“Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” So sang Ian MacKaye in the Minor Threat song “Salad Days.” The song stands out in Minor Threat’s small but monumental catalog for a few reasons. First it is among the last songs they ever wrote. It was performed only once at their final show in 1983 and not released until 1985. Second is that it is one of the five songs, out of a total original output of 23, that exceeded two-and-half minutes. And third, it marked a complete tonal and operational shift from that which established the band two years before. Yet because of all this, it is crucial to our understanding of why Minor Threat is remembered at all.
Minor Threat were one of the more peculiar bands to arise out of the 1980s post-punk milieu. They were one of innumerable acts then embodying the hardcore scene that was overtaking all of America’s major cities and not a few of its minor ones. Compared to their peers they hardly qualify as originators or refiners. They were not as foundational as The Middle Class, as nuanced as Hüsker Dü, as technical as Bad Brains, as angry as Negative Approach, as clever as Dead Kennedys, or as provocative as MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). Yet the 20 minutes that comprise their first two EPs, Minor Threat and In Your Eyes, are among the most revered by the genre’s fans, almost rivaling Catcher in the Rye in fervor of imitation and abuse. Contrarianism plays a role here certainly, with MacKaye’s rejection of punk self-destruction in favor of self-preservation that saw the hazards of recreational drug use and promiscuous sex. But that was nothing without the band’s larger accomplishment: their cohesion. What Minor Threat lacked in technical or creative prowess, they more than made up for both in their synchronization. Minor Threat stands as one of the tightest units in rock music. A typical Minor Threat song combines four separate sources of youthful energy to emit a brief but riveting jolt of power. It is more engine than song.
“Salad Days” is the exception that proves the rule. By 1983 the engine was not so much out of steam as it was breaking down altogether. The band was at cross-purposes. Members Jeff Nelson, Lyle Preslar, and Brian Baker were pushing for a more accessible sound, rather inexplicably along the lines of U2, a change which included the option of signing to a major label. MacKaye disagreed and they opted instead to go their separate ways. “Salad Days” shows the extent of the disintegration. The music is the most polished of Minor Threat’s oeuvre, including a slow-building—some might say ponderous—intro with bass and the tolling of a bell that ascends to a properly crafted hook. But MacKaye, who had recorded the song under duress and laid down his vocals quickly, is having none of it. Where he put any effort into his singing at all it was to convey the disillusionment that had overcome him in those short two years. He saw what was best in hardcore—its expressive freedom—accelerate in the wrong direction while the worst in hardcore—its mindless aggression—fused itself in place. The strange cross of evolution and inertia understandably propelled a reflective mood of purity corrupted and good intentions set aside.
MacKaye’s laments were premature, of course; not simply because he was 21 when he wrote the song but because he would eventually find footing again in subsequent bands, refining the style and stretching the reach of his message to the extent that it shapes more than just punk. Nevertheless, “Salad Days” typified a widely shared feeling among his cohort. “At the time everyone was bummed at how stagnant and separated and elitist everything had become,” Marginal Man guitarist Kenny Inouye said. “When that part came in that says, ‘Do you remember when?/Yeah, well so do I,’ I just lost it.” And it continues to be felt.
Nothing quite prepares punks for when their first bout of nostalgia sets in, but many know it when they see it in someone else. That punk, whom I will call Alex, is nigh on the ripe age of 27. Just 10 years before, Alex gained prominence as a bassist in at least three bands and one basement “side project” that doesn’t really count. Alex may be a fixture on demos but not on debut EPs, let alone proper albums. Alex eventually moves to a larger city to attend college, leaving the gear at home. Alex takes up graphic design or communications or “comparative literature”, though, in hopes of giving back to The Scene. Alex dreams of starting a label or a zine, or at the very least joining an ethical public relations company. Alex interns at a nonprofit to gain some experience. Alex gets hired to the junior staff of a prominent firm, and commits all spare time and funds to fostering any project, or tries to. Alex makes account manager and tries to focus on “community awareness” rather than just “hot brands.” But Alex wants a bigger apartment. Alex makes account executive and starts “building relationships” with microbrews, influencers, and venture capitalists. Alex finds a partner and a dog.
Alex ventures back home for a holiday or an anniversary or something and meets up with an old bandmate who never left. He is gainfully employed at a local bar that requires suspenders, gingham, denim, and regular gym visits. One arm is covered in clouded tattoos; the other is around a woman decidedly younger than both of them. She is the designated driver, and she takes them to an old haunt of theirs: a ragged, barely livable house that was a meeting point for denizens of The Scene. Attendance never required explicit invitation yet everyone always knew who would be there and who wouldn’t. The neighborhood looks slightly more cleaned up than Alex remembers and there is a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. Inside Alex recognizes no one, though they bear hints of familiarity in manner and dress. The continuity is comforting until the younger occupants talk admiringly of bands Alex never heard of or dislikes and indifferently about bands that meant everything to Alex at their age. Almost worse is when they talk obsessively about those latter bands, which they probably never saw live and never listened to the first seven-inch Alex cherishes despite not being able to find. But Alex hits it off with someone who says all the Correct Opinions, is full of energy and idealism, and who is not there just to party. She and her friends have a group blog that promotes positive action and calls out negative vibes. But then she hands Alex something: a demo cassette. “It’s a throwback, I know,” she says with a self-conscious giggle, before mentioning that the email address in the insert is not run by her but she checks it if s/he has feedback. Alex thanks her and motions his/her companions to leave. In the high school parking lot the two agree to listen to the demo while their chaperone smokes outside. Neither of them say anything as one song transitions seamlessly into another. They don’t have to say anything. They just face forward in silence. Alex isn’t sure if the demo is actually good, but is nonetheless overcome by a dread that had long been on the cerebral periphery. A dread of time passing and new generations ascending, not doing anything differently but somehow doing it better. That dread would have its hold on Alex all night had it not been broken by the fermented stench of the friend’s vomit that appeared all over the glove compartment and his fancy work denim.
The malaise of punk nostalgia always has the air of a rite of passage. The final rite, that is, in which one realizes one’s own shelf life. One ideally hopes to grow out of punk while staying somehow within it, often as a kind of elder statesman. All projects are not projects in themselves as they are means to achieve that end. The end is often deferred, however, whenever one encounters those whom elder statesmen would seek to minister. They seem arrogant, speak more readily on any matter regardless of knowledge, and denounce the errors of the past without admitting any of its virtues. It hits home once one realizes that one did the very same thing years before, and the malaise is of one’s own making. And it’s going to hit much harder when one finds the very fount of that nostalgia entirely erased.
When one has been involved in punk long enough, one often speaks as if they had been punk since birth. The idea of existing before or without punk is unthinkable. That person would have been beneath contempt, a hopeless and hollowed-out shell of a human. But such is the passion that comes from conversion. The appeal of punk is rooted in understanding, or rather in being hypersensitive to, what is not punk. It is, to be sure, a tundra with many routes: the boredom of suburbia, the meritocratic bloodlessness of modern education, the upending of divorce, a sudden and inexplicable gulf between one and one’s peers, really any kind of trauma. Many manage to bear with these obstacles as best they can, but some cannot accept the landscape as is and long for an oasis. Punk is one such oasis and to find it one must often look very intently for it.
The cultic element of punk has long been a matter of contention for its critics, and punks have flirted with this from time to time. Germs frontman Darby Crash instituted the “Germs burn,” administered by pressing a lit cigarette onto one’s wrist—always by someone who already had one—as a sign of allegiance to the band. But in truth the majority of punks do not prefer a zero-sum initiation. One either encounters punk by sight or by sound, and if one is compelled they begin immersion: going to shows or buying an album or two. If one is immersing with friends, which is the preferable method, they would naturally trade tapes or CDs.
If nostalgia is the final rite of passage then immersion is the first. But it grew out of necessity. Punk long functioned in scarcity, with mass media attention being intermittent and fleeting. Its perpetuation and maintenance has been left almost entirely to those who listened to it. The journey into punk was predicated on what one heard and what one was able to get. A punk, whom I will call Pat, hears about an album. Great! How is Pat supposed to get it? Buying the album. Does Pat have the disposable income? Pat will pay Mom back. Is the album distributed at Wal-Mart? No. At Sam Goody? No. At the 10 sq. ft. record store 30 miles away next to a body shop and has no parking lot? Yes! Does Pat have a car? No. Do any of Pat’s friends have a car? Yes! Do they have gas money? No. Does the internet exist? It’s 1998. Can Pat’s friends make a tape with their copy? Pat’s friends are high right now, they promise to do it later. (Repeat.) Special order that motherfucker locally and wait 14–21 business days.
I’m being somewhat reductive, but this was broadly the process by which immersion took place. And punk culture was shaped by it. At its best punk was a deeply social cultural formation in which peers at once refined their own tastes and instilled communal bonds through the local scene. At its worst, however, particularly enterprising punks could build didactic walls around sections of the scene separating, arbitrarily, those with “correct” formations from those without. This predominantly comes from my own experience. My own formation was regrettably done in isolation, which produced an unusual palate and made me more of a satellite in the scene. My formation was dependent largely upon reference books, oral histories, anything I could buy or check out.
But it was also a time of transition in which technological progress made access somewhat easier. One friend had a CD burner on his computer and was offering to provide CDs from his own library for a small price, maybe even nothing at all; he even provided an inventory list. From him I got several Hot Water Music albums I haven’t listened to in ages, as well as Cave In, Botch, Bad Brains, and others. Message boards did as much to empower word-of-mouth as set the stage for memes. And this is to say nothing of Napster, the legacy of which is better seen as a hands-on consumer guide than as a treasure trove of free goods of consistent quality. But technology, like most scientific applications, is not a moderating one.
Steve Albini notoriously lambasted CDs as “rich man’s eight-tracks.” They threatened his aesthetic sensibilities, which were analog in the extreme. He was partly right in that CDs are now these cumbersome, space-wasting reflective circles. But the fervor to vinyl remains a niche concern. Most of the purchasing public, as James Poulos wrote, prefer access to ownership, which digitization has provided in unprecedented depth and change so far-reaching in punk as to utterly mutate it.
At the conclusion of his memoir Your Band Sucks, former Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine lamented that “nothing I’d hoped for twenty-five years ago had happened. The weirdos hadn’t taken over. Our bands hadn’t changed the world, or destroyed the big, bad major labels. (That was the Internet’s [sic] job.) Or even changed the mainstream that much.” His parenthetical is a significant one. Fine is no critic of the web, which “provided a central place—more precisely, a decentralized place—where many small campfires could be tended, around which widely dispersed but unusually ardent audiences traded tales and live recordings.”
20 years ago, a nascent punk like myself had to undertake considerable sleuthing in order to find even the most basic information about even a contemporary obscure band. Many bands, in fact, seemed more like cryptozoological legends. Deadguy, a short-lived and still ferocious New Jersey band, impishly shrouded themselves in so much mystery that I suspected them of being a shady front operation. But the increasing sophistication of the internet provided for an extensive lifting of veils. If one wants to listen to The Faith’s influential Subject to Change EP, two versions of it are on Spotify. If one wants to watch 25-year-old footage of Universal Order of Armageddon, there’s YouTube for that.
That is territory well-trodden compared to the greater change that has come to punk culture as a result. As the internet decentralized the music industry it, too, decentralized punk. More than that, it delocalized, demystified, and, in a way, destigmatized it. It sewed shut the word-of-mouth and replaced it in the code of algorithm. It purged the gatekeepers and replaced them with “curators.” Punk’s scarcity has given way to extreme abundance, its hidden nature is now fully transparent, almost naked. For bands this might not actually change much. Though this at first saves many more bands from being “criminally overlooked,” the nature of the search has mostly changed from a treasure hunt to landfill scavenging. But the implications to the punk on the street are immense and the implications should be divisive. Indeed, this moment has a peculiar and, I think, illustrative parallel.
I am led, in other words, to the mid-20th century, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, SJ and his theory of the “anonymous” or “implicit” Christian. It proposes that one can accept God’s salvation without ever having heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The person who accepts a moral demand from his conscience as absolutely valid for him embraces it as such in a free act of affirmation—no matter how unreflected—asserts the absolute being of God,” Rahner wrote, “whether he knows or conceptualizes it or not.” Its central inclusivity was popular in the heat of the Second Vatican Council, even leaving its fingerprints on some of its documents; it also reflects some of punk’s highest ideals, which are now more applicable than ever before.
As I have written elsewhere, punk has long been an ethical and creedal endeavor. Its ethics have helped to assure its survival against the predation of the mainstream rock industry and the decadence of its culture. “Fuck your trends, fuck your friends/Fuck your groupies who try to pretend that you’re down/You’re fucking not,” goes the Nails song “You Will Never Be One of Us,” “Nobody wants what you’ve fucking got.” But translated at the local level it’s cold dogma—rules, restrictions, and pedantry. It doesn’t so much keep the scene pure as it makes it socially uniform and aesthetically anemic all for the end of purging posers. Post-analog punks have never been freer from this stranglehold than at this moment. Even if they can’t hear everything, they can hear anything at their own discretions and set their own limits. After Spotify, everyone is a punk.
The most positive result, then, is a total reversal of Ian MacKaye’s initial concerns about hardcore. The authoritarian tendencies are gone, and expression is finally flourishing. But the erosion of authority also leads to the erosion of the community and its immense benefits. Peer relationships will be less instrumental in immersion. Immersion won’t be tempered by the guidance of a mutual explorer, but will be overwhelmed in aimless indulgence. Punk then vindicates its most vulgar critics by becoming what they always said it was: noise. The anonymous punk risks becoming an atomized punk.
Rahner’s anonymous Christianity was controversial in its day, and remains so among those who remember it. It has its critics on the traditional wing (it’s relativistic!) as well as the progressive wing (it’s paternalistic!) of the Church. His most thoughtful critic, though, has been Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who responded to Rahner’s project with a clarity and a commitment to striking at the heart of the matter that I find both familiar and helpful. “Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universe but merely makes it known?” he wrote while still a Cardinal. “Is Christianity really just man as he is? Is not man as he is that which is insufficient, that which must be mastered and transcended? … A Christianity that is no more than a reflected universality may be innocuous, but is it not also superfluous?”
Outwardly at least, little seems all that different. Bands still form, shows are put on and attended, merch is made and purchased, and music is at least made. Communities, of a sort, still convene, though they do so largely online. Rather what I am arguing has changed is the intimacy that punk engenders. That indescribable sense of belonging fostered away from the crowds and within the microcosm of friendship. There were limitations in that enclosure, sure, but there were no rules imposed from on high or procedures to follow. Not everyone was punk, perhaps, but punk could be anything, whether a shriek of catharsis, a moral reinforcement, the courage to say something one cannot yet say themselves, or a reason merely to live.
It’s possible that despite the static, that intimacy is maintained, that its custodians are aware of the static’s volume, and are now committed to its abatement. It’s possible that I, like everyone else, am just old and should forget. And for once that would be nice to do, difficult though it is.