Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Why You Have Never
Heard of Punk Writing
Professor Thomas Naughton, brother of the first scholar who deigned to
dissect punk writing. They're both dead now, but the silence continues.
ALICE IS SLEEPING. So you've had a chance to read some of their stuff, but people who actually count did too. They weren't impressed. Here's the introduction to the only scholarly treatment they ever received. And, yes, it's completely unreadable, as Lynn Wyler said. But if you could struggle through it, or read at it, or use it as a reference, it does contain some information nobody else ever bothered to collect, all biases aside. There are footnotes in the original, a lot of them, but we figured you wouldn't care. Sorry. If that's presumptuous, we can make them available upon request.
Needless to say, perhaps, if Dr. Naughton sees no merit in a body of manuscripts, the buyers at Borders and Barnes & Noble make it clear to publishers that there's no point in publishing. It's the way things are done in the world of the liberal intelligentsia. You know. The New Yorker talks, bullshit walks.
A Post-Mortem on
In the case of most literary movements, straightforward research and relatively elementary textual analysis suffice to provide the scholar with a basis for interpretation of the corpus of work in question. The sine qua non for such a basis consists of assumptive parameters by which the scholar can gauge the relative importance or unimportance of the contradictions, incongruities, and unknowns that inevitably arise during any detailed investigation into the origins and intentions of a particular literary tradition. But in approaching the lives and works of punk writers, one is almost immediately faced with such an unprecedented profusion of obtrusive and potentially primal elements of all kinds—seminal, definitional, conformational, and transformational—that the task of distinguishing significant from merely incidental influences requires an extraordinarily meticulous and objective methodology.
It is for this reason that a much more than cursory knowledge of punk’s formative milieu must serve as a prerequisite to the study of punk works. Any reader not mindful of the myriad circumstances attendant on the emergence of this phenomenon runs a double risk: first, of misreading its confused but all too literal fragments of self-history as profound but difficult literary inventions; and second, of inferring from this quite spurious aura of profundity a wholly erroneous schema of punk intent, in which ineptitude is interpreted as technique, confession as metaphor, and brutality as philosophy.
And for those who would approach the subject despite these risks, there is yet another obstacle to surmount, one of such magnitude that any scholar who encounters it could almost be pardoned for concluding that punk’s manifold mysteries are beyond hope of resolution. The nature of this formidable stumbling block was ably described by Clausen in one of the first (and only) essays written on the punk writer phenomenon:
The punks do not publish their works. They may perform them on stage, paint them on the walls of public buildings, or force them on pedestrians at knifepoint, but it is anathema to their code to submit them to publishing houses for dissemination to the world at large. Nor are they in the least disposed to discuss themselves or their work, insisting that whatever reasons they have for writing, the desire to communicate is not one of them.
These are primary anomalies, and the demise of the punk writing movement has altered the situation only for the worse. The writings that were difficult for Clausen to acquire in 1982 are still not widely available, and present evidence indicates that a high percentage of them may have been lost altogether in the fifteen years since the movement’s end. Moreover, the rigid code of silence observed by most of punk’s principals and followers when punk writing was in its ascendancy has not been abandoned but has rather been fiercely retained, almost as if it had become a kind of sacred relic to those who mourn punk’s passing.
In the face of such daunting obstacles, the question inevitably arises: Are the potential benefits of scholarly inquiry into the punk movement worth the labors that will undoubtedly be involved in penetrating its mysteries? Assuredly, any scholar who did not pose this question would be derelict in his/her duty to both his/her profession and his/her peers, notwithstanding the generous latitude society at large has traditionally granted the academic community in the matter of deciding which subjects are worthy of investigation and which are not. Simple pragmatism demands that members of the academic community concur, willingly or regretfully, with the opinion expressed by Lieberman in his celebrated Treatise on Modern Criticism that “There is more of wistfulness than wisdom in the credo Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.”
Thus, we confront the task of determining whether or not there is prima facie evidence that punk writing does not merit serious study. And some would argue—indeed, some have already argued—that such evidence abounds. It must be admitted at the outset, for example, that punk writing is, almost without exception, bad writing. No less tolerant and distinguished a critic than Jameson wrote the following indictment:
Even at its putative best, punk prose is repetitive, strident, deliberately offensive in tone and technique, and quite devoid of that most vital prerequisite of literature, the writer’s interest in—and sympathy for—his or her characters. At its worst, punk prose is beneath contempt, consisting of little more than illiterate and incoherent diatribes full of mixed metaphors, fragmented constructs of plot and thought, and irrational unregenerate hostility.
What can there be in all this to attract serious scholarly interest? This is a vital question and one that must be addressed at some length, but having posed it in its proper place, I must at once beg leave to defer discussion of it until such time as the groundwork has been laid for a satisfactory answer, whose referent elements would necessarily at present include facts and conclusions not yet available—for confirmation or disputation—to my readers. Precipitate consideration of such issues could have no reasonable prospect of allaying an only too prudent skepticism. I therefore propose, with apologies to the ordinally minded among you, to lay the foundation for an informed decision by describing some of the punk writing movement’s background and history. Much of the information that follows was obtained from secondary sources, but this is an unfortunate necessity whose potential ill effects I have attempted to minimize by using only that material for which at least circumstantial supporting evidence could be obtained. In those few instances here included for which no such supporting evidence could be found, I have provided the identity of my source so that others can verify or disprove their testimony independently. All speculations in the following summary have been, I believe, expressly identified as such.
Herewith, I offer a brief overview of the punk writing movement, beginning with what is known of its origins.
In the fall of 1978 an unemployed auto mechanic named Samuel Dealey moved from the small town in southern New Jersey where he had been born to the South Street section of Philadelphia. A week later he wrote a letter to his sister describing his new home and his reasons for moving there:
...there’s plenty of kids & nobody to mes with you’s, if I want to gets boozed up I do, theres plenty places for that. Nobody saying hey you, do this, do that where was you yestiday. Its all free here I can dress how I like and I got a place with some other guys who know some of the realy cool bands here, a guy called Eddy Pig is learning me the gitar, so dont worry I’ll be making some good bread soon...
Dealey’s characterization of the South Street atmosphere was not an exaggeration, but a fairly accurate description of what had lately become a Mecca for culturally and economically dispossessed young people. The “realy cool bands,” moreover, were such a presence in the area that in May 1979, residents in neighboring Society Hill twice petitioned the Philadelphia Police Department to enforce the local noise ordinances more strictly, citing “repeated late night disturbances by punk rock bands whose exceptionally loud music and riotous behavior have become an intolerable nuisance to everyone in the vicinity.”
Despite these pleas, however, the police were apparently unable to impose order on the burgeoning population of South Street rebels. According to some contemporary accounts, the police were actually afraid of the punks, and by the fall of 1979, a de facto state of anarchy gave young people the freedom to do whatever they wished as long as they remained within the confines of a ten-block strip known as Punk City. Dealey, meanwhile, had joined a band called ‘The V-8s’ and, having changed his name to Johnny Dodge, was struggling to attain some kind of renown in the punk hierarchy. “I’m going to be somebody,” he wrote his sister. “I’m more punk than anybody here ever thought of.”
As confident as Dealey may have been about his prospects for punk stardom, the slightly defensive tone of the latter statement suggests that he was already finding it difficult to attract attention in what was essentially a leaderless, standardless culture. Too, he may have been discovering that the music itself was too lacking in substance to provide him with a platform for his ego. From its inception, punk music in the U.S. had been suffering from a debilitating identity crisis, as music scholar Roy Keller observed in a 1981 essay on the subject:
(It was) an offshoot of traditional rock and roll that if clear about the sartorial requirements it imposed on its adherents was hopelessly unclear about either its purpose or direction. Unable to agree on so simple a matter as whether punk music represented a reaction against, or a fulfillment of, the cultural imperatives of rock and roll, punk musicians took refuge in mere outrage, competing with one another on and off stage for top honors in boorishness and hostility.
It was at this juncture that a wholly unexpected element intruded on the heretofore closed world of Punk City. What direction Dealey might have taken had he never met Percy Gale, we can only surmise; what is certain is that in November 1979, Dealey formed a brief alliance with Gale that resulted in a cross-pollination between punk and computer technology, which in turn gave birth to the entire punk writing movement.
To comprehend the significance of the event, we must extend our scope of interest twenty miles northwest, to a region near the Pennsylvania Turnpike nicknamed Semi-Conductor Strip, where numerous high technology firms were competing for survival in the volatile market for computer hardware and software.. It was here that a brilliant electronics engineer named Percy Gale had been employed for three years by Neodata Corporation, a firm that produced word processing systems for the corporate market.
Gale’s career was progressing well, by all accounts, and he had recently been promoted to vice president in charge of new product development when Neodata’s founder, a young enfant terrible named Tod Mercado, launched a lengthy campaign to acquire Monomax Corporation, then the fourth largest computer company in the world. The takeover fight was one of the bloodiest on record and when the dust had settled in late 1979, Mercado assumed nominal control of a consolidated NeoMax Corporation which was so deeply in debt and so divided in its top ranks that Wall Street analysts doubted its ability to make prudent business decisions. Accusations and law suits were rife, and dethroned Monomax executives insisted in print that Mercado had completed the acquisition through the use of illegal tactics and unsavory sources of funding.
Soon after finalization of the acquisition, Gale resigned from the new corporation and moved to South Street, allegedly to escape the stress of corporate life. It is impossible to prove that Gale had any purpose other than curing a case of burnout. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Gale was, in fact, a close personal friend of Tod Mercado, and in light of subsequent events, it seems possible that he resigned from NeoMax either to escape questioning about his knowledge of acquisition-related events or, more intriguingly, to pursue some secret project he had dreamt up with his wunderkind boss.
I hasten to add that there is no documentation of any such project. There is, however, a mass of hearsay evidence that there existed some connection between Mercado and the punk writers of South Street. Almost all contemporary accounts confirm this directly or by implication, which represents an interesting exception to the norm among chroniclers of Punk City, who seem to differ sharply on many of the most basic ‘facts’ they report on. But whether Percy Gale’s presence on South Street was the by-product or the source of Mercado’s punk connection, we may never learn to a certainty. For example, the very same accounts which verify Mercado’s communications with punk writers tend to characterize Gale in starkly different ways. Under the sobriquet ‘The Sandman,’ he is in various accounts lionized as a major figure, depicted as a gifted though narrow technological guru, and dismissed as a minor supporting player, a kind of informed onlooker. The perspective on Gale adopted by any given chronicler of punk history seems to hinge on the very same issues that confront the scholar, which is to say that one’s view of Gale’s role and importance is determined by the particular assumptions one makes about what punk writing was and what it may have meant, if anything.
All we can say with confidence is that for whatever reason, Gale left a well paying corporate position, as well as an opulent suburban townhouse in King of Prussia, to move into a decaying urban neighborhood, where he participated in founding the phenomenon known as punk writing.
Boz Baker’s highly personal—and somewhat questionable—memoir, The Razor-Slashing Hate-Screaming De-Zeezing Ka-Killing, Doctor-Dreaming Kountdown, contains a passing mention of the first meeting between Dealey and Gale, but the only authentic record I have been able to locate is a reference in another of Dealey’s letters to his sister, in which he writes:
...Met a computer guy at Gobb’s said he could fix some hi teck effects for the band. Sounded like too much bread to me but he says unless I wanted to learn the gitar for real (I never claimed I was no Hendricks did I) I should give it a try, don’t worry about the bread til we get to it. Said I’d see him around mabe we’d talk later. Mabe he’s crazy but mabe not too, who knows.
Dealey must have overcome his doubts about Gale because he began collaborating with him almost immediately and soon departed from the V-8s to form his own band, Johnny Dodge & the 440s, which gave its first performance on November 27, 1979, at a South Street bar called the Slaughtered Pig. Contrary to the legend that grew up around this event, Dealey and his new group performed a routine set of punk rock songs, many of them borrowed from the defunct Eddy Pig Band, and confined its Gale-inspired experimentation to just one ‘number’ near the beginning of the show. In a piece called “Bloody Chiclets,” the band laid down its guitars and surprised the audience by typing its lyrics into several decrepit computer keyboards that were centrally wired to a cathode ray tube. As the words appeared on the CRT, they were also displayed on a small motion picture screen by means of a standard television projection device. Sound was still the predominant medium of communication, however; as the words flashed on the screen, Dealey screamed them into the microphone, and the other band members also used microphones to amplify the sound of typing to a menacing pitch. The lyrics themselves barely qualify as the first example of punk writing by including the term ‘boomer,’ the punks’ all-purpose descriptor for anyone older than a teenager and younger than their parents.
Still, it would be an egregious error to understate the impact this primitive novelty act was to have on Punk City. Overnight, a dozen or more new ‘punk writer’ bands were formed, and although most of them consisted of would-be punk musicians who had never learned to play three-chord rock and roll, there were also several who were attracted by the opportunity to call themselves ‘writers’ and who saw unlimited possibilities in what had become known as Johnny’s Mean Machine.
Thus was the phenomenon born. For close to five years, Punk City was dominated by hordes of punk writer bands, a small army of technical support personnel, and numerous camp followers and groupies. The punk writing movement, as it has come to be called by its few fans, generated hundreds of fictional works, from short stories to book-length pieces, in a wide variety of media, including computer printouts, live performances (called ‘livegrinds’) and graffiti, which swarmed over the outside of every building in Punk City and, according to eyewitnesses, over most of the interior walls as well. And despite the extraordinary number of contradictions to be seen in the accounts of actual events, all sources confirm that the punk writing movement developed and maintained its own unique culture, which means that we can understand punk writing as a whole only by examining its major contributing factors: the capacities and imperatives of punk writing technology, the nature of membership in punk writer bands, the social structure and environment of Punk City, the underlying principles of punk fiction, the pervasive impact of the mass effort to write the work known as The Boomer Bible, and the pervasive and ultimately fatal influence of the Cult of the Ka.
We shall deal with each of these topics briefly but separately below in hopes of providing readers with a basic context within which to assess the individual works that constitute the focus of this book.
Punk Writing Technology
As we have already seen, the presence of Percy Gale in Punk City was an important catalyst for the discovery that computers could be used to create fiction, however primitive. From this humble beginning, computer technology was to play an increasingly powerful role in the development of the punk writing culture. Indeed, it can be stated quite positively that without the technology provided by NeoMax Corporation, there would never have been a punk writing movement at all.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NeoMax enjoyed an undisputed lead in the technology of computer-assisted writing. Even today, few other companies can equal the software-based capabilities developed by NeoMax to correct and collate text input from multiple sources into a single document. It was this ‘mass input’ capability which drew the early bands, possibly through Percy Gale, to the hardware and software components that were then available from NeoMax. Although these had been designed to help corporate staffers contribute literate content to large and important business documents, the punks speedily discovered that NeoMax text correction utilities were extensive, sufficient even to the task of making sense out of barely literate input.
There remains a mystery about how the punks financed the enormous infusion of computer technology to South Street, but the gang-oriented society that predominated in Punk City suggests one obvious answer to this problem. For, as we shall see shortly, the punk writer bands engaged in violent combat to capture their chosen ‘turf’ from the South Philly and Camden gangs which had infiltrated the area during the punk music fad, and with their new territorial sovereignty it is not unreasonable to suppose that they also acquired the right to the lucrative drug traffic normally conducted by street gangs.
But however it was financed, computer equipment and software were imported to Punk City in prodigious quantities. NeoMax files reveal that dozens of orders were placed by punk writer bands every week, starting in December 1979, and that they were usually paid for in cash. According to the conventions of the culture, each band needed its own system or ‘rig,’ which through time became a highly customized configuration consisting of basic NeoMax components augmented with homegrown software and specialized input devices created by technical mavens like Percy Gale.
The NeoMax system that normally formed the nucleus of a band’s writing’s system comprised a power central processor equipped with multiple software packages incorporating one of the earliest known implementations of artificial intelligence (AI). The NeoMax Distributed Writing System included programs for entering text from multiple intelligent input devices, correcting text for grammatical and syntactic errors, collating text contributed by multiple sources into a single non-redundant document, and performing additional stylistic revisions to the unified file. Such functions could be performed very rapidly when processors were configured with massive amounts of memory and hard disk storage. NeoMax input devices were similar to personal computers; each input station had its own keyboard, video display tube, and magnetic storage, so that individual band members could preview their own input before transmitting it to the Stylizer for correction and collation.
Thus a basic NeoMax Distributed Writing System could have enabled the most poorly educated of the punks to produce a reasonably literate written document. The sense of authorship that came with this purely technological exercise must have been overwhelming to those who were experiencing it for the first time.
The subsequent development of specialized input devices set the seal on the punks’ fascination with their new technology. With stunning rapidity, punk writing systems were outfitted with exotic software and numerous jury-rigged devices that vastly extended their ability to compose works of fiction. And it must be admitted that a high percentage of these were genuine innovations, many of which are still not widely available from computer companies. If, as seems likely, these innovations were developed by Percy Gale and others of his ilk, it may well be that the punk era should be regarded as a golden age—a technological golden age sired by unacknowledged computer geniuses whose greatness can only be guessed at through the concealing static of the punk movement.
NeoMax ‘Stylizer’ software was originally developed for use, as we have said, in corporate organizations. Its stylistic capabilities were therefore intended to produce a uniform no-nonsense prose that failed to satisfy the punks’ appetite for the sensational and bizarre. Thus, it was probably inevitable that considerable energy went into the task of developing new Stylizer applications that could edit NeoMax ‘corporate’ output into the melodramatic and excessively rhythmic styles favored by the punks. Very little of this custom software has survived, however, and the best evidence of the technological innovations developed for use with NeoMax systems is the plethora of specialized input devices that soon replaced the generic devices sold by NeoMax.
One of the most exceptional of these custom input devices was the macrophone (or ‘mace’), which employed chip hardware programmed with voice recognition capability. This made it possible for the system to translate oral input into electronic text that could be edited and collated with keyed text. The extraordinary power of this machine has led numerous computer experts to believe that, by whatever means, the punks of South Street must have had access to the NeoMax research and development laboratory, which was the nearest credible source for technological innovation of such a high order. It is in this context that that there remains so much residual interest in the nature and extent of the relationship between Percy Gale and Tod Mercado, Chief Executive Officer of NeoMax.
Another breakthrough design was the parallaxophone (or ‘ax’), which used AI technology to initiate computer generated inquiries against databases stored on magnetic disks. This made it possible for an operator who possessed some knowledge of what a stored database contained to enter a single key word and receive in return a sizable list of additional information that could be subsequently edited and collated by an upstream Stylizer. In short, the parallaxophone allowed punks to break one of the most basic of all writing rules: they could write about subjects they knew nothing about as long as they had the right database loaded on hard disk. The need for many databases that could augment the punks’ deficient knowledge on myriad topics spawned a secondary profession in Punk City, that of the paid ‘Dbaser,’ who was willing to create customized parallaxophone databases in return for a fee.
The Stereotypewriter (or ‘gun’) was a third key development for the punk writing movement. Actually consisting of a subset of parallaxophone technology, the stereotypewriter featured ROM (Read-Only memory) cartridges containing generic ‘character’ databases which could be used to invent fictional characters and give them distinguishing attributes, including names. This device was aptly named: in operation, the lists of character attributes summoned by special keys on the machine’s keyboard did not create individual characters of the sort considered indispensable for readable fiction; instead they produced utter clichés, categories of superficial socio-economic attributes which virtually ensured that all punk characters created thereby would indeed be stereotypes.
A similar principle gave rise to the device known as the plot synthesizer (or ‘splatbox’). Making use of the notion that all plots can be regarded as variants of no more than a handful of masterplots, the plot synthesizer allowed its operator (or ‘killer’) to build a map of key events in a story which could then be used as a template by the collation software resident on the Stylizer. This entire function was driven by function keys and menu options that allowed ‘killers’ to program plot twists, complications, and subplots without ever having to learn the basic dynamics of fiction.
Punk City also generated primitive prototype technologies in the areas of image and sound. System peripherals that came to be known as ‘glimboxes’ and ‘voxboxes’ allowed punks to store images and sounds and cue them for output at pre-designated points in text documents. These technologies did not materially contribute to the punk stories (at least during the Early Punk era) but helped satisfy the requirement for theatrics in live performances. Glimboxes and voxboxes also provided another means of making a living for punks who were unable to secure positions with bands; for fairly modest payment, such hangers-on would do the menial work of collecting photos and sound recordings for incorporation into punk performances.
While numerous other variations on these basic devices were developed throughout the history of the punk movement, it was these innovations which built the foundation of punk writing and established the structure of punk writer bands. Individual punks specialized in the technical skills required to operate a stereotypewriter or parallaxophone and acquired renown based on the respect accorded them for their expertise. And after the first few months of the Early Punk Era, every band had to have its own ‘axman,’ its own ‘gunner,’ ‘killer,’ and ‘styman.’ The ‘mace’ was normally used by the leader of the group (‘Lead Narratist’), who frequently operated either the plot synthesizer or Stylizer as well.
Thus, the structure of punk writer bands was in large part determined by the technical requirements of operating powerful computer-based writing systems. But the behaviors and customs of these bands were to become a significant cultural factor in the course of the movement, quite independently from the technology. Indeed, they led to a cult of personality that persists to this day in the minds of the people who encountered them.
The Punk Writer Bands
Those who remember the punks of Great Britain or the music punks of the U.S. might believe they can visualize the punk writer bands of South Street. In all probability, they would be shocked and terrified if they were to meet one in person. For though the bands did affect all the essential punk habiliments—outlandish haircuts, abundant use of hair dyes, makeup, and suitably bizarre stage costumes, as well as such de rigeur accessories as safety pins, black lipstick, chains, and razor blades—these represented only the starting point for a dress code that entailed some additional requirements.
Every band member was also a technician, required to be adept at a variety of hardware and software-related chores. For this reason, his/her everyday costume included a heavy utility belt, containing screwdrivers of various kinds, and numerous patch pockets on sleeves, legs, and torso, in which he/she could carry small tools, test devices, and items of computer equipment. Additionally, most band members wore ‘armreels,’ purportedly for the purpose of having constant access to adequate lengths of the very expensive coaxial cable needed to connect input devices to the Stylizer.
The actual conformation of the armreel, however, suggests that its true purpose was multi-functional, to say the least. To the uninitiated observer, the armreel would appear to be a shield, a small one to be sure, but strategically positioned on the forearm or elbow at the correct angle to fend off blows. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the device was used in just this capacity, as well as for more offensive purposes. It is reported, for example, that Slash Frazzle of the band Hate Mail was a master at choking his opponents with a length of coaxial cable drawn swiftly from the armreel and wrapped deftly around the neck of the victim. This more martial aspect of armreels is also confirmed by the band custom of painting them with their ‘colors’ (‘colors’ being the time-honored gang medium of identification with the group).
There is even less ambiguity about the purpose of the most unique articles of punk writer attire, the chipjack (also ‘torkjack’) and the torkmask. The chipjack usually consisted of a long, dark-colored duster or topcoat made of tough canvas on which were sewn multiple circuit boards. Not only did these boards make for a spectacular and colorful appearance evocative of the wearer’s profession, but they also provided good, if not complete, protection against piercing weapons such as knives and long screwdrivers (‘scrivers’). The torkmask was often adapted from the plastic headgear worn by hockey goalies, but many bands developed their own designs that served to provide all band members with a (hopefully) frightening threat display and a common identity that could easily be recognized in gang fights or band duels (‘torks’).
The final critical items of punk apparel were gloves, boots, and helmets, although the more prominent bands sometimes combined the torkmask and helmet into custom pieces of headgear symbolic of band identity. The gloves were usually adapted from cold-weather motorcycle gauntlets, selected for the heavy padding on the back of the hand. To these, the punks sewed additional circuit boards, which, in a fight, could rip and tear like brass knuckles. The fingers, however, had to be truncated at the second knuckle, to afford their wearer the freedom to feel input keys with his/her fingertips.
The overall picture that emerges from this clothing list is of the band as a high tech work group cum military squad. And this seems to be the way the bands regarded themselves. Like the motorcycle gangs whose behavior they emulated in so many respects, each band had its own colors and insigne, and all members were expected to retaliate if one were injured or provoked by another band. Yet they were expected to function smoothly in combat alongside other bands during both offensive and defensive missions outside Punk City. For this reason, band members trained together in military exercises in which they became adept as a species of military cavalry, and they also lived together, sharing quarters called ‘departments,’ which were located in the basements and lofts of South Street’s decaying commercial buildings. They therefore formed a single economic unit, almost like a family, in which the Lead Narratist served as decision maker and battle sergeant. He/she made work assignments, including the finding of part-time work when money was scarce, and served as the band’s designated champion during the ritual ‘debates’ that played a central role in the conduct of community affairs and mass writing projects.
Given their role as warrior-artists, the bands and especially their leaders became ‘stars,’ attracting their own retinues and groupies and serving as the inspiration for legends about their deeds and misdeeds. The annals of punk City are full of the tales that grew around such stars as St. Nuke, Johnny Dodge, Ripp Starr, Slash Frazzle, and Kobra Jones. Oddly for a culture with such a self-conscious macho orientation, star status was accorded to a few women as well, most notably Alice Hate, Liz Smack, and Piss Pink.
Only a select few of the bands stayed together for any length of time. Internal wrangles, defections to other bands, and combat deaths shattered bands on a regular basis. Despite the nearly universal punk dream of becoming part of a legendary, long-running band, most spent their months or years in Punk City joining one band after another, painting the newest colors on their armreels and hoping to survive for another week.
And survival was never assured. This is key to understanding the nature of punk culture. For the combat attire worn by the punks was not an affectation but a necessity. Rarely in modern times has there been a community which confronted such a continuous external threat and engaged so often in organized combat. In this context, it should not be surprising that superstition also came to be a major element of the Punk City culture.
Violence and Superstition
When the punk writing movement first got underway, the punk musicians had yielded much of the real authority over South Street to gangs, who ruled the street corners and protected turf lines based on the division of drug trafficking territories. But gang control became unacceptable as punk music groups gave way to punk writer bands. The punks needed freedom of movement in order to transport their equipment from place to place and, it may be speculated, to secure a source of income for the financing of further equipment acquisitions. As a result, the earliest months of the Early Punk period became a bloodbath, as punk bands squared off against street gangs to fight for territorial rights in the infamous ‘Winter War.’
This may have been the period when punks discovered the Ouija board and the Tarot deck, props that that have been used by occultists to fleece the unwary in every walk of life. Exactly who introduced them to South Street and how they spread so rapidly cannot yet be determined from available sources (although there are some likely candidates, as we shall see), but it seems that within a matter of weeks, almost every punk owned a fortunetelling device of his/her own and used it to divine the outcome of fights, the advisability of joining or departing from a band, and even in some cases the outcome of a story (or ‘piece’) in progress. Once introduced, the tarot deck in particular became increasingly important in punk decision-making of all kinds. While we may regard this as a debilitating dependency, it does not seem to have damaged their fighting spirit, which was by all accounts truly formidable.
The ferocity of these early punk writer bands can be estimated in some measure by the speed with which they drove out the gangs. By April 1980, the invaders from Camden and Philly’s inner cities were in full retreat and fighting them had become the punk equivalent of sport. Indeed, the denizens of Punk City soon became the aggressors themselves and, for as yet undefined reasons, deliberately provoked occasional wars against the gangs who lived in nearby Camden, even though they had ceased to be a threat to the security of South Street.
Despite their demonstrated ability to unite in the face of armed opposition, the punk writer bands found it virtually impossible to live peaceably together in the same community. In this respect, they were perhaps hoist by their own petard. Their military prowess had been achieved by creating what was, in effect, a well organized gang of gangs, but each of the little gang units called bands maintained its sharpness and preparedness by finding any and every excuse to fight on a regular basis. Thus, after a brief victory celebration at the conclusion of the Winter War, the punk writer bands turned quickly to fighting one another, quarreling and battling—sometimes to the death—over petty differences of opinion, including such ‘literary issues’ as the quality of a band’s latest composition and even Tarot interpretations, which caused such animus that rival band factions began to create their own versions of the cards and acquired a quasi-religious fervor about the divinatory meanings they conjured from their handiwork.
By June 1980, daily street combat had become such a constant that a nucleus of powerful band leaders became alarmed about the possibility that the police would finally intervene. As punks armed themselves more heavily with long scrivers (sharpened screwdrivers up to two feet long) and even army surplus machetes, intramural combat began to result in dead bodies, which had to be disposed of clandestinely in the marshes of southern New Jersey. This was a matter that almost no one spoke of openly, although the term ‘Jersified’ became a punk synonym for death.
The leaders knew they had to act, but they had very little room in which to maneuver. Combat could not be removed from Punk City. Violence was an intrinsic part of the punk social code that was no longer separable from the perceived mandates of punk fiction. It was commonly believed that punk ‘pieces’ had to be born in blood if they were to retain the merciless savagery that characterized all of punk fiction. Having established a collective (if subconscious) consensus that violence was the creative wellspring of their ‘art,’ the punk writers had to devise a means of preventing the violent implosion of their community without surrendering the barbaric belief system that had made them a community in the first place.
A solution was found, one that would perpetuate the punk writing movement for several more years, at a terrible cost. It worked because it had a strong champion to accept the burden of leading the transition and because it was born out of the realm in which the punks had the most invested—their growing sense of themselves as writers.
There was one band that stood above all others in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of punks. The Shuteye Train was one of the first bands to emerge from anonymity, and it was the first to be recognized as an official public menace. The real names of its members were not known by either the authorities or the punks, but the Philadelphia Police Department engaged for years in an ongoing manhunt for the four punks who called themselves Loco Dantes, Pig Millions, Reedy Weeks, and Joe Kay. Implicated in the brutal and senseless murder of a young attorney whose bullet-riddled body was found nailed to the side of a building on South Street, the Shuteye train went into hiding in March 1980 and was rarely seen in public afterwards. Only a handful of punk writers living on South Street at the end of the Early Punk era could have recognized members of the Shuteye Train on sight, and yet this is the band that has been given credit for inventing the punk writing style and producing its most important individual works.
In a variety of early stories (all but one short fragment lost as of this date), the Shuteye Train hammered out a vicious style of storytelling that deliberately smashed every accepted rule of fiction writing. The Shuteye Train verbally assaulted its readers, refused to write dialogue, refused to create any characters but stereotypes, shamelessly manipulated plot elements, systematically inserted themselves into their own story lines, and invariably brutalized their principal characters for unnamed violations of Shuteye Train standards. South Street punks were convinced that the Shuteye Train, having written a story, would proceed to act it out in real life, as if intent on forcing life to imitate their ‘art.’
With this band as the dominant punk writer role model, Punk City became a vortex of hatred and fear as punks dedicated themselves to achieving an adrenalin high equal to the challenge of ‘writing up to the Shuteye Train.’ This is evident in the stories included in this volume, which are representative of the larger body of works contained in the Cream King Trove.
But the exceptional viciousness of the Shuteye Train’s fictional ideal carried the seeds of the movement’s destruction. Not every band could be the Shuteye Train, and the leaders of Punk City were shrewd enough to understand that the movement could not survive for long on a mass adrenalin overdose and the savagery necessary to sustain it. Only one of the punks on South Street, however, had the vision to understand how the passion for writing could be employed for the purpose of yanking Punk City off its collision course with the Shuteye Train. The punk was a charismatic leader who called himself St. Nuke. His vision was of a mass writing project he named The Boomer Bible.
The Boomer Bible
For months, the writers of South Street had been performing literary executions of the affluent professionals whom they seemed to regard as responsible for everything they disapproved of in the society at large. They maintained the single-minded fury they poured into their fiction by engaging in combat with one another. St. Nuke appears to have realized that the real object of punk fury was their own ignorance. Aided by the advice of a street performer named Mr. Magic, St. Nuke arrived at the conclusion that the future development of punk writing (if there was to be any) depended on the punks’ ability to understand how and why the boomers were to blame for everything that seemed so wrong. This obviously meant that an educational process of sorts had to occur, since by their own admission, the punks simply knew too little to diagnose underlying causes of cultural phenomena.
St. Nuke therefore devised a writing project that would require the participation of every punk on South Street. The objective was to write down in one volume what the ‘Boomers’ believed about everything. Naive and hopelessly unrealistic as it was, this project was to become the shared obsession of the entire population of Punk City for close to a year. In effect, St. Nuke drafted all his punk writer colleagues into his own band and became the Lead Narratist of a 2,000-person punk writing orchestra. He provided the inspiration and the direction. He laid down the rules, which eventually became the basis for whatever law existed in Punk City (later named in his honor the NukeLaw). He designed and supervised the research process to generate the content that had been missing from punk fiction since its inception. He drove the daily writing effort—advising, instructing, bullying, and punishing, as necessary—with ruthless determination. Yet he was careful to accomplish his intentions without destroying the essential ingredients of the Punk City culture. He did not dispense with individual bands, but parceled out assignments to all of them and then praised them for the collated draft in which, perhaps, no single band could have recognized its own input. He did not terminate all dueling, but rather channeled it into the writing process, so that there was at least once a week a ‘BB Debate’ in the courtyard of the failed New Market Mall which adjoined Headhouse Square.
Here, surrounded by a couple of thousand armed killers, St. Nuke turned Punk City’s bloodlust to his own purposes. He allowed open debates about the names of books, the identity of the Boomer Bible’s ‘messiah,’ and the very grave matter of which ‘books’ had to be excluded from the whole. And he allowed the debates to be settled by combat between designated champions of individual bands— who usually drew blood and sometimes suffered mortal wounds before the disputed point was resolved.
At the end of it all, St. Nuke presented Punk City with a book that all could claim to have written. The ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ was signed by the participating bands on April 19, 1981. The punk who had led the effort was rewarded not with their love, but with their respect, their admiration, and their trust. He was made King of Punk City by acclamation at the next scheduled Debate. St. Nuke accepted the office, but he had no illusions about what he had done and how he had done it. He wrote—in an otherwise unenlightening work titled Konfessions—a frank description of his methods, addressed with consummate irony to ‘Harry,’ the hated Boomer messiah the punks had created in their Bible:
Punk City is a colony of ants. But not so easy to kill. I have pulled them underground. Not to save them but to use them. This I could only tell you.
I know most of their names, the insides of their infant minds, and yet I spend them like handfuls of pennies.
Nevertheless, in uniting Punk City for the composition of The Boomer Bible, St. Nuke unquestionably saved the punk writing movement from self-destruction and made the period that would be known as High Punk possible. The sheer technical challenge of collating the input of several thousand semi-literate ‘writers’ into one piece of prose (however flawed) resulted in brilliant new software and hardware innovations that increased system capabilities by an order of magnitude.
Indeed, it has been argued that the next release of NeoMax’s Distributed Writing System software incorporated dozens of features and capabilities that were originated by the punks of South Street. In the absence of tangible evidence concerning the link between punk technicians and NeoMax system developers, though, this claim can neither be affirmed nor refuted.
More to the point for the punks, it would appear that the technological breakthroughs associated with the writing of The Boomer Bible contributed mightily to the establishment of Punk City’s next great quest—the one that would hold the community together for the remainder of its bizarre and violent history. The curious figure known as Mr. Magic would also play a role in identifying this quest, as would St. Nuke, Loco Dantes of the Shuteye Train, and a mysterious drug called ‘Blue.’
Doctor Dream and the Cult of the Ka
As early as the initial planning of The Boomer Bible, an inner circle of punks (called ‘the demortals’) had come to believe in a mythology focusing on events in some parallel or mirror world ruled by a winged entity called the Raptor Ka. There is very strong circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis that Mr. Magic was heavily involved in the dissemination of this mythology, which made extensive use—coincidentally or conveniently—of the Tarot deck.
Both St. Nuke and Loco Dantes became strong advocates of the ka mythology, which made its way into the concluding section of The Boomer Bible and began appearing in the published pieces attributed to the Shuteye Train. In approximately the same timeframe a new, somehow definitive Tarot deck, The Karot, was adopted as the most sacred of the five sets of divinatory cards used in Punk City.
All subsequent kings of Punk City—Kobra Jones, Cadillac Mope, and Gypsy Jackknife—claimed experiences with the ka world in their writings, usually after imbibing a dose of ‘Blue,’ and wrote accounts of quasi-metaphysical journeys that are not clearly labeled as either fiction or autobiography. Such accounts may well have been a ritual requirement of kings, akin to the ceremonial opening of the mouth engaged in by the pharaohs of Egypt. They cannot therefore be considered historical, but only as relics of an opaque belief system.
These are the only facts that can be discovered in the innumerable writings of the punks about their process of conversion. Sadly for scholars, when mythology invades history, history is the loser. Legends about various punks and their encounters with the ka world abound, but it is impossible to link them with dates or any other concrete milestones of Punk City chronology. One can but repeat the stories and continue to remind the reader that they cannot be proven to be anything more. They can be analyzed in the context of what is known about other parts of punk culture, but as it comes to represent the dominant force in punk culture, the pretense that such analysis can be in any sense objectively meaningful diminishes and finally disappears.
It was said and believed, for example, that the Shuteye Train represented Punk City’s closest link to the world of the ka, and that this band which never appeared in Punk City would nevertheless serve as the means for entry into our world of the ‘Son of the Raptor,’ a human-ka hybrid who would bear the name Doctor Dream and carry out a mission not unlike that foretold for Jesus Christ in Revelations. The mission of the punks in this ka drama was to create, through the force of their shared passion, the doorway through which Doctor Dream could enter our world. The location of this doorway, the punks believed, lay inside their own shared computer system, along the boundary between physical and conceptual reality represented by the ones and zeroes of computer bits which are transformed to ideas by the power of human thought and emotion.
Thus, the punks came to conceive of their purpose as the invocation of Doctor Dream, which they could bring about by concentrating enough energy in the writing they fed into the central computer that had been built for the Boomer Bible writing effort. At the appropriate time, catalyzed by the fury and passion and understanding of the punks, Doctor Dream would emerge into our world from the computer by way of a story authored by the Shuteye Train.
Now, as mentioned above, one can attempt to analyze such beliefs in the context of known events. One can point out, for example, that the Shuteye Train was an established part of the punk belief system well before any mention of ‘the Raptor Ka’ appears in punk writings. One can draw attention to the fact that widespread acceptance of the notion of a vengeful ka messiah seems to follow hard on the heels of the community’s fictional encounter with an Antichrist-inspired messiah who must be defeated. One can speculate that this kind of fictional encounter may have led to encounters with the original book of Revelations and that its dramatic appeal was so great that... well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the saying goes.
One could go on from there to theorize that a mythology which ascribed spiritual power to the inanimate device that had prevented their dissolution as a community might have offered a universal appeal.
One could resort for explanation to common sense wisdom about the nature of human beings. The punks wanted to believe they were important. They wanted to go on believing they were important even after they completed the improbable and not-to-be-duplicated feat of writing a Bible. One could suggest that they were the perfect seedbed for a cult belief system of this sort.
But there is a grave difficulty with such analysis. When the cult belief system becomes the all-consuming center of the culture that spawns it, to explain that belief system away is also to explain away the entire culture. If its very center is a lie and a mistake then everything built around it is also a lie and a mistake—devoid in any absolute sense of value and truth.
That is the problem we face with the punks. As they retreat from the objective reality we live in and cease to maintain connections with that reality, they fade before us into the mist of ancient maps marked ‘here there be dragons.’ We know there are no dragons there, or here, and the rest of the map is not to be relied on for illumination.
The Case for Investigating the Punk Writing Movement
And now, at last, we return to the question that was deferred at the beginning of this discussion. What is there in punk writing to that can or should attract serious literary interest? And more specifically, why do we need to examine the compilation of admittedly bad writing that has been put together in this volume?
The answer to these questions is threefold. The first and simplest reason for such compilation is that punk writing exists, in quantity, and its very unattractiveness constitutes the kind of unifying element that signifies a literary movement. It would therefore be an act of carelessness for scholars to dismiss punk writing without having first consulted the material in question and amassed defensible arguments for such a dismissal. Otherwise, we leave the door open for groundless but conceivable lionization of punk writers by opportunistic critics. It isn’t difficult to imagine the outraged assertion that punk writing has been excluded from consideration for the canon because of mere prejudice and that such an act of exclusion, by its very existence, requires us to validate our judgment with published argumentation. Far better to examine the material now, in an atmosphere of open-minded objectivity, than to run a gauntlet later. Too, the material here compiled is far shorter than The Boomer Bible, yet more diverse in form and style and, at the same time, untainted by the ignorant praise of ill educated newspaper critics. The real scholarship can start—and just possibly end—right here.
Another raison d’etre for this volume is that punk writing may be regarded as the first occurrence of an intrusion into the literary world by high technology. In this case, we may easily adjudge the intrusion innocuous, since it has resulted in a product of small merit, but we would do wrong to ignore it altogether. For it may well happen that at some future time, technology of the kind used to create punk fiction will give rise to work which, but for its mechanistic origin, could be considered art. What critical tools shall we then have at our disposal for the task of separating man from machine, imagination from mathematical induction, art from fakery at the speed of light?
It may be suggested by some that this is a straw issue. After all, have not painters and sculptors availed themselves for years of the fruits of technology without having to surrender their claim to artistry? And do I mean to imply that the sculptor’s welding torch or the painter’s gasoline-powered compressor interposes an element of fraud between creator and creation? Not at all is my hasty and unequivocal reply. But I do contend that there is something very substantially different about language and the nature of writing that should persuade us to view the writer’s use of technological aids with care and concern. For unlike a painter or a sculptor, a writer is not creating a physical product, but a mental one. The importance of this distinction becomes obvious if we consider that while a painting cannot be reproduced and still convey the totality of the artist’s intent, a book can remain intact in virtually any physical incarnation so long as the writer’s words are not changed. In short, words and paint differ fundamentally as artistic tools, and the constraints imposed upon their uses by artistic integrity are similarly and unalterably different. One more analogy should effectively demonstrate the nature of the constraints we must be concerned with here.
If a painter or sculptor were to permit some hand other than his/her own to direct the use of his/her tools, then the legitimacy of the end product would be open to question. And this is the question we must ask with regard to punk writing. Whose hand directed the choice and placement of words? By their own repeated admissions, punk writers are illiterate. To what extent are we to attribute to them alone the sentiments and styles of their prose? Are they handicapped artists hobbling forward on prosthetic limbs? Or are they merely the unwitting catalysts of a soulless binary exercise? Careful analysis of this issue may provide invaluable practice to the critic who undertakes it, especially in view of the increasing abstraction of modern prose. By what criteria, for example, could an untutored critic distinguish the works of such present day giants as Barth, Barthelme, and Gass from computer simulations of their styles? The relationships between their writings and the known physical world are so tangential, allusive, and elusive that a sufficiently sophisticated computer could be programmed to produce stylized gibberish closely resembling their work. If we are to prevent the success of such duplicities, and their possible catastrophic impact on serious literature, we must begin developing our critical skills in this field at once. Punk writing may serve as an elementary exercise in the nascent science of fraud detection in literature.
There is a third and final reason for examining punk writing. Until now, we have spoken little about the actual content of punk fiction. It may be that little will need to be said when an educated reader confronts the works collected in this book. However, it cannot be denied that punk writers purport to understand the philosophical and literary foundations of the current era. In their total hostility to the writings produced by that era, they imply that they have developed an alternate foundation for their own writing that is superior to the collective achievements of the greatest minds of our century. Why is this noteworthy, let alone a cause for concern? Because as we have seen in the lives of the punk writers themselves, rumor can become myth can become gospel without any intercession by logic or intelligence. It would be sad indeed if rumors of a punk movement, never fully documented or investigated, were to overturn in the minds of our children the best philosophy and art produced by the twentieth century.
At present, it may seem unthinkable that the outstanding intellectual achievements of our century should be equated with nihilism, as the punks have sought to do. But without some kind of objective response to punk writings, we face the possibility that future generations will seize upon punk writings as an excuse to repudiate their cultural heritage. Instead of honoring the twentieth century intelligentsia’s opposition to nuclear war, its concern with rectifying the social injustices of centuries past, and its confrontation of the grave implications of this century’s psychological and anthropological discoveries, they may choose to adopt the thoughtless and ignorant perspective of the punks, which would have it that we are moral and spiritual bankrupts who have contributed nothing to the world but self-pitying rationalizations for our ever-increasing bondage to materialism.
And this is not a completely remote possibility. Given current levels of illiteracy in the population at large, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the academic, philosophical, and literary works which have sustained our society for so long will fall into disrepute as the number of people who can understand them declines. And if the most perfect expressions of our troubled species should become completely inaccessible to the people who must be informed by them, then how shall society itself proceed? It may indeed revert to the primitive and barbaric conditions that characterized Punk City in the early 1980s.
Thus, it behooves us to confront punk’s philosophical pretensions now, to dissect its half-truths, and to expose its fabrications and unwarranted assumptions. There is no better means of defusing its long-term potential for harm.
- Thomas Naughton, PhD.
Princeton, New Jersey
Hard to read? Absolutely. But it's a whole generation behind the unreadability of today's literary scholars. Think about that.