[Adam Greenfield is an acclaimed urbanist, author, and lecturer. Ruin was honored to have Adam write liner notes for our re-released records. To learn more about this extraordinary person, visit Adam’s Verso page, Wikipedia page, and Urbanscale.]
You and I, we enjoy a prerogative that very few of the several billion human beings who walked the Earth before us could possibly have imagined. Most of us have ready to hand, at this very moment, a machine that’s capable of siphoning a train of modulated pulses from the ether and turning those pulses into the organized sound we call music. We can pluck down music literally from the very air, across all boundaries of human time and space and culture: as much as we want, whatever we want, whenever we want it.
It’s the long dreamt-of celestial jukebox. Just about anyone who feels the itch can plumb the depths of the Cole Porter songbook alongside Ella Fitzgerald, explore the mysteries of Arvo Pärt, or queue up an hour of obscure Throbbing Gristle releases at will, complete with alternate takes. They can turn the entire Trojan Records catalogue into a playlist with a few keystrokes, encounter the name “Ros Sereysothea” for the very first time, do a quick copy & paste and be listening to her five seconds later. (You’re welcome, by the way.)
It’s all very effortless, is what I’m getting at. Now this is a truly wonderful thing, for those of us for whom music frames, shapes and maybe even defines the way we respond to the things which happen in our lives. It’s a gift of all-but-inconceivable value.
But maybe, just maybe, it means that music doesn’t weigh quite as much as it used to. It doesn’t mean exactly the same thing. How could it, when each new piece of music you hear is acquired with very little investment of effort, at effectively zero incremental cost?
I want to take you somewhere else.
Welcome to Philadelphia, 1985. These were bad years in America — the mid-Reagan years. Evil little shits like James Watt, Phyllis Schlafly, Oliver North and Grover Norquist were busy laying the groundwork for the titanic clusterfuck we’ve since inherited, each in their own way. The center hadn’t held, and the cracks were evident everywhere. The temporarily ascendent Japanese (always “the Japanese,” as though the entire country were a single monolithic hive entity, burrowing its way beetlelike through the moribund US economy) were buying up American landmarks like Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center. Never mind that they were being taken for a ride. It was the optics of the thing that counted — all those drab salarymen, cash in hand, standing athwart the monuments of American cultural supremacy.
The official media papered over this and the many other hints that the American Century had come to a premature end with jingoistic schmaltz like Red Dawn and Rambo. Like the actual invasion of Grenada, these were overtly intended to reignite the national mojo, restore the sense of limitless power and the serene belief in the justice of its cause the nation had lost after Vietnam. Even at the time, they seemed pathetic.
And then there was AIDS. Nobody quite knew what caused it yet, so no matter who we were, we brought biohazard protocols to bed along with our partners — those, and more fear than is quite healthy for the growth of anything supposed to be founded in love. It was that, or get the virus, waste away and die. That happened, too. The anti-retroviral cocktail was still years away. (Ronald Reagan couldn’t even bring himself to utter the word “AIDS” in public until 1986.)
In all this gloom, voices with any experience of opposition or of building an oppositional culture were in perilously short supply. The Black Panthers, of course, had long been hunted to extinction; other prominent Sixties radicals, notably Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, wasted precisely zero time in announcing to all concerned that hell yes they were selling out, and to the highest bidder they could possibly land. And still others retreated into the thankless, unglamorous, constant and not particularly public work of ensuring that some kind of solidarity-based infrastructure survived through the long cold years of neglect.
If the mid-Eighties were grim years for America, they were harder still for Philadelphia. The local vibes were just ugly. There had been a time when you could credibly name Philly alongside New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, but by the end of the Seventies those days were irretrievably gone. The industrial base on which the city’s economic vitality had depended for over a century had evaporated, seemingly overnight; as the factories went, so went the jobs, leaving black and white working people eyeing each other warily across a shrinking pile of scraps.
And of course there were those pleased to exploit this unease for their own benefit, notably a former police chief named Frank Rizzo, who as mayor in the late Seventies ran the city with a fascist swagger his core constituency just ate up. (During a period of more than usual civil unrest in 1969, then-commissioner Rizzo famously attended a gala ball with a nightstick thrust in his cummerbund. Any exploration of the Freudian implications thereof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Though he was out of office by ’79, Rizzo set the tone for the decade of Philly politics that followed; from him, the mayoralty passed first to the anodyne Bill Green, then to a nonentity named W. Wilson Goode. Briefly and justly celebrated as the first black mayor of this majority African-American town, Goode was soon enough notorious for standing passively by during what remains the only bombing of an American city by its own police force. An entire neighborhood of family rowhouses burned to the ground. Eleven people died. Five of them were children.
This was the city we came of age in: a city consuming itself in slow motion, like some particularly shabby and low-rent version of Samuel Delany’s Bellona. It called forth the most intense feelings of dread and love and confusion, but offered very little in the way of anything to channel them into. If you were between the ages of, say, twelve and twenty-five at the time, things were especially surreal, because the official culture available to you didn’t reflect any of this. You got Quincy scripts founded in the murderous, elemental badness of mohawked ne’er-do-wells. You got Larry “Bud” Melman. You got a double shot of the Hooters on WMMR.
It was maddening. You felt x’d out of existence. So you, we, did what all the others who felt the same way were learning to do at about the same time, in cities from Osaka to Helsinki: we made do, we made shift and we made culture of our own.
Actual concert venues were out of the question, on grounds of amateurishness and lack of pull both. Like other local punk scenes, then, the Philly milieu was cobbled together around a loose network of lodge halls, steak shops and church cellars, not to mention private dwellings from frat houses to out-and-out squats. (I saw Circle of Shit play to a crowd of seven, in a dirt-floored basement halfway to Upper Darby. That particular moldering funk of West Philadelphia earth is in my nostrils as I write these words, thirty years removed in time and the full reach of the Atlantic away.)
Commercial airtime, similarly off-limits — though thankfully Philadelphia was relatively well provisioned with noncommercial outlets willing to play the occasional Gang of Four side, and keep a channel open. Eternally manic Lee Paris hosted “Yesterday’s Now Music Today” on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, and that was good. Drexel’s WKDU was arguably even better, but their signal was weak — any more than twenty blocks or so from their transmitter, you’d literally have to walk your radio around the room to find a spot where whatever music was coming out of the speaker could be heard over the static.
You couldn’t just hear a song on the radio and then go buy it. Before Chaos Records opened up, later on, this was a city of two million souls that offered but one place you could have any hope of reliably finding punk rock records: specifically, the milkcrate sitting in the concrete dust and mouse droppings on the floor against the back wall of the basement of Third Street Jazz. I admit that I did once, inexplicably, turn up a French Stiff Little Fingers EP at the Sam Goody in the Gallery — but otherwise you went to Third Street, you braved the sneers of the jazzbo staff and you brought home whatever they happened to have in that crate.
There was no media coverage to speak of, save for a sole, entirely risible profile in Philadelphia magazine. We made ‘zines instead: shitty missives Xeroxed after hours at a parent’s office, chock full of record reviews, “political” rants and terrible poetry. These we left in tottering stacks at shows, in piles beside the cash register of whatever oddball retail store would have them.
And beside all of this, and above it, and under it, and through it, some among us made the music that tied it all together.
History lesson, Part III. The Philly punk scene was always harder to get a handle on than some others that come to mind. Neither as mired in blue-collar machismo as the second-wave NYC scene then coalescing around CBGB’s Sunday matinees, nor as (self?)righteous as the Dischord-centric DC community, Philadelphia threw nothing but curveballs. McRad, the Dead Milkmen, Pagan Babies, Scram: none of them quite fit the template, somehow. They were too weird, too goofy, too unpredictable, too hard to fit into the categories that were already then beginning to solidify.
Which brings us at last to Ruin.
Originally active from 1982 to 1986, in its early lineup Ruin was a five-piece unit, often described to the unaware as a “Buddhist hardcore band.” (You see what I mean about not fitting easily into the established categories.) In that time they released just two albums: the definitive blast of 1984’s He-Ho and the somewhat more polished Fiat Lux of 1986. An additional few tracks trickled out on compilations like the much-loved Get Off My Back, We’re Doing It Ourselves and the obscure, cassette-only Welcome Worlds, before eventually being reissued on Blackhole’s comprehensive Songs of Reverie and Ruin. One or two cuts, like “The Rain Comes Down,” remain uncaptured. But that’s the recorded output. That’s it.
This leaves us with twenty-six songs, of which four are covers. This is not an unreasonable tally for a hardcore band of the era — Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, for example, which sure enough does what it says on the tin, similarly clocks in at a mere 26 tracks — but it’s not in absolute terms very much at all. And yet it’s in those relatively few tracks that everything happens. You hear a bunch of kids throw themselves headfirst at Philadelphia, and America, and even at 1984, intent not on simply beating themselves against the membranes that contain them but on breaking the fuck through. They are, I say it again, kids, who have nevertheless understood or intuited something critical about what it means to live this life in this container or vehicle we call a body, something that most people never fully internalize at any age. They’re not going to tell you what that thing is. They’re going to enact it. And they’re going to take you along with them.
If you were lucky enough to see them play, you never forgot it. There were rugs. There were, no lie, candles. The band filtered onto the stage dressed in white from head to toe. The message was unmistakable: whatever it was you were about to witness, it wasn’t going to be yet another clutch of Black Flag wannabes, sounding off about their petty beefs with still pettier authorities.
One New York City Christmas many years ago, an ex-girlfriend took me to midnight mass at the cathedral church of St. John the Divine. Neither one of us was religious, was a believer of any kind, but we went for the fellowship and the warmth and the sheer ritualistic spectacle of it. That Christmas Eve glows in my memory as a soft haze of light and song and incense from the thurible. And for the first time in my life I understood what a cathedral is — what any church is supposed to be, really, in the layout of its nave and the arrangement of its parts. It’s a runway for God, complete with landing lights and air traffic control.
I’m going to risk sounding unbearably pretentious by arguing to you that this is more or less what Ruin was trying to do on stage. They were trying to create a bubble of space and time in which musicians and audience alike could experience something heightened, something preverbal, something that words can only ever fail. I would argue to you, further, that they succeeded: not completely, but reliably enough, and for as long as ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Ten or fifteen minutes spent outside your name, cut loose from your ego and that collection of regrets, fears and desires you call a self, pummeled this way and that by the crowd’s Brownian churn: not such a bad ROI for a few bucks at the door.
Could you have experienced something similar at another band’s gig? Similar, sure…but not quite the same. Ruin were, and are, astonishingly physical performers, even by the standards of hardcore punk. They brought a commitment and an intensity of focus to the act of playing music before a crowd that I have only very rarely encountered. Most schools of Buddhism place great importance on each of us being fully present in this moment, neither caught up in retrospection nor immobilized with thoughts of what is yet to come. You wouldn’t have needed to know the first thing about the band or its members to see the impact of this way of thinking on their music. It was all right there.
And here we come to the question of ancestry. You can learn a lot about how a band sees itself by its choice of covers — what it thinks it’s doing, what line of descent it wishes to claim as its own. I can promise you that in the Philadelphia of the mid-Eighties, Leonard Cohen was not a major presence on the punk hit parade, that in some quarters even covering “White Rabbit” could be read as a dangerous concession to hippie lamery. By wearing these influences on their collective sleeve, the members of Ruin were declaring their independence from the petty doctrinaire bullshit that so often characterized that scene, despite its manifest weirdness, and in fact hobbles all scenes and always will. That declaration said, “You go on ahead and draw your lines.” It said, “We come from a place where those lines add up to nothing.” Ultimately it implied you’d be welcome in that place, too, if you didn’t mind letting go of your need for lineation.
A cover song is what literary critics might call “intertextuality,” and what most of us would call “a conversation.” Ruin’s records were having a conversation with other musics. But — and this is important — not just other musics. If you were prepared to let them, these conversations unfolded in ways you just weren’t primed to expect from punk rock. They were drilling straight through Jefferson Airplane to Lewis Carroll, and right through him even to the ontological weirdness that animated his greatest work. Similarly, Leonard Cohen was just an inn and a place to rest for the night on the way to Basho.
When you place so much emphasis on the ones that came before, you also imply that someone will come after. Somebody will come along to discover your work and claim it for their own. Maybe not as a gig flier stapled to a telephone pole and left to fade in the wind and rain. Maybe not as an older sister’s taped-over Elton John cassette, band logo lovingly crosshatched onto the label in smeared blue Bic, passed hand-to-hand in secret like high school samizdat. But maybe in ways that could barely be imagined at the time of creation. As a well-formed uniform resource indicator fully compliant with the https scheme, for example, which is to say: an emailed link.
So what does this music mean, in a world where music is something you stream from Spotify on a whim, rather than wrest from a maddeningly wavering college-radio signal? What does a fierce insistence on being present in this moment mean, when the very next moment could as easily hold Daft Punk or Palestrina or just as likely a leap out of the music app altogether?
One way to answer might be to say that in pressing “play,” you’re listening to the air of a different time and a different place. This is essentially a historical document, in other words — though perhaps one with a certain uncomfortable resonance for us, now that we once again find ourselves come upon hard times. The contemporary listener may not have lived through the Philadelphia of the mid-1980s, goes this line of thinking, but Frank Rizzos and Gary Heidniks and Budd Dwyers turn out to be sadly archetypal characters, so music forged in their time and place has as much claim to resonance and permanent relevance as any other ever penned.
Another way of answering would position these songs as a reminder that everything that means anything comes with a weight and a cost. This is not to say that meaningful things need to be joyless and self-serious. It just means that their realization invariably required some investment of human effort, whether that be a few late nights up writing, a strain on the vocal cords, a wrenched shoulder, or half a lifetime outside of the main current of human fellowship. This is music that asks its listener to sit still with the fact of that cost, if one can sit still inside a cyclone. I wish more music were like that, but the fact that these songs even exist is and will have to be enough.