The Politics of Punk Tracks Populist Protest Music Far and Wide

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In The Politics of Punk: Protests and Revolts From the Streets (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), Houston Press writer David Ensminger probes the conscience of punk by documenting its ongoing activism and outreach. Creating a people’s history of the movement's social, cultural, aesthetic and political life, the book features interviews with members of Dead Kennedys, Dead Boys, MDC, Really Red, Scream, Minutemen, TSOL, the Avengers and many more. In doing so, Ensminger highlights punk's community involvement and its broad, long support for political action groups, gays and lesbians, the homeless, the disabled, environmental issues, health research and other causes. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, the following excerpt is from the chapter "Undead Legacies."


At the helm of D.O.A. since 1978, Joey Shithead — who told a fan at a recent stop in Houston that he wished to be even 10 percent as effective and productive as recently deceased folk activist Pete Seeger — exercises a hybrid style of populist protest music. “Early punk was the heir to folk music, as was early hip-hop. They all tried to say something about society and the ‘human condition,’” Shithead explained to me in 2015.

D.O.A.’s style, a meld of cross-fertilized punk, reggae, ska and classic rock (their acute choice of covers have included “War,” “The Midnight Special,” “Eve of Destruction” and “Fortunate Son”), seems tethered to working-class toughness while also incorporating “green” environmental issues simultaneously. In doing so, they balance rowdy sportsmanship, punk savagery, “real Canadian hockey rock,” aggressive politics and worldly wisdom that deplores both corporate madness and indifferent public attitudes.

During a four-decade-long career, the band has used royalties from albums and songs like “Dwanga” to aid causes around the world, including the African National Congress, and has played more than 200 benefit gigs, including concerts supporting El Salvador’s Radio Farabundo Marti, OXFAM (which provided money for an ambulance in Soweto, South Africa), Expo 86 evictees (raising $10,000 alongside Pete Seeger), preservation of the Stein Wilderness in British Columbia, Rock Against Radiation, anarchist prisoners the Vancouver 5 and K. Omori, the British Columbia Solidarity Coalition strike, Overthrow magazine, fair-trade efforts, Refuse and Resist, the striking White Spot workers, the Qualicum and Parksville Youth Centers, End the Arms Race, and myriad others.

At the helm, Shithead has always stared down power and culled the hefty history of leftism, right up to the Occupy movement (at a concert in Houston, Shithead wore a T-shirt and patch emblazoned with “D.O.A. We Occupy” on his torn jeans). “Occupy opened up [the] debate. It could not sustain itself as a movement,” he insisted in a 2015 interview, “but it has done its job. It all boils down to the same thing, education equals empowerment, and that brings all fortunes up together, not just a few. There will always be wealthy people; let’s just level the playing field a bit. One issue I will try to promote over the next number of years is cooperatives, where people have a chance at partial ownership of where they work. People work a lot harder when they have a stake in something, but let’s stress [that] this is something that you would have to bust your ass for — it will never be a gift — but people can better themselves and their families with hard work and a little entrepreneurship."

In such pointed cases, Shithead doesn’t seem to favor dismantling capitalism but forging alliances and networks to create voluntary, self-organizing and sustainable fair-wage partnerships that offer a just reward to workers — human-scaled capitalism rather than a corporatized liberal laissez-faire system.

“Real Records, the record store owned by partners Ronnie Bond [singer of Really Red] and Jim Crane, was key in connecting all sorts of indie bands to Houston clubs in the early 1980s,” drummer Bob Weber of Really Red recalled in 2014. “Ronnie got calls and letters from everywhere asking where to play and who to talk to. So, as a consequence, Ronnie had names and phone numbers for the bands, clubs and promoters that were valuable in booking cross-country tours for Really Red, Mydolls and other local acts. Joey Shithead would set up a date in Vancouver for D.O.A. and Really Red to do a show together. Then when they came to Texas, Ronnie would book a show for the bands here. It was collaboration.

“D.O.A. was coming this way right after a Really Red West Coast tour in 1982," Weber continues. "I have a leaflet from a show in Dallas on Friday, November 12 for D.O.A., Really Red and the Hugh Beaumont Experience playing the infamous Studio D. And another a couple days later on Sunday the 14th for D.O.A., Marching Plague, Really Red and the Mystery Dates at Villa Fontana in downtown San Antonio ‘under the tower.’ We bitched about Houston being remote from a lot of scenes, which made it hard to get exposure outside of Texas. Well, D.O.A. had a similar challenge being from Vancouver, Canada, but they seemed to get out on the road more than we did. I asked how they got away from work. Dave said they worked long hours on fishing boats that went offshore for days or weeks and came back loaded with tons of tuna in the hold. They got paid well and couldn’t spend it, so they stashed it. That way they could take off for months to do D.O.A. tours across Canada and the United States.

“D.O.A. and Really Red traveled together for a few shows one year, probably 1982," Weber says. "When we got to the mountains — maybe it was the Continental Divide — there was lots of snow and we were road-weary, so we got out to cool off. Before you knew it, we were in a big snowball fight, the Canadians against the Texans. I guess Ronnie was in the middle because he always claimed dual citizenship. A few of us switched vans to see if the D.O.A. van smelled fishier than Really Red’s van. It did. The D.O.A. guys were surprised to hear Carlene Carter in the tape player. They didn’t realize that we listened to everything from the Red Krayola to Soft Machine to Throbbing Gristle and homemade shit like the Hugh Beaumont Experience. We had a huge cardboard box of cassette tapes sitting on top of the cooler between the front seats.”

Though politics might be the backbone of bands like D.O.A., they were still road warriors, and music was their currency shared in the informal punk networks dotting the landscape. As of late 2015, Shithead was putting more punk praxis into action by running in a by-election in the provincial electoral district of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain for MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for the BC Green Party in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. An email he sent to potential supporters outlined his platform: “In D.O.A. I have always been an informal politician, so now I am taking the plunge into formal politics. Here’s what I will fight for: affordable tuition; real democracy — elected Greens vote for the people and not just the party line; lower cost for day care; protection of our environment; help for our most vulnerable citizens; job growth through green technology.”

Longtimers such as T.S.O.L. might be construed, ideologically speaking, as a left-to-libertarian band because of lyrics like “abolish the government” and “property is theft.” As singer Jack Grisham, who enjoys subverting people’s fear, prejudices and misjudgments, explained to me in 2012, “I try to deal with underlying conditions, not players. Freedom comes at a price. 9/11 unified America like Pearl Harbor, but we surrendered some freedoms. We need responsibility and discipline to achieve ideals, but there is no quick goal or plan. Like Martin Luther King said, ‘We now have guided missiles and misguided men.’”

T.S.O.L. acts not like teeth-bared soapbox orators denouncing disquieting times these days, but also reminds listeners that conscience and liberty need to be guarded and guaranteed. Even its recent record releases embody such a mission. For instance, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Free Downloads" might have been offered free through the website of clothing company Hurley, but the band encouraged fans to donate money that they would have spent on such an album to help fund the not-for-profit organizations Midnight Mission, Surfrider, Orangewood Foundation, Orange County Food Bank and others. Hence, the band offered listeners the liberty of free access to music while simultaneously encouraging a call to action.

David Ensminger will appear on 90.1 KPFT's "The Living Arts" program tonight at 6 p.m. He will also sign copies of The Politics of Punk and play a DJ set featuring politically minded punk bands such as the Clash, Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four and others 3:30 p.m. Saturday, October 22 at Cactus Music (2110 Portsmouth). Additionally, No Love Less (3 p.m.) and the Hates (4 p.m.) will perform at the event, and Lone Star Posters will hold a trunk show of rare prints to help raise funds for the medical expenses of John Anderson, singer for Houston hardcore veterans Doomsday Massacre.

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