Jon Savage is the foremost authority about punk, both first-hand as a wild child himself in London and, later, as the author of England's Dreaming, his authoritative history of the movement that shook Europe and the U.S. to its core almost 40 years ago and the current subject of this year's Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Savage was in town a few weeks ago for the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Teenage, a documentary based on his book of the same name, I managed to snag the scholarly pop historian for a sit down.
What was your initial reaction when you heard the Costume Institute was going to put on this show?
I now am always interested in talking to or being involved with other people with projects about punk because their vision and enthusiasm enables me to see the subject anew. I always think it's a challenge to put pop culture in a museum and make it great, but it can be done. I was involved in the David Bowie exhibition in the U.K., which I think is a really good show.
Don't you feel any sense of irony or contradiction that something so antithetic to the hegemony of cultural institutions is now lionized in one the greatest cultural institutions?
No irony at all. It's so historical, it's unbelievable. Why shouldn't it be in a museum? That's the way that history is made. Punk should be in history because it was great and it's also very alive.
Which leads me to my next question: does punk still live? Or is it now monumentalized, preserved, packaged and put away in a museum?
It's both. I used to have the attitude that punk ended in '78 and everything after that is not very good. But then I've had to reassess my attitude. We did an event at Cornell and there were people who'd been punks in the 80s and they were talking about their experiences and this young guy got up from Costa Rica and said punk is the reason I'm here because we all got together, there was a benefit show of punk bands, and they got me the money to go to Cornell. That's why I'm here. People around the world are still getting inspiration from punk to do things for themselves. The self-starter idea was still there. I think it's amazing that there are kids in China playing punk rock.
Is punk just another manifestation of teen rebellion as, for example, "swing" was when it first swept the country?
I think each generation has its own task in its own time. I think in some ways I see punk very much the product of that moment, a very considered, styled, angry backdrop of what the cities were like: very derelict, cars left in the middle of the road, trashed, dreadful -- that's what punk came out of in New York and London. Something that we can't imagine now. Punk was the most aggressively "fuck you," and very confrontational. That's what made it different from other youth movements. First time I saw The Sex Pistols I thought they were incredible but I was also very threatened.
You'd get attacked by the band.
The second time I saw The Clash, Joe Strummer got off the stage and started attacking the audience.
Fashion. Appearance. People wanted to stand out and look different. Look weird.
Being weird is great. That's what was great about punk to me. I identified as weird. I was looking for weird. So to have a movement full of weird people was great. To walk into a room and there were weird people and weird people on stage -- what more could you want? Total identification. The fashion was great. The first time I saw it, there was a show at the Roundhouse in London with The Runaways and the kids in the audience were amazing and that blew my mind. They were doing the most insane stuff -- taking '40s, '50s and '60s clothes, mismatching periods, cutting them all up, putting them together with safety pins, slogans spray painted, like a living collage.
Now a McQueen costs a fortune. Is it antithetical to the DIY aesthetic of the early punk era?
There's always that tension in punk rock. A lot of the inspiration for British punk rock was Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop Sex which was the first wave of Brit punk. T-shirts, rough, lots of fetish gear. Seditionaries (their next shop) was a deliberate attempt by Malcolm and Vivienne to become designers.
They started fashion to sell records and then made music to sell clothes.
The whole thing was a huge fuck up. I went to his funeral because I was asked to and because he was a great inspiration. A great thing about Malcolm was that a lot of the stuff he planned never worked out and the stuff he didn't plan did. I just don't have a problem with all this. I'm a realist. People are still doing DIY stuff. I'd rather people be ripping off punk than polyester. People can do what they want.
Photo by Aubrey Mayer