To me, the '80s don't really seem like they were all that long ago. Sure, I was born in the middle of them and therefore remember basically none of them, but thanks to my dad's vinyl collection, my musical taste for much of my childhood was stuck firmly in the '70s (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, Ram Jam), and as I got older, I moved on to the '80s and never got much further. I listen to modern music now (how couldn't I, spending the last four years working at a college radio station?), but my true musical love still hangs on the sleeved-hearts of Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins. So maybe I'm a little older than my time. It still blows my mind that I can remember when Pearl Jam released their debut album, Ten. It feels like just yesterday that I first watched the video for "Jeremy" on MTV, but really it was almost 18 years ago.
So imagine my surprise when I went to the Three Rivers Arts Festival in downtown Pittsburgh last Sunday night to see the classic glam-punk pioneers, The New York Dolls play a free concert and saw a sea of fat, old people. Now don't get me wrong, I expected to see a few--it was a free concert after all, in a city where the elderly outnumber the stars in our sky--but not the droves of tattooed, leather pants and studded jacket-wearing yinzer-cum-street punks that I was presented with. There was a couple behind me who looked roughly like my aunt and uncle, complete with doofy white hi-tops and fanny packs, who were singing along with every word coming out of David Johansen's mouth. In that moment, as they shook their hips to the beat, a sleeve of the woman's t-shirt pulling up slightly and revealing a age-blurred tattoo of either an eagle or Satan, I came to an astonishing realization:
Holy shit, punks are old now.
In all the time I spent looking at the youthful faces and listening to the cracking, adolescent voices of The Ramones and Minor Threat and even the New York Dolls, I had forgotten that they had been steadily aging all the while, as had their fans. I did the math in my head. If the punks had been about my age (22) in the late '70s, by now they'd be about... 52! At least! Holy fucking balls! My parents were even their juniors! What had happened? Where had all the time gone? These people weren't punks, they were building contractors and bank tellers! They had jobs! Hell, they'd be closing in on retirement in the next ten years! I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia for a time that I hadn't even lived through. I wondered what it would have been like to be a punk back when these people were the first time around. As real as the music felt to me, I knew that Sony was just putting out re-issues and that the t-shirt money wasn't going to the bands (half of them were dead from drug overdoses anyway). But to these people, punk music was as real as anything--they'd lived through it, grown up in it, not just with it like I had.
And then, as the nostalgia swept by, I felt suddenly depressed. The second largest demographic of the crowd that bobbed along to the New York Dolls on Sunday night was chunky high school girls wearing obscenely short skull-printed skirts and too much black eyeliner. I realized, looking around me for a second time, that while my brand of punk was a step away from what real punk music had been, these kids were miles in the distance and not even bothering to squint. They bought their punk rock from Hot Topic and FYE. "Mallcore," we called them in high school, back when we thought we were the real thing. Now they're all that's left. It's sad in a way. I used to introduce myself as a punk when people would ask what kind of music I was into. Now, I usually say "Wellllll..." and follow it with a lot of base-covering and excuse-making.
The music isn't even good anymore, let alone honest. It's commodified, bred for some record executive's cheapened vision of quality. Ian Mackaye wouldn't charge more than $5 for a Fugazi show--one of the biggest and most important punk bands the world over. How much does Davey Havok expect us to pay to see the bloated nightmare that has become A.F.I.? The worst of it all is that these girls are paying. And then buying the t-shirts, and the posters and the clocks and the coffee mugs. Seriously. Did any of those girls look around at the rest of the crowd like I did, at all the people my age and older, and wondered what they had missed? Did they know that they were just buying a product, not living a life, supporting a culture? Did they even care?
Of course not. They're punks after all, and old people don't know anything.