“PUNK: THE LONELIEST CROWD”
A subculture so obsessed with the term community, turns out to be the loneliest of all.
By Lorraine Petel
I became infatuated with East Bay punk at a very young age. When my peers were swooning over the new All Time Low album, I was glued to a punk scene that died before I was even born. I was the 16 year old kid in a South Florida high school rocking a Crimpshrine shirt from 1988 and falling head over heels with Lookout Records. I scoffed at the term “new music” and laughed when people said they heard of a new band. I didn’t know there was a music world outside of East Bay punk. How could there be? Anything that anyone needed was inside of a specific time frame (1982–1989), completely across the country from Florida, settled right inside of the San Francisco Bay Area. Nothing outside of it existed. And I was dammed to find out otherwise.
I was cynical about new culture and did not have the time of day to sit there and discover the South Florida punk scene. I wanted to be different from South Floridians, no matter if they were punk or not. It’s not like I despised Miami, I felt like Miami despised me. I wanted out of a place that didn’t welcome me and the different life I grew up with. The way I found out was to ostracize myself from the majority that rejected me and become obsessed with a place and a time that felt the same way I felt. Instead of indulging in my peer’s interest or seek out a punk community in a region that I felt hated and ostracized me, I shut myself off and ignored them. I was becoming punk.
Punk is a funny place. It exhibits some characteristics that scream community, but most of the time, punk is an ideology focused around the concept of loneliness. It welcomes fractions of humanity that are unhappy, kicked out of mainstream norms, and are angry with the cultural and political state of current society. Plain and simple — punk became a pool of people wallowing in anxiety and rejection from the beginning. And with those specific factors as the building blocks for punk, punk became a game of loneliness.
Punk obviously isn’t just about the music. Sure, it’s definitely about finding new bands, holding onto them because you think it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard, and supporting your local scene in order for it to keep thriving for years, but sappy enough, every punk has a story. Every punk got into punk for a reason. It wasn’t because I woke up one day and heard this great punk band and pledged my whole entire life to a do-it-yourself scene — it was a lot more emotional than that.
I was an only child, growing up in a single parent household. I was faced with a lot of alone time while my mom was at work. I learned how to take care of myself when kids were still learning how to tie their own shoes. I was isolated and different from the beginning, and once I got old enough to understand a little bit more about society, culture, and music, punk found me. Punk found me because punk is a place that ropes the lonely, the rejected, the isolated, the intellectuals, the anxiety induced, and the individuals that would rather hang out at Eli’s Mile High Club than ever be seen at a club in San Francisco. Punk caught me by the ankles and dragged me into a community that had the same experiences as me, the experiences that made me different, the experiences that harnessed the want to stray away from mainstream, and more importantly be different from anyone who I came in contact with; even punks.
It was OK. I knew that loads of other high schoolers hated their home town and the people within their high schools. That was totally normal. Teenage angst was a thing, and I accepted that. But, interestingly enough, the angst and the want to be different didn’t go away.
I finally moved to the place that was the mecca of punk; in my mind. I became a student at UC Berkeley in Fall 2011 and finally moved to the Bay Area. The first weekend of college, I did not go to frat parties, I did not go to co-op dinners, I did not tell my floor mates every single secret I ever harbored — I went to a punk show in Oakland. I disconnected myself from the community I literally got accepted into. I decided to isolate myself from something that could have welcomed me with open arms. Instead, I gravitated towards a disconnected, odd group of people that called themselves punk.
Living here for more than a weekend, I found myself going to more and more punk shows, and less and less UC Berkeley events. I was an 18 year old UC Berkeley student in a swarm of punks who worked at cool bike shops and were record reviewers at Maximum Rocknroll. I was the odd one out once again, and chose that road for the second time in my young adult life. I decided to be friends with people who were 10 years older than me, rather than 18 year old Berkeley students who were facing the same research paper problems as me. But, I found out I wasn’t the only one trying to disconnect myself from anyone I came in contact with. I met my match. I met punk.
I was making friends in the Bay Area punk scene that shared the same experiences as me. We felt isolated and different from the majority we grew up with. Even though my friends and I were bonding over the disconnection with society and pop culture, we found ourselves amongst a group of people that had the same anxiety and rejection as us, essentially a group of people still afraid to be a part of a community.
The question came up — how does a community possibly form when the people in that community only know how to be different and rejected? How has punk been branded as a group of people that soap their mohawks together? How did the subculture that was so focused on forming a community of misfits find themselves shouting “I’m punk!” in the face of punk? There is a scene, there are people that understand each other’s different experiences, there are shows where people will be recognizable, but we stand as single individuals rather than a community.
I’m not the only one that has noticed the string of loneliness in punk. The scene and the heroes I looked up to noticed it too. I thought I was clinging onto records during my teenage years that spelled out what community meant and how it felt to have a group of people you could go to.
But, I was wrong. The records and the zines I was cherishing weren’t about community but about the all consuming emotion of loneliness. The more and more I read Cometbus zines and the more and more I listened to the entire Lookout Records discography, I noticed everyone was talking about being alone in a scene that romanticized community. From Cometbus explaining what it felt like to have his roommates forget about him when he came home to Double Duce after months of traveling to Sweet Baby writing songs about being rejected, punk’s true emotion has shone through quite brightly. Cometbus found himself roaming the streets of Berkeley alone, compartmentalizing his social life in order to have nothing mix, creating a wall between each “community” he built for himself. Roommates weren’t friends and friends just welcomed him in their lives for short amounts of time. The community everyone talked about was fragmented by punks that wanted it to be fragmented.
It took me a long time to figure out what punk meant to me. I had a hard time grasping what it meant to be involved in a subculture that was a bit dysfunctional. Punk might be the loneliest crowd, feeding off of the perverse idea of always wanting to be different, but punk has become home. Maybe we don’t throw revolutionary ideas around all of the time or find ourselves only glued to people who know every single singer that has been in Black Flag, but we’re goddamn great at being a real community for a short period of time — whenever a band is performing.
I’ve seen a lot of shows. I’ve been to a diverse range of venues that have hosted punk shows. From punk houses in West Oakland to the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco, punk shows shine the same amount, no matter where the band is playing. I describe any punk band as the best thing I’ve ever heard because each album and each live performance is so oddly different from anything I’ve ever seen or heard before, but are so familiar and comforting at the same time.
I find myself watching a lot of bands and becoming so engrossed in the performance that it doesn’t matter that punk has more contradictions than you can count on two hands. It doesn’t matter that the community I became so in love with at a young age isn’t a connected one, because whenever there is a show, I understand why I love punk as a music genre and as an oddball subculture. Whenever I watch punk bands, it feels like my anxieties, my disagreements with the current political state, and my loneliness is being performed on stage. It feels like this band gets me, it feels like punk gets me. And that’s why I feel like there is still a community of show goers.
We’re a disconnected and an odd group of people. It’s obvious that punk wasn’t born from happiness. Punk was born from loneliness and the loneliness has created a barrier for punk from the beginning. It created an impossible mission to form a real community, but the community everyone has been talking about can be found at the next show.