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YOU WEREN’T THERE. A HISTORY OF CHICAGO PUNK 1977-1984 (Documentary & Soundtrack LP)

art_you_werent_there Is Punk dead? Of course it is – and for good it is. Imagine this: Cultural and social phenomena would last forever. Groups of old men would gather while other even older men would stand on stage, playing songs from I-don’t-know-when while the other old men would stand there, holding their beers and with a tear in the old eye, mumbling words of glory in the grey beard. Other bands, consisting of sons of the old men, would be named after songs of the old men (some would call them “forefathers”): They would play the exact same music, the same formula. Not enough with that: The time continuum would have to be stretched out to politics, world politics maybe, cause you know, “more than music” used to be one of the commandments. At these concerts I asked to imagine, the old men’s role would be that of being apostels of those old times. They would reassure the young guys of how it used to be and how it still is – because their presence, their music, their formula guarantees continuity. A land of the lost, a land, time forgot – when dinosaurs walked the earth.

This seems to be a pretty picture to some and it’s a nightmare to others. Sure, you might say: societies need values, need orientation, and so is the little Hardcore-Punk re-enactment scene. Nobody gets hurt, so what. Let them have their innocent little fun.

At the end of the 130 minutes “You weren’t there” documentary, the film makers Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman ask the individuals who were portrayed in the movie, what they think of today’s Punk. Some are a bit baffled: What a question! These guys were activists, they spent many years in the subculture of choice, some had serious fights, some lost friends along the way – it was fun, but it wasn’t for free. It shaped their personalities. Unlike say some figures you saw in the abysmal “The Day the Country died” documentary, nobody gets lost in nostalgia here. Steve Albini for instance, with his radical visions one of the great destroyers of Punk, sees no good in these times. Vic Bondi (who, as we who weren’t there learn in the movie still hates Albini with an inspiring passion) says he thinks “Get your own fucking scene!” when he sees kids with Minor Threat t-shirts. Another guy, whose name escapes me at the moment, calls for cultural practices that annoy the shit out him, a parent, 50 years old. Punk doesn’t annoy him, he says, because he likes Punk but he wants the kids to be as annoying as he was.
These last 10 minutes of “You weren’t there” are in your face … well, Punk, if you like. With disgust and disbelief, revulsion, loathing and boredom – yes, we are bored of the current state of the the arts, we all are – these individuals portrayed give you a glimpse of what they used to be and what the worldwide phenomenon of music at the brink of chaos was. And is not anymore. That’s truly a great moment in this documentary (you’ve seen this, a bit simpler, in “American Hardcore” already): By destroying the myths, the moments when things were “real” shine through. Wonderful.
I was at one of these Hardcore festivals recently. One or two dozens of bands played, 18 years old running around with “old school” shirts and authentic gear. Man, it was almost like the 80s. At some point, one of the blokes from one of these bands drove by in a big car with his wife and the baby of theirs. Nice, bright people, very sympathetic and I’m not being sarcastic about this. Before his band gets on stage, the wife leaves with the baby, the nice bloke puts on his denim jacket – it’s work time. Blue collar ethics (it was a blue jacket, ironically). Punk is work, I realized, it takes an organised life to be into Punk (or Hardcore, or Doom or Metal, for what it matters). When the blue collar band with the pierced and angry female singer played, some really relaxed guy, about the same age, grinned at me: “The bands are trying so hard to come across emotional and passionate, it’s really funny”, he said. “It takes a lot of work to make such a performance!” Couldn’t have said it better. Now, Punk is work, you know. Saving the world, singing about the injustices of life, dude, that’s serious shit. And keep the wheels of history turning too. It would die, the whole 70s and 80s stuff, if it weren’t for those who carry on the torch, who go around in circles, keeping the wheel in motion (like in that first Conan movie, haha). And who possibly wants Punk to die ….. after all ….. it was so much fun, you know. And it’s good for the heart to have a goal in life. It keeps you young.

It seems to be a comforting thought to live in a world where history is always but a mouse click away. You want to live in the middle ages? No problem, there’s a re-enactment group nearby – sign up today! Punk is dead? No way, asshole, thousands of people gathering at Punk shows day for day all over the globe, how could it be dead? You think GISM were the shit? No problem, just form a band under the name of an old GISM song and you can be sure it will feel almost as if it all was real.

“You weren’t there”, portraying the many aspects of cultural deviance in Chicago between 1977 and 1984, hits you like a big, ugly hammer. By carefully digging up the all sorts of stories, legends, gossip and trash and chronologically putting it in order, you get the impression of being exposed to something very extraordinary. And something very old. It’s easy to get lost in nostalgia during the first 2 hours – the music is always as great as it can be and very diverse it is, like it used to be. The video material is invaluable and the people interviewed are interesting, intelligent. You look at them, you hear them talk and you can immediately tell that they have gone through experiences that go astray from everyday life and that’s what makes them great interview partners, whether you share their point of view or you don’t. From the Goth and Post-Punk tenderness of DA to the storming Hardcore power of bands like EFFIGIES or ARTICLES OF FAITH, to the youthful naivety of RIGHTS OF THE ACCUSED or VERBOTEN (10 years old playing Punk music!) to the overwhelming nihilism of BIG BLACK or the poststructural noise of END RESULT– a freak show like you couldn’t invent one if you tried! So after these really intense moments, it’s such a relief to hear them all say: “It’s over. It’s dead.” This is not being said with nostalgic feelings or heroic sadness. It’s just the simple fact that our lifes are never complete, we all keep losing what we thought was ours and cultural and social processes do not enroll as such, with a set of rules and a collectively shared consent that this and that is important and this and that is not – history is always and inevitably made in retrospect, first by the “witnesses”, then by historians (and being a historian myself, I really learned to understand that the worst enemy of any historian is in fact the contemporary witness).
There was no such thing as a Chicago scene, says the singer from the controversial EFFIGIES – well, now there is. As a documentary about a regional Punk (or however you want to call it) scene, it’s the best I’ve seen so far, simply because it doesn’t blow things up to larger than life dimensions. I weren’t there, and maybe it’s a fault of mine that I don’t check the maps too often when I listen to music, but I didn’t know of a Chicago scene until yesterday (when at the same time I learned that this scene never existed). As a blogger and archaeologist, I felt mortified. I had posted some of the bands that appear in the movie and of course, I had no idea of the context of a band, like, RIGHTS OF THE ACCUSED. I didn’t know that their obviously young age played an important role in what they did and how they did it, that they were not handicapped by their youthfulness but au contraire propelled their sound with it (and annoyed older Punks). I didn’t understand the impact the EFFIGIES had until yesterday. Or how controversial the left-wing politically charged Hardcore of ARTICLES OF FAITH was in an assesable local scene and how the works of people like Steve Albini were to a certain level coined by that. That and much more I learned from “You weren’t there”, a microstudy of Punk and Hardcore.

Get the DVD and the limited edition set incl. a übergreat soundtrack album here.

Here are some of my favourite tracks I ripped from the soundtrack:

TUTU & THE PIRATES: Wham bam son of Sam.mp3
DA: Dark Rooms.mp3
END RESULT: They love war.mp3

PS: Read Nietzsche’s “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen II) and have a good laugh with the old Fritz.