Sam McPheeters: Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk book
I just finished the new Sam McPheeters book, which I plowed through in about a day and a half. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a junkie for punk books—I read almost every single one I can find—and he quality of writing and depth of thought here make this is one of the best out there. One problem I have with punk books is that they usually present themselves as objective histories, but they don’t engage with the troublesome questions of historiography. Thus, what happens is the authors either parrot established narratives and received wisdom about the genre and/or they’re blind to their own biases and the idiosyncrasies of their particular world view or lived experience. Sam McPheeters doesn’t have either problem. This is partly because he cut his teeth in a smaller scene during what’s usually described as one of punk’s fallow periods, so his own story doesn’t neatly fit into punk’s grand narratives. But, mostly, it’s because McPheeters seems trapped in his own head, second-guessing and criticizing his every move, both as a human being and as a writer. When he was in Born Against he was a relentless antagonist, and he remains so as an author, constantly (and often brutally) pointing out inconsistencies, ulterior motives, and plain old bullshit. As McPheeters notes in this book, the rear-view mirror of punk can feel like a high school football player reminiscing about his glory days, but McPheeters’ version is more like an addiction / recovery narrative. He acknowledges some crazy / interesting / fun stuff happened, but there’s a sense of shame and regret that hangs over everything like a sheer curtain.
If you devour punk books like I do, there’s so much material here you’ll love. McPheeters’ investigative journalism is great, particularly the lengthy piece about Doc Dart from the Crucifucks, which I remember reading online a few years ago. His first-hand tales of tours, making zines, and various scene dramas are always interesting and hilarious. His account of the infamous Born Against / Sick of It All radio debate is a must-read. And there is some poignant music criticism, with McPheeters singing the praises of the Cro-Mags, Void, and Youth of Today in ways that articulate why they were so important while acknowledging the inevitable complications.
He’s so even-handed and eloquent about his favorite bands and records that it’s even more frustrating that he’s so hard on himself. I’ve known so many people like this who were brilliant, but reserved their most astute and cutting criticism for themselves. Maybe I’m naïve, but I treasure my involvement with hardcore punk, and while I don’t need to see it celebrated uncritically, I’m also defensive about it. Maybe I’m defensive because some parts of Mutations hit too close to home. When McPheeters writes about quitting playing music and disengaging from the scene, it makes me wonder if I’ll hit a point where punk is part of my past, where even listening to the music will feel like flipping through an old photo album. And if I don’t take that path, am I making a mistake? Am I dooming myself to a lifetime as a man-child? Usually, an enjoyable punk book will make me dig out a few records I haven’t spun in a long time, but this is the shit Mutations has left running through my head…