"Punk is a theater of cruelty in which you are trying to wake up your audience. The positive aspect of punk is showing the world as it really is."

This is Mike Sheppard talking. He is an "underground" record producer in Los Angeles who turns out discs a few hundred at a time under the Bad Trip label.

His words are calculated to shock, like punk. But the life style and message of Mike and his musical friends seemed to me just a more extreme expression of feelings and attitudes shared by many of the straight kids I'd talked to around the country.

In a time when power is shifting away from youth and pressures on them to conform are increasing, dissent naturally goes underground and becomes despairing.

As Mike and his friends explained it, punk is a vicious satire of the whole society: a comedy of the absurd in a time when many of the things young people are asked to do seem absurd to them.

Punks, they insist, tend to be the thinking kids who stay clear of the exploitive youth culture of music and drugs and who are ready to give their bodies to the cause of waking up the world.

Where punks and skinheads in London, Hamburg and Rome usually are street-hardened, working-class kids with bread-and-butter economic Their intellectual mentors are from the '50s, the '30s and earlier: James Dean, beats such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and French poets of despair such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire . . . . But there is also a down-to-earth exhilaration in the punk life style that's lacking elsewhere in the youth culture . . . . grievances, American punks usually are middle-class with more abstract concerns.

With Mike were Don Bolles, founder of a punk band called the 45 Grave, and Mary Sims, who sings for 45 Grave under the name Dinah Cancer.

I'd expected a hostile group clad in menacing leather costumes with pull-off patches and zippers in strange places. But the members of 45 Grave and their friends seemed more like flower children. Don has uncharacteristic long hair and is sometimes mistaken for a hippie; Mike is intellectual, and Mary is gentle and friendly.

But Punk has to be uncompromising to survive, they explained.

Its aggressive, squawling sound and accent on the second beat are meant to evoke anxiety and tension, not to entertain. It is serious music in that sense.

My acquaintances see New Wave as simply a ploy by the commercial record companies to clean up punk and make it saleable.

The same goes for the music of the '60s.

"The peace-and-love thing was phony," says Don. "It was, 'You drop this magic pill, you become passive, you don't have to encounter any challenges from this point on, and you can reach enlightenment in five minutes.' That's not confronting life."

As far as Don is concerned, the '60s radicals have sold out to the system and become corporate fascists, drawing big salaries as record company executives or stockbrokers.

Their intellectual mentors are from the '50s, the '30s and earlier: James Dean, beats such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and French poets of despair such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

"People are hypnotized by the constant barrage of media around them that is constantly filling their minds with pap and tripe that's utterly worthless except to those who make lots of money off it," says Don.

Don says he's a pacifist. But he'd still welcome a nuclear war.

"It would be a change; it might be exciting to live through what everyone fears most."

But there is also a down-to-earth exhilaration in the punk life style that's lacking elsewhere in the youth culture, says Mary, who is 21. She says she was the "typical high school kid, a Girl Scout with blond hair" until she heard punk music.

She cut off her hair to an inch, dyed it bright green, started walking around in ripped T-shirts and and joined the Los Angeles punk scene, which includes dozens of bands that practice in garages and try to get gigs in local nightclubs.