Brilliant Corners 1.1: Punk
Essays by Lucy Frost and Erin Margaret Day
Cover by Elizabeth Cowling
INTRO by Marshall Gu
Brilliant Corners was a little dream I had when I first started music writing for free for various publications, which is that one day I could host my own little website or magazine that paid contributors. The multiple lockdowns of the past two years gave me something I never had before—extra time—that I could use to realize this dream. I was nervous if ambitious, and I had originally envisioned Brilliant Corners—named after the Thelonious Monk album, but also because everything featured here will be brilliant—as an in-print publication with every issue dedicated to a single genre.
Obviously, that didn’t come to pass, but hosting it online has its own benefits, which is easier access for all to the incredible writing to be found here.
Because there are thousands of words across these essays and reviews, I will be releasing them in batches every weekend. And when I’m done, onto the next genre! And the next! Follow me on Twitter for more updates.
That being said, welcome to the inaugural issue.
PROTO-PUNK AND THE ONTOLOGICAL RIPOFF: HOW TO DEAL WITH BEING BORN by Lucy Frost
‘He tried to chop down the wind and the rain’
Roy Brown, “Butcher Pete” (1949)
Art is our attempt at revenge against nature. Nature tries to debase us– or rather, having no capacity for desire, nature is a center of gravity tugging our humanity into the dirt. We avenge ourselves with beauty, that least natural of natural things. No sunset is beautiful without your being there to find it beautiful. All that light and cloud, all that stuff was only machinery until you got there and looked at it and felt better for having done so; the sunset is your neurological summary of things in time, and its beauty is the beauty you saw into it. All perception is active; its verbs are transitive. Response is creative– your emotions are spines and tentacles organizing the bland accident of nature into the heights of how you feel. The sunset is beautiful because of what you give it– the sunset isn’t beautiful, but you are. The beauty of nature is our victory over nature.
That victory, of course, can only be relative. Nature wins by default, because nature is everything– including us. We are animals. An animal is a type of living thing. Most living things, so far as we know, are not animals. Plants and protists make up the bulk of earth’s organic stock; they’re a passive lot, self-organizing and self-reproducing, but, lacking the strange neural clockwork of the animal, live along their paths of least resistance as natural machines. An animal, too, is a machine, but scaled so much farther up the gradient of complexity. Whatever may surprise us about the makeup of the foliage is nothing compared to the baffling fact of the ant, or the scorpion, or the kitten. Nature is, at least from our vantage point, a very creative monster– almost a worthy rival to us.
One might say that in the leap from the inorganic to the organic, nature flowed into an intenser version of itself– and, thus, into greater intensity still in the leap from single-celled organism to plant, and greater still from plant to animal– and so forth, until we come to us. You, me, and everybody else. In swelling from algae into the sapient primate, nature intensified itself almost beyond its own bounds, shrilled upward almost through the ceiling of its amplitude– almost, dammit!– and, in human consciousness, found itself in the very awkward position of… looking at itself.
We are liminal beings, standing at an eerie margin of things; in us, nature almost transcends itself, but doesn’t. It’s a deeply, deeply disconcerting tease. We are animals; we are nature; we think with the brains that nature fashioned from itself– but when we think and feel, we strain nature to a palpable limit of itself. We are angels fallen from a paradise of our abstractions, a paradise that never was and never will be– except in our idea of it. Every single human being is a changeling; our very humanity is inhuman– not superhuman or subhuman (both of those concepts are pernicious and cruel myths; none of what I’m saying has anything at all to do with “better” or “worse”– I hate nature, but that hatred is only a convenient fiction, a trope that makes it possible to tell you what I need to tell you), but inhuman. Each of us, as we mature through our complexities, comes closer and closer to being a contradiction in terms– and right at the point where the paradox of human selfhood verges on becoming actual… “human voices wake us, and we drown.” Death is nature’s response to immanent transcendence. It keeps the universe tidy.
The contradiction, then, is this: a human being is a wholly natural thing whose naturalness drives them to resist nature. A human being is an intensification of nature that strives to rid itself of nature. The human phenomenon occurs when a concentration of nature attains a density that attempts a radical rarefaction of itself.
If all that seems to assume too much– if you want to grab me by the collar right now and tell me that I’m babbling about my own feelings as if they were your opinions– then I can only say that the differences between ideas tend to consist primarily in differences of terminology. Language, which we invented in order that we might better understand each other, had from the very start of things been infiltrated by nature’s double agents, and nothing we say to bring each other closer together doesn’t take some covert tribute on nature’s part, bringing us closer together in one way while driving us apart in some other. You may even be wondering why I’m not talking about music, but, alas, I am.
It’s almost impossible for a critic to talk about punk without making an ass of themselves. The trouble tends to come from what we might call “romancing the tautology.” Punk is actually very simple music– not “deceptively simple,” but simple in fact, and in every fact. In almost all cases, it means exactly what it says, and strives to say exactly what it means. When it goes for irony, the irony comes as blatantly as Keith Morris sneering “everything’s so nice and pretty.” Punk moved a lot of people very deeply, and continues to move them. It moves me very deeply, and it probably moves you very deeply; and generally, the people who make it make it because they’ve been moved very deeply, either by life in general or by some specific part of it.
One might say that the critical overcomplicating of punk, this business of “romancing the tautology,” comes about because punk is a simple thing in a complicated world– so many people, so many scenes and subcultures and cultures, have wanted punk to run rhetorical errands for them, to represent them, to draw paying customers to their nightclubs and to sound good on their drugs and provide anthems for their revolutions, and punk’s poker-faced simplicity has obliged all of them. Like the Nile or the Amazon or the Mississippi, punk has floated boats and churned mills for all comers, has carried opposing armies and idle swimmers on its magnificent and obvious surge. What do Johnny Ramone, Johnny Thunders, and Johnny Rotten have in common? From what you know about them as people (or what you think you can infer), do they share some essential characteristic that, on its own, connects them to the type of music they played in the 70s? And does that characteristic set them apart from John Waters? And is that difference between John and the three Johnnies a difference between two clearly defined ideologies, with the former on one side and the latter on the other? You’d be romancing the tautology if you tried to find or articulate that difference– just as I’m romancing the tautology by taking such pains to explain that no such difference exists.
Punk is simple, I say, because it touches so directly on the immediate and pertinent facts of our experience– all art is fundamentally emotional, but almost all art tries to pretend it isn’t, because people have turned “emotion” into a dirty word. Emotion is not the frill and tinsel with which we decorate experience, but the substance and context of experience. Perception, that leap of sensory data from the nerves to the nervous system, is in itself the functional starting point of emotion. I know people who describe themselves as “unemotional,” people who say that they want to “live without emotion,” but both of those things are patently impossible– what they mean is that they live (or want to live) without what might be called “melodrama,” without the exaggeration of emotion beyond its place in the harmony of consciousness.
I harp on that point because our misconceptions about emotion, founded though they are in differences of terminology, have long ago magnified a semantic quibble into a nasty conceptual problem. Generation by generation, we teach each other to reject the central fact of our humanity– emotion as the fuel of consciousness– by skittering down the slope of our imprecise word “emotion,” which, drifting down the lineage of a mistake, has come to mean “exaggerated emotion,” or “forced emotion,” or “false emotion,” or any of a number of situations where the machinery of emotion is sabotaged by nature and set to work against us on overdrive.
Punk, which takes emotion as it is and as such, invites us to be honest with ourselves and with others about what we feel, is universal and basic. It involves no scale of intelligence, no moral or political spectrum, no roster of organizations or cliques or nations or beliefs. Punk is a stage on which feeling can occur, a pretext that allows us to concede that what we feel is indeed what we feel– that we have emotions, that we have the emotions that we feel ourselves to have, and that those emotions affect how we live and how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. Punk is a simple language, and emotion is never simple, not even as simple as our most complex language can make it seem– punk, in itself, doesn’t and can’t express the full complexity of what we feel, but it gives us grounds, both as listeners and performers, to confront those feelings on their own terms. Punk’s honesty helps us be honest with ourselves and with each other. Johnny Ramone is nobody’s therapist, of course (and I can’t imagine that he’d be a good one), but the labyrinth of emotion accommodates more varieties of navigation than the human race will ever devise, and methods as different as cognitive-behavioral therapy and “Dicks Hate the Police” all have their place in the scheme of it.
So, punk is the candor of our revenge against nature, and its directness makes no philosophical demands on us. Almost nobody but me actually thinks of art as humankind’s revenge against nature, and that’s perfectly fine– that, my friend, is where semantic differences don’t amount to all that much. Each and every one of us speaks our own private language, and all communication is in fact translation. The trick is that some utterances are more translatable than others (depending on local linguistic variants), and translatability is itself only one of the factors in a really good conversation.
The point is, at any rate, that punk is a fundamental response of humanity to the encroachment of nature– nature makes us liars. All honesty is creative. One of the ironies of our situation in this world is that we have to use our imaginations to tell the truth– and I’m not just talking about high abstractions. “The sunset is beautiful” is an imaginative statement, because the sunset itself isn’t actually beautiful. The mind of the observer causes the sunset to be beautiful, and the beauty of it is an idea in a mind. There is no beauty floating out there in the sky at sunset. Beauty never crosses the skull of the observer into the open air. The beauty of the sunset is the beauty of the sunset as seen by the person seeing it and finding it beautiful– the beauty, that is, of the image of the sunset, created in the mind (and only in the mind) through the harmonization of sensory data. Am I saying that the act of finding a sunset beautiful is punk? No, not really, but… sorta, yeah. It’s a fucking ridiculous claim, of course, but again, the problem is one of translatability.
Far more important to my point is that punk, though it lives linguistically as an element of cultural history– as a genre of music appearing at certain times and at certain places and among certain groups of people as the result of certain conditions and tendencies, and all of it bundled up inextricably with the word “punk”– must also be understood as a condition of consciousness, a condition of life, with no more and no less of a specific origin than any brain state; “punk” is a confusing word for it, because that word has such a loaded meaning– and so the recognition of the kind of thing I’m trying to describe tends toward qualified and rather trite assertions about “punk as mindset” or “punk as lifestyle,” and other such timid abstractions, all of them having something of the truth in them, but all of them folding under the self-conscious weight of their own awkwardness, the lumbering and fumbling that short-circuits almost any effort to use a specific label in an abstract way.
And all of that, after much compromise, much eloquence, much romancing of the tautology, settles into the term “proto punk,” which is the actual subject of this essay, and whose usage I put off for so long because I wanted to give a demonstration of the loadedness of our language. Writing about the thing called “proto punk,” between paragraphs on The Stooges and The Sonics, tends to furnish critics with grand polemical opportunities, stages for claims about the grand glossy sum of this thing we call “punk.” Proto punk is an interesting subject because it gives us nerds so much room for theses, so much leeway to connect dots of our own choosing… but they also come with their own dogmas, slipping from the conceptual high road into rote assessments of Kick Out the Jams and Raw Power, into the impersonal specifics of favorite Pebbles and Back from the Grave comps (and incidentally, I can’t possibly rave enough about Volume 6 of the Pebbles series. It’s subtitled “The Roots of Mod,” but it’s all proper scorching freakbeat and fuck it’s good), and really, we need more of that like we need more dewy-eyed mythographic writeups on the first Ramones album.
My real interest here is in making a claim about the age and universality of punk, its necessary function in the scheme of our aesthetics, without succumbing to the (understandable) embarrassment that leads critics to talk about such universality only as an “expanded narrowness,” yanking the starting date back from 1977 to 1969, from the emergence of the barre chord as the central fact of rock songwriting to the emergence of guitar feedback as a viable element of rock arrangement. It all adds up to more than just that, dammit. We’re here to set the sky on fire, to kick the earth for making us live like this– to kick the earth and make the bastard feel it for once, the way we have to feel the kick of living for fucking decades.
With all that said, I’d be remiss not to tell you about one of my very favorite albums. It’s called The Roots of Punk Rock Music (1926 – 1962). It’s on the magnificent label Frémeaux & Associés, and apparently it was compiled by Wattie from The Exploited. I don’t ask it to make my point for me, but it does so much to introduce a real electric charge to the mostly stagnant canons of “proto punk,” and it helps us approach the business in a really lively context. Canons ought to be creative– ought to be works of art in themselves. The compiler’s art really is an art, which is also part of my point.
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‘TASTE OF HONEY, TASTE OF SALT’: A Personal Tribute to the Power of the Black Eyes Debut Record by Erin Margaret Day
In 2003, I was sixteen, the same age as the protagonist in the song “Deformative” by Black Eyes, which some friend from Makeoutclub.com, or an indie mixtapes community on LiveJournal, put on a mix CD for me—single-handedly shifting the course of my life in a drastic way.
I had just recently attended a show which remains the greatest I have ever been to: a completely packed, all ages, wildly hot and sweaty rager at the 926 venue (now the Jazz Gallery) in Milwaukee, where my friends and I regularly attended hardcore shows. Either Q and Not U were the only band who played or my friend and I got there right before they began, because in our extreme mutual excitement about the show, we got there as the show was just about to begin, only to discover the $10 for her cover had been left on her bedroom floor in a pair of discarded pants. (A fact which also meant we spent a solid twenty minutes once we got there scouring every nook and cranny of her mom’s car for change that we used to get in.)
Q and Not U must have been rigidly adhering to the touring work ethic of the Dischord label, because almost no bands worth listening to ever came to Milwaukee at that time, and if they did, they definitely did not play all ages shows. They were touring so much, it felt like they came three times in one year. They ended up coming back with Black Eyes not long after the first time I saw them—so soon after, that even though seeing Q and Not U remains the GREATEST SHOW OF MY LIFE , I was so afraid that if I missed another day of work again so quickly, I may never be able to find another minimum wage job!
This is the biggest regret of my life! I don’t regret dropping out of college multiple times, or dating awful people; I regret missing my only opportunity to see one of the greatest bands of my lifetime on a double bill with a band that remains the greatest live band I have ever seen… BECAUSE I THOUGHT MINIMUM WAGE JOBS MIGHT BE IRREPLACEABLE?
But, also: the show took place before I heard that first Black Eyes track and realized how important they would be to me. As an absolutely horrific result, I never got to experience Black Eyes making their wild rhythmic circle of totally raw live energy with dueling vocals in real time and space. (I highly recommend watching videos of it on YouTube, however; I even just found a video from the very Milwaukee house show I missed from the tour with Q and Not U and Antelope!)
I played “Deformative” on repeat endlessly at the dry cleaners I worked at in Butler, WI, until I was surprised and delighted to find a copy of the full S/T album at a record store in the suburbs. I was on a date with a college student who was four whole years older than me—he went to a state school hours away, so it was never serious, but it was definitely wrong. He came up to me after we had been browsing independently for a while to see what I had picked out. He saw the Black Eyes record, I probably communicated how excited I was to find it, and he remarked only that he “[hadn’t] heard of it, so it probably [wasn’t] very good.” I don’t think I said anything in reply, but I bought it anyway…and in that moment, the Black Eyes S/T record became what I have referred to for many years as my “teenage girl liberation music.”
With its cover art depicting someone putting a visibly masculine supportive hand on a topless femme-appearing person as they’re coming to voice into a mic connected to a cassette recorder and a feminine, manicured hand with red nails typing at a typewriter on the reverse, it really felt like men in the punk scene were finally making an album for me. The only all-ages shows in Milwaukee were straight-edge hardcore shows—it was a tough guy scene and I recall only seeing one band that had a woman in it in my multiple years of regular attendance.
Dance punk was having a big moment at the time—Les Savy Fav, Gossip, the Rapture—but I had never heard anything in that arena that was so hard, so political, so dark, so…dubby. In fact, I had no idea what ‘dub’ was. I was in grade school in the nineties and didn’t have cool parents, so I missed the boat on Fugazi for a long time—the initial tracks you usually hear, “Repeater” and “Waiting Room,” didn’t captivate me enough to dig deeper. I missed the whole wildly experimental and dubby end of their catalogue on albums like Red Medicine and The Argument; albums that led right into the experimental post-punk bands like Q and Not U and Black Eyes that Ian MacKaye produced at Inner Ear Studios and released on Dischord in the early aughts following Fugazi’s dissolution.
I had never heard people (men especially) talking so candidly and alarmingly about sexual abuse; the trauma of war; the oppression and violence of colonization, occupation, and religious institutions; the oppression and violence of marriage, monogamy, and boy-girl-missionary-position-heterosexuality. The really important thing, though, is the way that they linked these forms of oppression and violence so clearly—the violence of missionaries and missionary-position-heterosexuality and how they are connected is very palpable in these songs.
Despite the endless loop of “Deformative” I had blasting at the dry cleaners, it wasn’t until I had the CD and the full lyrics in the booklet, that I truly understood what the song was about. It had a really compelling rhythm that made me want to completely freak out, but in crucial moments of the song there are dueling vocal lines which overlap and interject, creating this effect of splitting lines of thought in a panicked mind--a hallmark of their distinctive songwriting and lyrical style. What I heard was the feeling of what they were saying in these moments, more than the literal words and what they meant.
Having access to the album insert enabled me to finally read everything they were saying in “Deformative.” I shared it with my closest friend at the time, a gay man who was closeted. Consulting the lyric sheet, he suggested it seemed to be about a young man’s sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, and how it confused him and brought him shame coming of age as a young gay man to be both afraid of, hurt by, and simultaneously “excited” by what happened to him.
As a survivor of chronic sexual abuse as a child, I finally understood why this song was so powerful to me. Before this record, I had never heard anything which described symptoms of PTSD like dissociation, living with shame about who you are, feeling responsible for the things that happened to you, and having difficulty experiencing desire without recalling your abuse or feeling guilty about it. I was living with Complex PTSD, but I had no idea what it was, and Black Eyes were the first band to really put all of my symptoms, thoughts, and feelings to music. They sounded an alarm immediately from the opening moments of this album which communicated a strong sense of urgency about the need to voice and connect all of the trauma metastasizing globally and being passed on at every intersection of oppression. Additionally, I was also coming of age and feeling nearly the exact emotions of that song—the trauma that is resurfacing as desire is starting to take shape and direction in my body, the always feeling outside of everything my peers at school were preoccupied with, the living in fear that someone would find out this dark secret and harm me further if I expressed who I actually was.
Beyond being a groundbreaking and criminally slept-on album, this record made me feel less alone in the abuse I experienced and helped me connect my personal trauma to other forms of suffering all over the world. While it is an extremely noisy and alarming album, it was extremely consoling and comforting to me at the same time and remains so—I wasn’t alone, and me and all of the other traumatized people could get together and do something to make the world a less dehumanizing and destructive place. Additionally, not all men were bad! Some of them really understood what I have been through, have the courage to speak up about it, and put it to music I could rage to.
It was my coming to voice as I was coming of age.
I was the girl on the front and the back cover.
I still am.
Follow Erin Margaret Day on Twitter and Instagram and check out her website.