Used to be that I could stand through hearing five or six bands on both Friday and Saturday night. Also used to be that I was twenty-three years old. Here I am, laid up, nursing sore ankles after standing through one set – and we’re not talking a Bruce Springsteen three and a half or four hour set either.
I gave Stone a “wish you were here” phone call last night. International minutes are expensive and I hung up still feeling antsy and agitated, and wanting to talk to someone, anyone. It was mixed-up, ambivalent, happy-yet-angry sort of agitation. I thought about heading out to a bar just so as not to be alone, but my ankles were telling me that that would be an unwise decision. So I sent my apparently no-longer-friend, who still hasn’t written, an email that said “fuck you” several times in between less sweet sentiments that I hope were not entirely incoherent. Maybe staying in was an unwise decision.
I’d never been to the Parc de la Villette. In grad school I had an acquaintance who was a big Bernard Tschumi fan, and it’s been on my list of places to see for years. Somehow, I never quite got out that way. I still can’t really say that I’ve seen it, since I’ve still only seen a very small part of it. If Paris was a big clock face, located out near half past one, there’d be the Cité de la Musique. Like the other things I saw in the park it had the feel of a big government project, sterile, hulking, inhuman in scale, and simply boring. The entrance is wedged into one of Tschumi’s follies like one oppressively bureaucratic idea trying to accommodate another. The only thing I could say it made me feel was an intense desire to shoot the leviathan and put it out of its misery.
After walking past a sleekly boring cafe, I saw some figures on the wall of the building that reminded me of the shadow figures I used to see painted on walls in New York in the eighties. A boyfriend who’d grown up in a project on the Lower East Side first pointed them out to me. We used to tell each other when we’d spotted one so the other could go look at it. Getting closer to these figures, they looked to me as if they’d been printed out on paper and pasted to the wall. Four of them. The fact that it looked like graffiti or street art seemed appropriate. I want to say they were images of the members of The Clash, but I’ve got a confession to make, I wouldn’t recognize most celebrities if I fell over them. I don’t know, and I don’t really care, about the personal lives of my favorite writers or musicians. Half the time I don’t even know if they’re alive or dead. I care about the work, not the person. Is that unkind of me?
“Europunk,” the name of the exhibit, let’s face it, is a misnomer. Ninety percent of the shit’s English. No denying that. Appropriately, the first thing to greet you at the entrance of the exhibition itself is an image of the Union Jack with a picture of the Queen on top. Yeah, you know the image. It’s the one with her eyes and mouth covered with letters that spell out “God Save the Queen” and “The Sex Pistols.” I can’t deny that I smiled despite the frame and the glass and the little museum description near the corner.
Punk was before my time, and mostly it took place across the ocean anyway, so I can’t say that this dredged up any feelings of nostalgia. The main feeling was one of gratitude. I think I was lucky to come of age in the era immediately following its heyday. Everyone else seemed to be staring in the glass cases ever so seriously. Was I wrong to think a lot of this outrageous stuff was funny? Maybe I had been too young to know better, but this stuff had never shocked me. The cases in the center of the room displayed clothing by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, like some sort of ancient pottery. This was, after all, a museum. Strangely, the words of a song I happen to really hate entered my mind, “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. A little voice inside my head said, ‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.'” Well, I still don’t like that song, but I’ve got to say that I think I now know what the writer was feeling when he wrote those words. I started feeling happy, amused and a little bit ill, all at the same time.
There was a t.v. playing a recording of the New York Dolls playing “Jet Boy.” I remember as a teenager always feeling cheated because I couldn’t listen to music because most of it took place in bars and I was too young to go to bars. Oh, I was so angry about that. So, when one of my sister’s friends asked if we wanted to go hear a band that was playing at a nearby college, I jumped at the chance. I had heard of these Ramones, but hadn’t actually heard them, so I had no idea if I liked them or not, but school venue = no booze = no age limit so I was going. I wish I could place my age at the time. I can’t, but my sister eventually had a falling out with that friend, so I must have been pretty young. The Ramones, as it happens, totally sucked. Despite being a sheltered little girl who had never so much as tasted beer and was clueless as to what marijuana smelled like, I had a pretty good idea that these guys were so stoned they seemed to have trouble standing up. It was as if each one was playing in his own little bubble and they only happened to be on the same stage. Yet the evening was not a total waste. If the headlining band was a disappointment, I was entirely taken by the opening act. Still, to this day, it might be the best performance I’ve ever seen. I kept his name in the back of my mind for years trying to find out who he was. David Johansen. If the internet had existed back then, I would have known about the Dolls before going to bed that night. In retrospect, this was probably my musical awakening, and for years I wouldn’t know who this guy was.
My dislike for the Ramones has always been a little awkward. They’re from New York and have been among the favorites of many of my friends.
I went to grad school a little bit late and I was almost a decade older than the bright young things who surrounded me. Now, nearly two decades on, it’s hard to see the difference between my age and theirs, but they saw that difference and never tired of rubbing my face in it, that and our class differences. They liked to call me a “punk” and said the word with a kind of disdain, like they were picking a piece of litter up off the street. They pointed to a pile of cassettes I kept beside my desk.
“You listen to The Clash.”
“Everyone listens to The Clash. Fuck, man, they had hit records.”
“Fuck, maaaan.” Someone repeated, giggling at my passé lingo.
“So who are these people?” someone else said, picking up a cassette of the New York Dolls.
I tried explaining why I said that I’d never been a punk. Finally, it occurred to me that it was a lot like when my bio-mom explained to me that she was a freak not a hippie. It was a nicety that I didn’t really care about. I nodded at the time, but I still describe her to people my age as a hippie. However, if you’re a certain age, she considered herself a freak. Me, I’m a wuss. I like hot and cold running water far too much to live in a squat. I was never a part of all that. I just happened to like some of the music.
On one wall was a poster, and I smiled again at something familiar. “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.” It reminded me of one of the reasons I feel gratitude towards punk. People sometimes describe it as a DIY ethos, but it seems slightly deeper than that to me. Somehow, I felt that if you didn’t like the culture you could make your own. You don’t like your culture? Then what the fuck are you going to do about it? But it also drove home why I was feeling angst. It’s not “here are three chords, now play in your room.” It’s “now form a band.” Culture isn’t something that happens in isolation. It happens among people, and these days I’ve been feeling very alone.
At the end of the exhibition they had computers with a library of songs on them. I sat down and started listening to bands I’d never heard. It was almost closing time for the museum. It was disappointing because this was one of the most informative parts of the exhibition for me. If I had known, I would have started there.
As I left the museum, I saw people taking photos of one another standing next to the life-size images of famous bands that I had seen on the way in. Suddenly, I didn’t like them anymore.
As I was having a quick dinner at a brasserie across the street, I couldn’t help mulling over the differences between then and now. Of course, there had been plenty of photos from the era in the exhibit. I toyed with the idea of doing a cartoon showing two women, one showing how women actually looked in 1978 and another showing a woman in a “punk” Halloween costume in 2013. The contemporary interpretation would have a young woman in high, high heels with a touch of fetish styling, fishnet stockings, a super short plaid miniskirt and a black leather jacket, all looking far too cute and sex-kittenish to ever have been worn 1978. As I headed back to the concert hall, a young woman less than half my age walked by me wearing almost that exact outfit. The only difference was opaque black stockings instead of fishnets. I had to stifle the impulse to laugh. She wasn’t the only young person who appeared to be in costume.
I began thinking, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, not that I thought it was a bad idea, but I found myself bracing for disappointment. Perhaps it was the context, but I didn’t like the sense that people were coming to see John Lydon as part of a museum exhibit, which in fact it was. Fortunately, I am not a reviewer, I wanted to have a good time and I did. However, I left with a huge number of mixed up emotions.
On the way home, I walked the streets feeling like a ghost.
The revolution will not be televised. It will be put behind glass and tucked safely away in a museum.