Essay: On punkplay at Pavement Group

The characters of punkplay, written by Gregory Moss and presented by Pavement Group, have discovered punk music ten years too late.  They are loud, determined, lost, and cruel to each other.  And they reminded me of a paper I once wrote.

Basically, I’m jealous that I wasn’t a part of this production.  I would’ve been a kick-ass dramaturg.

This paper was originally called “Kick Out Your Feelings and Dance the Dance of Anger: Whirlwind Hardcore in the Early Nineteen-Eighties.”

Image courtesy of Flickr

Image courtesy of Flickr

We all understand, I think, the fundamental importance of the dance in society, in culture going back as far as civilization has existed, perhaps even earlier.  Even I, myself, without having ever cared to participate, can see what the dance has represented for people variously throughout the world and throughout time.  In Ancient Greece, people danced so that they might appease the gods.  In Argentina, the poor and dispossessed danced the Tango in order to express their lament over war and oppression.  In night clubs today, young people dance in order to find sexual partners.  And in early nineteen-eighties America, punk rockers danced so that they could channel a deep-seated, long-nursed aggression that would otherwise potentially cause bloodshed in the streets.  I’d like to take a look at what came to be known as the slam-dance, a staple feature of the American hardcore music scene, by establishing its importance to this happily self-sustained, underground, perhaps somewhat misjudged culture of youthful malcontent, and then analyzing it as a performance ritual that is no less significant than any other “legitimate” dance form.  Richard Schechner’s concept of the “Actual” in this case will prove especially useful, given his assertion that the strain and pressure under which so many of us live our lives cause us often to reach out in immediate, soulful, hungry, violent ways.

We live under terrible stress, writes Schechner in 1970.  Politically, intellectually, artistically, personally, and epistemologically we are at breaking points.  It is a cliché to say that a society is in crisis.  But ours . . . seems gripped by total crisis and faced with either disintegration or brutal, sanctioned repression.  The yearnings of the young may be a combination of infantile wishes for the wholeness of Mama’s breasts and a thrashing toward an impossible Utopian socialism.  Or these yearnings may indicate a genuine alternative to our horrific destiny. (31)

I would not dare to suggest, nor do I believe Schechner does, that this crisis of which he writes is an ever-present state, at least, not at the same time also so palpable, so inflammatory, or so overpowering of mass consciousness.  Each of us surely has our own, individual, little catastrophes day in and day out, whether they change our lives or no.  Only rarely, then, comes along a moment in history in which a plethora of forces invades a community, large or small, with the sort of threat that could move that entire community toward reflexive action.

Such a time was the first half of the nineteen-eighties in America.  Despite the spit-shine Leave it to Beaver makeover our country had been given by a former Hollywood star in the White House, it was still in the middle of a long-standing Cold War, crack cocaine ran rampant through city streets damaging countless lives, and the Corporation grew ever larger a dominant institution.  Affected most of all were the young ones, growing more and more concerned with the concept of individuality, and increasingly possessive of keen political awareness.  Michael Azerrad, rock critic and author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, describes the evident dis-ease that grew in patches all over the country:

In D.C. kids rebelled against the bland, stifling atmosphere of official Washington, exacerbated by the conservative inhabitants of the White House; in Minneapolis it was the oppressive winters and the equally oppressive Scandinavian stoicism; in Seattle it was yuppies, rain, and that good ol’ Scandinavian stoicism again; in Los Angeles it was inane California mellowness, the excruciating vapidity of Suburbia, and the false glamour being propagated on soundstages all over town; in New York it was those darn yuppies and the overall difficulty of living in what was then America’s hardest city; and throughout the country, anyone with the slightest bit of suss was disgruntled by the pervasive know-nothingism Ronald Reagan fobbed off as Morning in America. (9)

The first solution, then, was to find an appropriate venue for the release of the aggression, frustration, and hopelessness that pervaded these lives.  Before turning to perhaps more long-term solutions such as steadfast political activism, the youths of America turned to the answer they had turned to so often in the past: popular music.  While the only suitable choice, punk rock, seemed already to be on the wane after both the Americans and the English had done with it, the new generation decided to pick up the flag, and carry on the legacy, only now it would be faster, louder, and more intense—“hardcore, a combustible mixture of white teenage male angst and frustrated energy” (130).  Along with the music, then, came the dance—“a new thing called slam dancing, in which participants simply bashed into one another like human bumper cars” (Azerrad 14).  Let me stress again that I am not looking at first wave punk rock, whose credo was anarchy, the lack of rules, but its younger, skinnier brother, American hardcore, whose credo instead was the lack of need for rules, an essentially DIY ethos (Simon 157-158).  And while original punk rockers were concerned with a base, utterly individualistic, even nihilistic attitude, hardcore punks needed to coalesce in an identifiable if still loose community.

The refusal of obedience to the dominant force of modern corporate America, the established, socially acceptable, morally “concrete” ways of living, this denial of the Man, speaks directly to Schechner’s description of the underlying philosophy of the Actual: “An end to the assembly-line approach to the production of goods and the conformism of people . . . turbulence and discontinuity . . . kicking out your feelings.  Ritual art, all-night dances” (31).  It is the anguish and turmoil and anger at the center of this youth culture that finds itself exploding in the slam-dance, the embodiment, the physicalization of a desire to formulate not simply a reaction to the negative forces that bear down, but also a useful strategy toward overcoming those forces.  I intend to frame the slam-dance as a performance on the level of the Actual, a ritual which provides a particular community with a meaningful exchange and action beyond the symbolism of the traditional theatre.

An actual has five basic qualities . . . : 1) process, something happens here and now; 2) consequential, irremediable, and irrevocable acts, exchanges, or situations; 3) contest, something is at stake for the performers and often for the spectators; 4) initiation, a change in status for participants; 5) space is used concretely and organically. (46)

This video is an excerpt from the misguided tour documentary Another State of Mind.  The fan’s demonstration of the slam dance is a bit silly and rather reductionist, but a decent enough primer for the uninitiated:

PROCESS

Something happens here and now.  Here and Now.  Again, Schechner’s name for this phenomenon is “actual”, meaning “existing in fact, existing now, current”.  The Actual refuses the pretense that the symbolic theatre find necessary in order to justify itself—the countless hours of preparation by dozens of people in order for two or three hours depicted to seem to be truly taking place.  “The goal of orthodox acting . . . is to enable actors to ‘really live’ their characters. . . . The tendency of an actual is the opposite.  Instead of the smooth ‘professionalism’ of the ‘good actor,’ there are rough and unexpected turbulences, troubled interruptions.” (46).  Whereas the particular band playing on the stage may have practiced for hours—Black Flag, for instance, was notorious for its relentless work ethic—those who wish to enter the slam pit needed only abide a few simple rules: Don’t cause anyone real harm, pick anyone up who has fallen down, clear the floor of anything that could be tripped over, continue the circular motion of the pit, et cetera.  Within this loose framework, the slammer need only possess the desire to contribute to the overall cathartic energy of the hurricane of the pit.  “The slam-pit is a place where many individuals can feel as if they are expressing themselves maximally and freely, while simultaneously becoming absorbed in part of a warm mass of bodies which is bigger and more powerful than any single individual” (Azerrad 166).  The slammer comes to a hardcore show perhaps because his parents just took away his driving privileges; or because he just found out his girlfriend cheated on him; or because he just got fired from his job at the Krispy Kreme.  While the expression within the slam-pit of the violent urges of these individuals may be in a sense symbolic, for them the aggression is real, is manifest, regardless of the fact that it has been sublimated into a ritual enacted for various reasons by a multiplex body—the “making present of a past time or event” (Schechner 37).

CONSEQUENTIAL, IRREMEDIABLE, IRREVOCABLE ACTS

Exchanges, situations, take place that involve consequential, irremediable or irrevocable acts.  Palmer writes that slamming “involved flailing one’s arms and lifting one’s knees, although surprisingly little of this apparent violence resulted in serious injury. The pushing and shoving that occurred in the pit, and often in male punks’ roughhousing, was not interpreted as fighting” (156).  Even so, while the violence that takes place in the slam-pit is purported to be symbolic, intended to merely epitomize without making real, often is the instance in which true hostility, riot, breaks out.  There came a point in the history of the slam-dance in which it “became like sumo wrestling, with beefy contestants marching into the ring, defying all comers to knock them out.  A whole new crop of kids had come in, attracted by the music, media hype about punk aggression, even the misleading term ‘slam dancing.’  They neither knew nor cared about the style’s basis” (Azerrad 151-2).  While for many the slam-dance was indeed simply a dance, and they recognized it as a means of transferring a potentially hazardous hostility into something fun and spiritually cleansing, others felt a much darker desire to transform the act into being about inflicting pain on other participants instead of releasing it into the ether.

Similarly, this need to reach out and touch in a painful, physical way often manifested itself in the interactions between audience and band.  Again, the most appropriate example is Black Flag, whose eminent lead singer Henry Rollins offered himself night after night to the harangues of audience members, kids lashing out from the pit in order to scrawl their pain onto a veritable stone monument who would reflect, physicalize, the inner groans of their torment.  “Rollins established himself as a lightning rod for absorbing the charge of this combination of desire and anger.  His body became the surface upon which his fans inscribed with Bic pens their antipathy” (Thompson 37-8).  In such a way did the slam-pit give cause for the eruption of pure physicality that perhaps echoes “a deplorable spiritual poverty. . . . But the success of these enterprises likewise proves man’s profound need for initiation, that is, for regeneration, for participation in the life of the spirit” (qtd. in Schechner 51).

CONTEST

Something is at stake.  Again, there is always the great risk of the physical violence breaching its playful nature and becoming truly hurtful, and in this way there is a real risk—the risk of injury, even the risk of humiliation.  If the slammer has not followed the rules of the game, he imperils his body and stands to end the ritual not in the warm embrace of the collective energy but on a stretcher, or maybe at least putting a cold beer to his bruised elbow.  As Schechner writes, “both spontaneity and discipline are risks for the performer.  His entire effort is in making his body-voice-mind-spirit whole.  Then he risks this wholeness here and now in front of others” (54).  That interplay between spontaneity and discipline is evident in the slam-dance as well—simultaneous desires spring up not only to express freely and openly the rancor deep inside, physicalizing a built-up tension, but also to adhere to the set boundaries that not so much control as aid in the safe and fruitful collaborative effort within the pit.

Although violence can arise in the slam-pit, slam-dancing itself can be seen as a potential remedy to violence which infests modern society.  A writer in the fanzine Maximum Rock n Roll described hardcore music as “a refreshing contact-friendly participation type of music—not relegated to mere spectator status.  Over-ruling a society that discourages strangers from touching.  An unusual camaraderie with unspoken pit etiquette, defusing most potentially violent fights before they escalate” (Bruce Roehrs in MrnR 110, part 1).  Slam-dancing provides a means for attaining status and feeling good about oneself. (166)

So then, what is at stake, beyond self-preservation, is a purgation of pent-up aggression, which cannot be attained if the parties do not consider the safety of others, and their parallel desires.

INITIATION

The participants undergo a change in status.  “This change in who you are flows from the first three qualities. . . . There will be changes, new dimensions of integration and wholeness.  Change will either be bunched, troubled, difficult—an initiation; or smooth and continuous” (54).  The slammer at a hardcore show does not participate in the slam-pit unless he possesses the desire to share his experience, inarticulate though it may be, with others.

Again, first wave punk rock was negativity for negativity’s sake.  It advocated anarchy, the carving out of space for the individual in which he could live his life alone, without governance.  But hardcore was not about that.  For the hardcore punker, the sharing of a similar aesthetic, the idea that others in this world felt the same oppression and misery that you did, and that those things could be overcome somehow, were so very important.  “Hardcore fans . . . attempted, in many ways, a more complex resolution, one which conjoined violence, loss of self in the world, and chaos on the one hand with fun, individual freedom, and order on the other and aimed at producing not alienation, but belonging or communitas” (Simon 167).  To hark back to Schechner: “Events are the ritual.  When they are over initiates have been initiated and everyone is together” (56).  If the punker showed up at a rock show as an individual, and expressed that individuality of aggression in the slam-pit, along with the many other individuals performing similarly, by the end of the cycle—literally, for the motion of the pit, again, etched out a circle—he would be immediately, without even asking aloud or consciously, be implicated in the ritual of a veritable whole.  He would be then a member of a much larger community he could now call home.

SPACE USED CONCRETELY, ORGANICALLY

The typical setup of a rock show is just as one would expect—there is a stage area where the band plays, and there is a space for the spectators in which to observe the band.  However, such was the low-rent style of hardcore that it was very rare that there would be such barriers as fencing or lines of security guards blocking the band from its adoring fans.  That would go against the very ethos of hardcore music, the sense of community, the brotherhood not only among the audience but between audience and band.  And so we are reminded of the primitive theatre found even in the tribal world, the theatre that Schechner calls “the interplay among space, time, performers, action, and audience.  Space is used concretely, as something to be molded, changed, dealt with” (58).  And, when Schechner continues by saying that “in many ceremonies the principal architecture is people—how many there are, how and where they move, what their interactions are, whether they participate or watch or do both” (58), we can see it in the slam-pit.  The slam-pit indeed is carved out, delineated, not by an already set, permanent design, but by the participants.  As Bradford Simon noted upon a visit to a rock show, “a pit was created by one or two wildly moving bodies, and a throng of people formed around the pit, defining its extremities and confining the ostensible whirlwind of dynamic flesh inside.  The movement started and stopped with the music and appeared driven by the music” (160).  In effect, the slam-pit can be anywhere, formed by anyone, as long as under the auspices of the hardcore philosophy—with the understanding that in this place a community was to be founded and then flourish.

The hardcore music scene here described indeed flourished, if only for a few short years.  The less discerning may look back upon it as a passing fashion, a trendy little trifle on the level of reality television or beanie babies, but we must remember that this little movement was created out of a deep-seated need to express disgruntlement with the current state of affairs of the world, of the country, of the hometown.  Yet, though I would agree that the hardcore aesthetic did become morphed, perverted, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, for that brief moment in the beginning there was at least the formulation of a plan of action that perhaps would not cure cancer or bring world peace—nor would it dare to—but would at the least offer a brief respite from the hardships of the day’s work or from a sense of isolation.  The slam-pit provided a means for channeling the ancient hostility that pervaded modern life too acutely, and with that channel created a hurly-burly of community among boys who yearned desperately to become men.

###

punkplay is closing this weekend at the Steppenwolf Garage and is sold out, so don’t even bother.

Works Cited

Another State of Mind.  Dir. Adam Small & Peter Stuart.  Perf. Dennis Danell, Brent Liles, John Macias, and Ian MacKaye.  Coastline, 1984.

Azerrad, Michael.  Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Palmer, Craig T.  “Mummers and Moshers: Two Rituals of Trust in Changing Social Environments”.  Ethnology.  44.2 (2005): 147-166.

Schechner, Richard.  Performance Theory.  London: Routledge Classics, 2003.

Simon, Bradford Scott.  “Entering the Pit: Slam-dancing and Modernity”.  Journal of Popular Culture.  31.1 (1997): 149-176.

Thompson, Stacy.  Punk Productions: Unfinished Business.  New York: SUNY Press, 2004.

Tsitsos, William.  “Rules of Rebellion: Slamdancing, Moshing, and the American Alternative Scene”.  Popular Music.  18.3 (1999): 197-414.

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