June 11, 2004

Ronald Reagan and Punk Rock

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The death of Ronald Reagan last week was not unexpected; the last 10 years of his life were probably a living hell for both him and his family as Alzheimer’s ravaged his mind.  As I watched the funeral and the tributes rolled in from both his friends and foes - it seems that he was our last larger than life president.  The Republicans all called him a great president while the Democrats refuse to concede Reagan much credit for anything that happened during his presidency.  In this country we can’t even bury our leaders without the usual firestorm from both the right and the left.  I would certainly guess that his legacy would always include the end of the cold war and the bringing down of the Iron Curtain, so Reagan was the right person for the right time.


However, my thoughts about our ex-president always turn back to the good old “hardcore” and punk days in the 1980s when Reagan managed to become the flashpoint for the entire punk movement.  I just looked through some of my old punk albums and our ex-president is featured rather prominently on LP’s like “Let Them Eat Jellybeans”, “LA’s Wasted Youth” and a few others that I don’t want to dig through right now.  I enjoyed the hell out of this music and never really thought much about the politics of punk in the USA.  Most of the British bands were very political, but I just couldn’t take the American bands too seriously.  There was no draft; the USA wasn’t involved in any real wars (Grenada was not a real war, even though Clint Eastwood made a movie about it), so how much could American punk rockers really be pissed off about politics?   In Detroit the price of gas and all of the cars shipped over from Japan affected us a hell of a lot more than anybody in the White House, but those anti-Reagan songs still kept coming.

 Punk rock always needed a good foil and the Ronald Reagan persona was built to order.  A former movie actor, seemingly not very bright, very quick to cut social spending and taxes and hell-bent on building up the military – this is what we needed back then.  It got boring and too easy to rip on disco, corporate rock bands and suburbia, so an out-of-touch president like Reagan quickly re-ignited the fires of punk when he got elected.  In reality, how much did Reagan really impact rock & roll back then?  He cut funding to the arts, but how many bands were really going to get a grant from the government?  I can just see Henry Rollins or Greg Ginn filling out some twenty-page form from the National Endowment for the Arts so that Black Flag could go on tour.  The welfare and unemployment systems in the USA were already a lot crappier than the British or Canadian ones and the American people were never too fond of paying benefits for anybody anyway (before or after Reagan).

The defense build-up was very scary to many people, but the end result was pretty successful.  Besides, how many Americans really care or know about the rest of the world anyway?  Were the punk bands in Huntington Beach more concerned about surf conditions or about how many missiles we had in West Germany?  I remember a “Lords of the New Church” show at Clutch Cargo’s where somebody in the band started inciting the crowd about Reagan putting short-range tactical nuclear missiles into Europe – the crowd just started cheering.  We don’t care about missiles in Europe – just play the damn songs!!!

In spite of all of this, the hardcore punk movement did manage to do some great things – the whole DIY attitude of bands like Black Flag and their ilk started the creation of independent labels, magazines, stores and everything else that we take for granted.  It’s kind of ironic, but Ronald Reagan was a great believer in the ability of Americans to go out and get things done without any government help and interference – and that’s exactly what the American punk movement did!

    Twenty years later we find ourselves with a whole bunch of problems that nobody could have possibly imagined.  The Cold War is over, but there are more American soldiers fighting and dieing overseas now than there were at any time since Vietnam.  Punk rock has somehow been absorbed into the mainstream of suburban society and the airwaves and malls are filled with all sorts of “punk” songs that have absolutely nothing to do with real people living real lives.  I’m really not sure if I want to defend or criticize Reagan for his presidency; I voted him for him both times because I felt that a policy of strong defense would be safer for us in the long run.  I understood the feelings of a lot of fellow rock & rollers in their condemnation of him, but I also didn’t feel embarrassed for voting for him.  In a strange role reversal, it was the Democrats that actually advocated censorship of rock & roll.  I guess that maybe it’s time to just to accept the fact that those days are gone forever.  When we buried Ronald Reagan – we also buried a world that was much easier to understand and probably simpler to live in.