Prep vs Punk

One of the observations I made in my first-ever post on this blog was about the tension between appearance vs. the music you enjoy. That’s been a recurring theme around here ever since. I was recently inspired to revisit the topic after I went for a drive with some friends. One of them referred to The Official Preppy Handbook and the “punk/prep” connection. That connection was admittedly something I’d never thought about before so I wanted to dive into it more.

The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1980 as a satire of the boat shoes-and-lacrosse set. It goes into detail about what it takes to really fit in with that lifestyle: the “right” schools to go to; how to correctly hem your pants; the importance of combining kelly green and pink. And in a little column, almost hidden away, the authors talk about the punk-prep connection.

Some preps are the types who might only read about music for the shock value. Others might genuinely love its sound and would go all out if they could. On weekends they swap their uniform of Sperry Topsiders and polo shirts for sneakers and oversized t-shirts. The column also mentioned the Talking Heads, which I found to be an interesting choice: I’d never thought of the Talking Heads as being especially “punk.” New Wave, certainly, but not of the same ilk as, say, the Sex Pistols.

Maybe the authors labelled the Talking Heads as punk because some of their songs have a heavy guitar beat but are a palatable level of alternative for a traditionally buttoned-up (literally and figuratively) group of people. Someone can jam out to “Burning Down the House” on Saturday and go back to being a marketing executive on Monday.

I think one element of the punk-prep connection is rebellion. Preps have been told their entire lives how to think, dress, act, even eat and drink. Punk is the complete opposite of all of that. It offers an alluring, total escape: scream your heart out, rip your clothes, raise your finger to The Man. Do whatever you want. As Against Me! would sing, years after their forefathers yelled their way onto the charts, “The revolution was a lie!” (Coincidentally, that song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” really spoke to me back as a youth.)

You’ve also got timing. Prep has been around forever, but in a lot of ways it was really reaching its zenith in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s of course when punk was taking shape, too. Students at prep schools would have been growing up at the same time The Ramones mumbled that they wanted to be sedated. They might have sneaked out past curfew to see a concert or two. And if they were anything like me, those beats would have hit them straight in their hearts and shown them a world far beyond what they’d known for so long.

“Litany (Life Goes On)” by Guadalcanal Diary

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I had a radio show when I was in college. It was called “Oblique Records,” I believe, in a nod to my desire to share songs that were off the beaten path. I wasn’t as interested in the rock & roll standards that my male counterparts played on their shows. Sure, I shared a few, but the focus of my show was gathering everything else I found.

It was also an interesting exercise in bravery: I was hidden behind a microphone, not showing my face publicly at all, but I still felt nervous each time it hit the top of the hour and I was on the air. I guess there’s something intimate about playing the music you like. You wonder – hope – that other people will enjoy it as much as you do.

All this is to say, I still have all of my old radio playlists. The other day I remembered a song from one of them that I played on my very last show: “Litany (Life Goes On)” by Guadalcanal Diary. They were an alternative rock band from the ’80s. I still don’t know how I found that song to begin with.

I hadn’t listened to that song in years so I put it on. And wow. It was a kick to the heart. I was suddenly, vividly transported to that final radio show: the small station, the beeping machines recording everything, the bookshelves full of vinyl records. And because my show on Sunday nights, the late evening May light was just slipping away over the hills of campus, washing everything in dull reddish-pink.

Beyond that, too, was a sense of melancholy: leaving college, the show, and everything the show meant to me, behind.

Yet: “I, I see life/Like a mirror/I, I see life/So much so clearer.” The song itself is about life continuing, evolving – “an ever-changing song.” So perhaps it was fitting that I put it on that last playlist. My life is an ever-changing song and I’m still learning how to play it.

Eddie Van Halen Passed On

This is going to be a short post since I don’t have as close a connection to Van Halen as some other groups but I still wanted to comment on what happened.

I guess what I’m thinking about right now is a comment that a friend of his made that The New York Times quoted in the initial announcement. In sum, they described the joy that Eddie brought to guitar playing at a time when the instrument’s sound was “gloomy.” That may be a reference to shoegaze, who knows, but joyful is certainly what Van Halen is. “Jump”, of course, is just such ’80s oversized hair metal that you can’t help but smile every time you hear it. Not everything has to be quote-unquote serious music and indeed, there’s significant value in getting that kind of escape.

So turn it up to 11 in memory of a great guitarist. Eddie, you’ll be missed.