We are in a warehouse turned punk-rock dance hall in the shadowy industrial section of Las Vegas, Nevada, across the highway from the gaudy, neon-lit strip. Here, away from the MGM Grand and Circus-Circus, far from the middle-aged gamblers and the $4.99 buffets, most of Las Vegas' punk-rock fans – all 400 of them – have assembled to see Arizona's highly touted Meat Puppets, a newer outfit called Tom Troccoli's Dog, and Black Flag, perhaps the most infamous punk band since the Sex Pistols.
There are teenage girls in mohawks. There is a boy who has greased and twisted his long hair so fifteen spikes rise at odd angles from his head. There are guys trying to be Sid Vicious, in their ripped T-shirts, tight black jeans and black-leather jackets, handcuffs dangling from their belts. Girls flaunt the Bride of Frankenstein look. Someone is wearing an Iggy Pop T-shirt. To wit, nearly everyone here looks as if he or she just stepped out of a punk documentary, circa 1977.
Only something is wrong. It's the music. It's not punk. Onstage, Tom Troccoli's Dog is in the middle of a psychedelic jam. The drummer has dreadlocks. The guitarist, sporting long, curly brown hair and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, coaxes feedback from his amp. The punks watch, bemused. Some complain about "the hippie music." A few try to slam-dance to the languid rhythms. Others sit on the floor, staring at the stage as San Francisco hippies used to do at the Fillmore Auditorium about twenty years ago.
What's going on here? What happened to Loud Fast Rules? Two-chord punk rock? Beat on the brat with a baseball bat?
Primal punk is passé. The best of the American punk rockers have moved on. They have learned how to play their instruments. They have discovered melody, guitar solos and lyrics that are more than shouted political slogans. Some of them have even discovered the Grateful Dead.
The reinvention of punk rock began a few years ago when Black Flag, at the time a fairly typical punk band, underwent a metamorphosis. Singer Henry Rollins, who used to shave his head, let his hair grow down his back. Slow, heavy-metal dirges and jazzy, psychedelic instrumental jams were integrated into the group's sets, as were intense guitar solos. This caught Black Flag fans off guard. Kids with shaved heads and KILL THE HIPPIES painted on the backs of their leather jackets suddenly discovered that their favorite band now looked like a bunch of hippies. Help!
In Las Vegas, driving in a dusty black van with white rats spray-painted all over it, Henry Rollins, 24, and (soon to be former) Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson, 21, make fun of the "punkers" and "stylers" who still rigidly conform to the retro-punk look. "We ought to get our hair cut like the cover of GQ," says the bearded drummer, laughing. "That would really turn some heads around."
This is the new punk rock, 1985 style. Or at least one version. For there is a whole new underground now. Punk – in all its obnoxious, rebellious, snotty glory – lives. It may not get much press these days, a full decade after it was practically invented at a club on New York City's Bowery called CBGB's, but it's still around.
You can find it in Minneapolis, where the Replacements, drunk out of their minds, sing songs like "Gary's Got a Boner" and "Fuck School." You can find it in San Francisco, where the original punk spirit of anyone-can-do-this lives on in Flipper, a band that, when it's not in the midst of one of its periodic breakups – as it is at the moment – lets members of the audience climb onto the stage and sing. And, naturally, you can find it around Los Angeles, where Black Flag releases albums like Family Man, with a cover that pictures a man holding a gun to his own head, while his wife and kids lie slaughtered nearby. The caption on the cover of Family Man reads: November 23rd, 1963. "We like to make an impact," says Rollins.
"We're getting away with doing what we like to do," says Ted Falconi, 38, a former art teacher and a guitarist for Flipper. "We're rock's bad boys."
These bands tend to be classified as punk or, in the last few years, as hardcore. But to lump them all in the same category is to ghettoize them. For Black Flag and the others are simply carrying on the most basic of rock & roll traditions. They fit nicely alongside rock's flamboyant rabble-rousers, from Little Richard to the New York Dolls, from the early Elvis to the Doors. These bands are loud, wild, intense, unpredictable, irritating and, of course, controversial. Guaranteed to upset your parents. Most of your friends, too. "A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people's skin," says Paul Westerberg, 25, lead singer of the Replacements. "If it can't, then you ain't worth nothing. You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat."
"So what?" you may say. Isn't this just more of the same old adolescent blather punks have been spewing out for years? Yes and no. For one thing, the sound has changed. Though it was the rigid amphetamine thrash of New York's Ramones and, a few years later, a batch of English punk bands that inspired and defined hardcore music in the late Seventies, the music of the neopunk bands is both varied and eclectic. Among their influences you'll find such diverse artists as Hank Williams and Rick James, ZZ Top and José Feliciano. The Meat Puppets play a kind of psychedelic country & western music. Flipper specializes in haunting drone rock. The Replacements mix country and blues with hard rock Rolling Stones-New York Dolls style. The Minutemen's one- and two-minute haikus are set to condensed punk versions of rock, jazz, blues, country and funk. Hüsker Dü's music is an ear-splitting roar of frenzied power chords and life-is-pain screams.
These groups all have something to say. The Replacements rant about technology that alienates people ("Answering Machine") and the way the video revolution has sold out rock & roll ("Seen Your Video"). Black Flag deals with hypocrisy and guilt ("Slip It In"), indecision ("I Can't Decide") and jealousy ("Black Coffee"). The Minutemen worry, in one song, about Michael Jackson wasting his power ("A Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing") while noting in another how punk rock changed their lives ("History Lesson Part II"). Flipper philosophizes about boredom ("You Nought Me") and pollution ("Love Canal").
The common thread that continues to run through punk is a dissatisfaction with the modern world. How that frustration is articulated varies greatly. The Minutemen advocate political awareness. "Music can inspire people to wake up and say, 'Maybe somebody's lying.' This is the point I'd like to make with my music," says Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, 27. "Make you think about what's expected of you, of your friends. What's expected of you by your boss. Challenge those expectations. And your own expectations. Man, you should challenge your own ideas about the world every day."
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