Nick Attfield’s incredible book is now available in stores and on the internet!
Please enjoy an excerpt below…
Also, Dave Markey’s documentary film 1991:The Year Punk Broke will finally be available on DVD this Fall!
Introduction: Punk Breaks
Ever seen Dave Markey’s documentary film 1991: The Year Punk Broke?
A true classic. Disappointment that it has not yet made it to DVD, fear that it may never. For now, available only in fond memory, and on something you have to rewind.
Markey’s camera chases six American alternative rock bands as, in the dying summer of the title year, they maraud their way through the ancient cities of northwestern Europe. A kind of intoxicated grand tour, its two weeks are condensed for us into 100 minutes of film. Plenty of time to boast some good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll excess, pushed toward particularly gruesome extremes.
In one memorable moment, Thurston Moore, one of the mop-topped Sonic Youth guitar heroes, and Markey’s tongue-in-cheek narrator, tells a French interviewer about a forthcoming show. “I’m immediately gonna, like, puke on the stage,” he says, “and then douse the puke with lighter fluid, and light it, and then kick it into the audience – this entire field of 100,000 people is going to go up in flames.” And before the last performance, he promises the shattering of the last taboo. “Tonight,” he states in his trademark rhyming sing-song, “I am going to defecate on stage, because I think that is the only way to express the nature of my soul according to rock ’n’ roll: that of waste, and that of especially good taste.”
He doesn’t, but the filmed performances that intersperse the offstage antics often degrade from tight riff and lyric into skittish noise-sludge, a kind of sonic diarrhea. Mid-performance, drumsticks and other objects violate guitar necks, one example only of a catalog of traumas these instruments suffer at Sonic Youth’s hands, before, unstrung, they are put out of their misery, swung high and smashed to pieces on the stage. Kurt Cobain, meanwhile, lurches around like a drunk fighting an invisible enemy, all the while singing in a profoundly unsettling falsetto; in what will become famous scenes from the Reading Festival, he is spun around on Chris Novoselic’s shoulders before diving, brown leather and ripped denim, into the surging crowd, black Strat first. Later, decked in shorts, sweat socks, and what can only be described as some kind of white labcoat, he headbutts a floor amp before attempting to run over the top of the drum kit; the rabble roars its approval. Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more, stress his lyrics over and over, Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.
Sonic Youth and Nirvana are Markey’s undisputed stars. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, a curiously conventional beautiful people, they prance around in the sunlight of the film’s opening sequence like pagan children. Their cultural gaucheness in these European surroundings generates much of the film’s wry humor (“What the fuck is a bratwurst? What the fuck is a bockwurst? We can’t tell the difference between a bratwurst, a bockwurst, a currywurst, a liverwurst, a knockwurst – all the wursts”). And Moore’s mock sermonizing tone, made all the more bizarre by the French subtitles that run throughout, comes to them as fluid as mother tongue. “People of the universe,” he screams, from high above a street of perplexed mid-European onlookers, “tonight will be the night that the skies will open, and spray forth the divine hand with pointed finger – and say, ‘Everybody, you are not just a duck! You are human! Go forth and thrash!’”.
Vous n’êtes pas qu’un canard, vous êtes humain! Allez de l’avant et THRASH!!!
And at the margins of these magnificent scenes, there is someone else. We first catch sight of him in crowds: waiting, bored, in the lunch line in Essen, or slumped at a plastic dinner table. Shuffling past the front apron of the stage, or ducking out of shot in the VIP tent. No Aryan wonderkid at all, he wears his dark hair long and straggly, and sports an outsized yellow trucker hat and big reflecto shades, a shirt with a gas pump, a dinner plate, and a bed on the front. He chews constantly: a roadie, surely, or soundman. Someone employed to drive a big van, or lift something heavy, knees improperly bent.
At one point, Kim Gordon – another of the luminous Sonic Youths – interviews this peculiar individual. She is playful, gently cajoles and kid-brothers him. He sounds as bored as he looks, his voice a downturned drawl, releasing only a slow-cooked, stodgy spew of irony at a rate of about ten words a minute. He edges around the same motif as Thurston Moore (“… the other day, some guy lit himself on fire on the common, and no-one even cared …”) and yet this similarity serves only to emphasize the difference between the two. Moore, the grandmaster of improv nonsensical sing-song; this man, a tuneless mutterer, from whom all passion and effort seems to have been burned out, so sarcastic that he reaches beyond sarcasm into a place where, who knows, he might actually be serious.
If only this film weren’t populated by so weird a crew of suddenly invigorated oddities, it would be a surprise when he – J Mascis – and his band – Dinosaur Jr. – appear on the festival stage, in Göttingen or Groningen or wherever. His singing voice might be only slightly less glacial than his spoken one, and his interest in those listening still minimal, but everything else is different. The hat and glasses, for one thing, are now gone, the gas pump shirt replaced by a psychedelic paisley button-down number, oddly ensembled with pristine white trousers, such as one might wear to play cricket, or make cheese.
And the playing is anything but lazy. The song, after all, is fierce as punk, and demands some serious engagement. J, answering the call, and in a direct provocation to his sciatic nerve, folds over his guitar and works it hard, one knee bent, instep inwards, as if he were performing some intensive woodworking procedure. Stepping forward to activate a pedal, he responds to the different effects unleashed as if hit by a right hand, stumbles back, loses his footing. Then head down, he launches into about two minutes of vertiginous solo, leaving it unclear at times if he is playing the guitar, or if the guitar might be playing him – flesh fist hammering metal string, or wooden body yanking sympathetic sinew.
Wherever it comes from, all this virtuosity is caught tight within the framework set out by bass and drums. Where Sonic Youth deliberately smash open their songs, halting the rhythm section to let wild sound bleed out in an unstaunched ooze, J’s band remains completely rigid. The song stays afloat: everything, more or less, keeps to the instruction manual, J’s rig is left entirely intact, and he doesn’t headbutt anything. So if it is excess, then it is also control, good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll in the most hidebound fashion; perhaps, weirdly, the most controlled few minutes in this crazy film. No bodily fluids are expressed whatsoever.
* * *
For all that J Mascis stands at the margins of Markey’s film, he is also, in a funny way, its most central character. He and his music are, after all, best prepared of any to accept the doublespeak of its title. Because if punk breaks, then punk breaks: if 1991 was the year punk broke – in the sense of broke through to mass ears – then it must also mark the moment at which it broke down, finally coughed up its revolutionary insides and accepted the white handkerchief of the mainstream. Not that J particularly approves of this transaction. It’s just that he and his music don’t much seem to care.
Whereas Thurston Moore’s sensibilities are obviously rattled. “1991 is the year that punk finally breaks through to the mass consciousness of global society,” he laments in the film’s morosest scene, sitting politely next to a croissant, breakfast napkins neatly folded. “Modern punk, as featured in Elle magazine … Mötley Crüe singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in a European arena in front of a hundred thousand screaming people … one of the most sickeningly candy-assed versions you’ll ever hear of it … and you read an interview with John Lydon, he just doesn’t give a fuck. To him it’s a larf.” And even when he talks the anarchic talk, it’s empty of commitment – a verbal stunt or riff of language only, the same as the unfulfilled promise of the onstage shit and puke. Surrounded by four gawky German teenagers, he answers his own demand for a manifesto: “I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture by mass marketing and commercial paranoia-behavior-control, and the first step to doing it is to destroy the record companies, do you not agree?” Well, no: Christian, Jens, and the others cannot agree, since, as he well knows, they clearly have not even the faintest idea of what he is talking about.
When punk breaks, Markey’s film seems to suggest, it is not Sonic Youth that will thrive. They are too much the children of the fifties, the adolescents of post-1968. It will have to be the next alt-rock generation, a decade Sonic Youth’s junior. This includes Nirvana, of course, but they will burn out shortly anyway. And, considerably less reckless, Dinosaur Jr. J’s focus seems to be turned inwards, not outwards; he seems just to do what he does, with no intent to make any particular statement to society. Completely aloof, a total “slacker,” he seems somehow less constrained: free to shrug his shoulders at anything anyone says to him, and, onstage, free to fuse punk abrasiveness with the indulgence of rock much more traditional.
The bottom line is, they love it all. Moore, the manic MC, can’t help but throw out references to J throughout the film. (“Is J Mascis your boyfriend?” he asks two little German girls waiting for a bus). Kim Gordon’s big-sister affection is obvious. And, in an oddly out-of-place, but telling mainstream-rock moment, the crowd sings back to J what has fast become one of his most celebrated lines, the last of a culminatory verse that strikes a particular chord in this world of 1991. It demonstrates its author’s paradoxical position – a central subject of investigation for this book, a condition stuck awkwardly out there somewhere between total alienation and total inclusion:
Sometimes I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me fuck up will you
’Cos when I need a friend it’s still you
* * *