by D.R. Haney
I've had arguments about the definition of "punk." There are the purists who only want to discuss a certain segment of 1970s NYC with allowances for the Sex Pistols and the Clash. There are the hardcore lovers and straight edge kids who talk about 1980s DC and the Misfits and Ian MacKaye. There are the people who like Green Day's "old stuff," and dismiss everything by any band post-1994 for even attempting "punk."
My response? Fuck you. … but can't we all get along?
Look, argue with me all you want, but punk is not a very specific musical genre. Punk is an attitude. Punk is doing exactly what you want to do, regardless of popular opinion or viable income. It is defiance: I won't do what you tell me.
(Rage Against the Machine lasted until 2000, reunion gigs notwithstanding, and they did pretty well for themselves. You want to tell me they're not punk rock?)
Punk is not defined by spiking your blue hair, getting fired from shitty jobs, and recording only on 4-track to cassette. It's not any more about drawing black Xs on your hands than it is about being a junkie. Punk is not solely leather jackets and anarchist graffiti.
But here's the thing: If that's your gig, if any of those things are what get you off and you do/wear/say these things without caring what others label you as? Fair play, my punk friend.
So don't try to tell me that punk is dead, that rock is dead, that print is dead, or anything else you can't be bothered to take more than .012 seconds to search for. Quit lamenting about some nostalgic yesteryear and make good with what you have available now. Pay attention. Show some fucking initiative.
Banned For Life by D.R. Haney is a punk rock novel about punk rock. Unnerved by an editing approach by other publishers that missed the heart of his story, he decided to go with a small press out of Vancouver run by a friend. Drawing upon some of his own experiences — and more importantly, a life-changed fan — he has crafted a novel that firmly does away with the ridiculous saying, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."
(Where my Playing By Heart lovers at? Hands up! Also, nice blue hair, Ryan Phillippe.)
Spanning from 1980s North Carolina and New York City to 90s Los Angeles and Belgrade, Serbia, Banned For Life follows the erratic trajectory of Jason Maddox. Jason grew up in a WASPy university town, at first the obedient polo shirt-wearing son with the popular girlfriend. High school was the tenuous battle against being too out of the ordinary, lest one be shamed into obscurity. And then, a pint-sized terrier, a ferocious explosion, a loud-mouthed, book-reading guy soon-to-be christened Peewee arrived.
He got to school and people couldn't stop talking about him. Even people at other schools were talking about him. I remember once I was at a party and some kid from way out in the sticks asked if I knew Bernard Mash (His nickname wasn't coined 'til some time later, and nobody in North Carolina referred to him by it, apart from me). I said, "Well, I know who he is, we don't hang out or anything." And he said, "Yeah, I met him over at Planet Records. Man, is he gay or what?"
That's what a lot of people decided, though he wasn't effeminate in the slightest. He was a brainy Jew from New York City who dressed like TV's Fonzie, but he rarely got shit for any of that; it was more for being "gay." He was weird, right? Wasn't that the same as gay?
But then, there's some business between Jason and his girlfriend's mother, fallout with a friend, and a massive fight that gets him expelled from school and kicked out of his parents' home. He ends up rooming with a co-worker at the same apartment complex where Peewee lives with his sister. Before long, a friendship kicks off, and they are listening to music every afternoon while Peewee talks a novel-a-minute about everything from Norman Mailer to all sports being "boring allegories," sperm into egg.
Then one night I heard a song by Jim's band, Rule of Thumb, and thought, "My God, somebody out there gets it. Somebody out there feels just like I do." I started listening to songs by other punk bands, and shaved off my hair and dyed the stubble blue. I slashed up my clothes and put them back together with safety pins. I bought a used Fender Mustang and taught myself to play it. I was the second punk rocker that town had ever seen, so it goes without saying I got a lot of shit, but I used to fantasize that Jim Cassady could somehow see me and was looking on with approval.
He and Peewee meet Jim once outside of CBGBs, not long before Jim disappears. No one really knows what happened to him, though rumors abound.
It's difficult to adequately summarize everything that goes on in this book, as it's 400+ pages and spans around 20 years of a man's life. He goes from being a square teenager to a touring musician to a flailing filmmaker who wonders why he isn't further along in life. There's a girl, Irina, because there's always a girl who makes us question everything. Furthermore, she's married and also has no idea what to do with herself. They both tried to follow their passions, but what has it brought them?
Haney writes from Jason's point of view with Jason speaking directly to the reader as a man who is not used to creating this way. Yes, he's written screenplays, but anyone who is used to one and not the other can tell you how different those animals are. Jason is not trying to wow us with his literary prowess; he just wants to tell the story. However, his first love, that music that changed everything, exists on a different plane entirely. When he talks about the music in his life, it is easy to feel it right along with him.
So this was Peewee's cover of "Banished." It barely sounded like the original. It was his own version, off-kilter and oddly tuned, but he was rocking out like I'd never seen him before — a holy roller, a spinning top — and when he sang it looked like the veins on his forehead were going to burst open, like his whole head was about to explode. And that sound: it was so fucking raw and so nasty, so out of this world; and Lucien was pounding those fucking drums, so that I bobbed my head 'til my neck started to hurt, and, glancing around the room, I saw lots of other heads bobbing too. I didn't want it to ever end!
I think that was the single most electrifying display of rock & roll power I ever saw (but didn't participate in) 'til many years later at the Fold in Los Angeles. I had goosebumps. Then I walked outside and stood by the door, speechless. It was as if I had to be alone for a few minutes, and only later did I fully understand why. Because what I'd experienced inside wasn't just music. Something had died and something had been born in one fell whack.
What I think is important to point out here is that Jason is not as concerned with being cool — he just knows what turns him on. What makes him punk is that even though he had to use the "uniform" to make the transition (safety pins and etc.), he does not feel like he has to adopt the scene's code of conduct. He will not act blasé because that's what people do. He will not tailor the band's sound to meet the expectations of certain venues. And when he transitions to screenwriting, it is only when he gives into "the game" that he really starts to feel dissatisfied. He has to learn how to find his way back to that passion, whether it's through Irina, or finding out what happened to Jim Cassady, or finally finding a project in which he can believe.
If anything, Banned For Life is about how one does not have to sacrifice a punk mentality with age, and that punk does not come at the expense of happiness. Yes, punk is a reaction, and often an anger against the perceived wrongs in the world, but it's also this: If we weren't so hellbent on screwing each other over, if we were all able to do what we want, we might be happy.
It might seem radical on the surface, but for me, punk = chasing after happiness, independent of any system. Your anger is a gift, it is an energy, it is your means to figure out what it is you hold important.
I enjoyed Banned For Life tremendously. Editing (again) my novel centered around a band in the early 90s (though a different locale and genre), complete with "fake songs" and grappling with notions of love and success — Well, of course I loved this book. The stuff I enjoy writing about is all here, and even though I'm a yoga pants-wearing, homebody, married mother-of-two, I know when I'm among my people.
Attitudes are infectious, and labels are only as good as the people who provide them. I don't know about you, but I'll take passion over cynicism any day.
Full Disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway at TNBBC.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.