The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read, and comes to realize that he is answerable.—Nadine Gordimer
Gordimer was talking about writing novels, but she might just as well have been talking about criticism. Possession of a specific critical perspective is a necessity, but like all necessities, it can seem like a burden. After enough time, it becomes almost impossible for even the most honest people in a dishonest profession to listen to anything purely: Even for those who try to practice their craft without resorting to the Influence Game, piling one reference after another until all that remains on the page is a maze of checked names with no room for the actual sound, it is difficult. Every critic carries with him the accumulated sense memory of every song he has ever heard, and every word he has ever said or read about those songs. And for those lucky souls who can still make money at the game, claiming to approach a record with “fresh ears” is akin to being a whore who smiles at every john as if he were her first. For some, the entire critical process is an attempt to regain that first flush of love felt for the music heard in teenhood; for others, it is the act of rubbing ever more exotic tinctures on an old scab, hoping to feel something, anything, again after years of embittered numbness.
Reissues present a particularly acute problem. For many—critics and consumers alike—the event of a reissue is simply a mechanical process of nostalgic stimulation, jerking off to the memory of someone you haven’t seen for twenty years. It is nearly impossible to respond to the reappearance of music that is intrinsically linked to the sensations and opinions of an earlier time without reifying those impressions; when this is combined with the conflicting urges to a) seem independent-minded and b) not make an utter ass of the person you were, the only options are to over-praise (which proves you were right all along) or to yawn ostentatiously (which proves that you’re no slave to the past).
I have in my possession a long-awaited reissue of The Avengers, aka The Pink Album—the legendary debut by an equally legendary San Francisco punk band. How legendary is it? Legendary enough that it gets referred to by the color of its cover (a tinted photo of the band’s lead singer, Penelope Houston). But for me, not legendary enough. I was too young to have been involved in the first wave of American punk, and when I came of age, during the rush of speedy Midwestern post-punk and hardcore, the Avengers were already a you-had-to-be-there memory. The Pink Album has been out-of-print-but-not-really for at least 30 years, and in that time, it’s been kicking around through the usual samizdat delivery vectors: first on tinny cassette dubs, then on CD-Rs and later, low-bitrate mp3s.
Now, in 2012, it’s gotten an officially official re-release through Water Records (buy it from Amazon), and I’m supposed to say something about it. But here’s the thing: I know next to nothing about the Avengers. I remember hearing what, given the time and place, must have been a third-generation cassette bootleg of The Pink Album when I was barely out of high school; I have a murky memory of seeing it on top of the TV set at a friend’s house party, nuzzling up to the plastic box containing my brand-new copy of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories. The Pink Album would have been almost ten years old by then. It must have been a good party, because the sum total of my recollection of the music was one song that I really liked and a few more that were decent enough background music to my underage drinking. In the years following, I have heard Penelope Houston’s name mentioned frequently enough that I gather she enjoys some respect as a performer, and that Greil Marcus is a fan. Beyond that, I know exactly nothing about the Avengers.
Does this make me eminently qualified to review this expansive double-disc happening, containing all of The Pink Album and an additional disc of outtakes, piss takes, and live leftovers? Or does it render me utterly unqualified? The editor of this site’s opinion should be clear from the fact that you’re reading these words. Me, I’m not so sure. The Avengers may be a tabula rasa, but I’m still weighed down by my past. I was a punk rock kid, even if I got into the game a bit late, and the Situationist-influenced flyer art and found-image collages in the liner notes put me right back in the headspace I occupied in my angry youth. Even Marcus’ liner notes, which I didn’t read lest they unduly taint my reception of the music, serve as a reminder of what a huge role he played in my development as a critic and a writer. That’s culture for you: Everything that’s happened to you gathers around like water. It makes it possible to swim, but it weighs you down, and it can drown you.
So—the record. It starts with “We Are the One,” which I recognize instantly, despite 25 years of distance, as the song that stood out to me at that Arizona pool party. That this is a punk record from the late ’70s can’t be denied: Jimmy Wilsey’s bass is almost inaudible (it must have been quite a feeling when Chris Isaak hired him and stuck him right out in front), Danny Furious’ drums are way up high in the empty air, the cymbals lingering the way they do on budget recordings. (This isn’t really a criticism; it can be a fun sound that’s almost impossible to replicate in an expensive session without sounding manipulated.) Greg Ingraham’s guitar has that post-Ramones buzzsaw ring, and the vocal tracking threatens to underwhelm the song’s greatest hook, its chant-along chorus. Houston’s vocals are a surprise: Most female punk singers of the era sold their stuff through power, style, histrionics, and stunts. Houston’s are almost disturbingly normal. She’s not even that loud. She sings with a kind of flat conviction—a folk singer’s or a busker’s voice that gets the job done through sincerity instead of style. It’s a hell of a song.
The next track, “Car Crash,” which sounds like it was recorded in another studio, another decade, and possibly another geologic time period, brings the bass into the picture and muffles the drums (same cheapness, different effect), and that’s not really to the good. Houston’s voice has the same strangely direct quality, but the song is far too long and lacks all the jolt of “We Are the One” despite increased guitar flash. “I Believe in Me,” though, is much better, ramping up the energy and letting Houston engage in some slangy Patti Smith delivery over a track that escapes ’70s punk miasma and anticipates hardcore to an extent. This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but Penelope Houston has a filthy mouth. Not that I’m complaining.
“Open Your Eyes” is pure boilerplate punk, a wake-up-sheeple rant we’ve all heard a million times before that has only Houston’s delivery as a selling point. Here’s where history may work against me: It’s absolutely impossible for me to hear this sort of thing without wincing, but maybe it was the cat’s pajamas back in ’78. “No Martyr” at least has a nice religious metaphor working for it. Other highlights include “Desperation,” which with its guitar wrangling and high, lost vocal, suggests that the Avengers might have picked up a trick or two from X (who they apparently opened for a time or two) and “Uh Oh,” which despite sounding like it was recorded inside a cardboard box, is a hell of a lot of fun, and even features a piano! “The Amerikan in Me,” despite surrendering to the painfully trite practice of spelling ‘America’ with a K, is a pure joy, easily the best song after “We Are the One”: righteous lyrics delivered with punch, a rollicking guitar riff, and a sense of energy and abandon that reminds the listener of what made punk so appealing in the first place.
“Thin White Line” is a straight-up rocker that isn’t terrible on its own merits, but doesn’t quite fit the band’s overall feel, and the perfunctory cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” simply shouldn’t have happened. And “White Nigger” is a reminder to white musicians that if they’re going to use that word, they better do it in a song that’s artistically beyond reproach, which this one isn’t. But The Pink Album ends with “Corpus Christi,” another fine religious anti-parable with great vocals and a thorny, complex guitar line, and the irresistible “Fuck You.” All told, it’s a pretty solid album with a few dynamite tracks, and can certainly stand up alongside other examples of what American bands did when they were first trying to figure out the whole punk rock thing.
The second disc is understandably more of a mixed bag. Some tracks are well worth your while (there’s no reason the boisterous “Teenage Rebel” shouldn’t have ended up on the original album), while others can safely be used to free up hard drive space (“The Good, the Bad and the Kowalskis” is a slog that in no way lives up to its wonderful title). But that’s why they call it bonus material: When you find something you like, such as the far superior recording of “Uh Oh” that closes out the disc, it feels like a treat, while the other stuff, like an utterly pointless cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)”…well, at least it’s not gunking up the actual record.
That I can’t know how differently I might have reacted to this record if I’d known more about the Avengers beforehand is both a hindrance and a boon. I know that, considering its early place in the punk rock timeline, it seems to me a strong entry, and one that I’d recommend both on pure aesthetic merit and as evidence of the often-overlooked influence of women in American punk. I know, too, that it seems very much of its time, in both a positive and a negative way. But what if I’d been there, what if I’d known about it and them for decades? What if Penelope Houston meant as much to me as she does to Greil Marcus and the other people who are so excited to see The Pink Album finally officially resurface? If that were the case, I might just think this record was more than a record; I might think it was a legend, and be that much more thrilled that it’s finally come back to life. But if that were the case, I might be the exact wrong person to write about it.