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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Punk Rock and Disability History

I do not like Punk music. However, I do understand why Punk musically and culturally is important. Originally a musically based movement, punk transformed into an important oppositional subculture. I knew this instinctively when I heard the Sex Pistols for the first time as a college student. What attracted me to Punk had less to do with the music produced than the anti-corporate and in your face anti establishment beliefs. The sort of anarchistic nihilism the punks fostered suited my mood circa 1978. I was newly disabled, hopelessly confused as to the meaning of disability and desperate to have sex ( I was 18 years old afterall). I did not understand the moral condemnation that punks were subjected to. I could not fathom how the Sex Pistols became demonized or to borrow the words of Dick Hebdige emerged as "folk devils". What I directly related to was the punk motto "no future". This is exactly what I was thinking and worrying about: did I have a future as a crippled man? What did I do while I contemplated my fate? I sat in my room, smoked too much pot and listened to the punk "national anthem" God Save the Queen again and again and again. I listened to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols Scream:

God Save the Queen, the fascist regime
They made you a moron, a potential H-bomb
God Save the Queen, she ain't no human being
There is no future in England's dream
No future, no future, no future for you

Did I relate God Save the Queen to the dismal social situation in England? At an abstract level I suppose I did but what I really thought about was my growing disdain for the cultural construction of disability. I despised the people that smiled at me but considered ramps, elevators to be a waste of money and my life a tragedy. I despised the lack of value placed on my existence and grew increasingly angry. I dealt with this the only way I knew how: I retreated into a a social shell and was determined to excel the only way I knew how: I would get outstanding grades and whenever possible get as drunk or stoned as possible. This worked quite well circa 1980. I was in the perfect social environment, college, and had few responsibilities aside from school. My interest in punk never subsided even though God Save the Queen and the Sex Pistols were surpassed by many other punk bands. God Save the Queen as my favorite song was replaced by Ian Drury's single "Sex,& Drugs & Rock & Roll", and in 1981 by Spasticus Autisticus. Written by Drury and Chaz Jankel, it was released as a single and on the album Lord Upminister I instantly loved the fact the song the BBC deemed the song offensive and upset the delicate sensibilities of the British. The song also reminded me of the classic book and film Spartacus by Howard Fast. I vividly recalled watching this film with my brother and was drawn to the manly and defiant Kirk Douglas who starred as Spartacus. The song inspired me to read Fast's classic again and I was surprised at how little I knew about the text and its author despite the fact I loved the book. Sure I recalled the main character was born a slave, trained as a gladiator, led a slave revolt that was eventually crushed by Crassus. What I did not know was that Fast was among those black listed during the Cold War and that Spartacus was instrumental in turing the tide against McCarthyism that reigned supreme in Hollywood.

What you may be wondering does Spasticus Autisticus have do with the Howard Fast? The song was written to mark the International Year of the Disabled Persons in 1981. The song was banned by the BBC and the lyrics marked a transition in my life. I was done getting drunk and stoned as it became boring. I was also done being a wall flower content to get good grades but little else. At some level I was making the transition from confused and compliant to one that would eventually become defiant and a self described Bad Cripple. Spasticus Autisticus helped me make this change. The lyrics some 30 years later are worth reading anew:

I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus

I wiggle when I piddle
'Cos my middle is a riddle

I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus

I dribble when I nibble
And I quibble when I scribble

Hello to you out there in Normal Land
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks
You can read my body but you'll never read my books

I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus

I'm knobbled on the cobbles
'Cos I hobble when I wobble

Swim!

So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
And thank the Creator you're not in the state I'm in
So long have I been languished on the shelf
I must give all proceedings to myself

I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus
I'm spasticus, I'm spasticus
I'm spasticus autisticus

54 appliances in leather and elastic
100,000 thank you's from 27 ... spastics

Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus
Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus
Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus

Widdling, griddling, skittling, diddling, fiddling, diddling, widdling, diddling, spasticus

I'm spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus
Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus
Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus

Spasticus, spasticus
Spasticus autisticus

I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
I'm spasticus!
Spasticus!

The refrain, "I'm Spasticus, autisticus" reminded me of Kirk Douglas at the end of Spartacus when he and his fellow slaves are hung and all reply defiantly "I am Spartacus". So began my journey of rebellion in college, one that has not as yet ended. But I hope someday it will as I am getting too old and cranky to fight. Thus I am increasingly interested and drawn to the work of the next generation of disability rights activists. They are small in number but strong in spirit and have embraced the internet with gusto. Thankfully, they start from a position of legal equality that has not yet been matched by social equality--not by a long shot in fact. But I hope like me they are full of piss and vinegar. For I am willing accept my roll as "an old time crip" and am happy provide a history lesson every once in a while.

3 comments:

Greg said...

What are really great post, thanks for sharing this with everyone.

william Peace said...

Greg, Thanks for the kind words. I have been thinking of you since the Penguins won the cup. I am not gracious enough to write congrats. However, I am happy for you and the other Penguin fans. As for Punk, its importance cannot be over estimated. We live with the results daily and that includes music and fashion.

Mike Matter said...

Growing up I had the classic reasons for identifying with Punk. Now I'm 33 and have a disability myself. I still identify with Punk music and this article definitely made me realize why the lyrics of, not only The Sex Pistols, but many other Punk bands like Lagwagon and NOFX still ring true for me. For me, it feels like I can't fit into society the way I'm supposed to fit in and the music lets me identify.
Excellent Post