Punk Rock History’s Not Where I Wanna Be


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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38 Responses

  1. Avatar Glyph says:

    Man, looking at those PF-related ‘zines and stuff brought back memories. I wasn’t in a cultural center at that time (still amn’t, actually), but we had our own small local version of that scene too.

    As I’ve stated before, one weird advantage of being in a cultural backwater is that the various relatively-tiny musical cliques can’t afford to be too exclusive, so if you want to float between the punk kids and the rave kids and the goth kids, you kind of can (though of course to really get to the center of any scene, you’d have to be a true believer).

    We’ve talked before about how I wasn’t all that deeply into Fugazi at the time (too po-faced and self-serious, I thought; you LECTURE your show attendees?); but in recent years I have come to a new appreciation of just how good they were as musicians*; and of course in Dischord they created a prototypical model of how to do the music business at a sustainable, manageable grassroots level and maintain control of their art.

    You ever think about writing something long-form about your time there? Even just fiction, with that as a setting?

    *Weirdly, for somewhat similar reasons, I didn’t care much for Soundgarden at the time, and I now think Badmotorfinger is awesome.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Glyph says:

      Hmmm… I haven’t really. But I’m sure I will someday. I’m working on two long-form projects right now and have two more percolating, so anything’s possible. I suppose the one qualm I have- and why it took me a while to sit down and write this- is I’ve always been a one-foot-out-the-door sort. I was involved in a bunch of scenes too, but never really a true believer.

      I appreciated Fugazi, although I can’t say I was ever a fan either. It got to be a bit tiresome for the year or so where every DC band sounded like Fugazi too. And when there weren’t many clubs open, it sometimes felt like a Dischord company town. Friends would play a show there and be told they should be writing more political songs. Or, they wouldn’t play there because they couldn’t get on bills.

      Sometimes the emphasis on musicianship could be tiresome too. It’s hard to believe, but one reason that Bikini Kill was such a breath of fresh air was they could rock out and not sound like they’d been practicing for seven months before their first show. A lot of DC bands in that time sounded waaaay too much like prog rock. Like most kids, I got into punk rock because it’s like blues- play the same three chords, but dammit play them like you mean it!Report

  2. Avatar veronica d says:

    So I was in South Florida at the time, which was going through its own “macho skinheads kicking ass” phase. So yeah, that sucked.

    I recall one night on WLRN, our local public radio station, where a guy named Bob Slade had a weekly show, midnight on Mondays, “Off The Beaten Path” —

    which yay! it gets mentioned on Wikipedia. It’s almost as if it was real.

    Anyway, I remember one night Slade comes on with this “new band” that sounds kinda “Hüsker Dü-ish” — at least according to him. Anyway, of course it was “Rites of Spring” and of course I liked it and — and OMG I liked it, cuz I was emo before emo was cool!

    (Waddaya want from a goofball suburban poser tranny-dyke?)

    Anyway yeah, that band was a real big deal for me. Tons. It was like, all my feelings!

    That was really cool.

    Fugazi disappointed me a lot. It just wasn’t — I dunno — raw enough. I can’t explain.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica d says:

      You know, I would have disagreed with “Hüsker Dü-ish”…but I haven’t listened to RoS in FOREVER, and in hindsight…that’s really not too far off.


      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Glyph says:

        Right. Especially cuz Rights of Spring came out not long after New Day Rising came out, and Zen Arcade was still pretty fresh and kinda defined what HD was to people, so basically this was before they started changing into, well, whatever it was they changed into.

        OMG I love Rights of Spring. Just, amaze!Report

        • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica d says:

          I didn’t mind HD’s progression towards ever-more melody (I even like Warehouse). I actually just picked up the posthumously-released live album The Living End recently, and some of the tracks there are actually improved by not having been recorded by in-house SST producer (and musical war criminal) Spot.Report

          • Avatar veronica d in reply to Glyph says:

            …in-house SST producer (and musical war criminal) Spot.


            No one likes poor Spot. (I don’t really have an opinion much, I guess.)Report

            • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica d says:

              You have a couple of the greatest power trios of all time (HD and Dino Jr.) and someone who had no idea how to capture all that power – no bottom end at all, and most egregiously, the drums are SO thin.

              And it’s just plain bad recording, so even if Greg Ginn ever loosens his deathlike grip on the material, there’s not much that can be done to fix it. No remastering can compensate for what’s just not there.

              It’s like the only record of Keith Moon’s or John Bonham’s playing being somebody’s shaky cell phone footage of them.

              And to top it off, in portrait mode!

              But I used to play drums and I like Steve Albini*, so “powerful drummers recorded badly” is going to be a pet peeve for me.

              *Oh, if only there was a way to have gotten a Steve Albini-recorded Hüsker Dü album…Report

              • Avatar D Clarity in reply to Glyph says:

                Which dinosaur recording did Spot do? The only dinosaur that matters to me is You’re Living All Over Me and it sounds pretty good.

                The Husker Du stuff is a crime though, Zen Arcade is great but nowhere near as great as it would be if you could actually hear the damn thing.

                Zen Arcade recorded by Steve Albini would rock.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to D Clarity says:

                Whoops, my bad, you are right, he didn’t do Dino. But he did do HD.

                OK, we’ll commute his sentence to life without parole.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

      Oh, and Bikini Kill also turns out to be a profound disappointment, but for different reasons.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to veronica d says:

      Yeah, it was pretty similar for me. I still love Rites of Spring a lot more than Fugazi. It’s nothing against what they did, but it felt more like with Fugazi I should love it than I really did. Rites of Spring felt more sui generis too. Fugazi felt like Rites of Spring + MC5 + DC go go + etc.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    This was an amazing essay, Rufus.Report

  4. Avatar Krogerfoot says:

    Quiet everyone! An old man is talking. Dagnabbit, I love this post and the conversation developing thereunder.

    Reminiscing may not be very punk, and it certainly drives in another nail in one’s coffin, but it’s better than forgetting. I hardly ever talk to anyone I spent any of my formative years with, and now I can barely remember my twenties, and not (I think) because of what or how much substances I ingested then.

    It’s a tonic to hear about what things were like on the ground, and how a part of history was made by people with frailties, obnoxious egos, and insufferable self-righteousness (i.e., people in their twenties). It’s great to hear about it from someone who actually had the onion tied to his belt back then, which was the fashion at the time.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Krogerfoot says:

      Thanks. It’s weird… there are things that sort of pass out of this world. And, when you’re young, they seem very permanent. But, when you’re not, they’re gone and you suddenly think “Hey, what happened to…?” So, it feels good to tell people, “No, I swear to you, there was…”Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I remember having similar arguments back then about the whole proper responses and roles of various people involved. Arguments with NORML, arguments about Racism, arguments about Feminism, arguments, arguments, arguments.

    Then I got out into the corporate world and the only thing that people talked about was Prime Time Television.

    Thank Atheist God for the internet.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      But I can’t even imagine having the arguments with people who then went on to be featured in documentaries? Man, I can’t even imagine.

      “Why are they having documentaries about stuff that happened a couple of months ago?”Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

        Watching the Positive Force documentary, where you can see me in three or four of the photos and maybe some of the show footage too, was pretty weird. I told my friends afterwards “Yeah, so I just watched a home movie of my late teens…”Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    You can make a good faith argument that the state of urban troubles was high enough in the 1980s to make for an authentic underground scene. Everything is costly and polished now. It was more frontier lack in the 1980s. This makes nostalgia for that part of punk because punk was always dependent on authenticity,Report

  7. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Now I can be more responsive.

    Two weeks ago someone posted some short argument to facebook. The argument was from someone else and said that MTV ruined music by making people pay attention to visuals instead of lyrics. This gave us on the splash today and has completely depoliticized music.

    The thing with this argument is that it is completely bonkers. Music rock music has always been more about fun over politics. There was never an era where most people spent their time listening to overly political music. What the guy is doing is taking his youth and transposing it to the larger world.

    This is why I am torn on the development stuff in cities. It seems like people are ruing the end of every business even businesses that sucked and did not get much business. But cities need housing.

    Lots of political debate is starting to wear me down especially a lot of the twitter and trolling battles. I have no idea what people want. Yes I think keeping communities together is important but it strikes me as magical wonder kindergarten thinking if people think they are going to prevent upper-middle class techie oriented people from moving whereever. Or anyone moving whereever. People don’t want to come up with solutions because doing so will mean compromise and that means talking to a yuppie.

    I just read another story on Slate about the Internet exploding about the use of a hashtag and this makes me wonder what good comes from this endless trench warfare except hypertension.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Yeah, I’d sort of agree that’s wrong about pop music. There’s always been the fluffier crap on the radio, which was usually a LOT more popular. And there’s long been the protest songs too, but I can’t offhand think of any long period of time where people were listening to the protest singers en masse. Even in the 60s, the stuff that was on the hit parade was not particularly biting.

      It’s a somewhat different topic, but personally, the problem I have with gentrification is that’s usually imposed from without, instead of being developed in a conversation with the people who already live there. Or, hell, even giving those people capital to develop their own neighborhoods. The places I’ve lived anyway it was always people coming from the outside like colonists to “better” the places other people had been living for decades but never had the resources to make those big improvements.Report

  8. Avatar aaron david says:

    Great piece Rufus.

    I grew up not too differently on the left coast, driving hours to go to the Gilman st. project, see bands at the $5 for 10 bands shows, etc. Straight edge was around, but not to prevalent. There were a few bands on the scene that weren’t stricktly leftist, such as Agnostic Front, FEAR and Social D. But that didn’t matter much.
    And like Glyph above, being in such a small town, every outside drifted together. Goths, punks, hippies, SHARP skins, all together. Like everyone else, we loved Fugazi and some of the stuff coming down from Seattle was good. But still, outside of the Dead Kennedys, everything was coming up from LA.

    Now, I cannot even listen to hardcore, the London sound leaves me bored (outside the Clash) and I am left with the early CBGB’s sound. And Cleveland.

    Time moves on, we hit our 4o’s and hope we can look back (as you have done) and not stay back.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to aaron david says:

      I think my tastes just got weirder. There’s something too rigid about hardcore. I watched the American Hardcore documentary and just thought Thank Goodness we got over that. The exception would probably be the Bad Brains, who were the best hardcore band of all time (and from D.C.!) and never get old for me. I have to say too that spending some time in SF in 92 was life altering for me.Report

  9. Avatar D Clarity says:

    “That was okay, provided you didn’t dance aggressively, in which case the bands would stop the show, or there were insufficient numbers of women at the front of the stage for a riot grrrl band, in which case the show would be stopped until the dudes stepped back.”

    I don’t think the stopping the show bit would have gone over with the skinheads at a hardcore show in 1985, but they probably would have been fine with the sufficient numbers of women at the front of the stage requirement. Chivalry and all.

    Personally I didn’t pay my 4 bucks at the door to get preached at or anything. It was 85, we thought we would all die in a nuclear war sooner rather than later and we paid 4 bucks at the door to pay the band to play fast guitar music while we jumped around in circles like retards with our fists in the air.Report

  10. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Yup. Easier than remembering the comment policy here but less fun than changing everything to “sneetches with no stars on thars”, which other people didn’t find funny.Report

  11. Avatar D Clarity says:

    No worries, that’s perfect.

    That’s what happened, you talked about it in your post.

    Not where I wanna be.Report

  12. Avatar D Clarity says:

    Life does go on.

    You wrote a post about American hardcore, and you’re sanitizing the comments about that period in time.

    It’s fine, doesn’t bother me.Report

  13. Avatar j r says:

    Terrific essay, @rufus-f.

    It coincides with my own personal mini-nostalgic moment: going to see Janes Addiction this week in a suburb outside of NYC. It was the most surreal experience and about the only time in my life I can remember being at a rock show where I didn’t see a single person who looked under 30. It felt like I was at a Gen X fantasy camp. There is something rather surreal about being in a crowd of 40-somethings singing along to the lyrics, “sex is violent.” They were even nice enough to wrap up the encore in time for me to catch the last train back into the city.

    I turned 15 in 1990, and at that time I was still mostly listening to rap, assorted pop and R&B, and Guns n Roses. In the next couple of years, I started discovering what we then called Alternative music, mostly through MTV’s 120 Minutes and the LI radio station WDRE. For me it didn’t happen through any one scene, so I was discovering Fugazi and Bad Brains and Sonic Youth and the Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden and Mudhoney all at he same time. I had the freedom to pick and choose the bands that is liked best from all these really great regional scenes. I remember a great deal of seriousness surrounding which bands you picked and when and now that seems like such an incredibly teenage thing to do.

    So, nostalgia may not be punk rock, but not neither is turning 40.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to j r says:

      Awesome! I wonder if my friend Christine and her husband went to that. They went the last time Jane’s Addiction played in the city, which was really recently.

      That’s another thing I should have mentioned in this post- regional scenes. Do we even have local “sounds” any more? Back when it was a mini-treasure hunt to get your hands on music, local scenes would be sufficiently isolated that the bands sort of all sounded the same, or at least had a very similar sound. But music from, say, Cleveland, sure didn’t sound like music from NYC, which sure didn’t sound like music from DC, etc. It’s hard for me to believe with everyone finding everything they can on the Internet that there’s not a more general sound now. Certainly one reason I can’t stand indie rock is how homogenous it sounds to me.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

        There are still local or regional sounds in hip hop, easily recognizable to fans (though with a lot of cross-regional influence). I think this is one of the things that makes hip hop so fun in a time of placelessness.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Chris says:

          Good point. Interestingly enough, another one of the big influences on the DC punk scene (which I’m glad the Salad Days doc covered a little) was how huge DC go-go was in the 80s and it’s a completely local scene. I don’t think it ever got out of DC, which is extremely weird to me because it’s such great music. I mean, there were a few radio hits nationally and Trouble Funk toured the world, but I don’t think other cities developed their own scenes.Report