On Teenagers

“Adolescence is a new birth” – Granville Stanley Hall, aged 60
“Hell is other people” – Jean-Paul Sartre, aged 39
“It’s funny that we’re supposed to be writing this song about being a youth… with adults” – Molly, aged 15.

This month I ran a series of music workshops for teenagers to make a band and them perform at a live gig in the local park, read the new autobiography by Viv Albertine called Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, and re-watched the classic teen girl runaway punk film Out of the Blue, with Linda Manz and Dennis Hopper, on the big screen. Suffice to say I have been thinking a lot about YOUTH.

Teenage Kicks, Teenage Head, Teen Age Riot, Bored Teenagers, Teenage Lobotomy, Teenage Depression, Teenage Gang Debs. We have always made a fetish of the young. It’s no surprise considering the venn diagram of punk and teenage clichés: Rebellion, doing whatever you want, bypassing, ignoring, or chastising authority figures, not having a job and not needing to, hanging out doing nothing, total singlemindedness, a tendency towards obsession, seeing the world through that red prism of unquenchable desire that comes before responsibility, rational analysis, critical distance. Running wild through backstreets, clothes clothes clothes, fresh faced, untrammelled by time, incapable of getting a hangover, spiritually untouchable. The world of the adolescent is where we go when we want to imagine ourselves invincible, like a brand new rubber band, because teens still have all the stretch left, capable of pinging back from anything without a second thought.

Thing is, this is some wrinkly Peter Pan bullshit and I’m as much of a culprit as you. I mean, have you spoken to any teenagers recently? Real life human teenage reality of 2014 is bleak and difficult and strange and overwhelming and it probably always has been. This first time I’ve worked so closely with young people and it was a revelation that shook me from a lot of the romanticised ideas of what it was to be a youth. How we edit our own misery. They held up a mirror, confounded expectation and freaked me out a bunch (that moment when you realise the ‘adult’ they are referring to is you.)

Viv Albertine’s book about her life is honest, raw and captivating on many levels, with just the right amount of jaunts down the King’s Road with a bloody tampon worn as an accessory. The book paints a Punk London swarming with teenage runaways that was at once an amoral landscape of stinging senseless violence (which was often sexual, as in the devastating case of Ari Up’s rape) that somehow jars with a slow reality of a pre-mobile phone social scene where young punks living in remote outposts of the Metropolitan line made a world out of ‘going to each others houses, all that slow ambling through suburban streets, the cold concrete of doorsteps beneath bored bums, waiting for friends to return, waiting for something to happen, milk bottles and grey skies. The book’s full of Viv’s enchanting first person recollections from late ‘70s squat land. She wields a matter-of-fact pickaxe into the hearts of conquests with a notable absence of reverence for whether they happened to be in Subway Sect or the Clash. These titilating slithers of truth are the ultimate salve for so much of the burnt out hero worship that’s now firmly embedded any and all remembrances of that era.  That the only mention of Johnny Rotten is an aborted blowjob is particularly refreshing. There’s a lot in there about her life after punk, too, of cervical cancer, divorce, the 1990s, and its equally fascinating, once you’re inside her head.

Viv writes with this galling clarity about the desperate glue of female friendships. Sticky, intoxicating, addictive. Nowhere is this clearer that her journey through being part of the Slits. When the Slits toured with the Clash and were so badly behaved they were routinely banned from venues and hotels for being, in every sense, completely punk and uncontrollably female.

I saw Out of the Blue at the cinema. Dennis Hopper Linda Manz’ character CeBe Barnes has been somewhat canonised in cult cinema, alongside Corinne ‘third degree’ Burns of Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, as the archetypal teen girl punk, along with many others you might like to name. Linda never goes on tour like Corinne, her’s is a darker sadder lot altogether, but she does run away to the city and play drums for the Pointed Sticks at one point. Linda’s very knowing display of punk attitude leaves her at once untouchable and vulnerable, deeply, unfathomably cool, full of one-liners, a hardened survivor surrounded by vulture-adults ready to pounce, a cold blooded wunder-teen full of red hot tears and rage.

The last few months I’ve been working on a project making music with teenagers in South London. Despite being from wildly different backgrounds, the participants are easily unified by a constant throb of mild yet pretty much insurmountable embarrassment that informs their every move. I immediately remember this paralysing feeling, a stumbling block on the road to love and self-acceptance, inflamed and expanded the more parents and siblings tried to reach out. I will not find myself through you I must tread my own path and even your gaze is burning me now. As the group bonded, I find myself enchanted by their easy conversation, the way they work together easily in spite of all this.  We lose this ability as adults, and the entire ‘teambuilding’ industry (if not the entirety of capitalism) is built on the hope that we never get it back.

One boy goes to an exclusive fee-paying boys school. One girl is staying on the housing estate over the road with her aunty and chain smokes compulsively.  She makes a game of asking him to repeat words and giggling with glee as he repeats her slanged out inflections in plummier tone.  “Man you’re posh!” “Yes, by comparison I am posh, but there people who are much posher than me at my school.” Then there’s a debate worthy of Marx and Engels as to whether it’s possible to be posh and have no money. “Gangsters got loads of money and they definitely ain’t posh!”

The chain-smoking girl is the hardest to engage. She is mostly disruptive through her Beiber-related non-sequitors and insistence on telling everyone the circumstances of Tupac’s death. Every half an hour or so I see her face begin glaze over followed by a sudden ‘I wanna go home’ or ‘I’m not doing this.’ This would be normal if she was required to attend, except she sought out the project, signed up to attend and is totally free to leave. Realising these comments are a cry for reinforcement or encouragement doesn’t make them any less demoralising. Teenage claws on a blackboard. It becomes a strange cat and mouse game where I buzz hard off getting her involved and enjoying the instruments without the veil of cynicism and she quickly catches and corrects herself back into a disinterested slouch herself every time. I see a crystal vision of my fleshy teenage self in this impulse. She’s completely inscrutable in terms of what she thinks of me. A freak, possibly. She comes alive on a drumkit, she loves the noise and how no one can hear themselves speak when she hits it. On the day of the performance, where she’s having to sing because noone else will, we agree to meet at a corner shop and my heart is in my mouth. The last thing she said to me was ‘I might not even come.’ I can’t stop myself from squealing with joy when she appears around the corner, fully made-up with new inch long pink acrylic nails and a new hairdo. I walk with her by my side and try to think of funny things to say. Talk turns to phones. “The police can get away with anything they like. I saw some driving with their van door wide open the other day… plus they’ve still got my brother’s iPhone and he’s been in prison for a year.”

Then it happens. I’m street harassed while walking with her. My usual response is a hail of unbridled sweary rage, but something in my doesn’t want her to see me losing it, wants to be an example, to show authority and that she is safe on the street with me, as much as she has a thousand times more street smarts than me she is also fifteen and obsessed with Justin Beiber. I’m aware that I could put her at risk by shouting at him. I calmly but firmly cut into the man’s appraisal of my ‘hips..thighs..’ with a long, low ‘Shut. Up.’ She’s shocked. ‘Rah man, as if he just said that!’ We talk about men and assertiveness and how to deal with them. I am as uncertain as ever as to whether I’ve said and done the right things.

In the park, she is still uncommitted and wavering, and I lose myself and all my neuroses in the course of trying to get her to hold the mic properly, to sing, I’m stood there screaming out a Rihanna hook out across the park to demonstrate voice projection. Finally we perform, she holds her hair over her mouth, squirms and says into the mic ‘oh my god that was rubbish, that sounded so bad.’ I feel for her (really talented) bandmates. She sings in a half-whisper the words the group wrote together. I yell them out because I know she is hiding under my noise, that as much as she feigns hate, if I fall quiet so does she. My voice is a safety blanket, the louder I go, the louder she goes. Whether the audience can hear her stops mattering. I am staring at her to maintain eye contact to stop her panicking when the crowd look at her. She settles into maintaining eye contact for longer than normal and I can’t help but smile a big gummy open mouth smile. She roles her eyes at me, fiddles with her acrylic nails. I am paralysed with pride as her mumble crackles the through the PA, our voices becoming one, a dissonant out-of-key sprawl of unharmonious loud-quiet fat girl emotion. (The song sounds like The Fall, but then I feel there’s an appropriate Fall record to which you could compare every youth music project song ever written.)

“I don’t wanna be a youth
I want them to see the truth
I don’t wanna get arrested
For what I didn’t do
I wanna be heard
I wanna be something
I wanna inspire
I want it more than anything
Disappearing youth on the street
Disappearing youth feeling the heat”

After the gig, she insists I introduce her to a 20-year old rapper who we booked to perform as part of the gig because he is ‘well peng.’ She holds her own in conversation for a few seconds then falters. Later still she hugs me tightly and says she’ll miss me and is gone before I can really respond.

Colossal Youth is showing the way to go.

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