Featured Book Reviews from Razorcake 94: Global Punk, My Damage, Berzerkoids, Everyone Loves You Back

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Global Punk: Resistance and Rebellion in Everyday Life
By Kevin Dunn, 262 pgs.

This is a strange book. It’s strange for a book about punk and it’s even stranger for an academic book about punk. It’s strange because I can see myself in it. I’ve never experienced that with any other punk book, academic or otherwise. Global Punk is filled with people I know, contemporary punk bands I like (or at least have heard of), and theoretic models I respect. It feels intimate. I believe that anyone actively involved in DIY punk rock will experience this intimacy. The intimacy comes not directly through the book’s engagement with bands I like and people I know, but from the equal treatment it gives to various iterations of DIY punk globally, and the threads that unite them.

Equally strange is the book’s starting point. It’s evident from the first page that Global Punk isn’t a nostalgia project, a dispassionate analysis, nor an attempt at definition or periodization. This alone knocks off the vast majority of books about punk. This project is a self-professed defense of DIY punk and why it matters. Kevin speaks about punks in almost the same way that Marx talks about the proletariat. Marx is very careful not to identify the proletariat as a class, but as the oppositional body to class structure. Similarly, Global Punk doesn’t attempt to change or define punk as a specific genre or discrete community, but describes how DIY punk is principally an oppositional identity (within capitalism) that’s empowering for individuals and the communities they comprise.

Global Punk scrambles familiar coordinates. It’s not a book about punk music per se, nor is it a book about youth culture. Global Punk carefully transverses different scenes and finds within them methods, principles, practices, and voices of political resistance. It aims to show the material consequences of the heterogeneous expressions of this oppositional identity. How does geography, political climate, mainstream appropriation, established distribution networks, housing laws, recording format, et cetera, effect how this oppositional identity is expressed? The material consequences of a Green Day CD in the hands of a thirty-year-old at a mall in Wisconsin in 1995 can be entirely different than in the hands of a fifteen-year-old in Jakarta in 2002. At every turn, Kevin highlights the currents and eddies of resistance within punk and how they crack and rupture capitalist ideology and infrastructure.

While Kevin is an academic and the book is definitely a work of political theory, the accessibility and tone of Global Punk are for anyone interested in DIY punk. Kevin introduces theory out of utility and necessity, not out of habit or fashionability. Kevin’s voice is present throughout the piece, making for an atypical academic book. An active participant in DIY punk and a world traveler, Kevin doesn’t shy away from including personal stories when they add to the discussion. And with chapter titles like “Satan Wears a Bra While Sniffin’ Glue and Eating Razorcake,” Global Punk clearly contains a fair amount of humor. The totality of all these elements reflects Kevin’s love of DIY punk and optimism for its future. Global Punk may never be a bestseller and will long be overshadowed by books like Our Band Could Be Your Life, but, for me, it will be the book I buy for friends, and revisit for years to come.

Highly recommended. –Matthew Hart (Bloomsbury, 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, bloomsbury.com)

 

Global Punk: Resistance and Rebellion in Everyday Life
By Kevin Dunn, 262 pgs.

It’s only fair to start this review stating that the author of Global Punk, Kevin Dunn, is a contributor to Razorcake, although I’ve never met him. The title may be somewhat misleading, as there’s no possible way (short of a multi-volume encyclopedia) that one can make a comprehensive look at punk around the world. The subtitle gives the reader a better understanding of where Dunn is headed with the material. He believes that, “DIY punk provides individuals and local communities with resources for self-empowerment and political resistance.”

Despite an academic press putting out this book, don’t be discouraged from picking up Global Punk. While there is some theory involved in the discussion of punk as a source of rebellion and defiance, much of this book strikes the right mix of intellectual and accessible. During the academic analysis of punk, I struggled to be engaged, but an engaging narrative rescued me, telling the stories of riot grrrls, punks in Indonesia, or even this here zine. Dunn has performed an incredible number of interviews with individuals involved with music scenes around the world. Their first-hand accounts give Global Punk legitimacy. While I normally dislike hearing the author inject themselves into a book, Dunn’s energy and excitement—as well as his personal experiences—come through and give the reader encouragement and hope that punk is still strong.

Dunn argues throughout the book that punk’s power isn’t so much its ability to change the world, but rather its ability to change an individual. He paraphrases anarchist author Hakim Bey in writing “perhaps success should be measured by the degree to which people are knocked out of a trance.” While Dunn relates this to zines and specifically punk zines, I’d argue that punk, in general, does just that. One of the messages of this book, intended or not, is that punk has the power to transform and change lives. During my time reading Global Punk, I was surprised at how uplifted and empowered I felt. I’d guess that Dunn wasn’t thinking he was writing a self-help book, but reading stories of how punk has given agency to people—and continues to do so—of all sorts of backgrounds throughout the world gave this reader some hope in the midst of an all too depressing world. Kurt Morris (Bloomsbury, 1385 Broadway, NY, NY 10018)

 

Berzerkoids
By MP Johnson, 146 pgs.

The world of MP Johnson’s excellent short story collection is littered with the grotesque: inside-out humans playing nose flutes, chest cavities forming gateways to dimensions filled with intelligent caterpillars, zombified hardcore bands reuniting to play their rare tracks. I know it sounds obvious—or redundant, or both—to say that his work is full of twists, but bear with me.

Like the best purveyors of magical realism, MP Johnson is able to create an initial mood and tone with a few deft strokes. His writing is sometimes grounded in the present day, like the handful of stories populated by knuckle-tat punks past their prime, or drag queens struggling through multiple iterations of identity. Other times, his weird horror is front and center, as in the story titled I Summoned A Demon with a Vagina Mouth, the first scene of which is exactly what you’re envisioning. Regardless of the particularly story, I came to expect something weird and disgusting in each and was not disappointed. But the horrific elements in his work aren’t the terminus of storytelling. Each terror, each gross-out in Berzerkoids is load-bearing and there to further the story’s work rather than to serve as a centerpiece. Johnson loves the shock of each story, but he does stuff with the shock. In Through Time, Knuckles First, for example, a decaying alien head attaches itself to Geoff, the story’s protagonist. They travel into the future to save Geoff’s future daughter, who turns out to be his son in drag. From there, after settling into the initial weirdness, I was shocked (see?) to find not one, but two twists, both enhanced by the setup.

Stories full of zombies and aliens and vampires require a certain amount of splatter, and Johnson is more than happy to oblige, spraying guts’n’rot liberally across this collection, playing fast and loose with description and syntax. This too, is a choice. The Songwriter’s Fingers is the shortest story herein, and also the most intricately wrought. Its gleaming prose and poetic aftershocks seamless fit to any hoity-toity MFA program’s best. Similarly poetic and no less affecting is Feed My Corpse to Sharks, less a requisite gross-out than a straightforward meditation on the metaphysics of loss. Just when you think you have MP Johnson pinned down, in other words, he mixes it up again, to a staggering effect.

I’ve read all of Stephen King’s stuff and know Lovecraft a little bit, but beyond that I have no real stake in the horror business. Yet calling MP Johnson a horror writer is like calling Black Flag a hardcore band—it’s not so simple. MP Johnson’s work is disgusting and hilarious and unsettling and poetic and resonant and genre-bending and heavy and deft. And awesome. –Michael T. Fournier (Bizarro Pulp Press, bizarropulppress.com)

 

Everyone Loves You Back
By Louie Cronin, 253 pgs.

I may not be the most impartial person to review this. I’ve met the author, Louie Cronin, when she did a reading here in Boston with Sean Carswell, who runs Gorsky Press, the publishing company that released this book. (As many of you know, Gorsky is the publishing arm of Razorcake.) Cronin was delightful and friendly. Additionally, this story takes place where I live (Boston) and often hang out (Cambridge). That aspect especially drew me in to the content.

Everyone Loves You Back is a fictional tale of Bob Boland, a radio engineer (and not to be confused with NPR’s Bob Boilen), whose story bears a striking resemblance to what I imagine my life would’ve been in ten years had I not met my girlfriend. Bob is forty-eight years old and lives alone in the house he inherited from his parents in Cambridge, near Harvard University. It’s 1997 and the city is gentrifying. While Bob can barely keep his own house from falling apart, there’s a fight to save a rare Japanese maple tree from being destroyed due to condo development. He has one neighbor who wants him to get rid of his trees that she thinks are no better than weeds, while another neighbor constantly feeds the squirrels that are infesting Bob’s house. And yet another neighbor is installing a meditation garden and wants Bob to give up some of his land for that purpose. Meanwhile, Bob is trying to keep his head above water in his career, his writing, and his romantic relationships.

Everyone Loves You Back raises interesting questions: who are we and when do we really grow up? As more people put off relationships, marriage, and having a family until later in life, not to mention understanding what the right “career” is for them; when is it we really come into our own? Do we just kind of wing it and hope for the best? While Bob’s story takes place over the course of less than one year in his life, we’re able to watch him finally come into his own (or at least as close as he might ever get), amidst all his failed attempts, insecurities, and screw-ups. Despite my close proximity to the setting (which brought me delight as I read familiar street names), I believe these messages are things all readers can truly enjoy. Kurt Morris (Gorsky Press, PO Box 42024, LA, CA 90042)

 

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching
By Mychal Denzel Smith, 240 pgs.

On June 14, 2016, Nation Books published Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching—A Young Black Man’s Education, in which author Mychal Denzel Smith calls out basketball legend Michael Jordan for being apolitical and uninvolved in the black community’s struggle, unlike Muhammad Ali and even—as Smith makes an impassioned case—LeBron James.

On July 25 2016, Jordan publicly stated that he “can no longer stay silent,” regarding the deaths of black people at the hands of police officers and the deaths of police officers at the hands of snipers. Jordan also stated that he will donate a million dollars each to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. While 2016 has been notably plagued with shootings of people of color and police officers, his statement didn’t immediately follow any of them, and I have to wonder if Smith’s book made its way to Jordan. It’s not out of the question. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is Smith’s travelogue of the road to his awakening: racially, politically and culturally. The road is marked with events, like the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina and TV shows like The Boondocks and Chappelle’s Show, which through Smith’s eyes, we see in entirely new light.

Regarding Barack Obama, empathy is an unaffordable luxury. Smith has use for neither Obama’s tough love for the black community, nor his occasional encouragement to consider how the world looks through the eyes of Angry White Guy. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a slim book that has the spirit of a political pamphlet. It’s a screed made more readable with the help of a personal narrative. It’s rare to have one’s eyes opened so widely for relatively little effort. –Jim Woster (Nation Books, publicaffairsbooks.com/nation-books)

 

MDC: Memoir from a Damaged Civilization
By Dave Dictor, 192 pgs.

MDC—Millions Of Dead Cops, Metal Devil Cokes, Missile Destroyed Civilization, and many others—are one of those “Punk 101” bands the average punter these days will likely get around to once they’ve made the commitment to investigate this punk thang a little further than whatever their entry-level band was. They are also a great “foundation” band for such folks ‘cause, truth be told, those entering from the more popular routes these days are likely coming in with no idea whatsoever of punk’s long-standing history as a viable form of dissent, political action, and source for obfuscated information.

I speak from personal experience. I picked up MDC’s Multi-Death Corporations EP in 1983 with its horrifying images and detailed information about what the American military were doing to predominantly indigenous people during El Salvador’s then-happening civil war at the behest of U.S.-based corporate interests. For me, it opened a world of political thought and news that was—like today—all but absent in the mainstream media.

Courtesy of bands like MDC, music became not just a passive way to pass the time, but a tool to sandblast off the shiny veneer of bullshit we’re fed daily. Music as a weapon to speak the truth—loud and clear—to power.

As inferred in the title, vocalist Dave Dictor recounts his, and his band’s, history here. The book tells his beginnings—the familial and formative experiences that influenced his worldview. Me moves from New York to Austin, Texas, where he quickly became involved with Austin’s storied punk scene. The band forms. Assorted band-related and personal experiences happen, including run-ins with police and hassles caused by the best-known Millions Of Dead Cops iteration of the band’s name. Health and drug-related issues rear up. Dave becomes a teacher. Ultimately, he finds his center. His prose is simple and conversational. Overall, the book is a quick read despite recounting one of punk rock’s more storied lives.

Some may wish for more introspection into why he and the band were motivated to a more caustic lyrical and musical end of punk and why he’s remained entrenched in the scene (particularly the do-it-yourself part of it) as long as he has. Yet, I think there’s enough here to whet the appetite of the average fan. This book serves as an example of how living a life in open revolt to the status quo remains possible—even in an era when corporations have a stranglehold on pretty much all aspects of our waking lives. –Jimmy Alvarado (Manic D Press, PO Box 410804, SF, CA 94141)

 

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor
By Keith Morris with Jim Ruland, 336 pgs.

I’m a pretty gnarly music biography fan—music autobiographies, even more so. Early rumblings about Keith Morris’s plans to flesh out a collected work of his history more than interested me right away. He’s a fellow born and raised Angeleno who has been a definitive, driving force from punk rock’s hardcore infancy back in the sordid ‘70s to date. If I have to tell you who Keith Morris is or what he’s done over the years, do me a solid and roll up this magazine as tight as you can and repeatedly swat yourself in the mouth with it. What made me raise my other eyebrow was finding out that our very own Jim Ruland was right beside Morris the entire time of putting this book together. Ruland helped wrangle the memories and stories as well as researched the fuck out of a hell of a lot of history these pages have waiting for you to discover. Let me tell you, there’s quite a bit here, even for the most steadfast fan. As a writer, Ruland knows his shit better than the most renowned of proctologists.

That said, I couldn’t stop reading, and sure enough, My Damage, was finished in a couple of days. Let me be clear as fucking crystal, I really don’t want to delve into the nuts and bolts specifics of Keith’s growing up and complete doings here, as it would ruin the discoveries you read along each chronologically placed chapter. And that ain’t some slip-shod, half-assed reviewing cop-out when I say that, either. I honestly don’t want to fuck up the stories for all y’all.

I will say, however, that there were a good number of shenanigans had during Morris’s early years, all while growing up in Hermosa Beach, Calif. and putting his first two bands together a bit later on. (This alone would make a great mini-series on HBO, but that’s just one guy’s opinion.) Yet, the headstrong connective theme here is how true Morris remained to music after all these years, from recording and performing to this very day (at sixty-one years old, no less!), to managing and helping out a grip of other bands he felt needed to be shared with the rest of us.

Whatever area of the spectrum you happen to fall as a fan, this book will most certainly inform, entertain, and really help put into perspective what it’s like to be one of the most recognized frontmen in punk rock. As you’re reading, you can hear it being read in Keith’s distinctive voice, just like Morgan Freeman whenever he narrates whatever the fuck it is you’re listening to. Well done, Keith and Jim. Well done, indeed. –Designated Dale (Da Capo Press, 44 Farnsworth St, 3rd Fl. Boston, MA 02210, dacapopress.com)

 

Neon Green
By Margaret Wappler, 276 pgs.

Many readers read Charles Dickens’s novels and initially conclude he was a satirist, then later realize that the journalist-turned-novelist was reporting what he was seeing. Margaret Wappler’s novel Neon Green opens at a family picnic in suburban Chicago in 1994. Ernest, the earnest environmentalist father, warns a stranger that using lighter fluid on charcoal leads to the consumption of the fluid’s toxins—meanwhile, Ernest’s own pristine charcoal refuses to ignite. We’re obviously reading a satire, except as we get to know the world of the novel, Ernest seems more and more reasonable.

Also, there’s a spaceship. In 1969, the U.S. had made contact with life on Jupiter, and twenty-five years later, Ernest’s son Gabe secretly enters a sweepstakes that earns the family a Jupiterian flying saucer parked in their backyard.

But this isn’t science fiction, except in the most technical sense of the term. It’s not even magic realism. Neon Green is a suburban novel about the environment and disease that features a spaceship, an enigma that the family—under Ernest’s orders—attempts to figure out with the help of a logbook of the ship’s actions.

It’s a first novel, and has those first-novel passages that the reader must push against to finish to return to an otherwise compelling story. A suburban novel about the environment, disease, and a spaceship: it’s heartening that we still have presses, however small, that publish books that, at first glance, are going to deflect a lot of readers. I can’t imagine I would have sought it out had I not read Wappler’s essay on King Crimson in Yes Is the Answer, a collection of prog-rock writing (also published by a small press). –Jim Woster (Unnamed Press, unnamedpress.com)

 

Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, Illinois 1973-2005
By David A. Ensminger

David A. Ensminger understands that most folks only know of Rockford, Ill. as the home of Cheap Trick. Out of the Basement, a part of Microcosm’s Scene History Series, hopes to widen our view of Illinois’s third largest city. Ensminger follows Rockford’s ‘70s rock scene into the explosion of ‘80s punk culture with groups like PineWood Box and Bludgeoned Nun. The latter chapters move into the ‘90s and early 2000s, when gig organizers like Barb Orr watched the scene go from the usual rough and tumble weirdness to a time when one had to navigate the bratty behavior of rising stars like Green Day (who put Orr into debt one night by demanding more than their previously agreed upon payout).

Punk anecdotes aside, Ensminger bookends Out of the Basement with some research on the demographics and economics of Rockford. He’s done his homework, and the punk history comes in a context that will make sense for any younger readers who are coming at this whole Rust Belt thing blindly. If you’re from the Midwest, Ensminger’s work makes for fun reading. And if you can’t tell Illinois from Indiana on a map, Out of the Basement is a cool study of how many American cities struggle to keep their DIY talent from either destroying themselves in an environment with below average social services or leaving town for the nearby Chicagos, both of which result in what Ensminger calls, “A brain drain on the remaining population.” Read it, hop on I-90, and don’t stop until you see a Beef-A-Roo. –Jim Joyce (Microcosm, 2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)

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