With Lux Interior’s death last week, I offered a short post on The Cramps’ concert at the California State Mental Hospital on our Punk Archaeology blog. It got me thinking about the close relationship between punk music and place. I haven’t thought systematically about it, but in fragments, as I tried to link it to the importance of place within archaeology.
Punk as much as any other music played with place. In their efforts to defy social conventions and question the accepted practices of the music industry and bourgeois society, punk rockers challenged expectations with their concerts. The engaged in theatrical, chaotic performances openly rejecting the polished and choreographed sets associated with pop music. By rejecting the systematic in their performances, they embraced the spontaneous and contingent.
This is not to say, however, that their shows were accidental or random. There was an aura of intentionality. The Cramps’ show at a mental hospital was full of meaningful references ranging from the tradition of performing to shut in of various kinds to (as Kostis noted in his comment) Antonin Artaud’s Theater of the Absurd and Marquis de Sade’s famous efforts to direct plays while imprisoned at the hospital at Charenton (one could also note M. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization). The former evoked B.B. King’s great live album at the Cook Country Jail and Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin (as well as a series of other well-known performances to inmates). While these performances have been seen as acts of compassion by Cash and King, they also make explicit the link between the dire nature of their music and the dire state of the inmates. In fact, the power of these shows derives, in part, from the authenticity of the performances. The inmates as audience have actually shared the tortured stories of the performers. It speaks of an intimacy that is absent from shows where the audience, the musician, and the music dwell separately from one another.
A concert at a mental hospital depends upon the understood link between the audience and the music established by folks like King and Cash, but turns it on its head. The Cramps, with their theatrical stage shows, absurdist lyrics, and chaotic, raucous sound, depend upon the place to define their music. They play the music of the insane.
“And we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people… And somebody told me that you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me.”
The playfulness with place has deep roots in the punk movement. The moniker “garage rock” locates the entire genre of music in the informal and marginal space of the garage. The garage is also a symbol of suburbia and the dislocation of domestic space from the place of work and the urban center . When punk bands played CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City (the name itself is another play on place) in New York, the garage band sound made explicit their critique of bourgeois values; when the suburbia came to the city, they presented not the well-ordered, picket-fence houses, but a sonic dystopia.
As I posted earlier, punk rock played with time by evoking, manipulating, and mocking nostalgic themes in American music. The Cramps dedicated their album A Date with Elvis to the late 50s/early 60s rocker Ricky Nelson. They also drew heavily from the informal “low-fi” sound ironically insisting on a kind of musical authenticity to underpin their blatantly silly lyrics and ridiculous stage shows. Their songs show strong influences of both rockabilly and surf rock. The Cramps’ sound formed the foundation for later bands like The White Stripes or The Black Keys or Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion who ironically and playfully employed the authenticity of low-fi sound to highly textured, remixed, and produced albums.
Time and space remain central archaeological concerns. Punk rock willingness to play with nostalgia and authenticity and use place as a form of social and musical critique provides foundations for a far more radical appreciation of archaeological contexts than traditional chronological or functional analyses allow.