By Daniel A. Kaufman
The older I get, the more I find myself listening to Punk rock and the less I seem to be able to tolerate much of anything else.
It’s weird, the idea of a middle-aged Punk. My parents, who belong to the Silent Generation, listened to classical, Big Band, and Sinatra-style lounge music, and I remember, as a kid, wondering whether I would do the same, when I was their age. This seemed like music for older people. It often required patience, was comparatively quiet, sometimes subtle, sophisticated, and mature, and was a “match” for the personalities of the adults around me. The notion that when I grew up, I might still be listening to the music of my youth seemed impossible, because the qualities that characterized it were incongruous with what I took to be the adult personality. The music was brazen and brash; hedonistic; some of it was political, though it tended towards anarchism, rather than any substantive political outlook; loud and sometimes dissonant; physically energizing, to the point of a kind of gleeful, controlled violence, expressed through slam dancing, moshing, and stage diving. My father may have taken me to my first rock concert, when I was eight years old – KISS, in 1976, on the Destroyer Tour – but it was an act of charity on his part. (I paid the favor forward last year, when I took my then twelve year old daughter and her best friend to see one of their favorite bands, Fall Out Boy, although the roles were, in some sense reversed. The girls were awestruck and a bit scared – “Is that smell….pot?!” – while I found the band – not to mention the audience – rather well-behaved, tame, and … well … a little safe.)
The Circle Jerks
I’m forty-seven now and listening to the same music that I did when I was sixteen. More so, in fact. What interest I retain in more mature musical forms – classical, for the most part – has shrunk as I have gotten older, rather than increase, a development that seems to run parallel with my taste in reading. Any interest I once had in long, dense, intricate classics (Russian or otherwise) has been eclipsed by a preference for short, lean, razor-sharp modern fiction. Evelyn Waugh rather than Tolstoy. Joan Didion over George Eliot. In college, you easily could have found me poring over The Sound and the Fury or Swann’s Way, but today, you’re much more likely to see me with a copy of Less Than Zero or with a comic, like Kick Ass! or Watchmen.
You might think this represents some sort of retarded development or even outright regression – my wife, who is seven years older than I am, complains, not infrequently, about having two children in the house (my daughter and me) – but I disagree. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t do a lot of adult stuff – I have a family, a house in a suburban neighborhood, a career, and the like – and I’ve aged physically, in every worst possible way. My girth, graying hair, and overall decrepitude have forced upon me the realization, articulated by the middle-aged protagonist, in George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, that no young girl will ever look twice at me again, unless she’s paid to. So, it’s not that I’ve rejected, walked away from, abandoned, or even really rebelled against adulthood. It’s that I’ve developed a certain attitude towards it, and it’s this attitude that is reflected in what have become my dominant tastes.
Having invested myself politically, first in the Left, then in the Right, and then in the Left again, my political sensibility has become increasingly and reflexively anarchical. If authority relies upon the capacity of people to recognize the legitimacy of a regime’s rule, I am no longer able to do so. In the decades since the Vietnam War – the period in which I grew up – it has become quite clear that regardless of who wins office and of which party is in power and of whether the individuals involved are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, they are going to lie, cheat, steal, surveil, violate, abuse, harass, wage senseless, brutal war, and the like. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was able to sustain the hope that this could change for the better, which is why I was so politically engaged throughout the nineties and into the early noughts. Any such hope has since evaporated, and I have become resigned to the idea not only that American politics is inherently debased and corrupt, but that it is set up in such a way as to remain so, in perpetuity. Put another way, I have zero hope that our politics is repairable from within the system and find, therefore, that my political sentiments – to the extent that I even bother with politics at all, any more – are almost entirely negative. On paper, I still identify with a certain brand of classical liberalism, but my musical tastes portray a very different orientation. The politics of Punk is not the socially positive, liberal politics of the 1960’s, expressed in that era’s popular music. Vietnam and Cambodia, Watergate, the hippie sellout and transformation into the yuppie, stagflation and urban decay, under Jimmy Carter and the subsequent triumph of Reaganism … these engendered nihilistic, destructive sentiments among American youth that were the opposite of idealistic rebellion and were largely apolitical, the Punk sonic and verbal assault being directed against Right and Left alike. This was not the “Everyone should love one another!” and “Let’s make the institutions better!” music of the 60’s, but the middle-finger anthems of a generation too world-wise to be snookered into another countercultural fantasy. “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Chemical Warfare,” and “Letter Bomb,” rather than “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Woodstock.”
The Dead Kennedys
I won’t say anything else about politics, which in any event ranks low among the reasons for my being a middle-aged Punk. Far more important is the way that my perception of adulthood changed, as I approached and then hit my forties, which are rapidly drawing to a close. Growing up, the adults around seemed categorically different from us kids. This perceived difference took many different forms, but the general sense was with regard to what I would characterize as “acting out,” including all manner of tantrum-throwing, showing off, bullying, out-of-the-blue, apparently unmotivated, acts of petty violence and destruction, and the like. Adults exhibited a kind of emotional and behavioral control that we kids lacked, something that they reminded us of, on those rare occasions when they felt the need to justify their authority or to explain why we were being denied some personal or social prerogative.
Of course, this all turned out to be a bunch of crap. Decades of professional life, sustained and substantial involvement in a number of adult institutions (whether religious, civic, or the like), adult friendships, marriage, parenthood … all have made me realize that adults “act out” as much as – and in worse ways than – kids do and that the appearance of emotional and behavioral control is entirely superficial, a mixture of misdirection and showing off. I often tell people that there is no stupid, cruel, destructive, awful thing that kids do, which adults don’t do to a much greater (and worse) degree, and it’s really true. When I was nine, if a kid hated me, he might have followed me home from school and shoved me down in my driveway (this actually happened), but now, when an adult hates me – as did a former, seventyish colleague, who has since retired – he might spend years trying to get me fired from my job, accuse me of “un-collegiality” and file charge after charge and complaint after complaint to my Department Head, Dean, and even the University President. (At one point, he accused me of “piracy,” when he found a missing footnote in one of my published articles.) A boy, upon realizing that a girl he likes is standing nearby, might show off by punching his friend or adding a swagger to his walk, but this same colleague that I just mentioned would try to impress people by speaking in dramatically slowed-down cadences, with an exaggerated, genteel Southern accent, the combination of which was supposed to demonstrate his thoughtfulness, sophistication, and laid-backedness, all at once. A kid who didn’t get what he wanted might have screamed or thrown himself on the floor and kicked his feet, but when another departmental colleague – also retired – didn’t get what he wanted at meetings, he would torture everyone with elaborate parliamentary maneuvers, the sole purpose of which was to drag out the proceedings, until we either gave in or descended to his level and shut him down, via some extra-parliamentary move that was little more than a dressed-up “Fuck off!” Of course, all of these adult versions of bullying, showing off, and tantrum-throwing are done much more quietly and with a veneer of civility that their juvenile counterparts lack, but all that this means is that adults are much better than kids at covering up what assholes and jerks we are. Argentina recently lowered the voting age to sixteen, and I think we should do the same. Hell, I’d lower it to twelve or thirteen, with complete confidence that whomever a mob of pre-teens would come up with for a presidential candidate wouldn’t (couldn’t) be worse than Donald Trump or Sarah Palin or even Hillary Clinton.
One of the strongest reasons for Punk’s appeal to me in middle age, then, is that I find myself increasingly nauseated by the phoniness, the disingenuousness, the goddamned pretension of adults. You got a problem with me? Throw a punch. You think you’re the shit? Let’s see what you’ve got. You’re pissed off? Say so. You want something? Ask for it. After all, these are the things you’re actually doing, once all the false decorum and posing has been stripped away. Directness; literalness; straightforwardness; the absence of anything resembling passive-aggression or “cover your ass.” I take these to be virtues, rather than vices, and they are the hallmarks of Punk … and, of course, of youth.
Finally, I just don’t have the patience anymore for anything that even has a whiff of the longwinded about it. And why should I? Time is getting shorter, not longer. There is less time ahead of me than behind me. And my perception of time is speeding up too. When I was young, a decade seemed like forever, but now it feels like the blink of an eye; my daughter’s life is going by in a blur; my parents greyed and shrank like characters in some time-lapsed film; people just twenty years or so older than me, whom I grew up listening to, are dropping like flies – David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Tommy Ramone… So, yes, I’m in a hurry. There’s a lot of music to listen to (not to mention books to read, movies to watch, etc.) and working through just one Mozart symphony will take as long as listening to half (or more) of Black Flag’s entire catalogue. I want to cut to the chase, get to the good stuff, hear the punchline, shake a leg, get a move on … y’know, Chop fucking chop!
Were the adults back in the day really any different? Did they even feel more adult than we do? Was it all just perception – the result of seeing them from a child’s point of view? Did the rise of a wildly successful youth culture after the Second World War change everything, forever? Did our generations – the Boomers and the Gen Xers – break adulthood? Will there be nothing but overgrown adolescents in our collective futures? Or is there nothing new, here, other than the fact that some of us – the middle-aged Punks – have realized that the traditional idea of adulthood is a scam, like all the other scams, and refuse to accept it?
I’m not sure and probably never will be. But one thing I do know is that I’m not the only one!
Middle Aged Punks Rocking On
- The other ‘F’ Word (a documentary about middle-aged, punk rock dads)
- The Adolescents, “Kids of the Black Hole”
- Cro-Mags, live in Philadelphia (complete show)
- TSOL – “Abolish Government” (with Jack Grisham teaching a kid how to stage dive).
- Circle Jerks live at the House of Blues (complete show)
- FLAG IIII Live (Black Flag Reunion – complete show)