FEATURED

An American, Embarrassed

Please allow me to introduce myself, writes New Gorilla columnist and punk journalist/musician, Tim Stegall

SXSW – the two weeks of the year every spring when, seemingly, the entire world's population descends upon downtown Austin, TX., creating the cumulative effect of plopping downtown Tokyo into a six-block, one-mile radius. What began, 32 years ago, as a modest local music biz conference and festival - a chance to show the world how cool Austin music was - has become The Incredible Hulk.

It's now this enormous...um, thing, involving film, technology, all manner of creative industries. It's become both this gigantic cash cow and a trailer for the town, as likely directly responsible as any other factor for Austin's gentrification. Our town has grown as if it wasn't eating organic beef and milk, and all those hormones had turned it into a metropolis on a small piece of land.

And all these people - who due to SXSW, think we have the greatest bands in the world playing every night in every club in town; that we enjoy 24/7 hot and cold running breakfast tacos and BBQ - have moved here. They live in condos in these high rises that seem to spring up overnight, as if developers dropped a pill on the ground, added water – and poof! Instant building! Then they complain about the noise level in the club next door....

So, Lush comes to town to take over one of these clubs, the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30 on San Jacinto, for one day. Normally, the BBC is there, with Steve Lamacq introducing the latest UK indie sensations to the world's A&R departments. Not today. Lush is here, presenting a day of panels on activism, the arts, and other pretty cool stuff. In between, the ever-suave John Robb interviews artists, activists, and other pretty cool folks. Oh, and there's an Asian expat Jimmy Page revivalist, too - Mr. Jimmy.

And me.

Who am I? Well, I guess I am how you say ‘John Robb’ with an American accent. Except NBC doesn't book me to be a talking head when some musician dies. I'm Tim Stegall. If I have a guitar around my neck, I'm Tim Napalm.

Since 1985, I have been writing about punk rock and other loud, aggressive forms of rock 'n' roll for a variety of publications, beginning with fanzines like Flipside and Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, before progressing to major publications like Alternative Press and The Austin Chronicle, my longest consistent outlet since 1991. Also since '85, I have led The Hormones. We were the second-ever punk band in Corpus Christi, TX. Once I moved to Austin in '91, I began a new version of the band that's released records and toured since, albeit with a 15-year-break as I lived in other US cities. I also write a periodic column for John's Louder Than War website called Letter From America.

Which is how I ended up here. John and I have known each other for years, through punk rock. We were aware of, and admired, each other's work, and finally met via the miracle of social media. This day, however, was the first time we had ever been face-to-face.

The War Inside My Head

John contacted me weeks before, informing me that he and the Lush team were coming to town for SXSW. Initially, he was curious about possible guests for his interview series. I don't think any of my suggestions panned out, but whatever. Then he asked if I wanted to be on a panel called Art As An Act Of Rebellion. And I suppose I understand a thing or two about this, so I agreed. I will admit, however, as I steamed into Latitude 30 one minute to stage time? I was nervous as hell and feeling a bit out of my depth. I'm looking out into the crowd and seeing people I've seen in the news, like the political activist, Linda Sansour; people who do truly important work. I'm just a guy who plays punk rock guitar and writes record reviews to pay my rent. What the hell am I doing here?

So I sat between urban poet Dzidzor and Ruth Daniels from In Place Of War, sweating and shaking, listening to their tales of the organizing and activism that are at the center of their lives; hearing their motivations for all they do. Hearing them speak, it seemed we all had common ground.

Then, Nuala Davies, our moderator, asked me similar questions. I spoke of art being the lens through which we look at the world, and the means by which we express what we are seeing. I spoke of my belief that art is the voice of the misfit; the maladjusted.

“Well-adjusted people should be carrying my guitar to the stage,” I said. “It ends up becoming something pretty weak otherwise. I mean, it's something like Skrewdriver, right?”

She then countered, “Shouldn't they have the right to make art, though?”

“Sure,” I remember replying.

“Free speech is a supposed tenet of our society, right? And yes – the right wing should be able to show us how poisonous their minds are. Give 'em enough rope to hang themselves, right?”

Later, I was asked about my journey in life through punk. I spoke of growing up in a tiny Texas town, and being exposed to the Sex Pistols on the evening news when they came to America when I was 12. The grown folks were acting as if it was the end of the world as we knew it! It was significantly later that I heard Never Mind The Bollocks, and I could not make out a word Johnny Rotten was singing for two years. Yet, I perfectly understood his message, somehow. I could tell this band was giving voice to the war inside my head, growing up in this nowhere town, being told how to live, what I would do with the rest of my life, and knowing I had nothing in common with my family or my neighbors.

I spoke of how my good, churchgoing Southern parents were not about to let their 12-year-old boy go to San Antonio to see the Pistols as they clashed with cowboys at Randy's Rodeo. They'd seen these heathens on the evening news! Are you kidding? But I got away with seeing Patti Smith six months later. How could anyone with a name that all-American be harmful, right? Little did they, or I for that matter, know the first words out of her mouth would be, “Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.” Whoa! You can say that in a song?! Yes, you can.

A Blueprint for Life

I recounted the night that completely changed my life and set me on my course, in the summer of 1979: The Clash at Armadillo World HQ in Austin. There's a Penny Smith photo of this gig on the back cover of London Calling. And so much I experienced that night steered the rest of my life. For one thing, there was a DJ that night – I'd later find out his name was Barry “Scratchy” Myers – spinning what sounded to my innocent Hicktown Texas ears like some weird calypso music. This was reggae, of course. Then The Clash walk on, and everything changed.

This wasn't a mere rock 'n' roll show. You got lessons in how to walk, talk, how to comb your hair, what clothes to buy, what shoes to wear. This is how low you sling your guitar, son. Wear your belt buckle to the side, the way Paul does. Where did we get these studded wristbands? At sex shops, of course. Oh, here's some books you should probably read. By the way, your leaders are not to be trusted, and here's why....

Now and again, The Clash played some of that weird calypso music. They also played songs that sounded like my Mom's 1950s teenage 45 collection – Elvis and Carl Perkins and all that. What do you mean this music is called “rockabilly?” I thought it was “rock 'n' roll!” And as I stood before Mick Jones, jumping around with a black Gibson Les Paul around his neck, dressing and combing his hair like a '50s rocker, I saw who I wanted to be when I grew up.

I had to admit later, when asked where I find inspiration these days, that Clash show still drives me. That was a blueprint for life and music for me, and for a life in music. Then there's the New York Dolls, whom I discovered alongside The Stooges and MC5 and all those other great American pre-punk punk bands, because of people like The Clash and the Pistols speaking of them in interviews. The Dolls knew they were stars, and it didn't matter that they only knew three chords, nor that few had heard of them. They didn't give a fuck. They lived their lives as if they were already stars. And they were. And are. The best way to create a revolution is to live as if the revolution has already happened.

Eventually, I – a 53-year-old Texas male who has spent his life believing in and living for punk rock – was asked what I see in the future. I replied that I didn't know, and I liked that, because I want to be surprised. I love seeing how things evolve, and endure. There's been a punk impulse in music/art/life at least since Elvis attached a rocket engine to the back of some obscure blues and country songs in Sam Phillips' echo chamber. It got amplified when he pantomimed having sex with his guitar when performing those hotwired tunes onstage.

I don't believe punk will again change the world as it did in the '70s. But there'll always be a need for an urban electric folk music that speaks to and for misfits, played by misfits. Somewhere, in some garage either in Des Moines or in Toxteth, there's some kid in a garage bashing on a cheap electric guitar, singing “FUCK THIS!” And I hope I get to hear his or her record. I bet it will be great.

Based on my rantings that day, Lush has asked me to tell stories of such kids. And it doesn't matter if they're punk rockers or punk painters or whatever. Because punk is the act of taking whatever tools you have onhand and expressing yourself with them. It doesn't have to be music – you could film a movie using you and your friends' iPhones, edit it on your laptop, release it through YouTube. That's punk.

Fanzines, which John Robb and I both came from, were a great manifestation of this idea. Neither Rolling Stone nor NME, depending on where you live, is writing about your favorite band, nor publishing the kind of writing you want to read? Then do it yourself! Type it on your mom's old manual typewriter with the “e” key that sticks; cut photos and headline letters from The Daily Mail or The Alice Echo-News; paste it up with glue sticks, then Xerox it at the public library. Sell your literary magnum opus for a quarter. Or 25p, depending on your neighborhood. Not hearing your favorite band on the radio? Create a podcast on your laptop to play 'em, using freeware recording and editing solutions. I do – I have for 10 years now. It's called “RADIO NAPALM.” You can hear it on PodOmatic. Maybe you make soap out of fruits and vegetables? I know someone did that....

So, here I am. I will tell you these stories. Thing is, I am an American. I live here, and love my country, despite the dark heart my homeland possesses. Believe me – we are not Donald Trump nor Kim Kardashian. We are Iggy Pop. We are Elvis Presley. We are Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman. We are the MC5 and New York Dolls. We are Chuck Berry and James Brown and George Clinton. We are Black Flag and Bad Brains and the Big Boys. We are Andy Warhol and John Waters. And Orson Welles. And Jackson Pollock. And Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. And Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. And the Beach Boys.

Equally, we are also Patti Smith, Penelope Houston of The Avengers, Ann Richards, Lydia Lunch, Wanda Jackson, Joan Jett, Barbara Krueger, Loretta Lynn and Sylvia Plath. Neither being American, nor human, nor the act of accomplishment is either sexist or gender-specific. We are extraordinary people from all walks of life, of all genders, races, creeds. We are not superficial, destructive, narcissistic blights out for ourselves, and fuck the world!

So please sit across from me at this time every month. Let me pour some coffee. You don't want tea? You'd rather have a pint? Go ahead – I just haven't touched the stuff since 1985. Let me throw on a record and tell you a story about My America. Maybe this is a futile piss in the wind, trying to rehabilitate my country’s long-sullied reputation. But I’m a windmill tilter from way back. And yes, I will try to bear in mind it's “colours,” not “colors.” Oh, and what we call “pants,” you call “trousers.” We call pants “underwear.” Sorry about that. I suppose this is what editors are for? And if I tell you about Roky Erickson, can you tell me about the Small Faces?
 

Tim Stegall still writes for The Austin Chronicle and Louder Than War, among others. He still leads The Hormones, soon to release their first studio recordings since 1999. He still hosts RADIO NAPALM, a pirate radio station of the mind, playing punk and garage hits. He's working on his first book, a history of the Austin punk scene from 1975 to the present, to be titled You Never Understand What We're Trying To Say.

 

I could not make out a word Johnny Rotten was singing for two years. Yet, I perfectly understood his message, somehow. I could tell this band was giving voice to the war inside my head

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