Still desperate after all these years

[F]or the young, everything else (fashion, slang, sexual styles) flowed from rock and roll, or was organized by it, or was validated by it – and that therefore rock and roll was not just the necessary first principle of any youth revolt, but that revolt’s necessary first target.

– Greil Marcus, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980

As a coming-home present, Nurri flabbergasted me by somehow tracking down and placing in my hands a book we had paged through in the San Francisco Kinokuniya three or four years ago, but never caught the name of: We’re Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, SF/LA 1978-1980.

I insist that you order this book. If you have any love for the vital creative upwelling that was the first wave of American punk rock – and especially if you lived through that moment, or its immediate offspring – you really do need to have these images close at hand. Everything in them is fresh, handmade, dangerous, naïve, tender, as yet uncoopted and unrecuperated. Jocoy was something mighty damn close to an August Sander of the early Scene, and it’s enough to make you want to cry, when you consider everything that came after.

You’ll recognize a few faces – Exene, Iggy, and Jello are all here, as well as lesser-known lights like Dianne Chai and Randy Stodola of the Alleycats – but really it’s the anonymous kids that make We’re Desperate what it is. As I described them in a 2004 Metafilter thread: “There were maybe a hundred of ’em, and no two looked the same. You had your Hefty bag dresses and your tempera-on-Kraft-paper ‘suits,’ your fetish trappings worn over SCUBA gear, your goldplate ultra-Elvis, your hand-me-down biker jackets and your Valley Cong – none of it yet ‘commoditized’ in any way, except as collages of decontextualized consumer detritus. Fat girls in mohair, diffidently queer Chinatown hoods with bad skin and dorks on loan from the marine-biology department looked you dead in the eye, daring you to call their bluff – they knew they were beautiful.” Actually looking at these pictures again, I got the details wrong, but the gestalt dead on. Dead on. They were beautiful.

Nostalgia for the gutter? Not really. More a sense – however illusory, however self-congratulatory – that once upon a time, this stuff mattered. That the notch of a collar, the color of a bootlace or the depth of a cuff, to say nothing about certain ritualized postures of the body, could encode a precise statement about one’s relation to the world and communicate this instantaneously to anyone properly equipped to decode it. (Of course, I would think this: it was Marcus, after all, that first pointed me at Dick Hebdige’s utterly essential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which in turn gave me semiotics, the Situationists, Jean Genet and the Mods…and neatly made Marcus’s point for him.)

Anyway, consider this the strongest kind of recommendation. We’re Desperate is more than an important document. It’s a reminder, a goad, and a call to greatness.

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