Saturday, August 04, 2007
Thursday, December 28, 2006
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Tags: music, theology, punk, spiritualilty, Christianity, punk rock, Jesus, writing, books, blogging, blogs
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Remembering Joe Strummer
But just in case it ain't:
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros perform "Rudie Can't Fail (YouTube) -- for Rockstar Mommy.
Joe Strummer and the Mascaleros perform "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)" (YouTube) -- for Tesco.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Silver and Gold.mp3, from the greatest posthumous album ever, Streetcore -- for me.
Tags: Joe Strummer, the clash, music
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Fun fun, oh baby: 'Brats on the Beat'
New from Go-Kart Records, it's Brats on the Beat: Ramones for Kids. As Pitchfork reports, the album is a gathering of "some of the most semi-recognizable names in the pop-punk world to turn in their own child-friendly renditions of Ramones songs."
Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba, the Donnas' Brett Anderson, Pennywise's Jim Lindberg, TSOL's Jack Grisham, Bouncing Souls' Greg Attonito, the Dwarves' Blag Dahlia, and former Queens of the Stone Age member Nick Oliveri all appear on the compilation, which Go-Kart will release this coming Tuesday, November 21. Jennifer Precious Finch of L7 and the Shocker produced the affair.It's all for a good cause, as a portion of the sales proceeds go to St. Jude's Children's Hospitals.
The twist is that the punkers only sing lead; for all of the choruses and background vocals, they are joined by the Gabba Gabba Hey Singers, i.e. a bunch of kids. And to make things even weirder, "California Sun" and "Spiderman" aren't even Ramones originals!
Actually, there's another good cause.The MySpace site reports:
WE ARE HERE TO RESCUE SUFFERING PARENTS and INNOCENT CHILDREN!Fun fun, oh baby.
On November 21, 2006 Go-kart Records will release Brats On The Beat: Ramones For Kids.
Are you a parent, aunt or uncle or older sibling who is sick of watching children suffer by being forced to listen to Barney, Rafi or The Wiggles? Well, Brats On The Beat: Ramones For Kids is here to save the day!
(Hat tip: Thunderstruck.)
Tags: music, punk, punk rock
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Chapter 2 (part 2): Ecclesiastes in a Ripped Shirt
The malaise of modern life
I’m the chairman of the bored. – Iggy Pop
What lies beneath the surface of both Ecclesiastes and the “No Feelings/No Fun/No Future” mantra of the early punk movement? In a word: boredom.
Theologian Charles Williams correctly calls Ecclesiastes “a classical expression of utter boredom.” The author’s ennui hovers like a dark cloud over the entire text. The repetition of the theme – the notion of meaningless – reinforces that sense of despair. As Yancey notes, the word meaningless – translated as vanity or vanities in the King James Version – appears 35 times in the New International Version’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes, effectively “drumming home the theme from beginning to end.”
In the era of Solomon, only the very rich could afford to be bored. The poor were too busy working; they were so caught up with eking out an existence that they didn’t have time to even think about boredom, let alone contemplate the vicissitudes of life. In ancient civilizations, navel-gazers didn’t last long, and in ancient Israel, they had the Book of Proverbs to warn slackers about such idleness.
The whole notion of boredom is a relatively new concept, introduced into the English language as the industrial revolution was first taking shape. The words bore and bored were first used in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and literally related to the idea of drilling – a repetitive action of piercing into something or someone. (Think of a boring conversation you’ve had recently and the image of a dull drill grinding into your skull may come to mind.) Again, much like our understanding of existentialism, we have the French to thank for teaching us about boredom. They gave us the word ennui, which conveys a sense of world-weariness and melancholy in addition to sheer boredom. And while the French had a word for it long before the English, boredom’s appearance in the English language is perhaps “the first sign or symptom of a disease that would spread like a plague over the next three hundred years,” writes Richard Winter. The connection between boredom and an increase in leisure time is no coincidence.
To be sure, boredom is a theme in the existential literature Yancey cites as influential (particularly Hemingway). The Sex Pistols and other punk performers of that era captured this sense of boredom and lashed out the only way they could: through their performance art. “If they [the Sex Pistols] represented a rebellion against anything,” writes Tricia Henry in Break All Rules! “it was against teenage apathy and boredom. ... People identified with the message of rage against the status quo and displayed their empathy by adopting the punk lifestyle.”
Both boredom and existential angst seem to flourish during times of material prosperity. While Solomon was probably not the author of Ecclesiastes, “the whole tone of Ecclesiastes reflects the tenor of King Solomon’s time, when Israel reached its zenith as a nation,” Yancey notes. He adds that “existential despair, whether in the Teacher or in Camus, tends to sprout from the soil of excess.” The malaise of modern life, it seems, stems from our excesses – in material wealth, in technology to do the things that once required human strength, in leisure time, in the multitude of activities we have to fill that leisure time.
Psychologists and sociologists also have come to see this combination of boredom and existential despair as one of modern life’s chief maladies. Sociologist Orrin Clapp describes boredom as “a strange cloud [that] hangs over modern life” and notes that it is most prevalent “in cities where there are the most varieties, pleasure, and opportunities.” Earlier last century, according to Yancey, psychoanalyst Carl Jung reported that a third of his cases “suffered from no definable neurosis other than ‘the senselessness and emptiness of their lives.’ He went on to name meaninglessness the general neurosis of the modern era, as people torture themselves with questions that neither philosophy nor religion can answer.”
Burning with boredom
Here we are now,London of 1977 had much in common with Israel of King Solomon’s time. Both nations were at peace after recent times of war. Israel had prevailed over the Philistines and other neighboring tribes; Great Britain had triumphed over Nazi Germany in World War II. The nations were also empires in decline. While we may think of Solomon’s Israel as a nation at its zenith, already the seeds of its disintegration had been sown. But England’s youth, while still living in one of the world’s most prosperous nations, harbored no illusions of greatness. Unlike their Queen Elizabeth, celebrating her Silver Jubilee with a sense of benign neglect for the harsh economic circumstances surrounding her, the youths of London were keenly aware of the hopeless situations surrounding them. Unemployment skyrocketed, especially among the young, who roamed the streets of London in packs.
Entertain us. – Nirvana
They had time on their hands, but no jobs. They had television. They had boredom. The punks responded through the language of youth and rebellion: rock and roll.
While the Sex Pistols grabbed the headlines with their frantic and frightful stage shows, several other British punk groups were making music that also resonated with the disenfranchised youth. One of those groups, a raucous London quartet known as The Clash, struck in 1977 with two songs about the burden of boredom: “I’m So Bored with the USA” and “London’s Burning.” To the north, in Manchester, a group called the Buzzcocks churned out their own anthem to boredom. It was appropriately titled “Boredom.”
With “I’m So Bored with the USA,” the Clash lashed out on two fronts. Socially aware from the outset, the Clash attacked the listlessness of the U.S.-dominated pop culture. (The lines “Yankee detectives/Are always on the TV” referred to the ubiquitous American crime programs like Kojak and Baretta that could be seen on England’s telly as well as back in the states.) But the song’s critique on pop culture was actually its secondary theme. More powerful was its criticism of U.S. foreign policy, from Vietnam to Central America. Sharp, compelling lyrics, delivered in lead singer Joe Strummer’s trademark, working-class cockney accent, hit home on both sides of the Atlantic:
Yankee dollar talkIn “London’s Burning,” Strummer’s urgent, panicky shriek at the beginning of the song – London’s burning! London’s burning! – no doubt evoked memories among older Londoners of the nightly air raids during the Battle for Britain. But this time, the enemy is not from across the English Channel. This time it is the enemy within.
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
An’ they can’t afford to miss a word
Settling into the first verse, Strummer explains the cause for alarm:
All across the town, all across the nightMore threatening than the luftwaffe, Strummer seems to be saying, is the boredom that creeps into our lives without warning. With “London’s Burning,” the Clash sound an alarm, in hopes of jolting listeners out of their complacency.
Everybody’s driving with full headlights
Black or white turn it on, face the new religion
Everybody’s sitting ‘round watching television
London’s burning with boredom now...
Meanwhile, in the industrial city of Manchester, north of London, a group called the Buzzcocks were churning out their own brand of punk. This group, too, struck a resonant chord with the theme of boredom, though with no hint of the ironic urgency that the Clash infused into “London’s Burning.” As band member Pete Shelley recounts, fellow Buzzcock Howard Devoto wrote the lyrics to “Boredom” at a time when he was “working a night shift at the tie factory” – a tedious job – “and during the night he’d written these words. I looked at these words and before he went to bed, I wrote the music.”
“Boredom” features an intense, two-note guitar solo – evoking the discordant wail of a British police siren – that is repeated throughout the song. The repetition of those two notes underscore the theme of the song – monotony and dullness, yes, but tinged with a certain discord that implies all is not right with the world. Devoto’s lyrics portray life in post-industrial Manchester – or anywhere else – where despair coexists alongside the presence of so much material wealth, even when the wealth is inaccessible to the disenfranchised youth. “I’m living in this movie/but it doesn’t move me,” Devoto sings in a disenchanted tone. In another lyric – “I’ve taken this extravagant journey/or so it seems to me/I just came from nowhere/and I’m going straight back there” – the Buzzcocks portray the “extravagant journey” of life as a mind-numbing round trip from nowhere to nowhere.
A loss of faith
Faith in any better future ... is a trapdoor back into the order opposed and abhorred. – Mark SinkerThe seeds of boredom, sown in our culture of material abundance, take root in a world where faith and meaning are in the decline. That was certainly the case in 1970s London and New York, the centers of two once-great empires now in decline. The emergence of punk from the smoldering ashes of boredom resulted from the steady erosion of Christian values from England’s and America’s shared culture, argues Richard Winter, a psychiatrist whose book Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment describes the rise of boredom over the centuries. “The history of philosophy in Europe and North America over the last three hundred years,” he writes, “is the story of throwing off the restraints and shackles of Christianity in attempting to find a basis for meaning and significance in science, reason or experience – without reference to God.”
Boredom is a symptom of that “God-shaped vacuum” in our lives Blaise Pascal spoke of, and we try to fill that void in a variety of ways.
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in others words, by God himself.“In our frenetic age,” writes Winter, “we run after any diversion in an attempt to avoid introspection and awareness of our incompleteness and dissatisfaction.” The punks ran to the clubs, attempting to fill the void with music, fashion, friendship and a subculture that rejected the bourgeois values of the established system. We may not run to the punk rock shows, but you can be certain that we, also, attempt to find solace from contemplating our existence and the meaningless of it all. For some of us, it is our careers that provide refuge. For others, it is shopping, or alcohol, gambling, food or any of a number of addictive diversions. It doesn’t matter how we try to fill this void. What matters is that we recognize it for what it is.
That “inner emptiness and longing we all experience from time to time is a sign of something beyond ourselves.”
The last and final word
I’m young and I’m hopeless. – Good CharlotteFrom the days of Ecclesiastes to the punk rock movement of the seventies and on to today’s music and cultural scene, the existential questions of life have haunted men and women everywhere. Historically, the wealthy and the scholars had more time to ponder these questions. But with the changing face of our world – the instantaneous access of information, the increase of leisure time and the growing affluence of global culture – the creeping fog of boredom seeps into all of our lives, and we turn to various sources, outward or inward, to help us cope. We can join the chorus of the Sex Pistols and reject all hope for the future, or we can join the preacher of Ecclesiastes and pour ourselves another glass of wine.
The theme of Ecclesiastes – the theme of despair and hopelessness – seems to run counter to the hope of the Christian faith. Yet the very book that devotes all but a few verses of its twelve chapters portraying life as hopeless is also an apt starting point for connecting punk condition with the love of God. As Yancey points out, Ecclesiastes didn’t fall into the Old Testament by accident. It wasn’t slipped into the text while no one was looking. Instead, Ecclesiastes is “a profound reminder of the limits of being human.”
We humans look at the world and with our limited perspective, see things that cause us to question whether God even exists. And even if we do believe in God’s existence, we may question his sense of divine justice. But there is a key phrase running throughout Ecclesiastes that offers a hint to the author’s – and our – limited point of view. The phrase – “under the sun,” as the King James Version translates it – reminds us that the preacher, wise and experienced as he is, still offers only a human, and therefore limited, perspective on this situation we call life.
But as we of the space age now know, there is more to the universe than that which is “under the sun.” Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes also knew, for after his thorough study of life and all that falls short of perfection, his “last and final” word on the subject offers hope for all who are under the sun.
“The last and final word,” wrote the preacher, “is this: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14, Message).
Centuries after the preacher wrote these words, there appeared in Israel a traveling preacher, one called greater than Solomon, who brought forth a radical message. And in his first recorded sermon, he invoked God’s blessings upon an unlikely group: the poor, the meek, the mournful, the persecuted – the hopeless. Were he around today, this preacher might even proclaim, “Blessed are the punks.”
Tags: music, theology, punk, spiritualilty, Christianity, punk rock, Jesus, writing, books, blogging, blogs
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Chapter 2 (part 1): Ecclesiastes in a Ripped Shirt
It is possible to live only so long as life intoxicated us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid. – Leo TolstoyThe preacher had lived what many of us would consider a full, successful, prosperous life. In stark contrast to the more stringent lifestyle we might expect from a high-ranking member of the clergy, this man’s manner of living would be considered scandalous if he were ministering in today’s typical evangelical church. His was a life spent pursuing material wealth, worldly pleasures, leisure, food and drink, and temporal wisdom and knowledge. More than anyone else of his day, he had done it all and seen it all. He’d pursued the finest that life had to offer. To borrow Henry David Thoreau’s famous phrase, he lived to “suck the marrow out of life.” Both sybarite and scholar, he was wealthy, well respected, and renowned for his discernment and judgment. Nearing the end of his days, this wise man sat down to record all he had learned about life as a guide for future generations.
...all is vanity – Ecclesiastes 1:2 (King James Version)
No future! – The Sex Pistols
According to Christian tradition, the author of this guide was Solomon, the son of Israel’s King David. Solomon reigned over Israel some three thousand years ago during the ancient nation’s brief, glorious era of peace, expansion and influence. Assuming Solomon truly is the author, then his philosophy of life – the guide recorded in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – is not as likely to be cited by churchgoing Christians as another Old Testament book attributed to Solomon, Proverbs. As the name implies, Proverbs offers handy “how-to” sayings often referenced as rules for living for many earnest Christians. But Ecclesiastes offers an entirely different take on life.
As books about leadership and motivation go, Ecclesiastes doesn’t rank up there with the works of Christian writers like Rick Warren or Robert Schuller. The author offers no consolation or easy step-by-step guide to prosperity. For despite his rich experience, wisdom and wealth, Solomon – or whoever “the preacher” was – writes as one who finds life utterly meaningless and worthless.
Centuries later, the author’s weary disillusionment nearly jumps off the pages of this existential treatise. He begins with a thumbnail assessment of the world situation, and, like a modern-day newspaper reporter summarizing the state of affairs in the lead paragraphs, cynically concludes, “There’s nothing to anything – it’s all smoke” (Eccl. 1:2, Message). And here’s the proof: One generation passes, another arrives, yet nothing ever changes. The sun rises, then sets, then rises again; the winds blow south, then north, this way and that; the rivers flow into the sea, “but the sea never fills up.” On and on it goes; nothing changes (Eccl. 1:4-7). Or, as Talking Heads’ David Byrne would sing, much later, everything is the “same as it ever was.”
“Everything’s boring, utterly boring – no one can find any meaning in it. Boring to the eye, boring to the ear. What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth” (Eccl. 1:8-9).
For those readers whose hearts are not yet filled with despair from the writer’s initial bleak assessment – for those who soldier on to read more of the preacher’s dismal reflections on life’s meaninglessness – they find that the old man, recounting his life experiences, undergirds his nihilistic conclusions about life with further evidence, drawn from his personal experience.
The old man wasn’t always so disillusioned. There was a time, he writes, when his outlook on life was brimming with hope. This wisest of men searched diligently for meaning – through study and the life of the mind; through the amassing of material wealth; through debauchery; and through hard work.
“With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster,” he writes, “I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth” (Eccl. 2:3, Message). His conclusion? That the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge is a worthless waste of time – “nothing but spitting into the wind” (Eccl. 1:17, Message). What’s more, a life of hedonism – seeking pleasure with the proverbial “wine, women and song” – or the pursuit of wealth and material goods yield the same result: “My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it?” (Eccl. 2:2, Message). Whether one pursues wisdom or folly, both lead to the same dead end.
When I realized that my fate’s the same as the fool’s, I had to ask myself, “So why bother being wise?” It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke. The smart and the stupid both disappear out of sight. In a day or two they’re both forgotten. Yes, both the smart and the stupid die, and that’s it. (Eccl. 2:15-16, Message).A present-day spiritual seeker, former punk rocker Brad Warner, echoes Ecclesiastes’ perspective, but in more contemporary language and with a Zen perspective:
Fame, fortune, really great sex – maybe those’ll cure all your ills. But beautiful famous people with loads of money are just as confused and miserable as anyone else. Spend your whole life chasing after wealth and power and you end up with nothing more to show for it than bleeding ulcers and a heart condition. You can master tantric yoga poly-orgasmic Wonder Sex but you’re still gonna die alone. There has to be something more.Yes, there must be something more, right? The more we strive to fill our lives with possessions, pleasures or knowledge, the more we emptiness we feel.
'A fundamental dis-ease'
Our culture is largely marked by relativism and ultimate meaninglessness. - Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There“There is within us – in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us – a fundamental dis-ease,” writes Huston Smith. “It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.”
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. ... Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.This sense of existential angst – even in the midst of worldly prosperity and understanding – afflicts many spiritual seekers today. It is a sign of the times we live in. Sociologist Manfred Stanley refers to it as “the spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation.” It is an uneasiness that arises from “the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”
Even deeply religious people encounter these feelings of spiritual hopelessness from time to time. In his book The Bible Jesus Read, Christian author Philip Yancey reflects on his own feelings of youthful alienation. Growing up in a strict fundamentalist-Christian environment, Yancey was sheltered from some of life’s harsher realities. But by the time he went off to college, his eyes were opened to many of the same issues Ecclesiastes addresses, and he began to question the meaning of existence. In the process, he experienced the same symptoms of despair as the wise old preacher of Ecclesiastes: “Flat emotions, a radical indifference to others, the sensation of drifting, numbness to pain, a resigned acceptance of a world gone mad.” Reading the works of French novelists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, alongside American writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Walker Percy, reinforced Yancey’s sense of dismal existence. This, Yancey writes, was “the predicament of modern literature.”
What difference does anything make, really? It matters little whether you get up or stay in bed, whether you love life or hate it. Stab yourself in the hand, like Sartre’s Mathieu, shoot a person in the hot Algerian sun like Camus’s “Stranger,” or just wander, Hemingwayesque, from one bar to another, picking fights. Life goes on whether you strive to change it or merely succumb to it. What is a human being, but a tiny blip in the billion-year progression of history?“I hate life,” writes the preacher of old. His words are bitter, matter-of-fact, and hardened from his years of anguish and self-discovery. “As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke – and spitting into the wind” (Eccl. 2:17, Message).
‘Nothing like the image’
A defining moment for any teen misfit is finding others like yourself, even if the only think you share is the feeling of not belonging anywhere else. – Joan Jett“I hated the world,” a young British art student named Shanne Hasler said in 1976. “I came from a middle-class background, brought up in Ware, Hertfordshire. I was illegitimate and I hated the thing of everyone trying to be nice and well-mannered, and behind the scenes, people weren’t really. I didn’t want to be part of it, so I ripped my clothes, scalped myself, pierced my ears. ... I just wanted to be noticed, but I was very shy at the same time. It was my hatreds coming out with a sense of humour.”
Someone who took notice of the girl was a young man named John Lydon, who informed her of a London hangout for bored and disillusioned youth. It was a fashion boutique called Sex, which was owned by Malcolm McLaren. Lydon hung out there, along with a few other young men who would later become his Sex Pistols band mates: Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. “I went down there with a friend: we got taken out to lunch by Malcolm McLaren,” explained Hasler. “He took us all around the shop and explained how all the clothes were made. Later I met Johnny: he took me back to Finsbury Park and put me on the train home. He was really well-mannered; nothing like the image.”
Within a year of that encounter, however, that “image” would reign supreme in Britain’s music scene. By then, John Lydon had become Johnny Rotten, lead singer for the Sex Pistols. He was the most important icon of a new movement in music and fashion. Throngs of teenagers in Great Britain, as bored and disillusioned as old Solomon, were expressing their rage and hate toward life as well. But rather than spitting into the wind, these young punks were hitting the night spots and spitting into the faces of the musicians who were giving voice to the despair these teens felt in their bones and expressed in their clothing. They even had a name for the practice: gobbing.
With their raucous style, the Sex Pistols breathed life into England’s moribund musical scene. But more often than not, the broader public – and the music business – deplored them as scourges rather than hailing them as saviors. Just as Ecclesiastes confronts our futile efforts to make sense of the world apart from God, so the Sex Pistols confronted the dry bones of the music world. They were annihilating the music of their time and country, and by extension were annihilating the culture as well. Their music, writes David Simonelli, “was a rebellion not just against the rock establishment, but against the establishment at large.” It was a critique of England’s failed socialism, a sound that, as one music journalist described it, came “from the straight-out-of-school-and-onto-the-dole deathtrap which we seem to have engineered for Our Young: the ‘76 British terminal stasis, the modern urban blind alley.”
Just as many in the church prefer to overlook dark portions of scripture such as Ecclesiastes in favor of happier or more pragmatic texts – many Christians treat Ecclesiastes “with polite distaste, as if it had sneaked into the canon when no one was looking,” says Yancey – so many in the music and entertainment business of the time preferred to turn their backs on the Sex Pistols’ gospel of nihilism to continue business as usual. But the Pistols would not go quietly. Like that prophet of old, John the Baptist, the group was a voice in the wilderness, crying out for reformation and foretelling what was to come.
The Sex Pistols dismantled the dull pop and “glam rock” of the time and reconstructed it in a stripped-down form that reverberated with the rebellion of early rock and roll – but amplified it a hundredfold. In their lyrics, the Pistols brought forth new forms of social commentary. The music and the commentary, however, were brought to life by the group’s front man, Johnny Rotten. In his shredded, safety-pinned shirts and with his sneering demeanor, Rotten embodied all that punk stood for – defiance, rebellion, anarchy – and became its gaunt, wild-eyed prophet, as shocking in his day as another Johnny – John the Baptist, clothed in sackcloth and munching on locusts – must have been to Israel’s status quo two thousand years ago.
The times were ripe for the Pistols to appear on the music scene. As Tricia Henry explains in her history of the punk rock movement, “the outlook [among British youth] for bettering their lot in life seemed bleak.” The economy was in the tank, and unemployment – particularly among the young – was high. Britain’s economic shambles “fueled an incendiary social situation as racism, xenophobia, and police brutality became the order of the day,” writes one observer. “Mounting feelings of anger, frustration, and a deepening sense of isolation left much of English youth feeling hopeless. Trying to make sense of this mess, many found a means of expression in punk rock.”
The pop music of the day did nothing to assuage the feelings of disaffected British youth. The gods of pop and rock had become out of touch with their fans. Musicians toured in luxury and lived the self-indulgent “rock star” life. Singer Joe Walsh song parodied the situation – and got a hit single from the effort – with his 1978 song, “Life’s Been Good.” (“I have a mansion, forget the price,” Walsh sings. “Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.”) For some rock stars, the reality was not far off the mark of Walsh’s satire. A year before the release of “Life’s Been Good,” Eric Clapton, one of the biggest rock stars of that time, toured Europe in the luxury of a customized train attached to the Orient Express, “while at home, amongst the readers of the newspapers in which Clapton’s tour was publicised, about one in ten adults were out of work.”
Mick Farren of the British magazine New Musical Express expressed the sentiments of many British youth of the time when he wrote, in early 1976: “We are going through the worst depression since the ‘thirties. In global terms, the fear of civil war is probably greater than it was even at the height of the ‘60s paranoia, and in quieter moments I tend to wonder just how long the food, water, air, etc., are going to last. Do we hear any of this reflected in rock and roll? Not often. Most of the time it seems as though all either musician or audience want to deal with is pure escapism.”
Do not think I am for violence. ... [Rather] what we produce is a climate of controlled frenzy. ... Our songs are anti-God, anti-the Queen, anti-the palsied values of present day society. I am a revolutionary. ... An anarchist. I want to stir people up to think for themselves. That’s all. – John LydonBut a growing segment of England’s youth was dissatisfied with escapism – especially the British youth who had been exposed to the influences of the New York punk scene. This included members of both the Sex Pistols and the Clash, who encountered the Ramones during that band’s 1976 trip to the UK. These bands transformed the “irony, pessimism, and amateur style of the music” of New York punk into a socially conscious style that was “as self-consciously proletarian as it was aesthetic.”
As focal point for the Sex Pistols and their music of annihilation, Johnny Rotten’s crowning achievement – and a truly proletarian protest of British culture – would occur in June 1977. Manager McLaren had arranged for the Pistols to perform their most controversial song, “God Save the Queen,” in a floating concert aboard the Queen Elizabeth during the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Lydon, who scribbled the lyrics months earlier in a Hampstead squat, had no idea of the impact the song would make on British society. Much like Ecclesiastes seems an odd and incongruous insertion into the Old Testament’s beautiful, poetic “wisdom” books, an abrupt interruption into the bridge from wisdom to the prophets, so the release of “God Save the Queen” interjected chaos into the cadence of the hyped, whitewashed celebration of the queen’s 25th anniversary on the throne.
Jon Savage recalls the occasion. With this performance, “The Sex Pistols appeared with all the force of a hand-grenade tossed into an arrangement of gladioli,” he writes. “God Save the Queen,” and the Pistols’ inauspicious performance of it aboard the ship on the Thames, was “the only serious anti-jubilee protest” to accompany the pomp. The Pistols “leapt into the abyss that had suddenly opened but very few followed them.” Nevertheless, the song split open a fissure in British society, exposing the social cracks in the mortar that had been spackled over during the Silver Jubilee.
It’s difficult, now, to imagine just how the song and the Pistols’ antics shocked Britons. “Noisy bands, weird clothes and swear words on prime-time TV don’t amount to much in the Eminem age,” writes one commentator, “yet the surge of creative energy punk released, and its defiance of the stifling conformism of the times, changed Britain for good, and for the better.”
One struggling singer-songwriter emerging on the scene at that time, Declan MacManus – better known to us today as Elvis Costello – recalls the shock waves “God Save the Queen” sent through the nation. “We were all living in this block of flats, and nobody had an awful lot of money. ... And there were all these people in 1977, when the Jubilee was on, wasting their money on a bloody street party for the queen. Perhaps it sounds small-minded now, but I used to really enjoy playing ‘God Save the Queen,’ loud, because all the little old ladies would be so outraged.”
The song itself strikes as hard and fast as an IRA terrorist’s Molotov Cocktail. It kicks off with Steve Jones’ “multi-tracked guitar fanfare,” evoking the opening licks from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Undergirded by “Paul Cook’s crisp drumming, ‘God Save the Queen’ declared itself very quickly.” But again, it is Rotten who gives voice to the protest, as Jon Savage explains. “‘God save the queen,’ enunciated Lydon very clearly in the spaces between Steve Jones’s guitar, before filing his ‘R’s to points: ‘The fascist regime. It made you a morrron – a potential H-bomb.’”
As incendiary as that opening salvo was, it was the song’s final chant – the refrain of no future, no future, no future – that came to define punk as a truly nihilistic movement. “No future” became the rallying cry of punks throughout England – and soon, throughout the western world.
Just as the author of Ecclesiastes concludes that life was nothing but “a bad business from start to finish” (Eccl. 2:21, Message) and advises his readers to simply “have a good time and get by the best you can” (Eccl. 2:24, Message), so the Pistols declared that nothing matters but the moment: There is no future/in England’s dreaming. Or in any other nation’s dreaming, for that matter.
“God Save the Queen,” writes Savage, “was shocking, not only because it said the present was a lie but also because it prophesied a dreadful future. .... ‘No Future’ was both a matter-of-fact statement and a terrible warning which had multiple applications, not only for the crumbling postwar consensus, but for the whole idea of youth culture and for the group themselves.” It was “the last gasp of youth culture as a single, unifying force.”
In a single refrain, “God Save the Queen” foretold the splintering of youth culture into myriad tribes and tongues.
No Feelings, No Fun, and No Holy Future
There was a nihilism in the atmosphere, a longing to die. – Mary HarronPlaced alongside two other Sex Pistols songs, “God Save the Queen” – which Lydon originally titled “No Future” but which McLaren, in his typical penchant for controversy, changed to make it more seditious – completes a type of nihilistic trinity for the nascent punk movement. Joined to the themes of Pistols songs “No Feelings” and “No Fun” (a Stooges tune that the Pistols “reframed and recontextualized so that it finally made sense”), the refrain to “God Save the Queen” completed this trinity and gave punks a belief system, based on a single word: No.
“The Sex Pistols’ music was an outburst of hatred and despair,” writes Tricia Henry. “Face life as we see it, they cried – frustrating, meaningless, and ugly. Scream it out with us ... ‘There’s no future!’” Pop music critic Greil Marcus adds that Lydon, in creating “God Save the Queen,” was “responding to an overwhelming sense that ... culture – political, economic, and aesthetic – has collapsed,” and left him “stranded in a society that seems not only without prospects but without meaning.”
But this existential angst, as we have seen, is nothing new. As old King Solomon (or whoever is the true author of Ecclesiastes) wrote, “There’s nothing new on this earth” (Eccl. 1:9, Message).
At some point in our lives, each of us must confront the existential crisis of No Feelings, No Fun, No Future. Each of us must peer into the abyss of existence – if not leap into it – and see what peers back at us. For such a journey of soul-searching, the Book of Ecclesiastes serves as a suitable guidebook after all. Looking at the Old Testament text within the context of punk’s nihilistic trinity, we can see that the Sex Pistols’ sermons resonate with the writings of the ancient preacher.
No Feelings: “I said to myself, ‘Let’s go for it – experiment with pleasure, have a good time!’ But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke” (Eccl. 2:1, Message). The preacher/teacher (or, perhaps more aptly, the “Quester,” as The Message calls Ecclesiastes’ author) sought pleasure – through love, through hedonism, through every conceivable avenue – yet concludes that it is all a waste of time. He put into practice a line from “No Feelings” – “I’m in love with myself/no feelings for anybody else” – but found that self-serving hedonism left him empty.
No Fun: “I piled up silver and gold, loot from kings and kingdoms. I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song, and – most exquisite of all pleasures – voluptuous maidens for my bed. ... Everything I wanted I took – I never said no to myself, I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing. I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task – my reward to myself for a hard day’s work!” (Eccl. 2:8-10, Message). Even so, all the pleasures of this life amounted to “nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing” (Eccl. 2:11, Message). All of the fun the preacher sought amounted to nothing, to no fun at all.
No Future: “Whatever happens, happens. Its destiny is fixed. You can’t argue with fate,” wrote the preacher (Eccl. 6:10, Message) And, “who can tell any of us the next chapter of our lives?” (Eccl. 6:11b, Message). Echoing the words of Ecclesiastes and Lydon – but perhaps more resonant of Lydon – Brad Warner, a former punk rocker-turned-Zen Buddhist priest, concludes: “There is no future for you. There is no future for anyone. There is no future at all. Future is an idea.”
(Part 2: 'The malaise of modern life')
Tags: music, theology, punk, spiritualilty, Christianity, punk rock, Jesus, writing, books, blogging, blogs
Let's go to the punk rock Mercy Me show
While at the Mercy Me show on Saturday I spotted a teenage girl wearing a black leather jacket with The Exploited painted on the back in white and red. Now for those of you who don't know, The Exploited are a punk rock band from Scotland who were absolutely my favorite during more rebellious years. I thought it sort of funny that this young girl, decked out in black combat boots, ripped candy-- striped pantyhose, with black and yellow hair should was standing in the lobby of Life Changers during a Mercy Me concert. It was this juxtaposition of punk and Jesus that has interested me for awhile.I just found it interesting to read about this sighting. Mercy Me is not what most people would consider a Christian punk band. You just never know where a punk is going to show up next. I can only imagine.
... I have long sensed the tremendous similarities to my former punk rock ideology and the Jesus theology that has saved me and thought that it might make for a good book. I am disappointed Careaga beat me to it but delighted that he's taken up the thesis and writing about it.
Tags: music, theology, punk, spiritualilty, Christianity, punk rock, Jesus, writing, books, blogging, blogs