I guess I never really got the concept of punk cred -- being more punk or more authentically punk or whatever. Somehow the more vile crap you are willing to put up with -- the skeevier you can be -- the less you care, man, the more authentically punk you are. This race to the bottom is easy to win -- all you have to do is die of an overdose in some disgusting rathole to be finally and authentically punk 4ever.
Which is to separate the one-downsmanship of supposed authenticity from the music itself generally included as punk. We can fight endlessly about what is or is not punk or ripping off someone else or other countless and enjoyable topics of conversation at the bar. But it’s all just slightly different flavors of rock and roll.
Which may or may not be part of the message of “The Smell of Death,” by Bruce Duff. It is a behind the scenes, warts and all, dive into the repetitive minutia of a zero-budget punk band tour of Europe. He’s the bass player supporting John Dahl’s solo tour -- who was a guy in another I guess well-known LA punk band I’d never heard of. The whole thing is pretty punk for sure -- shitty clubs, terrible accommodations, no money, unruly behavior on and on in what could be charitably called excessive detail. I doubt a single cup of coffee or swig of beer goes undescribed.
Every ramshackle lodging, every rickety cot, every vile toilet and sketchy meal is included in case we may have missed the message. This is some punk shit. And speaking of shit it is a topic of nearly every stop on the tour and a -- presence -- throughout the book. The title itself is a shit reference -- pace GG Allin, of more anon. And in case you were wondering, fecal matters, the locations available for defecation, and their relative comforts are discussed ad nauseum. LOL.
Our guide is genial enough if you care to come along on this “and then I did this, and then I did that” travelog of not really all that much happening. One thing I did get the sense of though was this vast rock and roll diaspora around the world -- a European tour is described -- and in every town there are these bars and clubs and everybody speaks the same language of rock and roll of Bowie and the Beatles -- or even way more obscure bands -- the beer and the money is different but it’s the same party all down the line.
On some level the punk rock committment to ‘the life’ -- the tattooed, funky, leather jacketed, loud and unapologetic fuck you to ‘normal’ life is heartwarming, naive and honest but the accoutrements which appear so authentic when you are twenty start to seem like just so much filth and boredom and atitude at thirty.
The disturbing and sad career of GG Alin is bizarre cautionary tale number one. Our protagonist plays in a one-off backing band for GG and describes the depressing madness of watching a sick and mentally disturbed man perform a freak show before an audience of mutants. You want authenticity? Sid Vicious only spit on you. GG will piss and shit all over the stage and then seriously injure himself for your entertainment. And you can say you saw him way back when for extra, you know, punk cred.
The book is funny and different because it highlights the lowlights of fringe-y, one-step from total obscurity -- but still at it -- rock ‘n’ roll grind. For the rock music book fan it is a break from the penthouses and private jets and pool parties -- the cocaine, champagne, and silk kimonos that we love so well. In this particular rock ‘n’ roll demimonde the good life is a beer you don’t have to pay for and a night you don’t have to sleep in the van. It is a long way ‘round to the old joke about the guy sweeping up the elephant shit at the circus, when asked why he keeps such a horrible job he answers, “What? And leave show business?”