This approach had fed the flames of punk in its finest hour 15 years before, but as far as I could see was now dead on arrival. The last thing I wanted to hear in 1993 was more guitars. It had been guitars, guitars, guitars for years by then, to the point where I wasn't even ready to take Nirvana seriously, not to mention some scruffy black-clad foursome like the Inhalants or the Cryin' Out Louds. Garage Punk, Austin, Texas, 1993: cute names with a cartoon or B-movie aura (the Mummies, the Groovie Ghoulies) or hedonistic swagger (Sons of Hercules, the Inhalants) or just plain drunkenness (the Motards), releasing cheap, usually one-sided 45s (defined by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan as "basically a piece of crap purchased by teenagers"). Not only was I not up for this, it seemed pointless and inane, a sloppy loop back into hopeless anachronism.
But garage punk stuck around, dirty and bright, like gum on a sneaker sole. On a recent compilation put out by San Francisco's Rip-Off Records, vocalist Elka of the Spoiled Brats screeches over amphetamine blues guitar with the force and spark of something like the tantrum-punk of the Slits 25 years ago. As Greil Marcus said of that band's brief output, this single seems to erase all that came before. The impossible is actually done.
Somehow, a generation later, the singular, revolutionary gesture of the 90-second punk song has managed to repeat itself. You remember the first time you heard real punk rock: You were older than you'd like to admit, for starters, but that didn't matter. It blew time wide open. It had been out there waiting for you, and now here it was. But repeated again and again, reconstructed, this moment takes on a different aspect. A kid picking up a 45 is looking for anchors in the adult world, something honorable that will validate the illusion of progress out of the cave of childhood. The adult purchasing a single is about something different, the specific act concentrating on so little music while one's contemporaries hardly find the time to sit down and play albums anymore. A single, paradoxically, is more time-consuming because the return is so small.
Garage Punk: Huh?
Tim Hayes, of Seattle's stalwart Fallout Records, when asked to define garage punk, moves his hands in circles, grasping for some solid definition that of course does not exist. He says it's an atmosphere, a looseness, an energy--in various forms an update of the style of Bo Diddley or Eddie Cochran, with some Iggy Pop thrown in. What Hayes finds at garage-punk shows is a chaos missing from punk rock since it became "alternative": a feeling that anything might happen. That feeling was said to be in the air at the shows of one of the most definitive garage bands almost 40 years ago: Tacoma's the Sonics.
At venues like Gibson's, or the Monkey Pub in the U-District, where I recently saw locals the Vultures and the Blow-Up, the bands set up on the floor of the bar (essentially inside the crowd) like at a house party. It was sweaty and close at the Vultures show; someone splashed his beer over the crowd and the band, and nobody intervened to throw him out. The fans seemed to be largely white working-class beer drinkers for whom dressing in black is dressing up. While the New York magazines water down and appropriate every look and scene from riot grrrl to new metal, garage seems to have escaped commodification (so far). It seeks out an ordinariness that is itself a style, but a damn hard one to imitate. Eightball comics artist Daniel Clowes came near to defining this dress code, describing how he tried to wear clothing free of labels that were commercial or self-referential, the same clothes "as my dad in about 1965." For three years in a row in the mid-'90s over Memorial Day weekend, Seattle clubs hosted Garageshock, a multi-club festival that attracted sellout crowds and a following that has now grown older and moved on. The festival has since relocated to Bellingham. This crowd (much smaller after the boom years of Garageshock) never put on polyester gas station shirts for fashion, because it reminded them of when they worked for minimum wage (which for many might have been 5:00 on Friday afternoon).
The garage-punk shows in Seattle these days are small, and scattered between the aforementioned venues and occasional clubs like the many incarnations of the Off-Ramp, as well as the Sit & Spin, the Hi*Score Arcade, the briefly flourishing Uncle Rocky's, and the defunct Lake Union Pub. Ed Sidawi, a local record collector and administrator at the King County Solid Waste Authority, says the best band in garage, the Fall-Outs, could easily fill a venue like the Showbox or the Moore, but are under the radar of promoters whose sensibilities were formed by the Sub Pop/Matador boom years and the expectations they created. On the other hand, another local garage punker tells me the Fall-Outs don't get gigs simply because they have no ambition. Which in the worldview of a lot of garage punk's followers might not be such a bad thing.
The Rocket columnist Brian Goedde recently paid tribute to one omnipresent Capitol Hill vintage car owner and rockabilly-blaster whose adoption of a circa-1962 personal style is not ironic, but rather simply what he likes. It seemed possible to me, watching the Vultures rock the humble Monkey Pub, that here was something that resembled the blues in its infinite variations on a very limited set of parameters (which is played hellaciously well--these are really GOOD bands). Nothing here will change the morphing, evolving voice of mainstream rock (which eats and reproduces all: the Stooges and Nirvana and soon Modest Mouse). Garage punk is a closed system, and may be a sustainable model for the survival of a punk ethos into adulthood: a lack of adornment that at the same time honors and explores the pleasures of the gothic (if it ain't baroque, don't fix it) and an embrace of the mid-century, middle-class, suburban moment, the defining period of what we have come to know and have already begun to watch change beyond recognition--American life.