Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Exegesis Addenda: Lessons Learned in a Modern Mystery Cult

When I wrote The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll I spent a lot of time worrying that some might see it as a major detour from the work I was doing here on The Secret Sun.
I also had to contend with younger readers, who were justifiably cynical about the music industry, which took total control over the creative process for major label acts sometime in the mid-90s.*

How could I explain that once upon a time things were different and there was a scene that kids built from the ground up without realizing they were recreating the ancient Mithraic cults? Or that everything I needed to know I learned from punk rock?

There was also the evidence of Dave McGowan’s Laurel Canyon series to contend with, which a lot of people (including McGowan himself, it seems) misinterpreted as a condemnation of the counterculture as a whole, deliberately overlooking the fact that what actually emerged from the Laurel Canyon scene was the ersatz Soft Rock movement of the early 70s, a deliberate attempt to defang the power of rock ‘n’ roll by replacing it with a watered-down, depoliticized, corporate-concocted simulacrum.

In other words, the LA scene was designed to appropriate the already-existing counterculture, which was largely birthed in San Francisco and environs. The whole LaRouchian reaction McGowan’s series inspired was especially galling for me personally, since I grew up hating soft rock so intensely.

Jello Biafra, formerly of The Dead Kennedys

My hatred of soft rock (which was impossible to get away from in the 70s) was one of the reasons I embraced Punk so passionately. And not only Ramones-type Punk- I was especially keen on the Postpunk scene (a term I don’t remember hearing until several years later); bands like Wire, Joy Division, Killing Joke, Bauhaus and the like. Bands that took the energy and subversion of Punk and applied them to a larger canvas. This was the music I listened to when I wasn’t at a hardcore show.

But those bands were out of reach for the most part. I do remember sneaking in to see Killing Joke at The Channel (I never paid to see a show unless it was at a big venue) by creeping in during the soundcheck and hiding beneath the PA riser until the doors opened. I saw Motörhead by grabbing an amp and walking through the front door while the opening act was breaking down. But for the most part, it was all-ages shows or bust. But the all-ages shows were where the action was.

One of the pivotal moments of my youth:
Mission of Burma's all-ages show at the Hotel Bradford, 1983
Didn't pay to get into this one either and reconnected with my
high school girlfriend, who I met in the pit at a Clash concert

And when I say hardcore punk was a revival of the Mithraic Mysteries, I’m not trying to be cute. I mean it, literally. It was an unconscious revival and the connections were not explicit (aside from the straight edge X icon, that is), but it was all the more powerful and sincere for being so. The bands were no different than the Kouretes or the Cabieri, thrashing, aggressive, militaristic noise mean to alter the consciousness of the listener.

There was the same masculine, militaristic ambiance and similar puritanical morality - the Straight Edge ethos frowned on drinking, smoking and drugs and often promiscuity as well. (Straight Edge orthodoxy has been heavily mythologized in Boston hardcore history- I went to a lot of scene parties and there was plenty of drinking and drugging going around, believe me).

Like any good mystery cult it was all about experience, first and foremost. Going home and listening to hardcore records was kind of ludicrous- the music was made for movement, extreme and immediate. It never sounded right on your stereo.

We Are I Am the Road Crew

I had a different view of the scene than most, having been part of the inner circle of the Braintree bands, Jerry’s Kids and Gang Green. An aspiring guitarist, I ended up as a roadie- if you can call it that, since the only road was the one from Braintree to Boston- lugging amps and drum cases and setting up and breaking down. And it was a privileged view to a scene that was largely self-created. It taught some vitally important lessons...

I learned to distrust not only the authorities- the first show I attended (SS Decontrol and The Freeze at Gallery East) was shut down after SSD’s 15 minute set simply because the cops didn’t like punks- but also the media. I saw how the big local fanzine picked favorites and blatantly rewrote history simply based on the personal whims of its editors.

I saw how movements can grow, based almost solely on the conviction of their adherents. Hardcore shows went from being small affairs at offbeat venues to taking over venues like The Channel and The Paradise. I’d see regional hardcore bands who even college radio wouldn’t touch fill large venues while bands with hit singles struggled to fill small clubs.

I’d see how movements could go wrong, too.

Hardcore was a high school thing. My high school friends all got into it in our sophomore years and largely moved on when we graduated. Towards the end of my tenure, Nazi skins, street kids and jocks began showing up just to hurt people. The last big show I attended-- Jerry’s Kids and Gang Green at The Paradise during Christmas vacation, 1984-- was a nightmare.

SSD singer Springa got chased off the stage by giant skins who didn’t appreciate his drunken rant about the old days and the bouncers were so agitated by the violence they were threatening to beat up the musicians. After that show the original HC bands drifted into a kind of ersatz metal, but the bloom was off the bush.

But I also got a full blast of the phenomena that would ultimately lead to the work I do here- how spiritual consciousness can give art a visceral punch lacking in strictly materialist art.

The Bad Brains’ Boston debut was a powerful object lesson in this. I did the “I’m with the band” amp-lugging routine to get into that show (it amazes me how often I entertained myself back then without ever spending a dime) and got my teeth loosened for me during Negative FX’s set.

Even with a bloody mouth full of loose teeth the sheer electrifying power of the Bad Brains was impossible to deny. The story would get complicated thereafter, but when it mattered, they delivered.

My only regret is that more bands back then didn’t tap into that Source, that spiritual power.  New York’s Cro-Mags did so- they were/are involved in the Krishna Consciousness movement (which ingratiated itself to punks by offering free vegetarian meals on weekends) and were highly influential in their own right, but most bands shunned such things. Especially in Boston, where so many people on the scene were trapped in all-boy Catholic prep schools like Don Bosco and Xaverian Brothers.

Although Hardcore faded as a vital musical force rather quickly, the DIY spirit and rule-breaking that it inspired was a major influence on the developing alternative rock scene.
Many of the big stars of the 1992 grunge explosion got their start playing in Hardcore bands and Hardcore remained a yardstick with which the integrity of the various subgenres of alt.rock were measured.

So in many ways, Hardcore would take over the mainstream within ten years of its emergence as a major force, against all odds and expectations. Something to think about, when you think of the present state of esotericism and its various branches, which people regard with the same disdain they regarded Punk Rock with 30 years ago. And this is a tradition with thousands of years of history behind it, as well as some of the greatest minds in history in its ranks.

Something to think about very, very seriously, my friends. Very seriously indeed.

*And then of course there are those who ignorantly impugn and defame the ancient Mysteries, but they never tell you their true agenda, do they? Those sneaky little snakes in the grass are always out to scare you back into the EvangeliCIAl church, a true mind control agenda if ever there was one.

PS- Speaking of which, this will explain of all that very well.


  1. Chris, I am a little older than you 57, and being an air conditioned hippie my focus was of a Dead nature. Perhaps the most esoteric of all west coast bands. I viewed punk thru rose glasses. It felt like a city/disinfranchised angst movement. Having a country backround/tree planting for 20 years in the woods, my alienation with ptbe was more of a political/ecotopia type deal. Your story is cool and eyeopening. What is your take on the Greatfull Dead( of which I sneaked into 2 shows) Do you consider them as esoteric troubadors? I most certainly do. Respectfully Dennis.

  2. Dennis, I effin' love the Grateful Dead. It's funny- The Clash and The Dead crossed paths in 84 and I remember hanging out with the Deadheads when I was waiting in line for tickets to see them. I had a chance to see them in 85 but I was still too punk rock to cross that line. But not long after I got into them and listened to a lot of their live sets. They're a lot like The Clash in that they were only real on stage. In fact, Joe Strummer consciously modeled his last band The Mescaleros after the Dead.

  3. Glad to say that DIY punk ethos is still very much thriving today. The internet has given rise to a whole new way for diy artists to share their work without record labels getting in the middle. "Pay what you want or nothing at all" is the way hardcore punks are doing it these days. Surprisingly bands are doing better this way. Anyhow, great article.

  4. i'd like to think that there is a hardcore/punk element to Hip Hop, from the beginning, and if you know where to look, you can still find today. holla!

  5. Thank you!
    Wrote a text inspired on this:



  6. Excellent writing, as always. I really need to check out your book. As a teenager, learning to play guitar, I was very intent on tracking down and listening to my favorite guitar players inspirations, which led me to delta blues and Robert Johnson. Those recordings of him had such an otherworldly quality it my young mind. Scary and compelling at the same time.

    The Grateful Dead provided an early spiritual experience for me, back in 1994 (a month before my 25th birthday), when I saw them perform in Vegas (twice). You are so right about them only being real live. Their studio albums just seemed so weak in comparison (even live boots were not the same). Being there, and feeling the power and telepathic connection they had with each other and the audience was just something I'll never forget. I was stoned at the time, but no acid or alcohol or anything else. I saw them in Pittsburgh a few days before Jerry died, and it just wasn't the same at all.

  7. Hey man,

    chk this out. Alan Moore the creator god seeing his own creation. Its kinda spooky cuz it makes you question the power of "idea space" bleeding into the real space.


    What I am interested in is who created this "punk" idea..where did it spawn? who was the founder of this idea?


  8. Our paths continue to cross. I used to work at the Channel, though perhaps later than your time.

  9. I got the opportunity to see the Dead only once, in 1993, but it was truly amazing, and I'm glad I had the opportunity before Jerry's tragic death. I had several tapes and CDs by them at the time, and there definitely was a whole other dimension to their live shows.

  10. Chris the Dead have something that was real and esoteric. Can we form one real togetherness / evolution with their compositions. Me thinks so. My friend and co-worker Jack Heart knows much about such a transformation! Available to all that can listen/evolve and cut out all the nonsensical. Let us move foward. Let us consider a paradigm shift. Dennis. Shineforth brave souls!

  11. …during that era, circa 1980s, the Dead were digging deep into the “Mithraic Mysteries” especially on the west coast. Certainly about as far removed from hardcore or even punk scene as could be imagined, their live performances were epic.

    They drew a lot of interest from the likes of Elvis Costello (the attractions) and David Byrne (the talking heads) in those days. I remember Byrne being back stage at one of the Henry J Keizer shows, in Oakland.

    Although the general population thought that the Dead was some tribute band for the 60s flower-power summer of love, their live shows got as weird as it gets. Talk about psychedelic-alien-eucharist! More than once I was sure that “Contact” was taking place in front of 17,000 witnesses!

    The Dead culture flourished, especially in the Pacific Northwest (Ecotopia) with Kesey and the Oregon Country Faire… about as pagan as it gets! …but I digress. ;^)

  12. That Biafra photo is great.
    Your blog actually got me into Killing Joke a while ago so thanks for that!
    Thinking about your article brought in these thoughts:

    The spirit of rock'n'roll, as it had become known, that spirit of an influx where chaos and free expression pour through the being in an inertia that cannot be held down, has always to me been more of a feeling and an outburst than some sort of image of marketable rebellion or angst-filled plastic explosion.
    There is a different trigger that ignites it in each person that knows that blast from the soul.. That carnivorous and ritualistic barking of having no more GUFF!
    For me it is that feeling of deteriorating all formal identification and laughing like a rabid Hyena amongst all of the trivial attacks on nature found in being a proper nationalist or splendid consumer.

    Any anger then turns into an immense joy and all doubt of the self actually reverses into this animalistic urge to satisfy all of the joys that might have otherwise
    been repressed as for being conditioned to act so organized in an industrialized chastity.

    The blood flows to the creative center and those caught in that moment are brought into the energy of an implosive conversation between ancient tribal animalism.
    The sneer lies of creating something for image or to be cool break off at the edge and cardboard cut outs of millionaires snap in half.
    The pitch of coyote howls and broken equipment producing it's core sound sweep in to that dance. Far from the care of somebody else spotting you dancing like a spirit, far from that care of looking like that possessed fool;
    Possessed by the inner core of a being that was not allowed any place else.

    I think that same calling came through the beginning of each era of music like blues or hip hop, Jazz and the Bohemian approach. All before it become snatched up and marketed.. but the Punk Scene was so tribal and native without realizing it, which you point out very well. It was absolutely in the moment.
    It is so passionate and intense when that communal energy creates it but looks so watered down and obvious when it is re-sold. But that passion and energy always finds its source to break through.

  13. Hey Chris,

    Awesome work, standard. I think we all have differing phraseology to describe Spirit as invoked/channeled through art, but we're all talking about the same thing.

    Most art can be figured as truth-telling lies aiming to deepen our understanding of the human condition. But some art, I think, is simply truth - raw, unfettered, sometimes indefinable in the strictest sense.

    I think the shamanic power you describe in the best of the hardcore scene is this kind of raw truth-telling. Maybe not so much the music or songs themselves, but the passion that animates it.

    Archaic energies do embody human vessels during altered states of consciousness, and psyches can become powerfully connected in a ritualistic setting. I often think of live gigs as a kind of spell-casting. When I saw Killing Joke at the Apollo I felt the truth of this.

    It was an open dialectic; we fed the band and the band fed us. Every time we gave Jaz and Co more, they gave us more in return. All the members of Killing Joke were well aware that they were performing an invocation.

    Trivialities fall away when you're in the presence of such powerful energies, but also to realize that you're helping to create that energy - it's very satisfying and mystical indeed.


  14. Proper prose traditionally transmitted...indeed I see there is much to consider...your timing is spot on with this post.

  15. Chris - I've only been reading your blog for a short while now, but any time I read through your archives and see you mention your love for Killing Joke & Jaz Coleman's craziness, I mean to pull out a Decibel Magazine (excellent metal/heavy music mag) from last year which had Killing Joke's Self Titled record as it's Decibel Hall of Fame inductee for the issue. It's an ongoing series where they pick a classic Hardcore/Metal/Punk etc album and interview the band about the making of the record, how the feel about it now etc etc. Anywho, I found this little tidbit from Jaz about one of KJ's old squats interesting, considering what a good chunk of his lyrics/interviews are about:

    Jaz: The house Paul and I started in HOlland park was habited by very interesting people. One of which was an industrial pyschologist. He had a big influence on us. He had signed the Official Secrets Act. We (He?) worked at the Tavistock Institute. He told us about the coming corporatization of the world.

    random I know, but interesting to know that they were receiving some inside knowledge. If this is common knowledge, my apologies. I'm 26 and only got into KJ a few years ago, so I have no clue if he talked about this years before now.

    anyways, love the blog. I don't always agree with your conclusions, but I can appreciate your thought process and insights.


  16. You must love Edwyn Collins. If you don't yet, check out Gorgeous George.

  17. Chris, as a young and aspiring hardcore/metal/rock n roll artist I must say I thuroughly enjoyed reading your book, The Secret History of Rock and Roll." It helped to solidify in my mind certain hunches I have had regarding the tribal (ancient) nature of the music scenes.

    Keeping in mind such paradigms has helped me grow as an artist, and helped me see things in a new light.

    Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for such an interesting book

    Orion Swift