The History of Punk

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I am not a naturally formed fan of Punk rock music. I am from the school of The Allman Bros., Zep, and Steely Dan. Art Tatum, Bird, and Trane. Mozart, Stravinsky, and Bach. Being able to play and play well is the minimum requirement. Punk Rock spits a gob on that old chestnut. If you cannot throw your body into the fray, do not show up. Three chords and a fierce gallop gets you to the stage, the ability to push the accelerator to the floor and to not let up. The only posing allowed is when your look occupies significant space in the head of The Man. In the 60’s you had to take sides. There was you (Us) and there was The Man (Them). They ran things and told you what to do. In the 70’s there was only You. Fuck The Man. We own the Bricks now. And when The Man puts up a plate of glass, we throw one. When The Man screams Censorship, we laugh and count the profits. When The Man screams Respectability, we throw up a finger and hold up a mirror. Hippie Style was a gathering, an inevitability, assimilated by the Boomers who built it in the first place. Punk Style was a reaction and a release. Hippie Style got old and drank organic fair-trade coffee and bought electric cars. They religiously followed The Grateful Dead, who became the greatest money-making band on Earth. Punk Style never got old, or as Neil Young famously wrote of Sid Vicious, the bass player for The Sex Pistols, “better to burn out than fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted the line in his suicide note.

But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The Godfather of Punk, Iggy Pop, is still alive, still making records and still shirtless. Now the Grandfather of Punk, he maintains that “he singlehandedly ended the 60’s.” Patti Smith has won the National Book Award for her Punk memoirs. Henry Rollins publishes his own books and gets paid handsomely to show up and tell road stories from his days fronting Black Flag. David Johansen, like David Bowie before him, turned silver haired crooner and adopted the pseudonym, Buster Poindexter, to satirically mimic lounge and swing and rockabilly for his own purposes and is interviewed and consulted on the history of rock music when he isn’t acting or playing DJ. Johnny Rotten remains the single best interview ever, the undisputed champ for truth-telling and outrageous quotes, such as “Early Seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment—just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point blank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.”

Some people think that Punk in Britain began when 19-year-old Rotten was spotted on King’s Road wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words I Hate handwritten above the band’s name and holes scratched through the eyes. It was held together with safety pins, and the next day he was asked to be the lead singer for Michael McLarens’ Sex Pistols. Punk had already been roaring along in America for years, though no one knew it yet. MC5 was kicking out the jams in Detroit, motherfuckers, since at least 1963. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry are some of rock and roll’s founding fathers, and all battled complacency in the public’s initial response to their work, but their rockabilly is a foundational aspect of the Punk ethos and a self-made, do it yourself attitude permeated the golden age of Punk. From the beginning, non-conformity and rebellion were two of the cornerstones of rock and roll. In the movie, The Wild Ones, Marlon Brando’s character is asked, “What are you rebelling against?” His reply, “What do you got?”

Throughout the 1960’s, bands like Question Mark and the Mysterions, the manic surf guitar of Dick Dale, The Standells, and The Blues Magoos all had Punk aspects to their music that would later become the gristle for some of the first Punk compositions. Lenny Kaye’s album compilations from 1965-68, called NUGGETS, featured garage bands which he believed were artifacts of the Psychedelic Era and his liner notes referred to these bands as “punk rock,” and an ideology began to crystallize. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was Punk, Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” was Punk, “Gloria” by Them was Punk. Then Andy Warhol’s Factory spawned The Velvet Underground, which wove hippie fashion, nihilism, literary themes, and a druggy sheen with straightforward memorable guitar riffs coming from the mind of Lou Reed to induce a unique feeling in their audience. Producer Brian Eno said that hardly anyone bought Velvet Underground records, but everyone who did started a band.

Out of these disparate elements The Stooges emerged, mixing primal beats and slabs of authentic guitar distortion with brutal and psychologically honest lyrics spit by Iggy Pop, who took The Doors, the Blues, and the Glam spirit and became one of the cornerstones of the eclectic and rapidly evolving Punk movement. Raw power in 2-or-3-minute bursts, perfected by The New York Dolls and the supersonic tight arrangements of The Ramones, birthed a seafaring monster that crawled upon the shore of England and The Sex Pistols caught it, killed it, cooked it, and ate it. The Vietnam War had lasted from 1965-1975 causing tectonic shifts in the youth culture, and the giant rock bands, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppellin, and the Prog Rock behemoths were starting to stagger under the weight of their own excesses. And then Disco appeared. The Punks hated all of this and sought to sweep these dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. The French Symbolists, like Rimbaud and Verlaine, along with the Beat heroes, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac were influencing the aberrant philosophy of the scene and a subgenre of poets and writers like Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Kathy Aker, and Luc Sante arrived with the same vitriolic spirit as the bands. William Gibson developed the idea of the cyberpunk in his seminal novel, Neuromancer. In New York, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s became the greenhouses where all these aspects could bloom and grow.

The first of the two poems that accompany this essay, “PUNK,” was written with the same immediate need for speed and propulsion as the best Punk songs. I originally wanted the poem  to sprawl like a slash of graffiti across the white space of the page, but I was reminded that bands like The Ramones and Bad Brains were highly disciplined composers of their songs and they wanted them to punch the audience, to leave a bone bruise. Many of the early Punk compositions lacked a discernible chorus, or they were ALL chorus, repeatedly shouted over the guitars’ abrasive attacks. I settled on a middle ground, little to no punctuation, with short, abrupt line breaks, so that the poem tumbled headlong down the page, a piece of hungry momentum admitting no impediments to its rhythm, like punching a speed bag over and over, very quickly. The first time the poem slows is at the end when it looks in the mirror and asks “Whose / dog are you, anyway, with your bad / brains and bated breath?” As a consequence, the poem is essentially posing the question that most early Punks asked themselves and their audience. Whose side are you on? And the line echoes two Punk references, The Stooges’ song “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and the mention of the DC band, Bad Brains, easily one of the most musically accomplished Punk outfits, whose sheer precision and musicianship stand in stark relief to many of their counterparts.

Bad Brains formed in DC in 1976, first as Mind Power, a jazz fusion group inspired by Chick Corea and Mahavishnu Orchestra, but eventually changed its name and vision after discovering The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Damned. The band’s name is actually taken from The Ramone’s song, “Bad Brain.” Their original influences alone set the band apart and their longevity is also antithetical to the typical abbreviated life of most Punk bands. With a short break in the mid-90’s, and through many lineup changes, the band has continued to record and play live until the present day. Of course, their very existence is at odds with the poem’s last line: “If you don’t die / from this, then you’re not doing it right.” From the beginning, the term “punk” has always been in direct opposition to the virile, aggressive, take no prisoners ethos of the bands. In prison, “to be punked,” is to become somebody’s “bitch,” a sexual subordinate to a stronger, more powerful person. A “punk” was originally a term that was applied to prostitutes in the 1500’s. Shakespeare himself refers to a soiled dove as “a punk,” and the term later came to be associated with a hoodlum, or ruffian in the 20th century. Merriam-Webster describes punk rock as “marked by extreme and often deliberately offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent.” Which is just about right.

In my poem, I wanted the various aspects of Punk style to develop as the poem unfurls, and the hallmarks, torn T-shirts, duct tape, Mohawks, razor blades, padlocks, tattoos, piercings, and safety pins are now assimilated as part of the younger generation’s cultural fashion statements. Punk has now been homogenized for general consumption, though there is a long ugly trail of suicides, murders, and arrests dotting the history of the genre from its earliest days to the present. And some of the most dynamic and memorable performers in the history of music have fronted Punk bands, from Iggy to Johnny Rotten to Siouxsie Sioux to Glenn Danzig to Poly Styrene to H.R. to Jello Biafra to Debbie Harry to Joe Strummer to D. Boon to Kathleen Hanna, flamboyance, physicality, and irreverence have earmarked their stage personas. And the women fronting bands from The Slits to The Banshees to X-Ray Spex to Bikini Kill have had as much to say about what Punk stood for and against as the men. Which brings us to the nuclear dynamo that was known as Wendy O. Williams.

I first saw Wendy O. on the Tom Snyder Show in May, 1981. I was sitting up late at the dorm my freshman year, getting ready for the Final exams and had just turned on the TV when this manic little sprite with a skunk-colored Mohawk came bounding down the steps in the middle of the studio audience screaming “Headbangers, you know who you are!” And the band staggered into the song as Wendy ran onto the soundstage and grabbed a large bouquet of flowers, mostly gladiolas, and thrashed them to pieces against the drum kit, throwing what was left into the crowd. She was wearing what appeared to be a Scottish schoolgirl outfit, with a skirt that resembled a green and black Tartan kilt, which fully revealed her white panties, and a loosely knotted men’s tie in her white collar. She then proceeded to run nonstop stage left to stage right, singing all the while, pausing only to perch on the front hood of an orange Chevy Nova, parked suspiciously onstage, first time to spread her legs and show her crotch and the second time to stick out her bottom and shake it ferociously into the camera as it moved in to get the closeup and then she was off again, up the stairs, around the drum riser, circling cross-dressing guitar player Richie Stotts in his leather skirt and Travis Bickle blue Mohawk who towered at least a foot over her. Stotts then dives into the crowd, rolls down 4 or 5 aisles, and flops back onto the stage as Wendy begins stuffing broken glad pieces in her mouth and spitting them into the crowd. As the outro kicks in, the drummer goes to double time and Wendy starts jumping up and down with her arms raised in Olympic victory screaming, “You’re all headbangers! You’re all headbangers!” Then the downbeat and the band exits stage right, with the studio crowd going nuts. This all takes place in less than 3 minutes.

My mouth had dropped open like I was in shock. I could not believe what I had just seen. But that was just the warmup. After Snyder derided the band for blowing up a TV and sawing a guitar in half on their last appearance, Williams answered by saying, “In today’s society it seems normal to see rape and murder on the news, but if somebody blows up a TV it is viewed as crazy. Everything’s all out of whack. I am exorcising the evil in society when I’m smashing these things.” Snyder then says that maybe her audience might widen if she calmed down her stage act, while the audience screamed him down, saying “We love you, Wendy! WE love you!” Wendy reminds Snyder that they make money at what they do, and then says that “Materialism is rampant in our culture, and we don’t believe that money should rule our lives or our art. We are bound and determined to upend the status quo and this is the ultimate fuck you to this society.” Of course, the fuck you was bleeped out. She then slyly asks, “You don’t mind that I parked my car on stage, do you?” When Snyder asks her if she ever worries that her act will cause someone to possibly hurt her as the band gets bigger, she says, “You’re talking about the difference between Pluralism and Fascism and everybody has the same cosmic right to express their energy. And Fascism is when people want to beat you over the head to do what they want you to do. We are here to stomp that out, to have people pledge allegiance to themselves.” She says all this in an even tone, smiling adorably all the while, reminds Snyder that she is a pacifist and that smashing the TV and the guitar are a relief and a release for herself and her audience and that these items have no life force, that she is reminding people not to be dominated by materialism. She then gives Snyder a peck on the cheek, bounces back onto the stage, leads the band into a version of their new song, “Master Plan,” spray paints Fuck the Status Quo on the Nova, takes a sledgehammer and busts out the windshield, the headlights, and throws what looks like two sticks of dynamite through the window and blows the car up on live TV. The hood flies off, the wheels come off, and the band never stops rocking. Snyder looks like he swallowed a porcupine.

I’ve included the description of the Tom Snyder appearance here because it so succinctly shows what Wendy and the Plasmatics were capable of in their prime. And like the saying goes, you never forget your first time. While putting together a recent radio show on Punk music, I rewatched Wendy O. Williams, Live in London, 1985 and was blown away all over again at the tight arrangements and the absolute command of the stage that Williams exhibited just four years after the mayhem of the Snyder show. She was a better singer, band leader, and messenger than the previous incarnation, and I have rarely seen any rock show that could compare with the sold-out spectacle of the London concerts. Williams was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the album, WOW, in 1985, and she was at the height of her popularity and her power as a solo artist. WOW is the first solo album by Williams and was produced by Gene Simmons, who also co-wrote many of the songs and the music represents a true hard rock offering, with more metal influences than the straight loose Punk arrangements of the original Plasmatics, though Wes Beech and T. C. Oliver played on the sessions, on guitar and drums respectively, joined by Simmons on bass, Michael Ray on lead guitar, and a host of other guest artists, including Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Eric Carr. The Plasmatics had opened for KISS on their 1982 tour and then lost their record deal with Capitol when it was finished. Simmons offered to produce and take Wendy to Passport Records, having no mention of The Plasmatics on the recording so as not to create a stir with Capitol. The album was recorded in 1983 and released in 1984. By then, the phenomenon that was Wendy O. was in full flower.

Wendy Orlean Williams was born in 1949 in Webster, NY. Named for Daniel Webster, the famous orator, Massachusetts senator, and statesman, Webster is more a village than a city. Daniel Webster, whose most famous legal declaration was “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” argued 223 cases before the US Supreme Court and was one of the authors of the Great Compromise of 1850, which included among its mandates the Fugitive Slave Act, legislation that made Henry Cabot Lodge declare that Webster “made war inevitable by encouraging slave-holders to believe that they could always obtain anything they wanted by a sufficient show of violence.” But let’s not saddle poor wee Webster with that heavy yoke, there are, after all, 27 other towns named for Webster scattered across the country, and the Senate did name Daniel Webster one of their “Five Greatest Senators” in 1959. Suffice it to say that some of his decisions will not age well.

Little 6-year-old Wendy Williams could not have known that when she was already tap dancing on The Howdy Doody Show and learning to play clarinet. The same child that was a Girl Scout as a freshman in high school was arrested for sunbathing nude by age 15 and dropped out soon after. Her parents were “cocktail zombies,” she claimed and tried to have her institutionalized. She hitchhiked to Colorado to escape, selling crochet bikinis for money along the way. She was 16 years old and determined to educate herself. She learned to scrap and survive. A lifeguard in Florida, a stripper in a travelling dance troupe, a seriously devoted vegetarian since 1966 who was hired as a macrobiotic cook in London and was later featured on the cover of Vegetarian Times. She bounced around, studied Far Eastern religions, took mescaline and LSD, then disavowed drugs and alcohol altogether.

Her partner from 1976 until her death in 1998, Rod Swenson, a Yale graduate and a fellow at the University of Connecticut’s Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, has been published in several scientific journals for his research on the laws of evolution, thermodynamics, and entropy. He was also her manager and the operator of the notorious Captain Kink’s Theatre, an anti-establishment stage company that made a name for itself by staging live sex shows long before Times Square was Disneyfied. They met when Wendy landed down at the bus station in New York City in 1976 and found the show-business magazine ad for Rod Swenson’s Sex Fantasy Theater. She started performing live sex acts and went on to star in a porno movie entitled Candy Goes to Hollywood. One of her scenes was a parody of The Gong Show where she shot ping pong balls across the stage out of her vagina. Swenson claims he heard her singing in the back of a taxi one night on the way home and came up with the concept of The Plasmatics. “Wendy was a consummate professional,” Swenson said, “always working on her craft, working on the show. She would work out hours every day, she would run six miles a day. She was totally into health food. When we were on the road, she always made sure the band was well fed. No processed meats, no white bread.” She was known for refusing to wear makeup products manufactured by companies that used animals for laboratory experimentation and she was an outspoken advocate for animal rights.

What makes Wendy O compelling as a literary subject is that she is composed of a broad range of unexpected and disparate elements. She is capable of juggling a wide spectrum of opposing viewpoints at the same time, and yet despite her obvious love of chaos, she coheres like a jigsaw puzzle. All of her pieces fit. Especially when she aims the laser of her performance at an unsuspecting audience. She was arrested several times for indecent exposure, was almost always partially nude in her performances, notorious for wearing only X’s of electrical tape across her nipples and shooting a shotgun onstage, sawing guitars in half with a chainsaw, smashing TV’s with a sledgehammer, blowing up cars, and crowd surfing long before such a term was even applied to her theatrics. She was also an innovator, moving from punk to metal to thrash as seamlessly as a hawk riding a wind thermal. There was nothing else like her in rock music. And therein lies the rub as she became the hobgoblin of her era’s little minds. There was no place to put a Wendy O Williams in the landscape. The world that she represented did not exist. Her revolution was total and all-consuming. She didn’t care about money or material possessions. Her complete exhibitionism and sexual freedom was anathema to the national rise of the Moral Majority. She was an enlightened environmental feminist in an age that sought to tamp down individual freedom and a collective awareness of the harm that Capitalism was causing to our planet. She did not pander. She did not kneel. She did not capitulate. She didn’t have a chance. She was the high priestess of a church whose bell she could not unring. By 1988, she had given her last show. She was 38 years old.

The personal risk and the constant highwire act had reached its apotheosis in 1981, when Wendy resisted arrest on charges of indecency during a show in Milwaukee. Both she and Swenson were badly beaten by police, hospitalized, and jailed. It was the Reagan era. Artists were being repressed and freedom of expression came with a price. “Milwaukee wasn’t in itself a fatal blow,” Swenson said. “But we had mammoth legal bills. The police chief there was almost running his own government outside of the ordinary government, and they decided, ‘We’re gonna stop this woman, these people, here, right now.’ The legal expenses were more than our income for a year. We were in the middle of a maelstrom of our own creation.” The more popular that Wendy and The Plasmatics became there was always the need to up the ante, to push the envelope. “We knew The Ramones in their later years, it was kind of sad,” Swenson said. “I saw Johnny coming off the stage with an expression on his face, that this was a job that he hated. Wendy and I decided early on, that’s one of the things we would never do. We didn’t want to do things that sold, we wanted to do things that were interesting, new territory. After you’re blowing up cars onstage, which is a complicated and dangerous thing to do, when somebody writes in a review that ‘the obligatory car was onstage,’ you know you don’t need to do that anymore…What we didn’t want to be was the old prize fighter who kept coming back. We didn’t want to lower the quality. We didn’t want to do the thing Wendy was asked to do: ‘Can you just give us a radio song?’ When we got to a point like that, we decided we would stop. We said she was going on hiatus. But we knew she was going to stop.”

I wanted “The Ballad of Wendy O” to feel like a strange folk song that is inevitable. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the culture. But the most powerful ballads, about unrequited love, or murder, or alienation, have a twist, a trick ending, and tell a story. I wanted this poem to feel like a narrative, to tell the story of a warrior, a Wonder Woman, who is almost too real to be true, and as such, to be as trenchant and as tragic as Achilles. Poetry ballads are usually constructed with four-line stanzas and have a somewhat metric regularity, like “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe. That rhythmic consistency would not reward the reader when Wendy commits suicide unexpectedly at the end. I applied the same strategy to this poem as to its companion, “PUNK,” foregoing traditional punctuation, which builds internal stops and starts to the line breaks and wanted the poem to have a certain speed and majesty. “PUNK” counterpunches whereas “The Ballad of Wendy O” is more ethereal, with a regal command built into the lines with italics. I wanted this poem to stalk its opponent, trapping its adversary (which is the reader’s expectations) in the corner and imposing its strength and certainty with repeated declarations. Wendy is a bit of a dominatrix by her sheer will and her commandments are a way of entrenching her authority, to make her larger than life. And the real double entendre at the conclusion had to be the recognition that, although Wendy’s life was about to end, it was still her choice. She is not backed into a corner and gives up. She picks the moment of her demise at a time of her own choosing. That is real power.

Retirement was not really an option for someone who lived as intensely as Wendy O Williams, and she felt that the society was not adapting to the changes that would need to be made to save the planet. In so many ways, she felt ahead of her time. But she fell into a depression that she could not shake. She tried to take her life the first time in 1993 by stabbing herself in the chest, but the knife jammed in her sternum, and she had Swenson take her to the hospital. She tried again by taking an overdose of ephedrine in 1997. So, when Rod Swenson returned to their home in Connecticut on April 6, 1998, and saw her notes for him, he knew what had happened. It took him an hour to find her in the woods, near some nuts she had been feeding to the squirrels. She had placed a paper bag over her head so that her partner would not have to see her wounds. There was a pistol nearby. The suicide letters included a “living will” denying life support, a love letter to Swenson and various lists of things for him to do. This is part of the suicide note that Wendy left behind: I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.

Just as a cliff is merely a suggestion to the mountain goat, who heeds no known law of gravity, so was onstage propriety to Wendy. She stuck her toes into the crevices of certain death and bounced up the sheer face of the rock, rapidly, with the exuberance of an athlete whose body does exactly what it is asked to do. Wendy stood on the almost invisible cliff seam and screamed down at her audience to climb on up and join her. Her mastery of the stage did not come with pre-arranged cues and cunning choreography, though the Plasmatics worked hard on their songs’ tight unbroken flow in their sets, leaping from one narrative handhold to another. Wendy’s authenticity, her mind’s belief in the power of human decency and her need for unlimited freedom of expression constantly propelled her. When she no longer felt needed, she left, stepped off the thin rib of a rock and fell through the veil. With an almost delirious need to constantly feed her mind, Wendy’s curiosity came with a steep price in the public sphere of the Yuppies, the Moral Majority, and the Capitalist supremacy of the Reagan Eighties. There is no easy way down for the soul that refuses to be sold to the highest bidder. Wendy carved a path where none had existed before, and like the star that refuses to burn out, but explodes when its time has come, her light is still traveling through space, at a supersonic velocity, straight at us.