I’m still curious and confused about the seeming lack of availability and interest in new, emerging, underground music. Maybe I’m a rare case. Maybe music means more to me than most but here’s my story of how a lack of music almost killed me.
In the 80’s I was a teen and a punk rocker. I was basically on my own after the age of 16 so I went to every gig I could, some times going to live shows 2-3 times in one week. Little did I know, this constant barrage of punk and alternative music was shaping my opinions, passions and politics on a deep level. Punk rock actually gave me wings. I admired the dedication and bravery of the musicians I went to see. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who noticed that some things are not right in the world.
I don’t have to tell you, no one wanted to hear what the punkers had to say in the 80’s. Most of the shows I went to had less than 100 people in attendance. When things got too big or too crazy, the cops were always there to break it up and take people off to jail. In some cases the riot squad greeted you as you entered the concert hall, just to let you know who’s in charge. Now, here we are, 25-30 years later seeing the teens of today listening to the music of the 80’s as if its something new and revolutionary.
May I interject here that the punk artists kids are listening to today aren’t just entertainers, some aren’t even technically musicians. Many punkers had no idea how to play their instruments when they first started. Many of them created hand-made fliers and had them photocopied free of charge on someone else’s photocopy machine. Most punks didn’t have contracts or agents. It was sheer grit, determination and persistence that kept the bands that you know about today alive. There are many, many other punk bands, some just as good or better than the ones you know about. The main difference is that some gave up and some didn’t. Punk legends like Mike Ness of Social Distortion exist solely due to determination.
Heres my beef: if the kids of today are listening to the music of 20 years ago, where are they getting the lesson of sheer grit, determination and persistence? Who is going to carry the torch and speak about today’s issues, most of which are the same as the issues of the 80’s, only worse. Why are the youth of today listening to anti-Reagan songs and not anti-Bush songs?
But I digress. I still haven’t explained how lack of music almost killed me. You see, when I was about 18 it was clear that my drug addiction was serious and I needed to do something about it. By the age of 21, I had been in several recovery programs and was beginning a process of wanting to change my life. For me, that meant I had to stay away from the old people and the old places. Gradually I began to slip away from my punk past and tried to be more “socially acceptable.”
The compelling need to “fit in” accelerated drastically when I entered college and eventually University. I found myself completely forgetting all about punk rock and gradually went to fewer and fewer live shows and even stopped listening to most of my records and tapes. I was proud of myself for a while, maybe too proud. I was reaching my goals and moving up in the world. I got a degree, then another degree, then another. In the process, I completely disconnected with my punk past.
I tried to fit in, get the jobs and connections I wanted. I was not connected with punk in anyway. I never had the opportunity to talk to anyone about seeing GBH at the Olympic Auditorium two times in one week or seeing the Ramones every year at the Paladium. I couldn’t listen to punk rock on the job and frankly, I found punk rock to be distracting to me and my goals.
Eventually music even began to annoy me. I was mad at the neighbors when they played it too loud. I saw myself turning into the cranky old drag that I encountered in most adults I met. I began running on auto-pilot. I listened to rap and hip-hop, maybe just because it was there and everyone else was listening. I was becoming noticeably depressed. I was training to be a therapist and sitting in meetings talking about “clients” who have “problems”. All the clients and problems were familiar to me, a part of my past.
I believed that each client I saw had potential to overcome whatever they wanted. I believed they could be whoever they wanted to be. Yet none of the ‘professionals’ agreed. I was shunned, not taken seriously and basically told “you’re just an intern, what do you know?”
On the one hand I was offended by the callous and careless way professionals talked about the people we were supposed to be helping but often I kept my mouth shut. When I did open my mouth, there was always a consequence. I was dismissed from more than one position for having an opinion. I tried to keep my mouth shut. I became more and more depressed. I chastised myself and thought to myself “why cant you just be like everyone else? Why can’t you just fit in and shut up?”
So, there I was, training to be a therapist and for the first time in my life, I found it completely necessary to take anti-depressants. I literally felt like I was going crazy and that was especially disturbing in light of the fact that I was supposed to be helping people!
Ironically, it was when I was “cleansing” my negative past that I found my soul mate and reconnected with music in a new and positive way. My husband, former owner of Zed Records in Long Beach was in the store when I brought in a stack of vinyl to sell. In the process of sorting, scanning and observing my records for their suitable re-sale potential, I sparked up a conversation with the man who would become my husband within about a year. He liked hockey, I liked hockey. He liked punk, I liked punk. We enjoyed each others company. But it would be almost 10 years before I began to realize the significance of our match and the importance of music in drawing us together.
In 1998 I experienced small reminders and nudges of who I was and who I could be but I wrote most of them off as the “idealistic, unrealistic, drug-induced fantasies” of the past. I would hear the nudging call to action in songs by Black Eyed Peas and A Tribe Called Quest but I mostly hid my love of hip-hop because fears like “what will people think, I should grow out of this, I’m just some old person trying to be cool.” Hip Hop and Punk were like guilty indulgences I hid from the ‘professional’ people in my life.
Once I got an iPod, things really began to change. Once I was able to easily carry the soundtrack of my life in my purse, able to listen to the Buzzcocks followed by Snoop Dogg and chased by Social Distortion anytime, anywhere; I began to transform. My dreams re-awakened. Lyrics of power, being yourself and letting go of concern for what others think lifted my soul.
I began to tell people, “I used to be a punk rocker.” I described my spiky blue hair and my shaved head. Some people laughed, some people said “cool”, others were entirely speechless, still others said “no way” as they stood there with their eyes bugged out.
The familiar lyrics and sounds of the underground began to stir something within my soul. I began to remember who I really was. I stopped caring about what everyone thought. I started to think about what I want for my life rather than what society wants for my life. I began to realize the traps I build around myself and how the mainstream society reinforced the validity and ‘rightness’ of those traps. Sometimes I was pissed off. Other times I was shocked. Sometimes I was sad but mostly I was determined. I was determined to revive the 16-year-old punker in me. I was determined to take her out of the closet and say look world, here I am so $*& you!
I could go on and on but mainly I have a deep, nagging fear and this is why I’m writing this long post. If the youth of today have no role models to show them how to be independent, to start their own businesses, to live free of corporate oppression, what on earth does the future hold in store for us? Will it be a rehash and reinforcement of the same old, same old? Will George Orwell’s 1984 be a reality?
Remember, most of the popular anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications on the market didn’t even exist in the 1980’s and now they are being passed out like candy to many people as a cure-all for the ‘problem of depression’. Rates of depression increase in society and pharmecuetical companies become more powerful. What if the depression is from oppression? If so, all the pills in the world aren’t gonna help.
Listening to music that’s 10, 20 or 30 years old makes about as much sense as reading newspaper articles from 30 years ago and claiming that you are informed and educated. The time is now, with the advent of instant information for all of us to step out of our boxes a bit and look at what’s new while continuing to enjoy what’s old. I think we need to listen to the message under the message.
Punk is more than just a bunch of rebellious, belligerent youth with a lack of classical music training. Punk is a movement and a statement about deciding to be who YOU are not what society determines you should be. Right this moment new music is being created by new people. Some of them will be huge one day, others will fade away but if you’re sitting at home listening to the same stuff your parents listened to, you’re missing out on the real-time experience of history in the making.
(Me and the Black Eyed Peas in 1998. They played at a record store inside Universal Studio Walk, about 30 people were there to see them….if that. Truthfully, most people were there to see Kobe, a well-known soccer player, BEP just happened to be the “opening act.” If you were paying attention to alternative radio (KCRW.com/Chocolate City) you could have been there. I will tell you this: NOBODY except me asked for their autograph and to take a picture with them. I have the Behind the Front album signed by the entire band.)
I’m so grateful that I had all the experiences I had in life and Im grateful for the opportunity to experience first-hand how plain, ordinary (and sometimes downright untalented) people say “I don’t care” and go for it anyway. And guess what, it ends up that it doesn’t matter if someone is good or not. As long as you are clear about who you are and don’t give up, you will make it. That’s the message under the message. Do you hear it?
(This article was originally written in 2006)