‘False Prophet: Field Notes From The Punk Underground’ by Steven Taylor
by Bec Hawkings
Writing about music is an insurmountable task. It is almost inevitably a lose-lose situation; no matter how good a writer you are, it is near impossible to capture the emotion of music using just words on a page. As a species, we seem to be far more auditory than linguistic. What we try to express with words can usually be said far more clearly with a few notes or a simple chord structure. It’s why we listen to ballads when we’re sad, or thrashing guitars when we’re angry. There is a reason why Beethoven is still so popular: he expresses what our language can’t. I can’t write about music in a way that feels true. Almost no-one can.
Enter Steven Taylor.
Taylor is a punk rocker turned enthomusicologist. Before today, I’d not heard of him or his band False Prophets, a punk outfit from 1980s / 1990s New York. His book ‘False Prophets: Field Notes From The Punk Underground’ was sitting amongst a plethora of other music texts in my university library. My PhD, you see, is broadly concerned with the relationship between politics and popular culture; really, it’s an excuse to write about music in the only way that I’m comfortable with (academically, and with a large helping of political analysis). The book has a dull grey cover, with thick black lettering in a typography I can only assume has the word ‘punk’ in it’s name. My inner fifteen year old anarchist stirred, finally interested in something other than being angry and yelling at things. And thank fuck it did, because ‘Field Notes’ is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a very long time.
Some readers have noted that what’s really presented is “really two books.” So, two for the price of one.
The first third of the book is a crash course in ethnomusicology and punk rock. Academic and yet remarkably readable, Book One dashes across a vast number of topics, as energetic as the music Taylor so adores. The paradox of punk, the problem of culture, and the origin myths of the punk world are all given thoughtful treatment by Taylor. He quotes friend and poet Allen Ginsberg liberally, and he talks about identity in a way that makes you feel that it is VERY IMPORTANT. He invites you to think, and encourages you to question; it’s almost like he’s sitting across from you on the train, talking so excitedly and using such emotive hand gestures that nervous commuters begin to leave the carriage. Taylor is saying, “This is my life, this is what I love, and here are some really cool theories about why it all exists.”
The second two-thirds of the book are part tour diary, part memoir. We begin with Taylor entering the False Prophets as replacement guitarist, and he introduces us to the rest of the band by describing their musical preferences – everything from Bowie to 1960s British blues. Almost immediately, the False Prophets are on tour, and Taylor thrusts the reader into a world of dodgy clubs, awful hotels, endless hours in the tour van, sickness and tension and a never-ending parade of fill-in musicians. He begins a fraught relationship with the band’s violinist and resident heroin addict Celia, and describes in visceral detail the horrors of being a travelling punk band with no money and no real prospects. And yet, for all of that, there is a deep affection to the writing, and it’s easy to understand why. Some of the most profound moments in the book are descriptions of the politics of the punk scene, particularly in Europe – anti-government anarchists, and squatters, and leftists, and all manner of the fringe of society, forming a community that fought back against violence and the rise of the skinhead neo-Nazi movement that clouded Europe from the late 1980s.
Returning to New York, there is a different cloud that hangs over Taylor: the AIDs epidemic, of which he is particularly afraid given his relationship with an addict. He begins to question his life – at age thirty-five, Taylor is living the same hectic and aimless lifestyle he was living a decade ago, and it’s clear that he wants things to change, if only a little. A writer, he stumbles upon a graduate program in ethnomusicology (the study of the culture of music), and enters the world of academia, albeit very tentatively and with one foot still firmly rooted in the world of the False Prophets.
It occurs to me this evening as I arranged my stack of music in K’s piano room that I don’t have to be in a band to write about rock.
Eventually, inevitably, Taylor leaves the False Prophets; the demands of graduate school, and writing, and tensions with band members, mean that Taylor slowly slips away from the band. It’s a slow death, with threads of the inevitable appearing throughout his diary entries long before the decision is made. Leaving the band means leaving a large part of his identity behind, and we suddenly realise why Taylor was so insistent that we understand the concept of identity before reaching this point in the book. It’s an apology of sorts, or a farewell. He still plays in bands, and goes to gigs, and even catches up with old False Prophet bandmates from time to time. But it’s not the same.
How tired I am. Don’t want to be a punk rocker no more. Don’t want to be in that band. There’s too much stress that has nothing to do with music. It costs too much. I write about them and realize more and more how crazy the whole situation is. I think I’ve reached my limit of tolerance for the down side of it.
The book comes with a CD – the False Prophet’s 1990 six-track release ‘Invisible People.’ When I first saw it sitting in the plastic casing on the inside cover, I was concerned. It seemed wrong, or at least a little gauche, to include your band’s CD with an academic text. Like accosting Richard Kingsmill in the street and shoving your demo in his face. But then I listened to it, and it made sense. In every possible way, ‘Invisible People’ is the soundtrack to this book; it adds a whole new layer of meaning to the anecdotes and the characters and the burning, raw energy of the era. To hear the voices and music of the characters – people, really – that you’ve come to know so well throughout the pages is astonishing.
Besides which, ‘Invisible People’ is actually pretty bloody good. It’s smart punk, political and angry and fun. And it has some killer violin.
Don’t know how many books about punk rock you can say that about.