@RebelYellJSWGC: Keeping it Real? The Search for Faithful Punk - Not Just Punk for the Faithful

The last post to this stream asked whether a #1 record could be a Rebel Yell, to which we answered yes in the case George Harrison’s Give Me Love, because its explicit embrace of the sacred made even many of that song’s and George’s most ardent fans uncomfortable. In other words, the by-definition counter-culture call of the sacred could not only be a required element for a piece of music to be labeled a Rebel Yell, it could also make an otherwise sweet and catchy song a kind of Rebel Yell by subterfuge.


This post asks almost the opposite question: could a music allegedly contrived to be the sonic and lyric antonym of anything #1 still be so suffused with the sacred – perhaps even because of how it gives voice to alienation – that its listening and performance could be combined with worship?


In brief, can punk be faithful and still be faithful to punk?


In his book The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s: The Secret History of Jewish Punk, author Steven Lee Beeber christened caustic (Jewish) comedian Lenny Bruce the “patron saint of punk” who paved the way for a long list of Jewish kids among punk’s progenitors: Lou Reed, Joey and Tommy Ramone, Suicide's Martin Rev and Alan Vega, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Blondie's Chris Stein, CBGB's founder Hilly Kristal, and many others.  The reason for this astounding over-representation of Jews in punk’s early days, he posits, is that punk is at its core a Jewish phenomenon: a counterintuitive embrace of fascist aesthetics and an iconography of raw power by a generation of Jews ashamed of their parents’ and grandparents’ humiliation during the Holocaust.


Echoing that analysis, Tommy Ramone reprised his rebellious youth at a YIVO Institute for Jewish Research symposium by saying “To bring forbidden things, horrible things, and make art of it was basically an artistic thing. There’s an aesthetic effect when you take your deepest fears and try to get a grasp on it and try to make humor out of it.”  However, another of his Jewish and punk compatriots at that symposium, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, appeared to contradict Mr. Ramone’s statement, saying punk “has nothing to do with Nazis or people’s pain … it had everything to do with snotty young New Yorkers doing it to get attention.”


Indeed, by definition, punk’s progenitors were faithful to punk, but – other than the contradictory desire to simultaneously fit in and stand out that is also characteristic of adolescence, and could be further attributed to a host of other social factors at best ancillary to any of these musicians’ Jewish identity – did punk seem to say anything about their faith?


They were Jewish and punk, but were they Jewish punks – and was their punk Jewish?


“Religious affiliation didn’t mean anything to me and my friends. I’d be hard pressed to think ethnicity has something to do with my music,” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein seemed to synopsize the sentiment of many, Mr. Beeber’s book notwithstanding; in fact, the raison d’être for the 2012 documentary Punk Jews is that four decades after the advent of punk, most people find it hard to believe that a punk ethos and an orthodox faith could co-inhabit the same individual. Even many of the comments to the film’s postings on YouTube ask, “Is this a joke?”


And yet despite a certain humor, and perhaps even what Krista Tippett characterized as a “religion is for weirdos school of journalism” approach (see my Oct. 9, 2014 post @notWWJDjswgc), the film’s producers insist that their subjects are no joke. Referring to the forefather of the three great monotheistic faiths who left his homeland to answer the call of a strange new God, one of these producers testified that, “I see the Abrahamic tradition itself as being very punk.”


With that advice, I turned to examine – if not punk’s alleged Jewish roots – its appropriation by subsequent generations of musicians to express subsequent iterations of Abraham’s legacy: Christianity and Islam.


Perusing Christian Punk websites, what better place to start it seemed than a much-lauded song titled Anti-conformity. However, what I heard – and saw – had as much to do with punk as The Monkees had to do with creating or reflecting the music scene of the late 60s.  YouTube shows a pretty young woman backed by relatively clean cut boys in a wholly innocuous video, pitch-control and a host of other decidedly non-punk signal processing employed on her voice as she sings (repeatedly) that she will not conform the way an unspecified “they” conform – to what I do not know, that is never made clear. The songwriters didn’t define what they were “anti”.  To the contrary, everything about the video suggests that the band is trying to conform – to the most superficial expectations we may have for both rock and Christianity – much the way the Disney channel tries to simultaneously conform to children’s tastes and their parents’ preferences.


Sure, one of the boys sported a Mohawk, but it made me think more of the Marines than anyone I saw protesting Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the early 80s. The guitars were distorted, but digitally – everything even, smooth and controlled – not by putting a tube amp on overdrive. There was the alternately rapid fire and disjointed snare drum, and a little bit of the thrumming party beat characteristic of the New Wave, but I couldn’t help but think that – although not something he would choose to listen to – if my pushing 80, ever in the mainstream in terms of artistic taste Dad happened to hear the song as part of the soundtrack for one of his TV shows, he’d probably say he liked it: hmm, bouncy, makes me want to dance – boop boopty boop!


A perusal of many other recommended bands (check out http://christian-punk-rock.com/ for something of a compendium) revealed a mix bag: some band’s lyrics seemed too nihilistic and/or inscrutable to have much to do with the Christian message, other than its members using their popularity to proclaim their faith (see two-time Grammy nominee Underoath), while others fell within the Anti-conformity camp of trying to make Christianity cool for tweens and teens afraid that their faith might make them stand out from their friends.


As such, these bands did not seem to be challenging today’s socials norms so much as inadvertently reinforcing them – after all, how punk can you be with a Grammy?


Perhaps these bands fall short of their Abrahamic legacy because – unlike punk and Judaism, which, even if not directly related, do at least share a minority, misunderstood and often oppressed status – these Christian bands appear to flourish in Christian majority environments concerned more with social cohesion and conservativism than Christianity’s other call to the grittier world of social justice.


So in my search for a punk that is faithful and yet still faithful to punk, it seemed I should seek groups for whom their religious and punk identities were worn out in the open, one on each sleeve as part of a seamless garment of being a misunderstood and often oppressed minority. I casually determined that I could probably identify such bands by songs that made their “anti” clear: they would be calling for social justice for themselves, not as a vocation for the privileged.


Which brought me to my last question, the end of the line in the Abrahamic tradition: were there openly Islamic punk bands living and playing in Muslim-minority lands?


The short answer is yes, but that status alone did not make them any more Islamic punk than the Dictators or Blondie could be called Jewish punk. Not in the way that could constitute a Rebel Yell: punk that is faithful and faithful to punk. Islam would have to be evident as an element of faith, not merely a social or ethnic identity.


With that in mind, listen to this decidedly punk song (lyrics also available on the link): Kominas: Shariah Law in the USA. Is it necessary that its satire come from an Islamic songwriter, or could it equally have been written by someone else: an anti-Islamist, or a non-Muslim satirizing American stereotyping? Is the satire an actual expression of Islam or just an attempt to shock and offend in an Islamic context, like how British professor of Jewish punk (yes, there is such a thing) Vivien Goldman states that early punks wore the swastika not as a statement, but just “as a way to piss off their (Jewish) parents.” (To further help you decide, check out Kominas’ Suicide Bomb the Gap from their album Wild Nights in Guantanamo, as well as these two interviews with the band: Punked! and Wild Nights with the Kominas).


Contrast Kominas (which means scumbag) with Al-Thawra’s satire on Beyond the Edifice, a title that makes me want to contrast it with Anti-conformity as well. Is there something fundamentally different here from both of those other Abrahamic punk offerings?  Some of the comments to this video suggest that there is:

  • SoldierNoses: I'm a jewish punk but I've got to give it up for Al-Thawra. Ya'all are the shit
  • AntiNaziist (with a Star of David thumbnail): This video does a great job highlighting the nightmare that is life in the Occupied Territories, although some parts of it (the "Orientalism/exoticism" bit) are clearly a reference to American imperialism. It's not terribly surprising though that 2000 years of persecution and life in exile spawned the cold, sadistic, and reptilian monster we see today. No more hate
  • Delightful Dervish:  We need more of this to counter all the Islamophobic shit thats coming out of the DeathMetal scene in Norway. KEEP IT COMING!


Perhaps intentional dissonance and caustic satire is compatible with worship – if the satire stems from earnest frustration instead of pedantic condescension, and the dissonance heralds from the composer’s spiritual state as opposed to being merely a post-production add-on.  Oh yeah, and you’ve got to have faith – your own, and in the power of punk.


On that note, I leave you with one last video, an attempt at being an Islamic equivalent to Jimi Hendrix’s Vietnam era Star Spangled Banner from the film Taqwacore. There’s a lot of posing and pretention here, but it does suggest how we’ll know when we’ve found faithful punk – when it calls us to pray.


@RebelYellJSWGC is 1 of 3 streams of tweets and blogs from Good Counsel.  To learn more, follow me on Twitter or visit the "Read Me" page at goodcounsel.squarespace.com.