Sheena and the Mummy

Punk once shocked the world. Now it's about to be embalmed in a museum. Ahead of the Chaos to Couture opening at the Met, Nick Tosches exhumes its dangerous spirit one last time

Published April 04, 2013
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My 93-year-old great-aunt, Helen, told me she didn't use a cane because she'd been falling down all her life and if she used a cane she'd simply fall down with it rather than without it. She told me that most of the old girls in the neighborhood had replaced their traditional canes with shiny new aluminum tripod canes. Now three prongs weren't enough. Many of them wanted newer, shinier quad canes. She shook her head: "I think it's all just a fashion statement."

That was ten years ago. I thought of her words the other night, coming upon J. G. Ballard's reference to "the use of fashion as a political weapon."

Aunt Helen wasn't talking about political weaponry, and Ballard wasn't talking about multipronged walking sticks. Now they're both dead, and there's no asking.

But somewhere between the two—between the metal and the metaphor of things—lies the heart of what is known as punk.

Have you ever read a definition or description of any kind of music, be it plainsong or punk? Lifeless and untelling compared with hearing even just a few breaths of the music itself.

Nobody can say where it came from or where it went, and we should beware always of those who would bring sociology or any other ology to rock 'n' roll.

We could date the first, dissonant chord of punk to 1972, when Laszlo Toth took a hammer to Michelangelo's Pietà in the Vatican. We could consider punk the fulfillment of the 1816 envisioning by Thomas Love Peacock of a "deteriorationist" metaphysics.

In the spring of 1977, there it was, apogee and essence: from London, "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols, right smack dab in the middle of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee; and from New York, "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" by the Ramones, which appeared on the British charts before the American charts—on May 21, precisely five years to the day after Toth struck.

Both records were bigger hits in dear dying England than in the dear dying States. A grayer shade of gray: Margaret Thatcher and the ascendance of the new Tories there; the seemingly benign Jimmy Carter here.

As if on cue, Elvis croaked that summer.

Since the late nineteenth century, the term "punk" was used in American hobo and prison slang to denote a catamite. Its meaning eventually modulated as it spread to general urban slang: petty delinquent, then self-styled miscreant. Ultimately, while still carrying echoes of its earlier meanings, it was little more than an epithet to generally denigrate or dismiss any young male.

That last gasp had as much to do with those who crowded the stage as those who were on it. Compared with the audience, punk's fleeting idols looked somewhat mundane.

As it applied to one of many short-lived effusions of rock 'n' roll, the blur of punk between delinquency and posturings was well-suited to the edge of violence in the noise of the Sex Pistols, the misfit merriment in that of the Ramones, and all that lay between. Including females in its fold, punk in this late sense lost the echo of its earliest meaning.

It is easier and more illuminating to see punk for what it was not than for what it was.

In the context of its day, it wasn't glammed-up glitter rock or heavy metal. It wasn't blues-rock minstrelsy. It wasn't corporate album-oriented rock (AOR). It wasn't Easy Listening, or fusion, or progressive, or Adult Contemporary, or Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." It wasn't Gloria Gaynor, the Village People, or disco. It wasn't the slick market-ready concept of Generation X or New Wave—at least not until it was dead.

Photo: Bob Gruen

If it was anything, it was a last gasp of life before the youths of the land returned to the all-American precepts of submission, greed, idiocy, and repression. Soon we would know them as yuppies.

That last gasp had as much to do with those who crowded the stage as those who were on it. Compared with the audience, punk's fleeting idols looked somewhat mundane.

Of course, Ecclesiastes is everlastingly right. Nothing was new. Boris Karloff wore four-inch platform boots in Frankenstein in 1931. Multi-zippered Schott black-leather motorcycle jackets and tight blue jeans were de rigueur street-punk fashion within a year of the release of The Wild One in 1953. Mohawk haircuts also date from the 1950s. Every form of hair dyeing, body piercing, and scarification is ancient and time honored.

Nobody saw what was coming. The Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes would stifle the last free breath in New York. The national economy would suffer a stroke from which the country would not recover. The lunacy of terrorism, Homeland Security, and "heroes" would render it brain-dead. All was spam. Life? Fun? Tweet me. Awesome.

Most of those today who are drawn to the music, look, ethos, and eidos of punk were not yet born when it flashed its moments in the pan. They are young people—mere punks, if you will—not drawn to the death-in-life of today's world. Different from those around them, they seek air in the thinning oxygen. It is always better to be born into a dull, doomed, and dead-end existence than to wake in it with the memory of liberty and abandon.

So what do you do with something that is dead? You put it in a museum. As Mick Jagger some years ago rightly said, though wrongly attributing the words to Jean Cocteau: "Americans are funny people. First you shock them, then they put you in a museum."That was before the Rolling Stones sadly began to censor their own lyrics for the sake of political correctitude.

Thus, we have Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not the Museum of Modern Art, but the big one. The vast Gothic Revival mausoleum of the greatness of the ages. Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, mummified Egyptian guys. The big one.

Museums. "Art appreciation." If you have to be taught to appreciate something, it can't be much good. Who ever heard of sex appreciation, drug appreciation, pork-chop appreciation? I shall not forget being asked to extinguish my cigarette at the Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2000. Welcome to the end of the world: No smoking allowed.

And runway shows. Models parading louche and haughty down gangways in punk-inspired designer fashions.

The metal and the metaphor, the Met and the merchandise. I am still lost as to what J. G. Ballard was talking about. But it is clear that Aunt Helen, who outlived the Floradora Girls and punk alike, made sense.

As I wait against all odds for the final exhibition, the final fashion show—Living the Lie: Credit Stimulation and Style—I wonder what will be the choice of the punk survivors of 36 and more springtimes ago as they enter senescence: three prongs or four, or, just imagine, five.

Nick Tosches' new novel, Me and the Devil (Little, Brown and Company), is out now.

Photo: David Dagley / Rex USA
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