One of the interview subjects of the book Peops (Soft Skull Press, 2003) jokes that in her new career, she hopes to put the ‘punk’ back in acupuncture. The spirit of punk looms large over this contemporary oral history of nonconformists who’ve avoided mainstream respectability through DIY independence and housing squats, and generally refused to exchange spontaneity for a solid income. There’s even an occasional hope that the world might see the light and get on board with these attitudes, too. But the values of the mainstream regularly intrude – the above comment is made in reference to the tuition price for an acupuncture course: $45,000.
The book is a collection of hand-lettered, informal testimonials from a broad spectrum of people, given while artist/author Fly was drawing their portraits. They are stories about life on the road, being in bands, life after the dissolution of bands, being arrested in demonstrations or just trying on a local level to rattle the cage of apathy. “[The book] started while I was touring the world [as a roadie] with God is My Co-Pilot,” Fly writes in her introduction. “I was constantly drawing people and writing their conversations because they would speak such poetic English to me… I became obsessed with the idea of documenting all the hidden histories.”
The people Fly features are artists, musicians, activists and seekers. A few are well known – Lydia Lunch, Art Spiegelman, John Zorn – but most are anonymous members of what used to be known as the underground. (In these days when the maw of media shines a spotlight on everything in its path, nothing seems underground.) In general they’re creative people who don’t want mainstream careers, draw inspiration from music and find meaning in collective action.
If that sounds a little too good to be true, rest assured this isn’t a hipper-than-thou text designed to make you feel small for having a job and needing a pillow at night. (Actually, the old underground might have done that, so maybe we’re better off with this kinder, gentler, if media-exposed, underground.) The people Fly interviews are mostly realistic as well as idealistic. They’ve fallen in and out of jobs; their experiences with politics are often disappointing.
Seth Tobocman, a comic artist from NYC, tells a story about being at a demonstration with a group of punks, and John Lydon running up with a film crew: “He starts insulting the punks for the camera & then he runs away… The funny thing was that a couple days later Chris Rock pulled the same thing, he brought a camera crew to where Ramona Africa was speaking & he was…walking around ignoring everyone… The one person who didn’t do this was Jello [Biafra I assume]. He did a show & he told everyone to go to jail & support the people who got arrested. I guess the point is that people need to have some artists who are really there for them.”
The utopian, drugged out haze of the 60s is largely absent. Amber Gayle, zine author, reports: “I met this girl [in] France she invited us to her squat in Dijon – so we went out of town and… it was kind of nasty – there were some guys there with a bizarre theory, they called themseves ‘anti-naturaliste.’ …One of them had read all my zines and he had wanted to meet me & talk to me cuz he suspected me of having a mystical view of nature.” But though that doesn’t sound like a particularly fun meeting of minds, there are other moments that celebrate life on the margins. Roger Manning talks about dumpster diving and adds: “I see all these people going into the same store where we get the garbage and they don’t look any happier than me – I’ve got nothing but at least I didn’t work hard for it.”
Some stories make it sound better on the outside: “I ended up going to the West Coast in ’92 hanging out with some people I had met in NYC – sleeping in abandoned buildings & rooftops – eating garbage – those few years were the best of my life.” But some show the strains. Famous, a squatter and herbal medicine practitioner (quoted in pgh. 1) who Fly describes as “straight up get shit done do it right then kick back and have FUN!” speaks in softer tones of her reality: “I only have sad stories these days… NYC winters are hard, they get lonely, but the good things are that #1 I got a job (Hey girls! I want you to remember that there are people who live downstairs! … now with that in mind you can go back to your drum jam) also I want to go to acupuncture school as a fulltime student…”
It’s not easy to make it in America, on the inside or the out. But Fly’s ‘peops’ advocate action over apathy. That’s refreshing, and so is their wry realism. Fly attributes her strength and adaptability to early athletic training: “I was on the national rowing team and also ran marathons both of which taught me focus, self-discipline, endurance and how to push my body to ridiculous & dangerous extremes – these skills were very useful to me when I came to NYC (late ’80s) and started squatting, as the conditions were quite harsh..”
Even the wildest seeker usually has some pretty down-to-earth insights into his/her situation, and the common humanity keeps each story interesting. “Make me look handsome, I want a date from this drawing,” one of the subjects tells Fly.
The quote, “Punk Rock Died When the First Kid Said, Punk’s Not Dead,” comes from David Berman, “Tennessee,” Bright Flight, Drag City, 2001. You can buy Peops from Amazon or from your local, independent bookstore.