Wednesday, September 18, 2019. Reykjavik, Iceland.
Soundtrack: The Utangarðsmenn – It’s Easy
I slept ten hours and woke feeling like a human, ready to face the constant, relentless torrent of rain.
Deep in the bowels of central Reykjavik, there was once a public restroom. It’s unknown how that chapter ended, but in the next, an Icelandic crust punk bought the whole big bastard and converted it into a museum that celebrated Iceland’s storied punk rock legacy.
Now, if you’re like me, you came of age during the punk revival of the early 2000s, and so paid due diligence to the bands that laid the foundation back before punk died in the 80s. For a punctuated history of this, check out the song Droppin’ Like Flies by the Real McKenzies.
The revival bands exhumed and reanimated aspects of classic punk rock, like fast drums, frenetic guitarwork, lackluster vocals, and body odor, but repackaged it for a kinder, gentler millennium. The anger had been bastardized into pop-punk, repackaged and sold by bands like Anti-Flag, The Casualties, and fucking Green Day.
Bands like Rancid, The Offspring, AFI, and other such classics from Tony Hawk/Crazy Taxi soundtracks helped shape the frog-march of misery and angst that was my adolescence, but they weren’t punk in the way the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys were. These bands helped voice the incomprehensible rage and hormonal onslaught of puberty in the decaying, carcinogenic boomtown ruin of Northeastern Pennsylvania. For an accurate snapshot of this particular barking at the moon, Sometimes I Feel Like by Bad Religion.
I did my research, listened to the old bands no matter how bad they sucked (don’t pretend the Sex Pistols didn’t suck, you fuckin poser), and had a Crimson Ghost patch on a thrift shop leather jacket. I put spikes into my boots by hand, punching the holes with a kitchen knife (what tf is an awl?), and I got suspended for it. Sometimes, late at night, when the city is asleep and there’s no risk of my being caught, I’ll draw the shades and listen to Horror Business. My credentials are unassailable. That said, I wasn’t aware of Iceland’s contribution to punk as a genre.
Dr. Gunni corrected that for me.
“This is it,” I said. “There’s no other reason someone would print a Crass sign.”
We descended into the underworld, whereupon the door explained why people charge for things.
“Oh!” said a stout, wizened man with a green mohawk and a sleeveless vest. “I didn’t see you there! Come in, I’ll do my little speech.”
Dr. Gunni looked and smelled punk, all right. He described this subterranean bathroom as “his little piece of Heaven” and explained that the walls tell a story in chronological order, so it’s best to start on the right and go counterclockwise, through each stall, until you return to the center room.
“That will chart the progression of Icelandic punk from antiquity to today. And it’s kind of funny, so make sure not to skip any. Is that for me?” he asked, pointing to the krona in my hand.
“Super. Someone is in there right now so you might wait a few minutes so you don’t get stuck in the same part, get all crowded. On the ceiling, you will see records with headphones hanging down. Each of those headphones are playing those records, so go ahead, familiarize yourself with Icelandic punk. When you’re done with the museum, we have a drum set, guitar, bass, feel free to make some music, smash it around, make noise, I don’t care.”
I liked Dr. Gunni a lot.
Utangarðsmenn were by far my favorite. For your listening pleasure, the shockingly long punk song It’s Easy, clocking in at four minutes due to a beautiful dub breakdown. Since Op Ivy didn’t hit the scene until 1987, it’s fair to call the Outsiders proto-ska-punk.
And the lyrics!
“It’s easy to talk about anarchy when you got someplace to hide,
It’s easy to be a CAAAHmmunist when daddy’s paying for the ride”
The mark of truly great art is that it stands the test of time.
The museum itself looked like a good venue should, or like bad houses I’ve lived in did. The defunct urinals were stuffed with broken headphones and instrument cables. The writing on the wall charted the development of Iceland from the viking age to the present, ending each of the pithy little summaries with “No punk.” right up until 1974, at which point we received Pönk.
Due to being a grotesque ogre, the museum delighted me. Ladygirl, on the other hand, is clean, polite, and an unironic fan of disco. She felt badly out of sorts in this particular destroyed men’s room.
After I’d absorbed as much counterculture as I could in a handicapped stall, I made my way back out to the main room and got my hands on the bass. The brand had been sanded off, but it played beautifully. I plopped down on a spray-painted tom that said “FOR SMALL PERSONS TO STAND ON” and ran through Journey to the End of East Bay like a showboating buffoon. A Reykjaviki local was dicking around on the guitar. He played powerchords and I ran a bassline through the progression. We got through eight measures before he got bashful and left, but that’s okay. Eight measures is the length of a punk song anyway.
I told Dr. Gunni this place was incredible and thanked him. He looked at me with a level of disinterest appropriate to his archetype and said, “Sure”.
“That was incredible!” I howled into the rain, once back out on the Reykjavik streets.
“Sure,” Ladygirl also said.
We found a place called Icelandic Street Food, distinct from Reykjavik Street Food in that you got unlimited free refills. I ate a boat’s worth of Plokkfiskur.
Plokkfiskur is smashed cod mixed into mashed potatoes and that’s it. Bone apple teeth. Phenomenal.
I’d been setting the pace these past few days, and Ladygirl was ready to do vacation things, like “sitting down” and “reading” or some such nonsense. We returned to the hostel and I finished a book about Ireland and a book about psychopaths. The reviews will be forthcoming next time I’m forced to sit down.