BOOK REVIEW: Punk meets metal, punk loses metal, punk gets metal. That is one of the themes of Steve Waksman’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” (University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-25717-7), a sometimes down ‘n’ dirty but always scholarly examination of the flashpoint where those two powerful rock music genres smash up against each other. While the writing is intelligent, that doesn’t mean Waksman stays out of the mosh pit. This book is, as the subtitle informs us, all about “Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk.”
Waksman is also the author of “Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience,” and he really appears to be two people: academic and rock music lover.
On the one hand, he lives up to his position of Associate Professor of Music and American Studies at Smith College by making his book research-worthy. The tome contains 38 pages of source notes, an 18-page bibliography, and an impressive discography listing 284 albums (most of them slammin’ and/or full of great grooves, by the way).
On the other hand, he appreciates the fury, the sweat, the passion and the double-ka-thud crunch of great rock. One of the joys of this book is to let Waksman’s words engulf you with a potent mixture of erudite critique and wooly underground rock journalism where fact bleeds into opinion, and vice versa. Here’s how he deals with the aural power of rock music:
The shared affinity for extreme volume, especially drenched in waves of guitar distortion, is one of the things that most connects the genres of metal and punk and that has formed the basis for much of the crossover activity that has occurred between them. If there is a distinction to be drawn between the two genres where volume is concerned, it is less in the tendency toward volume as such than in the meanings attached to loud sounds. Heavy metal has typically valorized volume for its ability to project and transmit a sense of overwhelming power that can be inhabited at once by the individual performer, the small collective of individual band members, and the larger collective of the metal audience. In punk, volume is more commonly attached to making “noise,” creating a kind of sound that is designed to disturb sonic conventions and defamiliarize what may otherwise be standard song structures.
As the chapters unfolded before me, I relished the fact that serious thought was being put to the social context and political ramifications of sounds created by Lemmy Kilmister (of Motorhead), Greg Ginn (of Black Flag), and Mike Watt (of the Minutemen). These men are supreme masters of sonics but they don’t get quite as much literary critical attention as Philip Glass, John Adams or Steve Reich.
There is one telling drawback to the bookish approach to rock music: in attempting to ruminate on the purely emotional aspects of the sounds, descriptions can somehow fold in on themselves, as in this sentence from his otherwise excellent commentary on Lenny Kaye’s great “Nuggets” compilation: “It was, moreover, a distinctly American story, in which the transmission of rock and roll across the circuits of mass culture opened the way to regionally based forms of incorporation, imitation, and stylization in which the novelty of the music existed in continual tension with its status as a standardized product.” Some of Waksman’s ideas require a second or third reading.
Other sections of the book contain a wonderful mixture of fact, observation, interpretation, and humor, as in this longish sentence: “Within the sphere of hardcore, independent production was aligned with the broader ethos of DIY (do it yourself), a mode of self-reliant activity that affected a wide range of pursuits — not only record production and distribution but the creation of fanzines, the establishment of venues for live music, even the willingness to go ahead and start a band whether or not one had the requisite music abilities to do so.”
Waksman can be very good at painting word pictures of the theatrics of rock performances. There are some nice descriptions of Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Runaways, and many more. Or take the following passage, where he describes part of a concert by The Stooges, at a point where lead singer Iggy Pop has leaped into the audience:
Although at first visible alongside the fans gathered at the foot of the stage, the singer quickly submerges himself, apparently falling to the ground. . . . In his place we see the members of the crowd who have surrounded the singer in a circle, their heads down as they watch what has now become a strangely localized performance despite its mass character. Iggy soon bursts back through the crowd, however, and reasserts his presence. Assisted by several members of the audience, he is elevated above them, literally standing on a sea of hands.
That moment is used as the cover photo for the book, which also contains 20 other images, including iconic shots of Grand Funk Railroad, The Beatles, Alice Cooper, The Runaways, Cherie Currie, Motorhead, and Nirvana.
While most of Waksman’s observations are fascinating to read, some will raise a few objections:
With the rise of the rock guitar hero in the 1960s and 1970s, the virtuosity of the musician was enhanced and amplified by the technological trappings of the electric guitar, which assumed the status of what I have elsewhere termed the “technophallus,” fusing human and technological capabilities in a way that reinforced the historical coupling of virtuosic performance and masculine potency. Continuing these patterns, the new virtuosity of the 1980s allowed male performers and audience members to experience a shared sense of empowerment that stemmed in part from the continued marginalization of female spectators and musicians.
Well. My guitar teacher was Nancy Luca, who can crank, crunch, slam, and jam with anybody. The best concert I ever saw was Jeff Beck playing with Jennifer Batten. And guitar playing is being taken in new directions these days by people like Orianthi (not to mention Thia Sexton, who plays her cello like a guitar). So perhaps things are changing a bit in rock and roll.