White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, a new anthology edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, has something for everyone who's set his or her alienation to the accompaniment of screaming. I skipped straight to the book’s excerpt of an 1983 Maximumrocknrollinterview with Ian MacKaye, whose pre-Fugazi band Minor Threat had recently released the scene-shaking, name-says-it-all song "Guilty of Being White."
Two things struck me about the interview: Ian’s lingering anger toward his predominantly black DC school, which "beat me over the head about African kings and stuff"; and its strange familiarity. Why? Ah yes: it was reminding me of another of my heroes, one who's about as far from Ian as you can get. Axl Rose appeared on the cover of a 1989 issue of Rolling Stone. It lived on my desk for about a year. At that time, I was obsessed with Guns N' Roses (Fugazi was two years down the road). When they dropped "One in a Million," in which Axl rails against "Police and niggers" and "immigrants and faggots," I didn't bat an eye.
Like Ian in MRR, Axl revisited his song in Rolling Stone. And while neither one apologized, perhaps avoiding a Michael Richards-style fumble, there's something similarly unsatisfying in their explanations.
Axl: I'd been down to the downtown LA Greyhound bus station. If you haven't been there, you can't say shit to me about what goes on and about my point of view. There are a large number of black men selling stolen jewelry, crack, heroin and pot … Trying to misguide every kid that gets off the bus and doesn't quite know where he's at or where to go, trying to take the person for whatever they've got. That's how I hit town. The thing with "One in a Million" is, basically, we're all one in a million, we're all here on this earth. We're one fish in a sea. Let's quit fucking with each other, fucking with me.
Ian: The point is it's always down to the black people have been shit on by the white people, that's what it all boils down to. And that now the white people owe the black people ... But, I will say again, that it may be really horrible, but I am not white people, I am me, and I don't appreciate my schooling, my life being threatened, I don't like being beat up for white people.
Both insist on individualism, on the relevance of their own very specific life-experiences. And, although Axl and Ian are brutally incisive with their lyrics, both get pretty muddled in the process of explaining themselves. At least MacKaye had the foresight to timestamp his song: "I've only served nineteen years of my time.”
I leave the parsing to the excellent editors of White Riot (and urge them to follow it up with a hard rock/metal edition—Ride the Whitening?). I’m more interested in my own pubescent obliviousness, the fact that “One in a Million” didn’t offend me any more than it stirred up racist thoughts. If you’ve ever depended on punk- or butt-rock, check out these interviews and see if they shed any light on those angry, noisy, and very young years.
Photo: Verso Books