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Punk's not dead, and this is your guide: Q&A with author Nicholas Rombes

June 8, 2009 | 11:10 am

Ramones

CBGB. The Ramones. The Sex Pistols. Rage. Anger. Spitting. It’s all so in-your-face. It’s all so mosh pit wonderful. It’s all so punk.

Giving the finger to hippie culture of the 1960s, punk made its stamp on the 1970s, bringing with it a flood of angst, nihilistic notions and a brand new subculture.

Safety pins and snarly guitar riffs came to embody not just a musical style, but a movement. Nick Rombes seeks to explain the movement, looking back over 30 years through fanzines, newspapers and vinyl.

In his creative dictionary, Rombes explains the finer points of punk, giving us both critical analysis and creative writing. The encyclopedic tome is laid out in alphabetical order, so readers can take in everything punk from the Adolescents to the Zeros in a tidy fashion.

A professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, Rombes took several years to research "A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982," and found the intricacies of a historical sound.

Here is Rombes about his book and about his own history with punk.

JC: Have you always loved punk music? Punk culture?

Nick Rombes: No. I was a raised in northwest Ohio, near Toledo. It is kind of a classic rock town. Punk was sort of a rumor. But it wasn’t on the radio. I knew about it from the margins in Cleveland.

I kind of discovered the whole punk scene as it was ending. It was a good and bad in ways. I discovered it all at once and moved backward. I kind of fell in love with it all at once.

JC: Were you ever in a punk band?

Rombes: I was in a band in high school called Fungus. We played one song, which was the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch.” I played the trumpet.

JC: How did the idea for this book come about?

Rombes: I think David Barker of Continuum e-mailed me out of the blue three or four years ago. I think his original title was "The Encyclopedia of Punk." His idea was coming at punk from all these different angles. So he sort of pitched me. And the fool that I was, I e-mailed him back at 1 in the morning, saying: Yes, absolutely.

It’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing. 

Does punk still matter? That's after the jump.

JC: You write: “Punk was such a radical, absurd, and dangerous phenomenon not just for what it was but for how it emerged in the context of its historical time.” Explain the punk phenomenon and why it mattered. Does it still matter?

Rombes: That’s key to me. If you think of punk as really boiling up to the surface in 1973. If you think of punk as coming and flowering in the middle of the '70s. I think of the '70s as an undefined decade. The '70s seem like a bad hangover. It becomes this blank space. And from that space came these great movies — like Martin Scorcese films. In writing — this great work from Thomas Pynchon. And then with music — you have punk and the beginnings of rap in a way.

When no one knew what to do with that decade, it created a space for punk to be created. I can’t imagine it coming out in another time.

Today, in a lot of ways, I think it’s the technology that defines it. There are a lot of DIY bands on MySpace. With the technology, there’s a way you can distribute independently, and you can catch on without going to a big label. Punk does live in smaller bands that are bypassing the larger operations.

JC: How did you pull together the research for this book? Where does one go to research punk?

Rombes: I wanted to go back to original sources as much as possible. I had some original fanzines. Living in Ann Arbor, you can still go into these record vinyl stores and buy a Germs album for 7 or 8 bucks.

I probably ramped up the EBay account pretty high. I borrowed from friends and bought and accumulated. I went back through articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post and others. It took three or four years to write, and it wasn’t so much the writing, but the accumulation and putting myself in that time period.

In the fanzines, I found there were impressive sociological comments about what was going on. That’s what surprised me most — the insight there.

JC: Can you talk about the difference between New York punk versus British punk versus California hardcore? What’s the distinction there?

Rombes: It’s weird. I’ve puzzled over that. There’s an argument that certain patterns emerge in the world at the same time because there’s something in the condition of the world.

Around the same time, in the U.S. — in Cleveland, Akron, New York; in England — London, and elsewhere, the same thing happens at the same time.

If you go back to the first demo from the Electric Eels and the first demo from the Sex Pistols, it’s the same snarl. It’s the same nihilism.

There are some differences. The Ramones were suburban kids from Forest Hills who played CBGB’s. The Sex Pistols were really delinquents. I know there’s a class distinction there.

California hardcore?  By the time you reach California, punk has been boiled down to its dark essence. California sort of becomes the final dark heart. Like with Black Flag, it’s "You’re either with us or against us."

JC: Where does punk stand today? Could you imagine a punk revival in the future?

Rombes: No, I don’t think so. Because I think ultimately punk is about destroying the past. Punk was about destroying the 1960s. Just like the Ramones destroyed the long concept albums into these short, fast songs about nothing.

And then California hardcore stripped down the Ramones by taking out the fun.

It would have to disavow punk. It would have to be something else. A true punk revival would spit on punk.

JC: How do you hope readers use this dictionary?

Rombes: My ultimate hope for any book I write, the ideal reader would be led down a new path. Even if 98% of that book doesn’t resonate, there would be that one thing that connected. I almost see it as a viral book -- leading readers somewhere outside of their preconceptions.

JC: What made you choose to include the songs that you did? It would be almost impossible to include all punk songs ever made, so how did you narrow it down?

Rombes: That was very arbitrary. I tried to do it in the punk spirit. I told myself I’m not going to have a rule. I’m going to listen and see what speaks to me and give it light. I took inspiration from Brian Eno. He had these cards with sayings on them called Oblique Strategies. He’d pull one out and the card might say “Never start a band rehearsal with a song you know,” and he’d go from there.  He’d follow that with whatever he was doing. That constraint produces a form of creativity.

JC: Punk bands tend to have meaningful, if hardcore, names. Like Savage Voodoo Nuns. Do you have a favorite name you came across? A favorite lyric?

Rombes: Oddly enough, the Weirdos is a band I came across while writing this book that I didn’t know much about. They have this song called “Happy People.” It is happy people, but, boy, is it a savage song. Really mean. That song has rattled around in my mind since I wrote the book. Of all the songs, that’s the one I can’t shake.

JC: Most interesting fact about punk that you weren’t expecting?

Rombes: I had no idea how hostile they were to the hippies. You look at the Ramones and they all had this long hair and what I didn’t realize is how in England, New York and Los Angeles, how they were all breaking with the hippies. Johnny Rotten hated the hippies. Both the Ramones and the Sex Pistols saw the hippies as an unfortunate detour from the heart of rock 'n' roll. They said: We are going to reject peace, love and understanding.

JC: Can you talk about New Wave a bit and how that fits in?

Rombes: Once the Sex Pistols went, against all odds, into Nashville and the Bible Belt, quickly the word “punk” became associated with anti-Christian, anarchy and nihilism. The record labels decided the word “new wave” was more palatable. I believe “new wave” began as a marketing term used to disguise.

JC: Alongside the release of the book, you and Continuum Books are holding a sticker giveaway. Sending stickers to fans who ask for them and asking the fans to paste their sticker up and pose with it in a photo. Can you talk about that a bit?

Rombes: The sticker contest is so fun. I’ve got people e-mailing me from Miami or North Dakota or Rio de Janeiro. People write to me saying: Send me a few stickers and I’ll put them around town. That connection to readers is precious to me. That’s the essence of this project. They’ll tell me their story: I was a punk. I went to the first Ramones concert. It is the ultimate fantasy for an author to connect with the reader.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo: The Ramones.

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