Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: Can we speak about the collection of essays called “Punk Is Modernity”? When did punk really begin?
Richard Cabut: “Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is an anthology published by Zer0 Books, with contributions from some of punk’s most important commentators and participants including Jon Savage, Penny Rimbaud, Judy Nylon, Jonh Ingham, Neal Brown, Dorothy Max Prior, Paul Gorman and Ted Polhemus. It was commissioned and put together mostly by myself – I also provided an introduction and wrote seven further chapters.
The book was widely reviewed. ‘Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming,’ Kris Kraus, The Times Literary Supplement, 9 January, 2018. ‘Richard Cabut… has chosen the theme of punk as a transformative force, a becoming,’ Dickon Edwards, The Wire No. 407, January, 2018. ‘Perhaps the notion to take away is the one of endless possibility,’ Kitty Empire, The Observer, 19 November, 2017. Author Deborah Levy chose Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night as one of her books of the year in the New Statesman, 17-23 November, 2017.
The book, which I’m very proud of, looks at some depth with an incisive cutting edge at, well, punk rock. It captures, I think, the subversive energy of the time. And it avoids academic jargon and style to comment and observe in sharp and entertaining ways, culturally, politically and philosophically.
John Wisniewski: When did punk start?
Richard Cabut: Well, depends on how you look at it. For me, it started in the mid-70s.
In the 70s, conformity was king. It meant everything, in fact. Individuality, distinctiveness, and irony didn’t exist. The overriding objective was to fit in. In my experience, and probably in that of most people my age, the choice was between two main peer groups – the boot boys: basic kids who were interested in going to the football, having a fight and a laugh, followed by a night at the local disco, or an evening in with your bird in front of the telly. Then there were the post-hippy ‘intellectual’ chin strokers with longer hair and prog albums under their arms.
If you didn’t subscribe to either group you were considered a freak or a ‘poofdah’. And you were in for frequent kickings.
Suddenly, thanks to punk rock, these big cheeses had become irrelevant laughingstocks – who cared what they thought? Suddenly, a future of having a laugh and a fight for a few years before taking a boring job on the production line or, if you managed to pass a few exams, in the civil service and marrying your bird didn’t seem so appealing.
The universe had been perceptibly altered. It didn’t look so small anymore. Punk had opened up new vistas. It offered the chance of an alternative, better future, or multiple possible futures. And it did this by connecting concepts, incalculably strange at the time and place, like anarchy, tower blocks, startling fashion, real pleasure, survival, dada, situationism, music, astonishing sex, non-linear energy, boundless originality and creative non-conformity.
John Wisniewski: Could you tell us about editing “Affinity: An Anthology?” It is about
relationships. What interested you about this subject?
Richard Cabut: Ah. I didn’t actually edit this book – the theme of which is, yes, relationships – ‘Who we are when we are with each other.’ It was put together by Alan Wright of 67 Press, based in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
I contributed a story called “All I Want.” It follows the misadventures of a middle-aged, hedonistic single mum, who lives and loves in south east London.
The story comprises a series of loosely linked episodes, which are told by Carol herself via a monologue.
Carol variously loses or finds something. In the central story, for instance, we discover how Carol lost her two front teeth. The plot follows Carol’s attempts to hide the fact from visiting grandparents. In this and other incidents, the woman finds or loses, or is in danger of losing, family, her moral compass, her sense of decorum, her mind – but never her soul, perhaps.
Although this is seemingly a chronicle of decline, it is also a search for redemption. Carol, fractured but hilarious, tells her story via a tone of humorous self-deprecation and a hapless aplomb. She talks of filth with artistry, of despair with vitality and everything with explosive laughter.
I was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for the story – the Pushcart Prize is, ‘ the most honored literary project in America.’ Well, that’s according to the Pushcart people themselves, I think. Founding Pushcart editors include Anaïs Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Harry Smith, Paul Bowles, Ralph Ellison. And among writers who received early recognition via the Pushcart Prize were Kathy Acker, Steven Barthelme, Raymond Carver, and Junot Diaz. So, I was more than honored to be even nominated.
John Wisniewski: Please tell us about writing “Dark Entries?” What inspired you to
Containing an atmosphere laden with sexual anxiety and frustration, the book is both a psycho pulp and an urban blues.
A cultural critique as well as fiction, “Dark Entries” reveals deeper patterns – male entitlement, relationship breakdown, pent-up misogynistic rage, self-loathing – all incisively traced – I hope.
I wanted to create an unsettling portrait, acute and stingingly intimate – an extreme close-up that burns into the memory.
I wanted to push the book’s main naked and confessional theme – of bringing the private into the public in order to make cultural breakthroughs, revealing human truths.
I wanted to write about sex addiction, in the context of porn. Of course, everyone is into porn these days – but I wanted to write about it the from the point of view that, where porn is concerned, the laws of supply and demand reign supreme– ie the reasoning of the marketplace and porn combine to underline the fact that there’s often nowhere left to go but to the laptop to amass dead empty orgasms. To take the situationist idea a little bit further, I wanted to stress that the image has not only replaced reality it has, where sex is concerned, replaced fantasy, too. And that creates a sense of passive, narcissistic omnipotence. Which is a form of illness – which is where the book’s character comes in. He’s isolated, insulated and running on booze and porn – transitory fixes for his psychic pain
‘Sex as Art’/addiction/loathing/shocks/banal sex/boredom and cheap thrills – it was never going to be simple, but reactions such as this from Lou Reid (of the Glasgow band Lola and the Slacks) – ‘What a stunning graphic sign of the fucking times!’ – makes it all worthwhile.
In fact, I feel privileged by the reaction the book has garnered in general. The art critic and author Neal Brown (Tracey Emin – Modern Arts Series) said of it: ‘An elegant and witty piece of gender dystopia horror writing, that also summons the gurgling death rattle laughs of addiction psychology. Really great. It is very nearly perfect. Beautifully crafted, droll, dry, and delicious.’
John Wisniewski: you are also a musician, Richard. What was it like playing in the band
Richard Cabut: I (aka Richard North) played bass in, and organized/proselytized on behalf of Brigandage for a few years in the early-to-mid-80s. They were exciting and productive times – I made some nice handouts and posters, played some wicked gigs (our last can be seen on Youtube in its entirety) helped to record a ‘best-selling’ cassette-only release, FYM, complete with magazine, as well as an LP, Pretty Funny Thing.
By the time of the LP, the Pistols-style punk that had characterised the tone and lustre of the band’s former incarnation (circa my Positive Punk piece for the NME, the band’s brilliant John Peel session and, to a diminished degree, our 1984 live/demo cassette-only release FYM (F.O. Reckords)) was gone.
We – the singer Michelle and I – had new loves and obsessions that fuelled our rot ‘n’ roll dreams. Namely, the Velvet Underground archetype that spoke of viciousness, lust ‘n’ hate and leather (a fantasy of style); life as film noir, existential, nihilistic and a little apocalyptic, I guess; silver art – white heat, pale, glamour frail with the sheen of squalor that spangles; downtown slow dive low life, and other throwaway thrills. You get the idea. It was bound to end in tears.
This was the Uptight Brigandage – clean, hard and laced with layers of acerbity and disdain – although not to be mistaken for some sub-Thunders wasted glam crew of the time: we had a clear understanding of the here and now, and a desire to get out of it. Rather than just get out of it. We cared with unflinching sincerity.
The LP was recorded in some toilet (literally – great acoustics) called Globe Studio, and mixed at Terminal 24 near the Elephant, in London. I mostly remember the anxiety and paranoia, suspicion and delirium, the insomniac insouciance, the psychic fallout with our sophisticated cool well and truly blown. Yes, it was all fun and frolics!
Unsurprisingly, this version of the band split shortly after the LP was released. The magic was elsewhere, but some of it remains, weaving its spell forever, on Pretty Funny Thing – available from all the usual places that such records inhabit – eBay, etc.
John Wisniewski: You coined the term “Positive Punk” which influenced what became
“Goth”. Could you tell us about this?
Richard Cabut: I wrote the “Positive Punk” article for the NME in January/February 1983. At that time there were three distinct groupings in the punk scene. The Oi-sters and Herberts, who were basic and gumby-ish RE music, fashion and behaviour. The anarchos, who were like a mass of black, in terms of clothes and demeanour. And then you had a loose, nameless collection of punks and former punks who were colourful, and full of, it seemed, vim, dash and go-ahead spirit. These folk tended to go to see roughly the same bands and attended the same sort of clubs. I wrote about many of the bands and places, ranging from the Batcave and the Specimen, to the Mob (who were sort of anarcho-plus). It was obvious that something was going on, and the NME asked me to write a piece about it. Originally, I didn’t use the name ‘positive punk’, or any umbrella term. But the paper needed an easy hook to snag readers. Positivity, I suggested when asked, was a common denominator, so hey presto… a little alliteration goes a long way. Of course, Positive Punk was a disaster. As soon as something is named, people have a target to attack. Also, factions within the scene quickly appeared. The style magazine The Face, for instance, did a Positive Punk piece, but the Sex Gang Children refused to become involved – because they couldn’t control it. Their noses had been put out of joint. The big wigs in the scene, your Sex Gangs and Southern Death Cults, had suddenly been usurped, or so they thought, by upstarts like Brigandage and Blood and Roses. Overnight, the atmosphere changed from togetherness to suspicion, jealousy and loathing. This would probably have happened in any case, but the Positive Punk article greatly accelerated the process. As far as I am concerned, Positive Punk described the ‘Passage of a few People (wearing makeup and top hats) through a Rather Brief Moment in Time.’ I think it was accurate. In hindsight, the music wasn’t great, which was probably the real downfall. And then it turned into goth, with even worse music.
The academic Mathew Worley wrote in “No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984″(Cambridge University Press): ‘Richard Cabut (Richard North) was the first to outline the basis of what eventually became codified as “goth”. Pointing to erotic politics of the Doors, ‘tense dusky danger ‘ of the VU, the Ants sensuous black style.’
So, if I’m in any way to blame for goth, hey, soz. ☺ (That was a joke btw: It’s never been my thing, but I have nothing against goth).
John Wisniewski: What will your next book be about?
Richard Cabut: Now I Wanna Be Your Dog and Looking For A Kiss. To you, they may be a Stooges and a New York Dolls song, respectively. But to me they are the titles of my new play (half completed) about bullying, and book set in the 80’s – When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, H-A-T-E.
More About Richard: AUTHOR, WRITER, PLAYWRIGHT, JOURNALIST, MUSICIAN, GHOSTWRITER
Author of the book Dark Entries (Cold Lips Press). July, 2019.
Richard Cabut is the co-editor/writer of the anthology Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zer0 Books, October 2017).
Contributor to Ripped, Torn and Cut – Pop, Politics and Punk Fanzines From 1976 (Manchester University Press, 2018).
Contributor to the anthology Growing Up With Punk (Nice Time, 2018).
Pushcart Prize nominee 2016 for the short story All I Want.
Contributor (fiction) to the anthologies The Edgier Waters (Snowbooks, 2006) and Affinity (67 Press, 2015).
Literary pieces featured in Paris Bitter Hearts Spring magazine, Foggy Plasma magazine, Intellectual Refuge, Laurahird.com, 3AM Magazine, Zouch, Descent.
Ghostwriter (factual, biography, popular culture) of several books.
Richard published the punk fanzine Kick. Five issues between 1979 and 1982.
Contributor to: BBC (staff Features Writer for ten years), NME (pen name Richard North), ZigZag, Offbeat magazine, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, Artists & Illustratorsmagazine, thefirstpost, The Big Issue, 3AM Magazine (also an editor), London Arts Board/Arts Council England, Siren magazine, Time Out, Cold Lips, International Times.
Several plays performed at various theatres in London and nationwide, including the Arts Theatre, Covent Garden, London, Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham, the Lost Theatre, Battersea, etc.
Bassist in the band Brigandage, writing/playing on the releases FYM (FO Records, 1984) and Pretty Funny Thing (Gung Ho Records, 1986). Track, Angel of Vengeance, is featured on the Silhouettes and Statues compilation CD (Cherry Red, 2017).