Growing Up Punk Rock Blank Generations in Vancouver, Ottawa and New York
Published May 01, 2002John Armstrong, aka Vancouver punk veteran Buck Cherry, writes: "Once you find out that there are people in the world who will actually give you money, front a bar tab and perform illegal sexual acts with you just because you can play Louie Louie' well, it's hard to settle for the 40-hour week after you've had the seven-day weekend."
Three new books, one of them fictional, document what it was like to grow up in the midst of a time when punk rock was counterculture, not mall culture. The term "punk rock" today is beyond meaningless, as either a symbol of rebellion, idealism, or a musical genre, but these books remind us that it was once a respite from cultural ennui and a reason to live.
John Armstrong's Guilty of Everything (New Star Books) is an account of his years in the thriving Vancouver punk scene of the late '70s (although oddly enough, no specific years are ever mentioned in the text). He quit high school to become the roommate of Art Bergmann, who taught him how to play guitar, and a decadent life in bands such as the Modernettes, Active Dog and Los Popularos followed from there. Now a writer for the Vancouver Sun, Armstrong is a natural storyteller and vividly places the reader at a variety of seminal scenes: the suburban White Rock kids taking the bus to Vancouver to see shows at the Japanese Hall and going to warehouse parties with D.O.A., the Dishrags and the Subhumans; watching a homophobic Vancouver crowd attack Mitch Ryder and chasing Armstrong and Bergmann after the show; playing the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco; and first hearing the Modernettes on the radio "while cleaning caked shit off porcelain in the washroom" of the Georgia Straight. The book ends abruptly after 107 pages when Armstrong leaves Los Popularos on the eve of their final Canadian tour. As an entertaining and essential historical document of Canadian punk, Guilty of Everything's only shortcoming is its length. Knowing first-hand that a 700-page post-punk history of CanRock can only scratches the surface of this country's rich and entertaining musical history, I'll be the first to admit that we need dozens more books like this to help complete the picture.
Although it's almost as entertaining, we don't need any more books like Gary Valentine's New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation with Blondie, Iggy Pop and Others 1974-1981 (Sidgwick & Jackson). The CBGB scene of 1975 to 78 in New York City has been well documented, and one of Valentine's principal motivations to write seems to be his disgust with the version of events proffered by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me and other accounts that glorify "snobs" like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine. Valentine was the original bassist in Blondie from 1975 to 78, before quitting over disagreements with management and a sour relationship with the core duo of Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, and those stories comprise most of the book. (He also led a new wave band called the Know and played keyboards on an Iggy Pop tour.) But even at the best of times, Valentine's narrative voice is embittered and you get the feeling he's definitely an odd duck part of his alienation from Blondie (and later, his girlfriend) was because of his obsession with magic and the occult. New York Rocker is a good quickie read, but that's about it.
13 (Porcupine's Quill) is a coming-of-age novel about an awkwardly rebellious teenage girl in the suburbs of Ottawa in 1980, penned by music journalist Mary-Lou Zeitoun. It's not a book about punk rock per se, although the epilogue finds the character as an 18-year-old punk drummer. Instead, it's a bang-on portrayal of pubescent identity amidst neglectful parents, creepy teachers, disloyal friends, "disco sluts" and their "borefriends," and a fantasy that if only she could flee to New York City and meet John Lennon that he could save her from it all. Zeitoun's protagonist, Marnie Harmon, is a self-assured, somewhat fearless youth who learns that the only person she can trust is herself. Through the course of the novel, she progresses from barely being able to respond to the taunts of her schoolmates, to holding her own in a dressing room against the sexual taunts of an obnoxious punk singer. The only flaw is that being set in 1980 and by dwelling on Marnie's Lennon obsession, it's obvious from the beginning that the book's climax will in part be triggered by Lennon's assassination and the death of Marnie's idealism. But Zeitoun successfully avoids melodrama and any trace of sentimentality or nostalgia; her first-person voice is entirely convincing, and despite the novel's obvious time setting it speaks to universal and timeless teen angst.