Complex Rehab and Punk Rock


To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom. -Patti Smith

By Mark E. Smith

In finishing up my book on the evolution of complex rehab technology, I’ve read virtually every book and watched every documentary on the evolution of the music genre, punk rock. Now, if you’re wondering what complex rehab technology and punk rock have in common, the answer is, everything.

During the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S., both complex rehab and punk rock fascinatingly evolved in the same time frame, with the same inspired ideology. Neither was about money or recognition, but about just wanting to make a difference in one’s community. You were in a band because you wanted to express what was around you, and you innovated complex rehab because you wanted to address what was needed around you. It was simply about one’s core values, and living them out through a craft shared with one’s peers.

I mean, take two really obvious examples from the late 1970s, the Ramones and LaBac. The members of the Ramones knew nothing about music except that they wanted to play it, so four guys from Queens, New York, taught themselves how to keep a beat, play just three chords, and sing about stuff they knew, where songs were played at a pulse-pounding pace of under two minutes. When the Ramones made their debut at the now-legendary club, CBGB, a magazine reviewer wrote, “They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song… and it was just this wall of noise….” Others who saw the Ramones in the early days saw them as so musically inept, they were literally offended. Yet, the band members were so true to their vision that they just kept playing, where their authenticity ultimately changed music forever. Sure, there were experimental bands before the Ramones, but none as uniquely passionate about evolving – or, deconstructing – music as them. Interestingly, the Ramones were never a commercial success, but countless bands and the genre of punk, arguably, wouldn’t have evolved as it ultimately did without them.

And, the same goes for LaBac, a true innovator in complex rehab technology. Long story short (and the fascinating full story is in my book), Greg Peek was a race car builder in the 1970s in Colorado, when a local wheelchair dealer asked him if he could fabricate some sort of power seating to help relieve seated pressure points of quadriplegics at Craig Hospital. Peek immediately found a calling and followed it with unyielding intensity, evolving the power positioning industry as, arguably, no other. Again, there were some before Peek, and many after him, but from the day he displayed his seating at an industry trade show, Peek changed everything by sticking with it, successes and failures. “I remember trying to convince the industry to use solid seat pans instead of sling upholstery because they better supported pressure management cushions, and no one wanted to listen,” Peek shared with me. Of course, today, all rehab seating uses a solid seat pan.

And, so, there’s always been a common passion of those in the two crafts, one that those dedicated to it live to no end. Like punk musicians, those who are true complex rehab individuals live it to the extreme. You’re never rich nor poor, employed or unemployed, famous or unknown. You simply do complex rehab because it’s who you are and it’s the passion that you put before everything else – and no one can take that away from you or truly dictate the terms. If things don’t work out with a company, you go somewhere else where they value complex rehab. And, if you have to live in your van during the transition (and I know people who have) you gladly do it. If you’re truly in complex rehab as a life path, nothing stops you from doing it.

The evolutions of complex rehab and punk rock “counter culture” have paralleled each other, as well, where if you’re the real deal you always have a brotherhood to support you. There’s a bond that says once you’re in, you’re in. And, like-minds seek each other out, respect the elders, and support each other. Hymie Pogir is the Iggy Pop (a punk originator still as intense as ever at age 66) of complex rehab, where he reached out to me around 15 years ago, and said, “I’m an older rehab guy, you’re a younger rehab guy – let’s have lunch,” and he flew from Ohio to California to make good on his word. I felt like I was already in the fold, but when Hymie, as among the true elder statesman of complex rehab, pulled me in, I learned really quickly to shut up, listen, and learn. What Hymie and I realized from that first lunch onward is that we both have the core belief that the heart of complex rehab is the removal of any delineation of people. In complex rehab, it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, whether you’re a consumer or industry person, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay. As long as you truly understand the heart of complex rehab – ordinary people doing the extraordinary simply to contribute to our community – you’re among us and we all take care of each other, period.

Of course, like punk rock culture, when you live with such intensity, you will get yourself in trouble from time to time, as guys like Hymie and I have both done. When you live with unwavering dedication to complex rehab, it’s a culture that others aren’t going to always understand – and you don’t have a lot of patience for that. It’s a lot like, OK, I get that you don’t get complex rehab, so how about you go away because you don’t have any influence over my commitment…. Among my best, worst stories was getting called into Human Resources because there was cursing in my office, and co-workers complained. Of course, you and I know that in complex rehab culture, everyone curses because there are constant frustrations, the system just gets worse, and people are rightfully pissed off. Just the other day, complex rehab user and advocate, Paul Parino, called me on my office speaker phone and explained how, in his exact words, “New York State is giving it to us up the ass again by trying to cut attendant care funding. We already have people stuck sleeping in their power chairs because of inadequate attendant care, and now the Governor wants to F’ us some more….” That’s justified language, based on real emotion and circumstances. Complex rehab isn’t the Wonderful World of Walt Disney; rather, it’s the real lives of real people living with dignity in real adversity – and if one can’t appreciate that and the visceral language used, they have no clue what complex rehab is about. I would never dream of censoring a peer like Paul, as he’s on the front lines and deserves utmost respect.

So, I got called into H.R. a while back by a well-meaning young man, doing his job and supporting his family, which I respected tremendously. But, other than my employee file, he had no idea what I did in my role, how I fit in the complex rehab community, or what complex rehab is. So, I answered his questions with brutal honesty: Of course there’s cursing in my office. My community lives in the real world, and it isn’t always pretty. Imagine going from an able-bodied, employed father of three, to being hit by a drunk driver on your way home from work, becoming a quadriplegic. Not only can’t you walk, you can’t dress or bathe yourself. You can’t pick up your two-year-old or reach out to hold your wife’s hand. Your days are spent not just trying to physically survive and emotionally cope, but you’re in dire financial straits, fighting with insurance companies, and struggling to get attendant care. And, then your power chair breaks…. What kind of language are you going to use when you call me? And, do you want me to be a cold, corporate stooge on the other end of the phone, or be who I am, who goes through some of what you go through, where shitty circumstances are rightfully acknowledged as shitty circumstances?

The truly well-meaning H.R. young man looked at me like, Now what do I do? because I’d just given him a soliloquize on complex rehab at its most real, gritty level, the world you and I live in. Fortunately, my big boss is complex rehab at heart, so I didn’t get fired over “inappropriate language.” Instead, they moved me to a nicer office in a different department, and asked me to control the language use.

Alas, if complex rehab is punk rock, Greg Peek is the Ramones, and Hymie Pogir is Iggy Pop, where’s that leave me?

Well, I see a lot of parallels with Henry Rollins, best known as the lead singer of Black Flag, the all-immersed Renaissance man of punk rock. We both come from very little, and entered our cultures mid-stream. Many came before us, and some after – and we respect all. Henry left a job at Haagen-Dazs in D.C. to move to California to pursue punk at all costs, and I left a job at a community college in California to move to Pennsylvania to pursue complex rehab at all costs. Both of us knew that we weren’t going to compromise or fail, as while there are a lot of people smarter and more talented than us, few are as dedicated. As long as no one gets in our way or questions why we do what we do, we work till the flesh falls from our bones, and strive to honor our peers even when it gets us in trouble with those who aren’t part of our cultures. We both work at practicing intensity toward our crafts, where, as Henry puts it, intensity will always pull us through any bouts of exhaustion, poverty, and bad circumstances. Henry’s run 2.13.61 Publishing, just as I’ve run, both remaining authentic to our core cultures, where we’re not just about the end product, but the history, people, and future elevations of the crafts we serve, where no one can take that extraordinary independence from us. While Henry has his Black Flag tattoo embodying who he is, I have my wheelchair tattoo embodying who I am. We’ve both built our lives as public but relatively solitary men, where our sole focus is the cultures in which we live, work, and breathe.

And, so, the cultures between complex rehab and punk rock are the same: It’s not about where you work, where you come from, or how society labels you. As long as your heart and soul is in it – where it’s a true life calling that you’ll sacrifice all for – you’re with us. …Now, get on the bus and let’s go – we’ve got work to do.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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