- False Prophet: Fieldnotes from the Punk Underground
At a moment of transition between the two principal sections of False Prophet, Steven Taylor discloses that some readers of the book in manuscript form had observed that "what's presented is 'really two books.' " Taylor considers the prospect with amusement, and gestures toward his present reader as though offering a bargain: "two for the price of one" (p. 81). Whether the bifurcated structure of False Prophet truly works to the book's advantage, though, is an open question. One part capsule history of punk rock, one much larger and more substantial part a mix of diary entries and present-day commentary on Taylor's experience as guitarist with the New York hardcore band False Prophets, the book presents a distinctive blend of scholarly reflection and personal narrative that frequently illuminates its subject. Yet the book's historical interpretation of punk is no match for Taylor's account of his participation in the punk scene, and even as background to the first-person material falls a bit short of the mark.
Both inside and outside the academy, punk may well be the most thoroughly analyzed and documented of all rock eras and movements. Certainly there are individual performers or groups in rock—Elvis Presley, the Beatles—who have been subjected to greater scrutiny than any comparable punk figures. But the larger phenomena to which they belong—rockabilly, the British Invasion—have not been subject to equivalent degrees of attention. The reasons for this trend are likely generational. Punk's emergence in the mid-to-late 1970s coincided with, and indeed facilitated, a key phase in the legitimation of academic popular music studies, with Dick Hebdige's now-classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979) leading the way, and Simon Frith's more comprehensive Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock'n'roll (New York: Pantheon, 1981) following closely behind. The intervening years have seen punk assessed in terms of metahistory (Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989]) and microhistory (Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991; updated and expanded, 2002]), while Barry Shank's Dissonant Identities: The Rock 'n' Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994) brought a more localized, ethnographic approach to the topic. Most notably, recent years have seen a preponderance of punk memoirs and oral histories, headed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Penguin Books, 1996) which have added considerably to our knowledge of the history of specific scenes and locations such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., but have also been marked by the decisive lack of any substantive interpretive framework.
Considered in light of this burgeoning literature, False Prophet presents an intriguing hybrid. The crux of the book, the diary entries written by Taylor during his years as a punk performer, most reminds one of Henry Rollins' Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (Los Angeles: 2.13.61, 1994), an account of Rollins' years of touring as the lead singer of seminal hardcore band [End Page 467] Black Flag that similarly draws upon the author's personal journals. Whereas Rollins had his journals to tell the whole story, Taylor fleshes out his diary with detailed explanatory notes that allow for valuable added layers of reflection, and also let the author place his perspective more in line with that of his bandmates.
Indeed, perspective is crucial to False Prophet, as Taylor makes explicit at several points. Drawing so heavily upon his own experiences, mingling the immediacy of his diary with more distant recollection, and combining the scholarly and the personal, Taylor intends for his book to be in part a study in ethnographic method...