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ARCHIVES: The Golden Age of Rock Activism

(This article by Ronnie Pontiac was originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Newtopia Magazine)

From Akhenaton, that granddaddy of all activist poets, through the ancient Greek legend of the murdered reformer and musician Orpheus, to the secret musical codes of Sufis and troubadours, throughout history poets have helped rally humanity to the cause of personal and social evolution. No wonder Shelley declared poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But history had never seen such an explosion of poetic/musical activism as swept the world when rock arrived.

Activism in American music certainly existed before Elvis. One need only point to Woody Guthrie, for example, with his guitar displaying the phrase: “this machine kills fascists.” But Elvis was a turning point. Elvis transmitted to whites and other uptight types worldwide that it was okay to like black music; it was okay to enjoy sex and flaunt style. No matter how many gospel songs he sincerely sang, the hammer blow of his arrival cracked open the Puritan-Catholic-Protestant-Fundamentalist dam holding back the flood of American paganism. Elvis was the first bee in our hive to do the bee dance telling us it’s okay to be bees and do what bees do. But he was square compared to what was just around the corner.

The baby boomers produced a cultural renaissance in the romantic tradition the popularity of which was unparalleled in history. The Beatles bee danced an evolution from mop-top hand holders to trans-generational poets. The intentionally racially mixed Sly and the Family Stone tackled racism in hit after hit. Punk prototypes the MC5 with their White Panther affiliation burned flags on stage. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar imitated machine guns and bombs falling in Viet Nam. Steppenwolf performed now forgotten but once potent political epics like “From Here to There Eventually,” “Monster” and “Draft Resister.”

A wave of poets, including John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, challenged society concerning a host of crucial issues: the war, the draft, civil rights, sexual morality, recreational drug use. They assaulted the work ethic, cleanliness, church-going, the profit motive, corporate conformity, gender stereotypes, political parties, fashion sensibilities, and the cold war–even the sanctity of marriage and the enforcement of heterosexuality.

Although such breakthroughs are made up of individual commitments to activism, so profound was the upheaval we tend to think of it as a great wave of human genetic development, a confluence of such mighty vehicles of change as the portable record player, the birth control pill, LSD, and television. But most of these individuals thought of themselves as activists.

The following decadence was swift and certain, but nonetheless amusing and filled with interesting art. Once upon a time at the Whisky a Go Go three people used to sit together at a table and drink; they exemplified the change about to happen. They were the famous Jim Morrison and the as yet unknown Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop. Morrison may not have been all that different from what Alice and Iggy became: all three provided a mélange of sexual threat, androgyny and theater of cruelty, with glimpses of questionably sincere tenderness, out of control intoxication, and surprising savvy, but comparatively speaking Morrison’s interviews and lyrics were an education in cultural history and evolutionary perceptions.

Like the other progressives of his generation, Morrison’s artistic goals were those of the romantic poets Shelley and Byron, to bring enlightenment and reform to the world. Alice’s goals, hanging by the neck at the Hollywood Bowl, were more about beer and money. Underneath all his sarcastic gender bending nihilism beloved by the little brothers and sisters of hippies who could use it to torture their siblings, Alice was always a nice Christian boy, and today’s golfing Alice with his occasional Vegas revue tour is proud to have more to do with traditional show biz than social activism.

Iggy at the high school hang out burger joint scribbling bits of kids’ conversations, cribbing song ideas from his thirteen year old girlfriend, was a creepy older guy at twenty, after all, and however liberating the birth of punk rock in his effort to capture true teen male angst, he clearly rejected any attempts at social reform, and in many songs enjoyed sounding the death knell of its optimism. His later attempts at writing more positive songs have always sounded hollow in comparison.

Bowie belongs in this group of seminal Seventies artists whose penchant for outrage and flamboyance replaced activism as the cachet of cool, establishing a precedence for today’s lamentable indie underground where fashion cliques often outweigh art in the social hierarchy. With his Berlin cabaret sensibilities and carefully chosen thefts, Bowie nevertheless held on to his hippie ideals longer than most, as the original covers of his earliest albums prove. Lou Reed, who never had any hippie ideals, fits nicely in this group, too. However, you could point to all these artists and say that at least they, and even somewhat old fashioned Elton John, were furthering gay liberation, and that is activism.

Meanwhile, the much more popular seventies bands like Yes with their lyrical obscurities, Led Zeppelin with its blues bombast, Kiss with their rock anthems, Rush with their rock Sci-Fi novellas, The Eagles with their codification of commercial country rock, Bad Company with their bland classics, Jethro Tull with their neo-medieval literary affectations, along with introspective singer songwriters like Jackson Brown, Jim Croce, John Denver, and Paul Simon, plus a host of mostly inane one hit wonders, were all producing wonderful music with very little activism.

The glimmer of immortality seemed to hover around these stars for their young fans, for there weren’t any old rock stars yet. Elvis was still looking good, at least in the publicity photos. A few stars participated in activist ventures to save Walden Pond or other dear causes, usually with fundraiser concerts, but they all rejected what they now considered the arrogance and naiveté of the Sixties. Why? Perhaps it was because in the Seventies the activism sparked by the protest movement against the Vietnam War ended with the war. Jobs and families ambushed the college radicals as they almost always do. Whatever the reason, by the time Reagan took office the “liberal” media was having a field day ridiculing any and all things hippie, a prejudice now shared by most punk and rap loving people.

The split that occurred next was even more extreme, giving birth to a vital stream of activist art. Where did punk rock really begin? Artists like the MC5, The Stooges, Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground, can all claim credit, but what about The Sonics, or Question Mark and the Mysterians, the Rolling Stones, or Gene Vincent? Wasn’t Elvis’s sneer the same sneer that reappears as the definition of punk from Billy Idol to Rancid to Pink? And how about the New York Dolls? Or Patti Smith, even if Johnny Rotten dismissed her as no more than a tambourine-wielding hippie.

Of course, modern punks are most comfortable pointing to The Ramones as the beginning of it all. But it was The Clash who put a political slant on punk and sparked a small but potent rebirth of activism. From the Clash come almost immediately the Dead Kennedys, and later Minor Threat, and Fugazi. And even if the Sex Pistols perpetrated a cynical scam, when American music fans were first confronted with “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” the nihilism seemed not only starkly sincere but activist.

By then conditions in the music business had changed radically. When the boomers’ explosion of romantic art flared up from London to San Francisco it caught the old music business unprepared. Most of the old school executives, hating the hippies and their music, saw no opportunity there. That sadly predictable state of affairs became a gold rush for hustlers, young lawyers, agents and accountants. The Beatles didn’t break up because of Yoko, they broke up because they didn’t own their own songs anymore. Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, no artist avoided the rip off. Even relatively fair deals turned out to be especially lucrative for the business savvy involved, and a new music industry was built from the resulting cash hordes.

For obvious reasons the new music business had little use for activism, instead they saw The Beatles in The Knack and punk rock was successfully repackaged as supposedly edgy New Wave acts ideal for ushering in the Reagan years. As cocaine covered mirrors everywhere, the clipped space age coifs and dashing costumes of the New Wavers evolved into the drag queen visual splendors of Motley Crue and their later cousins Poison, Warrant and the other hair metal titans who filled stadiums without ever bothering their pretty heads with a political thought. A sight that must have been ironic indeed to the surviving members of the New York Dolls who were less well appreciated when they pioneered the look and the sound with so much more style (it was even possible to imagine a thread of activism when they asked the musical question “with a Vietnamese baby on your mind. now that it’s over, what ya gonna do?”)

Of course, the Reagan years also spawned huge splashy multi-star events like Live Aid that raised millions for causes like world hunger. What could have been a yearly television fundraiser ala Jerry’s Kids is now all but forgotten alongside such charming anachronisms as Hands Across America and the Harmonic Convergence.

The same year as Live Aid, the legendary indie band Mecca Normal first hit the scene, and though they may not be as famous, as an influence on bands, and on how independent bands with activist and artistic intentions share their music, Mecca Normal is far more important than Live Aid. From the bands that were inspired to form at their shows to the bands that perhaps only unconsciously resemble what they initiated, Mecca Normal lent their inspiration to everyone from Bikini Kill through Sleater Kinney to the White Stripes.

Meanwhile, in the hands of fun bands like Van Halen, then brooding bands like Metallica, mainstream rock had become something of a reactionary force. What had been a refuge for freaks, outcasts and adventurers had become a jock party well stocked with models and/or strippers, so no status quos were challenged. Of course, simply advocating sexual exploration and intoxication retains perhaps the most powerful part of the rock activist agenda in its challenge to America’s stifling inheritance of religious guilt and conformity.

Rap broke through with Public Enemy in 1987, a quantum leap of musical activism in the mainstream that would all too quickly be replaced by gangsta rap and pop hip hop. But even in the 80’s there was hope for kids seeking activism in their music beyond U2’s white flag. Punk gave birth to niches of underground experimentation that satisfied diverse communities. Crust had Crass. Straight Edge had Minor Threat. Drunks had Black Flag. Indie had Mecca Normal. Even Aryan supremacists had and have their very own punk bands. In the best of these scenes a kid could sink his or her teeth into some political information, encounter forgotten heroes like Emma Goldman, and realize a commitment to activism against some injustice, perhaps the destruction of Hopi land by illegal mining operations at Big Mountain.

In the nineties worthy activist efforts like Food Not Bombs became popular in the underground. Food Not Bombs showed punks and others how to get food that would otherwise be thrown away by markets and restaurants, how to prepare it vegan, and then offer it to the homeless in city parks. Today Food Not Bombs is international. Co-founder Keith McHenry is conducting a Food Not Bombs tour in 2004 to contribute to the effort to register voters and raise consciousness. Keith has spent over 500 nights in jail for his peaceful protesting. He was framed under the California Three Strikes law. One of the first white people to face a 25 to life sentence, Amnesty International wrote letters and campaigned for Keith’s unconditional release. His case was taken up by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. But however wonderful Food Not Bombs might be, and however dear a cause to certain types of punks and jam bands, it’s a stretch to call it musical activism.

So virtuous were the powers distilled in the political punk undergrounds that they exploded into the public arena with bands like Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana. However ironic that Rage Against the Machine would rail against oil companies in stadiums while their touring machine burned enormous quantities of gasoline, they nevertheless brought political awareness to the attention of huge crowds.

The band Nirvana and its corresponding scene in the Pacific Northwest typified the slacker rejection of the status quo. Grunge was hippie informed by punk, and it greatly assisted the rise of Rock for Choice and Rock the Vote. Although the majority of bands associated with grunge in the public imagination were as empty of political content as their hair band predecessors, it didn’t take much scratching at the surface for a Kurt Cobain fan to uncover the indie treasures of Kill Rock Stars and K Records, and especially, the rock revolution that was riot grrrl.

I probably played more riot grrrl conventions than any male on the planet except possibly Billy Karren. I’m deeply grateful that I was allowed to participate in these ceremonies of empowerment. I didn’t get there till 1994, when it was all but over. Even then it seemed like every high school and college was sprouting outspoken girl bands that didn’t let their inexperience stop them from expressing themselves. Wonderful bands appeared like L.A.’s (never recorded) high school band Foxfire, who sounded more like Black Sabbath than Bratmobile; they sometimes used a broiling pan instead of a snare drum. Most of these girls were zine writers, so their bands had brilliant lyrics, representing as they did the real thoughts of a class of Americans who have seldom enjoyed true freedom of expression. Thousands of notebooks had the band name Bikini Kill scrawled across them, and if you saw that written on a girl or boy’s notebook you knew they might actually be semi-intelligent and possibly civilized.

Girls suddenly awakened to their collective power. By the circulation of hand made zines, they began forming their own shows, and their own show circuits. I was lucky enough to get to watch one of these girls at work, Erin McCarley of the band Delta Dart. The founder of the first Orange County riot grrrl chapter, Erin teamed up with local anarchist show promoter Jae Lee for a series of events at Koo’s Café in Santa Ana that brought together communities in a new way. During those Sunday matinees riot grrrl bands would play alongside Black Panther rappers, Mexican deathcore bands, Asian poets, and Food Not Bombs crust bands. The area around Koo’s would become a small bazaar offering slogan patches, t shirts, information about important causes and concerns, and rare punk and hip-hop records you couldn’t buy in a store.

In zines, poetry readings, songs, raps, and in discussion groups people talked about saving Ward Valley before the hazardous dump planned there polluted the Colorado River, about American political duplicity, and about institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. MTV and media in general, along with the cult of celebrity, were meticulously criticized. The ethics of animal testing or meat eating were debated. Mix tapes of new bands from other cities were eagerly circulated

Between bands, kids sat cross legged everywhere, poring over the latest zines, which would usually contain favorite quotes, blurry photos of Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and other riot grrrl associated bands, and personal testimony, as well as links to suggested reading and listening. If you were lucky, there would be a tip on using a certain kind of straw to get free copies at Kinko’s. Popular zine writers had thousands of copies circulating, and many a father’s and mother’s office copy machine and paper supply were commandeered for the cause.

I witnessed riot grrrl transform awkward and inhibited young women silenced by abuse into confident artists, musicians, writers, and public speakers. I saw circles of hundreds weeping in workshops, making lifelong friends, traveling to stay with AOL IM pals in other cities, joining together in bands crammed into vans to tour America playing tiny all age clubs with names like Cell 63 and The Small Intestine, stopping off at Ward Valley along the way to drop off cans from Food Not Bombs for the squatters, returning home with boxes of zines and home made t shirts.

The truly inclusive, such as Los Angeles riot grrrl splinter group Revolution Rising, with their open wall art shows, and zine and music fundraisers with bands like Los Crudos and Spitboy, were striving to reach housewives, secretaries, strippers, and gang truce centers. Even cheerleaders and males were welcome and found themselves encouraged to be creative and ethical, conscious and conscientious. Here it seemed to us, might be the sort of spontaneous birth of community awareness unseen since the glory days of the baby boomers.

It’s always a treat to talk with Jody Bleyle of Team Dresch whose musical encouragement to gay people trapped in hostile environments has certainly saved lives, and achieved what the gender bending marketing of glitter rock only hinted at. My kitchen table overlooks the L.A. basin so conversations here seem to take on a special poignancy. I’ve been lucky to have conversations with Jean Smith of Mecca Normal here, and with Madigan of Bonfire Madigan, one of the earliest of riot grrrls with her duo TattleTale whose recordings still inspire activist musicians today. We all agree, we never would have believed that less than ten years later we’d find ourselves with another President Bush, and another war in Iraq, or that America’s male idols would be macho gangsta imitators and our female role models would be dancing Barbies and Bratz.

So what happened to riot grrrl? One female poet who was important in the scene suggested that when it began to function as a kind of dating pool for dykes, as she called it, any chance it had to reach a wider audience was lost; she was a dyke herself. A singer for a band that played many riot grrrl events once told me she thought riot grrrl disappeared because it was a movement composed mostly of abuse survivors, and ultimately they couldn’t resist abusing each other, a common symptom of post traumatic stress. I read in a zine once a theory that when Bikini Kill called a media black out, and riot grrrl stopped cooperating with the media, the media simply reported it as a thing of the past, and still does, a stigma that makes it hard to start new chapters. I would add that once grrrls began graduating from college and entering jobs and serious relationships their capacity to participate in riot grrrl chapters disappeared. That’s what happened to Revolution Rising.

Advertising and fashion pilfered riot grrrl imagery reducing once powerful symbols to accessories. When Spin magazine ran a glam photo of Marilyn Monroe version 9.0 Gwen Stefani with the headline “Riot Grrlie” it was easy to understand why many riot grrrls suspected a conspiracy against them. Now “riot girl” graces the merchandise of the teen idol band Good Charlotte whose song “Riot Girl” features lyrics like: “My girl’s a hot girl.I know my baby would do anything for me, yeah!” Said riot girl’s taste in music is described by the song but you won’t find Huggy Bear or Bikini Kill mentioned, just the all male bands Minor Threat and Social Distortion.

Consider Christmastime in the early days of rock and roll. If you were one of many whose families didn’t match the American ideal mercilessly trumpeted from every billboard, TV, and pulpit, perhaps your best hope for supportive camaraderie would be a rock show where local freaks and outcasts discovered they were not as alone or hapless as they feared. Back then rock was just about the only show in town for an outsider.

Today’s outsiders are more like insiders. We can choose from a generous array of activities that create feelings of community outside the Christmas/family conformity ideal so beloved by marketers. On cable we can watch South Park where Hitler weeps in hell for lack of his tannenbaum. We can sign on to hang out with others of our kind or argue with “the enemy” in chat rooms on the Internet; or we can go see the Return of the King at the movies. After all, in the sixties and seventies Tolkein belonged to the hippies. “Frodo lives” was as popular a graffiti then as “Chaka” was in the Nineties. Nice people didn’t read The Lord of the Rings, with its comments about the fine weed of the Shire, its ecological sensitivity, and a whole world of pagan details.

Indeed, yesterday’s novelists were as famous and influential as rock stars like the Beatles. Victor Hugo taking on the government, using his art and fame to defend Dreyfus, was the John Lennon of his day. Now it seems tomorrow’s rock stars will be as obscure as today’s novelists. Successes will be counted in tens of thousands of CDs sold instead of millions. In part, rock has dated itself by succeeding, by inspiring new media to serve the same interests. Rock, blaring from car commercials and sports shows, has taken on such reactionary connotations for many kids it has been replaced completely by rap. Might some artist come along and rock with such abandon, with lyrics so insightful, that rock activism will be reborn? Perhaps, but will anyone notice? The satanic spectacle of Marilyn Manson, the misogyny of rap and new metal, the morbidity of screamo and grindcore, are perhaps mistaken for activism. Fans find a wealth of emotional identification and anti-conformist imagery, but as for practical challenge to the status quo, little is to be found.

Post 9-11 fans of rock activism might have expected at least some sort of punk rock reaction, perhaps based on the perpetually popular assumption that the CIA is responsible, but no existing bands have picked up that gauntlet or anything similar, nor have any new bands shown up to restore the activist spirit to rock. The Strokes are touted in Rolling Stone (once the blog of the boomer activist renaissance) as the rebirth of rock but they are as devoid of political content as Journey. We all have post traumatic stress now. It’s hard to blame rock for avoiding activism

Of course, the activist underground continues. Kathleen Hannah, former riot grrrl firebrand of Bikini Kill, practices a more danceable activism with her band Le Tigre. The Butchies are holding the torch for gay liberation. Mecca Normal and Bonfire Madigan tour and record, as does former White Panther manager of the MC5 John Sinclair, long ago the topic of a John Lennon protest song, now a venerable jazz historian poet. The Anarchy Crust scene continues. The adventurous music fan browsing a merchant table can still encounter the likes of Emma Goldman. There’s even an occasional brave neo-riot grrrl, smart enough to understand the power that was shockingly, suddenly swallowed up by the void.

And there are new movements, perhaps most notably The Travelers. They hop trains and panhandle, existing in communities outside state sanctioned society as much as possible. Their bands don’t use electricity, they use acoustic instruments only. As well as playing originals, they cover songs by bands like Bikini Kill, Fugazi, and TattleTale. They have applied the principles of activism to every facet of their lives they can. By dropping out this way have they dodged their responsibility for co-creating our society, or with their spirit reminiscent of Thoreau are they incubating the next great trend of romantic liberalism?

Or are the flash mobs of the internet and of cell phones the future of activism, a future rock will have little to do with? Spontaneous public demonstrations and organizations that make powerful points, small communities huge when joined, ala Bolivia, these are potential gifts of the Internet. Rock itself is deeply compromised. Music downloading is crippling the parasitic music industry. Channels of alternative distribution are clogged with the efforts of amateur bands, most with little to say. TV commercials for the U.S. Army use rock. The Woodstock Generation are grandparents now, worried about Medicare laws. Punk is your father’s Oldsmobile. Of course rock will live on, with ups and downs of popularity, along the lines of, say, country music, both as a corporate sponsored Vegas-like entertainment experience, and as an underground current of mutations exploring every possible nuance including activism. The Internet should make it possible for those two categories to cross breed occasionally with potentially interesting results.

Perhaps the most fascinating development is the way the very means of distributing music now embodies its revolutionary force more than the music itself, slowly but surely shrinking the music industry. Digital music files, thanks to the RIAA, are the new porn: we tell the pollsters we don’t do that anymore or never did, then in the privacy of our rooms or cubicles we feverishly search for crushes to download, enjoying with a guiIty rush the fear that we might get caught doing something wrong. Music hasn’t felt so contraband since NWA’s arrival. Perhaps this technological advancement can’t be described as activism, but it is changing us and our culture almost as dramatically as rock did that eventful year exactly half a century ago when Sputnik, the Fender Stratocaster, Godzilla, Hank Aaron, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Lord of the Rings, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley stepped onto the world stage for the first time.

Article written by Ronnie Pontiac


Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.

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