ROCK 'N' ROLL BOOKS HAVE THEIR OWN special set of challenges, the most important being: try not to reduce the wily, ridiculous, vibrant music of rejects and losers into a dry, studied word paste. But on the other hand, don’t try to mimic its high-energy squall with language either. Best not to engage with the music on that level at all; instead, point the tape recorder or pen in the direction of its makers and artists (but not its drummers … just kidding!), and let them tell stories about “what it was like.”
Granted, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California is a sociology book, published by a university press, and the subjects that lend themselves best to study within this framework are the followers, the scenesters, the kids at the shows, the fanzine scribes, and the promoters, who sometimes made stupid rules and liked to squabble about what punk was and wasn’t. When the attention turns, however briefly and sporadically, toward the musicians themselves, a different punk history emerges — one that’s more eccentric and contradictory and endlessly weird, and one that starts to answer the question of why people started these bands anyway. What “made” the Screamers happen? In the face of universal apathy or scorn, when there was no place to play and when no one cared, what made them make the unusual sounds that so enthralled some people and so baffled others?
In the nascent years of punk rock as in other eras of rock ’n’ roll, if the pages of Slash and Flipside are any indication, the stakes were high, and boundaries were to be upheld — or else we might lose it all, the implication was. The scene would slip through their fingers and be gone. Punk’s devotees had a lot invested in how things were turning out; one’s music of choice was a territory to be defended, and fandom carried with it a complete lifestyle — a lifestyle that could even get you hurt. And it could get suspected enemies hurt, too. MacLeod writes of ambush haircuts for wayward “hippies” in club restrooms. Later he makes special mention of “longhairs circulating freely at shows,” as if this remarkable phenomenon rivals recess time in the prison yard. Yet to punks the threat they felt was taken as actual, and the reprisals visited upon these outsiders served as either “corrective measures” or as punishment for trespassing.
Most of this conduct enforcement happened among the fans, though bands knew how to use the fear of scene impurity or foreign infiltration as a tool. Black Flag, for example, enjoyed toying with their audience’s expectations of what a punk/hardcore band should look and sound like. Greg Ginn’s widely-remarked love of the Grateful Dead was not mere posturing. The SST roster was full of genre-crossing bands, bringing the sound of metal (Saint Vitus), acid country (Meat Puppets), and free jazz (Saccharine Trust) to hardcore shows and sending H.C. jocks into a tizzy.
MacLeod names some scene anomalies, like post-beatnik Richard Meltzer and Bomp! Records’s Greg Shaw. But Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer, while enthusiastic supporters of the new crop of bands, were shunned in clubs as parasitic glitter creeps, carrying a tinge of both old age and “diverse” (read: unfashionable) tastes in music. A shame that MacLeod’s (adept...