One rainy night last week a bunch of old people congregated in an alley on the corner of Hollywood and Wilcox. They were waiting for entrée to a party for the premiere of “Punk,” a 4 part documentary which will air on Epix beginning on March 11, and in grand Hollywood tradition, it featured a so-called ‘red carpet,’ i.e. a designated area where invited celebrities pose in front of a background photo that advertises the event, whilst members of the press shout questions at them.
The whole thing was very confusing! Because surely there are few things less punk than a red carpet — although a cable documentary sponsored by a high end men’s clothier comes close, as does the Oxford Handbook of Punk, the academic project on the subject I am currently editing.
To me, ‘punk’ denotes something organic, and authentic, and Do It Yourself; not some glitzy soiree ensconced in a high end recording studio with pictures of aged rock stars on the walls; not something glamorous that you stand outside a velvet rope and peer in at, not something that looks like a very low end version of the Oscars or the Grammies, with celebrities grinning and preening for the cameras.
That, however, was how the “Punk” premiere-people seemed to be situating it, and as a meta-concept, the project only half worked — like the catering, which was predominantly pop-topped cans of Miller beer and make ‘n’ bake Pillsbury dough pretzels, much like the food served at a punk party in an East Village tenement, only served on silver platters by charming waitrons. In other words, the event’s overall punk-ness flickered on an off like a faulty light bulb. But the documentary itself, portions of which were screened later in the evening, looked excellent. Narrated by Iggy Pop, it used historical footage that many of us in the field have seen before, but was put together well and included some new interviews with punk luminaries like Harley Flanagan, Dave Vanian, and Kathleen Hanna, among others.
“Punk” argues that punk, as a movement and an ideology, is important. But does its ‘importance’ need to be exhibited in the mainstream media via this kind of trite publicity event? A generous reading of the event would argue that it indeed does, and not only that, but ’twas ever thus. There was the time in 1976 that the Sex Pistols played on a barge in the Thames to protest the Queen’s jubilee, not to mention the time a few years ago when the son of the Sex Pistols’ manager, Joe Corre, burned a lot of memorabilia on a barge to protest the fact that London had co-opted the 50th anniversary of punk. Perhaps one could say that the organizers of “Punk” premiere were kind of playing with the genre, and that the wholly rehearsed moment when John Lydon swanned down the red carpet and then gave a rehearsed speech about his supposed love of Donald Trump, was a scripted moment of artificial outrage meant to mimic the original shock that punk gave people in the 1970s.
Lydon’s views are so well known and so totally bogus that the tactic backfired a bit; when he said, “I love Donald Trump because he’s shaking things up,” everyone just giggled. But later on in the evening, during a panel Q & A, Lydon did manage to fire up an onstage argument with Marky Ramone, in which the one accused the other of being fake, shallow, and only interested in drugs, while the latter accused the former of being a has-been who had stolen his look from Richard Hell.
'Punk': Johnny Rotten, Marky Ramone Spar at 'Off the F--king Rails' Documentary Event
Johnny Rotten, Marky Ramone and Henry Rollins sparred over the history of punk at a launch event for Epix's new 'Punk'…
That’s the part that went viral anyway, although much more went down in it than the 30 second viral clip indicates. Rolling Stone’s article on the event is unable to capture the chaotic, shouty vibe of the proceedings, nor the poignancy and the utter dysjunction; the warring ideas about what punk is and who gets to speak for it that riled the whole proceedings. On the one hand, this odd assortment of what Rolling Stone calls “the Justice League of Punk” screaming each other down is, as everyone keeps noting, ‘totally punk.’ On the other, there is an undercurrent of extreme courtesy between the panelists that probably better expresses where everyone is now in their lives. Consider, for example, the moment when, after a full half hour of cursing insanity, Lydon’s phone rings on stage and he excuses himself extremely politely by saying, “My wife has Alzheimer’s, so you’ll understand that when she calls I have to answer,” and the entire audience sort of wilts in sympathy. Old age and punk rock may seem like comedy gold to some people. But the reality of both things is no fucking joke.
In the course of the panel, various speakers shout out to punk for killing off dinosaur bands, for speaking to kids, for scaring parents, and for allowing people to change their lives and talk back to politicians. Punk did do all those things, but it couldn’t and can’t, change capitalism’s inherent power structures that undercut it and everything else the media touches. Look at the photo that accompanied the article in Rolling Stone. In it, Henry Rollins, formerly of Black Flag, and Duff McKagan, of the Fastbacks, grin broadly, while Rotten and Ramone get into their fake fight, observed on the side by a wry John Varvatos, the wealthy clothier who bought CBGBs and turned it into a boutique. Rollins and McKagan are laughing because they know the whole thing is a farce: McKagan’s tenure with Guns ‘n Roses must have completely inured him to this kind of media idiocy, while Rollins comes from such a totally different ethos and tradition — Dischord, SST, “Get In the Van” — that it’s hard to believe that he and Lydon occupy the same universe. It’s astonishing that there is only a five year age difference between them.
But the reason the photo really resonates as an especially apt description of punk as a whole is that the single woman on the panel, Donita Sparks of the band L7, is omitted from our view. In other words, as with the forty year history of the genre itself, although women are both present and powerful within it, they’ve been erased by the media — in this case Rolling Stone — in favor of a bunch of white men posturing and jostling and competing for a word in edge-wise. “Punk” does try to rectify this omission, and ironically, the most powerful voice helping them to do so is that of Johnny Rotten himself. In both the documentary and at this panel discussion, he constantly pulled women back into the conversation, lauding their role and perspective in punk, as well as making a point of crediting individuals like Caroline Coon, Vivienne Westwood, and his stepdaughter Ari Up for their accomplishments. There were a few other such gestures throughout the proceedings, but none were quite as resonant as his.
The next day, videos of the more boisterous parts of this argument went viral, which was clearly the whole point of having the party in the first place. Malcolm McLaren would have approved of the tactic, and probably engineered one much like it; and in that sense, the Epix documentary is already a job well done. The genesis of punk, the authenticity of its actors, the point of it all…it’s the Beatles and the Stones all over again, an arcane argument that helps to legitimate the subject, while lightly skimming over the only thing that matters, which is simply that punk exists. It exists, and it thrives, and it is as necessary as ever. Epix’ documentary “Punk” pays tribute to that notion.