Spitting on his audience and sneering “God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being,” Johnny Rotten couldn’t avoid a union between music and politics. In fact, he embraced that union. The filth and the fury of the Sex Pistols grew to reflect the decadence and ennui of the late-1970s England from which the band emerged.
But more recently, as punk rock and other youth cultures are increasingly commodified, those interested in affecting social change must offer more than catchy slogans. In an attempt to link the Philadelphia scene to activism, longtime resident punk Mike McKee is busy organizing the fifth in a series of five benefit shows for the West Philly-based Books Through Bars.
Formed in 1989, Books Through Bars collects and distributes free, educational reading material to prisoners across the country. The group points to the growing prison population and the expansion of private interests into prisons as roots of injustice. Better education, the collective suggests, would better deter crime and foster a caring community.
“Privation of prisons, like privation of schools,” McKee explains, “is extremely lucrative — lucrative to the companies, not to the public. The high-school-aged children in the neighborhoods of West and North Philadelphia don’t need prison cells waiting for them as much as they need a decent school system.”
McKee’s intention for these shows is “to raise money and awareness for Philly’s books-to-prisoners through all-ages, independent music events.” The majority of performers at these events have been Philadelphia-based artists.
Bills have included AM/FM, Sound of Failure, Atom & His Package, Excelsior, Stinking Lizaveta and McKee’s own Kill the Man Who Questions. In this city, McKee has found a lot of potential in the underground scene; but, “like anything else, what we do with this potential is ultimately up to us.” Benefit shows such as this one can be an opportunity to take advantage of the thriving underground scene for a greater purpose.
For all of the first four shows, attendance has been high enough to keep Books Through Bars on its projected fundraising schedule. Even so, “Money isn’t the only barometer of [the show’s] success,” McKee contends. “Having people asking questions, thinking about these issues and maybe deciding they’d like to become involved in doing something themselves — that’s the most exciting impact anything like this could have.”
The next Books Through Bars benefit is Sunday, Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. at 426 S. 42nd Street and will feature Zegota, The Third Wheel, Wrought with Sickness, and Beware the Blunted Needle. There is also an evening show with Ted Leo, Bats & Mice and Rainer Maria. Bringing educational books to donate is encouraged.