By Jackson Anderson
Punk music has an intrinsically tangible and physical quality to it that is one of the most characteristic and unique aspects of the genre that I have done a disservice to by failing to address up until this point. While it’s true that everyone is from somewhere, the importance of the roots and the lineage of punk artists is more important than any other music genre. Punk fans know where the procurers of their art come from because it is important to them. They know which bands are a part of the Midwestern punk scene or the East Bay punk scene or the Seattle punk scene. One might think that this has to do with punk elitism and the desire to stick to music within one’s own clade. There is some truth to that, –and 80’s punk gangs that roamed the streets of Los Angeles are a testament to that– but ever since the internet age this interest in the history of artists has become equivalent to that of the “about the author” section of a novel.
Knowledge about punk authors also tends to be much more necessary than authors of literature due to the simple fact that most punk music tends to be nonfiction. Unlike a memoir, however, punk listeners only get vignettes and snippets into the lives of their favorite musicians. In a memoir the about the author section becomes the jurisdiction of the department of the redundancy department, but additional clarity can be sought when only tantalizing bits of story are given.
With the advent of this new global age and fascination with the experiences of others, many punk artists have embraced the individuality and localization of their music. This, however, is not necessarily a novel concept. Seminal punk bands sang about their individualistic and particular regionalized experiences during the birth of the genre both as a tool of community building with people inside those specific regions, and to help spread the word that the struggle was real and the same throughout the world. The major shift in recent years has been the focus on how sometimes its different in different places rather than the same, and yet these differences have lines of similarity that everyone can relate to.
Additionally, while everyone loves to write about home, the exotic has always had an allure. From proto-punk bands through to the modern day, everyone loves to sing about what it’s like in other places. This creates a particularly interesting line of comparison when different bands talk about the same place and wildly different stories emerge. I can think of three songs titled “Montreal” that range from both capital and lowercase “r” romantic to depressing and desolate. Which begs the question, does the place shape the experience, or does the experience shape the place?
One of the many classics from The Lawrence Arms collection of b-sides includes “Nebraska” a desperate pleading of a song that is a direct dialogue from vocalist/guitarist Chris McCaughan to some guy named Mike in which Chris nearly gets down on his knees and begs Mike to break off not only the shackles of depression and self-loathing, but also the titular Nebraska.
Let Nebraska disappear
In golden flames of grain.
I know you can’t imagine
Having company right now.
There’s a world of tired faces
Who understand this pain.
There’s a better life.
Waiting on the outside
Of these decaying walls.
There’s a bit of a double meaning behind this verse, in which Chris is encouraging Mike to break free from his self-imposed mental torment while simultaneously physically leaving his prison of Nebraska. The only description of Nebraska the listener gets is in this verse, but by titling this song Nebraska, I don’t think it is a huge leap in logic to suggest that Chris is implying that much of the source of Mike’s depression and feelings of hopeless lack of fulfillment is due to his surrounding OR that Nebraska is a suitable metaphor for these feelings. Either way you slice it it’s not looking good for the corn husker state.
To redeem Nebraska, one only needs to turn to Signals Midwest’s album track, “At This Age.” Touting their Midwestern locale in their name, Signals Midwest is a band that revels in the Midwestern experience, particularly in their latest album At This Age. In their title track vocalist/guitarist Max Stern lays out his desire to escape the big city with “somebody who might know how to traverse the terrain and the traffic without getting lost in the glow of a phone,” and be able to see the stars in the sky. What better destination to accomplish this than the great state of Nebraska? Max and his companion’s actual trip to Nebraska isn’t detailed in terms of the physicality of the state, only what they said and thought, but Nebraska’s golden flames of grain are romanticized as a form of beautiful escapism from the dead droning lights of Cleveland compared to Mike’s eternal hell.
Two Midwestern punks from two different big cities have two very different views on the same place. That tends to be how it goes, though, isn’t it? What is alluring and fascinating about songs about places is how similar the differences are and how different the similarities are. Lines of symmetry can be found in foreign countries or foreign cities, and places that one has been to or lives in can sound like an entirely alien land. The magic lies in the interpretation, and that is what is special.