Sunday, August 4, 2013

slacker America / squatters travelers ravers versus Criminal Justice Bill / the Nineties

unpublished (?) end-of-year essay, for Melody Maker? 1992? 1993?

by Simon Reynolds

There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture", before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible; after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious "Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album, "Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements (and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J. Mascis. On the early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug" (1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988), which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown" for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl", "Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids, known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs. With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic aggression. 

Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition: namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal irony. 

 The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana: feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is 'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow Castration", that there's a line in "Smell Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they want to believe that music can change the world, but their insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do- wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny, touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference, they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are "daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music (Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art. Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel' "Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused" (about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound "Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot, Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement, these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers) and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?

Melody Maker, summer 1994

by Simon Reynolds

   The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is oozing its way through the parliamentary digestive tract and will be probably be passed into Law by a Commons majority in July.  It contains a host of pernicious extensions of police powers, but it's Part 5 that will affect your world most, with its devastating attack on the radical fringe of pop culture: illegal raves, free festivals,
squatting and travellers.

     Cutting through the Bill's legalistic nuances, the gist of Part 5's provisions is as follows.  First, it gives the police hugely expanded and highly discretionary powers to thwart raves.  Whilst a rave is defined by the Bill as a mere 100 people playing amplified music "characterised by the emission of a
succession of repetitive beats" , the most disturbing clause allows the police to harass gatherings as small as ten.  If an officer "reasonably believes" the ten are setting up a rave, or merely waiting for one to start, he can order them to disperse; if they fail to do so ASAP, they're committing a crime, punishable by a three month prison sentence or a œ2500 fine.  Moreover, the police are granted
the power to stop anyone who comes within a one mile radius of this 'rave' and direct them not to proceed. The leeway for local police to interpret events, and the scope for abuse, is enormous.

     Another bunch of provisions practically illegalise squatting. If an 'interim possession order' is granted against squatters, they have 24 hours to leave; failure to do so, or returning to the premises any time within a year, is punishable by a prison sentence of 6 months or a œ5000 fine.  Part 5 of the Bill also includes draconian measures to deal with trespass and unauthorised campers (i.e travellers) and against 'aggravated trespass' (aimed at hunt saboteurs, but these could be used to suppress, say, environmental protests against new motorways.)

     As a whole, the Criminal Justice Bill is a desperate attempt by a decrepit government to toughen up its image.  (Labour, chickenshit about opposing the Bill for fear of seeming "soft on crime", looks likely to abstain rather than vote against it.) The origins of Part 5 go back to the Castlemorton mega-rave of May '92, which created a new 'folk devil' in the crusty-raver/New Age traveller. The
ensuing media panic about this unfamiliar subculture convinced the public that hordes of unwashed, drug-crazed, outlandishly garbed anarcho-mystics were set to descend upon hitherto genteel neighbourhoods, whereupon they would blast deafening hardcore techno for 7 days solid, sell acid to children and shit on the shrubbery.

    Few people sympathise with travellers and squatters; fewer still are prepared to defend them. So it's been easy for the government to add them to the list of 'enemies of society' targetted by the Criminal Justice Bill.  It may be hard to believe, but Kenneth Baker once lumped squatters in with armed robbers and rapists as wrong-doers that the Tories vowed to "get tough" with.  Squatters!
who harm nobody but just help themselves by taking over abandoned, usually derelict buildings (90% of squats are empty public sector housing owned by local authorities).  Squatters!  who actually preserve the market value of these delapidated domiciles by fixing them up.  Of course, the Bill doesn't appeal to reason or statistical reality, but to bigotry and paranoia--the consternation
caused by those who look and live differently.  And it appeals to a secret resentment many feel towards those who repudiate 'straight' reality (suburban slow-death via the satellite dish and other forms of stupefaction).  Sort of: "I don't live today--so why should they?!"

     But why should you care about the rights and the plight of squatters, travellers and other n'er-do-well deviants?  Simply because Part 5 of the Bill threatens to extinguish some of the crucial spaces in which radical popular culture has survived and thrived over the last 25 years. Squat culture has been the breeding ground for bands as diverse as the Sex Pistols, My Bloody Valentine
and The Shamen.  Squatting enables bands to survive through those difficult, impecunious early days, especially if they're trying to do something innovative or uncommercial. Much the same applies to artists, film-makers, writers etc. Destroy squatting, and our pop culture will be depleted--not instantly, but insidiously and inevitably.

    Warehouse and squat parties, illegal raves, and the free festival circuit are also vital spaces for alternative culture. Ever since the 30,000 strong gathering of the tribes that was Castlemorton, the police have been determined to crush the sound-systems and the festival-bound convoys; the Criminal Justice Bill provides them with an embarassment of powers to abuse.  Local police forces are already collaborating in the use of computers to log data on 8000 travelers (including info on their vehicles, nicknames and associates).  Some county police forces are determined to ensure that even legal raves don't happen this summer.

    All these developments reinforce a general trend in British society over the last decade: the contraction of possibility. Dole culture (another breeding ground of bands) has been all but obliterated, via the harassment of claimants, compulsory Restart programmes etc.  Once students were able to use their time to explore ideas as well acquire marketable skills.  But the loan system and the removal of dole and housing benefits have plunged them into debt and into dread;
now they must scurry up the conformist career ladder in order to pay off loans and overdrafts. The impoverishment of students (who incidentally make up eight percent of the squatting population) and the bare subsistence offered by dole, have a knock-on effect on pop culture: there's a severely reduced market for interesting, risk-taking music, media and culture generally.  Only the most dedicated bands and labels perservere with innovation in the face of declining sales and meagre prospects.  The effects of all the above converge to create a palpable feeling of contraction in the culture, a withering away of possibility, daring and risk.

    All these effects on pop life may seem minor compared to the other sinister ramifications of the Criminal Justice Bill: the removal of the right to silence, arbitrary stop-and-search powers for the police, and a host of other measures that push this country closer towards what has been called "elective tyranny".  A decrease in the number of interesting rock bands may seem a negligible
side-effect of the illegalisation of squatting, given its more immediate result: another 50,000 added to the number of homeless sleeping rough on the streets.

    But since Melody Maker is a music magazine, in this 4 page special we focus on the ways in which our turf--rock and rave culture--is threatened; at the ways your world is being circumscribed and impoverished.


   Colm O 'Ciosig (drummer): "Originally, it was just a question of finding somewhere to live when Kevin Shields and I first came to London. We couldn't afford a deposit for a flat, so we squatted a house in Kentish Town.  It's more fun living in squatland anyway, outside the landlord system.  It raises your spirit, whereas bedsitland makes you apathetic.  You have to be quiet, it's
really oppressive.  If we hadn't squatted, we'd probably have got really depressed and left London.  We paid for our first records with dole.  If we'd also had to pay rent, we'd have had to get jobs, and doing something we didn't want to do would have destroyed our spirit. We sat around a lot, sure, but that's conducive to coming up with ideas. We wrote the 'You Made Me Realise' EP in a
rehearsal room in our squat."
     Bilinda Butcher (guitar/vocals): "I squatted for four years in the barrier block on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.  Having a baby boy, I wouldn't have been able to be in a band without the squatting community, cos they ran creches. And MBV wouldn't have gotten anywhere if we hadn't been able to squat. You can't practise in a bedsit.  You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise. Plus, if we'd
been paying rent we'd never have had enough money to pay for rehearsal space and gear and guitar strings, which are always breaking.  If the Bill is passed I don't know how bands starting out will manage.  The whole music scene will suffer, there'll only be room for mainstream stuff."


     "I don't go along with the hippy baggage that surrounds the squat lifestyle, that whole heroic outsider thing," says singer/guitarist Graham Sutton, who squatted for several years with (now former) Bark bassist John Ling.  "For us, it was more a survival thing, surviving to make music. It made sense to dodge rent and poll tax.  There was kind of a punk, DIY ethic to it, too--fixing up the
place, doing your own decorating, electrics, plumbing.  Where we squatted (Claremont Road in Leyton, East London) was quite a scene: every other house was squatted, and everybody was doing creative things. There wasn't that wastoid culture element.  That scene got a name for itself, and for a couple of years it was really good--lots of parties, a real community feeling. Then they started
evicting people to make way for the M11.  I'd already left, for rented accomodation, 'cos the scene had become a bit of a bubble.
     "What I find weird about the 'crime' of squatting is that it doesn't make sense, even according to Tory logic.  Most squatters repair the places they live, cos it's horrible to live in a shit-hole. They're saving these places from deteriorating and losing their value."

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