You Know You’re Old When They Put You in a Museum (Or: Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?)

The stage at CBGB
The stage at CBGB

So, a gentleman named “Fat Mike” has opened a punk rock museum in Las Vegas. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

John Lydon of the Sex Pistols called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a “piss stain” in his letter declining to attend the Pistol’s enshrinement. And I agree with him. Jaan Wenner and the rest of the crusty white misogynists created what I’m sure they see as a loving tribute to the mostly male musicians of their generation (and admittedly part of mine as well, since I was born in 1960).

But what is rock and roll anyway? Why did it start? What does it mean?

Well, to a lot of us, it is, or was, life itself—an alternative way of life—a world quite removed from the straight-laced everyday tedium being offered to Americans and Brits. It was rebellion, explosive emotion, and a culture unto itself.

Punk was that times a thousand.

We really felt that we were overthrowing Wenner and his fossilized generation of twiddly guitar cock rockers when we created punk. We felt that they had lost the spirit of rock and roll. Its reason for being.

Wait, we? Yeah, why not. If it seems presumptuous of me to include myself in the creation of punk, maybe it is. I wasn’t in New York in 1975, when (and where) what we now consider “punk” started.

I was in St. Paul, reading everything I could find about punk and listening to everything I could hear. I was also consumed with proto-punks, the New York Dolls, and The Stooges. The day the first Ramones album arrived in St. Paul, my friend Jimmy and I sat in his bedroom and played along with the album. It was the fastest, most brash, and funny record we’d ever heard, and we couldn’t get enough of it.

Soon, Jimmy and I started a band that played nothing but Stooges songs. We brought that early punk stink to the garages and basements of the east side of St. Paul. It was as far from the mainstream as you could get. It was underground. It was different. We mocked those Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands. Our entire existence was dedicated to burning down their twee castles and screaming off into the senseless night with an inarticulate howl.

Then, I formed a band with Sonny Vincent. He played in Testors, a legit, early New York City punk band. We did all the things. Touring, recording (kind of), and playing at CBGB. So I participated in what was essentially the second wave of punk (the third wave being the numbskull hardcore bands), but I still feel justified in my claim of being there for the creation of punk.

Anyway.

As always, any subject I write about here ends up being mostly about me. That’s part of my charm, isn’t it?

No, really. I’m asking.

So yeah, The Punk Rock Museum. Something about it just feels wrong. Do I want the world to remember what we did? I guess so. I don’t know. I think the truth is I really don’t care. If you think about it, the genuine punk response would be, fuck your museum. Museums are for paintings of Jesus and mummies. How can something as wild and unwieldy as punk be represented in a few rooms full of moldy clothes, flyers, junk, and souvenirs?

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s book Please Kill Me says everything you need to know about what punk was and where it came from. Maybe that’s enough. People will still be able to read that long after The Punk Rock Museum is blown up (they don’t tear down anything in Las Vegas; it has to be blown up) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame crumbles into dust and blows into Lake Erie on a cold Cleveland wind.

The music will survive all the museums erected to enclose it, quantify it, and sell it. In the meantime, I’m sure people will enjoy The Punk Rock Museum and buy a lot of merch (imagine me spitting out that word because it’s idiotic) in the gift shop. They will have a drink in The Punk Rock Museum bar, get a tattoo in The Punk Rock Museum Tattoo Parlor, and even get married in The Punk Rock Museum Chapel.

When they push through the exit door into the blinding Las Vegas sun with their shiny new merch, tattoos, and spouses, will they have newfound knowledge of what punk rock is? What it means? How it feels?  Not really. But that’s not their fault.

People want to be recognized for their achievements; I understand that. I understand why Fat Mike wanted to build a museum to display his band’s moldy clothes, flyers, junk, and souvenirs for people to fawn over. To pose in front of for Instagram. You go, girl!

I was going to say, “But leave me out of it,” but the joke is I don’t have to ask to be left out since no early Minneapolis bands are represented in The Punk Rock Museum anyway. No Suicide Commandos, Replacements, no Hüsker Dü. I guess they aren’t museum-worthy. But I’d be surprised if any of them cared.

Which brings us back around to what I meant when I said punk was too unwieldy to summarize, capture, or present in a few rooms. After the initial punk explosion in New York, the fallout landed all over America, and bands sprouted up everywhere in the nuclear winter. It would be impossible to contain the remnants of all of that in one place. You can say, “Well, something’s better than nothing.” You can say that.

There was a lot of talk in the early 1980s about mainstream society’s attempted exploitation of punk. And for sure, they did try to co-opt punk, to absorb it into their music and fashion. But they never got it right because they didn’t understand what it was in the first place. It took punks to co-opt and exploit punk. The Punk Rock Museum was likely inevitable.

I will admit that I went on a tour of Paisley Park, which is essentially a Prince museum. I went with no expectations and found myself oddly moved by being there. It was kind of beautiful. So maybe the same thing would happen if I visited The Punk Rock Museum with no expectations.

But I’ll probably never find out.

WRITTEN BY A HUMAN

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