Columns

What’s Left?

[E]verything that was in opposition was good… —Michael Baumann, How It All Began, 1975 

No one who likes swing can become a Nazi. —Arvid (Frank Whaley), Swing Kids, 1993 

It was Movie Night at Maximum Rocknroll at the old Clipper Street headquarters circa 1994. The featured movie was Thomas Carter’s 1993 film Swing Kids. It was Tim and me and maybe one other person. I think Tim actually made Jiffy Pop popcorn and I had my ubiquitous six pack. The plot was simple; as the Nazi Party rises to power in pre-WWII Germany a tight countercultural scene of young kids grow their hair long, wear British fashion and use Harlem slang as they listen to banned American swing music, hold underground dances and street fight the Hitler Youth. Two rebellious young men take different paths—one into the Hitler Youth, the other into the Swing Kids and eventually jail. 

The parallels to the mid-1990s were clear, with the rise of the Right politically and the explosion of punk’s second hardcore wave in the streets. After the closing credits rolled and Tim popped out the VHS tape he made the connections explicit. “Punk is like swing was in Nazi Germany. It’s the core of a revolutionary youth culture with rebellious kids resisting fascism in the streets.” 

Tim loved punk, no doubt about it, but he was also on a mission. He not only wanted to cover the scene and its music, he wanted to push the politics of punk to the fore. And that link between punk music, the scene, its politics, and the fight against the Right is crucial to understanding both Tim Yo and his project, MRR. Tim considered MRR a lynchpin between punk music and the punk scene on the one hand and the Left’s fight against reactionary politics on the other hand. 

Tim was a friend. We both loved punk rock but whereas I had eclectic tastes ranging from pop to noise Tim insisted on only the rawest, most aggressive three chord rock’n’roll. We didn’t hang out together at shows although we were sometimes at the same shows. We were both politically on the Left although he was a mellowing Marxist-Leninist and I was an aspiring libertarian Marxist. Tim had a loud raucous belly laugh, could hit a fly ball over the fence, and was dedicated to the punk scene like nobody’s business. But he was also rigid, authoritarian, and sometimes an unmitigated asshole. In fact, when Tim was dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and preparing MRR’s transition team to take over, he advised us never to shy away from being an asshole when it was warranted. Meaning, we needed to stand firm about making the tough decisions—firing idiot shitworkers, refusing connections with sketchy bands and labels, cutting out cancerous corporate influences— whenever necessary. Tim and I were friends, but we weren’t ever “besties.” And I was never part of the coterie of friends who played Risk at the MRR house. Tim had modified the rules to make the game more ruthless, and there was no better metaphor than that long- running Risk game for Tim’s aspirations to punk rock world domination. 

This tribute to Tim is also about the print edition of MRR. But MRR, which began publishing as a zine in 1982, started much earlier as a radio show in 1973. Both the early years of the radio show and the beginnings of the magazine involved a quadrumvirate of pioneering punkers—Tim Yo, Ruth Schwartz, Jeff Bale, and Jello Biafra—who changed punk rock in the Bay Area and internationally. Never the sharpest shōnen knife in the punk rock drawer, Jello fully deserved losing the Dead Kennedys back catalog for ripping off his band. Now a para-alt-rightwinger, Jeff Bale dropped racial epithets when his vintage sports car was vandalized by black kids. A millionaire hipster capitalist, Ruth Schwartz abandoned her faux conscious capitalist ethics when confronted with unionizing efforts by workers at Mordam Records. Having known and worked with them all, the only one I truly trusted was Tim Yo who, despite his personal flaws and political problems, was forthright, genuine, and completely dedicated to the scene. Tim helped me get the job at Mordam and in turn I fed him inside information about the distributor. When Tim moved to drop Mordam as MRR’s distributor, I gave Tim detailed backroom distribution and sales information ahead of the move, and provided him with lists of the distributors and sub-distributors Mordam dealt with. My punk loyalty was to Tim and MRR, first and foremost. 

Tim’s influence on punk rock was epic and wide ranging. Tim and MRR arguably coined the term DIY—do it yourself—as well as defined the anti-corporate, bottom- up, decentralized nature of punk rock with regular scene reports and calls to “support your local scene,” two crucial characteristics of punk. Punk projects that Tim initiated— from the radio show to Gilman Street—are still going strong today. He made “no major labels” the magazine’s rallying cry. And Tim was an adamant anti-fascist, insisting that the magazine and affiliated projects have absolutely no truck with Nazis. He routinely confronted Nazis when the entire Gilman Street community shut down punk shows in response to Nazi skins in the pit. The vagaries of print media notwithstanding, MRR kept publishing for 16 years under Tim’s direction and 20 years after his death, quite a feat for an all-volunteer not-for-profit punk zine. Tim’s insistence that punk rock get back to basics with his 1994 purge of MRR’s record collection and music coverage forced punk to return to three chords and the truth, the basis for the music’s original greatness that fostered a revival of the genre. 

Ultimately, the connections Tim fostered through MRR between punk music, the youthful punk scene, its leftist politics, and the fight against the Right and fascism influenced me the most. It’s facile to argue that because the young are rebellious by nature there can be no particular political philosophy innate to any form of rock’n’roll. The young are considered rebels without a cause and therefore without a clue. “Just don’t fucking tell me what to do!” is supposedly their mantra. But while the young are often individually rebellious for the sheer sake of rebelliousness, with all opposition considered good, there were definite political trends brought about by concrete material circumstances. As social phenomena, the rebellious hippie counterculture of the 1960s and the defiant punk subculture beginning in the 1970s were viscerally anti-authoritarian, which stimulated interest in and a revival of anarchism each time. No similar interest in conservative politics emerged, putting the lie to the claim that “conservatives are the new punk.” Fascism remained anathema irrespective of these youthful rebellions. 

It’s equally facile to contend that because Tim witnessed the ’60s radical youth counterculture firsthand and was rumored to have been in the Revolutionary Communist Party in the ’70s he intended MRR to be a punk rock Bolshevik Party. As I pointed out above regarding MRR’s origins, Tim worked with a collection of fellow punks who differed wildly from him politically. MRR was frequently criticized as narrow-minded, politically correct, and elitist, but it never attempted to be a political vanguard for punk. The magazine’s shitworkers and columnists were diverse and their politics, while generally left wing, were eclectic. Tim had strong opinions and politics, but he was never a punk rock Stalin. 

I was making links between punk and politics before I moved to the Bay Area. Joining MRR and working with Tim not only deepened those links, it changed my life. Not miraculously, but nevertheless significantly. My musical experience broadened dramatically as a result of hanging out at the MRR house. The anti- statist and anti-authoritarian components to my left libertarian politics grew more sophisticated, thanks in large part to Tim making me a columnist. I was always a writer, but I became a published author with a literary and internet presence during my tenure as “Lefty” Hooligan. I’ll continue writing and probably do some version of my monthly “What’s Left?” column online until they pry my cold dead hands from my keyboard. As of this writing, the future of MRR as a punk project remains to be determined. It began as a radio show, so it looks to continue as a radio show for the foreseeable future. The record reviews and other punk related reviews should be going up online shortly. And slowly, painfully, the full archive of MRR’s print era, the magazine in all its glory, will eventually be posted online. “Long live Maximum Rocknroll” is a reality, and the project will go mostly digital to survive. 

There’s a long tradition on the Latin American Left of using the word ¡Presente! (Here! Present!) to invoke the memory of those comrades who died in the struggle for a better world. So this is only fitting: 

Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente! 

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