Before There Was Punk… There was DEATH

DEATHFONTTo the naked ear, it sounds like any Ramones song: signature guitar riff, no-frills bass tablature, unwavering drumbeat. Even the vocals are similar, albeit these are distinctly empowering, without the aura of an aggressive Jerry Lewis. The similarities end here. This is an all-black proto-punk band indigenous to Detroit, Michigan. This is the fire of Motown reinterpreted as something more confrontational, more unorthodox. This is a band called Death.

Death was comprised of the three Hackney brothers: Bobby, Dannis, and David; bass, drums, and guitar. A blitzkrieg of utter noise, they were punk three years before the Ramones were punk. They were punk while the Ramones were still just punks sniffing glue in some basement in Queens. However, Death was omitted from the punk narrative entirely. Until just recently, that is. Their tapes sat collecting dust in their parents’ attic, despite the fact that they preached the gospel of punk rock. Despite the fact that they exploited the feedback from the telephone line to simulate an alien invasion in one of their songs. Death was expunged from the punk feature. While this wasn’t a calculated measure, it remains an injustice. Punk was supposed to be an asylum for outcasts, an outlet for aggression, and in this case it wasn’t. Prejudice bread in the mainstream poisoned its waters. By the same token, punk in itself was heralded as an insurance risk, thus marketing an all-black pro to-punk band proved nearly impossible. There was innovation and there was liability. Unfortunately Death was deemed the latter.

The name of the band, “Death,” is punk if I’ve ever heard it. Regardless of opinion, it provoked a reaction. It seized the notion of fatalism and asserted dominance. The name is essential to the concept, and so even on the cusp of fame it remained a nonnegotiable. In fact, Clive Davis of Columbia records had offered the band a recording contract on the condition that the name change. The Hackneys refused and ultimately sacrificed notoriety for dignity. A true punk would always prefer to be a cult classic rather than a commercial success. Death embodies the initial philosophy, wherein making noise was important, not who heard it. — “Politicians In My Eyes” (Death) — “Politicians In My Eyes” (Death) — “Keep On Knocking” (Death)




“Horses:” A Closer Read

horses-cover_custom-95bd29494bd12ecab828302378aa305f62fb5ccf-s900-c85Before I heard it, I saw it. Stark in its simplicity; a million colors in a few shades of grey. Her gaze holds a certain knowledge, a certain suspicion. Knowledge from a life lived: an abortion, a pilgrimage to New York City, a pornographic photographer. Suspicion as to who I am to hear her story. Her eyes meet mine; she looks through me, not at me. She sees me for who I am. Nothing more, and irrefutably nothing less. Her white shirt is purposefully disheveled; her jacket is draped over her shoulder like an afterthought. She wears no makeup and almost no jewelry, because she doesn’t need it. Her confidence is derived from her craft; it is an inner truth, rather than an outside lie. This isn’t for me; it’s for her. Her art doesn’t need to be understood, or even appreciated, for her to consider it as such: art. “Go ahead. I dare you,” her pursed lips seem to say. This is Patti Smith. This is Horses.

Patti Smith is a musician, but a poet above all else. You listen to her music; you hear her poetry. The instrumentation is merely a vessel for her lyrics. To me, the clear foreshadowing to the impending punk movement is the titular “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(de).” The raw, repetitive guitar riff, the anti-charming vocals. It shocks you, unsettles you. Nothing is off-limits: rape, addiction, and eventually, suicide. A boy named Johnny self-destructs, a “butterfly flapping in his throat.” Patti takes something beautiful and forces it to be terrible; she takes a terrible act and forces it to be beautiful. She offers an antidote to the optimistic sexual liberation of the sixties: the truth.

This is not what you want to hear. This is what you need to hear. Horses takes innocence and shatters it, gliding across the result. It will bring tears to your eyes, chills down your spine. If Keith Richards and Rimbaud had a lovechild, this would be it. — “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(de)” (Patti Smith)

Patti Smith: An Alternate Route to Punk

robertmapplethorpepattismithpattismith_paris_1969If Patti Smith is the godmother to punk rock, then Robert Mapplethorpe is its eccentric, albeit distant, cousin. Patti’s romantic manifestation captures a more poetic rebellion; rather than smashing a typewriter with a sledgehammer, she seems to swallow youthful aggravation and spit it back out as a spoken (sung) art. Even if her sound isn’t quite punk, her spirit very much is. Her words aren’t sung to be liked, but rather to be heard: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Robert impresses the same sentiments upon his works of art. His pornographic images are aggressive; they provoke a reaction. I trust that you will believe me, so that I have no need to insert one here. Even if his aesthetic isn’t to be appreciated, it won’t be ignored, and what’s more punk than that?

As the sixties and seventies converged, New York City was a bomb in the moments before it explodes. A Factory-produced sexual revolution ran rampant in Midtown, while a more romantic, gypsy-infused one stemmed from the apartment of Patti and Robert. Andy Warhol and his band of superstars were obsessed by the notion of celebrity, captivated by the mainstream. Artificiality was another pill to be popped. Andy immortalized pop culture, idolized the present; Patti kicked in the walls imposed by the now, forcing her way into the future, a foreshadowing of the impending punk movement. When punk is periodically proclaimed “dead,” it is really just reincarnated.

In my junior year research paper, I depicted punk as having largely evolved from glam. Groups like the Stooges, as well as outlandish individuals, such as David Bowie and Lou Reed, undeniably left their notch on the bedpost that is punk rock. However, a fundamental flaw in that endeavor was that I failed to acknowledge the role of Patti Smith. She hardly glittered; she was impervious to the pop art atmosphere, chiding that she “hated the soup and felt little for the can,” and yet she is a different means to achieve the same ends. Patti forgoes charisma, theatricality, and other embellishments. Instead, she settles on a raw defiance, a sort of call to arms before the impending war. — “Gloria” (Patti Smith)