I finally got a chance to finish reading Brian James Schill’s This Years Work in the Punk Bookshelf, or, Lusty Scripts (2017). It is a vital component to any collection of recent punk rock literature and holds its own next to Zach Furness’s Punkademics, Beer’s Punk Sociology, and, even (modestly of course), Punk Archaeology.
Unlike those books which tend to deal more with the performative aspects of the punk movement, their radical politics, DIY aesthetic, or their general ambivalence toward convention, Schill’s book considers the intellectual roots of punk rocks and reconstructs a punk bookshelf filled with the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, Genet, and Philip K. Dick. While, I won’t do too much of a review here, because I’m interviewing him for a longer piece over at North Dakota Quarterly that’ll appear next week, I wanted to draw some attention to this book, especially among my punk archaeology friends.
One of the key things that I learned from Schill’s careful reading of punk lyrics and punk literature – from the genuine literary outputs of Richard Hell and Exene Cervenka to the myriad interviews in often ephemeral punk and music zines of the day, is the tremendous ambivalence in punk. For every moment of Dionysian fervor on stage, there’s an equal moment of contemplative reflection on genuinely challenging texts that fueled their transgression. The careful reading of Marx and the frequent commitment to radical politics belied their sometimes bourgeois upbringing and tastes in literature. Their rejection of convention often did not extend to their rejection of education with numerous punks going on to receive graduate degrees. Schill’s work explores and attempts in many ways to resolve this tension and to demonstrate certain broad patterns in punk bookshelf that both elucidate and run counter to the prevailing view of punk as an anti-intellectual movement.
The book is very much an exploration of punk as a field of literary expression that is only gently tethered to social, economic, cultural or political life of the day, the grind of the music industry, or even the musicality of punk in general. But this is not a bad thing, necessarily, because it shows that however much punks were sellouts, products of their era, poor or untrained or just uninteresting musicians, or posers, they were well-read, thoughtful, and reflective. In a word, no matter how much their music seemed and sounded derivative, uncontrolled, and angry, they were not superficial and in their own way they sought to be genuine.
When Kostis Kourelis and I started talking about punk archaeology, we began with the simple question of why so many archaeologists found something significant in punk rock music. Pursuing that across a blog and a book, we argued that it was the DIY aesthetic, the critique of convention, or even the explicitly performative character of archaeological work that drew us to punk. We didn’t say as much about the intellectual side of punk rock. Maybe we recognized the Marxist, collectivist character of the Mekons, the presence of entropy and destruction in the work of the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop, or the focus on materiality in Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and other cyberpunk authors, but we certainly didn’t dig as deeply (see what I did there?) into the intellectual roots of punk rock to find cross currents with archaeological work (or at least I didn’t). Even the allusions to Freud that Schill excavates from numerous punk songs passed through the collective sieves of our punk archaeological imaginations.
Schill’s book brings the intellectual aspects of punk rock into a greater focus, and in that way deserves a place on the punk [archaeology] bookshelf. Stay tuned for a conversation with the author over at the North Dakota Quarterly page next week!