Monday, April 11, 2016

The Etymology of Punk - noun \ˈpəŋk\

Debbie Harry, 1975
So where do you drop a pin? Television? Patti Smith? Further back; MC5, the Velvets? Problem was, it didn't have a name. Every good book, every story we tell, starts with a name. 

Back to 1896, "punk" meant inferior, yet as a noun it goes back further to "dust, powder or ashes" – from the Algonquin "ponk," maybe as far as the 1400s. By the early 20th century the term meant "something worthless" and was coupled with "kid," as in punk kid, a criminal's apprentice. There are gay attributes along the way as well, though, as early as 1923, punk became a generally recognized noun meaning young, inexperienced boy. In print, the moniker can be traced popularly to the 1970 essay, "The Punk Muse: The True Story of Protopathic Spiff Including the Lowdown on the Trouble-Making Five-Percent of America's Youth" by Nick Tosches in Fusion magazine. He described a music that was a "visionary expiation, a cry into the abyss of one's own mordant bullshit;" its poetry is "puked, not plotted." That same year, Lester Bangs wrote a novella entitled Drug Punk, influenced by William S. Burroughs' book, Junky, in which he writes, "Fucking punks think it's a joke. They won't think it's so funny when they're doing five twenty-nine on the island."

Ultimately, Dave Marsh used the phrase "punk rock" in his "Looney Tunes" column in the May 1971 issue of Creem, the same issue that introduced the term "heavy metal." And that's where I'd spot it; it was there and then that Punk officially had a name, yet the music Marsh referred to was far from what many of us would fit into the genre.

In 1974 Punk magazine contributor Legs McNeil wrote, "All summer we'd been listening to this album Go Girl Crazy by this unknown group called the Dictators, and it changed our lives.  We'd just get drunk every night and lip-sync to it. I hated most rock 'n' roll, because it was about lame hippie stuff, and there really wasn't anyone describing our lives — which was McDonald’s, beer, and TV reruns." That same year The Ramones blew the staff at Punk away with a roaring 18 minute set of short, fast, loud songs - their whole canon.  No solos, no blues or boogie riffs, raw simple energy.  "I really thought I was at the Cavern Club in '63 and we had just met the Beatles," said McNeil. "Only it wasn't a fantasy, it wasn't the Beatles, it was our band - the Ramones. Everyone who saw them said, 'Punk? What's punk?' We were like, 'Ohhh, you'll find out.'"

"We thought, Here comes another shitty group with an even shittier name," said Debbie Harry of Blondie, and William Burroughs said, "I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass." Even by '74, there was confusion in the ranks; no one had assimilated the term, though whatever it was, whatever punks were, the term, bottom line, meant genuine, real. Emily Bronte real, Charles Bukowski real – offensive, in your face, pulling all kinds of punches. 

"The Ramones' '53rd & 3rd' is a chilling song,” said McNeil.  "It's about this guy standing on the corner of 53rd and Third trying to hustle guys, but nobody ever picks him.  Then when somebody does, he kills the john to prove that he's not a sissy." Dee Dee Ramone said, "The song '53rd & 3rd' speaks for itself. Everything I write is autobiographical and very real. I can’t write any other way."  Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein saw the first performance: "It was hilarious. Joey kept falling over. He’s just so tall and ungainly. Joey couldn't see very well, plus he had his shades on, and he was just standing there singing, then all of a sudden, WHHOMP, and he was like lying face down on this flight of stairs that led up to the stage.  Then the rest of the Ramones pushed him back up and kept on going."

"About thirty people or so showed up," said Joey (30!).  "We were terrible. Dee Dee was so nervous he stepped on his bass guitar and broke its neck." The Ramones made their CBGBs debut in August '74.  Surprisingly, Hilly Kristal liked them and agreed to retain them, despite informing them that "Nobody's ever going to like you guys.” Punk had a name, and now it had a poster child in [1st Name] Ramone, predating the Pistols in 1975, and followed by The Damned, The Exploited, Souixsie and The Slits. 

In nothing to be mad about L.A., the punk scene got a belated start (you know, the weather), but it was again, as they say, a whole nother thing. The Masque brought us a baker's dozen of a kind of thrash punk, a heavy metal punk thing with Jello and the Kennedy's at the lead.

Purists will fight over Ramones or Pistols, die-hards will go back further to The Velvet Underground, The Seeds, The Stooges or MC5; in the Village they've got Patti Smith (indeed the first real punk LP release comes from Patti) and Talking Heads (head-punk); I'll argue Television, though their first album didn't appear until '77, but I'm the last to offer the definitive statement - remember, I got beat up at the Masque and body-slammed by Jello Biafra. And the name "punk"? Who, f-ing cares.