Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Well, my idea here was to start with a few introductory comments about Punk, by way of warming up my main topic. Which was going to be something about elitism, cultural & otherwise.
Then the Punk part got to be an obstacle. Turns out it’s hard to mention Punk just in passing. There’s just a lot to be said. & there is the temptation also of wanting to try & enlighten, to preach even. Which I can’t/won’t do, I really should not lay claim to any expertise re: Punk. The only point I wanted to make is that, once, Punk was inter alia a rejection of rock-star elitism. Once, it was a nihilistic & maybe even (very briefly, & only potentially) a revolutionary act, to (e.g.) sculpt your hair w/glue, fill your clothes & face w/safety pins, wear shabby black leather, loud plaid & what-have-you. Punk was supposed to be Not Beautiful was what it was supposed to be. It was anarchic, chaotic, it was haphazard, subversive, Free. Punk was not supposed to just end up w/its own Micks Jagger, up on the pedestal while you’re eating cake.

Very quickly, as we know, all things Punk became codified. The anti-glamour just up & became the new glamour. The king is dead long live the king, right. Then, we had (have) arbiters of what is & is not Punk. In music in dress in attitude. Gestalt, whatever. This is inevitable, ours is a capitalist culture, & all cultural values are Market values ipso facto & vice versa. There is nothing, no challenge to the received Marketplace that the Marketplace cannot simply assimilate, commodify. Emasculate. Neutralize.

OK, so thirty-plus years on, we still have our Punk bands. It’s a fashion it’s a style it’s a genre it’s an affect. It’s got its rules, now well-established, & no shortage of people happy to live by them. Cheers. That’s not what I’ve been thinking about all week, though.

No, I’ve been thinking about that original anti-Elitist impulse. How it persists, & how it shows up in unexpected places.

Last month, I saw Yo La Tengo play concert # 3 of 3 at the Fillmore. Certainly not a Punk band by any recognized yardstick. But, talk about your anti-glamour: YLT looks like your schlumpy brother-in-law & your Aunt Doreen teamed up w/that nerdy guy next door to murder Ventures covers in the garage. i.e., on the available evidence, these are not rock stars, there is no pedestal. YLT exhibits no affect, no attitude at all. It’s just Ira, Georgia & James. It could be anybody up there. It could be your moms. It could be you.

& yet the You it could be is playing music of abject, screaming brilliance & beauty. Stylistically, just to start somewhere, YLT are everywhere on the map even with only their own songs, & then add in the seemingly-limitless range of covers this band can pull off. So there’s virtuosity there, yes. More important though (IMO), are the instances of transcendence. By which I mean that the mundane physicality/temporality of the room can almost seem to fall away. For fleeting instants, a sublime effacement, a communion. I don’t know. Maybe you were there & didn’t feel it the way I felt it. &, full disclosure, my agenda that night did comprise a not-insignificant alcohol intake. Nonetheless, as a general proposition I think we can agree that Great Art can take you outside of yourSelf. & I will posit that Yo La Tengo is a band that makes Great Art.

But they do it in a way that is unassuming. Humble. Inclusive. The opposite of Elitist. Late in the evening, Ira got a little gushy &, I guess by way of giving props to the lovely & historic venue, he expressed a hope that every member of the audience might one day “get an opportunity to play this place.” What an odd & unexpected thing to say. & how generous. We did this, I think he meant, & therefore you could, too. It’s an ideal that strikes me as very Punk. Also, universally human. & possibly, distinctively American.

Later still, things were winding down. Someone next to me on the floor was heard to shout, heartfelt & ebullient: “You changed my life!” up towards the stage. I thought about that, I’m still thinking. Does/Can anybody actually change anybody else’s life? YLT seem to be normal people, daily engaged in a transcendent endeavor. You &/or I can transcend, too. We can choose to accomplish things larger & greater than our apparent selves. Change your life or don’t, the burden is yours alone. & the glory.

YLT - We're An American Band mp3


  1. I am interested in this area of discussion.

    I've mentioned this to you before, but as someone who at least pretends to know a little about punk rock, my philosophy is this: The least punk rock thing ever is when someone says that Thing X is "not punk".

  2. Nice blog. I used to think punk was all about just being yourself. Don't know if I still believe that or not.