whether high tech or slow food—converged.  Its consecration as a gay mecca at that time is well known, while the role disco music played in gay liberation movement, and the role San Francisco played in the development of the punk rock movement, remain less documented. Perhaps these stories go some way toward providing necessary connections, as might the next section on punk’s relationship to reggae and hip hop.

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, California, , , , , , , , , ,

Bob Neuwirth: Here and Then and Now

Bob_NeuwirthBob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.

“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,”  says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs,  he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.

“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it,  “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio.  What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.

If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away).  From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.

In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan.  The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue).  He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”),  a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.

In the ’70s  Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.

Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to 20110409115304-2studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?

“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.

So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s  (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, California, film, Folk, Interview, video, , , , ,

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