Captain Beefheart: Punk?
Here I sit, listening to the new AFGCT album (that's A-Frames Climax Golden Twins to the layman), when I come across a song titled “New Punk 27.” Only this isn't a “punk” song—the first 20 seconds sound like a detuned jam session, followed by a minute-and-a-half of brain-scrambling free-noise and another minute and change of unraveled art-rock deconstruction that leaves a big fat grin on my face.
Is this punk? I think so, but we probably disagree.
Despite its stronghold in the pop-music lexicon, determining what is and isn't punk is damn near impossible, but people sure love to argue about it. There are legions of followers who have absolute faith in its guiding principles, but it seems that each individual has a different theory on what its message is supposed to be. In that way, punk mirrors the attempts of religion to rationalize the existence of a higher being. Wow. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.
I'm not going to get into the history of who-said-what-first and what the first punk band was and all that nonsense, because any conclusions I might come upon are arbitrary at best. But just like religion, I think it's interesting how people reach the personal decision that they are “punk,” as if they follow a written doctrine. I don't remember anybody writing a punk bible. It's what you make of it that counts.
Let me explain. Take a glance at my background. I've had very little to rebel against. I was born into an upper-middle-class family with two supportive parents who are still married. I grew up in the San Diego suburbs, which is largely unaffected by the outside world, to say the least. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of these facts—it's just the way it is. I think “thankful” would be the appropriate word. Thankful probably isn't very “punk,” though. Sorry.
And not to get all crybaby on you, but I was a sensitive kid, probably more in touch with how I felt about the world than I was comfortable with at a pretty young age. This was where Nirvana came into the picture. At 10 years old, I bought In Utero on cassette and didn't take it out of my Walkman for months.
Quite simply, I got it. It wasn't the melodies, because I'd heard those before, and they weren't smeared with nearly as much grime and self-loathing on my other tapes. It wasn't Kurt Cobain's cryptic lyrics, as fascinating as they are in hindsight. It was the conviction. It was pure, untainted expression, which is impossible to fake.
At different points throughout my teenage years, I experienced similar revelations by way of other musicians. Minor Threat caused me to question the nature of the herd mentality. The Ramones and Wire displayed the brilliance of simplicity, albeit in very different, but equally intelligent, forms. Bad Brains proved that actually being good musicians helps—a lot. The Stooges affirmed my belief in raw power.
Minutemen were especially important in my realization that punk could be all about individualism—three seemingly regular guys who had so many ideas that they were compelled to spit them out in rapid succession atop tinny guitars and jazz-influenced bass and drums. They played with punk bands and got lumped in with the hardcore movement. But they sure didn't look or sound like they belonged.
Same goes for Captain Beefheart, who disassembled traditional song structures, then put them back together with all the pieces broken on Trout Mask Replica, a record that predated the original movement by more than half a decade and influenced countless punk musicians. But I'm sure that calling Beefheart punk would get you vilified in some circles.
I was never a “punk,” just as I wouldn't ever call myself a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim. It's not that I don't have strong beliefs in certain things; it's the willingness to belong to a group that scares the shit out of me. But for those who truly understand, they'll probably come to the conclusion that interpreting punk is entirely up to the individual.
So, what does punk mean to you?
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