Archive for September, 2009

Performing the Margins: Punk and Place

Monday, September 7th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Even as Kostis was conjuring his posts on Pink Floyd at Pompeii and the Scorpions at Mytilene, another iconic locus of punk rock magic is reaching the end of its life.  The Uptown Bar & Cafe in Minneapolis is apparently slated to close sometime this year.  Its octogenarian owner, Frank Toonen, is looking to sell the bar to secure the financial future for his family (a noble cause, if there ever was one).  The bar hosted virtually every major punk(ish) rock band to come out of Minneapolis (Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and ranked as a local CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City.  Ironically, the bar will be torn down for a three story retail space as the Uptown neighborhood continues a process of re-gentrification (for a nice history of the neighborhood).

To be honest, I’ve never been to the Uptown Bar & Cafe (nor Uptown, for that matter), but the story of the Uptown Bar & Cafe caught my eye in the context of our ongoing conversation about punk and place.  Many of the most storied punk establishments established themselves in seemingly marginal urban spaces made available by white flight and the post-war growth of suburbs and now confront the reopening of the urban center to economic development which in many ways challenged both economic opportunities made available by the marginal status of various neighborhoods and urban locales as well as the gritty and explicitly anti-suburban ascetic that punk cultivated. The creative risks exploited by punk rockers as they returned to the urban center from the security of suburban “garage” demanded an authenticity of the punk experience that cannot be maintained when surrounded by boutique shopping spots and chain clothing retailers who seemingly revel in the make-believe character of the consumer experience.

The authenticity of the urban experience is not just a hallmark of punk music. Today, it is seen most visibly in hip-hop music where credibility is tied a performer’s ability to maintain their ties to economically and socially marginalized segments of urban areas.  (As hip-hop has globalized, it has shown that the performance of authenticity has transferred from marginalized areas within the American city to marginalized areas of the globe.  Take, for example, the Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan who mocks the urban posturing of North American rappers by contrasting their claims and experiences to his upbringing in Somalia).

Common’s song “The Corner” is a another great meditation on the space of performance in contemporary hip-hop.  The song juxtaposes Common’s lyrics about his experiences on “the corner” with nostalgia tinged lyrics of the radical spoken-word poetry collective “The Last Poets” who note:

…The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument…

Of course, in hip-hop the corner invokes more than just an urban space associated with drug dealing, informal social gatherings, and, perhaps more properly, the performance of dozens between rappers that formed the basis for the combative aspects of modern hip-hop music.  The corner invokes the crossroads which was an iconic symbol in American Blues music.  Most famously, the crossroads was where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent.

Crossroads represent both central places where diverse paths cross, but also liminal sites where clearly-defined spheres of control and authority break-down or lapse entirely.  It is not surprising, for example, that Oedipus met the Sphinx at a crossroads (see: S. I Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991)217-24) .

To return, then to punk and place, the impending loss of the Uptown Cafe & Bar (and other punk landmarks) stands out as the return of marginal spaces to the control of the center.  In many cities in the US, this has manifested itself as reclaiming the marginalized zone of an urban core neglected in the post-war migration to the suburbs for the commercial, capitalist, gentrified space of the new suburban centers (i.e. let’s make the cities look like we imagined them when we built those surrogate cities: suburban shopping malls).

To bring my archaeological interests more fully into the conversation, I’ll just point out that for the last 7 years I’ve been working with the team of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project to study a community situated at a crossroads along the coast of southeastern Cyprus.  Peripheral to the main centers of power on the island, there is reason to think that the ancient community situated in what is now the coast zone of the village of Pyla (another liminal space!) served as a local crossroads community.  David Pettegrew’s work at a similar site in the Eastern Corinthia commonly referred to as “Cromna” is another example of a crossroads community.  These liminal spaces situated neither clearly within an urban core or in the romanticized space of the rural periphery defy categorization.  The complexity and density of the artifact assemblages found in these areas press to the limit methods devised to document more dispersed kinds of activity in the countryside.  At the same time, the absence of a built up center with known, monumental architecture, makes it challenging to justify large scale, systematic excavation.

The marginal status of crossroads places have made them a kind of improvisational space for archaeological fieldwork.  In this way, they echo the marginal spaces of desiccated, post-war, urban core which became the places of punk performance, or the ill-defined and marginal space of the corner which became a zone dominated by ancient and modern sphinxes.   Punk archaeology revels in the marginal, ambiguous, ambivalent and, in many ways, dangerous spaces that only become central through the ephemeral performance.


Scorpions in Mytilene

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

I want to thank Ιφιμέδεια for commenting on my last post Pink Floyd and Pompeii and bringing to my attention a recent controversy involving archaeology and rock. On July 4, 2009, the German heavy metal band Scorpions performed in the medieval castle of Mytilene. See the promotion for the event here. The castle has been used for cultural events, but a rock concert proved to be controversial. The concert was initially canceled by the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) on the ground that it would threaten the archaeological site. After great pressure from the Prefecture of Lesvos and the local community, KAS overturned its decision.

When I started visiting Greece in college, at the height of my punk rock phase, I was struck by the sheer absence of punks. For some interesting sociological reasons, the rock underground of the 1980s was monopolized by hard rock and heavy metal. Bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Scorpions are a huge deal in Greece (and also Turkey). A quick walk through Exarcheia makes this clear even today. My friend Yorgos happened to be flying into Istanbul a few years ago with Iron Maiden on the plane. The fans had taken over the entire Istanbul airport; it was quite a scene. The simple explanation for the traction between Eastern Mediterranean youth and heavy metal has to do with the ornamental language of heavy metal guitar and its similarities to traditional Eastern music (rembetiko, etc.) The gendered roles of heavy metal, I think, also relate to the scene’s appeal with Greek/Turkish men. The long hair and distinctively male bonds raise some additional issues of a distinct homoeroticism.

For whatever reason, Scorpions are national heroes for a large section of Greece’s underground. The concert promotion in Mytilene makes a strong visual juxtaposition between the historicity of rock and medieval architecture: “two grand legends of music and history meet this summer in a concert that will leave an epoch.” The legendary rock band performs in a monument of equal age and cultural gravity. Another clip on YouTube (here) fascinated me further and made me laugh (I wondered if it might be a joke). It raises an interesting question, namely what happens to local society when a legendary merchandise giant comes into your small town.

Pink Floyd in Pompeii

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

Bill Caraher posted on the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock and the event’s implications for landscape archaeology (see here). Thinking about the archaeology of concert locations, I was reminded of a performance that Pink Floyd filmed inside the ancient amphitheater of Pompeii in 1971, which, interestingly enough, was conceived as “an anti-Woodstock film” by director Adrian Maben. The film is not very well known, although it occasionally turns up on PBS fund drives (see YouTube excerpt here). Live at Pompeii includes psychedelic images interspersed in the final editing. One of the most memorable shots, as far as I can remember, involved laying out Pink Floyd’s equipment along a straight line. The drums, amplifiers, guitars, speakers, etc. make an interesting line of monumental material culture. It was around this time, that Pink Floyd also collaborated with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni in Zabriskie Point (1970), filmed in Death Valley National Park, California. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is the explosion of a middle-class home with Pink Floyd’s soundtrack on the background. Pink Floyd also performed a controversial concert in 1989, this time, afloat a barge at Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (see YouTube excerpt here, with the Doge’s palace flashing in the background).

Archaeological sites have grown to be popular venues for concerts. Only this last month (August 5, 2009), the Greek Ministry of Culture organized “Greece by Moonlight,” opening 81 sites to the general public for some romantic moon-watching. Some “Greece by Moonlight” sites featured concerts. Moon-gazing was a typical past-time on the Acropolis through the 1930s. My mother, who grew up in Plaka, once told me that the Acropolis was not only continuously open to the public but also the romantic hot spot. This became the narrative structure in George Seferis novel Six Nights on the Acropolis, published posthumously in 1974. The Athens Festival every summer fills up the Roman theater of Herodes Atticus below the Acropolis. But interestingly enough, rock concerts are rarely hosted on Greek archaeological sites. The outdoor theater of Lycabettus is where those venues are held; the unpreposessing steel structure was designed by a great architect from the 1930s, Takis Zenetos, the only Greek to study at the Bauhaus. In addition to the concert series on Lycabettus, Rock Wave has become the annual Greek Woodstock. Before the 2004 Olympics, the three-day rock festival took place at different venues, like the old velodrome. Since 2004, the festival is held outside of Athens, in Malakasa, on the 37th km of the Athens-Lamia National Highway. Much of the audience camps out in this atypically extra-urban terrain. In the future, I’m sure, it will offer a case study of landscape archaeology.

Finally, some words about Pink Floyd’s role in punk archaeology. Many rock listeners would find Pink Floyd to be anti-punk. After Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd became the archetypical example of classic stadium rock that caused the very punk rebellion. Toby Manning discusses this issue, “I Hate Pink Floyd: Pink Floyd and Punk,” in Pink Floyd: The Rough Guide (2006), p. 107. Most famously, John Lydon wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt with “I Hate” scrolled across it, when Malcolm McClaren first spotted him on a street in London. McClaren turned Lydon into Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. Despite the apocryphal origins, Pink Floyd was extremely influential to the art-rock strand of punk. And amusingly in 2005, John Lydon declared that his 1975 t-shirt was a joke and that he actually loved Pink Floyd.