YER GONNA GET IT ON YER FACE

The Dark Warning and Downward Spiral of

LA Punk

 

Experience Music Project Pop Conference,

Seattle, WA, February 26, 2011

 

 

At the start of his movie Velvet Goldmine (1999), director Todd Haynes imagines Oscar Wilde as a space alien dropped into Victorian London from a UFO. That’s amazingly plausible: if you jump ahead a hundred years, Ziggy Stardust suddenly makes every kind of sense. What could be more punk than to find the earthly prospect so unappealing, so unsustaining, that you reject it altogether?

It Came from Outer Space

In 1973, a band called Zolar X comes on the stage of Rodney Bingenheimer’s Sunset Strip club, The English Disco, looking like plastic toy versions of Ziggy Stardust: tubes in their groins and antennae on their heads, playing punk chords at punk speed with goofy fey vocals and wet spurts of synthesizer. At their worst, they resemble everything bad, from King Crimson to Rush. But when they’re better, they’re absolutely, fabulously punk.

     Zolar’s gay-glam-glitter spoor seeds LA punk in such later forms as the Berlin Brats, Black Randy and The Metrosquad, and The Screamers. Screamers lead singer Tomata du Plenty is an ex-member of The Cockettes, the San Francisco drag company, and the band are influenced heavily by “Krautrock and gay underground art.”

     Where gay men gather, women will never be far away. More than any white rock scene before it, LA punk is defined by women. Every other band has a female bass player: Lorna Doom of The Germs, Kira Roessler of Arthur J. and The Goldcups, Dianne Chai of The Alley Cats, Phranc of Catholic Discipline. Front women include Alice Armendariz of The Bags and Exene Cervenka of X. The Go Go’s attack both Shangri-Las songs and LA Times pop critic Robert Hilburn like demented cheerleaders.

      In time, Latino punks are joining the scene and making one of their own. Los Plugz, one of the few bands to make it out of the LA punk ghetto; the Zeros, transplants from the Chula Vista section of San Diego; Alice of The Bags; The Odd Squad; The Warriors; The Stains; The Violent Children. East LA punk, says Jesus Velo of the band Los Illegals, “is still an untold story.” But in terms of conventional rock history—that is, rock history as it was being codified at the time—all of LA punk might as well have come from outer space.

 

I’m a Punk, and This is What Punks Do

LA punk in its fat years is absurdly various, even promiscuous in its sources, evolving out of art galleries and gay cabaret, science fiction and Skid Row approximations of Vivienne Westwood; from rockabilly, Top 40, hard rock, art rock, the weirdest of contemporary black pop. Los Plugz cover Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba,” and many bands come straight from the Sixties psych garage, sounding today like mutant sons and daughters of the original Nuggets bands.

      Like any real scene, it’s a mix of the great, the near-great, and the not at all great. The Germs, led by Darby Crash, are for a while considered a force, a major potential; to this day, they boast a fair amount of mystique on the back of little more than premature death and proximity to big names. Their one album is produced by Joan Jett, a handful of other tracks by Jack Nitzsche, and Crash overdoses in LA the day before John Lennon is shot to death on the other coast.

     More interesting is Black Randy, a drug abuser and prostitute with a predilection for pranks involving his own fecal matter. He writes songs about Idi Amin and boners, sperm babies and peg boys. His affectation of pimp swagger surpasses anything attempted by Lou Reed or other White Negroes of the time, and musically he has more in common with Parliament than with the Pistols. His stuff is raunchy, funny, exciting, and for him punk is truly an identity—not a style, not a mission. Asked to justify his music, his behavior, his reason for existing, he will say, with a certain shabby dignity: “I’m a punk, and this is what punks do.”

     There’s also the overrated X and the underrated Weirdos, whose single “We Got the Neutron Bomb” stands beside “Anarchy in the UK” as a perfect punk blast of spirit and metaphor. Also in the mix are worthies like The Dickies, The Dils, The Cramps, and The Flesh Eaters, as well as The Skulls, The Alley Cats, The Eyes, The Controllers, and The Randoms, all pushing for space on the tiny stages of venues such as The Masque, Club 88, Madame Wong’s, and The Whisky. There are great live lineups five nights a week, and a slew of indie singles pouring out of plastic factories in the City of lndustry.

       Someday people will say, “You should have been there.”

 

Zombie Food for Idiots in Nowhereland

By summer of 1977, Johnny Rotten has put a hero’s face to the monster Punk. LA, feeling validation and solidarity, grows some self-awareness, and even some self-importance. It stands now united with the UK punks against the purveyors of what Claude Bessy of the LA punk ‘zine Slash calls “zombie food for idiots in nowhereland.” In LA, that refers to the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, and The Eagles. Thus, not for the first time in pop history, affirmation of the self comes through denial of the other, and an open community shows signs of rigidifying into just another precinct of cool. In the Pistols, Bessy finds “a possible rebirth of true rebel music . . . May the punks set this rat-infested industry on fire.”  

       For the next year or so, the mission is righteous, and the rat-burners are in charge.

 

Everything Went Black

And then, LA punk is punked by an enemy within—or at least within driving distance.

      In late 1978, something called hardcore migrates from the sandy surf ‘burbs scattered between LA and San Diego. Soon it’s also pouring out of Orange County, bastion of John Birch and Richard Nixon. Hardcore is summed up in three words—fast, hard, angry—and among its majors are China White, Agent Orange, Vicious Circle, The Adolescents, T.S.O.L., The Middle Class, and, at the extremity, Black Flag.

       Eugene, the young skinhead interviewed by Penelope Spheeris in her LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1987), relates the formative experience of being harassed in Huntington Beach by what he calls “long-haired redneck hicks in their 4-by-4 vehicles, real Lynyrd Skynyrd type of guys.” Whereupon he and some friends raise a self-described Skinhead Army to “eradicate this fucking hippie threat by any means necessary.  That’s where the hardcore shit really started.”

       Keith Morris of Black Flag explains the genre this way: “We were riled up and protesting against what was going on socially and musically. We were all basically nice guys. We were like Straw Dogs people. You’ve got Dustin Hoffman, this mild pacifist guy who gets pissed off and ends up killin’ ‘em all after his wife gets raped. You get somebody like this passive little guy and you get him mad enough, this is how he’ll react.”

       But Eugene’s equation of Skynyrd-loving rednecks with some illusory “hippie threat” and Morris’s claims to social protest don’t really explain what looks like adolescent male aggression meeting white rage. Black Flag, some say, panders to the hardcore crowd, feeding it with numbers like the infamous “White Minority.” X, no doubt with the best of intentions, chime in with the title song of their debut album Los Angeles, about a girl fed up with everyone in LA who isn’t straight, Anglo, and working class.

       Homophobia is suddenly out front in ways that are not easy to read as irony, especially when transmitted by screaming vocalists over body-slamming crowds. The band Fear makes queer-baiting a trademark of their shows—with ironic intent, they say, though that defense, like other things, becomes much thornier in these days just after George Moscone and Harvey Milk have been murdered in San Francisco.

 

THEM!

Punk, by any definition, must be oppositional. As soon as the Slash Central Committee calls for the burning of a rat-infested industry, young hardcore punks, who frankly care little about the corrupt aesthetics of mainstream rock—who in fact probably like a lot of it, having grown up on it—feel challenged to find targets of their own. The LA punk assertion increasingly becomes not that of an individual upon a void, or a community against mass culture, but an aggrieved “us” against a nebulous “them”: punk against hippie, straight against gay, white against non­white, surf punk against Hollywood punk, finally just body against body until, to follow the essential logic, there will be no more “us,” oneself will become a “them,” the audience will chew itself asunder, and evolution will cease.

      That’s melodramatic. But there is a darkness here—and it’s too easy to lay it all off on certain bands for pandering, or pushing fucked-up ideas for a laugh, for a buck, or for real. Hardcore only rode a momentum that was already in swing. The energy, rhetoric, threat, and novelty of punk was that it said no to everything. Total negation means total—not just of the “right” people, but inevitably of the wrong ones, that is to say, the powerless and persecuted along with the strong and corrupt. Hardcore took that to an extreme, sure—but wasn’t it Robbie Robertson who famously said that “Music should never be harmless”?

      Musicians make music. What they often don’t make is sense. They die young or fade out slow, have long careers with many dropouts and comebacks, and otherwise mess up the narrative. That’s what Nik Cohn meant when he wrote in 1968 that if the Rolling Stones had any sense of form, they’d all die in a plane crash at the age of 30.

      LA punk didn’t simply, decisively end. It dribbled and dissolved, seeped in and somehow kept going. To see what didn’t happen as well as what did, we need other eyes; for the untold story, we need other artists to tell it.

 

White Dopes on Punk

Repo Man is written and directed in 1984 by Englishman Alex Cox. His protagonist, Otto, lives in an LA outskirt called Edge City and does all the punk things—moshes, sings Black Flag songs, laments the mutation of The Circle Jerks into a lounge act. Then he’s recruited as a repo man. The plot from there is not exactly arbitrary, but it is scattershot, involving space aliens, secret government agents, revolutionaries, and a radioactive device in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu. 

      What matters to us at this moment is the magical last note Cox puts to the whole punk perplex. And the key to that is in the disquisition of Wilson, the mechanic played by Tracey Walter. Arguing a theory of synchronicity that is disarming in its simplicity—it basically comes down to a plate of shrimp—Wilson bemoans the tendency of so many to “view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things . . . [to] get so hung up on specifics, they miss out on seeing the whole thing.” He suggests to Otto that the thousands who go missing every year are being kidnapped by flying saucers-slash-time machines, and taken back to the beginning of human time to populate a barren earth. Logically, then, if the present can be hijacked to create the past, what we take to be the present, is really . . . the future.

       That’s nuts. But so are a lot of true things. Wilson is simply trying to tell the punk that he exists in a much larger context than he realizes. It’s exactly what Todd Haynes was saying in Velvet Goldmine—that our aggressions and desires, our sounds, styles, symbols, everything that distinguishes our lives, has come out of something. It will go back into something. The past is alive in the present, our present will become someone else’s past, and the future will carry out the implications of all that we do or don’t do today. Simple and true.

     Today, “No future” is a T-shirt design. Back then, though, it was a rejection, full-scale, of history, and therefore of time itself—of a past symbolized by the failures of peace, love, rock and roll, and everything else, and of a future certain to be controlled by rats and industry. That’s the negating, obliterating force of punk, and it was finally taken more literally, less ironically, and surely less philosophically, in LA than anywhere else.

      That force is also the unnamed thing in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu, that pink radioactive glow that reaches back to an earlier LA story, Kiss Me Deadly, and forward to a later one, Pulp Fiction—though, given Wilson’s theory of time travel, we can’t really know which movie came first. Like total negation, the force is mindless, indiscriminate: it’s just as deadly to punks as it is to cops and government agents. The agents and revolutionaries spend the whole movie chasing after that power—which is, in fact, the power to say no. And who harnesses it in the end? Who gives that refusal a mind, a direction, a magical utility? That’s right—Wilson, acidhead, wasted relic of the past. Sitting in the driver’s seat, he cocks a finger. Otto gets in, and the car flies.

       The entire punk predicament—no past, no future, only an endless constipated present—is ingrained in the perfectly expressionless mug of Emilio Estevez. That face remains pretty much the same whether projecting frustration, seductiveness, doubt, nausea, diplomacy, or compassion. The one time it shows anything like wonder is when he and Wilson fly over nighttime LA in the glowing Malibu, bound for the next dimension. Otto is as wide-eyed as Dennis Quaid seeing the moon at the end of The Right Stuff. Astronaut and star-child, the LA punk registers awe before the full panoply of time and space.

       Yes, Otto, there is a past, there is a future, and you’re a part of both.

       Evolution smiles—and so do we.

“We Got the Neutron Bomb”

Copyright (c) 2011 by Devin McKinney

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