Relevant Images – Race Riot

September 29, 2012

Mimi Thi Nguyen and me at the POC Zine Project Race Riot Tour in Pittsburgh, PA. Mimi is, among many other things, the editor of the incredible compilation zine Race Riot, which was a critical document in my development as a young punk, proving to be a decisive spark in my long journey of navigating the complex and terrifying spaces of privilege, racism, patriarchy.

Thank you Mimi, it was a pleasure to meet you!

Check out her amazing work here, here, and here!

#9. and #10. Jawbreaker – “Chesterfield King” and “Condition Oakland”

September 18, 2012


It was the greatest mixtape I have ever made. And like most great things, it was heartbreakingly simple. It all started because I owed my friend Emmalee a mixtape in return for one she had made me, a sweet little C-90 with highlights that included True Feedback Story, Blatz, and Frumpies.

I had started a few mediocre tapes, but struggled with the sequencing of the first few songs. I wanted to start out with something quiet, introduce a subtle build up of tension with the second song, and then let it all break loose with track three. It made sense it my head, but I just couldn’t seem to translate that to magnetic tape. Building the suspense was easy; letting things erupt was the hard part. It had to be done in just the right way, with just the right amount of force, and with just the perfect song to achieve the full effect. I kept thinking that a Jawbreaker song would the appropriate choice, but I couldn’t decide which one.

Frustrated by my indecisiveness, I resolved to ask Emmalee what her favorite Jawbreaker songs were. Maybe I could glean some inspiration from her exacting taste. Without hesitation she replied, “‘Chesterfield King’ and ‘Condition Oakland.’ “

So I found myself, once again in front of the cassette deck, going back and forth between each of these brilliant tunes in my search for the perfect succession. And that’s when it occurred to me that these two songs were a mixtape unto themselves:

Side A would be nothing but ‘Chesterfield King’ over and over again. Side B would be ‘Condition Oakland’ on repeat. No silly segues. No filler. Just 45 minutes of a perfect song on each side of a tape. No fast-forward or rewind necessary. Just pop the tape in and it would always be on the song you wanted to hear.

As I spent an afternoon listening to these songs time and again, they became my two favorite Jawbreaker songs too.

Years later, after Emmalee moved from Houston to Oakland, I would sometimes imagine her in a tiny bedroom lying among tangled sheets, underneath that old ‘Stay Punk’ poster, listening to this mixtape. What did the words to ‘Condition Oakland’ mean to her now? What did she think about as the song faded away, again and again and again, beneath the voice of Jack Kerouac? “But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above the little S.P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the Gate of Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break your heart.”

#8. Fugazi – “Merchandise”

April 12, 2012

The pubescent years are pivotal times for most people. So, perhaps predictably, my teens were the decisive battleground of a transformation from my basketball-obsessed youth, through a Nirvana-obsessed loner period of junior high, to my culmination as an idealistic and enthusiastic, although often presumptuous and impudent, punk rock kid.

Whether knowingly or not, my father played an invaluable role in this narrative. Perhaps once a month, my dad would drive me down to Cactus Records and Video on Shepherd Drive and allow me to pick out one CD. I didn’t get an allowance, so the occurrence of my dad buying me a record was a monumental occasion. It was a small, independent shop, focusing on Texas-based country and folk artists. New releases and in-store performances by singer-songwriters would be boldly displayed in block letters on the gigantic, cactus-shaped marquee outside of the store. But none of that mattered to me. I scoured the shelves for the punk rock records I had never heard, but only heard about: Never Mind the Bollocks, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Feeding of the 5000.

On one particular record store excursion, I had narrowed my choice down to two: Descendents’ seminal Milo Goes to College and Fugazi’s introductory Repeater. I had heard neither band, and so based my decision on what little information I knew about each. At the time I was completely unaware of how much these two groups differed from each other. Descendents’ pop-tinged, Southern California hardcore stylings and bathroom humor had never graced my eardrums, and I could not have imagined Fugazi’s progressive, emotional, and political post-hardcore songwriting. In that moment, it was all the same to me: unknown and dangerous.

I ended up choosing Milo Goes to College on that fateful day. It was probably something about song titles like “I’m Not a Loser” and “Parents” that appealed to my 13-year old sensibilities. And while I still enjoy the snotty and sappy songs from that record, it was actually the noisy funk attack of Fugazi that has had a longer-lasting effect on me, even though it was much later that I finally picked up a copy of Repeater (with my own money, no less).

The proficiency of the instrumentation, the dynamics of sound, and the personal approach to political subject matter are what keep Fugazi relevant to me after all these years. Songs like “Merchandise” not only sound fresh sonically, but spit forth an anti-consumerist message of personal transformation and collective direct action that remain apropos in today’s political climate. “We owe you nothing. You have no control.” Let this continue to be a simple reminder that change is possible if we want it and that we can carve out a life for ourselves beyond the unscrupulous currents of global capital. “You are not what you own.”

Relevant Quotations

October 4, 2010

“By the way if you are 23 years old and you think you should write a fanzine about everything in your brain you might regret it later because it turns out that fanzines are not ephemeral art after all, they actually last forever!”

-Tobi Vail, from her zine-turned-blog Jigsaw Underground.

Oh, how apropos.

#7. Kleenex/LiLiPUT – “Nice”

September 7, 2010

Much like discovering a new shortcut home, or noticing something new while watching your favorite movie for the thousandth time, the feeling of hearing a song this fucking rad for the first time sparks a tingling in my stomach.

This is the stuff that slows me down on my busy days, cheers me up on my blue days, and makes me realize how good I might just have it on my shitty days.

Every time I listen to this Kleenex* song it’s as if there is a voice coming through on every vibration that blasts out of the speakers, yelling at me to GET STOKED, GET OFF YOUR ASS, and GET SHIT DONE. And I don’t even know what the lyrics mean!

But once the final discordant jangles of this song dwindle away, I am left sitting on the couch listening to the chirping of cicadas in the cool night air at the end of summer. My guitar collects dust in the corner of the room and I cannot help but feel the weight of songs yet unwritten.

So, let’s make some friends and write songs for shitty days. Songs against death. Songs against cynicism. Songs against apathy. Songs against the nay-sayers. Songs against the jaded. Songs against the greedy. Songs for the kids.

And remember: all you need is three chords.

*The band changed their name to LiLiPUT in 1979 after being threatened with a lawsuit (Kleenex was a brand of tampon in Switzerland). Kill Rock Stars recently released a Kleenex/LiLiPUT discography 2xCD which you can order here.

Relevant Images

July 11, 2010

1. Duff McKagan at age 15, playing drums for The Fastbacks, circa 1979.
2. Duff McKagan playing bass for Guns N’ Roses, circa who-the-fuck-cares.

As Antischism would say: “Spot the difference and survive.”

#6. Wire – “Heartbeat”

July 11, 2010

Adam took a sip of his double espresso, licked his lips a little, and concluded: “It’s the perfect anti-song.”

I took a giant gulp of my iced coffee, thought for a moment, and then nodded in agreement.

Sure, our tendency to wax philosophic while drinking caffeinated beverages sounds pretty booshie1, but make no mistake: getting paid to so stand around, drink all the coffee we could desire, and talk about punk rock is a prettty nice way to spend a sunny Spring afternoon.

We talk about Wire a lot. Adam likes to trace the evolution of their sound, especially how they went from the abbreviated, rigorous stomp of 1977’s Pink Flag to the exploratory, spare, and often funky sounds of Chairs Missing not even a year later. I like to be the instigator and proclaim acerbically that Wire, despite appearing on the early punk compilation The Roxy London WC2 in early 1977, was just a bunch of silly art kids who just happened to be around at the birth of a new subculture and used its ethos and aesthetic for their own artsy-fartsy experimentation.

Mostly though, I like to talk about the song “Heartbeat.” Adam is correct in calling it an ‘anti-song’ in that it is basically a slow churning of muffled notes with dark, stream-of-consciousness lyrics spoken, shouted, or whispered over the seething brew. The entire guitar part is comprised of a muted vamp of the open E and A strings and the drums come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly and feel almost unsure of themselves all the while. The song feels as if it’s always on the verge of erupting into chaos, yet it never does, leaving me feeling unsatisfied but completely blown away every time. I think this is what real rock critics would call “expanding the sonic boundaries of music” or some such overblown blurb of the kind that’s included in the liner notes of retrospectives, discographies, and ‘best-of’s.

I, on the other hand, just chalk it up to Wire’s ability to say a whole-hell-of-a-lot without saying much of anything at all. Like how Vonnegut uses the phrase “so it goes” one hundred and six times in Slaughterhouse-Five, or how in jazz they always say that it’s the space in between the notes that’s really the most important thing of all.

1Booshie as in bourgeois. I use this colloquialism probably at least once a day, but this is the first time I have had to spell it. This is how spells it, so that’s what you see here. I would love to hear of alternatives if you’ve got ‘em.

#4. Bikini Kill – “New Radio” #5. The Smiths – “Sheila Take A Bow”

June 10, 2010

Moments in which a band completely and unconditionally transforms the way you think about the world are exceedingly rare.

I’m speaking about junctures at which songs begin to turn your life upside down and capsize notions that you had once previously held dear. These songs do not just give you answers; they force you to start asking entirely different questions.

These are the kinds of songs with guitar riffs that shiver your spine, drum fills that make you cringe with joy, and bass lines that make you move in ways you never thought your awkward body was capable of.

These are the kinds of songs that grease the gears of our lives and make it possible to endure the tides of doubt, cynicism, and violence which rise with such frequency these days.

These are the kinds of songs that keep you company when you can’t fall asleep at night but are too smart to drag yourself into the living room to watch bad television.

These are the kinds of songs that call you out on your transgressions.

They feel like an old friend. One with whom you can still share a laugh and a doting hug in spite of how much the two of you have changed over the years. In fact, such change feels inconsequential because beneath all of the small talk and nostalgia remains something monumental and persistent which pushes you forward through the smoke and the shit.

Shit like getting called “faggot” by the bullies at school, struggling to figure out how to be a boy without being a goddamn predator, or failing to be a consistent ally as my friends dealt with issues of sexual assault.

These songs were with me through it all, cajoling me to always confront my privilege and to peel back and discard the layers of patriarchy, heterosexism, and cissexism which have been so unfortunately diffused through my identity.

All it takes is to pull a Bikini Kill seven inch off the shelf and read the words “Come here baby let me kiss you like a boy does!” or drop the needle on a Smiths record and hear Morrissey croon “I’m a girl and your a boy” and the aching questions are soon to follow:

How to be white but anti-racist? How to be heterosexual but not heteronormative? How to be a boy but reject chauvinism and gender rigidity?

How can I be a good ally and is that even enough?

Sometimes all I can do to keep myself from retreating into another late night of bad television is to write another silly punk rock song.* Maybe this can be another one to help us through the smoke and the shit:

I used to have a favorite song when I was a kid
It talked about all of the stupid things that fucked up boys did
I would stand over my record player and crank it up real loud
So I could hear Kathleen Hanna scream “Don’t you try to fake me out!”1
And let’s not forget what Morrissey said
I could write a fucking essay about
The Queen is Dead2 cuz
All those songs and records they taught me that
I don’t have to be a boy if I don’t wanna be
So sing it with me now:

* If you would like to hear this song, get in touch and I will send you a copy!
1 Bikini Kill, “Rah! Rah! Replica!”, The Anti-Pleasure Dissertation 7″. Kill Rock Stars, 1995
2 The Smiths, The Queen is Dead. Sire Records, 1985.

Relevant Images: Punx is Dadaists

May 19, 2010

1.Hannah Hoch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919
2.Gee Voucher, The Feeding of the 5000, 1978

#3. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

May 19, 2010

When I think about Poly Styrene most of my other punk rock heroes just seem like total poseurs in comparison. In photos and interview footage from the late 1970s she has this unguarded quality about her – and I don’t mean in some naive, adolescent way – but rather in an unpretentious, matter-of-fact, totally smart and honest way.

While most other punk icons of the time were busy being either totally nihilistic or posing as third-world guerrillas, Styrene (born Marian Joan Elliot Said to a British legal secretary and an expatriated Somali aristocrat) offered up biting and intelligent social commentary that was both feminist and anti-capitalist. Indeed, the lyrics that she penned for X-Ray Spex focus on the ways that patriarchy and late capitalism intersect. The opening words of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” offer a perfect example:

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard – well I think, oh bondage, up yours!”

As do these lines from the song “Art-I-Ficial”:

“When I put on my make-up/The pretty little mask not me/That’s the way a girl should be/In a consumer society”

What Styrene is arguing here is that the consumerism and commodity fetishism of modern capitalism as it manifests in developed nations proves to be a mechanism through which male supremacy operates. Women are oppressed by a market system which encourages passivity through the purchase of consumer products, devalues work typically considered to be the responsibility of women, and promotes a construct of binary gender roles in which feminine characteristics are considered inferior.

Styrene’s words are so important to me, and X-Ray Spex made such a huge impact because songs like the ones mentioned above were the first exposure I had to analysis which linked systems of oppression which I had previously viewed as independent. Poly Styrene’s critique was really quite profound, but the lyrics were so succinct and accessible, and the vocal delivery so shrill and confrontational, that it provided me with a lesson in feminist theory cloaked in an aesthetic that appealed to my youthful, and often underdeveloped, punk sensibilities.


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