Dusted's Kevan Harris lives and dies in Joe Carducci's L.A. through a new book on punk photographer Naomi Peterson.
What Happens When Punks Get Old?
Joe Carducci's Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That...
Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That...
by Joe Carducci
Redoubt Press, 255 pp.
It is a little intimidating to write about Joe Carducci's most recent book. After all, this is the guy who said, in his magnum opus Rock and the Pop Narcotic (1991),
The typical rock critic being a liberal and at heart an amateur sociologist bent on salvaging, as he sees it, popular culture from the conservative value biases of the American mainstream (that he associates with his parents whom culturally and likely otherwise he does not respect), can't help but attempt to do his part to direct the pop culture towards what any liberal sociologist would tell you would be good for its déclassé audiences. You know, the secular humanist wet dream: a faithless coffee-colored welfare state. Listen to state-owned public radio for details.
Then again, he has a point. Most self-proclaimed radicals within the academic circles I bounce around possess horrible tastes in music. They like bands because of their lyrics. When it comes to anything strange in music, they exhibit a physical repulsion. These are the same folks, mind you, who feel quite comfortable in the usual “tampon in a tea cup” art gallery. While Carducci is claimed, or accused, as a “right-wing” rock critic, it is more accurate to say that he channels a healthy anti-intellectual streak that occasionally veers into bizarre territory. I would speculate that he is a Ron Paul man.
Carducci spends a (very) large part of his 500-plus-page work (RATPN was reissued again in 2005) attempting to kneecap nearly every rock critic who ever put pen to paper. Much of rock criticism, when it is not unabashedly cheerleading the fashionably new, hype-building, or celebrating its own craft, turns to tongue clucking on a pet issue when something sticks in its craw. Using a marathon of snide quotes, Carducci lambasts rock journalism for continuously missing the ball when it came to the best bands of their day – which, during the 1980s, were the very bands Carducci busted his ass for working at SST.
Enter Naomi (2007) is a more relaxed affair: all at once a fragmented memoir of the SST era in the Los Angeles underground, a social critique of the trajectory of American culture, and a paean to rock photographer Naomi Peterson, who died in 2003. Carducci makes a case for Peterson being the Annie Leibovitz of US punk. However, while Liebovitz engaged in celebrity hagiography (why else did politicians flock to her lens?), Peterson documented musicians who, more likely than not, ended up more destitute than when they began playing. Many of the photos in Henry Rollins' Get in the Van (1994) are by Peterson, and Carducci hints at an anthology of her work to be published in the future.
Carducci is a writer of passages that hit you unexpectedly hard. The book begins with 10 pages of quotes about Los Angeles, moving from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Chester Himes to Mike Davis, and at times I wished the rest of the book was arranged similarly, since the author tends to reminisce in a tangential manner that can be a little taxing if you were not there. But then he writes a paragraph like this, and all is forgiven:
In the van Black Flag threw empty coffee cups and orange juice bottles down onto the rocker panels; when they stopped somewhere they simply kicked the garbage into the street. Trashing? Graffiti-ing? Postering? Pissing? Los Angeles seemed the fallen dream of generations of transplants; the locals, now acclimated to its harsh scape didn't see the point in taking care of it. It took care of itself. It just was. And this was quite unlike other cities. It was part of what make punks in the rest of the country feel like naïve goo-goo hippies when the L.A. bands rolled up.
Some of the most poignant passages in Enter Naomi are those about the role of women in the L.A. punk scene. It is old hat to say that D.C. punks were the “sensitive” bunch of guys compared to the über-machismo of Los Angeles punk. While Carducci does not overturn the stereotypes, at least he complicates them – if you're the kind that counts female members in bands, then L.A. can win the quota contest as much as any other city. Enter Naomi does not wax romantic about the West Coast music scene, nor about the uses and abuses of women in that scene, as much as add a layer of bittersweet nostalgia to its work ethic. Peterson herself, dying of liver failure at age 39 likely due to a life of alcoholism, is a casualty on a long list. Whenever I meet the old punk survivors, aside from the tiny handful who made lucrative careers out of peddling nihilism, I am struck by their romantic, wistful personalities. Old hippies are the bitter ones.
Carducci never descends into gossiping solely to settle old scores, but it is not too hard to tell that the “SST approach” didn't make for a soothing lifestyle. One of the arguments that came out of Rock and the Pop Narcotic was that the greatest rock bands' members could never stand each other, and it was this internal tension that both produced the best rock music as well as ensured that these bands tended towards breaking up (usually miserably and insolvent). Carducci writes, “There is perhaps a billion dollars at stake that keeps the Rolling Stones talking to each other.”
Black Flag represented, for Carducci, not only the paramount band of the punk era, but the agent on Earth for the gods of Rock who warned us to “be careful what you wish for.” In what could be an abstract for Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Carducci says in Enter Naomi:
Punk was what was left when Hippie found it had been wrong. Few confessions or admissions were forthcoming but in general the revolution was dropped for righteous flavored entrepreneurship and connoisseurship – that or retirement to academe. Punk surely predated Hippie but its surly pessimism had been a blue collar affair until middle class wise guys needed a language to dispense with the mass success of sixties shopkeep sellout that began in what we refer to as The Seventies. Shopkeep went corporate very fast – the record industry, the radio business, and Rolling Stone of course, but Starbucks, Celestial Seasoning, Sam Adams, Nike, Apple, Microsoft and more date from this period too. And only post-Hippie did Punk develop something like a media voice, though it was never a mass media voice.
Most liberals who write about 1968 are boring, provincial, and misguided. Carducci sees through the smugness of the nostalgia about the period, and in doing so he comes remarkably close to (gasp!) Marxist geographer David Harvey's opinion on the legacy of the 1960s. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2006), Harvey, like Carducci, sees the cultural ethos of the 1960s “revolutions” as an anti-bureaucratic desire for more personal freedom. This was as true for the Berkeley free speech movement as it was for the Mexican students gunned down just before the 1968 Olympics and the participants in Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring. Coupled with the demand for freedom, however, was another type of demand: social justice. You know, liberté et égalité and all that. These two things are not necessarily congruous, and Carducci is right when he pulls out the class tensions embedded in the era. The middle classes wanted the liberty, and the working classes wanted the equality. The deal that was offered included only the former and not the latter. The era that we know as The Seventies, remember, was the period when businesses began speaking like they were a bunch of Madison Avenue Che Guevaras. This was intentional, according to Harvey: “By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, [business] interests could hope to protect and even restore their position... but it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices.” When Ronald Reagan – the bane of 1980s punks – said that “Government is the problem, not the solution,” he was tuning in to the 1960s as much as Jello Biafra. Be careful what you wish for.
Carducci makes a strong case that the 1980s were the last gasp of an American working class cultural movement called rock and roll. Enter Naomi is one of the exquisite corpses left over from the lost war.
By Kevan Harris