Scribes Sounding Off: Sex, Drugs, and Punk as Cultural Memoirs

by Chris Estey

Three new creative non-fiction books get deep and dirty with the details via some of the very best writing I’ve read in some time. One, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974 – 1982 by Nicholas Rombes, reveals many secrets about the aesthetic origins of 70s underground rock and the ideals of independent music making that continue to this day. The other two, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott, and Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict by Joshua Lyon, are about people living life as rock and roll — learning the scary ropes of transforming both dangerous and divine desire into modes of living. All are highly recommended for the ideas they share and the eloquent way they share them.


Rombes is the author of the Ramones book in the 33 1/3 series, which many people (including KEXP Blogger Spike) have noted as an excellent part of that book series. At first glance, I cynically thought A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974 – 1982 (Continuum) may have been a mere gussied-up notebook of the author’s ideas behind the volume based on that band’s first album. At second glance I almost dismissed it as the expanded literary dub version instead, with sticky memoirs Continuum wouldn’t allow included in that first work. Describing the book to local friends, though, I gush about the early gems of Seattle-based Do It Yourself culture Rombes, a professor of English at the University of Detroit, surprisingly includes. For example, I am dying to get a copy of Seattle-based Helen Keller’s 1978 electric piano-driven slice of skronk, “Surfin’ With Steve & E.D. Amin,” or hit the storage unit for my rare 45s from Jim Basnight and the Moberlys. Small histories and endorsements of these intuitively genuine “punk/rock” artists/releases are included here among many essays on the usual culprits (Pistols, Blank Generation, Patti Smith) with the necessary assumptions (love/hate of hippies/the 60s, minimalism, Bad Taste in 1974). There’s Standing Waves from Austin, Texas, in here, and how creepy weird little zines tied everything together with the minimum of technology, and Joan Didion’s influence on the best rock writers, and how punk was juiced by the gauche amae-but-really-narcissism of books like “I’m OK, You’re OK” preaching self-importance but only on the most conformist of terms.

Rombes makes A Cultural Dictionary important by clearly writing about the weird marginal forces that swirled into CREEM-reading, all night donut shop youth haunted Ohio at the end of the Vietnam war era, and editing out a ton of stuff called “punk” in the years since 1982. But in a perverse Droste effect, he makes it a crucial document of individual expression, as in his autobiographical short story based on Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” — and reminding us at the end that if punk was about extreme individualism, as many of us insisted, how was that different from the death of society (collective responsibility) proposed by Reagan and Thatcher? I think any “real punk” could, and should, write their own Cultural Dictionary of Punk – but as Rombes would probably remind me, what is a “real punk” and would it be able to include the dialectics he includes here? Because many have tried before and very few ever have.


The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott is slotted uneasily in the “memoir/true crime” genre, but it reads like the best edited personal zine ever scribed by a sophisticated and not-afraid-to-offend author. Adderall is basically speed, which has been blamed for the origins of space travel and the Nazis and punk rock and JFK and everything beautiful and terrible in the past century. Elliott masterfully drives himself out of a writer’s block as he wrestles with devouring the pills and waltzing through peculiar therapy, and obsessively engaging and analyzing the case of a suspected serial killer who he once shared a BDSM lover with. He hypnotizes us with his vicious personal history adroitly unveiled, as he was crushed by the humiliations of his father and the molestations of his friends, and reveals urges and their uncanny results in ways usually only displayed in music by bands like Swans, GG Allin, or the Poison Girls.

Another book that shouldn’t work, but does wonderfully. It’s easy to assume that if he wasn’t such a great fucking writer (appearing from McSweeneys and The Believer, to GQ and Esquire), whose masochistic confessions and invigorated self-assessment might be advised to “get over it.” The point is, he can’t; he instead chews deeper and deeper inside, the way that self-scarring and personally apocalyptic way-past-irony early punk never could escape itself either. Also thrown into the 3AM catwalk mix are the sadistic ways we treat celebrities, the bastard trolls at Amazon, and a million other little things writers have to worry about while trying to be poor and brilliant. This is the sort of memoir you wished Iggy Pop would write. (The book is out in September from Graywolf Press, and has an amazing marketing-review campaign you should check out about at their website.)


Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict (Hyperion) is also perfectly written and edited — I swear, I cannot find a typo in any of these books, or mainstream-pandering, or any abundance of cliches, it makes me think we’re entering a golden age of literature prompted as a response to Internet-crap — by a one time editor for the beloved and controversial Jane Magazine (R.I.P.). Like Elliott, Joshua Lyon has been around the periodical block (V Life, Vice, Nylon, etc.) and this practice shows in his journalistic precision. The music, fashion, and art scenes and how they hedonistically connect are displayed wide open by Lyon for the reader, who also places a microscope over his own pill-greedy, bliss-loving heart. Research statistics are analyzed, case studies and the drug resumes of friends inspected, but best of all Lyon tells us how an attraction to knowing more about something dangerous can place any of us in a strangely welcoming danger. Issues about depression, rehab, and cultural identity are addressed significantly by an author who uses the word “zine” without explaining what it is (thank God) and who also expects you to realize that this is a work about something he loves, for better or worse. This is another tight, clear-headed book not necessarily about music, but explores the peripheral realms of transgression persuasively yet leaves the soul of the studied community intact. What we do is secret, but not for long.

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  1. Posted July 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    if punk was about extreme individualism, as many of us insisted, how was that different from the death of society (collective responsibility) proposed by Reagan and Thatcher?

    It is really a matter of perspective, it seems. Just as Proudhon’s vision of a stateless government was starkly different than Marx’s or Ayn Rand’s, punk was comfortable including all stripes of anarchy under its umbrella…Reagan and your average punk might have agreed about the need to keep police activity focused on those who do real harm, but would have disagreed strongly on WHO it was doing real harm and WHAT that harm was.

    It seems.

    Anti-Reagan and stuff man, yeah (Pop-o-Pies, punk philosopher)

  2. Posted August 5, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Dear Chris,
    Why dig through your storage for old 45’s? I’m at and live by Greenlake. I’m playing more and better than ever and just did a CD release party this past week in NYC for the new career retrospective CD, “We Rocked and Rolled” on the Disclosed Records label.

    Best wishes,

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