Question: What kind of person spends years of his life writing and compiling historical events, stories, anecdotes, data and facts for an Encyclopedia of Punk Rock?
Circle one of the following: a) a true devotee of punk, b) someone who has bit off more than he can chew, c) foolish, d) out of his mind, e) all of the above.
Writer/professor Brian Cogan is "e," all of the above.
Mr. Cogan, who has also co-written The Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music with Bill Phillips, discusses the influence that 60's garage rock has had on punk rock, The Replacements' song that has articulated his life, where punk and metal intersect and how he got hell from Richard Hell.
You must be out of your mind to write an Encyclopedia.
I am out of my mind, but I figured nobody had done an encyclopedia before. People had done a lot of great books about punk – Legs McNeil’s book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, is great. Jon Savage’s book, England's Dreaming, is really great.
It was something that I thought I could do, but it was completely biting off far more than I could chew. What got me through it is that I love to talk about punk and hence, I like to write about it.
It’s an academic book. Isn't that right?
The first one is definitely an academic book. It’s asking essentially, "What is punk?" Is it a cohesive culture that has characteristics that are not just music, fashion, ideology etc.? It’s still pretty accessible. The second book was can I explain this stuff to people who have never heard the music?
The academic version was done in 2005. Sterling - Barnes & Noble’s arm - bought it in 2006, made me rewrite it, add 100,000 words and cut out the academic jargon.
I get a lot of people saying they really liked it, and a lot of people saying, "How dare you write this." I never get a compliment without “where’s so and so” or “you got that date wrong” or “that picture is mislabeled.”
The Punk Police are out there in full and everyone thinks they need to correct you. Write your own book. Write your own version of it. Everyone should.
You couldn’t possibly include every band, but looking back, are there any glaring omissions?
There’s a bunch. Crimpshrine, a very important band from Berkeley, is not in there at all. I could probably make a list of about ten pretty important bands that are obvious glaring omissions. I got a letter a couple of months ago...“What about the Christian Punk Scene?” I don’t know where to put it all. Should I include the Hindu Punk Scene?
You interviewed Legs McNeil. Who else did you interview for the book?
Legs was very nice. I talked to John Holmstrom who was a very nice person to talk to. I especially wanted to talk to those two because they were there at the very start, and they applied the word to the movement. I was trying not to talk to big name musicians. Like I didn’t want to get John Lydon on the phone. I was looking for people who did zines.
I heard Richard Hell gave you some "hell."
Richard Hell gave me "hell" in that – he was nice enough to answer my questions via email – he’s still bitter about Television. This is forty years ago. I got this email, all caps, “NO THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED. VERLAINE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING.” Really? You hold a grudge that long? That’s kind of astounding in a lot of ways.
Did you find that people were willing to talk to you?
A lot of the punks feel that they were burned. I never got a chance to talk to The Ramones because most of them were dead. A lot of the punks did not want to talk to anyone. I think a lot of them thought of me as the creepy guy, the guy at the bar who slips you a Rufi.
Why do you think you’re drawn to the Punk ethos?
The punk ethos is about developing a set of critical tools to look at the world. It’s not to divorce yourself from the world. To ask, “How do you affect the people in your environment?” Punk was never meant to be exclusionary. When you say, “This is what it has to be” is when you lose the spirit.
John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil from Punk Magazine said that punk ended around '79, '80 or '81. I think it never ended. I think it pre-dated CBGB’s. I think it’s still going on. Punk is a cultural virus that pops up independently of where it should have been stamped out.
Who do you think was the first punk act in rock and roll?
In rock and roll it’s hard to say. I’d say the garage rock people in the 60s, bands like The Sonics, The Monks. The guys who did “Psychotic Reaction.” Count Five. A lot of those bands had ferocity. I’m still convinced that the first hardcore beat is from “Psychotic Reaction,” where it speeds up in the breakdown section.
Would you include The Who?
Definitely The Who. A lot of punk elements. “Hope I die before I get old” is a punk statement. Some early Rolling Stones’ stuff. Still, a lot of those bands don’t really say this is what we’re for or against. You can argue that The Beatles are punk, in a way too, that they’re saying don’t do what people are asking you to do.
Musically, most people would say The Stooges and MC5 are the first bands that got the sound. Iggy Pop is one of those guys who just nails it.
What was your favorite punk show?
I saw The Ramones play sixteen times. Early on it was never to be missed. A couple of weeks ago I saw a band called Screaming Females who were just astounding. They are a fascinating band. [Marissa Paternoster] is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen. She has these great lyrics. She’s interesting. It’s very oblique and you can read stuff into it.
Tied for Last (great rockabilly punk) and Left on Red (great socially aware/folky/old-timey) who keep renewing my faith in music.
Seeing Iggy at 62, asking people to invade the stage and just being surrounded by people singing "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The energy.
The Replacements when Bob was in the band. It was a great show at Irving Plaza. They were doing their drunken encores. At one point, they are way gone. Tommy the bass player walks off the stage, and they keep doing another 3 or 4 songs and the audience is screaming, "Where’s your bass player?" Paul finally looks around and says, “I guess he went home.”
I saw a lot of bands later in their careers. The Dead Boys' reunion was amazing. Suicide was amazing, and they were scary.
Did they play “Frankie Teardrop”?
Yeah. They’re a scary band. Even in their late 60s. Still. I didn’t want to get too close to the stage. Obviously, I wish I had seen the Sex Pistols tour of America. I wish I had seen early Clash. I wish I had seen Black Flag more. I’d only seen them once.
The Undertones. I would have loved to have seen them. They are the Irish Ramones. “Teenage Kicks” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
You have also written the Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music too.
Yeah, that’s with my friend Bill Phillips. He did the virtuosic metal, more or less, and I did the out-of-left field weirdo metal. He did the section on amps. All the bands that could play really well he did.
Where does Punk and Metal intersect?
I’m guessing in the mid-80s. Metallica was one of those bands that were wearing Misfits’ shirts on stage. A lot of thrash metal sounds a lot like hardcore.
Napalm Death is so intensely brutal. I love them. They have this one second song – “You Suffer” – (makes puff sound). You can’t understand any vocals (speaks gibberish). Bass and drums. To me, it’s kind of a punk thing too.
Why do you think some Metalheads are so reluctant to embrace Punk and Grunge?
As much as Metalheads say they are victims and put down, they were always ten steps above the punks. They were cool. They got the girl. They got something in life. They got the money. Recording contracts. And they still thought of themselves as outcasts and put down. What are you rebelling against exactly? You never were the dispossessed and the outsiders. You never were abused in high school. You abused people in high school (most likely).
Without Punk, there wouldn’t be Metal, so in a sense some Metalheads are rejecting their history.
Punk was a marginalized thing. It’s for the losers. “We’re not Gonna Take It” did not articulate my life. “Unsatisfied” by The Replacements articulated my life almost exactly.
Why do you find more female Punks than Metalheads?
Metal chicks can’t be involved. Although the joke is “Why does a guy bring his girlfriend to a punk show? Somebody has to hold his jacket, while he jumps into the pit.” Punk women could do the same things that the boys could.
Are you working on something now?
I’m working on a book about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I’m co-writing it with my friend Jeff Massey who teaches with me at Molloy. It’s called Everything I ever needed to know about _____________* I learned from Monty Python (*Including History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology Fish Slapping, and many more!)
It’s coming out early next year, depending on how many revisions we have to do.
(Dr. Brian Cogan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communications at Molloy College in Long Island, New York. He is the author, co-author and co-editor of numerous books, articles and anthologies on popular culture, music and the media. His specific areas of research interest are media studies, music, fandom, punk rock, popular culture, comic books, graphic novels, and the intersection of politics and popular culture. He is the author of The Punk Rock Encyclopedia (Sterling 2008), which explains his lifelong obsessions with all things Strummer.)