This Newsletter Has Been Hijacked by East German Punks
But don't worry, they're pretty positive once you get to know them
The plan was for this issue to be about what it actually means to have refined taste, which is a bee that’s been in my bonnet for a while. But then I got sucked into Burning Down the Haus, Tim Mohr’s book about punks in East Germany in the 70s and 80s, and that thing took over my whole brain. Refined taste is gonna have to wait.
Haus is fascinating, relevant, and moving from like 30 different angles (to me, at least, although a book about politically-active bands and punks in East Germany does sound like something developed in the lab to appeal as tightly to as many of my interests as possible). But the thing I want to focus on right here is a fundamental thing undergirding the book and the world its describing: the way that punk culture created a space through which East German kids could assert their own identities in a system that was geared to suppress identity (and for what it’s worth, I’d say the same thing is true about punks on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the difference being lower stakes and some details in how the overarching system tries to assign you an identity that’s convenient for its driving ideology).
Because Haus makes clear that this was one of the big draws of punk for these people. You grow up with your entire life planned for you, tracked into a career from childhood, working under severe limits of what you can say, do, or look like; and then one night listening to radio from the other side of the Berlin wall, you hear the Sex Pistols* singing about anarchy and your mind explodes; why be Hans the gray-wearing, Party-meeting attending apprentice cabinetmaker when you can be Der ScheisseKing**, playing drums with a Mohawk and venting your rage about how much you hate the system?
*A thing that fascinates me: John Lydon/Johnny Rotten is an incredibly cynical guy who scoffs at the idea of anyone being inspired by anything, but this book is overflowing with statements from people talking about how hearing the Sex Pistols blew their minds open; the old gap between art and artist strikes again.
**OK, technically I guess it'd be Der ScheisseKonig, but I wanted this to be at least kinda gettable in English.
The same pattern repeats itself over and over through the book: depressed, angry kids are turned onto punk, assume new names and looks (both of which violently reject the stifling norms around them), enter into a new social world that’s essentially of their own creation, and are basically reborn into entirely new lives where they have some element of control over who they are and what they do (with, to be sure, mountains of consequences and problems for doing this). Just existing as a punk in that milieu was a strong statement of who you were and how much autonomy you wanted over your life.
This is powerful stuff, and if art is fundamentally personal human expression, it’s a fascinating thing to look at as an outgrowth of art. And it actually reminds me a lot of a thing I have looked at as art. My master’s thesis was about the way a group of female independent cartoonists were able to work outside the system in a do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion to use comics to take control of their own narratives and assert the identities they chose to the world, outside of the prescribed channels. It’s the same thing, just with different details and in different social contexts (although not as different as we like to tell ourselves; next time you get an email from HR, ask yourself how much control over your life you really have).
People using DIY forms of art to define themselves is one of my favorite things, I guess, whether the art in question is punk music or punk fashion or grouchy webcomics or blogs or newsletters or cheeky drawings posted to Instagram or who the hell knows what else. As far as I’m concerned, this small-d democratic people-extend-their-expression mode of art is the wing that really matters, not the lone-geniuses-make-stuff-that-rich-people-collect mode. Even if the museum world largely seems to disagree.
I mean, this one’s pretty obvious, right? Run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Burning Down the Haus. Zero punk affinity is required to be moved by this book, because what it’s really about is a bunch of disaffected young people staring an oppressive state in the face and saying, “fuck, no.” These punks didn’t single-handedly bring down the Berlin Wall, of course, but Mohr makes a very thorough argument that they helped significantly. It’s also just a hell of a human story with a strong feminist angle.
Was really excited to come across this guide to searching Library of Congress archives for pictures of the Great Migration, the big northward movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural south to northern urban areas.
Also, check out the absolute wizardry of this guy playing “Thriller” on a ukulele:
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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