Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rebecca Solnit on Punk and Place

Rebecca Solnit is a great writer on the ways we define place and the ways place defines us, how we so often long to transcend its limits yet carry it with us wherever we go. In her terrific essay "Abandon" from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Solnit moves from describing the time she and a friend filmed a lo-fi movie in the ruins of a San Fransisco hospital to essaying abandonment of a more figurative and tragic sort: the death of her younger friend, a talented and beautiful but lost artist-musician named Marine, to reckless drug use. In the course of narrating Marine and the graphic and influential impact she had on her life, Solnit describes the emotional outlets to which she, Marine, and so many other young were drawn in the late 1970s. (Solnit was born in 1961.) In the process, she offers one of the most evocative, beautiful definitions of punk rock—of rock and roll in general—that I've read in quite a while: "Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation," she writes, "though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche."
I was fifteen, and when I picture myself then, I see flames shooting up, see myself falling off the edge of the world, and am amazed I survived not the outside world but the inside one. Before and afterward, landscapes rural and wild would be the places that resonated most powerfully for me, but for the decade that started with my discovery of punk it was cities. The social I've often called a layer of baloney sandwiched between the bread of the physical and the spiritual, but that is only the most reductive form of the social, one that defines human possibility within narrow and predictable terms. Punk with its slam dancing and getting wasted and stage diving and standing in front of speakers that made your bones vibrate, with its political indignation and impulse to incite and express extreme states, was in collective revolt against this social. Like ruins, the social can become a wilderness in which the soul too becomes wild, seeking beyond itself, beyond its imagination. And there is a specific kind of wildness, having to do with the erotic, the intoxicating, the transgressive, that is more easily located in cities than in wilderness. It has a time too, the time of youth, and of night.
Chelmsford (U.K.) punks outside the City Rock (Chelmsford City Football Club), 1977. Photo by Crispin Coulson.

Near the end of the essay Solnit turns her attention to the northern California suburbs in which she grew up and from which she yearned to escape, like so many of her peers turning to the energy and mayhem of punk rock as her way out. Here, again, Solnit's description and insights on place and its value and limitations are fantastic:
I think now that the suburbs were a kind of tranquilizer for the generation before us, if topography can be a drug. The blandness of ranch houses, the soothing lines of streets curving into cul-de-sacs, the homogeneity, the repetition, the pretty, vacant names were designed to erase the desperation of poverty and strife, to erase tenements and barracks and migrant camps and sharecropper shacks. What they wanted to erase, we unearthed and made into our underground culture, our refuge, our identity. We were shaking that trance off us and going out in pursuit of the world of our grandparents, us kids not so remote from a lost Europe, from the Second World War, from desperation and privation. That was what the city offered, a sharp antidote, the possibility of being fully awake, surrounded by all possibilities, some of which we’d learn the hard way were terrible. I am still a city dweller, but in those days when everything changed I first began going deep in the other direction. Another world was opening up to me in which night was for sleep and, far from city lights, for stars. I got to know the Milky Way and the sharpness of the shadows the full moon casts in the desert.
Photo by Bill Owens, from Suburbia (1973)

Photo of punk kids via Southend Punk Rock History: 1976-1986.


Anonymous said...

Was Solnit at all involved with 924 Gilman in Berkeley, even as an attendee? I was an off-and-on volunteer between 1989 to 2002. It could be we crossed paths and never knew it.

Joe Bonomo said...

Good question, anon. I don't know.