If it feels vile, do it!
Stiv Bators is showing off his wounds. “This one I got when I fell on the mike stand the other night,” he says and drops his straight black pants to his knees, revealing an angry, spreading welt 10 inches wide across his skinny buttocks. “And this one,” pointing to what looks like a partially healed cigarette burn on his left shoulder, “I got a while ago when some creep threw a bottle.” Tracing the lines on his body like a road map, he stops at a nest of white scars on his stomach. “That’s from when I got mad and started to cut myself on stage with this.” He dredges out a six-inch switchblade, flicks the blade open to full length and smilingly refolds it. “And this one,” he continues, pushing back the oily black hair from the sharp featured face, “was when Johnny threw his tom-tom at a jerk who was giving us the finger from the first row. He hit me in the head and knocked me out.” He laughs a short weasel laugh and pokes a fist at the offending drummer, Johnny Blitz, who is curled upon the single orange colored bed in the sixth-floor walkup on New' York's crumbling Lower East Side. “But I don’t do that any more,” says Stiv, rubbing his belly languidly. “You can't do that shit and work too.”
Punk. Stiv Bators and his band, the Dead Boys, are punk rockers. They’re from Cleveland but they have come to New York because they're punks and today New York is the centre of a new. disturbing, but oddly hopeful movement in pop music that was born in the dim nightclubs and lofts of the lower reaches of Manhattan Island. It has resurrected some of the best of the old rock music in a frenetic and often repulsive Seventies hybrid: a pastiche of rage, self-indulgence, myopia, pretension and old-fashioned “bring-onthe-clowns” show business that has sent ripples around the world and spawned scenes and imitators in London. Toronto and Sydney. In New York punk musicians are white, bored, pansexual. stupid and funny. They have generally short hair (and dislike long-hairs), they all know one another and they are convinced that theirs is the way of the future (their most telling barb is “that’s so Beatles"). The names are as blunt and unromantic as the demeanor: The Shirts, Voidoids, Dirty Angels, Television, Blondie, Planets. They range from subverbal, monochrome thugs to multiharmonic, witty literati and they are united in their dislike of current pop music. Music on the radio, say the punks, is old music; worse, it is the same music as in the Sixties. “There isn’t a generation gap anymore,” says Bators in disgust. “Myparents listen to Paul McCartney. There ain’t nothing for kids.”
Neo-primitive rock. Minimalist. Cretinrock. The critics heap abuse and the punks gather up each salvo like evil-smelling flowers. The game is to shock. To goad. To enrage. To move. There is no ideology. Only a vague desire for power and potency. The implements are guitar, bass and drums, amplified to an ear-bleeding volume. The music is corporate (no solos), two and three chord pedantry; endings are ragged and the words are generally unintelligible. It’s public access rock: anyone can play. The operative phrase, heard time and time again in the demimonde of punk, is “Raw Power.”
On stage the Dead Boys, Stiv Bators, 20, vocals; Johnny Blitz, 19. drums; Jimmy Zero, 20, guitar, and Cheetah Chrome, 22, lead guitar, are punk. When Bators is not slicing his belly or being beaned by Johnny Blitz’s drums, he is flopping about the stage like a rabid weasel, face suitably distended in punk rage, bellowing out occasional lyrics about crushing people's faces, usually those of middle-aged authority figures or lying women. Bators chews tobacco which he mixes with Canadian Club rye and periodically jets the revolting mixture to the stage. The vision is unrelentingly black and the sound painfully loud.
“It’s not the kind of show.” says Jimmy Zero unnecessarily, “that we can do forever. Besides, who wants to be an old idiot like Mick Jagger.” Clustered on the bed of a friend’s apartment, the Dead Boys pepper out the gospel according to Iggy. ( Iggy Pop, né James Osterberg. 30. an ex-drug addict and mental patient who in the early Seventies, with a Detroit-based band called the Stooges, reached near legendary status with near suicidal invitations to audiences to throw bottles, coins and cigarettes at him on stage and by his insistence on slicing himself with a crucifix that hung from his bare chest.) “Iggy is our main influence,” says Jimmy Zero, as solemn as if he were filling out a passport application. The gospel, as it turns out. is politically infantile. “I like corruption. I want to be part of it.” The jokes are puerile. “We blow more speakers than Elizabeth Ray.” The tolerance quotient low. “We hate hippies,” says Stiv. drawing the knife blade across his tongue, “They don’t do nothin’ but lay around and get high.” Bators’ eyes wrinkle at the maliciousness of it all.
While we talk the Punks’ heavily lidded eyes glance at a flickering black and white television in the corner. Iggy Pop. on a comeback from his most recent barbiturate addiction, is being interviewed, through some travesty of booking, on The Dinah Shore Show. Mercifully, the interview is short, cheerfully inane and punctuated by the Dead Boys’ rude comments about the sexual proclivities of the hostess. At one point, she asks Iggy (accompanied by glitter rocker David Bowie who gave up both sequins and a lucrative career to help Iggy back to his feet) what he thinks his contribution has been to music. “Well,” says Iggy, “I think I helped to put an end to the Sixties.” Stiv Bators squirms with pleasure.
The receptionist at New York’s Wartoke Concern Inc., management outfit for Tom Verlaine and his band Television, is thin, scraggy haired and affects an air of professional cheeriness. “I don't know when he’ll be here. I told him two o’clock but there’s no way I can get hold of him. He has no phone." The most striking thing about Verlaine, 27, who arrived an hour late, is his neck. He has a neck like a swan, long and white, supporting a face that some have likened to John-Boy Walton’s. Perhaps, once, when he was growing up in Delaware and skipping classes in any number of high schools and colleges, but not now. Now, New York tumbles from his redrimmed eyes. Alternately hard, wary and mocking, Verlaine’s eyes and thin face have lost whatever boyish good looks they once had and when a smile flickers across his face it is only briefly, with the mouth forming the shape; the eyes are motionless. Tom Verlaine (né Miller) is an artist and his art does not rest on him lightly. As founder and leader of the punk rock band Television, he was responsible for persuading the owner of CBGBs (Country, Blue Grass, Blues), a 250-pound, bearded entrepreneur and erstwhile country and western singer named Hilly Kristal, into transforming his moribund Bowery country and bluegrass club into a rock showcase for Verlaine and several of his povertyracked friends living in grotty lofts and rundown brownstones in the area.
Like many punkers, Verlaine’s introduction to the new music was circuitous; in his case via poetry published in little magazines and a fondness for the seminal New York underground band of the late Sixties, the Velvet Underground. The little magazines held him for a while but the attractions of mass audience and volume led him to form Television in 1974. The band under Verlaine, taken from Paul Verlaine (the most extravagantly decadent of the French Symbolist poets),developed a more etherial direction than most punk bands, leading to a lavishly praised first album in which Verlaine’s little magazine preciousness remained intact (/ remember/ how the darkness/doubted/ / recall/ lightning struck itself*) albeit cloaked in a menacing tone with the whole mix buried in viciously loud guitar playing.
Verlaine himself is not above punkish antics on stage. During one concert, after breaking a guitar string in the middle of a song, he slowly and methodically broke the remaining five, threw down the guitar and left the stage.
On a recent spring night at CBGB'S. during a benefit for Punk, a hand-lettered fan magazine (circulation 20.000) which acts as jungle messenger for all the gossip and changing styles of New York punk, the darkened bar looked like a long damp gullet. narrowing to a brightly lit stage at the end. Crowded and steaming, the space was so murky with cigarette smoke that the incongruous Constable-styled pastoral murals on the walls were almost obscured. Virtually the only light in the farther reaches of the club came from a jukebox in the middle and Miller. Peils and Reingold neon beer signs suspended from the ceiling. The crowd was made up of clumps of punks and near-punks dressed in variations of the uniform: straight, tight black pants, scuffed white tennis sneakers or Adidas with the blue stripes carefully removed. black T-shirts with the sleeves and collars torn off and short, black leather jackets. Several insisted on dark glasses in the near black club. Young girls dressed in the fashions of a Forties tart tottered around on stiletto heels with their knees grinding together in tight, calf length skirts bought at such second-hand clothing
*' Double Exposure Music Ltd. Copyright /977 (ASCAP). Used by permission. stores as the Fate Show and Trash and Vaudeville. Hilly Kristal’s doberman and a Hell's Angel or two completed the tableau. In addition, there was a large contingent of suburban Long Island and New Jersey high-school seniors and their dates drawn by the cream of punkdom assembled for the benefit. With the exception of a couple of bands touring Europe, everyone else in New York was there and the fans cheered like jocks at a football banquet as each name was announced. They were homers and the bands on stage at CBGB’s w'ere family. The feeling was inescapable. This was US.
Richard Hell (né Meyers), at 24. is one of the most abrasive of the New York punkers and his song (I'm part of the) Blank Generation has become the unofficial anthem for the crowd at CBGB'S. Like Verlaine (they went to boarding school together in Delaware), he came to the city to be “a real sophisticated writer” but was seduced by rock and roll and formed his own band, the Voidoids last November. On stage he sports mauve glasses and punk uniform of ripped, sleeveless shirt, stovepipe pants and a curled-lip. abusive singing style. Unlike others. Hell stands rooted mid-stage, legs apart, staring into the spotlight like a high-school tough daring you to meet him at lunch hour. His lyrics are tough, unsentimental and bitter: Look out here/You pompous Jerk/look out here/1 go berserk . . . Well Ufe is short/So don V even try/ To bother waving/as we pass you by*
*' Melting Music/Quickmix Music/Bleu Disque Copyright /977 (ASCAP). Used by permission. Over a dinner of veal parmigiana at Max’s Kansas City, another punk nightclub, he says, “I like being separated from the old-fashioned music.” (So too the old music likes to be separated from punk. Linda Ronstadt, ex-folkie and Time covergirl, recently visited CBGB’S and declared the music so constipated it should be called Hemorrhoid Rock.)“We’re out,”says Hell, stabbing a cherry tomato in his salad, “to slaughter the Sixties.”
Punk. The stance, the appearance is familiar. It is ground carved out long ago by the Beats and Hipsters of the Fifties. But unlike Kerouac and his scruffy companions, these kids are not looking for IT, some teleological sunburst, they’re after something cooler and longer lasting. The best of them are looking for Punk; an approach, a way of life, a style that allows them to work on the line at General Motors with all the tough, cynical grace of Sam Spade. “Some people say you can’t be a punk forever,” says Hell, sipping a Green Chartreuse in his booth at Max’s. “But you can. Look at Marlon Brando: look at [Rolling Stones guitarist] Keith Richards. They’ll be punks to the day they die.”
Inevitably, the excesses of punk become targets for parody and there is another constituency in the music, often design students, who use the punk idiom as art, bandy about words like conceptualist and minimalist and construct elaborate injokes. Their performances are not so much to be watched as viewed. Cramps (sneering punk theatre, accompanied by ham-fisted guitar playing) is one. Blondie (droll parodies of early Sixties bop-shew-bop music) is another. The fact that punk extremes are so ripe for satire helps to explain its steady export out of New York in the last three years. California mutations include bands like The Zippers, The Nuns and The Weirdos. Punk in Britain tends to be more working class, romantically fascist, more theatrical, violent and pushy. The explanation commonly offered is that the English are doing what they mistakenly thought the Americans were doing. The result is such British bands as The Sex Pistols, The Damned. The Buzz Cocks, Generation X. Eater, an all-girl band called The Slits, and stomach-turning embellishments such as safety pins pierced through ears and noses and worn as jewelry, Day-Glo turquoise and green dyed hair, dog collar neckwear and long leather sleevelets. Punk rock clubs in London are called Roxy and Louisa’s and their patrons’ clothes are bought in such King’s Road shops as Seditionaries and Boy which specialize, among other things, in bondage clothing and blood-stained T-shirts.
In Canada, punk has taken root only in Toronto. Vancouver tends toward mainstream rock and the only local band with punk tendencies, Sweeney Todd, dropped the association, according to its manager, as soon as punk took on “its present connotations.” Montreal suffers from both lack of a nightclub scene and the conservative musical tastes of the Québécois, whose loyalties remain with the soft rock of Harmonium and Beau Dommage. Of the English-speaking bands only The Debutantes from Notre Dame de Grâce (whose lead singer dresses like the cartoon character Archie) can be fingered as punk influenced. In Toronto almost all of the new music is centred around the Ontario College of Art which has spawned and nourished artiste punkers such as Robbie Rox, The Dishes, The Diodes and The Poles in the last year. Their lyrics are often clever and mildly satirical and their stage wear, besides de rigeur leather, short hair and straight pants often includes white shirts with tab collars and skmny, early Beatle black ties. The ties are knotted with a tiny half-Windsor and wearing them slightly askew is considered properly outré.
If the North American version of punk sometimes seems more coldly intellectual than the visceral street-fighting theatre of the British, it is also curiously sexless. British punkers are aggressively macho males. A certain segment of New York punk is pansexual with lyrics that whisper sinister allusions to alleyway trystes and barroom bitchery. But for the others, whether it’s a reaction to the dozy voluptuousness of the Sixties or an extension of the new conservatism, what sexuality there is revolves around the mid-Seventies au courant perversion-pain. Sadism and masochism have emerged in everything from Bonwit Teller windows to rock album covers in the last year and no less so than in the frontline trenches of punk. “I beat up my girl friend; everybody beats up their girl friends and they like it,” says muscular Memphis-born singer Alex Chilton. “The Sixties confused a lot of girls about sex roles and today they like a strong guy.” Some punkers say that S&M arejust a fad; that nobody really does those things. Stiv Bators disagrees, “Our groupies just want to get burned with cigarettes and beat with dog collars.” The Dead Boys’ heads bob in agreement. “Our fans are sick.”
In Toronto a few nights later. Nazi Dog, 18, lead singer of Toronto’s main alternative to the art school rockers, the semi-legendary Viletones, is standing on stage of the garish Piccadilly Tube nightclub nervously teasing his red hair with black nailed fingers, fluffing it up for that straight-up-on-top "spiked” look favored by the English punks. Around his neck are three heavy Yale locks on a dog chain and a large surgical bandage is safety-pinned around his left forearm. He is wearing a torn black T-shirt and straight blue jeans. His rea! name is Steven but he hasn’t used his family name since his wealthy adman father threw him out of the house. It’s the Viletones’ third public performance. The set begins with a blast of keening feedback and it’s clear that the Viletones (Dog. vocals: Freddy Pompeii. 24. guitar; Motor Mike. 22. drums; Chris Hate. 24. bass) will be obsessively repulsive. The guitar amplifier blows early in the set and bass and lead guitars are forced to play out of one straining speaker, hopelessly muddying the already barely competent, rec-room quality of the sound. But it doesn’t matter, the Dog is the show. His influence is Iggy and with all the overcompensating zeal of a disciple he goes to work; mock-rutting Freddy Pompeii during a song called Dog Style. hurtling into the audience like a psychotic Paul Anka to screech obscenities at fans who happily respond by spitting beer in his face. All commerce in hamburgers and drinks has stopped as waitresses and management alike line the railing at the side of the stage clucking and shaking their pert hennaed heads at the singer and the thundering garble of sound. The Dog pulls out a small Nazi naval flag as he sings Heinrich Himmler Was My Dad. smashes a beer glass and drags the shattered handle slowly up and down his forearm. Blood leaks out from the four-inch wound and drips down to his fingers. The crowd of perhaps 75 scruffy street kids and art students with slicked back hair and Forties frocks (“Ambulance chasers,” sniffs one jaded observer) are orgiastic, bouncing and yelling, stiffening thin forearms in mock fascist salutes, sacrificing middle-class decencies to the demon of teen-age frustration. After the wounding, beer bottles (which the Dog feels obliged to drain in one motion, like a chug-a-lug at a Fifties frat party) are snatched from his hands by quick moving equipment men and shattered glass is picked from the stage but not before his knees are opened on the splinters. Shortly after the Dog leaves the stage after the last song, the club manager cancels the next night’s scheduled performance. “The crowd,” was his only reason. “I don't like the crowd.”
Because of the raging excess of the Dead Boys, Sex Pistols and Viletones, and because, at its best, it succeeds in capturing the raw threatening excitement of early rock and roll, punk, though still small in record sales, has become inordinately influential. Chi-chi London fashion designer Zandra Rhodes is selling punk inspired jerseys with cunning holes, rips and beaded safety pins for $600 at Bloomingdales.
In New York, punk is a growth industry. Hilly Krystal is negotiating for a large showcase theatre to present acts that have outgrown his Bowery bar, two new clubs have opened recently downtown and over on Bleeker Street, The Village Gate, jazz institution in Greenwich Village for 20 years, will soon open its doors seven days a week to the rumbling anger of punk rock. Club owner Art D’Lugoff gestures vaguely in the direction of the noisy and potholed street. “It’s the times.”Q