The King is gone but he’s not forgotten:
This is the story of Johnny Rotten.
I’m not sure I’ll get any of this down the way I want to, but I need to try. If you hate long and rambling and essayistic blog posts, stop reading now. We’ll return to our regular program tomorrow.
During the all-night Paradise Lost readathons, we’d always share a good laugh when we got to the part where Milton writes “all hell broke loose.”
No doubt the folks actually in the epic battle were not so detached.
Lately it seemed to me that the Edupunk discussion had also broken loose in some troubling ways, and that healthy disagreement (and overwhelming agreement) had become polarized and politicized in all sorts of reductive ways. I was afraid this might happen. I had a sinking feeling from the beginning, really, because I lived through the gobbing and contemptuous dismissals in many of the early punk days and dreaded a repeat of that moment. When punk hit, it became impossible to profess love for The Allman Brothers Live at Filmore East or Heart Like a Wheel or Tommy or Blue or Waiting for Columbus or even Mott without risking sneers or worse. Cries of “muso!” blended with angry denunciations of “corporate rock” (usually meaning anything on the radio–which believe it or not, still had some good stuff on it in 1976) or “dinosaur rock” (this usually referred to Led Zeppelin, who even at their most bloated could lift the roof off those arenas) or “circus rock” (which usually meant progressive rock from Yes, Rush, Genesis, etc.). I’m sure there were more such dismissals that I’ve simply blocked from my memory.
I sheepishly confess at this point that I joined with the punks and the mainstream rock fans in their emetic rejection of disco, a story I’d stick with until a few years ago when I finally watched Saturday Night Fever on the recommendation of a dear friend and suddenly, as they say, “got it.” It didn’t hurt that I’d also got it through my thick skull that the same guy who’d written Awopbopaloobop had also written the essay in New York that had inspired the movie. (Later, in a double-back-flip gainer of irony, I learned he’d made most of it up.) Now, to my astonishment, I hear those Bee Gees songs with new-found respect and enjoyment, though I still can’t quite go for the movie of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Even midlife revelations can’t erase all my standards.
For the most part, though, I regretted both punk and disco, which I saw as mirror images of each other, two extremes that made such totalizing claims that there was no way to love rock-and-roll, especially the kind that reached for any kind of epic scale or complexity in its urgent deliveries. My rejection was reductive, too, and I won’t boast of it, but it was a response to rejection, not affirmation. Such a vicious cycle.
The bottom line for me is that any ideology, any movement, any slogan or fashion that crowds other worthy things off the stage is just not worth it. Peter Guralnick once wrote that he rejected all ideologies as groupthink. Ideology was the enemy. It sure crowded discussions of aesthetics, let alone the very idea of worthiness, off the syllabus in the days of high theory. Talk about purgings and cleansings. I remember those days vividly, too. The withering cries of “formalist!” and so forth.
I love it when Guralnick tries to articulate his thoughts on ideology. (I can only imagine the arguments he must have with Greil Marcus.) Here’s a great excerpt from Sweet Soul Music.
From the time that I myself first went to Memphis in the fall of 1980, the picture that I got of the Stax Record Company, and then of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, as well as the emergence of Otis Redding from the provincial reaches of Macon, Georgia, showed not so much the white man in the woodpile, or even the white businessman capitalizing on social placement and cultural advantage to plunder the resources of a captive people, as the white partner contributing as significantly as his more prominent–more visible certainly–black associate. I don’t mean to make too much of this, because partnership is a self-evident concept, it is the whole point of integration, after all; I was simply not prepared to see it happening here. Perhaps because a working union of this sort is so rare, perhaps because of my own cultural and political preconditioning, it took me a while to come to grips with the nonideological complexion of reality.
A working union of this sort is so rare. Indeed. More please.
Last spring my friend, colleague, and collaborator Jim Groom said a specter was haunting education: the specter of punk. And Edupunk was born. The original post is amazing, troubling, white-hot and entirely compelling, especially when the comment trail kicks in. But the punk metaphor/meme/ideology still troubled me.
My worries persisted until I’d had a chance to talk with Jim, first at a regional EDUCAUSE conference, and then over the summer as we prepared for our UMW Blogs presentation at the big EDUCAUSE convention (a presentation Jim had applied for and graciously invited me to contribute to). As always happens when Jim and I talk, we hashed through mutual concerns and found our way despite enduring disagreements to some greater realization of the core commitments we shared. When we really get a chance to work together (work is play for mortal stakes, or should be, wrote Frost), it’s magic for me.
I felt that magic as we debated Edupunk in the video interview hosted by Gerry Bayne of EDUCAUSE. I can’t speak for Jim, but from where I sat it looked like we were both exhausted and exhilarated when it was all over. I know I felt it was one of the great conversations I’d had, both because of the way Jim had pushed me to articulate my own position and also because of the way I’d had to dig deep into what I truly felt. What I said, or tried to say, finally went beyond the occasion of a debate. Sentimental as it may sound, I was trying to speak something at the center of my soul. I have little notion of whether I succeeded. What I do know is the way I felt when I was trying. I thought I could see it in Jim’s eyes too: this feeling that we were not fighting, and probably not even debating. Instead, we were sweating our way through close encounters with issues of longstanding and very urgent concern for both of us. What I left with was a feeling that we had disagreed about a few fundamentals–I don’t want to downplay that–but agreed about many, many more, including and especially the need for action and the opportunities for it. I felt we had tried to do something very difficult, and who knows whether we’d succeeded, but the attempt itself was of an intensity that surprised us both and united us in the effort. Our hearts were truly in the right place: together, caring passionately about the same things, knowing that mere school won’t get to real school without that kind of intensity and shared vision.
That’s the feeling I want to remember. That’s the feeling that spurs me to action. A working union of this sort is so rare.
At times over the last few days it’s been hard to hold on to that feeling. Some of the quick polarization and politicization I’d feared initially had come to pass in the responses on Jim’s blog to the videos. Then the Chronicle’s Wired Blog picked up on the story, and the write-up was pretty reductive, perpetuating a false polarity. I greatly appreciate that Jim spoke up quickly to set the record straight. But whatever the responses, the videos are there, and when I watch them, I remember the feeling of digging deep, deeper than I wanted to, deeper than I thought was safe, inspired by my friend and colleague and collaborator Jim Groom to get to that rare working union no matter what.
That’s the feeling I want to remember. The one I will remember.
As for my stance on Blackboard and its ilk, on corporate and industrial approaches to education, and on the nightmare of our nimble, personal, protean computers being used as surface-learning drill-and-kill affordances, I think the record is clear and the evidence abundant for those who care to look.
A strong mutual friend commented on Jim’s first Edupunk video post and said he wished I’d reread Lester Bang’s essay on The Clash. So I did. I’d forgotten how wonderful and wonderfully ambivalent it was. It helped me recall not the contempt and dismissiveness of the nay-sayers and line-drawers but the spirit, drive, and moral urgency of those days. The Clash were special. They didn’t like the gobbing (Mick Jones calls it “disgusting”), and they didn’t forsake their roots or pretend they’d made music history irrelevant. Although Bangs makes his predictable pronouncement that rock had died in 1968 (I’m still not entirely sure why he hated James Taylor so much) and does the dissing he needs to do (I get that Led Zeppelin tours were monstrous, but hadn’t he heard Physical Graffiti?), the essay is clearly the record of a journey of discovery for him, and the Clash are clearly teaching him something about his own horizons, about the rewards and punishments of impossible yet essential idealism. It’s beyond exciting to experience that with Bangs, especially through the medium of his bash-it-out lyricism. By Part Three, where Bangs confronts the scale of his dreams and the compound fractures of their bitter disappointment, the scatological and profane romp turns a corner, and we get passages like this one:
At its best New Wave/punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides. Realize their own potentials and finally start doing what they really want to do. Which also presupposes that peple don’t want somebody else telling them what to do. That most people are capable of a certain spontaneity, given the option.
My own belief is that “outrageous as they want” and “absolutely any fashion they can dream up” will typically turn malignant in one way or another. I agree with Milton that a cry for freedom on these terms usually means a cry for license. Bangs’ use of that very word indicates to me that he senses that undertow as well. The words “as they want” and “absolutely” are giveaways. In my EDUCAUSE conversation with Jim, I tried to explain a vision of leadership as a kind of stewardship we invest in those we trust to empower our best selves, something our competing interests and dreams and fashions would otherwise render impossible. But I do understand Jim’s point that bad leadership might be worse than no leaders at all. I simply don’t think “no leaders at all” is ever an option, given that we will always have to delegate some kinds of authority to each other to live in community.
Back to Bangs:
As it is, the punks constitute a form of passive resistance to a slick social order, but the question remains as to just what alternatives they are going to come up with. Singing along to “Anarchy” and “White Riot” constitutes no more than a show of solidarity, and there are plenty of people who think this is all no more than a bunch of stupid kids on a faddist’s binge. They’re wrong, because at the very least all of this amounts to a gesture of faith in mass and individual unrealized possibilities, which counts for a lot when there are plenty of voices who would tell you that all human behavior can be reduced to a formula.
Of course this brings me up short–and how. That gesture of faith is at the core of teaching and learning, which means it’s what I yearn for and try, as best I can, to support, encourage, enact every single day. (That’s not to say I always succeed, but I do in fact intend to die trying.) And those voices those voices those voices. I hear them over and over. They chase themselves through those wakeful moments each night when I wonder how we could possibly have gotten ourselves into the fix we have when it comes to thinking deeply and responsibly about the holy transformational mission of real school. I listen for the other voices: Palmer, Kozol, Turkle, Murray, Goldberg, Bruner, Percy, O’ Connor, Buber, Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Kay, Engelbart, all the teachers who’ve inspired and challenged and shaped and prodded and lifted me. I listen for their voices to counter those voices Bangs describes, the voices of the high-stakes test agents, the voices of those who advocate academic transformation but practice scaled-up, outsourced, and uniformed delivery of “content” to all the heads of all those students whose precious inner outliers get boxed and forgotten in the meantime. Until the students, finally, forget to look themselves.
Yet even here Bangs’ honesty keeps him from editing out the rest of the story.
But if anything more than fashion and what usually amount to poses is going to finally come of all this, then everybody listening is going to have to pick up the possibilities with both hands and fulfill ’em themselves. Either that or end up with a new set of surrogate mommies and daddies, just like hippies did, because in spite of whatever they set in motion that’s exactly what, say, Charles Manson and John Sinclair were.
There’s more to the essay, but at this point you should go read it yourself (just don’t let your Kindle 2 read it aloud at work, as the language is quite spicy). Suffice it to say that re-reading Bangs helped me frame the entire Edupunk debate anew for myself, not because he resolved it, but because he so clearly articulated what success at its best and failure at its worst would mean for this version of the dream of a just society. I truly get that this was the Clash’s dream, though I’m still not sure it was a punk dream, and neither is Bangs. Then again, he’s not sure it wasn’t, either. Fair enough.
But I truly believe that the full extent of what Lester Bangs learned on that tour with the Clash didn’t emerge until a little later. The Clash essay comes out at the end of 1977. In 1979 Bangs published what I believe is his masterpiece, an essay for the volume Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. I want to end this post with a quotation from that essay, an essay that brings Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (Bangs’ desert island disc) into close contact with the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, a proto-punk album if there ever was one:
Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece–i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far–no matter how I’d been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.
Bangs’ vision loses none of its urgency along the way. He doesn’t back down one bit from the call to action. If anything, that call is even more intense when he writes about Van Morrison than when he writes about the Clash. But the important point is that the urgency is inclusive. Both-and. With pure beauty and mystical awe at the center of each pain-born song. The conversation is intense and unifying, forged out of hot iron at the center of the souls of a Belfast singer/songwriter, a New York rock critic, and a band of gypsys on a caravan through late 1970’s England.
That’s the conversation I want to be in. That’s the caravan I want to be on. I think leaders can help with caravans. Jim thinks the caravan does that itself. It’s possible to argue we’re both right, since no effective leader ever got far without remembering that a leader doesn’t make a caravan, without understanding that we all travel the long miles together as companions, a word that means “those who break bread together.” For me, the leader recalls the caravan to its companionship when the going gets hard and the way uncertain. And that’s one reason a leader has to be a diplomat too.
I do not think diplomacy always means “going slow.” It sure doesn’t mean backing down one inch when minds and hearts are at stake. It means breaking bread together, even and especially through the disagreements, as long as we possibly can. Thus I’m greatly disturbed by those who say that such dialogue is deadening.
What? Let’s eat. Let’s travel. Let’s dance. Let’s turn it up, not rip it up, unless “it” is the barriers that get in the way and prompt nothing but entrenchment, Maginot Lines, and groupthink. The time is now. We have a moment. If you’ll sway to “Eyes of the World” with me, I promise I’ll pogo when you turn up “God Save The Queen.” And we’ll meet at “London Calling,” and yell for “Jackie Wilson Said” as an encore. People get ready. I want to work with you on those rare unions, the ones no one can sell us, the ones we know we can and must help to write into being. Real school is where we learn to do that writing.
And when we look on our rare and working unions, I hope we’ll see a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe cutting right through the heart of the work.