by carl wilson

The Big Punk Rock Lie (and/or Warren Kinsella)

kinsella.jpeg
Warren Kinsella: running scared, on empty.

It figures: I go out of town one weekend, and Zoilus readers carry on the liveliest debate on the site all summer in my absence. I hope to come back to the pop music vs. pop lit conversation soon, but first, there's the matter of Saturday's column.

It deals with something I've wanted to write about for a long while - as somebody whose views owe so much to the post-punk culture scene, I wanted to grant some equal time to the bullshit of punk, the reasons why its influence is as bothersome as it is beneficial. I had a golden opportunity handed to me with the recent publication of Warren Kinsella's Fury's Hour, a book on punk by a former special political adviser to Jean Chretien. While there's a lot of pretty rhetoric in Kinsella's book (including some quite good stuff) he dodges all the contradictions at his own convenience. Just like punk always has. More to say about what's been lost that way, and also about Kinsella's hilariously hysterical (and disappointingly substanceless and homophobic and anti-intellectual) response (check the Aug. 27 entry), but first, the column itself.

The short neocon trip between punk and Karl Rove

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005

The most intriguing aspect of Warren Kinsella's new book, Fury's Hour: A (Sort-Of) Punk Manifesto, barely makes an appearance between its covers. Which is both rather punk and very self-serving, if that's not the same thing.

It's a lively goulash of potted music history, analysis, semi-memoir and motivational speech. But the people who buy this book don't really need his mini-bio of the Ramones. They want an account of how this prominent late-1970s Calgary punk, a member of The Hot Nasties and proprietor of Blemish Records, ended up a notorious strategist in the Liberal regime of Jean Chrétien. Does he credit punk for the "attack dog" tactics that made him the Karl Rove of the Canadian middle of the road? [...]

Kinsella isn't dim enough to imagine he can dodge the issue completely. Instead, he flips us off: "Yes, I have become that which I once sought to destroy. . . . Piss off, as a punk might say, if you don't approve."

(All very bold, except that Kinsella later rips ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon a new one for having "become the embodiment of all that punk sought to change or, failing that, hoped to destroy." And all because Lydon wouldn't give him an interview.)

Kinsella needn't be so conflicted. He's now a member of another group that also could be called the Hot Nasties -- the North American power elite.

When Kinsella quotes Lydon barking, "If you get in my way, you're going to have a serious bad time," Canadian readers might recall the author's ex-boss's near-identical statement after manhandling a protester. (The throttling itself was more punk than the rationalization.) Even after leaving office, the Chrétien punks continued to show their middle fingers to the public at the Gomery inquiry.

If that seems a stretch, it's because most people, including Kinsella, tend to think of punk as a progressive youth movement. But really, punk is an ink blot -- you see in it what you want. From drunk racist frat boys to anarcho-feminist straight-edge vegan art geeks, all sorts of characters have claimed the mohawk and leather jacket (or vinyl jacket for the vegans) for their own.

Kinsella's shock over this, as in a well-reported chapter about Canadian punks' entanglements in both neo-Nazism and radical leftist bombings, seems risible coming from someone who's just spent 100 pages extolling punk's basis in generalized adolescent rage.

His own high-school crowd took up the cause after reading about the Pistols' supposed antics -- "throwing up on old ladies in airport waiting rooms . . . sounded pretty good to us." Hmm, how could that life-affirming impulse possibly go awry?

Kinsella misunderstands two things. The first is art. Specifically, punk as a late-late modernist art movement. When he responds to the Sex Pistols slogan "no future" by tut-tutting that there really is a future and punks should try to make it brighter (and vote Liberal?), he displays his tin ear for punk's Dadaist paradoxes.

He sneers at artist Andy Warhol's "hippie" (huh?) influence on the New York scene and on the Pistols' despised manager, Malcolm McLaren. Kinsella reviles the Warholian cynical hyper-boredom of early punk, but that attitude was what made it more than just sloppy heavy metal or folk singing on overdrive - its grand negation, flattening every sign and symbol into an interchangeable flux of disdain.

Deep down, the core of punk is the howl of the Freudian death drive, the gestural suicide of an exhausted youth culture - a thrilling annihilation that's repeated till its very emptiness is emptied. This inherent death wish is why the question "is punk dead?" is perpetual and unanswerable. As songwriter David Berman of the Silver Jews encapsulated it: "Punk rock died when the first punk said/ 'Punk's not dead, punk's not dead.' "

Of course, after that initial liberating shock, converts have to figure out what to do with life-after-punk-death. And that's where the contradictions come in.

Kinsella realizes punk was a purgative convulsion against the perceived decadence of the 1970s, but overlooks how closely that origin binds it to the neoconservative backlash that brought putative punk (and Liberal) foes Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney to power. It's Kinsella's second big blind spot.

He enthuses over punk's do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic, for instance. But call it an entrepreneurial work ethic and you've got a neo-con sacred cow. (Vancouver punk Joey Shithead points this out, but Kinsella shrugs it off.) Punk also partook of Cold War apocalyptic fantasies parallel to those that would soon drive the mass revival of Christian fundamentalism -- "no future" meets the Rapture down on Death Drive.

Neo-cons hated the sixties, and punks hated hippies. In many ways punk anticipated the knee-jerk, know-nothing disdain for collective input and consequence that would become standard-issue conservative politics and culture - extreme individualism and atomized democracy.

How great a leap is it from barfing on old ladies to cutting their pension cheques?

Rush Limbaugh is punk, the Oxycontin-snorting, neo-con version of Henry Rollins. The blithely rude Paris Hilton is punk, kid sister to Courtney Love; much punk music now echoes her entitled, self-involved whine.

Punk-in-chief George W. Bush metaphorically gobs on the dead soldier's mother as he blasts past her in his motorcade. And Chrétien figuratively pelts Mr. Justice John Gomery with golf balls in a Kinsella-conceived bit of punk theatre.

Ashton Kutcher, MTV's idiot king of random cruelty, the pope of "can't you take a joke?", gives it its proper name: Our culture has been royally punked.

I'm not denying punk's salutary effects on many lives, including my own. But it's been too loyal an opposition, too close to emerging dominant values, for its own good.

The DIY model remains useful, but it just restates what countercultures always have done. And today, with far broader information within easier reach, white outsider youth culture is finally superseding punk.

By these fresher standards, Kinsella's "manifesto" is merely the nostalgia trip of a punk dinosaur and, oh yeah, total sellout.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, August 29 at 2:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)

 

COMMENTS

Very nice site!

Posted by Daniel on September 16, 2005 7:35 AM

 

 

Punk rock, in the strict musical sense, is that form of rock music characterized by economical , sometimes corporal (i.e sparse-to-non-existent solos) song structures, and usually executed in a high-tempo with aggressive energy of some source behind it.
Any and all other sociological fal de rol is superfluous, and subjective at that. You have right-wing punks, you have left-wing punks - big deal.
My point is: like the rest of the rock music canon, punk has a different set of musical values than "Pop". This has been pointed out by such writers as Carducci (Rock & The Pop Narcotic) Any commentary by pop writers is irrelevant at best, disingenuous at worst.

It's been a while since I heard the Hot Nasties, so I can't really comment on whether they were any good. I listen to recordings, not memoirs, though, and quite frankly I don't see the point to Mr Kinsella's book. From what I understand, he's playing up the sociological aspects of the genre more than the actual music per se. This has been the main stumbling block of punk rock since 1977. Did the Electric Eels, or the Ramones worry about such matters when they were defining the genre? I think not....
BF Mowat
PS Eisiger Wind 45 (1980) by Lilliput still rules...ROS remind me of them. You should check into this Carl...

Posted by Bruce Mowat on September 1, 2005 9:43 AM

 

 

Hi Carl. I'm not an intellectual but I am a fan of your column. I just wanted to say thanks for the August 27 one. I like to see Warren called occasionally on obvious bullshit. In the little press-release feature the Globe ran on him the previous week, he dissed Joe Strummer and Iggy Pop for selling out, but the author didn't bother to point out the irony therein. And I said to myself, "where is the guy to do the irony-pointing-out?"

I went to school with Warren in the mid-80s. His Ottawa house was decorated at one time with posters of himself. Sometimes you can lose the forest in the trees.

Posted by Robert on September 1, 2005 7:46 AM

 

 

Carl,
I'm not at all surprised at Kinsella's response to your article. This guy is VERY sensitive about his punk cred and HATES anyone criticizing it.
I called him on his support of John Tory during the last Toronto mayoral campaign and basically said Tory was a corporate tool and so was anyone who supported him and I told him he shold take his book and shove it right up his sell-out ass (ok well what I lacked in finesse I made-up for in PUNK belligerence). He FLIPPED OUT and instead of addressing any of my specific comments he kept asking me for my name. He called me a chicken-shit and demanded I tell him who I was.
I responded that I didn't think my identity had any relevance to the issues at hand and then he said that I was so obsessed with him I must want to 'go on a date' with him.
Basically he was trying to get me with 'you want me in a gay way' which works in school playgrounds everywhere I'm sure but is somewhat ineffective when lobbed at an out adult gay man.
Anyway I called him a sell-out and here's a direct quote from an email response I received from him:

"You sure are angry. Your stuff ranks with some of the hatemail I periodically get from neo-Nazis. Seriously."

Anyway Carl you got him bad and he knows it - anyone who calls him on his bullshit is either a 'prissy arsewipe' or a 'neo-nazi'.
Oh and where I come from 'nancy-boy' is a term of endearment. Wear it with pride.


Posted by Justin on August 30, 2005 1:42 PM

 

 

 

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