For nearly four decades, punk was America’s counterculture. The scene was remarkably resilient, replicating itself hundreds of times over, in nearly every part of the country. Punk had a sense of timelessness to it, which made it seem independent of its partnership with pop culture.
But, by the late ’00s, music had become less significant to millennials, who found themselves playing video games, more than going to gigs. Young people encountered music more as background noise, than through 7″ singles, and college radio.
Indeed, the generational differences, between today’s twenty and thirty somethings, and those who came of age between the 1960s, and 9/11, is huge. Bob Suren is one of those people whose experiences of youth culture epitomize these changes.
A former hardcore musician, label owner, and distributor, his new book, Crate Digger, helps frame what made punk relevant for so long. Suren spoke to Souciant’s Yoni Kroll about why he’ll never leave the fold.
YK: Tell me about the book.
BS: It’s my life in punk, as told through a record collection that I no longer own. I spent thirty years of my life chasing after artifacts of the punk rock subculture: I had thousands of records, I had cassette tapes, I had video tapes, I had books and magazines and posters and stickers and t-shirts. I was obsessed with every aspect of punk rock. I wanted to have it all and know it all. And it was an all-consuming part of my life and it drove a wedge between me and the most important person in my life, the woman that I married, the woman that I was with for almost eighteen years. It led me down a road of personal ruination.
My obsession [was] to try and own every punk record ever made, and to try to know every punk rock piece of trivia in the world and to try and play music and to try and write about music and to try to be part of every facet of punk rock… I was really incredibly driven and I still don’t know what drove me so hard. I was behind the ideals of the subculture, of course, but I think there was something else pushing me. I’m still not entirely sure what it was. Perhaps ego was part of it.
YK: You gave up your records?
BS: I gave up everything after thirty years of punk rock. After seventeen years with this fantastic woman, she said she didn’t want to be with me anymore because I didn’t give her enough of myself. I ended up purging my entire life. I sold everything that wouldn’t fit in a backpack and I fled the country. We signed divorce papers and thirteen days after that I jumped on an airplane to Central America with just six pairs of clothing and this laptop computer I have right here. That was everything I owned in the world. I sold every record I had, I sold master tapes, I sold test pressings, I sold pressing plates, I sold original artwork. Literally everything that could not fit in the backpack got sold, given away, or traded. My photographs, my favorite flyers, everything.
YK: But you’re still doing this DIY, very punk rock tour. You still wrote this book.
BS: I thought that when I finished this book that it would be a period at the end of a very long sentence, a sentence that ran on for thirty years. I thought there’d be a period and that’s it, no more punk rock and a new life. But punk rock is such a part of me and people want to hear about it that instead of it being a period, it’s more of an ellipses. So I’m still on the fringes of punk rock.
I don’t go to shows as often as I used to. I listen to other music beside punk rock. I don’t dress as punk rock as I used to. Most of my friends are punks, because that’s who I’ve known all my life. I’m trying to meet people outside of the punk scene. I’m trying to do things outside of the punk scene! I’m broadening myself. I’m expanding my palette a little bit. But still, punk rock is always going to be a huge part of my life no matter what I dress like, or if I own punk records or not. I want other experiences and I want other things in life. Since I’ve been divorced, I’ve been going out with different women, trying to date women from other walks of life who have no idea who Discharge is.
YK: Is that weird?
BS: No, some of those dates have been fantastic. I went out with a ballerina. I don’t know anything about ballet. We had dinner together, she told me all about ballet. It was a great dinner. I’ve gone out with doctors, I’ve gone out with artists, I’ve gone out with college professors, I’ve gone out with people who do yoga, I’ve gone out with a woman who said she is a masseuse. This is all stuff I don’t know anything about You spend thirty years talking to people just about Discharge, you spend thirty years asking people who their favorite singer of Black Flag is, and it gets very boring after awhile.
I was standing at a punk show in Tampa right before I left the country. I was listening to the conversations going on around me, and I said, “I’ve been hearing the same conversations since 1985 and I’m done with it.” I don’t really want to have these same five conversations in parking lots for the rest of my life. I want to talk to people about new material, things I don’t know anything about, things that are a little broader than the little punk rock pigeonhole.
YK: I noticed that when I lived in Berlin, there’d be all these Americans and other non-Europeans who only wanted to go to punk gigs. I’d try and get them to walk around the city, or do other things, and it was really hard to pull them out of the punk rock bubble.
BS: Yeah. I find myself going to punk shows more often than I thought I would, because I moved to Austin and there’s a huge punk scene. And everyone I’ve fallen in with for the most part is a punk rocker. So, on a Friday night, I’ll say, “What’s going on tonight?” and they’ll say, “There’s a punk rock show” and I’ll ask, “Is there anything else going on?” and they’re, like, “No.” So I end up going to a punk show more often than I want to. But if someone said, “There’s a quilting bee” I’d be, like, “Let’s go to the fucking quilting bee!” I’ve never been to a quilting bee.
I don’t know what happens. I know what’s going to happen at a punk show. I’ve been to 3,000 of them or something. I know there’s going to be four bands and one of them is going to be pretty good and one of them is going to suck and some idiot is going to spill beer on me. It’s been happening to me since 1985. I don’t think there’s any surprises left for in the punk rock thing. I’m not jaded on it. I’ve done it. There’s a lot of things I haven’t done. And if I had a choice between a three band punk rock show for five bucks or a quilting bee, I’m going to take the quilting bee cause I’ve never been to one, and it might be a lot of fun.
YK: Why do you think punk breeds lifers?
BS: There’s content to it. There’s substance to punk rock. There are legitimate reasons that subculture is strong and that people are dedicated to it. It’s more than just entertainment and it’s not just music. That’s a cliché, but punk rock is more than music. It’s music that has values and ideals and people hang to those for a long time. But they don’t have to hang on to the fashion for their entire lives and they don’t have to hang on to the tunes their entire lives. They can take those punk rock ideals and they can be a different person. Even if I never put on another Black Flag record, and even if I never own another pair of boots, I’ll still approach life through a very punk rock direction. That’s the important part to take away from punk rock.
I’m a different person than I would have been because I heard bands like the Dead Kennedys and 7 Seconds and MDC and Crass that exposed me to things I probably never would have thought of that got me to think of life in a different way. So that’s the true value of punk rock. There are people who say that punk rock is dead, or that punk rock has failed. I think that punk rock is still very alive, and I think it’s still important. What punk rock sounds like 100 years from now won’t matter. What will matter is the message that comes along with the music 100 years from now. I think that if there still is a planet 100 years from now, there’s still going to be people who want to hear music that is more than just a catchy tune with silly, sappy lyrics. Punk rock fills a need.
YK: People view punk as a youth culture.
BS: I saw Government Issue last night and as good as they were on stage, I thought, “Wow, this song is 32 years old. Musically this is treading water.” It was fun. It sounded good. But I thought, “He’s doing a song about Reagan right now. That guy’s been dead for a pretty long time.” I’m less interested in the music these days. I’ve seen some good current bands, and can name a half dozen good ones from Austin alone, but I also want to do other things with my life.
Everybody has this moment where they discover punk rock or hip hop or heavy metal or whatever and they go, “I’m home, this is where I belong, this is kind of like my family.” That need is always going to exist. The first time I heard punk rock, I thought, “This is way more important than regular music. This is way more important than Foreigner.” And the first time I went to a punk show, I thought, “These people are exactly like me. These people are my new relatives, my new best friends.” That’s not going away.
YK: After purging, it does seem like you’re going back into at least your memories with this book.
BS: Yeah… it’s something I need to kind of get out of me and people are interested in hearing it. People want to hear these stories, so I’m going to tell them. I have a different role. I’m kind of doing this elder spokesperson kind of thing and historian. I’m really liking it. And I really like having one foot in the punk scene, and one foot out of it. It’s a cool position to be in right now.
Photograph courtesy of You Breed Like Rats.