Our Own James Greene Jr. Discusses His New Book Brave Punk World and Discovering Punk Scenes All Ove
October 17, 2017 | by Jocelyn Hoppa photo by Michael Poley
A few years ago, James Greene, Jr. set out to write his first book, This Music Leaves Stains: The Complete Story of the Misfits, which was published in 2013. In only four years time, he’s turned out his second book, here with Brave Punk World, The International Rock Underground from Alerta Roja to Z-Off, which hit Amazon a few days ago. With his first book, Jim recognized there were no published volumes of the Misfits sitting on proverbial bookshelves. With Brave Punk World, he once again set out to fill in missing stories of punk rock, a genre largely discussed when it comes to bands from the U.S. and U.K. but not so much for everywhere else.
Brave Punk World is not just a timely, convenient twist on a well-known title — it stands to relay directly what it meant (and continues to mean) for punk rock to have caught on and be brought to shape in countries whose inhabitants navigate oppression and regimes we in the West have not faced (you know, yet). That’s not to say every story of every band is filled with danger, but the rebellious, anti-authoritarian spirit is certainly at the heart of the stories in this tome.
Jim is my homeboy. We’ve had a writer/editor/friendship for almost a decade. He’s also part of the reason this here magazine is even a thing, when two years ago he nudged me toward working together again, and I eventually decided to say to hell with it and kick off No Recess!. His column Mondo Rocko here features bands from other lands, and is a direct result of his time spent immersed in punk rock from around the globe.
Our Q&A was done by email, and allowed for Jim to stretch on his answers, which are in-depth, compelling, and an entertaining entrance into what the reader can expect from Brave Punk World.
NO RECESS!: In terms of your own relationship to punk rock, tell us the band that sent you down the path of anti-establishment that ultimately resulted in writing Brave Punk World:
JAMES GREENE, JR: Like millions of others, it was the Ramones. It feels like there’s some irony or contradiction there in terms of “anti-establishment” since they released most of their albums on what would become a subsidiary of Warner Bros, but on the other hand, what constitutes the establishment, us versus them, that’s often a relative concept. When I was a sophomore in high school in the early-ish ‘90s, my best friend John was adamant — “You gotta hear the Ramones, you just gotta, this band is amazing.” He dubbed All The Stuff & More Vol. 2 onto a cassette for me. It absolutely blew me away. I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t the most popular band in the world. Their music is a perfect combination of pop songwriting, trenchant noise, and thematic weirdness. And their look, the leather jackets with the hair and the jeans, that straddles several decades while still seeming contemporary and cool. And the Ramones were from Queens, like my dad and the Mets. Taking all of this in, it was the first time I considered the possibility of a massive conspiracy to suppress great art from the American populace. Of course, since breaking up and dying, they’ve reached icon status. People revere them now; their logo is on iPhone cases. You can’t swing a dead cat at the mall without hitting a Ramones t-shirt.
There were bands and singers I loved before the Ramones, but with those artists there always seemed to be some obstruction, like, this band would be perfect if the members weren’t such clueless ding dongs offstage, or if they didn’t have that song about statutory rape. The Ramones were flawless, I couldn’t imagine a better group that spoke with such incredible tenor to all my sensibilities. And they’re a gateway band. The founding fathers of punk rock and also the most accessible. What’s the rest of this genre like? Is it all this good?
NR!: Were you always interested in finding out more about punk bands outside of the U.S./U.K. or did the lack of writing on these bands prompt you to go searching for more?
GREENE: Well, I’ve certainly been a huge fan of several foreign punk bands for many years, again, going back to high school, and occasionally I’d pick up narrative threads about their homelands and lives and corresponding artists via my fandom, but it didn’t really dawn on me until very recently how little information there is in the U.S. about the art of other nations just in general, let alone information about music, let alone information about punk rock. We don’t absorb what other countries are producing, probably for a whole host of reasons. We’re so large, we produce so much stuff on our own, we think we do the best stuff anyway, only a couple countries border us, et cetera. Concerning punk, even in the known genre periodicals, quite often the reporting on bands in other countries wouldn’t go too far beyond, “it exists.” Enough had slipped through the cracks, though, to make me wonder, What is going on, or what went on, in all these other places? And sometimes I’d catch stuff that’s on par with the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, and it’s clear if punk fans over here knew about these bands or records they’d go nuts.
NR!: How did you decide on the countries you visited (obviously, you couldn't travel to them all)? Last time I checked you weren't Ricky Stratton from Silver Spoons.
GREENE: You’re right, I’m probably more obnoxious and less deserving than Ricky Stratton. My rough goal regarding the travel and research with this project was to try and visit a country on each continent. That seemed doable. In the end, it wasn’t, due to timing and money. When deciding on specific countries, I tried to minimize expenses while maximizing opportunity. John, who gave me that Ramones cassette in 1994, he was working in Mexico in early 2016, so I went there, stayed with him. He was working in a rural area but his boss was kind enough to lend us a car to go into the city a handful of times. Originally I had my eye on hitting Amsterdam, because they have one of the largest concentrations of record stores, they host several record fairs a year, and I have an acquaintance living there who agreed to house me. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out, so I went to Oslo instead. A plane ticket to and AirBnB in Oslo turned out to be a little cheaper than a ticket to Amsterdam, I actually know more people in Oslo, and from there I ostensibly could have visited Sweden and Denmark. I could have, but I didn’t — I lost a couple days on that trip due to a minor back injury. I had to stay in bed with an ice pack. Luckily, Oslo provided a bounty. There’s plenty spillover from surrounding nations.
The only city I visited where I knew absolutely no one was Tokyo. I was nervous about that, because Tokyo is enormous and Japanese society is very different from ours in many important respects, but there is such a rich, beautiful history of punk rock there and almost none of it has moved past their borders. Even if you’re in the U.S. and you’re familiar with the bands, it’s hard to find the records. The list of intoxicating, landmark punk albums from Japan that you can only hear in Japan is pretty long. So I had to go. And it was wonderful. It was wonderful visiting all these places and briefly experiencing their ways of life, picking up on societal and cultural nuances you can’t necessarily glean from a record or a book. Very enriching and fun.
NR!: Can you give us one good travel story?
GREENE: Allow me to amend my previous statement: every travel experience I had for this book was wonderful, enriching, and fun so long as I actually got into the country. There was one instance where I was denied admittance. It was entirely my fault. In September 2016 I flew to São Paulo, Brazil without a tourist visa. I hadn’t even applied for one, because, during the previous month’s Olympics in Rio, Brazil waived visa requirements for U.S. citizens to encourage more tourism for the games. I wanted to visit at that point, during the Olympics, but the one person I know in São Paulo, the only person I know in Brazil, said she’d be out of the country and that I should come a month later so she could be my guide. I agreed, and in the interim Brazil quietly reinstated the visa requirement. It must have been quiet; when I called my friend to explain why I couldn’t leave the airport she was very surprised.
I made a stupid assumption, that the waive was still in effect, did not fact check, and paid the fuckin’ price. That said, when Latam, the airline I flew, was rebooking me back to U.S. soil, the employee offered an apology on behalf of their company for not looping the visa requirement information into their online ticket system. It’s something they should make customers aware of and help them with, she admitted. I appreciated that. I think about that now and it more or less makes up for Latam welching on this employee’s more hospitable offer, that they’d reimburse my ticket so I could return once I had a visa. They reviewed the case a couple of times and ultimately decided to keep my 800 bucks. That wasn’t great, but in this situation I apply the Jimmy Carter quote that money’s just what we use to keep score and the whole situation could have been a lot worse. Once it was revealed I had no visa, Brazilian customs officials held my passport for a very long time and were not exactly forthcoming about what might happen next. This was all taking place at 6 or 7 A.M. on a Sunday morning. That’s not a fun time to be working, unless you’re a priest. Certainly not a fun time to have some ding dong American fall in your lap. I was more embarrassed than anything else as this unfolded, but they had every right to exercise caution. Who the hell was I? Some yutz with no visa. The only U.S. citizen in the customs area. A potential criminal or lunatic. They could have locked me up if they wanted to, you know?
At least now the stage is set for a triumphant return. Fill out the visa application triumphantly.
NR!: I've always been curious if, say, a Japanese punk rock band cares all that much about finding an American audience... they seem to have their own vibrant, massive thing happening.
GREENE: Based on the conversations I had for this book and the research I did in general, it seems like most artists in other countries remain focused on where they are, focused on their own domestic community and opportunity. If they harbor any concern or desire for success, it’s in their home. The States are an afterthought, if anything. So many groups have conquered their homelands, become superstars or legends, and that’s probably enough, especially for punk rockers. If their music reaches the U.S. by some happenstance, I’m sure they’re happy or amused or grateful, but yeah, it’s not anyone’s primary goal, not in punk rock anyway.
NR!: To really get the context right, it would seem you'd have to possess some fairly in-depth knowledge of what, historically, was going on in these countries at the time punk rock emerged there. What can the reader expect in terms of how history ties into it all?
GREENE: I think each section or chapter gives enough framework historically and politically to understand what the punks of their respective countries were living with or against, what they were fighting or burdened with… I tried to paint a picture of each society for those contextual reasons. Some portions of the book might be more realized in this sense than others, because it is difficult to condense any nation’s history into x amount of space, particularly if you’re an outsider. It’s complicated stuff, but I did my best. The basic through line remains, I think — youth railing against authority, the government, the goddamn establishment. It took on different forms in different places, though, and with different consequences.
NR!: I also imagine bands rising up in the face of political unrest, an authoritarian government, or overt nationalism would also entail some danger, not just for the band but for the fans as well. Can you give us an example?
GREENE: Oh yeah, there are lots of terrible stories from Eastern Bloc countries where police would descend on punk rock fans waiting for or exiting a concert and smash the hell out of them. Sometimes cops would just cruise the streets in these countries, grab anyone with funny hair, rough them up, and force them into a barber to get their heads shaved. In Russia, there were very popular punks who met with questionable deaths or disappeared into institutions. Their own families would often call the authorities on them, upset or scared these kids were turning away from Communism. Soviet nations were so fearful of Western influence, which they were certain would lead to moral corruption, they really panicked. Maybe part of that was they could see the writing on the wall. Punk bubbled up in these places not long before Communism fell. Those in power were clinging desperately to the only thing they believed could or should work, mortified of potential change.
NR!: Obviously there are a number of sub-genres, but is punk rock arranged pretty much the same? Or do some of the bands also inject their own cultural sounds or native instruments into the music they created?
GREENE: Well, I think each unique culture informs its music to a certain degree, and there are specific nuances in the rock music of Zambia, Sweden, Iceland, et cetera that set them all apart from one another and everything else, even when the players are specifically attempting to emulate Western artists like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. It’s the same way kids in Seattle heard Aerosmith and Black Flag and came up with grunge. Yes, it all sounds like punk if we are to define punk as everything from the Velvets and Patti Smith to L7 and NOFX, but listen long enough and you recognize, “Oh, the Swedish stuff is very produced, sometimes very glossy, Zamrock is always so raw and intimate, like you’re in the practice space,” and so on.
There are a few instances where the musical DNA of punk is very different. China did a great job keeping rock music out of the country for decades, and their godfather of punk, He Yong — his 1994 debut owes as much to Prince as Iggy Pop. There is a strong “rock” or rockist vibe to a lot of the founding China punk. Nirvana, the Pistols, the Misfits — bootlegs of those bands all showed up at the same time. It wasn’t spaced out by time or circumstance as it was here.
NR!: Did you find that one country over another features faster or more aggressive styles of punk than others?
GREENE: I don’t know if a specific country can claim definitively to have the absolute fastest or most aggressive punk, but there are places where the fast stuff developed faster, or more rapidly in chronology, I should say. South Korea made what seems like a really quick jump to hardcore when punk began developing there in the ‘90s, but you know, ‘80s hardcore informed a lot of the ‘90s punk everywhere, and this traps us in the fruitless “what is hardcore?” debate. Again, it’s all relative. Something can be extremely aggressive without being fast. A lot of the Norwegian punk feels aggressive due to a darkness I perceive, but I’m not sure if that’s simply my perception or the truth of the art. Art is subjective, perception is reality. What I’m telling you is I don’t know.
NR!: Aside from the obvious, why do you think punk rock became a movement that can be witnessed around the world? What drives these bands to make music aside from the ideologies?
GREENE: It’s fun to pick up a guitar and not be Santana and be applauded for it.
NR!: After all the work you put into Brave Punk World, how has your own relationship to punk rock deepened or changed?
GREENE: Writing Brave Punk World has reaffirmed my passion for the genre as it has opened up so many new avenues for me to explore. A seemingly endless stream of artists and records and scenes from all over creation. Some people said I was nuts for wanting to do a book like this, of this scope, but it felt like the perfect extension of my main hobby — tracking down and living with previously unknown and under-appreciated music.
NR!: Anything else you'd like for readers to know about the book not covered here?
GREENE: I would like the audio version to be read by Pam Grier.