Published Sep 01, 2001Question & Answer interviews spark an ongoing debate between jaded editors and excited young writers; the former find them indulgent and egomaniacal, while the latter think every word is precious and indispensable. These two books make a strong case for the latter, but that's primarily because the interview subjects are so captivating, in many cases more so than their music in question. In his introduction to We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet The Collected Interviews (Akashic Books), editor Daniel Sinker points out: "The featurised' interview format favoured in establishment rock rags usually lets you know a lot more about who's doing the writing than who the writing is about. Besides, I've found no need for explicit editorialising, because, as opposed to the stock answers vomited out of the mouths of corporate rock acts, the words we've transcribed have been fascinating."
No argument here. Punk Planet started in 1994, a year in which punk rock was swept up in corporate co-option while the underground became more and more dogmatic and exclusive. It was also a time when the American political public became coerced into apathy by a right-wing-liberal presidency, while riot grrrl, queercore and a new wave of straight edge kept the underground in check. For these reasons and more, this book makes a convincing although tacit argument for the mid- to late 90s as being one of the most important chapters in the history of punk. But simultaneously, this is not a book about punk: it's about culture. Kathleen Hanna, Steve Albini, Negativland, and Winston Smith all come across as vital cultural theorists, not mere artists. Every subject in this book believes passionately in ideals of many different stripes, as Frank Kozik illustrates and that's what makes it so inspiring. And not just cultural ideals, but political ones: some of the most fascinating chats are with Noam Chomsky, Chumbawumba, and an activist group protesting sanctions that punish Iraqi civilians. This is certainly a heartening read for anyone who became nauseous once apolitical jocks hijacked the outsider promise of punk.
The perspective of time is also interesting. Jello Biafra was amiable and enlightening in 1997, before his band's lawsuit embittered him permanently. In 1998, Kathleen Hanna had just retired Bikini Kill, was coping with the anti-feminist reinterpretation of "girl power," and had not yet found her new lease on life in Le Tigre. Duncan Barlow, of hardcore bands Guilt, Endpoint and By the Grace of God, announced his retirement in 1998 in an interview with Burn It Down's Ryan Downey; although he eventually returned to music, the reasons for his retirement are still riveting reading even though I've never heard a note of his music.
V. Vale, who edited the seminal late 70s San Francisco punk zine Search and Destroy, wants to educate younger punks by having rambling uh, sorry, Real Conversations with old punks and their forefathers. In Volume One of this new series for his Re:Search imprint, Vale sits down with Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, 50s beat poet and publishing pioneer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and British primal punk practitioner Billy Childish. The in-depth conversations leap scattershot through a plethora of subjects, and at times Vale seems too cosy with his subjects, who are all obviously old friends and mentors; he has no qualms finishing their sentences for them. Rollins and Biafra are obviously the marquee names, but Ferlinghetti and Childish are just as fascinating and confounding. Rollins steals the show, however, if only because his modest and astoundingly astute answers about self-publishing and culture supersede my longstanding impression of him as a mediocre musician and stand-up comic/therapist for geeks with a secret macho jock complex. Oddly, his microphone-as-blow job portrait on the book's cover makes him look almost as pornographic as the naked whore on his offensive new album cover, so all's fair in love and print.
These are all recent interviews, current enough to have Biafra commenting on the WTO protests and the Dead Kennedys lawsuit while Rollins defends his corporate income peddling computers and Billy Childish discusses his "stuckism" theory of art. Apart from some extremely amusing childhood photos, observers who have followed these subjects for years might not find much new here. Real Conversations does provide an invaluable oral history lesson for younger audiences, which is exactly what Vale intends. He even censors all the swearing so that school libraries will stock the book: while it's an un-punk like capitulation to conservative interests, hopefully it will also expose new audiences to essential ideas.
And isn't that what punk is supposed to be about?