Partnering with Punk

by Shawna-Lee Perrin


I heard The Sex Pistols for the first time in 1986, when I was 15, 10 years after “Never Mind the Bollocks” came out. I’d seen pictures of punks in Rolling Stone, so I knew what punk looked like: colorful or elegantly void of color, ragged with strategic safety pins, sneering yet laughing. But, as a kid in small-town southwestern New Hampshire, I didn’t really know what punk felt like. I hadn’t even heard it.

One sunny Friday, my Mom picked me up from school and had some errands to run, so I asked if I could buy a new cassette tape. I ended up going home with “Never Mind the Bollocks.”

Sitting in my room with the new cassette, I was nervous. What if I didn’t get it? Like when I listened to that Grateful Dead tape my friend loaned me, and ended up confused, and a little irritated. This was problematic, because I’d already decided I was a punk rocker and not ‘getting’ The Sex Pistols would mean I wasn’t a rebel, a god-damn nonconformist like those sneering older kids in Rolling Stone. Then what? I sure as hell couldn’t go back to cheerleading. I’d been kicked off the year before and, anyways, I fucking hated it. I couldn’t go back to the basketball team; I was too nervous about sweating in front of people. I took a deep breath, and hit PLAY.

There was violent bellowing not quite like anything I’d heard before, but there was also a distinct familiarity. I loved it! Thirty one years later, I have a word for that feeling that I didn’t have then: resonance.

That same night, I went to a dance. I met a tall, cute boy, and told him about The Sex Pistols. He had to hear them. They’d blow his mind. They were punk rock! We exchanged phone numbers, and I never heard from him again. Nowadays, I bet he sees Norah Jones or something every chance he gets.

I never did commit to what had become the punk rock uniform. In a place where not much was objectively scary, it was scary to attract that much attention. I wore more black and white than my peers, and some pretty weird mismatched earrings, but nothing too confrontational.

I never got to see the Pistols – they exploded and fell apart long before I was going to concerts. But I did get to see John Lydon’s (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) dark-disco band, Public Image Limited, in a small venue in 2010. I was just thrilled to be in the same room as Johnny, and would’ve been happy with a good-enough performance. Instead, I got extended, deep grooves, snapping percussion, and gorgeous caterwauling from the man who had started it all. It was life-affirming. It was magic. It was fucking punk.

Since then, I’ve seen punk in many different forms. It’s not dead, but it’s not everywhere; I’ve seen it in the corners of YouTube, in small venues in rural towns or urban parts, in fiddle tunes and Alabama ghost music, and friends’ living room jams. It’s there. I realized it’s always been there, long before the Sex Pistols. It’s an energy, a thrum, a too-hard punch on the shoulder, followed by a raspy “I fucking like you. Come with me.” And I follow. Always.