Monday, October 11, 2010

johnny thunders died for your sins! (3)

X See How We Are
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jesus christ, what a great song. I let my class out early this afternoon and on the drive home I was thinking about the way the golden light played across the fields in the distance and a memory of dancing in the twilight to this song came back to me. remembering the song reminded me of the following which was written a few years back when I was the commissioned lay leader for the menomonie uniterian universalist congregation further out on the rim. part of my duties included writing a paper pulpit for the local newspaper 2ce a year and I think this was the last one I did before they ended that practice. I suspect mine was the only one to have quite this message. what's left out of it, of course, because of space constraints is the dancing alone in the twilight with my car as a partner, buying the tape for $14 when the cost of cassette tapes was hard on a guy sleeping in his car, trying to duplicate in my journal the welling-up that happened in my chest when I listened to x and how that translated into actions like picking up hitchhikers and giving people my money when they looked like they needed it more than I did.

By Bob Bledsoe, Commissioned Lay Leader
Unitarian Society of Menomonie

Twenty years ago when I was living in my car I had a religious conversion. This wasn’t the normal type of conversion you might generally hear of: it wasn’t to Christianity or Judaism or Krishna Consciousness, all of which I’d experimented with. It was a conversion to both a music and a view of life. I was converted to punk.

Punk as a musical form had come and gone a decade before in response to the lush excesses of Fleetwood Mac and late-era Beatles, but it was enjoying a second wave, focused primarily on loudness and speed. I had a 78 Dodge Aspen station wagon with an AM/FM radio and an old boom box on the front seat whose tape player was held shut with duct tape. I had a batch of tapes—The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Talking Heads—I listened to during those long stretches between radio signals. But the tape I listened to over and over was See How We Are by the Los Angeles group X. I admit it: I was sort of in love with chunky poet Exene Cervenka and her long, multicolored proto-dreads and her weirdly throaty vocals.

I’d bought the tape for the uplifting tune “Fourth of July,” but I kept getting drawn back to the title track. John Doe’s lyrics like, “Now there are seven kinds of Coke / 500 kinds of cigarettes / This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy / But in Acapulco / Well they don't give a damn / About kids selling Chiclets with no shoes on their feet,” meant more to me, and meant more in a more immediate way, than any number of verses I’d read from the Bible or any of the Sutras I’d committed to memory or any lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita. They spoke to me of a consumer-oriented society whose War on Poverty had already tipped over into a War on the Poor, where I’d been taught that living a life that was hard or where I had less was commensurate with living a less important life.

If there is one lesson to punk it is “make-do.” Do it yourself. Don’t like what’s on the radio? Make your own music. Don’t like your home life? Make a new family. Got holes in your shoes? Wrap them with duct tape or go barefoot until you can find another pair. What I heard in punk and especially in the music of X was that, while I had a hard life, I didn’t need to live like a bum. Early in my travels I’d met a guy who’d been on the road more years than I would and who explained that the difference between a bum and a vagabond was that “a bum doesn’t brush his teeth.” The vagabond made his own changes was more in control of his life than the bum, to whom things just “happened.” The vagabond recognized his reliance on others and cared for himself so not to offend before introductions had even been made.

Thereafter, no matter where I was, no matter how little water I had access to, I brushed my teeth every morning. It was a matter of my pride. I would be a vagabond instead of a bum. The lesson I took from punk was that to live a hard life doesn’t mean I had to live an undignified life. Punk was like Judaism and Islam: a hard life conferred on you extra responsibility to live a more dignified life.

We read in scriptures of the changes that holy persons made in the religions they proposed and the care they took about taking others into account, and it’s in exactly this way that Krishna, the Buddha, Bahá'u'lláh, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and any number of other holy people up to and including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are punks. This is the kernel of punk spirituality: recognition that others have as much right to the world as you do yourself and that right is non-negotiable. See how we are and accept us.

I am nearing fifty and it’s been more than a decade since I’ve ventured into a mosh pit. Chunky myself now, between my long hair and my ties, people are more likely to think “aging English professor” than “aging punk.” That’s all right. The cleft between groups is often more accentuated by outsiders than by members of the groups. I looked any number of years for a religion that reflected this, for a way to connect with my larger community more completely than when I was a skinny punk cleaning out bars. Religion is where our communities plunge deepest, and Christianity and Judaism and Sufism all had things to commend them, as did Buddhism and Taoism, but I found the most welcoming of my punk mindset is Unitarian Universalist. It’s often denigrated as a cafeteria religion, but with its focus on the law’s effects on the people rather than the Law, on the spirit of the people rather than the Spirit, and its willingness to embrace both people and change, it gave me the best opportunity to combine my love for what’s inside with what’s out. For further information about the aims and beliefs of the Unitarian Society of Menomonie, please visit our website at For more information on Unitarian Universalism, please visit

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