It was 1993, I think. Rain Like the Sound of Trains, a lost-to-history modest rock band with immodest punk sensibilities had just finished playing a show in a friend’s living room and, as if to prove those punk sensibilities, they had settled down to drink tea and hang out with a crowd of dirty teenagers, myself included. Generally speaking, I had already quit going to punk shows at this point, but the lure of seeing legends like Bobby Sullivan (right) from Soulside and Dug E. Bird from Beefeater got me to leave that adolescent lair of loathing I called my bedroom.
So I sat across the kitchen table from Bobby and the conversation ran, as it often did in those days, to the state of hardcore punk and whether or not it was still a viable or interesting counterculture. My answer was already in, and in the negative. Green Day and Rage Against the Machine had already sold out. Most of the younger punks were apolitical emo kids mainly interested in articulating exactly how much it hurt when they broke up with their girlfriends. Actually, it didn’t seem clear to me at all that hardcore punk had ever been much of a counterculture, composed mainly of white boys from the suburbs full of ill-defined angst and with no clear political allegiances.
And that’s where Bobby stepped into the conversation.
Coming up in the Reagan years, he remembered punk definitely being a statement, a statement one made at one’s own risk. Wearing a bad haircut, DIY tattoos or a ridiculous patch on your jacket didn’t earn you fashion points when Bobby was young; rather, it was a matter of standing up to the prevailing stupidity of oppressive 1980s conservative teens. And this meant putting your body on the line. Bobby recounted tales of being chased by jocks and well-dressed, clean-cut conservative boys intent on beating him down for his mere assertion of difference through attitude, clothing and style. Suddenly another old-timer (he was almost thirty, can you imagine?!) chimed in with a tale of hiding in a closet at his high school after two guys with nunchaku pursued him across campus, threatening to hammer him into a pulp. For Bobby and the old-timer, being punk was a style, sure, but one that had a particular social, cultural and political meaning that was immediate and important in the 1980s, though it may have faded by the early- and mid-1990s.
It was a simple lesson in historical context, but a useful one nonetheless.
I hadn’t thought about this little exchange from my past in over a decade. Until I read about the recent beating of Russian comix artist Khikhus (right) last week.
Khikhus, whose work I reviewed last year in a round-up on Russian comix, was attacked on 11 July not far from his home in the Taganka neighborhood of Moscow. According to his livejournal account of the beating, he was approached by a young man “dressed like a low-level manager, or to be more precise, exactly like a Mormon. There was a white shirt, laptop case, black office trousers and shoes bought at an open-air market.” This polite thug informed Khikhus, “We’re fascists. We’re going to kill you.” Then he proceeded to repeatedly strike the artist’s head with brass knuckles.
The apparent motive for the attack was Khikhus outward appearance, that is, his dreadlocks and self-styled outsider look.
Or as the cartoonist later blogged:
Most likely, this was just some crazed fascist who can’t get any girls and blames the Jews, Tajiks and Rasta for this problem…It’s just that I was a symbol of everything that obtuse squares hate. The kind of successful dude who lives as he pleases, not getting his hair cut per Society’s norms [под общественную гребенку не стрижется]. Excellent grounds for murder.Never before have I felt so strongly the urge to defend the right of white dudes to wear dreadlocks.
I guess context does matter.
Thanks for making that point clear so many years ago, Bobby.
And thanks to you too, Khikhus, for standing up to those aspiring thugs in low-level management gear.