Register Wednesday | September 26 | 2018

The Walkmen

Notes on Punk

Simple declarative sentences are punk. The periodic sentence is not. Fragments are not, either. Whatever undergraduates think “stream of consciousness” is, it isn’t punk. The question is one of focus, where the stress falls—inside one word, through the structure as a larger unit or at a spot along its surface. It’s a question of focus and this is the essence of punk. This is a theory of mine. This is a declarative sentence. This, you’ll note, is not.

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On a warm Monday night last week in St. Louis, the Walkmen began an hour-long performance with the most common of courtesies: audience acknowledgement. “Thank you,” we heard. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you,” delivered with a self-conscious strut that is one of the more interesting habits of Hamilton Leithauser, the band’s front man. Leithauser wore a sports jacket over a blue polo shirt and reminded me of someone with a nametag reading TRAINEE. “We’re the Walkmen and we’re from Washington, DC,” he said. When the hour was spent, the crowd was exhausted and Leithauser rubbed sweat from his face with pique, like an athlete. “We’re going to play one more and get the fuck out of here.” They played one more and got the fuck out of there. (They returned for an encore of Jonathan Richman’s “Fly Into The Mystery.”) The performance was an hour given over to a certain aesthetic, and one I’m still absorbing. Taking in the Walkmen’s show in toto was like listening to a punk friend’s entire record collection at high volume. It was not an unpleasant experience. A reedy-looking man in glasses behind me: “I get what they’re doing. I get it.” He had watched the entire show with his hands in his pockets. He was tanned, in cargo shorts and running shoes, but had, I noticed, a very punk-looking pair of glasses on. Red lights reflected in the lenses.

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Even if you have no idea who the Walkmen are, you might know them because of the automobile company Saturn, and Saturn’s advertising campaign that features a group of young people—all attractive, well-dressed and vaguely dissatisfied—riding slow-motion in a silver Saturn past a children’s playground, exiting childhood, Hamilton Leithauser singing, “I’m a modern guy, I don’t care much … for the go-go.” And thousands of young people who find most of their music on the Web found that song, the Walkmen’s “We’ve Been Had,” and became fans. This is a good thing. All of it is good, to me—the exposure, the advertising dollar, the punk-inflected arguments (usually posted in the dark, alone, on the Web) about “selling out,” the quaintness of that peculiar argument, the searching out and endless repeat playing of a good song, the accumulation of devoted listeners, the constant capitulation and reframing. Allowing Saturn to use this song seems a bit transgressive, though in a sick and perverted way. But once punk is established as sticking it to the man, isn't taking the man’s money even punkier?

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The band was born from two earlier, misfired incarnations: the Recoys and a much-lamented outfit called Jonathan Fire*Eater, a next-big-thing that never was, a band that gathered a cult to itself and became equally well-loved for its abortive record deal with DreamWorks. The Walkmen, in some way, is a collective sophomore effort, a correction of the previous model, though I’m sure none of them would phrase it quite like that. Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone is the name of their first album. Bows and Arrows is the name of their second. Both are fantastic and neither is currently classified as “punk” by any print or Web music authority—I typed that with a straight face!—but fans at the Walkmen’s show admit to a certain, ah, element in the mix. The Walkmen make a wall of sound, a modular design, chunks of brash and brassy rock music hammering together and laying up for a few bars and watching a big majestic moment appear, then letting the moment explode with a sound like glass shattering on sheet metal. It’s a kinetic sound, an engine clearing its throat one beat, a slow scream building right after. Paul Maroon’s guitar is like motion sickness. Drummer Matt Barrick’s snare feels like a slap. And the band’s knack for competing melodies is perhaps why authorities—still straight-faced—have not allowed themselves to rely on that word, that terribly lonely and misunderstood word, punk, poor little punk, a word with about as much currency as postmodern or cliché or American. There is almost no meaning left in these words. Perhaps you feel a tinge of fear when using them in mixed company, certain you’re on the verge of being corrected.

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Sam Shepard: “Contradiction is the stuff of life.”

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Punk is measured in units of focus. This is punk’s gift to the medium. Take one bar of music, any music, and focus on playing that bar until the listener’s expectations are corrected—that is the word I will use—by a new focal point, a feeling that continually announces itself as the actual point of the experience. You’ve been redirected, usually downward, from an anticipated direction. Jazz in most forms uses this little strategy. Punk uses it too, and it’s not hard to spot. Put on the Stooges’ “Down on the Street” for half a minute. Side one of Minor Threat’s Out of Step. The Replacements’ “Kids Don’t Follow.” Or if you’re feeling old and befuddled, a song from the Walkmen’s Bows and Arrows called “The Rat.” Hear that? It is like starting a conversation with someone who, as he talks, places his hand an inch from your face. This is punk in spirit, if not strictly in sound. A correction, of sorts. Historically, this kind of focused correction was a necessity, so I understand, as the fathers of punk—teens and anti-hipsters in the mid-1970s—had absolutely no musical skills (this was part of the general idea) and in order to learn songs were often forced to repeat the same bar of music over and over; the practice became the actual songs. Eventually, they learned another chord, maybe two. Dee Dee Ramone once said his band started with three chords and decided after a while that three was enough. There is honour in this approach. The honour is terribly punk.

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(Pungk) n. 1. any prepared substance that will smoulder and can be used to light fireworks, fuses, etc.

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Aside from the brute strength of the basic drum-bass-guitar unit, the Walkmen build songs from old pianos, sleigh bells, two-tone feedback and a lead singer with an instinctive grasp of contrasts. Leithauser is phenomenal, live or on record; he swaggers like Sinatra’s stepson, screams like Fugazi. Barrick is short as a jockey and plays louder and more aggressively than anyone since Keith Moon. The band provides a wall of sound equal to the declarative spirit of a band like the Pogues, though the music is entirely different and often (despite the sudden and rather epic-sounding moments that pop up everywhere on both records) strangely, ineffably new. Nothing’s new, I know, but there is no other word that feels correct. It’s not the production values that sound so much like Steve Albini’s. It’s not comparisons to Big Bands of the Late Eighties in their Early Careers. It’s not Leithauer’s on-key screaming. It’s the mixing of elements into what feels like a redirection away from what you were just listening to. Three seconds into the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” Frank Black famously says Stop, a hand to your face. It is both the alchemy of punk and its truest, most plausible definition.

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The problem is that I can’t place quotes around that debased little word, not yet. But for now I want to believe it is a correction, often loud and mad, of some previous model. Which means, of course, that the moment punk is defined, “punk” must be corrected. This is atoms and flux, the same river twice, the soul of Heraclitan philosophy … and typing that list just now felt like the least punky thing I could do. Contemplative is not punk. Why are declarative sentences punk, for instance? Because they breathe the corrective spirit—no hesitation, no asides, no equivocating: that is their trump. Our lived-in world is all vagueness, random air and matter, and we wander off the chosen paths so easily. Declarative language focuses attention. Artists do the same as a means of correcting the present, reframing misconceptions—the hand in front of the face.

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There’s a moment in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections when Chip, an uncomfortably well-drawn flâneur in his late thirties, recalls a few articles he has written (gratis) for a “transgressive” periodical in New York City. Chip is a hip, young college instructor on his way to becoming a tenured radical. Chip is at this stage in life defining himself as a kind of polemic against his parents, whom he continually blames for the person he has become. His polemic is distressing, bathetic, common. His transgressive monthly is dedicated to exploding the illusions—all unspecified—of the world’s current departing generation, people like Chip’s mother and father. He will correct them as best he can. His articles have the following titles: “Creative Adultery” and “Let Us Now Praise Scuzzy Motels.” It is possible to view Chip, poor radical hopeful Chip, as someone who is fleeing the present. He is fleeing, anyway, and that’s the point. His collected experience is not, in the parlance of a girl I once dated whose parents were both trained psychologists, being dealt with. Despite thinking of himself as one serious and serious-minded punk, Chip is unable to see what needs correcting.

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Somewhere on the level of a personal philosophy, I believe that to be comfortable is to be deluded. Happy and deluded, but still. What is punk music? An antidote to delusion. It will correct itself because it lives, and thus adapts to remain alive—it will live so long as the music is here to shove a hand in your face. Punk can’t die. We will live lives of periodic statements, qualifiers, self-conscious comforts. We will drive Saturns and listen to transgressive music. We will place quotes around this sort of behaviour. And what in a world with such a debased notion of “punk” do you do when a statement like "Everyone who pretended to like me is gone" appears?

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I see black hoodies, mohawks held vertical with red automobile paint, chains and piercings of the sort that make me wince. There is John Lydon’s face, desecration of the Union Jack, the Queen’s eyes scratched out like a cartoon drunk. There’s Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth opening for Neil Young and confusing the shit out of Young’s fans, Thurston and Lee just two grown men contorting on a stage, two guitars stitching a punk flag out of thin air. I see Paul Westerberg sober, picking up a saxophone, and I hear aging fans (they are so loud, yet so easily ignored) bitching sell-out. The silly old punk! And one sunny afternoon I see an interview on MTV with Lars Frederickson from Rancid—a truly great band, regardless of genre—being asked about Green Day and whether Green Day (million-selling bunch of No Cal kids who grew up on punk) signals the death of punk. The interviewer is nineteen and a schmuck. He will forever be nineteen and a schmuck. “Death? Punk is dead?” Lars says, his eyes flaming, his own red mohawk sharp as a wire. “Are you kidding me?” He is beyond incredulous—he has reached an especial and personal tragedy. “Punk will never [bleeping] die. Are you [bleeping] kidding me? Are you out of your [bleeping] mind? Who the [bleep] do you [bleeping] think you are? You [bleep] …” and Lars continues to correct the interviewer for four glorious minutes. I see Rancid on a stage with all the landmarks of the style as it first knew itself, the clothes, hair, three chords repeating in homage to the Ramones—and feel something needs to be fixed. The young man in the comfy shorts and punky glasses seemed so sure of himself, “getting” what the band was, what they were doing. He seemed quite comfortable, standing by the bar. Why, after the show had finished, did I want to correct him?

Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.