I love punk rock.
I was in high school at exactly the period that disco became a popular genre (which means that it was already dying in the gay bars and minority clubs where it had been born; by the time straight white people took it—because there was money to be made—it was pretty well wrung out).
Those years–1975-79–saw some of the most godawful popular music that had been seen to date: lush, overproduced orchestral rock anthems with pretentious lyrics, whiny love ballads, the Eagles (enough said) and ubiquitous disco enjoinders to dance and screw, the soundtrack of the Seventies Bacchanal that set the table for the AIDS epidemic.
There were exceptions, of course. Zeppelin’s best years were in there. If you worked really hard at looking for it (at least, in my whole-wheat-bread, armchair-liberal college town), there was funk. But mostly, it was garbage. I can get a bit nostalgic when I hear some of it, just because that happens, but at the time, yecccccchhhhh.
Punk was alive. It had no string sections. It had no blow-dried polyester-wearing Guidos singing falsetto. And as a teenaged foster kid from a rotten family, it told me a much more credible story about the experience of life than the banal I-will-love-you-forever crap that STILL dominates popular music to this day.
Punk was creative. Though it is mostly associated with a particular rapid-fire style characterized by the Ramones, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and the Sex Pistols, it was really—like Paganism—an umbrella term that encompassed a vast range of styles. X to the Minutemen to Patti Smith to the X-Ray Spex to Fear to the Dead Boys to The Damned to the Plasmatics to the Mekons is a pretty broad range (and I count Devo in there, which makes it even broader). What they had in common was that they were doing it themselves, not with a phalanx of studio players and orchestras, and they were doing it about what was really going on.
Sure, it was angry: we were young and life was pretty damned hard if you weren’t lucky enough to be in the coked-up Studio 54 set. But it was a joyful anger, and its ritual was the mosh pit. The early mosh pit–before the skinheads came along and fucked it up with deliberate attempts to hurt people.
Surrounded by a wall of sound vibrating right through your body, being swung and bumped and surrendering control to the mob, we could shout the lyrics and grin and pogo and rock out in a way that took us into another world, that lit up our nervous systems like the Milky Way.
I was thinking about this recently, and it occurred to me that the first times I had truly ecstatic experiences were in moments of sublime nature, but I found something very similar in grungy clubs like the Mabuhay Gardens: something so stimulating, so pure, so transforming that I went back for it, again and again. And I can still find a glimpse of it just by putting those old albums on, cranking it, and listening LOUD.
Now, that was forty years ago. I haven’t been in a pit since an X/Henry Rollins Band show in 2007, and it had been a long time before that since the previous one. I almost went in at a Gogol Bordello show, but the kids were throwing elbows and I just didn’t want to deal. I like my memories better.
I guess that what I want to say here is that ecstatic ritual is where we find it. I know people who are so tuned into food that a sublime meal casts them into joyful Presence and a feeling of connectedness with the entirety of the Universe.
It doesn’t always have to be fervently standing in a circle and enacting a structured set of symbolic actions. Sometimes all it takes is to put on music and dance, and suddenly, you’re there.