Tag Archive: punk


Love Kills

Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious

The entire pathos of punk in the 1970s – the clothes, the music, the attitude, the excess, the animalistic urge, everything – can be summed up in two words: Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious started life as John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham, a district of southern London. Rumor has it that when Vivian Westwood suggested to Malcolm McLaren that he get a guy who hung around the Sex boutique named John to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, she was not talking about John Lydon, but Sid Vicious. When McLaren booted out Glen Matlock from the bass position, he recruited Vicious despite the fact that he had never played bass.

In fact, Sid’s bass skills were so lacking that he only actually plays on one track of Never Mind the Bollocks, that being “Bodies,” and on the rest Steve Jones plays both bass and guitar. But according to Keith Levene, he picked it up with alarming speed because of his incredible focus. One night he sat down with the first Ramones record, playing to it over and over again through the night. In the morning, he was a bass player.

The movie Sid & Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, is one of the only silver screen depictions of Sid. The titular roles are played by Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend. After an initial meeting where Nancy (already a junky) is supposed to score some drugs for Sid, Nancy then introduces Sid to heroin before they have sex – all with a very bored Johhny Rotten in the room. From then on, they’re a pair. The only thing that separates them is the Sex Pistols going on a tour of the United States. And all along, they’re going in a wide and uncontrollable downward spiral; things get bad, then real bad, then real bad, and then the absolute worst.

The film has been the subject of a lot of controversy; Johnny Rotten in particular says it romanticizes heroin addiction, playing as merely the catalyst for the love that existed between Sid and Nancy. The famous scene at the end where Sid gets in a cab and finds Nancy (no longer gross and desiccated but in a white dress) and they go riding off in the distance is said by many to be the epitome of irresponsible filmmaking.

I respectfully disagree. The centerpiece of the entirety of Sid & Nancy is the love between the two central characters. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but I think the film is suggesting their love couldn’t really be complete and functional until they were off of heroin. Now, that point came after they were both dead, but in that, the film might also be suggesting that love is bigger than our temporal world. And as for romanticizing heroin use, you only have to look at any moment from the entire rest of the movie to see that heroin use is bad news. According to Sid & Nancy, there is absolutely nothing glamorous, fun or minutely redeemable about heroin.

I want to make something very clear, though. Sid and Nancy loved each other, but everything about that was horrible. There is much to be said about the positive and transcendent nature of love, but we almost always forget that love, like anything else in the hands of humans, can be an extremely negative force as well. The love between Sid and Nancy didn’t get them anywhere they wanted to go, but instead took them to increasingly worse and worse places. The same energy that fueled their love for each other also fueled their addictions. What’s worse, their individual addictions became more than the sum of their parts when added together, much like a marriage. It even fueled an apparent suicide pact they had forged. What Sid & Nancy brings out for me is that love is incredibly powerful, and just as it has the power to heal, build and create, so does it have the power to completely destroy.

Nancy Spungen

Nancy Spungen died in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan from bleeding to death from a stab wound to the stomach. It’s not certain, but Sid probably murdered her. He woke up from a drug stupor to discover her body on the bathroom floor, blood all over the hotel room. Of all the ways of murdering somebody, Sid’s murder of Nancy is the least malicious and most tragic. In the police interviews, Sid himself said, “I never stabbed her. I loved her, but she treated me like shit.” He later said he didn’t remember what happened, but she may have fell on the knife while he was holding it. What it really comes down to is that I don’t believe for a second that Sid had murder in his heart, at least not the cold-blooded, purposeful taking of a life which we stereotypically think of as murder; he just wasn’t capable of it.

Ten days after Nancy’s death, Sid tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He was taken to Bellvue Hospital to recover, and made bail from his murder arrest in February of 1979. The day after he got out of jail, Sid and his mother Anne were at a party to celebrate his bail. Anne gave him a fatal dose of heroin at that party, as she admitted to journalist Alan Parker near the end of her life. According to a suicide note left by Sid, he was fulfilling a suicide pact with Nancy. The whole story is just very, very sad, in every sense of the word.

Sid’s life and death represented the life and death of punk music, or rather punk in its Platonic, virginal form. Sid was more than just the bass player for the biggest punk band that ever existed – Sid WAS punk. After Sid, there was no more punk. I think something was lost that the music world can never get back. Blink-182 and NOFX and Rancid and Less Than Jake can put on a good show and rock as hard as the day is long, but they’re not punk. Nor should they be. Sid is dead, punk is dead, and it’s time to move on.

Next: bound for hell, and loving every second of the trip.

Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks - 10/27/1977

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks – 10/27/1977

Frank Zappa once said, extremely derisively, that punk was not a genre of music, but a fashion statement. He went on to explain why this was true: it had been created not by a bunch of musicians, but by a clothing store proprietor. He was referring to the most visible aspect of punk, being the ripped jeans and t-shirts, safety pin earrings, leather jackets and outlandish hairstyles, most of which involve long hair sticking up in various directions.

While ol’ Frank was being a little obtuse, he was right about one thing: the fashion that’s instantly recognizable as “punk” was purposefully created by a clothing store co-owner named Malcolm McLaren. He and his partner Vivian Westwood managed a store called Let It Rock, which focused on the ‘50s-era rock and roll Teddy Boy look. They later it changed to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, selling Marlon Brando clothes to attract the young rocker crowd. When the mid-‘70s came around, they changed it yet again to Sex, specializing in punk clothes.

Malcolm and Vivian were described by Johnny Rotten as “a pair of shysters: they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.” Apparently, what I said about record executives goes for clothing store owners, too. Malcolm also dabbled in band management. After informally managing the New York Dolls in 1975, he threw himself into a local band who hung around Sex, called the Strand. McLaren would later rebrand them the Sex Pistols.

Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten

John Lydon (later Johnny Rotten) was another one of those layabouts at Sex, brought in by McLaren to sing for the Strand. He walked into Sex wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I HATE” scratched in above the words in marker; it was ripped in two then held together with safety pins. McLaren took one look at him and said, “that’s the guy.” He had already booted out the lead singer (the band was then called QT Jones & the Sex Pistols). Johnny’s voice sounded like a length of razor wire being drawn across violin strings – exactly what McLaren wanted.

All the resentment, anger and malcontent that had been building in London over the past 10 years were reaching a breaking point, and it started breaking in 1975. At that particular time, London was a really crappy place to live, and what became known as “punk” was brought to the forefront. But it didn’t enjoy the type of success that means lots record sales and concert attendance. Rather, the world was watching while young people all across Britain were working themselves into a tizzy. Malcolm McLaren had positioned himself to provide the visual look of the movement with Sex, and the Sex Pistols provided the soundtrack.

Arguably, they weren’t the only ones. There was the Clash in England, as well as the Ramones and X in the United States. While important to the movement overall, none of those bands have the visceral nature or raw negativity of the Sex Pistols. When you listen to Never Mind the Bollocks, you really believe that they wanted to see the whole world burn. They hated everything, from capitalism to the British monarchy to the very music industry they were participating in. They hated the United States, governmental control, materialism and Christianity. They even hated fellow punks.

The most grievous and damaging slight they had to offer, though, was to the British crown. “God Save the Queen” was their third single, released before their debut album. It came around after the Sex Pistols already had the world’s attention, and they used that platform to say what they really thought of the their country’s monarchy. “God Save the Queen” is a blazing and angry comment about England’s conformity and allegiance to the crown. The snarling and hateful disrespect of the lyrics is pretty startling. And the viciousness wasn’t lost on the British public. The song outraged virtually everyone; it was boycotted in several chain record stores; BBC refused to play it, along with every independent radio station; workers at the factory where the album was pressed even laid down their tools. In light of Britain’s somewhat draconian attitudes about slander towards the Royal Family, I’m surprised the Sex Pistols weren’t hanged for treason.

“God Save the Queen” is more than just dirty words about Queen Elizabeth II. It’s also a pronouncement of the hopelessness and cynicism embodied by the punk movement. The refrain of “no future for you!” concisely captures this attitude – they mean that literally. Music had been this negative before, and it had also had the power to change things socially and politically, so that’s nothing new. But the change the Sex Pistols wanted to bring about wasn’t good. If they had had their way, society would look very different now.

Next: Oh no they didn’t…

Punks

I’m often frustrated by punk and the punk attitude. I’m cool with rebellion and not following the rules. But the rules need to be bad in order for rebellion against them to be good. So many punks see the enforcement of societal norms to be oppressive, regardless of what those norms actually are. When the question “What are you rebelling against?” is asked, “What’ve you got?” is not a valid response. Wanna hold a Bible study in Communist China? Thumbs up. Don’t like that your parents set a 10:30 curfew? Boo frickin’ hoo. Sit down and stop wasting everybody’s time.

 In 1970, the attitude and aesthetic known as punk didn’t have a name yet. As far as the fashion goes, there were no multi-colored mohawks or safety pin nose-piercings; those things wouldn’t come around for another six years, heralded by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. But the founding principles of disorder, rebellion and misanthropy are to be found on Fun House.

That’s the main reason I like Fun House: it perfectly captures the mindset, attitude and emotional color of an entire movement 6 or 7 years before the movement even existed. It’s the quintessential punk album, but it doesn’t have all that ripped shirts, spiked hair, DIY fashion foolishness.

James Franco as Daniel Desario

There’s a scene from the show Freaks & Geeks where Daniel (played by the indomitable James Franco) is hitting on a convenience store clerk with corpse makeup and a 12-inch high haircut. Putting on airs, he says he’s “a punker,” but she responds with this. “You know what punkers don’t do? Call themselves punkers.” Punks don’t really have a need to prove to everyone that they’re punks. From my own perspective, the same is true for Christians. You don’t need to tell everyone you meet that you have the light of Christ in you; they should be able to see it anyway, if they’re paying attention.

Fun House doesn’t put on any airs. Everything you get from it comes from a place of unflinching honesty, the ugly truth. And sometimes it’s really ugly, like on the song “T.V. Eye.” At first glance, everyone thinks it stands for “Television Eye,” but it doesn’t. Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton’s little sister Kathy and her friends used a term for when guys would stare at them, laughing and saying “he’s got a twat vibe eye on you!” I’m familiar with that look; I think I’m guilty of inadvertently using it one or twice. Mouth open, face relaxed, eyebrows lifted the slightest amount; it’s the 50-yard stare of someone dumbstruck and incapacitated by what they’ve just seen. Iggy thought the phrase was funny, but then he flipped it to say, “hey, girls get the twat vibe eye, too.”

Then comes “Dirt,” a slowed-down number that’s almost hypnotic in its groove. You wouldn’t expect it due to the raging intensity of the first 3 tracks, but the Stooges display exceptional prowess here. Whereas the rest of the album is heavy-handed, “Dirt” is just the opposite. It lulls you into a false sense of security, only to have it dashed with the next song, “1970.” Borrowing its name from the year of Fun House’s release, it’s cursorily akin to the opening song on their first album “1969,” also the year of that album’s release. That’s where the similarities end, though. “1970” is like being beat over the head repeatedly with a shoe. Iggy snarls “I feel alright!” over the chorus; he may, but his voice sounds anything but “alright.” It actually sounds like if he goes on much longer like that, he’ll need surgery.

Steve Mackay w/ the Stooges on sax

“1970,” as well as the next two tracks, features the novel addition of a saxophone. While the sax is historically a part of the jazz tradition, it works here as a source of wildness and cacophony. Jazz, while smoother and subtler, has the same free-form chaos element to it that Fun House uses as its centerpiece. The sax lends even more of an unpredictable air to the album, as if Fun House didn’t already have loads of it.

If you want ugly truth, it doesn’t get any better (or worse) than the last two tracks, “Fun House” and “L.A. Blues.” These two songs are over 12 minutes of chaos and disorder. “Fun House” at least has form and a beat, and actual lyrics. They’re probably improvised by Iggy on the spot, but he says actual words.

That’s more than can be said for “L.A. Blues.” I think it’s nothing more than five people doing their best to destroy their instruments, which includes Iggy and his voice. What you’re meant to get out of these songs, though, is the unbridled joy and wild ecstasy of music, and the complete release it brings. “L.A. Blues,” if you’ll pardon the somewhat base phrase, is a musical orgasm. When the tingling electricity and overwhelming rush have passed, the participants are utterly spent.

Fun House is the sound of a garage band if they were in the final stages of radiation poisoning. There’s vomit, headaches, a seething fever, and a gurgling mass of bile. It might even be a bit much for some punk enthusiasts, and definitely too much for the posers. And I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. But for a dose of messy, unmixed passion and overwhelming force, Fun House is a good place to go.

Thursday: IIII AAAAAMMMM IIRROOONNN MAAAAAAAAANNNN…….

The Stooges – Fun House – 7/7/1970

Let’s be honest: rock and roll is a dirty business.  I try as much as I can to elevate it to its true height, emphasizing its beauty, grace and transcendent nature. But I often forget or ignore that rock has some rough edges. Not even rough, though; sharp, dangerous. If you get a cut from one of them, it could become infected and before you know it your foot is being amputated. Sometimes rock and roll is just a great big pile of crap.

Did that sound negative? It’s not, really. I have to admit that I like the crap of rock and roll at times. It feels good to rub it on my skin, to feel the waste circling back to me, and find that it’s not waste at all. When an animal takes a crap on the ground, the ground is nourished. It doesn’t smell that good, but it takes that crap and says “thank you.” We should all be so grateful.

Wow. I just disgusted myself a little; I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.

Iggy Pop is someone who must understand the excrement nature of rock music better than anyone else. Watching one of his live shows, even archival footage, is like sitting square in the middle of a pit bull’s brain. He’s shirtless, unwashed, sweaty and gross. He leaps around wildly and ungracefully. He spits, growls, shouts and verbally abuses his audience. The climax comes when he unzips his jeans, loosens them a little, then leaps up and down wildly, letting gravity do the rest. Sometimes he’s wearing underwear, sometimes he’s not.

When Fun House came out in 1970, few people knew or cared about Iggy and his band, the Stooges. But just enough people cared that they could operate, release albums, do shows and the like. They were satisfied with that. It took quite some time, but Fun House eventually became one of the most respected albums ever, and if you have even the smallest spark of punk in you, it’s easy to see why.

What do I mean by punk? It’s difficult to explain, but I’ll try. “Punk” has been around much longer than the term or the genre of music it lends its name to. Any time you are being told what to do and not do and you feel the fire of anger in response, that’s punk. In the musical sense, it could be said that punk rock is the boiling down of rock music to its most elemental form, stripping away every added social aspect until what’s essential remains. And what remains is rebellion – often for no apparent reason.

The Stooges’ self-titled first album was relatively tame. It was produced by John Cale of Velvet Underground fame, about a year after he split from that group. Despite a good pedigree, The Stooges didn’t have the grit and grime of their second album, Fun House, and also didn’t capture even an iota of the energy of their live shows. But for Fun House, Don Gallucci was at the helm, and he took a very simple approach: just let them play and get in on tape.

Consequentially, Fun House has an untamed and dangerous tone from the first seconds of the lead-off track. Lyrically, “Down On the Street” is pretty clumsily written, as all Stooges songs are. It wasn’t until Iggy teamed up with David Bowie and went solo that “real” lyrics emerged. “Down On the Street” is about an acid trip, but the real gold is in the music. Iggy hoots and growls like a caged animal, and his voice has a primal, untreated quality to it. Then the chorus comes, the cage disappears and the animal is loose.

“Loose” is also the name of the very next song. It continues the wild and dangerous musical motif that is present for most of Fun House. It’s hard to miss the meaning of “I’ll stick it deep inside.” As the chorus declares in forceful tones, Iggy is indeed loose; loose on your daughters, on your morals, and on the youth of America. Protect your family! The Stooges will destroy the very fabric of our society!

Oh, come on; who doesn’t love moral panic jokes?

Tomorrow: what is a T.V. eye?