Artsy fartsy punks

 Where have all the Mohawks gone? If you're looking for the perfect symbol of the aesthetic denouement of the underground punk scene, you don't have to search too hard. The icons of that movement's mid-'80s subterranean flowering are in plain sight, circa 1999. Sonic Youth's scowling siren Kim Gordon now sits demurely in a full-color, double-page Calvin Klein ad within the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Black Flag's singer Henry Rollins -- who in his bare-chested, stage-stalking prime seemed ready at any moment to fall victim to spontaneous combustion -- has slid into a comfortable Hollywood niche, pulling down a string of bit parts in generic big-budget action flicks, as well as providing the raspy voice-overs for several luxury automobile commercials.

Even more telling is the evolution of artist Raymond Pettibon. Of course back in the '80s no one used the word artist to describe Pettibon. Cartoonist maybe. "That's one sick fuck" was the phrase uttered by a relative who spotted one of Pettibon's gig flyers on Kulchur's teenage bedroom wall. For Pettibon, whose crudely sublime drawings graced the flyers of punk's cream, that would have been high praise indeed. The themes and iconography of these hand-drawn works were as much a statement on the shows they plugged as they were on the "meaning" of punk rock itself: the backwash of Nixon's America, fried hippies, shaky junkies, a forlorn Charles Manson, and a leering Lee Harvey Oswald. These Xeroxed cultural signposts are now bona fide artifacts, a traveling art exhibition that has been featured at New York City's Drawing Center, the University of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and currently sits at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, in a pristine gallery not far from the telephone poles to which Pettibon's flyers were first stapled.

A New Yorker art critic described Pettibon's work as "funny, erudite, and macabre, like the thoughts of a deranged academic watching late-night TV." One could say the same about the music of the best bands featured on those flyers, particularly San Pedro, California's Minutemen, an iconoclastic trio composed of guitarist/ singer d. boon, drummer George Hurley, and bassist Mike Watt, who fused lean, choppy funk moves and off-kilter jazzbo rhythms into their punk roar. (Check the group's 1984 Double Nickels on the Dime, which renders as redundant the bulk of today's underground squall.)

Digging up punk rock's past: Mike Watt's new trio soldiers on; (below) Raymond Pettibon's handiwork, transformed from Xeroxed gig flyers to high art
Digging up punk rock's past: Mike Watt's new trio soldiers on; (below) Raymond Pettibon's handiwork, transformed from Xeroxed gig flyers to high art

At the very least the Minutemen had some great song titles. Tunes like "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?", "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts," and "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" said it all. This was punk rock that refused to be anything less than intelligent. When the band name-checked Bob Dylan, it wasn't as an affectation, but rather out of a belief that their own music should be no less relevant and engaging to its own audience than Dylan's was to his twenty years earlier. All of which made d. boon's 1985 death in an auto accident all the more tragic. Refusing to hang it up, however, Watt and Hurley reconstituted themselves as firehose, with Ohio native Ed Crawford taking over d. boon's slot. Several albums of catchy rock followed, introducing Watt to an even wider audience, culminating in 1995's solo release ball-hog or tugboat with figures such as Pearl Jam's singer Eddie Vedder and Lemonhead Evan Dando taking on the singing chores in a tribute to a musician they themselves grew up on.

One might think all this heavy history would leave Watt a solemn, joyless figure. Just the opposite. Speaking by phone from his San Pedro home, Watt practically bubbles over with enthusiasm.

"I like making fun of my image," he says. "Some people think I'm so stuffy and boring, like I'm already defined. I'm this guy with the flannel on and I do 'punk-funk.'" As for the mainstreaming of alternative rock and the deification of oddball fellow travelers such as Pettibon, Watt waxes philosophical: "High school kids are always looking for peer acceptance. If communism was hip, they'd buy that, too. Our scene was about weirdos who couldn't fit in, so it is a strange contradiction to have that become the popular thing."

You can catch a glimpse of that storied era in Fucked Up + Photocopied: Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement, a lavish new tome assembled by Bryan Ray Turcotte and Christopher T. Miller that features thousands of vintage flyers (including some of Pettibon's best). While the book's enshrinement of those images also serves as an entombment of punk's once-vital spirit, it thankfully refrains from sugarcoating affairs. As Watt recalls in a paragraph that accompanies a set of Pettibon-created Minutemen flyers, those days were often anything but glamorous.

"When I first hit the road, food poisoning was a constant hazard," he writes. "In the winter of 1985 we were touring with R.E.M. and I got the bug in Land O' Lakes, Florida. It soon became useless to keep changing my pants, so I tied a shirt around my waist and rags around the bottoms of my pant legs. Three days later, my pants were full to the knees."

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