Text by: Chris Farrell
Down the hatch
Irving Plaza is the latest in a series of New York City rock clubs to close in the last couple of months; like the Peppermint Lounge and several others, the venue was hit hard by the recent raising of the drinking age to 21. This new Prohibition era, a national as well as New York phenomenon, is objectionable both philosophically and for its effect on rock and roll culture.
The impetus for the steady advance of the legal drinking age comes from the argument that young adults are disproportionately represented in drunken driving statistics. Even if you accept those figures unquestioningly, should we deny a certain class of people privileges others enjoy because a statistically significant percentage of them violate a law related to the privilege in question? Leave alone the question of whether it's right to forbid minors to drink; we're talking here about citizens who have reached the age of majority - considering, in other words, only the rights of people from 18 to 21 who face the legal responsibilities of adulthood but are selectively denied some of the attendant privileges. Say, for example, those same drunken driving statistics revealed that Catholics seem to hit the bottle more than Protestants or Jews; would anyone suggest that those who attend St. Patrick's forgo visits to taverns and liquor stores. Better yet, remove the argument from the realm of the hypothetical. Watching the news lately, you've probably noticed it's white men who keep showing up in Federal Courts facing charges of illegally trading on inside information in stocks and securities trading. Is it time to bar Caucasians from Wall Street?
In New York, at least, the new laws have had an effect supporters probably didn't intend but probably don't mind either, and its not just the 18-to-21-year-olds who have to deal with it. As the closing of so many clubs that relied on bar sales as well as door receipts demonstrates, the fallout of alcohol regulation limits what kind of rock and roll can survive in the marketplace. Part of rock and roll's value is the way the music can function as an authentic expression of youth culture. But at least since the day Elvis signed a contract with RCA, there's been a tension between rock's role as a genuine voice of (and for) youth and its role as a commodity inflating the bottom line of record companies.
Rock and roll, in its first role, thrives when its diverse, idiosyncratic, quirky and objectionable. Youth doesn't speak with a single voice. But when an artist has the freedom to write about a specific personal experience, to speak only for herself, she can produce songs that have a profound resonance for an audience that values rock and roll. Exene Cervanka [Cervenka] of X - the kind of band likely to be deeply hurt by the closing of halls like Irving Plaza - said that. But to most efficiently fill the coffers of corporate music-makers, though, rock has got to fill stadiums, produce platinum albums, and churn out second-segments that fit comfortably into the playlists of radio stations and MTV. And music that does that reliably is likely to be bland and unchallenging once you get past surface flash and glamour. Historically, its been rock clubs, not stadiums and civic arenas, that provide a place where you're more likely to hear music that puts a larger value on that first role, that responds to the concerns of youth line later. And those are exactly the kind of clubs that are closing as a direct result of the new liquor laws.
Even as the Reagan Administration prepares to use the Meese Commission porno report to disembowel the Bill of Rights, California cops are reminding us that as long as kids are concerned, you can already ignore niceties like freedom of expression. Nine plainclothes police rode a Los Angeles search warrant into the San Francisco apartment of Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys hardcore band. Biafra immediately handed over the material the warrant specified - three copies of the DL's Frankenchrist LP containing a "harmful" H.R. Giger poster titled "Penis Landscape." But the cops spent several hours in the place, their interest piqued by a copy of a Butthole Surfers record and pictures of "missing" children, including Etan Patz, that Biafra keeps taped to his refrigerator. The poster provided the excuse for June 2 charges against Biafra (who's also owner of Alternative Tentacles, the record company that produced Frankenchrist, the Alternative Tentacles' general manager, two distributors of the LP and the head of the company that inserted the posters into the album. Accused of violating Penal Code 313.3, the group allegedly distributed harmful material to minors - "harmful" defined by that statute as anything a "average adult" would object to children seeing.
Los Angeles deputy attorney Michael Guarino instituted the action after receiving a complaint from Mary Sierra of Sylmar, California; her daughter, 14, had purchased Frankenchrist as a gift for her 11-year-old brother. "We have no problem with the distribution of the poster to adults," Guarino commented, pointing proudly to a judicial double-standard as evidence of his tolerance. "It's irresponsible to distribute it to minors." The action was immediately hailed by the Parents' Music Resource Center, despite the fact that the album was labeled with a warning sticker reading: "This inside foldout to this record cover is a work of art by H.G. [H.R.] Giver that some people may find shocking, repulsive or offensive. Life can sometimes be that way." Attorney Richart Scott is convinced that the wording of the statue, which does not require material to be obscene to be harmful, is to vague and therefor unconstitutional. But he estimates a defense against the charges will cost at least $20,000, even with free legal help from several attorneys and the ACLU of Southern California. Contributions can be mailed to the No More Censorship Defense Funds, [edit address].
source: Article < "Status offender" > by Chris Farrell; NAMBLA Bulletin, vol. 7, n. 7; September 1986