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Get Your Punk Right

What the MTV Awards taught me

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While standing in line to see the Dead Kennedys in Los Angeles, some strange guy turned to me and spat out, "I bet you give good head," insulting and pleasing me a little, but of course I couldn't show either, so I just narrowed my eyes, lifted half an upper lip, and laughed.

It being "California uber alles" country, the floor during the show was completely taken over by skinheads, whose idea of dancing was to swing their fists at each other. Toward the end, my two friends and I decided to venture into the boxing throng and try to do some real dancing, but we were out there for maybe two minutes when somebody popped my guy friend in the face so hard his mouth started to bleed. I guess because he had hair and was moving with girls instead of throwing punches at boys he was suspect, but I've never seen such a violent reaction to heterosexual dancing. Apparently even skinheads have their own protocol, but who knew?

Just then some blank-faced goon stepped up to me as one of two girls on the floor and clipped me on the cheek. It was like they were beating on us brats for acting normal, or maybe they were just testing us to see if we were really ready to hang with the big stompers.

That's the only time in my life I've been slugged with no show of motivating emotion. We cleared out of there fast, and then leaned up against a wall outside and laughed, kinda thrilled at our true punk initiation, which sure was different from pogoing to Blondie back at the dorm. It felt like by getting hit I'd earned some Girl Scout badge of punkdom, and I suspect my friend was proud, too, of the blood crusting in the corner of his mouth. Punk was a rough game in the beginning, especially as played by the crazy West Coast kids with sun-fried eggs for brains who brought their spitting frenzy to the scene.

I was thinking about this while watching what appeared to me to be a punk-wanna-be band prancing about the stage at the MTV Music Video Awards, although apparently the correct term is "post-grunge." I get the "post" part because there was definitely nothing grungy about these guys, as far as I could see. Their obligatory black garb looked natty and new. In fact, they were dressed as if they'd gone to a costume store and said, "I want to be a punk for Halloween, mommy!" They sang with a trace of British accents, although they're American, and that sounded familiar, too, I guess since some of the early punk songs had that breathy British insolence to them, being sung by actual Brits and all.

It's good to see musicians keeping the punk flame burning, and I must say the tattoos add a lot, but this seemed less like an authentic punk band than some kind of "tribute" act, preserving the traditional touch points without taking things further. (Suddenly I have a ghoulish image of some "Legends" joint in Myrtle Beach showcasing a Joey Ramone impersonator doing a duet with a Cher clone, both spindly and cloaked in flowing dark hair: "If I could turn back tiiime. . .")

When at the end of their set the band trashed their instruments, I cringed, it's so been done, and was so obviously a planned part of the evening's program, instead of a spontaneous eruption of spewing punk rage. How much more shocking it would have been if we'd witnessed them carefully placing their instruments back in their cases. Besides, a starving child in Biafra might have wanted to play that bass!

At some point another band showed up looking like apprentice punks. One of them even had a Blondie shirt on, touching my heart, since we school kids loved Debbie Harry and the boys. Just that piercing, robotic intro to "Heart of Glass" is enough to hurl me back into a time warp awash in ashes and alcohol, and smoky with unvented longing.

I have to wonder, though, if wearing a Blondie t-shirt when you're an aspiring punk is kind of like wearing a Key West shirt while strolling down that town's streets: i.e., not very cool. The La Coste shirt complete with alligator on another dude was cooler. It did make me realize with a shock that punk has a history now, while once it was going off like firecrackers in our faces, too instantly sizzled out to leave more than a charred trace.

Of course, speaking of history, the person who looked the jolliest and least costume-constrained in Radio City Music Hall was none other than Iggy Pop, the man who was punk before Punk. He must be some unbelievable age by now, so maybe rage and hell-black humor really are good for the soul. That gives me hope.

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