In the summer of 1976 I was living and writing as a street poet in Seattle, Washington. I had left the university following the completion of my Bachelors degree, determined that I would not return and be co-opted by the stifling confines of that bourgeoisie institution. Working in a yarn factory on the overnight shift, and writing poetry during the afternoons filled my workdays. Giving readings in coffeehouse bars and on the street comprised my days off. The poetry readings were part of a collective called the Dogtown Poetry group. As a subculture within subcultures, we had a vision about poetry and poets. We also had an ethos that included, at its center, a commitment to breaking the rules and reshaping the game.
One evening we were giving a reading at a local coffeehouse in the University District. As we finished, we were approached by a group of young men. They asked us if we would like to read our poetry in between bands at an upcoming punk rock show. They said that they thought our poetry would mesh well with punk culture.
While none of us were well aquainted with what punk had become in 1976, we were all very familiar with the origins of punk in the work of the Velvet Underground, Television, Iggy Pop and more recently The Sex Pistols. We were also aware of the connections between the beatniks such as Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs and the early punk movement. This connection had been made overt in the work of punk poet and musician Patti Smith. What they were saying made sense to us because we saw ourselves within this lineage of punk and poetry. This made the prospect of the show, for us, an exciting set of possible new links between punk and poetry.
The show, however, was not at all what we expected. As it turned out there was a great deal we didn’t understand about punk culture. Correspondingly our hosts within punk culture didn’t understand or appreciate about what we were trying to do. Whatever it was that they had heard in our poetry, their compatriots at the show did not hear it.
The crowd was loud and rowdy and not at all in the mood to hear spoken poetry. They wanted to hear loud, assaultive punk music not surrealist/dadaist poetry. On our part we considered our poetry a kind of street fighting. This kind of tough, no quarter taken poetry was best read, in our opinion, under the influence of several beers. In such condition we took no shit from anybody, and after about five minutes of loud and rowdy calls for the return of the music, I remember standing and challenging the entire audience to a fist fight if they didn’t quiet down. Much to my surprise they did – a phenomenon that marked that particular crowd of punks as at minimum softcore and most likely posers (Leblanc, 1999 p. 55). The evening descended from there and ended with one young man telling us that our poetry was not sufficiently violent to sustain the audience’s attention. Our response to this critique was one of our members pulling out a large buck knife and asking the critic whether or not he would like to experience real violence first hand. Our critic declined this invitation and we left the show very shortly after with a bad taste in our mouth about the whole thing.
This clash of subcultures faded over time as I got older. Faded that is until Punk re-entered my life in the summer of 1998. Like many people I had assumed the death of punk somewhere around the demise of the Sex Pistols (Leblanc, 1999 p. 48). It was not a death I grieved much, although in the back of my mind, the old connections of early punk and poetry kept a certain part of punk mythical. But punk had died like the other anarchist movements of my youth; The White Panther Party, The Yippies, The Hog Farm, The Diggers, The Merry Pranksters, The Lamar Harrington Collective, Girls Together Outrageously, the 62nd Street House and others. They were gone and while their spirit might continue to inform me within my private ethos, my days of anarchist companionship and collective action were long since past and gone.
Like Mark Twain's, however, the news of the death of punks was greatly exaggerated. It was my son who brought punk back and opened that world to me in ways that have both confirmed my connections to punk as well as my critique. As I have watched the transformation of my son from David the skater to Dirty Dave the punk to Dirty the grunge punk and back to Dave the hardcore punk with the stage name Dirty, I have been profoundly altered. As I have watched his band evolve from the first mixed group of punks and non-punks to the current hardcore combination of straightedgers (who do not use drugs or alcohol) and hardcores, I have been informed about how our lives are both continuous and discontinuous simultaneously. I have thought a great deal about tradition, lineage, connection, belonging and pregenerative generations. I have been forced back on my bourgeois self in ways that challenge my comforts and remind me of my younger intentions. In short, his life and culture are transformative for me in important and evocative ways.
It is my son and his friends that are the topic of this paper. The conversations I have had with them over the past year about being punk is the ground out of which this writing comes. I want to be clear, however, that this paper is not about them. They are not the object of observation. In keeping with the ethnographic traditions of postmodernism (Crapanzano, 1986; Tyler, 1986; Scheper-Hughes; 1992) I will not attempt to create a knowing about the "other". I will not attempt a reading of the punk text that creates them or their world as a knowable subject. Instead, I propose a poetic reading of the text of our conversations (Tyler, 1986). I will attempt to read their text evocatively as brings me into being in front of myself. In this, I hope to show that youth subculture is not alien or separate but is integrally involved in the most intimate constitution of our adult world.
The world of my son's band "The Skamps" has constituted my world in profound and deeply personal ways. For me, this is the essence of youth work. It is not knowing about youth, it is about knowing through youth. It is acknowledging and integrating the reflexive process by which they come to know you have been changed through contact with their world.
Given the scope of this paper, I will not attempt a full analysis of the ways in which this transformative process has happened between the Skamps and myself. Instead I will focus my attention on three areas that were particularly evocative for me: dress, politics and lineage.
Hardcore punk dress can be described as " ... composed of combat boots, torn jeans, leather jackets, spiked armbands and dog collars and mohawks." (Leblanc, 1999 p. 52) This certainly describes the Skamps very well. In my initial discussions with them we had many arguments about the political efficacy of fashion and/or aesthetic statement. These conversations were held while I shaved hair into mohawks and helped blow dry the elmers glue that supported the mohawk fan, or mixed bleach or dye for multicolored liberty spikes. These arguments went on in piercing parlors where friends of mine pierced my son's ears, nose and chin and punk shops where we purchased the metal studs to decorate jackets and jeans. These discussions evoked a tension for me that was rooted, in a decision I made in Alaska in 1978. This decision to leave the world of poetry behind as politically ineffective and to become a youth worker instead changed the course of life in ways that still cause me discomfort.
This decision to leave behind the world of music, art and poetry as a political medium was prompted by what I saw, at the time, as the death of the youth movement of the 60s. It seemed to me that we had tried to change the world and we had failed. The hard, cold reality of American politics had won out over the power of aesthetics.
Now I was faced with my son and his friends insisting that it could be done; that politics was not to be found in the institutions of America but in the individual briccolage of punk fashion. As I talked with them, argued with them, listened to them and watched them, my own sense of an aesthetically driven world was amplified. While my aesthetics are the not same as theirs, the integrity with which they form their aesthetic challenges me to more consciously form my own.
The Skamps are anarchists and they are deeply and profoundly political. At the age of fifteen my son was beaten by five Minneapolis police officers and jailed for blocking a federal office building door during a protest against the bombing of Iraq. The next day I joined him in a march where he walked in front of those same officers and engaged them in dialogue. I stood with him and another Skamp in the three o'clock darkness of a Minnesota winter night and watched while five hundred state patrol officers in riot gear destroyed the encampment of twenty five unarmed protesters. I stood next to these youth in punk regalia while they sang Christmas carols to police as they maced and beat their friends and pissed on the sacred fire of the native elders at the camp.
My son Dirty Dave and his friend Danny Skamp believe themselves to come out of a political tradition. They see their actions as continuous with those of their fathers and grandfathers. On the other hand they think we are way too politically correct and overconcerned with our "white privilege" and "patriarchal oppression". Their politics is the politics of Lenny Bruce. They see words as things to be used to explode the world. They see individual expression as sacred, but also infinitely contestable. They believe in fighting and violence and "fucking shit up".
This was the politics of my youth and we talk about this at length. They don’t understand how I could have become so tame and self-reflective. At some level they see it as a weakness. On another level, we each see the other as representing something valuable and evocative. Their extreme politics and willingness to risk their bodies for their beliefs is compelling to me and challenges my own margins of safety. My approach challenges to them to create a more complicated and compassionate politics, which both frustrates and intrigues them.
Danny Skamp is the historian of the group. While Dirty Dave has a strong sense of personal lineage, it is Danny Skamp who researches the history of their politics, their punkness, and their music. A small skinny young man with astonishing body odor, bright blue mohawk, foul misogynistic language and surly demeanor, Danny Skamp is a guerilla intellectual of astonishing intelligence.
It is the combination, however, of Danny’s historical perspective and intellectual research in combination with Dave’s personal sense of family lineage that is evocative for me. It was through my conversations with them that I began to think in deep ways about how youth subcultures are separated from their lineages “how the very category of adult separates me from youth in ways that do not allow for political continuity or a knowledge of subcultural heritage. Youth subcultures are seen as separate and ephemeral; coming and going ; another manifestation of the transitory nature of adolescent knowledge on the way to adulthood. Yet, for me, the connection with the Skamps has a reflexive connectivity that is historically evocative and narratively generative.
The conversations I have had with these young men explode time as a continuum that must stretch either forward or back. For me, the conversations move through space and time, taking events from my past and hurling them into the center of my present knowing, like anarchist bombs in the Haymarket of my identity. They move my present into my past, my past into the future and my imagined future into an explosion of possibility. Each conversation challenges what I know, what I have known and what I imagine it is possible to know.
A number of years ago, someone unwisely decided that because they thought I was a therapist (as opposed to a youthworker), I ought to mediate the school restructuring committee at the elementary school. I did fairly well at staying out of the fray and helping the committee work together at completing their tasks until they started to talk about what kids needed. They started talking about how we needed to track all the kids into high tech programming with computers and high science skills, so that they could compete in the upcoming global economy. My kids were going to this school and after listening for a while I was unable to restrain myself and I said something extreme about hoping that my kids never bought into such a world but took lots of drugs, had great sex and ended up as artists, musicians or derelicts. Needless to say they did not have me back and I became something of a pariah among parents.
In fact, the Skamps do take drugs, drink some, have sex and are musicians and artists. When I said what I wanted for my kids I was only halfway kidding, but having it so fully come true is a bit disconcerting. On the other hand, the fact that the Skamps do all of that leaves out another part of the story.
The other day I came home in the early hours of the morning to find a group of five or six hardcore punks smoking on my front porch in full punk regalia. Knowing I have elderly neighbors all around me, I quickly ushered them indoors and sent some home and some downstairs to the punk lair in the basement. The next morning I was out working in my yard when the elderly lady from across the street beckoned me over. "Uh, oh", I thought "here we go, David had really done it this time."
"What is it Dolores ?", I asked.
"I just want to tell you that David and his friends are the nicest group of young men that I know. They are so polite and respectful. Why, they were even playing a guitar on the porch last night but they played it so softly I couldn’t even hear it," she said. " I really kind of wanted to hear, to see what they were playing, but I couldn’t hear it. I know some other people don’t like how they look, but I tell them; you don’t know those boys “they’re good boys and I stick up for 'em. Just thought you should know, 'cause if it was different I’d be poundin' on your door complaining. Figured if I was poundin' on your door one way, I ought to pound your door the other."
I am grateful for the Dolores' and the Skamps of the world. Perhaps if I can just keep listening and talking with them, I can really come to know something about courage, compassion, transcendence, aesthetics and maybe even myself.
Crapanzano, V. (1986) . Hermes dilemma: The masking of subversion in ethnographic description. In Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. (J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leblanc,L. (1999) . Pretty in punk: Girls gender resistance in a boys subculture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Scheper Hughes, N. (1992) . Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tyler, S.A. (1986) .Postmodern ethnography: From document of the occult to occult document. In Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. (J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.