I think about the sheer authenticity related to the experience of enjoying punk music in a basement. Admittedly, authenticity is a social construction, but in the moment – Wow! This shit is for real! Seriously, two weeks ago I found myself screaming at my friend Jimbo’s face, “You’re the only real thing!” after his band Radio Exiles played. As an academic who actively promotes the deconstruction of all claims to authenticity, this is a pretty big deal. In all honestly, by the time his band played, most of the audience had left and it really was just fifteen dudes in a basement. Ten had already played, and the other five were playing. Half an hour earlier things were very different. . .
What I noticed, in the concrete basement, the epitome of DIY ideology and functionality – packed with fifty people while the touring band played, was that there was an eerie level of self policing. The ten people, old timers (almost 30 years old), who stayed till the end lingered around the perimeter watching the crowd more than the band. Now this practice was likely tacit, unknown to the practitioners, but for a scene that prides itself on authenticity and brands itself as a subculture it was interesting to see common societal mechanisms of control being replicated again within the community. Basement venues are kept secret because when they get press, they are shut down by the police for several reasons regarding safety and noise. This external policing has been internalized, and recreated by the people maintaining the scene. This is Foucault’s discussion of discipline, the prison and panopticism, almost literally produced in underground venues. The reason basement venues seem authentic, is because there is no contrived societal organization within, instead there is ideological consensus; a natural cultural phenomenon. Authenticity is the organic recontextualization and subsequent recapitualization of an order we already know and understand. Basement shows are authentic because they feature familiar tropes of organization, safety and music, in an alternative environment and context.
Perhaps Radio Exiles were real because radio has become obsolete. At any rate, that’s a discussion for another time. Check em’ out: http://www.myspace.com/radioexiles
I’ve recently opened up a little online record shop focusing on what I like to call “Hand-Made” music. To me, that ranges from the DIY punk that I grew up with to the oldest kinds of rural music to field recordings from all over to the underground harsh noise tape/CD-R/vinyl scene. I’ve been thinking a bunch about how something like hand-made music gets heard. I figure that it gets passed around. Here’s what I mean.
Right now I’m listening to, get this, The Minutemen’s “The Anchor” on a digital copy of side two of a cassette tape called “Afraid of the Dark: ‘Garage’ Rock ‘n’ Roll 1965-1981.” It’s a mix tape made in 2008(?) by a record label/store in Portland, OR called Mississippi Records. Why is this relevant? The Minutemen exemplify the best of punk rock, three friends who started making music to create, to share, to inspire. “The Anchor” is on a mix tape put out by a record store and label that sells only “dead” media: vinyl and cassette. The store makes the mix tapes to spread the word about music they love. I can discern no other motive. They release reissues of music they love: old-time blues, warbly ragas, creaky punk rock and more–clearly labors of love. A store like this doesn’t distribute records and tapes in any broad sense of the word, it only passes around music to people who know the store. That’s not many people.
It’s funny. I have What Makes a Man Start Fires, the record that “Anchor” comes from and I could put it on my imachine and listen while I type, but the song, with all the vinyl static intact and squeezed between Richard Hell & the Voidoids and The Petticoats, takes on a new life in the context of the mix tape. I can hear the aha! moment that must’ve occurred as the tape was being compiled. We can follow “The Anchor” from its LP release in ’83 to someone at Mississippi Records hearing it and loving it and passing it on to friends and soon enough deciding that it warrants a place on their mix tape. They gave me the opportunity to re-hear something beautiful. “The Anchor” sounds better by having all these fingerprints on it. I feel more connected to it hearing it through this history, having passed through this many hands.
So I offer it to you, fingerprints and all. Imagine this on a homemade tape: