Modern Girls and Modern Rock and Roll

This is a story that should start in Boston.  Instead it starts in my own personal Boston.  Which, as it happens, is Indianapolis.Indianapolis in the 1980s was a fruitful time to be a punk-rock adolescent—in other words, it afforded ample opportunities to feel disadvantaged, marginalized, persecuted or overlooked.  Which is really all any teenager, or certainly any punk-rock teenager, could ask for.Re: feeling persecuted.  I remember, around this time, there was a photocopied flyer advertising a concert featuring several terrible local punk bands.  Such shows happened regularly, and so these grainy black-and-white collages advertising them would appear on telephone poles bristling with old staples.  I don't remember which bands were on this particular flyer—except that one of them had to be the Mathbats, because in spite of all that was good and decent and tuneful there were always the Mathbats—but I do remember that in the corner it had a clipped and copied newspaper cartoon that showed a caricatured Reagan chasing after a fat grinning rodent, whapping it with a broom and scolding "Bad, bad, bad."  Whoever had thrown this flyer together had slapped a label on the grinning, fleeing animal: "PUNKS."  Observing, see, that punks were under relentless attack from the Reagan administration.To the keen-eyed onlooker there were several clues hinting that the cartoon was not originally designed to be about punk persecution.  There was the rough, crooked hand-lettered ad-hocness of the “PUNKS” label; there was the fact that the cartoon, probably scissored from a recent issue of the Indianapolis Star, was evidently drawn by Pat Oliphant, an established editorial cartoonist who didn't have a strong track record in documenting the oppression of punk rock youth.  There was also the fact that the rodent looked exactly like Yasser Arafat.  It was wearing a keffiyeh.  So either this was an authentic political cartoon in the style of Pat Oliphant depicting Reagan's consuming hatred of those pesky Arab headdress-wearing punk rockers, or one had to admit the likely validity of a competing possibility, which was that the altered cartoon had no actual purchase on reality and that if anything was keeping the leader of the free world awake at night—and we recognize now that probably nothing was—it was arguably more likely to be Gaddafi or Nicaragua or Pat Buchanan than pale teens in Descendants T-shirts[1].So maybe the feelings of persecution were imaginary.  But the sense of musical privation was, gloriously, more or less genuine.  This was pre-World Wide Web, obviously, and popular culture was still largely monolithic.  The popular local rock radio station divided its energies between playing as much Bob Seger as it could manage and barely tolerating our earnestly aggrieved phone calls asking why in the world they weren't playing any R.E.M.—had they heard it, had they listened, did they just forget that we called yesterday asking about playing some R.E.M.?[2]  Record stores were still the primary delivery system for music, and to get the good (i.e., obscurer) stuff your only outlet was Second Time Around in Broad Ripple, the vaguely dismal storefront outfit with narrow aisles and a funny smell.All of which was exactly the point, of course: the whole reason for listening to a band, for wearing a band's T-shirt to school, wasn't just to communicate, as with a hip dog whistle, with other people who recognized the band; it was equally important—or more so—to not communicate with the people who didn't recognize the band.  Blank stares, palpable lack of interest, and—if you really hit the jackpot—open hostility were the overarching goals.  The seminal role model was Nicolas Cage's character in Valley Girl, who got beaten up by preppies for the effrontery of being a punker at a non-punk party.  To be beaten up thus would be a benediction, an apotheosis, a consummation devoutly to be wished.  As a ninth-grader I would dutifully attend parties thrown by my peers, often bringing with me music cassettes at the behest of the girl hosting the party, who, knowing that I was into music, had beseeched me in the hallway at school to bring along some tapes.  I arrived, tapes in hand, eagerly anticipating the moment when either the music I was playing or my subtly perceptible otherness would get me beaten up by some of the polo-shirted guys in my age group.  "Whoa, he's playing Talking Heads!  What does he think this is, CBGB's?  Let's punch his face, fellas."  Then perhaps a girl, any girl, could attend to my artfully arranged bruises, etc.  The way these sorts of things played out was all pretty standard, or so I was given to understand.It never happened, alas.  The guys I knew were, regardless of whether they liked me or not[3], basically nice; they were disinclined to beat people up.  Apparently they were disinclined to beat me up, at any rate, however acutely I may have hoped for such a thing.  All that would happen instead is that my cassettes would be ejected stealthily and repeatedly from the stereo tape deck.  Because, for some reason, midwestern fourteen-year-olds didn't urgently want to groove to the Replacements' "We're Coming Out" at their parties.  Frequently it was the very girl who'd urged me to bring tapes who also wound up politely but firmly removing those tapes from the sound system and stacking them haphazard and forlorn on top of the tuner in the raggedy-looking plastic Kroger grocery bag I’d brought them in.  She'd known I was into music but had only assumed, foolishly in retrospect, that I was into good music; that illusion shattered, she endeavored to shield the party from the ordeal of listening to my tunes while also, endearingly, protecting my feelings.  In some cases it's entirely possible that the very act of asking me to bring music was, from the outset, an act of charity or of meaningless hospitality or even of open flirtation—how would I know; I was too preoccupied with deciding whether the kids at the party would rather hear the Alarm before or after XTC to notice whether an actual girl might be mildly interested in me.  At any rate, some version of this scenario happened over and over again, but no beatings ever ensued.  Neither did any kissing, and that probably would have been almost as good.The whole thing, obviously, was fraught with contradictions.  I wanted my peers to admire and adore me for my music, but only nearly as much as I wanted them to despise me for it.  The latter desire was almost entirely a theoretical one; collectively and on a very generalized level I may have derided mass culture but, individually, I didn’t really hold my age-appropriate acquaintances in sufficient contempt to derive substantial self-worth from their hating me for my aesthetic choices.  The longing to be loved for my taste, by contrast, was steeped in day-to-day pragmatism; enjoying the esteem of one’s peers not only was personally gratifying but, in general and certainly between grades 8 and 11, constituted a valuable currency.  Being loved was palpable and irresistible and it concretely made daily life easier.  Precisely because of those things, though I wanted to be liked, being scorned seemed like the more credible and admirable desire.  It was definitely the more punk-rock desire.Similarly, though I spent many a Sunday night in the ninth grade sitting at home watching “I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge” on MTV, wallowing in self-pity because I didn’t have a girlfriend in the abstract, I was too distracted to notice whether any of the girls I knew were arranging to present themselves to me as possible girlfriends in reality.  (It’s entirely likely that none of them were, but still.)  The tension between the abstract and the concrete, between the seduction of theory and the undertow of reality, is a familiar one in the human experience—particularly for humans who grow up saturated in the relentlessly self-reinforcing narratives of popular culture, and even more particularly for the further subset of those humans who also embrace the appealing rebellious patina of alternative culture—and it also would prove to be an animating dialectic in the lyrics of a certain Jonathan Richman.  But I didn’t know anything about that yet.Anyway: the youthful thrill of iconoclasm, of deriving self-worth from not-belonging, of embracing that which others not only don’t like but—even better—don’t even know exists, can over time pay diminishing returns: like so many drugs, it gets harder and harder to enjoy a satisfying high off the same old dose.  By liking New Order and Husker Du, by going to see R.E.M. and the Replacements in concert, I defined myself against a mainstream, which was gratifying—but then there was this whole other, not insubstantial group of people who were into the same stuff I was.  Much to my surprise, I arrived at the Violent Femmes show with a couple of friends and discovered that half my chemistry class was there—which on one hand was pleasing, and it subsequently gave me a valuable in with those quiet kids with the funny haircuts in the back row who had otherwise been so intimidating with their self-assured soft-spoken I-don’t-know-how-to-measure-precipitate-in-the-lab outsider coolness.  But if difference is the kick, then just how different can you be if all these other people are different in exactly the same way?  I was already trying to stake out my own little corner of alternative culture by not, for instance, piercing anything or dyeing anything or getting a mohawk—which is really just another way of saying that deep down I really didn’t want to pierce anything or dye anything or get a mohawk, and my parents probably wouldn’t have let me anyway—but that strategy paid out limited dividends.  It lent me a distinctive identity among the punkers, when I hung out with the punkers, which I didn’t often, but that only went so far: I wasn’t even the only one on the scene who didn’t adopt these outré external markers (ergo, I probably wasn’t the only one who was cowed by his parents).What I really needed, then, was a different artist, a band I could love and embrace who wasn’t like these other bands, someone even these other midwestern alternative-music kids didn’t know much about, someone whose sound and aesthetic and lyrical outlook was sharply at odds with the stuff they listened to, but without being, you know, sucky.  Someone who was an alternative to the alternative; someone who rebelled against rebelliousness, who embraced some of the notions and values punk rejected, but did it knowingly, did it by diving in and coming out on the other side of punk and landing in a whole different place.Enter Jonathan.

[1] At the first concert I ever attended as a youth in Indianapolis, the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano yelled out, apropos of nothing, "Who's the biggest asshole in the country?"  And instantly, as with one voice, this roomful of overprivileged white kids, none of whom had probably ever seen a Laffer curve, hollered "Ronald Reagan!"  So maybe the conviction that Reagan was consumed with a hostile obsession with suburban punks was really just a case of wishful projection.
[2] That we coalesced as a group, without coordination, behind Murmur-era R.E.M. as the best tool to break down the resistance of album-oriented Q95 seems, in retrospect, quixotic: hey, these lyrics are cryptic, the production is cavernous and there are no solos or power chords—let's get them to put this in rotation between Little Feat and George Thorogood!
[3] And as one rereads this account, one must at least entertain the question: why would they?