“We got that PMA. Hey, we got that PMA” — H.R. of the Bad Brains
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The Bad Brains, Rock for Light
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
[Punk music: what does it mean? When and where does this turn to hardcore, punk-rock, intellectual hip-hop, grunge, alternative and indie music? How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture? If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down? How low can a punk get? I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition. We will listen for a close reading of the album as microcosm and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades. This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.]
Thought I’d write about some music that’s pretty to listen to this week, situated as it is between such aggressive and sonically harsh musics like hardcore punk. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is a return to his minimalist folk roots; and the Bad Brains Rock for Light album is interspersed with uplifting reggae jams, and the hardcore tracks have some of the highest production values of the genre– produced by Ric Ocasek from the Cars.
1982 and 1983, the respective release years for Nebraska and Rock for Light, were a dark period in the lyrical zeitgeist of the English speaking world. Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher were reviving conservative individualism– regardless of one’s political lot, a far cry from the peace and love of the late 1960s. The Vietnam War was over, but distrust of governmental authority remained at unheard of heights. Even the Gregorian Calendar seemed gloomy, with the artist Prince practically foretelling the end of the world in 1999. Boy George has redeemed himself politically, but Culture Club’s music is the stuff of nightmares. Oh, and Wham was top of the charts. On a marxist-capital level, Corporate Buy-outs were making the ultra-rich much, much richer, and the disenfranchised classes were expanding– including large numbers of unemployed youths. The Cold War and fear of nuclear bombardment loomed large.
What next? Apocalypse? Nope. Existentialist hope went punk.
The Existentialism of Sarte, Camus, De Beauvoir and Kierkegaard gets a bad rap for being extremely depressing– a misnomer, in all respects. Sure, there is no god for these authors, no purpose to life, no solid reason to continue living, no way to know one’s self or any other person, and the entirety of scientific knowledge is cast into serious questionability, but other than that, I find it quite uplifting. Despite all this, life is still worth living. Crisis and void are not bad things for these authors. All that all this lack means is that consciousness comes before everything else, mankind is the ultimate a priori– a phrase that has roots meaning before than, in case you slept through Philosophy 101. There is a quip saying, “Sartre was smartre, but Camus will do.” Don’t laugh at that, the appropriate response to that sophisticated a joke is a chortle. However, Camus has the most poetry. His Myth of Sisyphus is mostly exquisite musings on suicide and the absurdity of life, read it all if you’re a pre-teen virgin contemplating that. The money-shot of the book is the eponymous final segment. Camus ponders the moment in which Sisyphus’ boulder has slipped his grasp, rolling back into the underworld, below. He argues that it is in this moment, when mankind hikes down the hill to resume his unending and unachievable task, that he rises above his doom. That, somehow for Camus, translates into hope.
That is Bruce Springsteen’s Reason to Believe, the final track on the album, and the only glimmer of hope in an otherwise disturbingly bleak and nihilistic record. This exposes the importance of the order of the tracks on the album in considering albums as texts. His lyrics, “man standing over a dead dog, by a highway in the ditch… poking that dog with a stick, like if he stood there long enough, the dog get up and run. Find it kinda funny, kinda funny yeah indeed. At the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe–” were this song anywhere but last, this would be futile, even scoffable sentiment. But as is, this faintest glimmer of hope is all needed to keep living.
Nebraska is nowhere near the pop-rock gems of the Boss on Born in the U.S.A. Ronald Reagan indeed asked Springsteen to use that song as a campaign song– a lyrically brutal song about the tribulations of a Vietnam veteran. But before joining the E Street Band, Springsteen’s first two albums were strictly folk music– and the Boss was heralded as the next Dylan. But Dylan is a surrealist on the highest parr: John Ashbery, Raymond Roussel. The Boss is more a ballad lyricist; his greatest moments are his stories– parables, even. Musically, Springsteen’s return on this album to minimalist, harmonica and acoustic guitar based folk music is the reverse axis to Dylan going electric, a movement with just as broad reverberations, but for indie rock– glockenspiels and all.
When the Bad Brains re-released Rock for Light for the CD generation, they sped up the tempo, resulting in a change of pitch along with it. More importantly to an examination of lyrics as text, the re-release changed the order of the sped up tracks. I think it is a strong revision to the totality of the album. Leave it to the band that invented hardcore music– all African-Americans from D.C.– to have biblical references and parables. Cowabunga.
Joshua Song opens the suite with such, flicking hard rock, mostly because of H.R.’s vocals. The hardest songs– like the infamous, never-too-often-covered Fearless Vampire Killers, are followed immediately by reggae jams, such as I and I Survive– a Rastafarian notion of a unified consciousness that surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the album together. The other excellent reggae song, the Meek opens the thorniest problem of Judeo-Christianity. When, precisely, will these meek inherit the Earth? What will be left to the meek when the slobbering maws of the harsh, the violent and the itchy have finished with the Earth? Sounds suspiciously like an ideological apparatus to maintain the status-quo. Hopeful, though.
Rock for Light is a song offerings solutions to problems most other punkers can merely whine about, or at best condemn. The idea is that all this energy, momentum, talent and raw fury of the disenfranchised Youth, all this can improve the world, rather than tear it down. Light– for a sight based species– being nominally better than darkness, all this power of Youth culture can be spent in a positive direction.
All this begs the question, how low can a punk get? I would argue the lowest a punk can get is caught on film by the hated by all punkers “M”tv’s Jackass jackasses– specifically, when a full Port-o-John was dumped upside down with some attention seeking whore voluntarily still in it. But in H.R.’s words, “Another D.O.A. Can you help me? How low can a punk get?” Close reading time, yippie! Dead on arrival is a medical term for an accident victim dying before proper help can be administered– pretty hardcore, already. This can be abstracted to someone arriving dead inside. But not just a D.O.A., another D.O.A., implying multiple dead people, perhaps multitudinous. To venture on a severed limb, however, perhaps it is asking for help that is as low as a punk can get.