Monday, August 17, 2009

Book review: My So-Called Punk, by Matt Diehl

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

My So-Called Punk: Green Day, Fall Out Boy, the Distillers, Bad Religion – How neo-punk stage-dived into the mainstream by Matt Diehl (St. Martin’s Press, NY), 2007.

Music writer and historian Matt Diehl has covered many music-related topics in his long history of being published by mainstream press, so it seems fitting for him to cover how punk gained its foot into that very arena.

Diehl quite wisely posits that punk actually entered the public day-to-day consciousness not as widely stated with Nirvana and “the year that punk broke” in 1991, but rather with the rise of groups like Rancid, the Offspring, and especially Green Day, in 1994.

In the first half of the book, through interviews with some of the top players and his own interpretations, he shows step-by-step how these and other bands grew out of the indie recording scene and made the jump onto major labels and radio/television (e.g., MTV). He quotes members of some of the top bands, indie labels, Suicide Girls, and even some of said major marketers.

The second half discusses some of the implications of these moves, including the question of selling out (such as in a well-pointed section titled “In Pop Punk, Success Will Be Thine Epitaph”), the consequence of the Internet on both the indie and majors, politicizing of the music, sexuality and neo-punk through an extended look at the Suicide Girls, gay issues, and whether punk is “dead,” or not. In one section on religion entering the scene, such as Christian punkers like MxPx, Diehl states quite wisely (and correctly), “Neo-punk’s embrace of Christianity suggest, in fact, that punk now mirrors cultural trends and social mores more than it necessarily critiques them. In this way, the punk scene has become a microcosm of society rather than a subcultural response to it.”

Altogether, this is an interesting look at a segment that has plagued me for a long time, i.e., I’m not sure I would consider some of the bands he calls “neo-punk” any kind of punk, such as Fall Out Boy, Queens of the Stone Age, or, to some extent, Green Day, any more than, say, Avril Lavigne). However, he also make it quite clear that my impression is not uncommon, and he refers to the “what is punk?” question with the vagueness that the question deserves (I am old enough to remember before punk was codified).

Another point Diehl deals with is the “punk is dead,” which, again, he smartly states, “Still, nobody can even agree on what punk is. Even today, punk holds many forms, all in dispute…while there may be some very good books on the topic, there can be no complete, utterly definitive history of this genre…Punk is a great national treasure gone international, a distinctly American art form that has evolved into the world’s loud, fast lingua franca. Behind jazz, blues, and rock and roll, punk rock is one of America’s great contributions of culture everywhere.”

So, I say if us old school punkers need some filler as to what has been going on (my own weakness is that I almost never follow what’s going on with mainstream music, and nearly only listen to indie music, no matter what the genre), this is a good primer to the goings on.

That being said, there are some comments that need to be made that I found troubling. Mainly, the man needs a better editor. Beyond the usual typos that plague most books these days (book companies need to rely on more than just Spell Checker; an example from page 166: “stats Lawrence Livermore,” rather than “states”), there are too many grammatical errors to be comfortable. Diehl has a tendency to use redundant words within sentences which is clumsy to read and, well, for nit pickers like me, distracting and annoying. Some examples include: “…whose bands include bands like…” (180); “Gurewitz in fact sees what he does as an alternative to major label corporate culture, which he sees…” (158); and starting two paragraphs in a row with “’Gypsy Rose Lee,’ meanwhile…” and “’The Blackest Years,’ meanwhile…” (108) (italics mine).

There is also a level of redundancy in subjects and text that could easily be cleaned up by good stewardship. There are many topics that are either covered a number of times in similar ways, or there is an overuse of expository explanations (i.e., “Fat Mike” nearly always followed by “of Fat Wreck Chords”). It seems as though each subchapter is its own piece of writing and it was stitched together. Again, and editor can deal with this to help the pieces flow together.

Brody Dalle, the Distillers
My biggest problem here, though, is with the Distillers. Well, not with the group itself, but Diehl’s absolute love of them. He gives the history of either the band or specifically its singer, Brody Dalle, at least two or three times, and that’sbefore he devotes an entire chapter to her/them (the only band that gets a full portion of the book). It is so obvious he has a major crush on her (“And in Dalle, the Distillers have a front person so compelling she rises above genre constraints…an utterly distinctive, beguiling expressive vocal style,” 91). Personally, I’d rather read about bands that I felt were more punk/less pseudo-metal, like Babes in Toyland, who could punk the fuck out of the Distillers.

Nearly all writers need an editor (to which I am included), and Diehl is surely no exception; he deserves that much. That being said, I am still happy to have read this book, and yes, I would recommend it to those wondering what the hell happened to make punk populist in the post-grunge era.


  1. Absolutely fair, great (as in well written and perceptive) review of my book! Thanks for giving it such a close reading.
    Best, Matt Diehl

  2. Thanks, Matt, for your generous (and fast) response and understanding that I really did appreciate your work, despite my grumbling about extraneous stuff. Your subject matter is not one that has been addressed much in book form (yet), so congrats on being ahead of the fray in an important topic.

  3. your grumbling was hardly extraneous - I agree with most of it!
    Best, Matt