Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I just finished reading a new book on the California Bay Area punk scene, called Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, two writers I know nothing about. The book is okay, and the scene it documents is definitely worthy of attention - especially the late '70s SF scene which, like the L.A. scene of the same era has typically been overshadowed by happenings in NYC and the UK. The book details that era in a good bit of detail, and also covers much that came after, leading up to the big success of Bay Area bands Green Day and Rancid (and somewhat later, AFI).

I'm not interested in doing a full-scale review of the book, at least not here, not now. But I do want to comment on the form of the book, because it's the latest representative of what has become a genre unto itself: the punk rock oral history.

Many people seem to think that Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain pioneered this particular approach with their popular account of the New York punk scene, Please Kill Me. While I think they definitely popularized oral history as the dominant mode of punk rock chronicle, they weren't the first. Clinton Heylin beat them to the punch a couple years earlier with From the Velvets to the Voidoids, and those two books cover an awful lot of the same ground, although Please Kill Me is definitely the more lurid of the two and thus a more fun read.

Since then (PKM came out in '94), oral histories of punk have proliferated. We have We Got the Neutron Bomb (Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz, on LA punk), Lexicon Devil (Mullen, Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey, on the Germs), Dance of Days (Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, on the DC scene), American Hardcore (Steve Blush, on - you guessed it - hardcore). Even John Lydon/Johnny Rotten turned his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, into an oral history. And now we have Boulware and Tudor's book, and I'm sure there will be more to come.

I like a lot of these books, and have found them valuable for piecing my own research together. But at the same time, I'm skeptical of the motivation behind a lot of them. For one thing, this way of representing punk has become standardized - each oral history that comes out seems more like the one that preceded it, even though the locations and the interviewees vary from one to the next. One really unfortunate result of these books is that they all focus on the most sensational aspects of punk: the drug addiction, violence, the squalor of the so-called "punk lifestyle." And as they do so, they define punk as something that ultimately has very little to do with the music that punk bands have made, because none of these books - none of them, with the possible exception of Blush's book on hardcore - have anything interesting to say about punk music. I'm willing to grant that for many people punk is a lifestyle and an identity, not just a musical genre; but without the music punk would mean shit. And the music is the thing that these books most fail to discuss adequately, because the authors get too caught up in playing "connect the dots" between the stories told by their informants to really dig deep into anything, and it's a lot easier to piece together an oral history of people staking out their sides in the East Bay vs. West Bay feud than it is putting together a string of mostly disjointed observations into something that speaks to the complexity of the creative process. Despite the romantic assumption that the punk creative process is spontaneous and unreflective, punk music is as much the product of calculated effort and applied creativity as any other form of really great music.

There's another thing that bothers me even more about these books, though, and it's something that is made explicit in Gimme Something Better. In the introduction to the book, former Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels claims: "The oral history format has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer ... The stories that follow are the real thing."

This, quite frankly, is bullshit. Does anyone really think that piecing together a 470-page oral history is not an act of WRITING? Does anyone actually believe that the authors do not ultimately exercise their own judgment in deciding which interview excerpts to include and which to leave on the cutting room floor, let alone deciding which questions to ask in the first place? The fact that in all of these oral histories the author's questions are omitted from the text is to me not a sign of the "realness" of these books, but a sign of their fundamental dishonesty. They mask the conditions of their own production. They try to make it appear as though there is just one big flowing conversation happening amongst all the informants, when in fact the whole thing is choreographed and arranged by the people whose names appear on the cover of the book.

These books are the product of a lot of labor and they show it. There's good reason why people enjoy reading them. But why is it that I have rarely read any of the above books and come away having any genuinely new insights into the things they discuss? I think it's because in allowing their informants to theoretically do all the talking, the authors abdicate their own responsibility to actively, explicitly interpret the material they work with. And while I appear to be most decidedly in a minority, I would so much rather read a book in which an author offers an original interpretation over one that pretends to let its subjects "speak for themselves."

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