Sex Pistols Archivist Johan Kugelberg on ‘Punk Rock Jabroni’ Joe Corré

One page from Kugelberg's Anthology Editions release, "God Save Sex Pistols"

One page from Kugelberg’s Anthology Editions release, God Save Sex Pistols. Anthology Editions

Panty provocateur-turned-punk pariah, Joe Corré is what the late Lester Bangs would call “marked for death.” Prior to last week’s gratuitously publicized “punk burn,” in which this son of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren burned an alleged £5m of his pops’ Pistols memorabilia, I’d already received three press releases reminding me of the momentous event.

Corré had no interest in donating the pieces to charity or selling them to make more money—he claimed that the bonfire was in protest of “Punk London,” a yearlong, citywide celebration of “punk’s 40th anniversary” (The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” just turned 40.)

We at the Observer had some strong opinions on this. Tim Sommer wrote both an open letter to Corré and pointed post-mortem, attacking Corré’s tired regurgitation of the “punk is dead” aphorism—”There’s some teenager out there, maybe in Port Washington, New York, or Cary, N.C., or Swindon, England, or Kronberg, Germany, who today discovered Punk Rock, and today has had his or her life changed by Punk Rock,” he wrote. “That person (or maybe they’re a 62-year-old woman), is more truly a punk rocker than Joe Corré ever will be.”

What perspective does Johan Kugelberg, punk archivist, bring to this publicity stunt as someone who, by the very nature of his life’s work, seeks to preserve and contextualize the historical narrative of the genre? Kugelberg helped found the punk archives at Yale and Cornell, spent years hanging out with Lou Reed for his Velvet Underground book, and may be the coolest fucking academic out there. In a pure coincidence of timing, the extent his work as a Sex Pistols archivist can finally be viewed this week, in a fancy Rizzoli book on Brooklyn label Mexican Summer’s book imprint, Anthology Editions, called God Save Sex Pistols.

“Joe decided to burn his stuff, so he decided to diminish the knowledge of the narrative that he’s a part of.”—Johan Kugelberg

He’s still not sure what specific Pistols pieces Corré burned, or if any of them made the book.  And though the punk burn might be good publicity for his book by proxy, as a student of how history frames the narratives of social movements, the stunt left Kugelberg  pretty shaken up. “So the Joe Corré punk burn is obviously about his identity as a jabroni,” he tweeted, alluding to the villain in a staged pro-wrestling match who exists primarily to push the story forward.

I spoke to Kugelberg about his new book, Corré, and his unique role as an archivist for a genre that so often self-immolates. “It’s important to create these cultural starting points, to understand a movement in a place or time before the jabronis have set fire to all their collections,” he told me. “In culture on the margins, edges overlap, and new ideas germinate like the cheese and the worms. That means that scholars, enthusiasts and librarians have an obligation to preserve the residual remains of these narratives.”

Hence, by destroying his own narrative, Corré is marked for death. My conversation with Kugelberg started with him asking for my read on the modern media landscape, and soon served as a further reminder that he who controls the narrative controls the truth. As Tim Sommer says, any idiot can destroy. The far more subversive move, then, may actually be to preserve.

A self-described douchey portrait of Kugelberg

A self-described douchey portrait of Kugelberg. Anthology Editions

There’s too much collusion between marketing and editorial in journalism right now. A lot of branded content, which I dig is a necessary evil for a lot of these publications to stay afloat, but I’m a writer at the end of the day.

Well it’s also very much a 2016 problem. I don’t know if you remember, but 10 years ago the word of the year was “truthiness.”

I think Colbert coined it.

It was Colbert? Well what’s happened now, with that whole debate over fucked-up and pseudo news reporting affecting the election, means the normative nature of “truthiness” is really, really dark and really, really fascinating.

He who controls the narrative controls the truth. 

Yeah, no doubt! And that means also when you’re thinking about advertorial, and what the meaning of advertorial actually is—is this a cool article on style or is this someone trying to shoehorn some sneakers into your gullet?

Which begs the question, if ad sales for arts sections are depleting, could it have anything to do with the fact that so many of the stories themselves read like regurgitated press releases? Why would someone pay for ad space when the writers are doing their work for them, for free?

As a crumbling, old Situationist, I’m not particularly surprised that we’re seeing an emotional landscape where the racist reads racist news, the dog fancier reads dog fancier news, and the stamp collector reads stamp collector news. That’s just a world that we’re now inhabiting. Obviously one is not seeing any particular endgame on that anytime soon.

The profiting interests are more spread out, maybe? Profiting from their coercion. 

That totally works.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Joe Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols creator Malcolm McLaren burns his entire £5 million punk collection on November 26, 2016 in London, England. Joe Corre burnt the rare punk memorabilia in protest saying punk has no solutions for today's youth and is 'conning the young'. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

Joe Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols creator Malcolm McLaren, burns his £5 million punk collection on November 26, 2016 in London, England. John Phillips/Getty Images

Where does Joe Corré fit into this?

Well he’s obviously a punk rock jabroni, isn’t he?

What’s a jabroni? 

You’re a young man who doesn’t remember his professional wrestling from the ’80s and ’90s. A jabroni is a wrestling villain who is constantly losing in order to move the narrative onwards.

How does that feed into the punk burn and how Corré is profiting off of it now?

I don’t think he’s necessarily profiting off it, more that he’s a wrestling villain of punk.

So he’s enabling that dialogue, and by extension, doing good? [The Silver Jews sang] “Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘punk’s not dead, punk’s not dead.’ “

Well, if punk is dead then punk is not dead, there’s no difference between those two statements. About three or four years ago I did a book about punk graphic design that was also a museum show in London at the Hayward Gallery. The exhibition was called “Someday All The Adults Will Die,” and the book was called Punk: An Aesthetic, because the opposite of the aesthetic is an anesthetic, and the pun is the last refuge of the punk rock scoundrel.

I put that show together with Jon Savage and William Gibson, the science fiction author. We were trying to figure out if there is a punk aesthetic and were trying to investigate that. It took a couple of years and the conclusion we came to was “maybe,” but we were also talking about “hippie” and ultimately what “hippie” meant. The democratization of LSD resulted in the Pantone charts expanding from like 40 colors to 200 colors between ’66 and ’67. And maybe 100 years from now no one is going to remember Tie Dye or The Grateful Dead, but organic groceries are in Walmart, and dietary supplements are nothing weird to take.

One page from Kugelberg's Anthology Editions release, "God Save Sex Pistols"

One page from Kugelberg’s Anthology Editions release, God Save Sex Pistols. Anthology Editions

So when it comes to punk rock, what’s punk rock seismically changed things forever—the distance between the self-starter impulse and its execution. If somebody goes, “I wanna play bass in a band, I’m playing bass in a band,” if someone goes, “I want a vegetarian lunch option at my high school, I’m making a vegetarian lunch option at my high school,” that diminishment and distance between the self-starter impulse and its execution is, in my point of view, doubtlessly the legacy of punk rock in the West.

As an archivist, I have worked as a co-creator of the punk archive at Yale and the punk archive at Cornell, and as a historian, I’m constantly doing books and lectures and shit on this. I think punk is an important aesthetic narrative of the late 20th century.

But it’s an aesthetic narrative primarily, which was the big criticism levied against the hippies. If they took Leary’s “turn on, tune in drop out” mantra as a progressive trajectory toward self-realization and a new society, it never really manifested into anything past the fashion. 

Well it was never an alternative society, was it? There was never alternative electricity or alternative roads or alternative hospitals. It was like a millennial cult. And then if you look at punk, it’s more like a snowball of code that’s just rolling and rolling and rolling along. People who utilize that code might not even know how to identify that it’s the punk code they’re utilizing. And that’s fucking great.

How does that inform this latest Sex Pistols book of yours, and your work as an archivist? Why do you care so much about the presentation of something connected to a time and a movement in a new context that’s almost academic or scholarly?

That’s what I do. I love it when everyday cultural narratives, notwithstanding their marginal, popular nature, are preserved and maintained. My biggest hobby horse, personally, is radical thoughts during the English Civil War. The Diggers, The Levellers and all that. The reason that we know so much about it is that the Bodleian Library at Oxford has the biggest collection in the world. The reason that they have it is, smart librarians were collecting the very broadsides, pamphlets and booklets that wanted their libraries burned down and their king stung up, as this was unfolding.

“Lou burnt his notebooks, and he burnt his notebooks because he didn’t want anybody to see his process as a poet. He only wanted to present what he saw as the finished result to the world.”

Sure. What does that practice tell you about the process of collecting punk ephemera though? 

That in culture on the margins, edges overlap, and new ideas germinate like the cheese and the worms. That means that scholars, enthusiasts and librarians have an obligation to preserve the residual remains of these narratives. That’s it! Joe decided to burn his stuff, so he decided to diminish the knowledge of the narrative that he’s a part of. Then I go straight back to the pro-wrestling analogy. Dig the jabroni.

So aside from the trending question as to whether or not the act was “punk,” you have this tome out now preserving some of these pieces that no longer exist, right?

Yeah, that’s what one would try to do. But ultimately what’s more interesting to me is 1,000 marginal, home-made fanzines by nobodies in small towns. That’s much more important to me than mainstream objects by The Sex Pistols or The Clash. Not that they’re not important, but they’re just a piece of the puzzle that is actually smaller than all of these expressions of everyday life.

How quickly is that microcosm lost in our modern context? DIY is self-immolating, after all.

That’s the ephemeral nature of these narratives. The flip side to that is that venues open all the time, and people start their vegetarian lunch option at their high school all the time. And that is this rolling, snowball of code. We can view punk as possibly the last macro-tribe because everything that we have today is micro-tribes, the fragmentation of cultural thought.

Far out, man. Have you written anything about this?

There are a couple of essays in my first book of essays that touch on it. I did a book for a killer British publishing house called Zero Books, a brainy, anti-academic publishing house that just rules. I did an essay collection for them called Brad Pitt’s Dog in 2013. The reason it was called Brad Pitt’s Dog is, if a dog takes a dump, no one cares, but then if someone tells you it’s Brad Pitt’s dog you take a camera phone photo of the dog taking a dump.

What would you say to people who say that The Pistols were always media whores, bigger self-promoters than they let on?

I don’t think we can step into that river twice. Because how the dichotomy between popular culture and subculture worked in the mid to late ’70s is actually impossible to understand. The way that modern media narratives function completely eats that shit up, to where we can’t even understand it. So I think that’s really, really tricky. I think the Pistols are fucking amazing. And I spent five years putting together this documentary book, not only honoring them, but trying to explain them in this dynamic between a visual narrative and a text narrative.

One page from Kugelberg's Anthology Editions release, "God Save Sex Pistols"

One page from Kugelberg’s Anthology Editions release, God Save Sex Pistols. Anthology Editions

I just want killer books to exist on marginal topics, and in some instances, I’m lucky enough to be the guy who bangs that book out. I’m really proud of my Velvet Underground book, my hip-hop books, and my May ’68 student uprising book, all of that stuff. And I’m not saying any of those books are definitive, I’m saying that those books are opening up a narrative. If my Pistols book is the only book someone grabs on the Pistols 50 years from now, they’re getting some sort of inkling of the history, the narrative, the visuals, all that good stuff. Hopefully that then makes them grab a copy of Jon’s masterpiece, England’s Dreaming, and looking up some other texts, websites and resources.

But I think it’s important to create these cultural starting points, to understand a movement in a place or time before the jabronis have set fire to all their collections.

Well you jokingly called yourself a “Situationist” when we started talking, and I have a surface knowledge and budding fascination with that movement. 

Oh dude, I drank the conium! I am a Situationist, and I believe in the tenures of Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord.

Well by that extension, could someone interpret this punk burn as a Situationist act? 

Well, he obviously created a medial situation by torching his pops’ stuff. The result of that is chatter about it all around the world, and if he burnt a bunch of Vivienne Westwood clothing, posters and vinyl, that’s fine because those are multiples that exist in archives and museums and collections. What would be a drag would be if he set fire to personal correspondence with his pops, or notebooks. Anything that is part of a unique cultural trajectory that otherwise was lost.

You know, I worked with Lou Reed for years, who I think was a really, really, great and kind man. Lou burnt his notebooks, and he burnt his notebooks because he didn’t want anybody to see his process as a poet. He only wanted to present what he saw as the finished result to the world. And there’s numerous examples of visual artists who have thought like that over the centuries, and I can respect that. But of course, if I would’ve scored one of Lou Reed’s notebooks, I would have made sure that notebook ended up in a museum or university, against his will.

“What is an archive? An archive is a bunch of stuff. And what is that bunch of stuff? That bunch of stuff survived the gnawing teeth of time.”

Sure! But the Velvets were all operating in this George Maciunas, Fluxus savvy artistic community and they were all big Marshall McLuhan fans who believed that the medium is the message. So I wonder if anyone could truly present art as a protest or public demonstration anymore, liberated from context, with regard to how we consume and digest information from the media these days. 

And the answer is completely inside of your statement. It’s totally impossible.

Damn, I needed an optimistic kicker. 

I’m completely optimistic when it comes to all of this! What is an archive? An archive is a bunch of stuff. And what is that bunch of stuff? That bunch of stuff survived the gnawing teeth of time.

So for every Joe who sets fire to his stuff, drops it into a dumpster or misplaces it during a move, there’s a bunch of Janes who preserve their stuff, donate to a university or sell it to a rare book dealer. Most historian buddies of mine think we aren’t really going to know anything about anything until at least 100 years after the events. I’ve met people at Oxford who haven’t yet decided if they think that the Beatles are historically important or not.

Which begs the question, who deems that so? The archivists?

No, I don’t think it’s the archivists. I think it’s an accumulated mass of points of view.

A collective agreement. 

Yeah. That’s pretty much all we’ve got.

Johan Kugelberg is an editor, curator, and the author of numerous publications, including The Velvet Underground: A New York Art and Punk: An Aesthetic. God Save Sex Pistols is out now.