Third draft. Changes made after reading this at a reading last night. Comments still welcome.
A white-soled black sneaker,
a Chuck Taylor knockoff,
on sale for 75 dollars
in a store window.
Along the border
of the sole, white thread
on black, the following words:
PUNK ROCK MEANS FREEDOM
I have a violent urge
to stretch out a finger
and blot out
so I will be able to breathe again.
In front of me a blond girl, professionally slim,
decked in designer-wrecked rags,
excitedly tells her similar friends
that she wants to get crunk tonight,
while a Ferrari
as black as a hole
bangs out white streams of bass
for the length
of its slow audacious cruise
down Thayer Street.
HIP HOP MEANS FREEDOM —
and again I subtract the “S”
to get at some truth I can stand,
and the more these metaphors are strained,
the more they seem the same.
It was 1975
when in two apartments,
one in Queens,
one in the Bronx,
two boys thinking the same thing
stretched out their fingers
and touched grimy windows,
each one writing those same bleeding words
in the gray condensation
on the pane:
The city was falling apart around them both,
and each had a soundtrack
and the boys who wrote those words
did not know each other
but for each their soundtrack
and for each the soundtrack
was as mean as it was free.
There was a reason for the rhyme
and a reason for the sharp scratch
of guitar and turntable.
You had to be there, but
soon there was everywhere
and that was that. A snarl
and a linking of arms. A beat
and a charming discord.
A free hand against the slapdown.
Let us proclaim
the mysteries of faith:
To deface a culture
is to create a culture.
of a signal
begins with a tight embrace
of its source.
of a signal
is a function of distance
A clean channel
Genre is expectation.
Expectation can be packaged
for indefinite shelf life.
There is a shelf in the store for every expectation.
If you are hip hop,
if you are punk rock,
you understand that theft
is your birthright
and whenever you steal from a thief
you are washed free of stain.
A tag is reclamation.
A sample is recommendation.
A headspin is a compass in a maze.
A microphone is always aimed at Jericho.
A crunched chord is a fingerprint.
A sneer is an oath sworn in a kangaroo court.
A downbeat is a sustained objection.
A mohawk is a crown of broken handcuffs
and a microphone is always aimed at Jericho.
Whatever it is
is always defined by volume.
It does not matter
that the sound
will be heard by different people
in different worlds.
that those worlds shake the same way,
and that someone always complains.
that it is not heard as music
that the instruments are dismissed,
the clothing is spat on,
that the culture of the cultured becomes afraid,
that spatter and cut and mix and shred
are chained to the juggernaut
and drag the weight of freedom behind them,
mean freedom inflicting itself with a roar and rumble
at the sound of breaking glass,
someone buys the shards
and the sound,
sells them at a profit,
and we have to begin again.
understands that freedom will hurt.
That there will be blood flecked skin
when the hand travels through glass
to snatch back what was taken.
Mean freedom doesn’t wait for Independence Day.
Mean freedom lights its fuses any time a match is available.
Mean freedom haunts. It spooks
convention. It curses and spits
because it knows it will be imprisoned again
at some point.
makes us grit in the cogs, the static
in the signal.
falls like a rusted bridge,
a supercar goes boom,
a college girl gets crunk —
and an old punk
steeped in nostalgia
reimagines a slogan.
An embrace tightens and distorts
both holder and what is held.
Long ago I fell into arms
that bent me tight.
I burned holes in my jeans at 18.
I burned my hand with a cigarette at 23
then quit smoking for 25 years
only to begin again
on the street tonight,
standing by the store window,
bathed in the sounds of war,
because I am reminded that every riot
starts with the sound of breaking glass
and ends in fire.
I smash the window,
toss the sneaker at the Ferrari,
run like hell itself is after me.
God, how I have missed this.
Somewhere back in 1975,
gathered the fingers they had just used
to write on those dirty windows
back into their fists.
They punched out the glass
and in the trickling blood they felt
the cool sting of the real.
rocked from side to side,
shouting as it
prepared a counterpunch:
That’s a good start,
but if you come through that window after me,
I will not let you pass any more walls
without a war.
Bring it on,
responded the bleeding boys,
when we scream for freedom,
we mean freedom.
Is that really your name?
Is this really your song?
And now, thirty five years later,
one more question:
How much is this gonna cost?