If 1991 was the year punk broke, then 1996 was the year punk died--killed by both the Sex Pistols and the weight of its own success. Of course, the Pistols always exploited the whole concept of "punk," but this year they mocked it as well, rising up like the corpse they are and performing with a cadaverous grin. Some people thought their reunion was the ultimate rock 'n' roll swindle, but it just proved what we already knew--that punk is meaningless now, meaningless and unnecessary. After all, when the same band--Fluffy--can open for both the Pistols and KISS, you realize how easily widely differing aspects of pop culture can be ground into the same meat.
And there were other, surer signs that punk is dead--maybe the Ramones at Lollapalooza, playing to largely indifferent crowds across middle America. Or Sonic Youth's fashionable line of clothing. Or the closing of Maxwell's and CBGB's. Or the return of Patti Smith. Or Metallica performing Anti-Nowhere League songs, or that Mountain Dew commercial featuring Johnny Rotten or the Butthole Surfers having a big huge hit.
And then there was the sight of Courtney Love--supposedly the world's consummate punk-rocker and the only artist in more than a decade to rival the Sex Pistols in terms of true outrage and shock value--suddenly appearing all over the place as demure as can be, her hair tamed and tidy and downright ash-blond as though she had just been called up for a role as a new roomie on Friends. It's as if Nancy Spungeon had lived and gone on to become Katie Couric, as if the whole exercise--punk, grunge, Nirvana, Hole, feminism--had all been a great big lie.
Sometimes, when I think of the past, I feel like Pam in Dallas, who woke up one morning to find out the whole previous season had been a dream. Did punk even happen? Did it mean something to us? And if it did, well, what? In retrospect, it's all just a bunch of brightly colored shards. I know that seeing the Sex Pistols at Winterland changed the whole course of my life. But now that the world is full of shoddily made punk clothes on countless racks at Macy's and bad bands doing Germs covers, it sure is hard to remember why.
Many years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco with my best friend, we used to have an ongoing in-joke about an artist named Lydia Pense. Pense was the singer for a mediocre '60s act called Cold Blood; she was a sort of sub-Janis Joplin type who never quite made it, and to our mean young eyes she quickly came to symbolize has-beenitis. In the mid-'80s, we used to see her gigs advertised in the paper playing various lowdown clubs and bars, and, caught up as we were in the punk scene, we always spared her a sneer.
Presently, the words "Lydia Pense" became a catch phrase for music we thought was old-fashioned and irrelevant. "He/she is a total Lydia Pense," we'd say about any band that seemed to have outlived its usefulness, or else we'd call it "Lydia Pensive." This sounds very mean in retrospect, but time has caught up with the two of us, and our punishment is that we haven't been spared her fate. Nowadays, every band or band member we loved back then--Henry Rollins, Paul Westerberg, the brothers Kirkwood, Fugazi--is a total Lydia Pense.
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Worse, we ourselves are now Lydia Pensive, and we know it and repine. After all, how much difference is there between the hippies who listen to the Dead and the punk rockers with Mohawks who have The Exploited written across their backs? That is the fundamental question behind the theory of the Death of Punk--that, and the concomitant question of whether, to a 16-year-old kid, the experience of seeing, say, the Offspring today could in any way be the same experience as seeing, say, the Circle Jerks a decade ago.
One's first impulse is to say, "No way!" But really, I'm not so sure. Being 16 is being 16, you know? "Punk-rock music is rock 'n' roll music, and rock 'n' roll music is rebellion," Epitaph's Brett Gurewitz said recently. "Teenagers are filled with a sense of their own mortality and their sense of their own aloneness in the universe, and because of these things they are filled with rebellion and anger, and all the things that happen to every single teenager and join humanity together, because none of us are unique. And intense rock 'n' roll makes it better. All the better if everyone else around you is feeling it, too. Then it becomes a spiritual experience."
Gurewitz may well be right. After all, for all my qualms about punk's funeral, there was that night not so long ago when I found myself in a nightclub in Turkey watching a band called the Turkish word for "cockroach" perform covers of songs by Bad Religion and Green Day . . . I kid you not. For some reason, the experience gave me a little bit of hope. Maybe punk's not dead. Maybe it's just resting, hiding its light underneath a bushel, gathering strength in foreign climes. Its flames are still burning somewhere, despite anything anyone has to say. Punk rock is Phoenician: It will rise, like the soul, on the steppingstones of its former self. The death of punk? What a crock of shit. Punk is like youth: It will always spring eternal . . . for life everlasting, amen.