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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thomas Pynchon - his part in my tattoo

I haven't read any American literature since my O levels, back in the late 1970s. This was pretty much a choice. I didn't have the cultural toolkit to understand it. I felt, incorrectly, that film was somehow the cultural barometer. European films were cool and cerebral, British films were gritty and clever. Hollywood was crass and simplistic.

I was, of course, wrong. But I never had the chance to find out.

When Punk Rock found me, I was a blank page. More properly, I was a seething mass of adolescent tension desperate for something to latch on to. I never did the lifestyle. I was too middle class and timid for that. Saturday punk styling, cheap biker jacket from Camden Market ... But my head was awash with  the new thing. If you're thinking filth, fury and teenage rebellion, you're wrong. It's difficult now to disentangle the wheat from the chaff, the cartoon from the high art, the Plastique Bertrand from Buzzcocks.

And there we have it. Buzzcocks.

Something cataclysmic happened when the universe threw Buzzcocks and me together. Firstly, there was simply a thrilling energy to the music quite unlike anything I had experienced before. But that was just one facet. There was love and loss, yearning and triumph ... best of all, it was an instant text that I could relate to, a new intellectual buzz that transcended just words and music.

It's almost impossible to talk about punk now that you can buy glitter Ramones T shirts and Green Day albums. It's also a bit crass (see what I did there?) to claim some sort of punk moral high ground. It's also difficult to explain how energising the very idea of punk was. This was the ethos around Buzzcocks. A band - yes, but also a loose collective of hi-energy creativity. Linder Sterling, the young Stephen Morrissey, the great and the good of a particular place and time. If your understanding of punk rock is limited to Sid Vicious and spitting, our new-found friendship is, alas, over.

There's a core of intellect in the Buzzcocks canon. They gave us "Oh shit, I thought you and I were friends." They also gave us "I wandered loaded as a crowd, a nowherewolf of pain". Don't be fooled by the casual swearing and the distressed couture. Underneath all of that was a torrent of ideas. Ideas!

One of those ideas was the Secret Public. The paradox. A fan club, a society revelling in its own paradox. I never joined then. Buzzcocks was a solitary pursuit for me. My time with the Secret Public was to come later. But then, back then in the heady days, the scene was set. The icon of the Secret Public, that enclosed world within a world within a world was the muted post horn.

"In these times of contention it's not my intention to make things plain ..."

So somewhere in this weapons grade intellectual stew, someone had made a connection and repurposed the Trystero symbol from Thomas Pynchon's novella The Crying of Lot 49 to denote a new secret public society based on Buzzcocksworld. And that's how and why it eventually got on my arm.

The allusion is unambiguous. Essays longer than the book itself could be written to explain Pynchon's text. Through the Secret Public, I came to the symbol, and thence to the book. I like the parallels. I like the paradoxes. Can I explain the book? I cannot. It's a crazy trip. But not understanding is not a drawback. Some critics and even Pynchon himself hint that there is nothing to understand beyond the immediacy of the language itself and the loops and tricks it performs on your head.

I read the book. Twice. If you like language and if you can connect with the times from which it sprang and the labyrinth of references, you'll get more out of it than I did. But reading it made me feel different. The way punk rock did. I'll maybe read it again. Maybe.

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