Think you’re punk?

Punk rock concert
There’s something to be said about being “punk” today in city with such a rich punk culture like Philadelphia. | Image: Tijs Van Leur

Philadelphia is one of the great American punk cities.

Not because of its history – unless you think to convene Continental Congress to write the Constitution was punk (it sort of was). And not because the emergence of punk rock 200 years later had anything to do with Philly. That story is set elsewhere. No, Philly is punk right fucking now. But let’s back up.

Remember that episode of “Freaks and Geeks” where Daniel Desario (played by James Franco) tries to be punk to impress a punk girl? She tells him, “You know what punkers don’t do? Call themselves punkers.” That fit the period it was set in, Michigan around 1980. Can’t remember? That’s OK, it was broadcast 20 years ago. NBC ran the show in its 1999-2000 season and then canceled it about two-thirds into the 18-episode run. Then it became a cult hit on DVD and almost everyone connected to the show ended up getting famous.  

Around the time “Freaks and Geeks” was initially failing to attract an audience on an analog television, I saw Henry Rollins give a talk on the college lecture circuit. Yes, punk rock’s very own drunk uncle (he’s famously straight-edge now, but nevertheless has always been exceedingly chatty) was already telling it like it was to kids born around the time his scene was culturally relevant. The most memorable takeaway was how he spoke of those early shows, saying any three or four people in the room could have been the band. Not because everyone at the show was a musician, but because they were all punks and the music was almost beside the point.  

We all know a dude that looks like this. But do you readily just wanna call him “punk?” | Image provided

Maybe five years later, I was in LA trying to make it in the movie business and my friend said I should make a documentary about the burgeoning punk scene going on there. Burgeoning? Seemed like it was 20 years past done. Joe Strummer was dead and Steve Jones was hosting a local throwback radio program. But I agreed to make a music video for him, and so I went to a few of his shows.  Unlike in Rollins’ time, these shows were more or less empty, populated sparsely by dudes in other bands waiting to play that night and maybe a couple of their friends standing around. Sure, there was some slam dancing, but it felt almost retro in an otherwise spacious room. Like a theme party.

So now Philly, well over a decade on. Maybe more, but based on some of the people seen walking around our neighborhoods here, you might think there’s a portal at 48th and Baltimore connected to 1977 Manchester. Or maybe it’s at 4th and Bainbridge and connected to the East Village in 1983. Either way, looking at some of Philly’s punks is as if “The Decline of Western Civilization” skipped over the past 40 years. Were these people always punks? Most of them don’t look old enough to remember the high times.  

“Anything newer than an iPhone 5 is decidedly not punk. Unless it has a cracked screen, maybe.”

My neighbor has the look, I guess. There are the monochromatic unfinished-looking tattoos, wears all black and does hair like Debbie Harry. But a week after this neighbor moved in, there was a note left demanding we respect quiet hours. No dancing late at night, no music at all, and step delicately in the stairs if you can. I didn’t think that was very punk. What would Fat Mike do?

Then I found out my neighbor also has a white-collar corporate job to go along with a pair of accessory dogs. Pomeranian and chihuahua are not punk breeds, by the way. If you’re punk and want a small dog, obviously dachshund is the way to go, or poodle if you give it the right haircut (see Elvira’s pooch). Anyway, there’s also the subscription to US Weekly, and groceries are delivered from Whole Foods by Amazon. So you’re a vegan but you wear leather?

I don’t think a true punk can own a car manufactured less than 15 years ago. And forget about a fucking iPhone. At least not a new one. Anything newer than an iPhone 5 is decidedly not punk. Unless it has a cracked screen, maybe. But really, data plans are not punk. Flip phones and knowing where the fuck the show is and how to get there without GPS navigation, now that’s punk. Especially if you do it while smoking real cigarettes. Harsh ones. Reds. Or Wides. Punks don’t vape. And they don’t drink La Croix unless it’s mixed with vodka. They’ve never even heard of White Claw.  

The neighbor also put out some potted plants, which I’d say is punk neutral, but there are little signs in the soil that read: YOU HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a message from the plants or to the plants.  But anyway, no you don’t. If there’s one thing you do not have complete control over, it’s nature. And more to the point, punk is about anarchy and chaos, right?

So what the fuck, Philly? You can have all the tattoos and piercings you want, but if you’ve got all your teeth then you’re not very punk. If you work in finance or care about real estate, you’re not punk.

That’s the thing though: Philly is punk as fuck. Throwing snowballs at Santa Claus is punk. Gritty is punk. The sports scene in Philly is ridiculously punk, even if the fashions don’t cross over. And all that aside, Philly right now is just punk. The preferred media outlet of punk is the zine, and zine culture is thriving right now in Philly. And maybe more so, sticker art. Vibrant, alive, rebellious, anti-establishment draw-whatever-the-fuck-you-want and stick it wherever the fuck you want. That’s punk.

Taking a pic of your slap and then posting it to Instagram, eh, not too punk but we’ll let it slide. Is it punk to use dating apps? I don’t know. I matched with a couple on an app that’s sort of for swingers (Tinder) who said they were into punk rock, tattoos and dogs, but they lived in the burbs. I messaged them asking what’s punk about living in Norristown. No reply, but that’s OK, because I can tell you: nothing. Paying a mortgage on a house in the suburbs, yeah, not punk.

But hey, Bam Margera was from West Chester. Yeah, but wasn’t that the joke? He took all his Hollywood money and “Jackass” fame and made his show (MTV’s “Viva La Bam”) about fucking around in his boring as shit, hell-if-it’s-even-hardly-punk hometown.

Listen, I know The Misfits are playing together again, but there’s nothing punk about a reunion tour, just ask Darby Crash. That’s sort of the bend, though, because the old-school punks want to see these bands, but they’re generally not current or relevant in a meaningful way anymore. So is punk mostly a nostalgia thing now? If so, dressing like a roadie for The Ramones these days is kinda silly.

However, if punk is about action and in-your-face raw emotion, then it doesn’t make sense to do it for money. Punk shows don’t fit in arenas with surcharged tickets at will call. There’s always been a DIY quality to punk aesthetics anyway. And if it’s about an attitude that’s between style and spirit – well that’s the question. In a time where authenticity is an illusion, where do we find merit?

“You can have all the tattoos and piercings you want, but if you’ve got all your teeth then you’re not very punk.”

You know that recent viral video of a punk show trashing a Denny’s? What stands out to me were all the kids just standing back recording video on their phones instead of getting into the moment. I don’t see punk as a spectator sport. Maybe Glen Friedman would disagree, but I believe he’d say taking pictures is not the same as just fucking being there.

Punk is people. It does not rely on algorithms to tell you what to watch, what listen to, what to read, how to shop. Punks run out of toilet paper and then scrounge up enough change to buy one roll at a time from a bodega. It’s just not punk to get new shit tickets delivered by drone.

As I wandered around December’s Punk Rock Flea Market at The Armory on 23rd Street, I wondered who the punks were: the buyers or the sellers? “What attracts me to the punk aesthetic is that it defies the norm,” said Marissa Santiago, an artisan who takes vintage housewares and gives them new life with a modern touch. “The punk scene welcomes all the misfits!” she continued. “It embodies and embraces the strange, unusual, dark, and macabre. Punk rock is not just about the music or the clothes, it’s about not conforming to society and bringing like-minded and creative people together.”

I like that. And I generally agree, except that punks seem to judge others by how punk they look. For a subculture defined by anti-conformist values, there appears to be a fairly strict uniform assigned to its ranks. Unless you get crazy at shows, or make wild videos, or fuck with capitalism in some way, what makes punk…punk without the look?

Did you visit the Punk Rock Flea Market at The Armory in December? If so, you probably found lots of truly punk items like these. | Image: G.D. Hoffman

Santiago explained her creative process like this, “We take forgotten items, like your grandmother’s china, and give it a new and vulgar twist. It allows me to up-cycle antiques and gives them a second life in this generation.” She does this mostly by printing provocative messages on the service, like an ornate glass candy dish with the word COKE burned into it in stylized lettering. Or a delicate tea set emboldened by thick, black titles like QUEEN and BITCH and BOSS. 

I love this stuff. It’s hilarious and high-quality; beyond kitsch. And I like to imagine hosting a tea party with one of these sets, gathering a mixed group of people who feel marginalized even by their own demographic counterparts and intersectional equivalents. The sort of party where it’s both sincere and ironic because poor people having high tea is so much more punk than privileged people slumming around underground, seeking the taste of adrenaline in brief but destitute expressions of immediate joy.

OK, so apparently the punk thing to do is ask someone with a mohawk if she/he/they have seen any fliers for cool hardcore shows coming up soon. But that’s not me. Instead, I sniff around online.  

The first thing I noticed when we arrived at an underground punk club recently is a woman at the bar asking to taste the jug wine before committing to a cup of it. But upstairs there’s a chick with a shaggy bleached mullet wearing a transparent crop top and no bra, which gives me a sense we’re in the right place. Then she spends most of the time fidgeting with her phone in that tragically familiar, decidedly not punk pose, with chin to chest and wrists on tits. Right place, but it must have been the wrong time? 

The scene on this unseasonably warm January night was mostly hip kids, refreshingly geeky dudes, and pretty cute laissez-faire fashionistas. Local hardcore scream punk quartet Soul Glo gave the hungry pit a reason to circle the fire, with frontman Pierce Jordan down in it most of the time. Before them, Brooklyn-based trio Maneka played a heavy psychedelic punk rock sound, larger than their parts.  

Whether any or all of these music lovers choose to dress the part full-time, you know, because they work from home for a software conglomerate, hey who cares? Like Ru Paul says, it’s all drag anyway. Pick the wardrobe that works for you. Everything is a costume. Just be yourself. That’s punk.

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