Saturday, July 22, 2006

Blank Generation

Those who know me know that I am rather passionate on the subject of Patti Smith. If memory serves, one of my first posts on this here blog thing was about seeing her in concert. (Incidentally, that same concert was recorded and released as part of the special reissue of Horses last year.) There are a lot of things that draw me towards Patti: her politics, her sex appeal, her voice, her moral authority, her guitarist. She means a lot to me also as a passion that Mary and I have shared together for many years. And as a historian, I appreciate the crucial role she played in the early stages of the NYC punk scene of the mid-seventies.

One of my favorite things about teaching is that when I am lecturing, everything I say automatically becomes true for all these undergrads. Yes, I wish they were thinking more critically, and yes, I wish that more learning here took place in smaller situations that encouraged discussion and said critical thinking, rather than me standing on a stage in front of sixty people. And I try hard not to teach music history as some sort of coherent, linear, bedtime story. We responsible teachers focus on problems of historiography, the question of "authenticity" in popular music, the ways in which music shapes our social identities.

But sometimes story-telling is necessary, and when it is, I love the fact that I get to be the one telling the story. I love telling everyone that no, neither the Sex Pistols nor the Ramones invented punk rock. It wasn't a group of obnoxious boys playing cynical three-chord rock loud and fast. It was, rather, a hallucinatory poet who invented punk rock, taking her fashion cues from nineteenth-century symbolist poets, her lyrics from the NYC spoken word scene, and the music--assisted by the indomitable Lenny Kaye--from the angry garage rock of the midwest. My students grew up thinking that punk rock is like Green Day, or--god forbid--Blink 182. The slightly more astute might know punk rock from its time in the wilderness, when it existed only in small regional underground scenes around the country. Nothing wrong with that music, but there is nothing better than playing for my students the actual music of CBGB's in 1975: Patti, Television, the Heartbreakers, Blondie, and yes, even the Ramones. I'm not sure they quite get how powerful this stuff is, how subversive it still sounds.

But I hope that just hearing the music expands their ears a little bit, and hopefully their brains a bit too. It's naive, I realize, to think that just hearing this music will change the students in some important way. That is hopelessly romantic, almost anti-intellectual. But even we pomo academics hope for such mystical accomplisments occasionally.


chelsea girl said...

Oh! My turn to show off--you do have the Rhino records collection "No Thanks!" 70's punk?

It's superswell. All that and Richard Hell (who, parenthetically, was in The Hunger).

bbound said...

I sure do! Well, it's really expensive, so I borrowed a library copy and it now sits cheerfully in my iTunes. I'm an academic, so it has to be fair use, right? heh.

chelsea girl said...

I got mine from or ebay or amazon used. I tend to buy discs, rip them and then sell them, if what I want isn't available on i-Tunes or some quasi-legal site.

And, hells, yeah. What good is it being in the ivory tower if you can't use it to rationalize illicit or slightly amoral pleasures every now and again?

I don't do it for the money.