Punk Rock Taught Me To Read (Well, Sort Of)
Posted on April 25, 2016
I really, really hated reading when I was younger. School had scared me away from giving it a fair shot because the material was just so boring and forgettable. Was I expected to want to read more after slogging through The Scarlet Letter? I recognized there was a moral to the story, but at what cost? The language, the style, the entire thing was a chore to get through. I only ever read the first chapter of Silas Marner before throwing in the towel and looking up the summaries online. It was so un-relatable, so non-relevant, so boring. Nobody in those books spoke or acted like anyone I knew. Their worlds were nothing like mine. So what was the point? I wasn’t learning about life or literature. I was learning how to BS my way through boring books and their subsequent papers. School had shown me that reading was a waste of time and it wasn’t about to change my mind. Luckily, punk rock was about to enter my life and do just that.
I was an awkward kid in high school with no idea what punk music was, going through an odd phase of being way into metal/metalcore/screamo/etc. A lot of it was generic Hot Topic-esque “scene” bands, but I also liked “true” metal like Opeth or Symphony X. Why was I, a dorky curly-haired kid who wore Muppets T-shirts listening to death metal? I don’t know. In hindsight it was completely, hilariously bizarre. My best guess is I liked the energy and it did its job of helping me tune out the world.
During the many hours I spent online looking for new music, Showbread had floated into my orbit. They had released an album on Tooth and Nail Records called No Sir, Nihilism Is Not Practical in 2004 that I discovered a little over a year later. For some reason, this strange band with seven members (including a keytar player) piqued my interest, so I picked up their CD. It was unlike anything else I was listening to at the time. The energy I craved was present, but it was still very different. It was more spastic, rawer, and much more bizarre. It was, I found out, “punk.” They utilized dual-vocalist banshee screaming, ’50s doo-wop, and keytar solos, sometimes all in the same song. It was like they were driving 90 miles per hour down the highway with blindfolds on, excited to see where they’d end up after the dust settled. This was my first experience with punk rock, and I absolutely loved it.
Showbread was just as diverse lyrically as they were sonically. The opening track, “A Llama Eats A Giraffe (And Vice Versa)” was about the similarities between nihilism and theism, comparing them to two similar animals. Just to keep the listener on their toes, the next song “Dead By Dawn” was about ’80s horror movie franchise The Evil Dead. They somehow walked the line between serious and silly like they were two sides of the same coin. I didn’t know what to expect from track to track, which was a nice change of pace from the constant and unoriginal troubled-relationship themes of the “scene” bands and…whatever the hell metal bands sang about. Other songs tackled artistic ego (“Stabbing Art To Death”), religion (“Matthias Replaces Judas”), and music itself (“The Dissonance of Discontent”). It was all very lyrically intriguing, which was a new concept for me.
Since I was enjoying the album so much I started digging around to learn everything there was to learn about their strange songs, with two in particular jumping out at me: “Sampsa Meets Kafka” and “The Bell Jar.” Turns out both were inspired by literature, the former being a reference to Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, the latter taking its name from the Sylvia Plath novel. Even though school had soured my taste for reading, I decided to give it a shot and checked out a copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar at my local library.
What I found was startling. Plath was completely unlike anything I’d read before. It was dark and strange, even uncomfortable to read. The main character, Esther, was disillusioned and alienated by the bleak and suffocating world around her. She had trouble fitting in and finding her identity, something I could relate to as a shy teenager. Plath wrote with a raw authenticity, as if to say, “It’s okay to admit that not everything is okay.” I hadn’t read anything so vulnerable before. There was something courageous I saw in Plath’s transparency, her ability to be so flawed and brave at the same time. And maybe that’s why The Bell Jar clicked with me while the other books in school didn’t: the main character felt like an actual, real, fleshed-out human being that could be a part of my own world.
Stylistically, The Bell Jar felt like walking through a strange dream, where everything feels “off” just enough to be unsettling before diving into full nightmare later on. It talked about things my young sheltered self didn’t know books were allowed to talk about: lack of fulfillment, sexuality, mental illness, patriarchy, failed hopes and dreams. This book was opening up thoughts and conversations inside of me about things that were actually relevant. I devoured the novel and found myself wanting to read more. It was a gateway into another universe.
I tracked down a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at a used bookstore. (The owner gave it to me for free because their copy was so beat up, which only made it cooler.) I had just read for pleasure for the first time in my life and couldn’t wait to start something new. A story about a man who wakes up transformed into a giant insect? This was the surreal and weird literature I needed all my life. I read it in one sitting (okay, it’s only about 70 pages so it’s not that impressive. But still). I was voracious. This entire new medium of art was opened up to me, and it was doing for me what school had failed to do: instill in me a desire to learn. It was a snowball effect from there. I started looking up other authors to check out, I consulted friends on what was good, and I picked up random books at stores.
I found that reading was sharpening my mind more than anything else in my life. The world around me was beginning to make a little more sense, or at least become less hidden. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love showed me the scope of mankind’s twisted imagination as well as the human condition with a lovable (and terrifying) family of mutated carnies. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five unveiled the absurdity of war and fate while somehow making me laugh at the same time. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me that humans can be monsters, but heroes exist too. There were entire other worlds out there—literal and novelized—that I discovered, with strange and wonderful characters that are rewards in and of themselves. I started to see myself and others in the characters I was reading about, the real world and the novelized one blending together in ways that made them both more vibrant and beautiful.
I used to think reading just wasn’t for me, but now I think it’s actually for everyone; it’s just a matter of finding the right stuff. It is still, to me, the best way to exercise my mind. There’s something about it that lets me get inside another person’s mind and understand their thoughts more clearly than any other art form. Seeing how other, smarter people express themselves has helped me express myself better too. Not just verbally, but in writing and music as well. I never thought I would become interested in reading, but now I’ve always got at least one book I’m going through with several more I’d like to start. Plus, I’m actually writing for the first time in my life. Literature has sent me down a path I never thought I’d take, and I owe it all to punk rock.