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The Death of a Hippie’s Dream: The Complete Touch and Go Zine 1979-83

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Kevan Harris assesses a compendium of the DIY hardcore punk zine Touch and Go and explains why its ethos remains relevant.

The Death of a Hippie’s Dream: The Complete Touch and Go Zine 1979-83

Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83
By Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson; Edited by Steve Miller
Bazillion Points Publishing, 546 pp.

One role of popular music in socializing the young may be to create … a picture of childhood and adolescence in America as a happy-go-lucky time of haphazard clothes and haphazard behavior… Thus the very real problems of being young are evaded. …A small minority is … not only aware in some fashion of the adult, manipulative pressure but is also resentful of it.

The rebelliousness of this minority group might be indicated in some of the following attitudes toward popular music: an insistence on rigorous standards of judgment and taste in a relativist culture; a preference for the uncommercialized, unadvertised small bands rather than name bands; the development of a private language and then a flight from it when the private language (the same is true of other aspects of private style) is taken over by the majority group; a profound resentment of the commercialization of radio and musicians…; an appreciation for idiosyncrasy of performance goes along with a dislike of “star” performers and an insistence that the improvisation be a group-generated phenomenon.

    David Riesman, 1950, “Listening to Popular Music.”

One of the more bizarre conspiracies to emerge from the new conservatism of the Obama age was the accusation that our current president was inspired by the “Cloward-Piven” strategy, which supposedly means encouraging poorer Americans to enroll in social welfare programs they are already eligible for in an attempt to bankrupt the state and force a civil war-cum-revolution in the land of the free. This is utter silliness. How can two New Left sociologists who were quite centrist for the 1968 era and tried to simply establish a nationally guaranteed income conjure up blood-drenched nightmares in the uncertain psyches of Tea Party sympathizers? To instill a semblance of accuracy to their paranoia, we should have invited Los Crudos to play the White House: a 1990s Latino hardcore band from Chicago with an openly homosexual singer. Los Crudos probably did not read Piven and Cloward, but its members did listen to Crass, and I would imagine they heard Crass’ first single “Do They Owe Us a Living?” to which the answer was “Of Course They Fuckin’ Do!” That, comrades, is what “spreading the wealth” sounds like, and coupled with an image of border-crossing hordes of gay Latinos marching northwards, well, I think we finally are on to some kind of useful domestic policy platform for the Democratic Party machine in November.

Unfortunately, the culture wars are over. Bands do not scare people anymore. The suburban media freakouts of today are all digitized: sexting, internet predation, chattacking (I made that one up), unwanted online revelations of banal teenage personal lives, and exploitation of Chinese youth who hoard gold by playing computer games for thousands of hours only to sell it to our neighbors and families so we can enjoy building up our Orc avatars. The most relief a teenager could provide his mom today is to proclaim he is turning off his computer and joining a punk band. It was not always so.

Tesco Vee lifted his first name from a picture of the 1970s industrial band Throbbing Gristle standing in front of the (now better-known) British grocer. He lived in East Lansing, Michigan. He really liked the British punk band 999. He liked them even more when 999 came all the way to Michigan and played “E.L.” in March 1979. This inspired Tesco to publish the first and last issue of 999 Times, which featured a five-line interview with the lead singer and cut-and-paste reviews of the band from other music magazines. The zine failed, but something much weirder appeared in November 1979 -- a magazine by two twentysomethings that purported to tell you everything you didn’t know about the newest music you’ve never heard of, and it came from central Michigan, which as we all know, to quote 999 Times, is “home of absolutely nothing.”

Taking encouragement from San Fransisco’s Slash magazine, which detailed the rise of the S.F. and L.A. punk scenes, Vee and fellow Lansing malcontent Dave Stimson produced Touch and Go magazine during the birth of East Coast and Midwest American hardcore punk. The first issues are devoted to spreading the punk gospel of then lesser-known U.K. bands like Wire, U.K. Subs, The Undertones and Joy Division, and talking up the initial buzz surrounding West Coast bands like The Germs, X and Black Flag to the meagerly fed rock consumers of Michigan. They contain nasty diatribes against the paltry boosterism of local radio and rock critics for bad new wave acts (i.e., The Romantics). They feature top and bottom 40 lists: in the former belongs The Rezillos, Waxtrax Records, and vibrating butt plugs; to the latter, Cheap Trick, pimples and Creem Magazine. They are crude, invective-filled droppings of lusty hateful teenage id stapled into runs of 100, sold for 75 cents, and traded for 7”s and other punk zines. For those interested in Michigan rock history, we read about the horrible Johnny Thunders and Wayne Kramer show in Detroit where the two bleat out a cover of “Ayatollah” by DJ Steve Dahl (which has thankfully gone down the memory hole, otherwise it would be Fox News fodder). We also read about an excellent Destroy All Monsters show unappreciated by the “closet punks and fence sitters” in the Detroit audience.

At some hazy inflection point, the zine moves from simple documentation into active participation, which is why its name is familiar to us today. Just as Slash formed its own label for The Germs and X, Touch and Go decided to put out the initial records of Michigan’s The Fix, Ohio’s The Necros and Vee’s own band, The Meatmen. The magazine became sort of the Cahiers du Cinema meets National Lampoon of 1980s DIY hardcore, if a blurb is needed. You are probably familiar with the T&G story afterwards: Butthole Surfers, Killdozer, Big Black, The Jesus Lizard, Slint, Don Caballero, etc. This is thanks to Corey Rusk, who “interned” at the magazine and then took over the label. The zine itself ended in 1983, probably at an opportune time since it couldn’t handle all the hardcore 7”s being sent in anymore. But during its heyday, the pages of Touch and Go paraded life in the trenches of punk scenes in Washington D.C., L.A. and Chicago, and introduced kids to the bands and personalities that now inspire hushed reverence in college radio stations and dusty record stores.

For instance, Tesco Vee would not just review a Minor Threat show, he would drive all the way to D.C. with East Lansing’s The Necros to the band’s show together, then drive with all of them to NYC to see The Misfits or Circle Jerks play, and then type it all up in a snarky manner (oh, how he hates NY!) for the next issue. With each installment, the links between towns seem stronger, more bands popping up and getting reviewed, and the communal hardcore ethos coming into its own. Also, we get to read the music writer Byron Coley wax poetic about his penis while beginning his long career of insisting older underground music is relevant to the “new thing.” To its credit, T&G raves about and then defends bands such as The Wipers and The Feelies from the accumulating conventional punk wisdom. It also, amidst a profundity of scatological text oozing off the page, promotes the great female bands of the day such as Kleenex, The Slits, and ESG (the latter Vee desperately does not want to like but cannot help himself). Yet, the slag is wielded to any music that smacks of conformity to the ears of the (by hardcore standards) age-wizened writers.

There are some unapologetic remarks in the introductory essays about the zine’s uncouth leanings, and given that Vee’s band recently spent a lot of its beer money on a large blow-up phallus, I assume being un-PC is part of a long-term brand maintenance strategy. T&G’s issues exude homophobia like a school locker room, but given the position of most Americans just 15 years ago on the subject, it is at least understandable though not condonable (this is the sort of unspoken nastiness in hardcore that bands like Los Crudos attempted to take on in the 1990s, incidentally).

Politically, one gets the dartboard nihilism that punk is known for, a kind of communitarianism fighting against its neighbors, the market, the hippies, the metal kids, the liberal parents, and its own excesses. There is a weird endorsement in a fan letter of Bernard-Henri Levy’s Barbarism with a Human Face in one issue that would read straight out of the Wall Street Journal opinion page’s assaults on “collectivist totalitarian ideologies” today. Levy is an enfant terrible of the French intellectual class, rising to fame by attacking the Paris ’68ers during the 1970s, and finding plenty of friends in Washington D.C. in recent years with his liberal hawkishness on the Iraq war and willingness to say anything outlandish about Islam. This is not the only parallel between punk, though, and the conservative turn of 1980s politics whose shadow we still live under, and it bears a little fleshing out.

It would be easy to relegate some of these positions to plain old rebellion against the perceived cultural and political symbols of authority of the day. After all, punks hated Reagan, right? The above quote by David Riesman illustrates that the existence of “punk-like” subgroups in popular music and the accompanying monastic rhetoric surrounding them have been around even before rock began. It is probably no accident, however, that elements of hardcore punk we are familiar with took place at this specific time in the U.S. In a response to another fan letter to the zine, which heaps accolades on the music coverage but asks if they would tone down the sexism just a tad given that nihilism might be just another fad, Tesco Vee dismisses the writer, Mike, in a fashion characteristic to the entire run of Touch and Go:

    His stereotypically humanitarian gaff that I’m supposed to take heart… I hear that having your heat shut off is now fashionable more and more people in my neighborhood are doing it … being cold is no reason to get pessimistic and trendy … so what if unemployment is 16%? Be happy – why did my neighbor shoot himself in front of the Social Security office? Because he realized he was jumping on the bandwagon of despair … It’s great to be alive in ’82 aint it Mike doll?

The rhetoric of punk, with 1977 as the “year zero” of music, stressed its discontinuity with the earlier rock of the 1960s. Much subsequent discussion of punk has attempted to revise that story, symbolized by the ultimate zero, John Lydon, admitting he liked Pink Floyd, and with all sorts of proto-punk that can be found in archives and box sets. It’s all rock, they say, one continuous family tree with Genesis on one branch and GG Allin on another.

But a recent book by sociologist Ryan Moore, Sells Like Teen Spirit, tells us that we need to reintroduce discontinuity to the rock story. The counterculture of the 1960s was based on a politics of abundance, Moore argues, when a seemingly limitless American economy produced a mass culture that privileged youth. The hippies scorned the stale materialism of Organization Man and the stable life he represented, but they presumed that the economic bounty it relied upon would forever be available and expanding. The existence of a social contract of mass consumption, rising wages, and promises of upward mobility in postwar U.S.A. was no lie, and this affluence provided the means for experimentation in both politics and art. This allowed for utopian visions of a future beyond material needs, filled with spontaneous expressions of the self, and best exemplified by the album-length excursions of prog rock (under communism, one hunts in the morning, fishes in the afternoon, and listens to Yes in the evening).

The 1970s retained little of this abundant aura. The New Left coalition had fractured into a mishmash of feelgood spiritual hokey, identity-based movements for political inclusion, and a few misguided revolutionaries. Rockers went country/folk, or they went stadium. The economy entered a period of stagnation and was transformed into the lean and mean entity that exists today in leaner and meaner fashion. Indeed, if we forego the standard American triumphalism of the Reagan and Clinton eras, it becomes obvious that the U.S. has been experiencing one long economic crisis since around 1973. The current morass we read about in the news and see in “For Sale” signs on our blocks has its direct roots in those earlier days of Nixon and glam. Instead of entire generations guaranteed to make more than their parents, we now live in a highly unequal yet gilded world. Here the middle classes perpetually feel a “fear of falling” from loss of status and income, forever reading about the lives of the super rich and anxious they will lose the race in conspicuous consumption. Working class individuals live in precarious straits, given the hemorrhaging of high-wage manufacturing jobs and their replacement with brain-numbing, shit-paying service work in restaurants and retail. The possibility of downward mobility results in blame being dispersed to bogeymen of a different race, gender, or nationality and the perceived unbalancing of the social order. It’s hardly a stretch to believe this apprehension, fear, and angst stem partly from the global political and economic shifts of the 1970s and the way Americans experienced them.

Moore details how the twin poles of punk in the late 1970s reflected the new politics of crisis and backlash (we had actual punk bands named Fear and Crisis in that time, if you remember). On the one hand, both in the U.K. and the U.S., certain bands exhibited a wide array of formal experimentation, avant-gardist innovations and art-school aesthetics. On the other hand, another set of bands expressed claims to personal authenticity, working-class realism and populist appeals to communal solidarity. This tension between formalist/vanguard and realist/populist approaches to rock music in the late 1970s had a lot of class anger in it, directed both upward and downward. Yet, a magazine like Touch and Go shows how they were not needfully oppositional, just alternative responses to the exhaustion of 1960s counterculture and its hangovers. But they also shared something in common with the new right of Reagan and Thatcher in their dystopian visions of a disintegrating society drifting in the wake of the failed project of the 1960s. With the libertarian impulses of the hippies effortlessly absorbed by a culture industry that sells cynicism to us in winking fashion, one easily understands the puritanical pose of hardcore.

Something like a “Cloward-Piven” strategy, in its original non-paranoid form, assumes that government has the capacity to absorb and respond to the most pressing social needs, long-lasting solidarity between communities widely dispersed and fractured can be created and sustained, political alternatives to the hollow status quo are realizable, and, lastly, that the United States can retain its No. 1 position in the global games that matter. I’ll leave it to Vegas to calculate the odds, but first things first. We need to realize the discontinuity of our world with the past, because like it or not, we live in the world of punk.

By Kevan Harris

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