What are Words Worth?

Generation vs. Generation contrasts almost always make it very obvious how old (or young) the writer is, but I’m about to stumble into one anyway, fully aware that this contrast may not hold up to serious scrutiny for a host of reasons. This week, the Americana Music Association has held its yearly music festival and conference in Nashville, and Thursday night at its award show, Robert Plant closed the festivities at the Ryman Auditorium with a half-hour set with Buddy Miller, who produced Plant’s upcoming album, Band of Joy. One panel, “Punk Rock is American(a) Music,” featured Exene from X, Jon Langford from the Mekons, Sid Griffin from the Long Ryders, Peter Case from the Plimsouls and Warner Hodges from Jason and the Scorchers. (That list should suggest one reason to take any conclusions drawn from the panel with a grain of salt – I don’t think of all those bands as punk bands)

Afterwards, one publicist declared it the best panel in the history of the AMA conference – a declaration I suspect those watching Don Was and Bobby Keyes talk about Exile on Main Street, which took place at the same time, might disagree with. The punk-is-Americana panel was unquestionably lively, though, and it had as much to do with the panelists’ punk awakenings as American roots music. Langford remembered how much he hated seeing Yes in concert, not understanding any of it, and Hodges kept returning to the power and influence of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album, which he pronounced “bullocks” over and over.

Besides reinforcing the significance of Bollocks in taking punk to people in places outside the Northeast and West Coast, the panel made me think about why I’m less interested in punk today. Many answers are likely obvious – it’s harder to connect to youthful, rebellion music the second, third and fourth time around; it’s harder to connect with generation-oriented confrontation music when you know how the story ends; and it’s harder to find such music confrontational when it confronts people in the same ways and wardrobes that it did 25 years ago. But part of what made the panel such fun and so memorable was the ingrained, across-the-board consciousness of language. The panelists had a poet’s awareness of lively language and rarely phrased thoughts in commonplace terms. Besides Hodges’ fascination with “Bullocks,” he also returned to stories about a Nashville band that inspired him, Billy Christ and the End of God. When Langford talked about the musical context that punk emerged from, he referred to 1974-1975 as “the Twilight of Cool.” Here are some highlights:

Speaking of women: “We had a minute of liberation in the ’60s, a minute of liberation in the ’70s, and now everybody’s wearing stripper shoes.” – Exene

“I was on some little station in Seattle and I was bumped for the Doobie Brothers. Those guys have been in my way my whole life.” – Peter Case

“The Doobie Brothers didn’t have money for cockroaches in their promotions budget.” – Sid Griffin

On Nashville songwriting appointments: “You don’t expect the good music to show up at 11 a.m.” – Peter Case

Exene remembered that the Knitters – John Doe, Dave Alvin and her – formed to play a benefit, “Dentures for Top Jimmy,” she thought, and Griffin remembered recently overhearing Viv Albertine of the Slits rhetorically answering some girls after taking them to a documentary on punk, “Why can’t a woman play drums?”

Do bands on the Warped Tour (or more underground than that) have the same sense of the vibrancy of language? Of the value of the well-turned phrase? And if not, why not?

  • Pltrhd

    Nice piece. Language gets its meaning from usage. Both the words punk and Americana are so vague, and applied in so many ways, that they’ve almost become useless. They both mean too many things to too many different people. They have also been mightily abused as marketing labels, which is in the end what they really are. I have to laugh every time I see a publicist attach “punk” to a label to give some music commodity hip cachet. My favorite misused label is “punk jazz.” Somebody mentioned roaches?