The Great Divide

The Great Divide

The fallout from Ben Weasel’s meltdown continues to rival that from the Fukushima reactor: the most recent news is that his entire band has walked out on him, though, in light of the tactful and thoughtful way they tendered their resignations it might be  more appropriate to say that they made a dignified exit.

Apart from publishing an apology on the Screeching Weasel website, nothing has been heard from Ben on the subject, but he’s in a distinct minority: the events of the past several days have ignited a firestorm of controversy that’s attracted attention from almost everyone with a more than passing interest in punk rock music.

While Ben might understandably be feeling like a man beset by tribulations of near-Biblical proportions – I half expect to hear news of a plague of locusts descending on Wisconsin before the week is out – much of the talk has moved on from his plight and turned into a spirited and at times ill-tempered back-and-forth about morals and values.

Every few years punk undergoes some sort of identity crisis, and this appears to be one of them.  The objection that punk no longer has an identity – or, perhaps more accurately, that it has at least a dozen of them – may be valid, but with thousands of people burning up the internet and the airwaves, it’s clear that this incident, and its implications for the subculture they’re involved in, matters quite a bit.

First, let me say that I myself am mildly embarrassed to be embarking, some 34 years after attending my first Ramones show, on yet another discussion that touches, if only tangentially, on the hoary, timeworn topic of “What is punk?”  Arguments of this kind have been going on ever since a girl with a fake English accent spit her bubble gum at my leather jacket and called me a poser in the summer of 1977, and probably well before that.

But here I am in 2011, and after all this time, I’m still in a situation where some of my favorite people play in bands or attend shows or put out records or write for zines that loosely but undeniably fall under the general rubric of “punk.”  What this past week’s events have rather painfully made me aware of is that that rubric also extends to include some truly awful individuals, and a lot more people, who while not morally bankrupt or perhaps not even morally questionable, are not likely to be invited over to my house for tea anytime soon.

Some of the most neanderthal views about l’affaire Weasel were posted on Ben’s own Riverdales Discussion Board, recently renamed “Weasel Acres” (but don’t bother looking for them there, because messages there are routinely censored and/or rewritten) and in response to a Facebook diatribe by the legendary Joe Queer.

Joe can be an engaging, witty, and delightfully wry writer, as anyone who’s seen his fishing diaries can attest, but he’s not always at his best in the heat of the moment,  as when he uses phrases like “The chick deserved a punch,” or “You’d think he was throwing Jews in the oven at Auschwitz” to defend his old friend Ben Weasel and attack the bands who’ve decided they no longer want to be associated with the Memorial Day weekend mini-fest that had been billed as a celebration of Screeching Weasel’s 25th anniversary.

Joe might have spoken too quickly – it wouldn’t be the first time for him, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it, too – but some of the comments he elicited got truly ugly.  “Some chick should have took care of the cunt for Ben!!” (this posted by a woman), “A-fuckin-Men brotha!! If he’d had hit a dude, we’d all be laughing about it, wouldn’t we? That chick had it coming,” “Ok ladies, if you don’t wanna get hit, don’t act like a cunt. Just saying. I’d have hit ’em too” (another woman).

About 90% of the commenters, in fact, seemed to believe either a) Ben shouldn’t have done it, but it’s not like he did it all the time so he should be given a pass; or b) “the bitch had it coming.”  Another overriding theme – several people mentioned GG Allin in this context – was, “Hey, it’s punk rock, get over it.”

And that’s where I run into problems.  People have been saying, “Hey, it’s punk rock” to justify, even glorify all sorts of idiotic, violent, and self-destructive behavior for as long as there’s been punk rock, but recent events have brought into sharp relief what should have been an obvious schism between two cultures that share a name but have little else in common.

When I started getting to know people in bands during the 1960s and 70s, even before the concept of punk rock had been invented, I would often be disillusioned by how radically my rock and roll heroes differed from the image I as a fan had constructed of them.  I expected them to be idealistic, ethereal, almost other-worldly fantasy creatures, and found as often as not that beneath the costumes and hairdos, they weren’t that different from the everyday working stiffs I’d encountered at the factory or the steel mill.  “They just carry guitars instead of lunchpails,” I remarked at the time.  And though the great majority of rock musicians back then were men, I had a similar experience with one of my great heroines, the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.  On stage she was an unreachable goddess; hanging out in the kitchen, she came across as a red-faced suburban housewife.

I got a different view when I began working with bands and putting out their records.  Though I was too enthusiastic and excited to think about it at the time, I realize now that as, in a sense, their employer, I wasn’t seeing the same side of bands’ character as their friends, families or fans might.  Also, most of the bands I worked with in those early days were still quite young, as was the scene they came out of, and few if any of them expected ever to earn any money from this punk rock racket.

So it was mostly about fun and camaraderie and self-expression, and it was only in the mid-90s, when the big bucks started rolling in, that I began to see that many – not all, but many – of these musicians differed little from the  lunchpail-toting guitarists I’d encountered in an earlier era.

Simultaneously, the rise of baggy-shorts punk, frat punk and, basically, a hefty portion of the whole Epifat aesthetic, led me to the unhappy conclusion that I had next to nothing in common with many of the record buyers my business had been built upon.  When we started Lookout, it was meant to embody a youthful, irreverent, non-macho and progressive attitude, a clean break from the aggressive and violent chest-thumping and knuckle-dragging that thrash, hardcore, and speedmetal had championed in the 80s.

And to a degree, we were successful: the Gilman Street DIY model that Lookout sprung from would end up spawning imitators around the country and the world, and fundamental to the image (and, most of the time, the reality) of Gilman Street were its legendary strictures against not just drugs, alcohol and violence, but also racism, sexism and homophobia.  Some of the more old-fashioned punks took offense at these limits on their “freedom” and mocked or tried to defy them, but eventually they took their custom elsewhere – mostly to bars and other commercial venues – and the progressive spirit pioneered by Gilman took hold in much of the punk community.

The millions of new fans attracted by the rise to mainstream popularity of some of our bands temporarily threatened to overwhelm any such consciousness, but as most of them drifted away into the Next Big Thing, it became obvious that there was a punk scene, as vibrant and healthy as ever, that was at least attempting to grapple with issues like sexism, politics, interpersonal relationships, and having things be about more than just music and drinking beer.  And that at the same time there was also a punk scene, as loud and oblivious as ever, that was fundamentally reactionary, that was only concerned with replicating things exactly as they always had been, only more so.

It’s why I’ve increasingly lost interest in attending shows in anything other than basements, garages and DIY spaces, even when friends of mine are playing (I’ll still make exceptions for stadiums when Green Day are playing), and why, I suppose, I was genuinely shocked by some of the vitriol that came spewing forth in defense of Ben Weasel even after he himself admitted he had been in the wrong.

Not because I didn’t know there were people out there who still thought that way, but because, thankfully, I’ve been able to arrange my life in a way where I seldom have to encounter them.  I’ll admit straight up that it’s a little embarrassing at my age to still have to acknowledge some heartfelt connection with punk, possibly the only subculture in history originally based on low self-esteem.  Greaser, hippie, glam rocker: I can indulgently, nostalgically dismiss those previous cultural identities as youthful follies, but something about punk has clung to me enough so that I’m genuinely aggrieved when it becomes a rallying cry for the bullying and backward-thinking thuggery that I spent much of my early life trying to escape from.

At least I’m in good company: Aaron Cometbus, younger than me, but still well into middle age, still speaks unabashedly of his connection to and affection for punk, and if it’s good enough for one of the better writers of our time, I can hang with it, too.  In the past, I’ve teased Aaron over what I had judged as an overly PC concern with feminist issues and with how punk was presented and marketed to the mainstream, but I’ve come to believe he was on the right track all along.

As much as my heart goes out to Ben Weasel in what must some incredibly dark days for him, as much as I devoutly hope this experience will help him rethink and reshape his outlook for the better, I really don’t feel like hearing his voice or his music right now, nor am I much interested in that whole branch of punk rock that takes much of its inspiration from him.  For a long time, Ben was able, to a degree few others were, to bridge two worlds, that of old school meat-and-potatoes punk rock, and that of progressive, witty, sensitive and lyrical insight.  It was part and parcel of what made him so great.  Most of his imitators never came close to mastering that formula.

But somewhere, somehow, the balance shifted in the wrong direction; he (and a big part of the punk rock scene) went one way and I went another.  Tonight I’ll be going down to a local DIY space to see some bands that 99% of the world has never heard of and probably never will (for those of you who follow this stuff, they include New Creases and Ohio’s awesome Delay), and I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it a lot more than any “big” (as in commercially meaningful) punk rock or pop punk show going on anywhere in the country.  Some of the people who’ll be there – the bands included – weren’t even born when I attended my first show, but they’re imbued with a spirit that has not just survived, but developed and grown for the better – much better – ever since those early days of nihilism and razor blades.

Will I miss being one of a thousand-plus people jumping in unison and singing along to the “whoa oh oh oh” of “Veronica Hates Me” like we did at the last McGregor’s show?  Of diving exuberantly into the pit and braving, defiantly dodging the flying kicks and punches of the requisite boneheads who always feel the need to dominate and hurt?  A little, maybe, but it’s mostly just memories now anyway.  That world is gone.  A better one beckons.


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