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The new Calvinism

Calvin Johnson: Olympia's pied piper of punk



The term “punk rock” means nothing anymore. And almost everything. It’s punk rock to hold potlucks and crafting nights, bake sales and whatever else square married couples would have done to meet the neighbors in 1954. Cakewalks and luaus, white belts and harlequin sweaters. By its loosest definition, “punk rock” has basically come to describe practically anything self-consciously dorky or kitschy enough to be worth a go. I had to hold my tongue at the video store a few days ago when I heard a couple of girls congratulating themselves for being punk rock enough to rent a Madonna movie. Over the weekend, someone told me my Yes T-shirt was punk rock.

I blame Calvin Johnson—and by blame, what I really mean is thank, because musically and otherwise it has probably never been cooler to be one’s dorky old self than it is right now. Not that being true to one’s instincts hasn’t always been putting the best foot forward; it just seems like nowadays (although it might just be the age I’m at), people generally seem to appreciate the, shall we say, differently interested among us rather more than in the past. The deciding factor seems to be genuine enthusiasm. That’s apparently why I can listen to Yes and still be considered punk rock. Add that to the list of “You know the world’s gone crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, etc.” items in the Chris Rock joke.

Johnson deserves a lot of credit for reshaping the role of punk rock from stale hardcore orthodoxy to something far more protean. Even the regulation indie chic of thrift-store scores (like Little League shirts for teams the wearer obviously never played on) was adopted less as a fashion affectation, or even a cheap source of duds, than as a kind of beating-repellent uniform for Olympia punk rockers in the late 1970s. As Michael Azerrad puts it in the Beat Happening chapter of his book Our Band Could Be Your Life: “Who would hassle a clean-cut, sober kid in a cardigan?”

More importantly, Calvin Johnson was the magnetic leader of a local movement to make the music more inclusive—even for people who couldn’t play an instrument or carry a tune in a bucket. Singing for early Olympia bands like Jungle Action and the Cool Rays, he showed that innate creativity in most ways counts for more than training or skill. You could be musical without necessarily being a musician; you just had to find your own conduit for getting it out in the open. Mastering an instrument was less important than mastering your fear of public speaking. The charismatic Johnson led by example: If he could do it, why not anyone? By the time he formed Beat Happening in the early ’80s with fellow Oly transplants Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, amateurish charm was not merely a saving grace but a virtue, perhaps even an end in itself. Enthusiasm and a willingness to go for broke, then as now, is what really mattered.

It took a little while for a national network of like-minded slumber-party rockers and oatmeal-carton drummers to catch on, but there, too, Johnson’s K Records label has been instrumental in rallying kids and bands from across the country around his youth movement. Now you can go almost anywhere and find something the kids are calling punk rock that echoes the anyone-can-play spirit of those early days. Even a bake sale. Maybe not a Madonna movie.

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