Nihilism. Nonconformity. Anger. Those are the picked scabs most often associated with the original punk rock movement of the late '70s and early '80s. But anyone who believes punk to be merely a middle-finger fashion statement would do well to know that the main ingredients that fueled hundreds of bands and scenes were, and remain, curiosity and community.
Take the case of Laura Kennedy. The Cleveland native moved to New York in the late '70s, became a roadie for no-wave trouble funkers the Contortions, and co-founded the Bush Tetras, one of the first female punk bands, whose "Too Many Creeps" stormed the college radio charts the same year the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" hit the Top 40 (1980).
Fifteen years ago, Kennedy contracted Hepatitis C. Ten years ago, she relocated to Minneapolis to be with a girlfriend. Her illness necessitated a liver transplant in November, and word of her mounting medical bills galvanized the Minneapolis punk community -- as fierce a bunch of non-joiners and iconoclasts as has ever shunned a feel-good movement -- into looking out for one of their own.
"I think that 99 percent of the people who [came of age in the punk scene] feel the same way," Kennedy said last week from her hospital bed (she has since moved back home). "One of the first people I met in New York was [notorious performance artist] Lydia Lunch. That's not a person you think of as a being a community-type person, but she had this loft and had bands come and play there and rehearse."
That do-it-yourself-and-with-each-other philosophy extended nationwide, from Athens, Ga., to Los Angeles to New York, and each scene fed the other. In this instance, in Minneapolis, the ball is being picked up by Doug Anderson of Nick and Eddie restaurant and Mark Trehus of Treehouse Records, who have rallied the troops for a Kennedy benefit concert Saturday starring the Bush Tetras, Minneapolis punk pioneers the Suicide Commandos, David Thomas of Cleveland's Pere Ubu and local band Skoal Kodiak.
"We sort of put it out there that I wasn't well, and the outpouring has been unbelievable," said Kennedy. "I've gotten checks in the mail from people who I didn't know, who maybe saw the band once in the '80s and said I'd been an inspiration to them, or that their daughters learned how to play bass from Bush Tetras bass lines. I get a letter like that and I go, 'Holy mackerel, I guess we really did make an impact.' And honestly, on an emotional level, it's really helped me through, because it's been a tough few years."
Which is why Kennedy won't be playing with her old bandmates Saturday. She's trying to eat junk food to get her weight back up, and will attend the benefit for as long as her stamina holds up. But others will be there to pick her up, have her back, strap on the bass.
"I've gotten so many cards and letters and e-mails, and I can tell you that there is still a huge sense of community among people who came of age in that time period," she said. "I'm not one of those 50-year-olds who walks around saying the Clash was the only band that matters -- even though they were a great [bleeping] band. I like the new, and different. But there are people now, younger people, who recognize that time as having been special, and it really was."
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer currently working on a history of the Twin Cities punk scene for the Minnesota Historical Society Press.