Last week’s episode of Mr Robot featured The Cramps‘ “Garbageman” in the background of one scene (dealing with burning trash, how literal):
The song’s opening line — “you ain’t no punk, you punk” — captures the two contradictory contemporary usages of the word punk. Lux Interior at first implies it’s good to be a punk (as in punk rocker), but it’s also bad to be a punk (as in insignificant), thereby encapsulating the entire twisted history of the word.
The word can be traced back at least to Shakespeare, who used punk, even “taffety punk,”* as a synonym of prostitute. By the early 20th century, punk meant a worthless person, in particular referring to young boys taken under the wings of criminals and/or hobos. This is certainly the way the word was used by Jack Black, a turn of the century hobo and burglar (not the actor and member of Tenacious D), in his autobiography You Can’t Win (pictured here, a later reprint with a cover by Joe Coleman):
You Can’t Win was a favorite of William S. Burroughs‘s. In his introduction to the book’s reprints, Burroughs affirms the huge influence it had on his own early novels (which, in turn, had a huge influence on punk rock), particularly the semi-autobiographical Junkie, . .
. . . initially published under the name William Lee so as not to embarrass his family. Burroughs accentuated the earlier implied sexual connotation of the word when referring to punks in his own books.
The word’s negative valuation started to change in response to 1950s juvenile deliquency. Sure, adults still meant “juvenile delinquent” and “punk” as insults, but with the rising popularity of Marlon Brando in The Wild One . . .
. . . and, particularly James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, . . .
. . . along with a flood of cheap exploitation ’50s JD flicks, kids began embracing the leather jacketed punks in “black denim trousers and motorcycle boots” . . .
. . . that their parents rejected. And the labels along with them.
By the time West Side Story hit Broadway in 1957, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics had wrapped the word heavily in irony (clip is from the 1961 film):
It seems clear that the word was first applied to rock in the early 1970s in the pages of Creem, the irreverent rock mag alternative to the more staid Rolling Stone, even if it’s not entirely clear whether it was first used by Greg Shaw, Dave Marsh (in reference to Rudy Martinez of ? and the Mysterians), or Lester Bangs (in reference to Iggy Pop).
As Lester Bangs explained in 1981 (published posthumously in 1987):
“I invented punk. Everybody knows that. But I stole it from Greg Shaw, who also invented power pop. And he stole it from Dave Marsh, who actually saw Question Mark and the Mysterians live once. But he stole it from John Sinclair. Who stole it from Rob Tyner. Who stole it from Iggy. Who stole it from Lou Reed. Who stole it from Gene Vincent. Who stole it from James Dean. Who stole it from Marlon Brando. Who stole it from Robert Mitchum. The look on his face in the photo when he got busted for grass. And he stole it from Humphrey Bogart. Who stole it from James Crosby. Who stole it from Teddy Roosevelt. Who stole it from Billy the Kid. Who stole it from Mike Fink. Who stole it from Stonewall Jackson.”
The term punk rock spread much further when future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye used it in his liner notes to describe the trashy garage rock, many of them one hit (or non-hit) wonders, he compiled in Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. Many of these songs would be covered by later punk rock bands as they fumbled to learn their three chords.
And in 1976, John Holmstrom launched Punk Magazine . . .
. . . using the traditional definition, . . .
. . . but clearly inverting it, just as ’50s juvenile delinquents had.
Hip hop culture seems to have reverted to the earlier, insulting, emasculating meaning of the word punk, often as part of a longer phrase like “punk ass” or “punk ass bitch.”
Clearly, a punk is not something good to be. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “I ain’t no punk” too often serves as a prelude to violence:
Funny how the same word can have such different meanings and such different valuations in two musical subcultures, or even within just one subculture, which brings us back to The Cramps.
* Shakespeare refers to a well dressed prostitute as a “taffety punk” in All’s Well That Ends Well; in return DC’s Taffety Punk Theatre Company has produced a series of “Bootleg Shakespeare” plays, which the Folger Shakespeare Library refers to (approvingly) as “Punk Rock Shakespeare.”