Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Pretty Much the Worst

Carolina Reaper Pepper
Carolina Reaper Pepper

There are times I crave spicy – I mean really spicy – food.

(Speaking of which: I knew a guy at university from San Antonio – we belonged to the same “eating club’ which was our version of fraternities – who put Tabasco Sauce on everything: cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, vanilla ice cream, I kid you not; everything. Next to Berto, who was a professional-grade consumer of capsaicin, I am merely a hobbyist. Then again, I never saw Berto consume a Carolina Reaper or a Trinidad Scorpion, hot peppers that both exceed 2 million Scoville heat units, making them 40% as hot as military-grade pepper spray.)

But back to me, and my occasional but necessary consumption of Serrano peppers, Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce, and Calabrian chili peppers. Do I like having my mouth turned into a flaming pit of hell? No, well, but maybe . . . Do I enjoy having the mucus membranes in my sinuses go haywire? Not particularly, but. . . Is it fun having my eyes tear and turn red? Um. Do I like when all of this happens? And now the awful truth: I don’t just like it, I love it.

Some yummy stuff from my fridge
Some yummy stuff from my fridge

And there it is: for me, when consuming really spicy food, the line between pleasure and pain disappears entirely; they become one and the same; in a phrase not as kinky as I know it sounds, it hurts so good.

Please: I am not by nature a masochist, though I do have a fairly high threshold to pain. (So says a typical guy who has – gratefully – never had to experience childbirth.) Nevertheless, it seems to me that many of us happily engage in behaviors that combine in equal parts pleasure and pain: eating very spicy food; indulging in extremely strenuous exercise; pursuing a career in music; watching Gilligan’s Island reruns; listening to punk rock.

Like the ingestion of extremely spicy food, I generally recommend consuming punk rock in small, controlled doses. Even so, you might rightly ask, “why bother consuming punk rock in the first place”?

It is, indeed, a worthy question. I would suggest three reasons.

First, as an intriguing sociological and cultural phenomenon. In the late 1970s and 1980s, punk rock was a key part of an entire youth subculture, one that expressed rebellion and anti-authoritarian nihilist ideology by spewing truly offensive language, wearing S&M-inspired leather clothing and studded jewelry, sporting spiked hair and safety pins through lips. Punk is a youth music created during and in response to the Reagan and Thatcher years, and I for one find it a fascinating counterpoint to the conservative “establishment” of its time.

Why consume punk rock at all?

Reason number two, for the defining insight it allows us. Such concepts as “beauty” and “ugliness” are relative. They only mean something relative to each other; if everything was beautiful, we’d have no concept of what beauty is. Just so, we can only comprehend elegance relative to inelegance; professionalism relative to amateurism; civility relative to incivility; the significant relative to the banal.

Listening to/watching the punk band Sex Pistols (for example) perform their version of God Save the Queen offers us a full day’s supply of ugliness, inelegance, amateurism, incivility and banality. What a blessing! In three minutes and nineteen seconds, these lovely lads give us all we require to perceive the remaining 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 41 seconds of our day as being relatively lovely.

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