UND staffer’s punk past inspires new book

UND alum, School of Medicine staffer Brian Schill taps into garage-band past to pen new book about punk scene

Brian Schill

Brian Schill (right front), assistant director of alumni and community relations at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, plays a gig with his old post-punk rock band, Straphanger, on a 20-year reunion tour this past summer. He just released a new book that, among other things, sets the record straight on stereotypes about the punk scene. Image courtesy of Brian Schill.

These days, UND Medical School’s Brian Schill, for the most part, lives the strait-laced life of a university professional.

But on a rare occasion, when it works out, he relives his more boisterous college days when he was part of a three-man post-punk rock garage band. The band Straphanger, a reference to the handles people cling to on subways in places such as New York City, put out a couple of vinyl records and CDs and toured around the country to places like Minneapolis, Chicago, Nashville and Seattle, in the late ’90s.

The members, now dispersed and living in different places, reunited this past summer to celebrate their 20th anniversary, practicing like old times and doing a few shows.

Schill, assistant director in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences Office of Alumni and Community Relations, speaks fondly of those early days with Straphanger, “practicing in the middle of December with coats and gloves in the back of someone’s garage.”

He’s even taken time to write a book about the punk scene that has been such a big part of his life.

Punk is about lots more than nontraditional hairdos and loud music: it’s an influential cultural movement encompassing fashion, music and even political attitudes. Schill’s book—This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts—breaks stereotypes about punk as a totally violent, drug-soaked, culture of drop-outs and nihilists. It was published in early October by Indiana University Press.

“I’ve always wanted to write,” says Schill, formerly undergraduate research coordinator for the UND Honors Program. “I’ve written professionally and published peer-reviewed stuff, and for a long time I’ve been interested in the punk rock thing.”

Brian Schill

Schill’s new book is an intellectual look at the punk genre, containing chapters on punk and philosophy, punk poetry, punk fiction, punk and Dostoevsky, and punk and controversial American novelist Henry Miller, among others. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Lucky proposal

So why the book?

“I’ve done a lot of reading about punk, and I discovered some gaps in the literature, so I proposed a book idea and got a bite from a publisher,” said Schill, who also is involved locally with the Global Friends Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group. “I put together a proposal and got lucky.”

Maybe there’s more than luck—Schill knows books and related resources: he’s a former member of the Grand Forks Public Library Task Force for Revitalization and former chair of the Library’s board of directors. He still is a member of the Grand Forks Public Library Foundation board.

And, he says, he liked punk music as a younger person in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“I wasn’t much interested in popular music,” Schill said, who learned about punk even in North Dakota from friends and word-of-mouth.  “Through listening, I realized that punk singers, despite the stereotypes, were talking about interesting stuff in their lyrics—references to French poets such as Baudelaire. They were name-dropping Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, etc.—so I decided to explore the conflict between punk rock or rockers as ‘meatheads’ with the contents of their lyrics and interview statements.”

Brian Schill

Schill’s band, Straphanger, a reference to the handles people cling to on subways in places such as New York City, put out a couple of vinyl records and CDs and toured to places like Minneapolis, Chicago, Nashville and Seattle, in the late ’90s. Image courtesy of Brian Schill.

Intellectual traces

The genre includes big names: England’s Sex Pistols, the Clash; USA’s Patti Smith, the Ramones. Schill says there’s no “cultural center” for punk.

“Initially you could say it was ‘centered’ in New York, London, and around Cleveland area, then into Detroit, Los Angeles, Manchester (England), and, later, Seattle,” he said. “It’s the punker’s job to say there is no center, ‘we’re not stars,’ every city has its own ‘punk scene’; every city is just as important as every other city.”

In his lengthily titled book—reminiscent of the long narrative titles of much earlier printed works—Schill looks at amplified stereotypes associated with punkers.

“The characterizations of punkers are even more amplified than references to Elvis as a numbskull or of, say, Jerry Lee Lewis that he ‘couldn’t read.’”

Schill decided to research the characterization of punk musicians in the news media and among much of the political and business class. What he found he disputes because of conflicts with his experience of actual lyrical content.

“There are traces in punk music and writing that are much more intellectual, including literary influences from bands that were performing as early as the late ‘60s,” Schill said.

The book contains chapters on punk and philosophy, punk poetry, punk fiction, punk and Dostoevsky, and punk and controversial American novelist Henry Miller, among others.

To get to the meat of his subject, Schill listened to records; tracked down lyrical references; read interviews, autobiographies, and punk fiction (books written by punkers as well as non-musicians—good and bad books); and drilled down to common threads and themes that link these bands and authors together.

“This is my first book,” said Schill, who this fall is teaching a class on violence for the Honors Program. “And I am continuing to learn and write: it’s the punk thing to do.”

By Juan Pedraza, UND Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development

UND Today Editor David Dodds contributed to this article.