The most admirable thing about A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, a book with many admirable qualities, is the fact that Nick Rombes wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. CDoP raises subjectivity and idiosyncrasy to zen artforms. Entries range from a few sentences to a few pages, from critique to short story to top ten list. At one point, Rombes acknowledges that readers looking for oft-repeated facts can consult Wikipedia. Instead, he professes affinity and fascination. He also interprets and contextualizes.
Entries tackle individual punk bands, songs, and/or records without pattern. Elsewhere the book includes entries on films, novels, political figures, and even headlines from key publications; some have tenuous connections to punk and some have obvious links. Rombes crafts narratives (a young boy listening to a Clash record, a first-person account of a chat with Patti Smith) that may or may not be fiction. Though quirky, genre-bending entries sound postmodern, the book as a whole is a personal and genuine statement. Rombes reveals as much about his worldview as he does about his love of punk. Somehow the book is smart, odd, engaging, provocative (see Rombes on punk's relationship to Reagan and Thatcher), and warm all at once.
I like that reading the text is like reading a list. You know, like the ten best records of the year or the novels every English major should read. Like the "list," CDoP makes readers argue about omissions. Personally, I can't believe Rombes didn't include entries on the Chipmunk Punk novelty record, Johnny Thunders (maybe the best guitar player of the punk era), and the whole Akron scene (nothing on The Waitresses forgoodnesssake). Speaking of Ohio, here's my most idiosyncratic critique of all: why no mention that Stiv Bators was born and bred in my hometown, Youngstown, that ground zero of economic troubles? Bators movements from Catholic School life in Youngstown, to Cleveland, to NYC, to L.A., to the great beyond, has always fascinated me. I'm curious as to why there's no entry on Saturday Night Live. On one hand, SNL during punk's heyday probably represented the same version of 'The 60s' that punk was rejecting. On the other, what of Belushi's obsession with the hardcore movement? If you're out there Nick, any thoughts?
I also like that kids can pick up CDoP, maybe drawn by the cool cover art, and discover enough bands, books, and films to keep them busy for years. I've loved punk rock since listening to my brothers' Clash records when I was in about second grade and despite those twenty five years of fandom, CDoP mentioned bands I never heard of (Demics, Shirkers, Skunks), so thanks for that Nick. I've got some homework to do.