Nicole Alvarez

» Posted by | 2 comments

.

NIHILISTIC CULTURE: PUERTO RICO’S PUNK SCENE

Thirty years after the Punk culture emerged in Britain amidst economic recession, Vivienne Westwood’s shocking Punk fashion associated with bright hair color, anarchy symbols, ripped clothing, spikes and military boots along with Punks edgy, anti-establishment music of the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash has its own brand of angst-ridden revival on a tiny island in the Caribbean. A young journalist takes a trip underground to explore the Punk culture of Puerto Rico…

Ricardo, Jackie and José are regulars at the track and field parking lot in Ramey Base. On social evenings, they go to the supermarket and buy a bottle of vodka to keep in the trunk of their car until they find an empty parking lot where they can stop. The track and field parking lot is their favorite place to go since they can drink under a streetlight until five in the morning. There they can play air guitar and air bass to Circle Takes the Square .

“This version of ‘Same Shade as Concrete’,” Ricardo tells me, “the CD version is good, but this is amazing.”

He forgets to bring a bottle opener so he decides to show me how to open a beer the fun way, by scraping the bottle cap over the edge of a sidewalk. The bottle top shatters and a few shards of glass cut his hand. “Que mierda. It happens. I’m used to it.”

Everyone laughs even though the bleeding hasn’t stopped and glass scatters across the ground where kids will have their soccer practice the next morning. They still try to drink out of it, avoiding the sharp edges as they spill beer all over their shirts.

Ricardo– he tells me to call him Ricky– passes me an unopened bottle of Nadja Vodka, the cheapest one available (he apologizes for this), and I wash it down with a light beer. My friend and designated driver for the night, Miguel, takes a sip of the vodka and passes it on to Jackie who swigs down her share and a few seconds later throws up next to the car. All she vomits is alcohol and nachos that reek of the whiskey she drank earlier in the night.

She asks me to join her in the bathroom but they are locked with thick rusted chains. We’re forced to crouch behind a graffiti covered wall facing the main highway to relieve ourselves. I ask her if people can see us– the cars like blurs of light passing by. “I hope not! That would be like… embarrassing! You’re my new best friend, you know that?” she giggles and almost loses her balance. We hold on to each other, arm over each other’s shoulders, to keep a steady balance and walk a straight line.

The men are waiting for us so we can finish off the vodka. Ricky stretches and raises his arms over his head, which causes his mustard yellow shirt to ride up and expose his growing beer belly. It has taken him about two years to develop it but he doesn’t seem to care much about it. On the other hand, José is short and thin, for no matter how much he drinks he doesn’t gain a pound. He just wears a steady mellow smile that assures, “I probably won’t recall this tomorrow morning.”

Unable to stand a second of silence Ricky herds us into a circle and shouts out, “Raise your hand all those who don’t believe in God!”

Jackie and José jump and yell “Me!” while Miguel and I explain our disillusionment with organized religion to Ricky, who is on the verge of a rant on why Christianity is all a lie.

Miguel quickly turns the conversation to local bands, asking which are worth the two-dollar entrance fee to their shows. “Ninguno carbon. None that are still together,” is all José says.

Meanwhile Ricky asks me about my taste in music, ready to educate me on the basics of modern punk rock and the likes of Dillinger Four, The Lawrence Arms, A Wilhelm Scream and Bear vs. Shark. He tries to impose his tastes on everyone he meets. He assures me he has good taste and that everyone else is just stupid and not worth paying attention to.

Later, I ask Miguel why Ricky rants on and on when he meets someone and attacks that person’s beliefs and ideals like a lawyer trying to defend his client from the electric chair. “It sends a message. He’s not much of an activist, like most people, but he hopes that the message will spread and things might change. It’s a protest.”

I shake my head and wonder. Is that what punk was all about now? An alcohol infused protest against the system? What about the Do It Yourself subculture of the 70s and the liberty spikes which adorned the heads of its followers?

A few months back, a self-proclaimed writer/musician named Alex tried to befriend me based on a mutual passion we both shared. “It’s the best feeling in the world– playing God. As a writer, you can control life and death. I like the power to kill off any character at will.” He laughed, squinting as he scratched his beard and careful to avoiding the piercing below his lip. He spoke with urgency, occasionally biting his lip as he discussed every detail of his life’s work.

In a moment of nostalgia, he mentioned how back in his high school days he formed a band with some friends, which dedicated most of their songs to telling the story of a robot boy. It was a Thrash-Screamo sort of band, he said.

One night Alex sent me through a chat window an audio clip of a song he was composing in hopes of forming another band. “Is my voice ok?” he wrote, “I’m not too confident with it.”

The clip was hard to appreciate. He competed with volatile static, which overpowered him on occasion while cymbals crashed behind him. “I got a friend of mine to play the bass for this clip even though he’s never played the bass in his life! But the bass is easy, we just taught him the notes and he did ok.”

I gave the clip to a friend of mine to ask for a second opinion. “That’s very Punk of him, huh,” he said.  But what exactly is Punk? As of the 21st century in Puerto Rico, it’s generally associated with fashion rather than political and social ideologies, as is any subculture that has been commercialized. It’s safety pins and red checked skirts, bright hair and gauged ear lobes moving to the beat of a guitar accompanied by metal chains grazing jeans.

Alex never described himself as a punk. He was a creator, not someone looking to change the world or start complaining about social attitudes. His hair was unkempt, his face pierced, and his black converse shoes looked to be about eight years old.  Dirty and self assured – he still was not punk. His self-perception did not fit the culture. He had nothing to fight against except his own writers block.

The punk subculture in Puerto Rico was simply too nihilistic for him, and too rule-governed.

Another acquaintance and hater of the subculture agreed and clearly pointed out the problem. “Punks are too obsessed with rules and who is a ‘poser.’ It’s like they are in the 10th grade still. They hate each other because they don’t all think the same and look the same. They’re cocky. They think they are superior to anyone else and they falsely label others and even artists. They have a million subcategories for their small group and they try to impose their beliefs on everyone. It’s like they are a separate political division!”

Miguel disagrees. “Punk is based on emotions, it’s expressing what you wish to express, be it atheism, socialism… as a group, punks follow similar standards but they try their best to be unique. They like the music’s nature and identify with what a band expresses and their way of expressing it, generally through chaotic screaming. There is a rejection of the system and anything that controls or has power over others and tells them what to do. But no one seems to be able to do anything or feel the need to do anything about this though. It’s a ‘no hope’ kind of culture. It’s too big of a job for them. They try in their way to spread consciousness and live and feel like they are fighting back, but they won’t do anything big,” says Miguel.

Miguel writes music reviews for the Sputnik Music website in his spare time. “I just enjoy punk; I don’t necessarily follow the patterns. I don’t mold to it and I don’t want to be labeled as a part of it.” Yet he agrees to join Ricky and the others when they invite us to a show where the California band Graf Orlock will be performing. Ricky offers us room in his studio apartment about a block from the bar where the band will play. He promises better vodka.

A mosh at the Mayaguez pub “The House”. California band Graf Orlock plays.

The show is a hazy blur of lights and a sea of people, which slam Jackie and me back against a steel cage in the center of the pub. We raise our arms to protect ourselves and shove the wave of sweaty men. Everyone seems to have ‘G O’ drawn on their hand with permanent marker and the men, who make up the majority of the crowd, are shoving, spilling drinks, and kicking everything indiscriminately.

In the mosh pit, skinny boys with lip piercings and bulky men with closely shaved heads and gauged ear lobes that reach their neck, thrash their arms about and smash into each other. One of them does his version of the robot, shaking his curly red afro spastically. Someone else is kicked in the face. Another slams full-body into some unsuspecting stranger who rips his shirt in half with guitar-induced fury. When Miguel finally decides to join the dance, he comes out with his glasses dangling from one ear, and a bruise on his arm.

The lead singer of Graf Orlock screams into the microphone while he jogs from side to side shaking his head, alternating paths with the bassist and guitarist making sure to scream at each section of the audience. They do not mind slamming into an unsuspecting audience member and bouncing back onto the band’s stage area.

When the band finishes its set we are all herded upstairs to Ricky’s apartment to pass on another bottle of vodka in alphabetical order. “Last names first!” José yells, taking his sweaty shirt off and grabbing a Russian Federation hat and a strap-on beard off the wall to adorn himself.

Eight people sleep in the apartment that night, two in a futon in the kitchen, their feet facing opposite directions, and one on the floor next to them. In the room, Jackie and Ricky sleep in a wooden twin bed huddled close (he reminds me not to tell his girlfriend about that) and José sleeps in a reclining chair with his feet on the bed and the hat and beard still on. Miguel and I get an inflatable mattress. It smells like weed outside and a cockroach wanders in from under the door and scurries off under the bed. In the morning I wake up to find “communista” scribbled over my forearm.

I avoid spending too much time with the three punk followers for health related reasons, but I chat with Ricky on occasion despite him being too drunk to remember what he tells me. “I know I drink too much of the sauce. But I have problems and things bother me and well…so it goes.”

He does not wish to further elaborate on the subject even when I ask him what happened of Jackie who, when I last saw was passed out in the back seat of his car with her breasts almost popping out of her skimpy top. He changes the subject to Kurt Vonnegut and reminds me to read his blog where he rants on commercialism and the emo fad/subculture.

“The mantra seems to be ‘individuality through uniformity’, which quite frankly blows my mind,” he writes. I comment on his writing favorably, so he opens up on a broader sphere of subjects. He tells me he went to a show recently where he personally knew a member of the band, but he came out stupefied at how that person claimed to be living off his music when his father was a lawyer. “I have money, I’m not ashamed of that, but at least my money comes from ethical places.”

I ask him what he thinks about the Punk subculture. “I hate the scene here. It’s not even punk, it’s just a bunch of emo kids in tight pants who think they’re cool. It’s all commercialized here. At least my band didn’t suck so much. Everyone here has this strange sense of random humor which isn’t even funny and all they talk about is vampires.” Ricky tried to form a band to fight the Hot Topic culture in Puerto Rico, but he lost interest or hope in the battle soon after – he does not want to admit which one.

He changes subjects quickly and tries to convince me to become an Atheist (my belief in God is my main fault he says) and to sympathize with the Socialist party, whose symbol graces the flask he carries in his back pocket. “This whole fucking government is full of crooks; it pisses me off how people are too obsessed with political colors to really notice that. Azul! Rojo! But there’s nothing we can really do about that, not even voting. I try though, I vote for what I think is best.”

I ask him if he feels better for fighting back how he can, if it eases his mind somewhat. “It’s frustrating I mean, you want to change the world, but no one really thinks anything has to be changed. I’m kind of drunk now, sorry, I probably won’t remember this tomorrow. There is really no hope for people. I don’t expect much, I just do what I think is right you know.”

 

2 Comments

  1. Esto es muy realmente interesante, Usted es Eres
    un blogger muy hábil. He unido a tu feed y esperamos que buscan más de
    su gran fantástica puesto. También, He compartido su sitio en mis redes sociales!

  2. I can’t believe nobody else has commented on this post before. I am in love with the underground music scene, I think it’s one of the last howls of authentic culture in our island. There’s nothing more anti-establishment than supporting independent music and art. You have a real talent for writing, I was able to clearly visualize your hilarious hangout with the punk crew under a street light. You made a very amazing observation when you saw that for Ricardo, being a punk meant imposing your ‘truth’ on others, while you rightfully believe that the punk movement was all about the DIY movement. You don’t have to play punk music, to be a punk, it’s all about the DIY attitude.

    Punk has acquired a different meaning now, like you said, when somebody creates music in a very laid-back unpolished way, it’s called punk and we’re expected to like it. I’ve played bass in a punk rock band and it’s pretty much like this. We have sections in our songs where our drummer goes off on a solo and nobody follows him because we literally haven’t practiced synchronizing with him. On one hand it gives the audience the impression of honesty but I think it’s kind of non-musician-like to just not try and perfect the song.

    The picture you paint of punks is pretty shocking, but it’s true, the shows are chaotic and I’ve always thought that extreme moshing (kicking and shoving eachother) is childish. It really is an insane concept, going to watch a band that barely practices (I’m generalizing) so they can yell and fuck up a thousand times while people beat each other up. Is this what we drink for? This is what happens when you have smart and critical people who realize they can’t do anything (at the moment) to change the world. We inebriate ourselves to anesthesize our pain and degenerate into dancing monkeys.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>