JUNE 3, 2016
I NEVER REALLY GOT into early L.A. punk — which made me feel as if I was never actually punk. Or, I claimed punk as an ethos, not a style, and the style that I was actively not claiming was, I thought, well encapsulated by L.A. punk: three-chord songs that were at once bouncy and sneering, an overwhelming agro, brawny white-dude masculinity.
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk serves as a corrective to my (I think widely held) prejudice. From approximately 1977-’79, before a wave of violence-oriented “beach punks” crashed the party, Los Angeles saw the birth and dissolution of a scene that was anything but homogenous. In the words of The Blasters’s Dave Alvin, the bands and fans who mobilized Los Angeles’s “golden age” of punk were “a wide cross-section of nonconformists, odd balls, rejects, and visionaries who couldn’t fit in to mainstream society.” Centered mostly in Hollywood, the scene was diverse in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class. The bands had no unified sound, except, maybe, fast and loud; the first punk show in Hollywood, at the Orpheum, featured The Zeros (teenage, clean-cut, garage-inspired), The Weirdos (wacky outfits, sardonic power-pop), and The Germs (grit-spewing, utterly shambling — their first show).
The book is, of course, named for an X song, and it’s attributed to John Doe with Tom DeSavia and “Friends.” Doe wrote a handful of short chapters and DeSavia (a recording industry guy who produced Beyond and Back: The X Anthology when he was at Elektra, and who participated in the tail end of the scene as a teenager) a smaller handful, but it’s the Friends who really flesh out and enliven the volume. We’ve got “personal histories” from many of the scene’s major players, including Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s, Robert Lopez a.k.a. El Vez of The Zeros, and writers Pleasant Gehman, Chris Morris, and Kristine McKenna, as well as several musicians more associated with the region’s next punk wave: Henry Rollins, Mike Watt, and Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L.
Unlike the now-prevalent Please Kill Me–style oral history scene reporting, Under the Big Black Sun doesn’t present a chronology or affect comprehensiveness (Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz’s 2001 We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk has the oral history approach covered.) Instead, Under the Big Black Sun provides extended reflections from roving points of view. Each writer tells more or less the same story — this is how I got there, this is what I did there, this is what it was like — with varying entry and exit points and moments of convergence. The reader begins to recognize the same events recounted from multiple angles: that first Germs show, the time The Damned came to town and crashed with The Screamers, the car accident that killed Exene’s sister the night X was playing two sold-out sets at the Whisky. While an oral history, at its most persuasive, makes you feel as if you’re watching a live-action documentary, Doe et al.’s approach allows the reader to accumulate a feeling of insider knowledge. We don’t read books like this just to get information; we read them so we can imagine we were there.
Perhaps because the popular imagination about punk’s early days focuses heavily on New York and London, a number of the book’s contributors are eager to define what made the L.A. scene not only important but distinctive. Doe writes, “Los Angeles tapped into something much darker & more dangerous than NYC’s or London’s punk rock.” He saw punk as emerging from an L.A. trajectory less Beach Boys and Eagles and more Bukowski, Love, The Doors — “images & sounds opposite to what everyone in America thought of Los Angeles at the time.” At the same time, Doe and others insist that a foundational desire of the early L.A. punkers was to “cut loose & have fun” — which Doe says explains why The Ramones and The Damned were more influential in Los Angeles than the more self-serious Television and Patti Smith. There also may have been more of a “mainstream L.A.” inflection going on than the participants recognized; Henry Rollins, arriving from DC in 1981, noted a “glamour and understated confidence” to the SoCal punks, which he attributed to the “Hollywood” influence.
For the younger born-and-bred Angelenos who comprised the majority of the scene, however, there was no choosing what aspect of the city’s mythology to plug into. There was just finding other misfits and making bands, setting up shows, putting out zines, without much thought to recording or documentation, let alone engaging with the music industry at large. The vibe was homegrown and DIY. Jane Wiedlin writes of the early shows, “Most times it would just be a night of swapping kids going from audience to stage then back again. It felt like Our Scene.”
In her hilarious, vividly recalled chapter “The Canterbury Tales” (the Canterbury was a famously punk-inhabited Hollywood apartment building — see The Go-Go’s “Living at the Canterbury”) Wiedlin writes that she got into punk while a student at a “cheap-ass” fashion college. She saw a spread on punk fashion in, of all places, Women’s Wear Daily, and started going to shows at the Masque after she befriended Pleasant Gehman. It’s completely delightful to get the scoop on The Go-Go’s punk past, from stories about Belinda Carlisle showing up at shows wearing her trademark black Hefty bag, to fliers announcing the band sharing bills with Black Flag and The Circle Jerks. While it may be easy to write off their departure for mainstream success and transformation into, as Kristine McKenna puts it, “harmless sorority-type chicks,” lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey’s chapter reveals that the band also worked hard to get their chops up. As she describes how she taught herself to play lead guitar, coming up with “melodies and runs that would uplift a song the way George Harrison did with The Beatles,” I realized how rare it still is to read about female musicians discussing the technical aspects of their craft.
While the Go-Go’s might have been the most famous all-female band to come out of the scene, over half the bands featured in Under The Big Black Sun included women members, as singers and musicians. There was X frontwoman Exene, The Germs’s bassist Lorna Doom, Phranc in Catholic Discipline. The Bags actually sometimes played and posed for photos with bags on their heads, predating by several decades Sia’s refusal to subject herself to the public’s gaze. And I was stoked to learn about The Brat, from East Los Angeles, fronted by Teresa Covarrubias, whose chapter in the book led me to some incredible YouTube footage of a show at Plaza de la Raza. Covarrubias is in a billowy lavender housedress with puffy sleeves, standing mostly stock still except for a few sharply defiant shoulder shrugs and head rolls, belting lyrics, simultaneously pissed and poised.
Some of the most gripping material centers around the scene in mostly Latino East Los Angeles. Covarrubias describes how she and other East L.A. kids found their way to punk through records and fanzines, and then discovered what was going on at the Masque and other Hollywood venues. By 1979 when The Brat got together, it was harder for new bands to get shows at the existing Westside venues, so the East L.A. bands set up their own shows and venues, most notably The Vex, a bi-monthly punk night at a community arts center. Soon Westside bands were clambering to play shows in East L.A. as well. Both Covarrubias and The Zeros’s Robert Lopez (from the San Diego suburbs) write compellingly about the complexity of being both accepted and somehow always Othered by the still-majority white Hollywood scene (e.g., The Zeros earned the nickname The Mexican Ramones).
Unfortunately, Under the Big Black Sun’s overall right-on treatment of Latino involvement in the scene is undercut by a painfully misguided Doe-penned chapter titled “So Young & Beautiful.” Doe writes, “Black hair, brown faces, black hair, brown faces — beautiful, sweaty, Mexican teenagers swimming in a sea of white suburban kids.” The fetishization continues: Brian Tristan a.k.a. Kid Congo Powers “could’ve given Peter Lorrie a run for his money in the exotic looks department.” That this Latino-kids-as-fashion-accessory chapter directly precedes essays by Lopez and Covarrubias reflects poorly on editorial choices as well.
Nobody expects a scene to last forever, and Under the Big Black Sun offers its fair share of platitudes on that front. Kristine McKenna: “L.A.’s first generation of punk was an exotic flower meant to bloom for a short time”; Doe: “Maybe it was a good thing we didn’t do more than make a bonfire in Hollywood for a few years, then pass the torch to a version of punk rock that was more uniform.” Everyone in the book has their exact version of how and why the golden age came to an end, but most all of the contributors attribute it to the invasion of the scene by, in the words of Pleasant Gehman, “beach punks and Cro-Magnon-esque jocks from Orange County.” These new arrivals who, Gehman writes, had “just months before […] been screaming at us from car windows and beating us up” brought a new level of violence to shows. The early bands had embraced a sort of conceptual violence — Darby Crash rolling in broken glass in homage to Iggy Pop, and X’s catchy tales of blood, rape, and death — but the vibe of the early scene was more wild than sinister. Covarrubias, describing how audience members at a Black Flag show trashed Self Help, the arts center that hosted the Vex, calls the new punks “nihilistic,” more interested in destroying property than creating art. Jack Grisham, singer for T.S.O.L. (part of the “invading” faction), offers an alternate perspective. He writes, “The boys from the beach brought life to the dance floor: tanned muscular bodies that were made to be hurt.” The early punk records should have come with disclaimers, he writes, because that was the music that made the second generation violent: “It was their fault — not ours.” The inclusion of Grisham makes me wish the anthology had included a few more “second generation” voices, to push more generatively against the predominant narrative. (Mike Watt’s in here, but his charming-as-always piece only reinforces how anomalous the experimentally minded, non-aggressive Minutemen were to the later scene.)
Despite individual engaging essays, the form of Under the Big Black Sun gets a little tedious — the frame (“Tell us your story about the early L.A. punk scene!”) is neither tight enough to feel like a productive constraint, nor quite expansive enough to produce an exhaustive history. The interstitial chapters by Doe at times display the sharp, noirish lyricism and economy of a good X song, but some, like a brief interlude on L.A. car culture, feel dashed off (Hmm, now, what else can we say about L.A.?) DeSavia’s contributions, including a bizarrely acontextual short oral history of the scene’s photographers and visual artists, are even sloppier, and not in a punk way. With a number of decent books already written about the era, including Spitz and Mullen’s oral history, Mullen’s Lexicon Devil (a Darby Crash biography), and Alice Bag’s recent Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, it’s a little hard to understand why this book, and why now. Some potential clues: Doe has a new album dropping this month, and X’s 40th anniversary is coming up. In an interview in Denver weekly Westword, Doe shared that people had been “bugging him” to write a book about the L.A. punk scene for a while, but he’d been waiting for a collaborator.
Still, one can make the reasonable argument that having John Doe’s name on the cover will draw in more late-comer fans to some of the lesser-known bands featured in the book. Some X or Knitters fans will read the book and, like me, go to the record store or the internet and listen to the killer Yes L.A. compilation, or watch footage of The Zeros live on San Diego TV, and discover the richness of those wild early days.
And if a book on its own can’t fully communicate what the music sounded like, it can convey how exciting and important it felt to get up on a stage and scream into a mic to other passionate freaks at a shitty dive behind a porn shop in Hollywood in 1977. “We are new!” Robert Lopez writes, reminiscing about what it felt like to be a 16-year-old kid in a punk band. “What we are doing has never been done before.” Go look up that performance by The Zeros or The Brat or The Bags or The Germs after reading Under the Big Black Sun. It’ll feel new now.
Sara Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, was published by Tin House Books in September 2015. She co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. Find her online at www.sarajaffewriter.com.