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The Meaning of Punk Rock

Somewhere in the universe, a star is exploding – casting its interior of fused elements outward, into the void, the raw material of planetary formation. Supernovae give birth to massive nebulae, clouds of dust which we look up toward in the night and give the name stellar nurseries.

I’ve been going back and listening to some classic punk records lately, wondering what meaning is so essentially encoded in these sounds of outcry and rebellion. I grew up listening to heavy metal, punk rock, industrial music, and jazz: all forms of explosive narrative sound which set out to fully engage in a clash with the norms of society.

Crash Worship

Iggy Pop

I have found myself wondering, who are the real punk rockers? It seems to me that the meaning of “true punk rock” is a deep strain of sensitivity, of empathy for the world. This struck me in the evening when I was alone, listening to Iggy’s classic yowling over the primitive retro-paleo-shaman guitar riffs of the Stooges, “I’m dirt, I’ve been hurt and I don’t care,” “There’s nothing left alive, just a pair of glassy eyes,” “If you can be my master, I will do anything,” “Now I wanna be face to face, now I wanna be your dog.” These are words coming like a lightning bolt straight from the soul. They are the words of a man not only exploring the subversion of traditional masculinity and social roles, but also of a man who felt a deep, personal sense of injustice about the world and was compelled to do something about it. To those who were complacent in the unjust world, he appeared as a raving lunatic, ridiculous, bothersome, childish. To those who looked on the world and saw what he saw, he was a messiah speaking truth. At the hard core of true punk rebellion is deep empathy and sensitivity, and a desire to make the world a better place. James Osterberg and others like him are hardcore people.

John Coltrane

Yet not everyone throwing a temper tantrum about the state of the world is a punk rocker. People who act with integrity create fantastic works which touch us, because these people do not abandon the impulse to cut directly to the soul. Punk involves a stern commitment to artistry and originality, often the hard core form of artistry which we think of as "primitivism." Roots rock, a return to the primary, the primal, and the prime, a cutting to the essential raw material of meaning and creative process. Of necessity of their relentless integrity, these seekers make themselves into emotional lightning rods, often sacrificing themselves in their quest, to their own detriment. They're hardcore. The flip side of this characteristic is a fallibility of many sensitive, artistic people; they feel an extraordinary degree of pain in life, equal to their extraordinary degree of sensitivity and revelation. Seeking ways to control the pain can lead to dangerous or negative behavior, which has often marred the lives of towering creative geniuses. It's a myth that one must suffer to make great art, but it's history that many great artists have suffered in this world.

Photograph of Norval Morrisseau
Norval Morrisseau

These people are the stars which have just the right chemical and physical compositions allowing them to become enormous and explode, to shamanically dismember themselves and give their insides to the world as a gift of new creation. They light the night sky, forming new constellations – the ancestor-heroes by whom human cultures have navigated since the first forgotten memories.

Classic illustration of a shaman being dismembered by spirits
The Siberian shaman is one who observes his own dismemberment and reassembly by spirit people

They are the true punk rockers. Araminta Ross. John Coltrane. Emily Davison. Nicolaus Copernicus. Pablo Picasso. Patti Smith. Alan Moore. Bell Hooks. Bob Marley. Norval Morrisseau. Frida Kahlo. Phil Lynott. Angela Davis. Ian Kilmister. Emma Goldman. Jackson Pollock. John Balance. Jane Goodall. Alan Watts. Bill Hicks. Mark Rothko. Jimi Hendrix. Fill in the blank.

Photograph of Harriet Tubman
Araminta Ross, also known as Harriet Tubman

These true punk rockers have inspired waves upon waves of cultural followers and imitators, other stars who light our night sky who were themselves born of the raw stuff given forth by these relatively rare luminaries of inner space. We all begin our young lives as imitators, as apprentices, often of some punk rocker or another, whether they were a musician, an actor, or an astrophysicist. We observe and learn and grow. We make the same mistakes they did, or wisely avoid them. Their constellations navigate us toward action with integrity, and if we steer true we will always find the way there.

Detail image of a barn owl flying beneath stars in a night sky by bioregional fine artist Derek Schultz

We navigate by their light precisely because they gave something brilliant to the world. They were unafraid of giving absolutely all of themselves, raw and dangerous and hot and bright. That sort of raw material is a rare gift in our universe – supernovae are, for example, the only force powerful enough to create elemental gold. More importantly, they are also responsible for some of the other rare elements without which life would not exist.

Photograph of bioregional artist Derek Schultz playing guitar with art desk in the background
A young modern primitive punk rock artist

What does it mean to be a grown up punk rock artist? Or a grown up punk rock anything else? I think my quest has always been for the same integrity and fire that my luminaries were seeking. To create something authentic, born of the inner self, something which hopefully cuts to the bone and touches other people in a meaningful way. If we can find a way to step forward with real sensitivity for the world, empathy for the others around us, and integrity of word and action, then we are on the path.

First salutations to the stars.

Thanks to all relatives and ancestors.

May all beings be happy and free.

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