The Book of Punk
Detroit Mercy professor's book appropriately organized, anarchic
Click photo to enlarge
Nick Rombes, associate professor and chair of the English department at University of Detroit Mercy, is the author of A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, which combines social commentary and reference material.
Photo: Dustin Walsh
Nihilistic, enraged and downright nasty, punk is, or was, the monolith of teenage angst and alienation. Born from spite of the ‘60s hippie era, punk came to be in the ‘70s (up for argument here in Southeast Michigan, where MC5 and The Stooges were in full swing by the late-‘60s, but lacked the title). It defined a generation of youth tired of complacency and, likely, bell-bottoms.
Northwest Ohio is far away from the punk upswing in London and New York — especially for a boy growing up in the “classic rock” town of Waterville. But by 1979, punk had found Nick Rombes, associate professor and chair of the English department at University of Detroit Mercy. From then, punk and its cultural significance has been tattooed, dyed and safety-pinned on Rombes' brain.
He currently teaches film studies, American literature and digital media at the UDM. He's written books on digital cinema and, of course, punk.
His latest release, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, is a hodge-podge of all things punk — somewhere between social commentary and reference material. The book, released by The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. on July 10, is a compendium of facts, analysis, commentary and short stories on punks' early years. He references fanzines, newspapers and albums, but skews punk's cultural past in a personal portrait of an obsessed fan — himself.
“I really like the idea of the dictionary approach, where readers can open up the book at any point to read,” said Rombes, 43. “There's a certain element of randomness — anarchy even — in this method.”
In one excerpt Rombes writes about a chance meeting with the queen of punk, Patti Smith. Together they walk the nighttime streets revealing each other's fears and desires — or lack thereof.
“I think for so many of us, especially when we were growing up, the characters in songs and sometimes even the performers had a strong pull on our imagination,” he said. “I used to invent stories about them sometimes, laying there listening to the music on my bedroom floor. I wanted the book to capture some of that feeling of how it was to be lost in a song so much that its characters, settings and words seemed real.”
You're obviously well-versed in literature and cinema. Why write books about punk?
I think there are common threads between each of the areas that I work in, which include the rise of the novel in America in the late 1700s, the emergence of digital cinema in the mid-1990s and punk. Each of these was considered, at first, an underground, and in some cases radical, development. Novels, for instance, were a new form of writing that competed with traditional forms such as epics, drama and poetry. In America, various cultural authorities—clergy and politicians especially — feared that the novel might encourage young readers to identify or sympathize with the “wrong” characters, and as a result the novel as a genre was denounced mightily from the pulpit. Similarly, digital cinema — especially with its small, cheap DV cameras and DIY desktop-editing and online distribution — made it possible to circumvent the studio conglomerates. And, punk is the ultimate modern-era flowering of DIY culture. What really interests me is how each of these forms gradually migrated from the margins to the mainstream.
What's there to be learned about punk in a cultural reference rather than a reference volume?
Although punk was obviously a musical movement, it was simultaneously a cultural movement that drew on and mashed up everything from fashion to politics to literature to avant-garde cinema. Richard Hell (of legendary Richard Hell & The Voidoids), for instance, was a disciple of the French New Wave (an early-‘60s filmmaking movement), while Patti Smith was obsessed with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. And, I love the fact Johnny Ramone (guitarist for The Ramones) was into avant-garde films and even tried to make some, while Gang of Four (UK's funk-heavy political punkers) was conversant in Marxist theory. It's always seemed strange to me that punk, in society at large, became known as something that was just fast and loud and empty. In fact, its roots are in the experimental and the cultural avant-garde. Of course that doesn't mean that punk is not just plain fun, too.
What's the most interesting detail you've learned about punk culture?
What surprised me most was the general hostility towards the counter-culture, the hippies. There was a sense that the entire “Great Society” had become a new age parody of itself, and in their music, the punks tried to inject a big dose of fun and anarchy back into music and performance. In 1976, Johnny Rotten (vocalist for the Sex Pistols) was asked what he had against the hippies, and he said, “They're complacent.” That really sums it up, and punk turned that hostility towards the hippies into creative energy. It gave them something to react against. In this sense, punk was reactionary.
If you could tell our readers to listen to one punk song, what would it be and why?
This is tough, and it might change tomorrow, but I'd have to say “Jaguar Ride” by the Cleveland band Electric Eels, recorded in April 1975. All the snarling, drive-off-a-cliff sound of punk is there, right before punk happened, as if in a weird “Back to the Future” way, the Electric Eels were transported from 1977 back to 1975 with a fully formed punk sound that no one understood. No matter how many times you listen to it, the song's a mystery. It doesn't sound like anything else from that era.
What's the one fact about punk that everyone should know?
That failure was the most important part of punk.
What's your favorite Detroit punk moment?
It was around 1979, and my best friend Dave's older brother Cliff gave me this single that he said he really hated (he was a big fan of Foreigner). It was by The Mutants, and the music was like nothing I'd ever heard. The A side, “I Say Yeah,” seemed like a pop song, but it had no center. I listened to it over and over again, trying to figure out how it was put together. Eventually, I learned they were from Detroit. And then later, someone said they were from Hamtramck. In any case, ever since then, I've not been able to separate Detroit from that song.
Is punk dead?
There are two answers to this question: Yes, in the sense that punk emerged during a specific time with conditions can't be replicated, it is dead. Punk was a reaction against the late-‘60s. It was an act of rebellion, a wake-up call for a new generation. Punk was about destroying the past, and then destroying itself. The best bands — Sex Pistols, Rocket from the Tombs, and others —either self-destructed or never got past releasing a single or two. But, no it's not dead because the spirit of punk is still alive not only in music, but in the entire DIY ethic that now makes it possible for bands to bypass big labels and release their music directly on the Internet.
Will you continue to write books about punk, its music and culture?
At this point, I feel like I put everything I had into this book. But, I've learned never to say never.
For more information on A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982, go to culturaldictionaryofpunk.blogspot.com.