Screaming, screeching, distorting – the band had hijacked the electricity from the MUNI bus stop and were playing a guerilla show. You were meant to see the wire running down from the bus shelter, through the air and into amps. You were meant to feel the reverberation in your chest as the band played as fast and furious as they could, cause any minute the cops would show up and shut them down.
I’d have told you how punks used to have guerilla shows all the time back then – in abandoned warehouses and landfills, the “secret beach” down between the toxic-dump docks of Hunters Point — but how the Mission shows were always the funnest. The busiest, the out-in-the-opennest, the whole city shuffling along, then bam! A herd of pierced, studded, thrashing kids would appear at the heart of it. Getting in everyone’s way, causing a ruckus, flinging their bodies and sounds all over the place – making everyone from the yuppies to the dope fiends listen.
Because – and I would have said it, just like this – there’s a subtle but profound difference between asking to be heard, and screaming so goddamn loud the world has to listen.
I meant to write an essay about how the Bay Area punk scene shaped my approach to publishing.
I meant to write about how DIY wasn’t just a safety-pin aesthetic but a way of life, an ethos of action in the face of alienation. I meant to talk about the self-reliance I learned from the constant creation of demo cassettes, zines and screen-printed Goodwill shirts; of the rejection of the mainstream inherent to dumpster diving and bicycling and graffiting.
I meant to write about the way I published my own zines; the way friends supported me; the way independent bookstores and record shops sold them on consignment, then eventually bought them outright; the way DIY culture encouraged me to fight to make my voice heard.
I only meant to mention why I felt I needed to fight.
You get a message somewhere along the way the world doesn’t really care, that there isn’t room for what you see or what you have to say.
Where does the message come from? I asked.
You grow up in Oakland in the 80s and 90s, I answered. Not in the ghetto but in a run-of-the-mill working-class neighborhood, predominately non-white and with a sizable immigrant population.
You go to underfunded public schools where there’s not even science classes, let alone music or art. Your textbooks are outdated; you don’t have PE equipment.
Your neighborhood swim team can’t afford matching swimsuits. Most of you don’t have goggles or swim caps. When the team from the Hills comes down for a Saturday morning swim meet, they arrive in a fleet of minivans, with lawn chairs and shammies and crates of those monster-sized Costco muffins. They win.
There’s mattresses dumped along your street and your neighbors have dueling stereo wars and you hear gunshots at night that your mom tells you are Chinese firecrackers. When she calls the cops on the neighbors, it takes the officers four hours to arrive. “Sorry, ma’am,” they say, “we were at a homicide.”
You don’t see anything like this on TV. You watch Nickelodeon; you read Babysitters Club; you pine for an American Girl doll. In these narratives kids go to summer camps and ride horses. They don’t have single mothers. Their parents haven’t escaped wars; their parents don’t hit them. Their uncles haven’t died of AIDS.
You look at the mainstream and you don’t hear any stories like your own; you don’t see anything that resembles the lives of your friends.
There isn’t room for us in the mainstream, you think, without even realizing you’re thinking it. The mainstream doesn’t give a shit about us.
I meant the previous section to be given only as background, to account for the sense I’d always felt that there was no “making it,” and to set the stage for how the punk scene inspired me to write and publish in the face of that.
I meant to place this struggle within the context of a larger one, the way I keep hearing this refrain about how hard it is to “make it” these days. I’d have begun by citing last month’s “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?”, which tracked the struggle of a semi-big-name indie band to achieve a modicum of middle-class security. “You’d better be doing it for the love of it,” musician Frankie Rose was quoted as saying, “because nobody’s making real money.”
I’d have noted how this phenomenon doesn’t just apply to the artsy-fartsy: young graduates are emerging from respectable universities with mountains of debt, to the bleak reality of the current job market – one of the elements that touched such a nerve in Lena Dunham’s Girls. As “Yesterday My Daughter Emigrated” illuminated, this is not solely an American phenomenon; across much of the Western world, the educated middle-class is now subject to the same type of struggle. Dismally – and in an act of sheer generosity – I’d even have mentioned how this struggle isn’t just confined to the educated middle-class, how high-powered career women have discovered they can’t “have it all.”
When people address this failing of the system, I would have said, the most common criticism is that they’re whining. That they’re entitled. As though financial security were a totally absurd thing towards which to feel entitled. As though the notion that one ought to be able to work hard, invest in their education, earn a decent living, and grow to be a valued, contributing member of their community were demanding too much. As though it were a privilege to not feel alienated.
Forgive my crassness, I’d have said, but isn’t that the American Dream? The BS we’ve been fed our whole lives?
It’s rig-up, I’d have surmised. It always has been, I’d have told you; it’s just a helluva lot more blatant now. There’s just a helluva lot more people struggling – circling the glowing bulb of “making it” and tap-tapping for admittance and realizing, slowly, one head-butt at a time, that there may be no such thing.
So what do we do?, I would have asked.
We ask to be heard. Nicely, patiently.
Or we scream so fucking loud we can’t not be heard.
The problem came at the end.
It was real rah-rah-rah. Real “use crusty-ass DIY punk kids as a model for alternative expressions of art.” Real “get your middle fingers raised,” which is really just another version of “get your lighters raised,” which is sentimental and fleeting and not at all a solution to anything.
Something about it rang disingenuous, simplistic. Because what would happen at those 16th and Mission guerilla shows? The band would play for a few minutes – ten, twenty – before the cops would show up and shoo us away. They’d rarely do more than that; they wouldn’t want the hassle of writing a report.
And for whom were they playing, really? Immigrants and junkies and people waiting for the bus – not exactly Wall Street. Not exactly the Powers That Be. More exactly different versions of themselves.
Who were the kids playing in the unnamed band? White dudes. The Bay Area punk scene was more inclusive than other segments, but at the end of the day the scene was still spearheaded by heterosexual white guys.
I looked to all the other outsider cultures I meant to connect the punk scene with in the culmination of my rah-rah-raise-your-fist essay – skateboarding and graffiti and hip-hop – when I meant to say something like, “Look at what can happen when people create in the face of alienation.” They were all boys’ clubs.
Were there outsider cultures and arts communities that weren’t male-dominated? I asked. Sure: zines, comics, the resurgence of DIY crafting; riot grrrl, though it could be argued to be just an adjunct to punk. Then I remembered being in an undergrad art course and silently suffering through a debate about whether quilting was outsider art or folk art.
Folk art, clearly, I’d thought. Shit my grandma used to do.
And here’s where I really caught the train to Bummersville: what happened to those OGs in the outsider boys’ clubs, what Glen Freidman called the Fuck-You Heroes? The Z-Boys, Public Enemy, the fucking Sex Pistols – the ones who against all odds broke their way into the mainstream and “made it”? They’d had their rebellion wrenched from them; they’d had their message commodified, whittled down to a fashion, packaged and sold like animal meat – the juicy bits but none of the soul.
Was our making it just tokenism; were our fuck-yous just fetish?
And then: what about the women?
What were we doing really – you, me, I, we – when we were hijacking the electricity and screaming on the city street corners? Making a stand or making ourselves feel momentarily better? Demanding to be heard or distracting ourselves from the surety we all felt – cause we must have all felt it, right? it wasn’t just an aesthetic, it was a real thing, right? – that there was no light, no admittance, no real lasting fuck-you?
Who was the “we” anyway?
So it fell apart, basically. I kept drifting back to the part of the essay I’d meant as only the background, the context: that sense of alienation.
I’d be at those Mission shows, in my studded belt and worn-down Converse, but a little bit outside of the crowd. Maybe I’d buy the band’s CD after, maybe someone would buy my zine, but there’d always be this space between us. So much of the punk scene came out of white culture; for however much I’d pined to be a part of that culture, I never had been. I could almost fake it. But when kids moved to West Oakland warehouses, when they exoticized urban poverty, something didn’t sit right.
A couple years after discovering the punk scene, I fell into the slam poetry scene. I wasn’t a slam poet but I performed and went to workshops anyway, because they were free and filled with other young people who were writing, which I hadn’t encountered before. It was a vibrant, racially diverse group of kids, but only one kind of voice was valued. I couldn’t beatbox and didn’t even attempt freestlying, so you can imagine how that went. You can imagine who the stars of that scene were.
Next I went to university. No Ivy Tower, just a commuter college at the end of the train line that had a respectable creative writing program rapidly being whittled by budget cuts. But even there a kind of MFA-y voice prevailed, cool and detached and controlled. I was seventeen, five months sober, shot out of the cannon of my debauched youth – there was nothing controlled or detached about me. My voice didn’t fit in that world either.
I muddled through university. I refused to take out loans; somehow I knew my BA in Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry, wouldn’t put me in a position to repay any loans. I worked two jobs, didn’t do any unpaid internships, didn’t even consider running off to an MFA program.
I worked, saved, traveled, and a few years after graduating I began to dabble in travel writing. Maybe this was a viable way of supporting myself as a writer, I thought – at least, more viable than trying to publish poems in literary journals. I started a blog, wrote SEO content, worked my way into a few decent publications.
A year ago I decided to cash in my chips and move out of the US to write a book and give the full-time freelancing a go. It was a long shot, I knew, and in a lot of ways it wasn’t so different from purchasing a lottery ticket. Why not, you know?
I quit my waitressing job, sold all my possessions, raised funds. People helped me; they supported me as much as they could, the same way they had when I was sixteen and making zines on my bedroom floor.
I lasted four months before my piddly stash of savings ran out and I had to get a job teaching.
It was, quite frankly, a relief. Because the more I focused on pitching sellable articles, the less I wanted to write the kind of stuff that was sellable: “authentic local experiences,” being a “traveler not a tourist.” The more I tried to “make it” on my writing, the more I began to question whether I even wanted to do the kind of writing that would “make it.”
Of course being able to support myself writing would be nice. But I’ve spent my life outside of the mainstream, acutely aware of both being outside the mainstream and outside outsider cultures. Not only do I not feel entitled towards “making it,” I’ve been left with a deep ambivalence over what “making it” even means, if there is a “making it” and if I’d really want to “make it.”
In the last year I’ve gotten a couple good clips, written some things I’m proud of, even been paid well on a few occasions – the equivalent of winning, say, a free hot dog and another scratcher card. Not exactly a jackpot, but something. But I don’t feel cheated. I hear the frustrations and anxieties of my writing peers, and I can empathize; I can almost even relate. But something feels different.
Some days I look around at my sweaty, smoggy little life on the other side of the planet and wonder what I keep doing it for. I mean, if there’s not a “making it” – or if “making it” entails writing shit I don’t want to write, or allowing myself to be whittled down to a consumable little package – why bother? Why keep going?
Because I’ve come this far, I think some days. Because I’ve never expected to not struggle, I think other days. Because I learned you keep fighting, keep screaming; because the punks did still teach me something, as imperfect of teachers as they might have been, as we all might be. Because I care more about writing than being a writer, or because I simply don’t know what else to do with myself.
In writing this I meant to have an answer. Or if not an answer, at least offer a viable alternative to the rigged-game of the publishing industry, the music industry, the art industry, the getting-a-job-with-sick-days-and-dental-insurance industry. I meant to say something like “don’t give up”; something like “DIY will save you”; something like “scream so loud they have to listen.”
In the end, I don’t know what to say.