Hardcore Hits the Coffee Table

By Brian Kim StefansMarch 17, 2013

We Got Power! by Jordan Schwartz and David Markey

Triptych image: Megan Cotts, "ECU"

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HARDCORE would probably top most lists of popular music genres least likely to be monumentalized in a coffee table book, resting there next to tomes on the paintings of Raphael, classic Fabergé eggs, and entrancing, exploitative photographs of the Brazilian favelas. All told, We Got Power! is 300-plus semi-gloss pages of essays, photographs, and gorgeous reproductions of the six-issue punk fanzine of the same name (published from 1981 to 1983). Celebrants of the first big wave of Internet activity in the late 1990s drew a lot of inspiration from the fanzines of punks and, before them, the “mimeo revolution” of the downtown poets of 1960s New York. In their minds, this decentralized, uncensored Wild West of the Internet would create a new, robust counterculture that would fend off the anticipated encroachment of corporate interests, since who could surveil all the new sites popping up hundreds at a time? Google and Facebook have put an end to that folly, but the rise of the robots has only amplified the romance of renegade self-publishing to the point where digital archives of seemingly ancient texts like We Got Power — replete with hunt-and-peck manual typewriter fonts, hand-drawn logos, literally cut-and-pasted collages, and Never Mind the Bollocks ransom note–style headlines — are just not enough. Hence, a return to print.

Southern California punk hasn’t received the treatment British punk did in such books as Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming on the Sex Pistols or, with a dash of theory, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces or Simon Reynolds’s excellent Rip It Up and Start Again on British and American post-punk from 1978 to 1984. Barney Hoskyns’s Waiting for the Sun: A Rock ‘n’ Roll History of Los Angeles devotes a pretty good chapter to L.A. punk, appropriately titled “Decline of the West,” but naturally Hoskyns doesn’t follow through to hardcore since, by that time, the music had moved out of the city into the burbs and, eventually, into vans to crisscross the United States. Steven Bush’s comprehensive American Hardcore: A Tribal History, which like many books about punk (Please Kill Me, We Got the Neutron Bomb) are “in their own words” style collages from bits of interviews, lingers in the Southland quite a bit, offering its fair share of wisdom-in-hindsight about some of the absurdities of the moment while keeping the flame alive for fans. Though die-hard punks would be quite happy if the urbane, overeducated music critics of the Reynolds’s variety kept their distance, Los Angeles hardcore seems to cry out for a comprehensive treatment, tracing the various elements that spawned it: the setting of lower middle-class surfing towns, the political state of Reagan-era conformity, the rapid influx of punk music in stark contrast to radio-friendly AOR, and, if Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L.’s harrowing memoir An American Demon can be believed, the widespread adolescent depravity and violence endemic to a generation of kids whose parents were too self-absorbed to talk to them. 

We Got Power! operates somewhere between being comprehensive — it's a fantastic archive of photographs, the entire fanzine, and short essays by the scene’s major and minor players — and a continuation of the oral history–style books of the past. The book starts with a perfectly ambivalent essay by the one contributor who might need no introduction, Henry Rollins. He writes that Los Angeles “has, over the last thirty years, become something of a home to me. It is not a place I miss. It is not a place I think of with any degree of fondness, but it is a place where I have seen and learned much.” So much for boosterism. Rollins, a D.C. transplant, writes of his place in the scene: “I felt like some naïve Boy Scout voyeur around these people [who] pushed their existence to the edge as almost a matter of course. I couldn’t quite call them friends. I didn’t feel anything in common with them, and, quite often, they let me know the feeling was mutual.” 

Rollins introduces one of the central characters of We Got Power!, the colorful scenester Kim Pilkington, who was “extremely intelligent [with] the lowest fear quotient of anyone I have ever met,” and recounts his first experiences of taking LSD with her, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, takes place mostly on freeways and in a Burger King. Pilkington reappears several times in this volume, notably in Jennifer Schwartz’s “Out of Vogue, Woman,” where her female perspective sheds unique light on how standard pop-fandom operates in this quasi-criminal environment:

Her favorites were SST bands. But her crème de la scam was T.S.O.L. She would gush about their all-American good looks, especially when she was around scruffy, dirty SST fans. “There are more cute guys at a T.S.O.L. rehearsal than at an entire Black Flag gig,” she’d sneer.

Schwartz writes that, “Kim was likely schizophrenic, or, at the very least, bipolar, but there were no meds back then to quell such genius/insanity.” Pilkington is one of the many lost souls, talismans of sorts, around which the book’s nostalgia for this time seems to congregate.

Though the term is splashed across the cover, “hardcore” as denoting a musical style does not make much sense for many of the bands covered by We Got Power! Saccharine Trust, for instance, went on to become something more like a punk/jazz act, especially as guitarist Joe Baiza perfected his distinctive method of improvisation. But even at their start, Saccharine Trust was less about pogoing and anti-government rants than Jack Brewer’s poetical ramblings over breakneck, fluid song structures. The Minutemen, whose early tracks were more recalcitrant, enigmatic fragments akin to the lesser celebrated L.A. punk band the Urinals, pushed way beyond the one-two polka beat of the typical hardcore single. Unfortunately, we don’t hear too much about these innovations in the book — Brewer, Watt, and Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks don’t contribute more than a few paragraphs — but this perhaps isn’t really their stage, and they’ve answered these questions elsewhere over the years.

The good news is that this clears the way for other minor deities, like the late Mike Webber, “South Bay’s very own Darby Crash” and singer for the nearly forgotten but often brilliant band Nip Drivers. Jula Bell writes:

Sometimes watching Mike perform was like watching an exorcism. He sang in an amazing whining falsetto, and would growl, moan, add a few tra-la-las, and scream his head off. He made all this sound while writhing around in a ripped-up dress, molesting the mic, dancing some weird little jig, or just standing there slumped over something with his eyes rolled up in his head looking like he was going pass out.

As for the “jocks” in the audience: “These homophobes had no idea that they were being captivated by a bisexual heroin addict hedonist who lived with his dad.” In the recordings, far from being clowns, Webber and his band come across as equal parts musical technicians, bratty Dadaists, and perverse pop gods (not unlike the decidedly non-punk Frank Zappa, himself of Los Angeles). Nip Drivers, like Bell’s own band Bulimia Banquet, took a lot of the basic elements of hardcore and made it funny, proficient, experimental, and weird, bringing punk back to its earliest roots in bands like Pere Ubu and away from the Oi! styled call-and-response anthems for which it is often reviled. 

These pages are replete with stories about battles with cops, long afternoons surfing and skateboarding, being driven around on the freeways by the “only one with a license,” bass guitars thrust through frat house windows, and nights at the unofficial “Mecca” of the scene, the Oki Dog. Rodney Bingenheimer of KROQ fame makes a brief appearance, not in the humiliating light of the documentary Mayor of Sunset Strip but as the hero of Rodney on the Roq. Schwartz lovingly recounts the origins of his friendship with Markey on a rainy afternoon when the two, aged 16 and having just met, took a daylong tour of the neighborhood to skate all the garages flooded by a recent rain. The essay by Markey, who also documented the scene in Super 8 and went on to direct the cult classic Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, is largely concerned with ambitions for the magazine, listing a pretty impressive roll-call of bands they were covering — I count about 70 in a single paragraph — including acts nowhere near “hardcore,” like Suburban Lawns and Paul Roessler’s post-Screamers project, Twisted Roots.

As for the photographs, there seem to be three distinct ways to look at them: 1) you were there, in which case you recognize friends, places, and shows and it brings a whole lot back, or 2) you were not there but were alive at the time somewhere else doing kind of the same thing, in which case you get the spirit, can smell the smells and sense the dangers, but don’t know who the fuck a lot of these folks are, or 3) you weren’t even born yet, in which case (if you are a fan) this looks like a glorious, mythical past you would like to be a part of in the way some artsy high school students dress like 1890s decadents from Montmartre. For me, it’s pretty neat to see pictures of Mike Webber spinning around in spandex, Milo Aukerman of the Descendents looking like a lost 12-year-old chemistry prodigy onstage with his thick glasses and string bean frame, Joe Baiza chilling with a beer and a young Jack Brewer pulling a Ride-A-Rock-Horse pose, and the very young Minutemen — the cherubic D. Boon (who died at 27 in a car accident), Mike Watt, and a kind of jockish George Hurley — performing in a nondescript backyard. There’s a great picture of a scrawny Jordan Schwartz donning a porkpie hat, with braces and zits, buttoning his shirt in front of a wall desiccated by graffiti and posters; several pages later is a cute photo of his fresher-faced, but also scrawny, sister Jennifer at Rip City Skates, where they both worked assembling roller skates. The more inviting photos are in the back, where color brings every pimple, orange hair job, spray-painted basement, and tattoo to life. Dottie Danger, better known as Belinda Carlisle, makes a cameo here but well into her svelte, feminine pop queen stage, as does Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who was raised in Los Angeles but by the time of the photo, 1988, was just visiting. Sometimes the images don’t quite match with the essays — there are a few nice ones of the Gun Club’s charismatic lead singer, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but no writing about him — and other times one feels one’s looking at someone else’s photo album, for instance the diptych captioned “Jennifer Schwartz cuts Steve Cervantes’ hair,” which is pretty much that. But as they say, one man’s Steve Cervantes is another man’s Mike Webber.

The irony of We Got Power! appearing in glossy reproduction is that the original was already of high printing quality; as Markey writes, their printer — the father of infamous punk singer John Macias of Circle One, who, plagued by mental illness, was shot by Santa Monica police after throwing someone off a pier — suggested “offset printing, Day-Glo ink, glossy cover, and high quality paper,” which put them a step above the mimeo norm of the day. The issues are packed with stuff: earnest reviews of new releases (T.S.O.L.’s Beneath the Shadows is “hardcore muzak”); reviews and addresses of other punk fanzines (“I love strainin’ my eyes to read the teeny type! Wat exorsize. I CANT FUCKING SPELL!”); subversive collages, cartoons (some by Raymond Pettibon), letters, fiction, and, I think, poetry. Best are the interviews that veer from the mundane to the absurd, many with bands like The Misfits — “Cops are cool in New York. They know that they got better things to do than be bothering little kids. They’re assholes here!” — Hüsker Dü, and D.O.A. when they were touring California.

We Got Power! gives a great impression of the scene’s liveliness, the fans’ intense devotion to the music, the audience’s intimacy with the performers — everyone’s on a first-name basis here, like Henry — and the excitement of being part of something new, especially as the kids came to see the Hollywood punk scene (X, the Germs, the Screamers, the Weirdos, the Plugz, the Dickies, etc.) as largely expired or simply passé and the energy had moved to the beach towns. Most remarkable is that, with even less support than their urban peers, with ephemeral clubs, no promoters, and renegade labels, these bands, some of which only managed to cut a single, some even less, seem even fresher in the digital age, as if the gods of analog had swooped in to argue their virtues and to document them, piecemeal but carefully, in books like this.


LARB Contributor

Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and professor of English (contemporary poetry and new media) at UCLA. His most recent book of poems is Viva Miscegenation (MakeNow Press, 2013). Prior books include What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (Factory School, 2006) and Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (Atelos, 2003). His website, which houses his many works of digital text art, is arras.net.


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