Tommy Ramone insisted in an interview with Punk magazine’s editor John Holmstrum that the Ramones “was supposed to be an avant-garde thing, right?” While Dee Dee Ramone interjected, “Not really, no!” Tommy continued,
Well, to them it was just a hobby to me it was an avant-garde thing. Then we started getting really good and I said “This isn’t avant-garde this is commercial!” And that’s when i started playing drums. When i $aw the dollar $ign$ … changed the whole sound of the group into the way it is. Now—you know—hard rock.
So, when I write “punk,” I’m referring specifically to New York City–based proto-punk and punk rock that revealed a marked investment in the poetic avant-garde. I am also writing in sympathy with a certain segment of the original punk audience that delighted in identifying their musical heroes with their poetic counterparts. My punk is the kind of punk a kid named Duane Rossignol, from White Plains, New York, identified back in 1977. Rossignol was the proud recipient of a prize awarded to him by Bomp magazine for submitting the best response to a prompt asking its readers to list their five top choices for inclusion in a “Punk Rock Hall of Fame.” Rossignol’s first two choices were Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, followed by Gene Vincent, Little Walter, and Frank Zappa. Regarding Lewis, Rossignol wrote: “Real tough guy. When dying of tumor and blind, doctor asked him about his bowels; his last words were ‘Mind your own business!’ That’s punk!” Regarding Pound, Rossignol enthused:
You want style? Dig this description of Ez in 1912 …: “Futuristic poet with forked red beard, luxuriant chestnut hair, cane, an aggressive lank figure, one long blue single stone earring dangled on his jawbone.
He wore a purple top hat, a green shirt, a black velvet coat, vermillion socks, openwork brilliantly tanned sandals, trousers of green billiard cloth … in addition to an immense flowing tie that had been handpainted by a Japanese.” And that’s in the daytime! Made a lot of enemies and was driven out of England. Arrested for treason by the US in 1945 and placed in asylum for 13 years. When finally released in ’58, they asked him how it was. Says he, “Oi’ve had it tougher.” That’s punk!
My punk (and maybe Rossignol’s as well) is the one that elicits the sort of skeptical or contradictory response many critics and fans have issued over the years toward music that aspires to the complexity of weird poetry or more broadly aims to connect itself in one way or another to the historical avant-garde. Examples are rife in the reception histories of New York’s punk/poetry hybrid scene. “The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious,” proclaimed the fabled Creem music journalist Lester Bangs, despite his own very serious commitment to reading punk music critically and deeply. Peter Laughner, the rock scribe and guitarist for the Cleveland bands Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu, seemed practically embarrassed by his early music criticism: “All my papers were manic drooling about the parallels between Lou Reed’s lyrics and whatever academica we were supposed to be analyzing in preparation for our passage into the halls of higher learning. ‘Sweet Jane’ I compared with Alexander Pope, ‘Some Kinda Love’ lined right up with T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.’ ” John Holmstrum and Legs McNeil, editors of the New York–based magazine Punk, “preferred the straight-forward pummeling of the Ramones or the raw intensity of Richard Hell’s bands to Television’s more cerebral anthems: ‘party punk’ over ‘arty punk,’ in terms [James] Wolcott would later use.”61 From Greg Shaw’s measured celebration of Johnny Rotten as embodying “Tom Verlaine’s charismatic intensity, though without the avant-garde pretentions that put me off in so much of the New York scene” to Brent DiCrescenzo’s assault on Sonic Youth’s 2000 album NYC Ghosts and Flowers as a work that “retreads the rancid corpses of beat poetry and avant-garde noise,” critics writing for the music press and rock ’n’ roll fans have often drawn a line between poetry and punk rock or at the very least approached such genre-bending efforts suspiciously. Not me, not in this book.