A few observations/reflections on the nature of two genres/cultural tendencies known as "punk rock" and "the blues."
Revised 18 June 2002
I'm adding my thoughts here as they come to me, sort of compiling a totally disorganised collection of thoughts, which at some point I may consolidate and render more coherent/consistent. For now I hope they might be enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to read as they are.
These observations are subjective
By necessity, these observations are wholly subjective, which seems to me to be appropriate to the subject matter; furthermore, I am both consciously and unconsciously selective in choosing which parts of each to consider and to compare. Consciously: I am selecting those things which I find most appealing, or most interesting, or which offer the possibility for the most interesting connections between the two. Unconsciously: my understanding of each is limited to my (sentimental) ideas about them, my limited experience of them, my impressions mainly drawn from listening to the music, we must make no mistake, that listening through a white middle-class ear, an ear that, I suspect, can decipher punk rock music much more readily than the blues. This only inasmuch as my cultural experience is likely to have more in common with that of the writer of punk rock than that of the writer of blues. Conversation overheard between two white bluesmen: "Someone said you don't play the blues, you live the blues." "Don't I know it--I used to live in my van."
My second caveat: If you haven't noticed by now, this loose collection of thoughts is meandering, digressive. I think this is appropriate to the subject, to the confusion and contradiction of my ideas on the subject.
I also should warn the reader that a number of the observations I have may contradict one another, not only because most of my thoughts are half-formed at best, also because both "punk rock" and "the blues" themselves contain multiple overlapping paradoxes, in my view because both of them are concerned with the essential experience of human life, which is itself paradoxical. My use of the terms will sometimes be in the sense of musical genre, especially as concerns the blues, but "punk rock" is to me a much more transcendent term, relating simultaneously to genre, fashion and mindset.
Punk rock is the blues. I just wanted to get that thought in the air, but I'll leave it for now untethered. I'll return to it later.
Blues >> Rock >> Punk Rock
The blues set the stage for rock and roll, which in turn grew to become punk rock, which in a sense was a return to the original values of the blues, though for a very different audience this time. The blues was about personal life, nearly exclusively. It was about the experience of the individual, about being poor, drunk, beaten, imprisoned, enslaved, but also about being joyful, about finding liberation in the simple experience of a song. Let me reiterate that the blues were (are) about many more things, these aspects are selected for their potential for reflection in the mirror of punk rock.
I choose the rise of Elvis Presley as the defining moment for the birth of rock and roll. In genre terms, musicologists generally place the beginning of rock and roll a bit earlier. Generally, Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" or Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" are cited as the first rock and roll song. Elvis, though, was unquestionably the one who brought rock and roll to white America, who redefined the phenomenon known as "the blues" as being about stardom, excess, beauty, a sensual glut. None of these things were known to the blues. There could be no such thing as a blues "star". The blues myth was nearly the opposite of the myth of rock, which has been a retelling of the myth of Dionysus, the ascendant star destroyed by his stardom and thus immortalised. Blues is, in fact, virtually without mythologising, or rather, its myths only relate to particular individuals, such as the story of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads and trading his soul for the ability to play guitar beautifully. The blues never offers the individual a chance to be a god. It says only "You will live, you will have the ordinary wonderful and terrible experiences of life, you will die." It says "I will accept my life, its pain, my death. I can't! I will accept that I can never accept it." It tells the story of the endless paradox of living, that we cannot bear it, that we must, we do, we cannot, and in the end, we lose even that, we die.
Rock and roll as Dionysian myth
Rock and roll brought a new fantasy, and in a sense its Dionysian myth is a Christian myth, or a Christian myth turned a bit. "Eat of my flesh and you will become as me!" (or Tommy's "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me.") It brought the rock spectacle, the rock concert, the grandiose, the psychedelic, the chance to lose yourself in something much larger. Undoubtedly, the experience of listening to blues/rock/punk rock is the experience of rehearsing for one's own human role. Or rehearsing for one's fantasy role. In rock there is no death, there is only an endless and endlessly expanding youth, there is an exploding sacrifice, death comes only in the form of an orgasm/scream and a becoming-god.
Punk rock returns to the essence of living as an individual human being, but with even more vengeance, more irony, and a deeper paradox than the blues offered. It uses the energy imbued in the form by rock and turns it back in.
The sound of the electric guitar
A digression on the sound of the electric guitar: The electric guitar isn't a blues instrument, and it isn't a rock instrument. It is, of course, utilised in both genres, is the backbone of nearly all rock and punk rock. But it is in fact the first instrument of industrial music. I say this because it sounds like a machine, it brings the sound of electricity, the sound of the industrial age, into the music. It adds that buzz which is the same buzz as a noisy refrigerator, or a short-circuit. It also sounds like a train. The train is significant in the blues as a means to leave the south, to move north, to leave agricultural serfdom for city life, to work in industry. The Velvet Underground invented (perhaps) a guitar sound known as the "subway sound", mimicking the sound and rhythm of the New York City subway. Thus transforming the meaning of the train, of the train sound, to refer to the enclosed, insular world of New York. Travel in this context meaning travelling uptown to score heroin. Wandering meaning wandering the streets, presumably to return in a few hours to a low-rent apartment, as opposed to the wandering of the blues musician, which could extend across the country and back again and last a lifetime. When I think of trains, I also can't help but think of the trains to the Nazi concentration camps, and of the Sex Pistols' "Belsen Was a Gas" and of Throbbing Gristle's album "Giftgas" (German for "poison gas.") I don't know what these associations have to do with this general idea, but they seem worthy of mention.
A further digression from the previous digression: It might occur to you that the Velvets don't exactly have a lot to do with the Dionysian rock and roll described in previous paragraphs. In that sense, I would consider them punk rock, though in a genre sense they would probably be classed as psychedelic rock.
The blues never ended; punk rock never began
It's not my sense that the blues ended with the rise of Elvis. Or that the blues were ever entirely absent from rock and roll. By the same token, I don't think there was a moment when punk rock came into being. There is an element of what I think of as punk rock in Elvis, though much moreso in the White English R and B music of the 1960s, such as The Yardbirds, The Small Faces, The Who, and especially The Kinks. It was these bands who then inspired a generation of young, white, middle-class no-hopers of America to start playing electric guitars in their garages and sing about how much they did or didn't care about girls, getting a job, or whatever other things young men are or aren't concerned with. Most of these groups put out a 45 or two on a small label and then vanished altogether. Lenny Kaye, a rock critic later of The Patti Smith Group collected some of this music for the Nuggets compilations, coining the term "punk rock" in 1972. In genre terms, there never has been much to distinguish punk from rock other than that it tends to be a bit sloppier and a bit louder, for a few simple reasons: it was played by young people who probably weren't practicing their guitar playing much, who were probably playing music because it was fun (not because they were musicians per se) and because they were recording cheap instruments on cheap equipment.
The Stooges were the anti-Doors
The late-1960s brought Iggy Pop and The Stooges, who many consider the first punk rock group. Their first album looks very like the first Doors album, with the same typeface and same four headshots of the band members, with the difference that the Stooges look like thugs. Musically, they lack the Doors' orientalism (as well as their licks borrowed from Arthur Lee's Love); the sound the Stooges makes is a powerful thrum. Lyrically, the Stooges reject the overarching mystical pretensions of the Doors and others, instead voicing similar concerns to earlier "punk" groups, concerns of having fun or not, having sex or not, and taking drugs. Drugs for Iggy were no Blake-ian mystical journey, they were excess for its own sake. There was no confusion as to what it meant to get real fucked up on drugs. It was that simple. As a performer, Iggy functioned as a rock star in the traditional mode, as did Jim Morrison, with several distinctions. Unlike Morrison, he presented his body as a kind of comical sacrifice, rolling in broken glass, jumping off the stage into the audience, knocking over tables and spilling drinks and starting fights, while Morrison presented himself instead as some sort of idealised sensual man (or man/lizard/god). Unlike Morrison's notion of himself as some kind of native shaman in whiteman form, Iggy offered only himself as dumb white kid in a world he didn't make, pissed off, high, loud. This points to another distinction between rock and punk rock generally: Rock musicians since Elvis have tended to play the role of intermediary between the magical/primitive/exotic realms and the suburban living room. Elvis brought us the raw, sexual, animal forbidden boogie beat that previous whiteys like Pat Boone had no access to. Later we were presented fun, easy-to-digest versions of eastern mystical traditions. This in contrast to both punk rock and the blues, which concern themselves for the most part with what the actual individual's life is like, rather than offering a fantasy (other than the fantasy of identifying with the life of the punk/blues protagonist). I seem to have digressed, again, from my original point, which was that Iggy is the anti-Morrison and that The Stooges are the anti-Doors. Which reminds me, the performance poet Patti Smith idolised Morrison. Smith's boyfriend and bandmate Lenny Kaye coined the term "punk rock," and I suppose it's for this reason that The Patti Smith Group was considered punk. I can't think of any other. Let me also make the point that Morrison fancied himself some kind of all-American poet, and as a result his lyrics were turgid and self-indulgent, whereas Iggy indulged himself only in banality (and as a result produced poetry of more value than Morrison ever did).
Punk rock in the late 1970s
The meaning of the term "punk rock" went through a major shift in the late 1970s, when popular English bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks and Gang of Four injected a sense of the political into the music. Each of these three examples does this in a different way; The Gang of Four are pretty clearly critical of modern capitalist life, though their critique is fairly humourous and oblique; The Buzzcocks express the personal in quasi-political terms; The Sex Pistols give voice to the meaninglessness of history and of their place in history, the horror of this meaninglessnes, and the humour of this horror. For the most part, these political (or anti-political) sentiments were still only considered relevant inasmuch as they related to the personal. Politics was just another language for talking about the experience of the individual, and at the same time individuals in England in the late 1970s probably felt the personal impact of political decision-making much moreso than did indolent middle-class young Americans in the relatively affluent 1960s and 70s. Note that I'm entirely disregarding the American punk rock groups of the mid-late 1970s such as the Ramones, etc., considering them as a continuation of the trends set by the 1960s punk rock groups dicussed in the previous paragraph. Also note that I'm ignoring the overtly political propagandeering of groups like The Clash. I guess this has to do with my view that their intent was to use the medium of punk rock to do something else, though I don't know if I have a name for that "something else," it reminds me somehow of the Rolling Stones recording a Rice Krispies advert.
What was probably most interesting about this later phase of the punk rock idiom wasn't the sensationalism of the Sex Pistol's antics, or indeed the other popular groups of the time affecting a punk-rock style. More interesting was the way they inspired so many young people to return to that earlier experiment, to play music in their garages or basements, only because they wanted to, regardless of what it sounded like. In this sense punk rock returned rock and roll to what the blues originally meant. Not that anyone can be a star but that anyone can have meaning without being a star, that anyone can make music, and that through music anyone can find their escape from the confinement of everyday life.
Punk rock and blues record collecting
Something else which the two genres have in common is that they both seem to inspire fanatical record collecting. And, what I see as a parallel to this, both inspire heated debate as to authenticity (of identity, of experience.) This is especially interesting as regards punk rock, as one of punk rock's main rejections is that of authenticity. Punk rock assumes a posture that can only mock, first of all mocking rock and roll, then itself, then itself mocking. It is perhaps this slipperiness itself which makes analysis of the authenticity of a particular group, performer, or fan, so enticing for some.
Punk is dead
"Punk is dead." If this is true, perhaps only because it was born dead. Has anyone ever ventured "The blues is dead"?
These are only the fragments of my thoughts and feelings at the moment, I welcome discussion, I may return to this writing to elaborate, correct, or attempt to make more complete.
For the moment I have nothing to say about the most recent "punk rock revival" nor about the current state of the blues.
What is rock and roll?
What is whiteness?
What about sexuality?
What is genre?