Punk Rock, Poetry & the Myth of Masculinity
by Keith Kopka
From the moment I stole my mother’s copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland, I have rarely gone a day without music. I started my first punk band when I was 14, and I never looked back. Much of my life has been defined not only by the ethos of punk rock, but also by playing it. The same is true of poetry. I read at least one poem every day and have for the last 20 years. It’s been that way since the girl I had a crush on in middle school let me borrow her copy of Howl. I’ve been writing poems since high school, and all of my formal educational focus has been directed towards poetry and poetics.
That being said, I have always viewed my life as a musician and my life in poetry as simply adjacent. They overlapped here and there in the way that the two genres are often nonchalantly placed in context with one another, but I didn’t fully appreciate how these two major elements of my life had been feeding each other for years. It wasn’t until I began to use the critical thinking that the composition of poetry demands, to interrogate my personal and cultural relationship to music, that I realized how much the ongoing conversation between these two art forms has influenced my life.
I’m still unpacking many of the experiences that I’ve had during my life in music, but poetry has given me the tools to begin to do so. It’s helped me confront the ways in which I, along with generations of young men, have internalized the damaging lessons that rock and roll taught us. In fact, writing poems about my life in punk music has been a way to force myself toward a self-reflective interrogation in my writing that has been incredibly cathartic, and through this process, I have begun to understand how my own rock and roll desires, like many suburban teens, were formed through myths of masculinity.
I came of musical age in the 90’s, right around the time that punk rock hit the mainstream. Nirvana, Green Day, and even Bad Religion had their first billboard charting hits. The music that had started as an organic revolt against the corporate vacuum of 70’s arena rock and disco was now being packaged and sold to hordes of teens eager to consume, and I was one of them. Historically, punk rock is angry music, and, like many kids of suburban privilege, I had nothing to be upset about, which only upset me more. My parents weren’t divorced. I wasn’t poor or hungry, and when I looked in the mirror, I saw only my white, middle class self staring back. I hated myself for being what I perceived as inauthentic. This self-loathing is what led me to romanticize the mythos of punk rock.
My teenage self was Tipper Gore and the PMRC’s worst nightmare. I sang along at the top of my lungs to all of the most taboo lyrics without any regard for the suggested “parental advisory,” and I misunderstood every bit of their meaning because of my naivete. I thought I knew what it was to be a “punk rocker” and a “man” set against the cultural backdrop of Tenderloin or Alphabet City. I learned women were not to be trusted because, from where I was standing, Nancy killed Sid and not vice versa. I spray-painted. I fought. I committed petty crime. I was arrested (and bailed out by my parents). But if you had asked me why back then, I would have told you that it was all in the name of “rebellion,” and I was not alone in my worldview. I never have been.
Since the start of rock and roll as a force in popular culture, generations of id-driven young men have learned how to navigate their lives by following the lessons they are taught through rock and roll’s genre conventions: a stunted adolescence, abusive behavior toward the opposite sex, excessive drug and alcohol consumption, and an arrested selfishness that governs almost all actions. I know now that the only true difference is whether you learn these conventions from a “role model” with a mop top, a Mohawk, or one wearing lipstick and leather pants. The Beatles, The Casualties, and Mötley Crüe all share the same sybaritic ethos of party first art later, but my younger self would have punched you in the face if you had told me that all of these bands were the same, or that the idea of “burning out” being better than “fading away” wasn’t a heroic stand taken in the face of a world dead set against you, as much as it was a selfish, nihilistic immaturity. No one could have explained this to me. Instead, I had to break my own nose on this realization, and of course my epiphany, as they often do, took the form of cliché.
Like everyone else that has picked up a guitar and stood in front of their bedroom mirror, I entertained the idea of “making it” (whatever that means) as a punk musician. I went out on tour with different bands because popular culture had taught me how the story was supposed to go: as a small group of brothers against the world, we would begin by making a name for ourselves in the East Coast punk scene. Then we’d begin to get college radio play, which would lead to opening for respected national acts across the country, a record deal, and que voila! Rock stardom! A Hollywood ending where the man pulls up in a limo with a big cigar. But what Hollywood doesn’t show is that the rise and the fall of these tragic-heroic-esque bandmates is not linear. There is always just enough of a chance of something positive happening, the “big break,” to keep one chasing the dragon. The fact of the matter is, I experienced some success as a musician. So did my friends. There were “talks” with respected labels but never deals. There were nights of totally packed rooms, but there were way more nights of playing for just the bartender and the openers. I’ve had songs on the radio, but always at 3 am, etc, etc. It was always one step forward and two steps back.
The dangerous thing about fantasies is that they often feel real even though they’re not sustainable. There were many nights when the camaraderie in the music and the crowd felt so alive that I believed I was, in fact, the “punk” and the “rockstar” I wanted to be, and these moments happened frequently enough for me to keep buying my own shtick. Over time, the real and terrifying clichés of people dying, violence, and drugs replaced punk’s promised adolescent invincibility with a kind of debilitating “nowness” that kept me and the people around me from ever growing up. But by the time I realized what was happening it was too late. I had finally gotten the authenticity that I’d wanted since the first time I heard the opening chords of the Exploited’s nihilistic classic “Sex and Violence,” and it was more than I’d bargained for. I didn’t know how to find a way out. I think this feeling of being trapped was true of a lot of the people I spent time around at this point in my life, but we didn’t talk about these feelings because, as men conditioned by our subculture, we didn’t have the emotional bandwidth. Instead we drank more and did more drugs. The result of this, unfortunately, was that the “way out” often became death. Accidentally or purposefully, one by one, people kept dying until the performance of invincibility that those of us left behind continued to disguise as “camaraderie” and “brotherhood” was overcome by survivor’s guilt.
I came to poetry looking for a way to make sense of these traumas—banal and otherwise— that made up my life in music, as well as my inability to relinquish my death grip on punk rock and its cultural mores (or lack thereof). My poems are working to both capture and question a certain kind of white hetero cis male identity in relationship to the rock and roll fantasy. A fantasy that is oftentimes very dangerous and very empty. For example, the middle section of my first book is a long poem separated into titled sections that chronicle the speaker’s time spent traveling the country in a punk band, the narrator finds that the traditional idea of home as a safe haven is eradicated from his world as he confronts the anonymity and false bravado of the nomadic lifestyle. Feeling the loneliness and isolation of his anonymous landscape, the narrator finds himself not knowing how to interact with the world he has chosen to inhabit, but he also fears the potential of returning to the comfort of a home that is no longer recognizable after his experiences. This is a theme that comes up in all of the most well-known touring anthems, from “Turn the Page” to “Beth.” However, by addressing this subject in poetry, I don’t have the advantage of Alto Reed’s blistering saxophone or Peter Criss’s surprising use of C major to convey the complex feelings that simmer beneath the cliché lyrical content of “long and lonesome highways” and a house that “just ain’t our home.” Instead, I rely on diction to convey tone and mood, line breaks to echo harmonic tension, and arguments crafted in image which invite readers to engage with characters who are, at best, anti-heroic and, at worst, downright criminal.
Poetry provides an opportunity to leave behind the romantic elements of the “road” that songs often portray in favor of confronting the humanity of a speaker in contradiction. Following a precedent set by traditional epic poetry, “Tour” portrays a speaker who is traumatizing himself by repeating the same kinds of actions ad nauseum while swearing up and down his desire for different results. He is a person who wants a new beginning and an escape from the strain of the world he inhabits, but he is also one who isn’t really trying or able to find a redemptive ending or a way out. This is the breaking down of the rock and roll mythos that poetry allows through action and image rather than musical distraction. Poetry, at least in a contemporary sense, differs from song lyrics because on a page a poem lacks musical accompaniment, which often fills in the emotional holes that many song lyrics leave unfilled. Lyrics will always have a musical crutch to lean on. A song in a certain key or at a certain tempo, no matter what the lyrical content, provides a listener with a whole chorus of clues instructing them in how to interpret meaning/ mood behind its lyrical content. For example, when Elvis croons for “a little less conversation, a little more action” the listener immediately knows more about how to interpret this abstraction because of the upbeat tempo and major key of the music that accompanies and informs the way in which Elvis delivers the line. This is why song lyrics can get away with so many clichés, and it is also why poetry, without this musical accompaniment, lives and dies by the strength of the image and the line.
Poetry, for me, has an enormous number of pleasures, some directly related to actual musicianship. I still play in a punk band, two as a matter of fact. These days, I’m the only member who’s still unmarried, and a “tour” has become a long weekend with a couple shows in nearby cities, but we still play punk music. None of us can quite let go. Instead, we tell ourselves that we’ve found a healthier way to engage with the ethos. We become tourists in the lifestyle, weekend warriors who don our leather jackets and band tees in the name of “innocent fun” and “blowing off some steam.” But is this really healthier? Am I just compartmentalizing my actions in a different way? Are we not just playing dress up and perpetuating the same mythologies?
As I said before, I came to poetry at least in part as a way to make sense of what I put myself through in the name of a rock and roll. Although I haven’t found the all of the answers yet, my first book, Count Four, is an attempt at expressing accountability, the black humor of this lost boy lifestyle, as well as a cultural self-awareness of the decisions that I made and the actions I participated in to perpetuate my delusions. Poetry gave me a way to address these experiences, but it also gave me the answers that no record ever could. It taught me how to access a nuanced interiority that wasn’t available in the music or the culture of punk rock. It allowed me to confront how the myth of masculinity that is embedded in the archetype of the rock star has affected generations of young men in ways that we, as a culture, often glance over as something that people “grow out of,” even when the evidence to the contrary is all around us.
Keith Kopka is the recipient of the 2019 Tampa Review Prize for his debut collection of poems, Count Four (University of Tampa Press, 2020). His poetry and criticism have recently appeared in Best New Poets, Mid-American Review, New Ohio Review, Berfrois, Ninth Letter, the International Journal of the Book, and many others.
Image: Jay Wennington/Unsplash