john-doe

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” said either Martin Mull or Elvis Costello, depending on which source you believe. Either way we keep doing it, knowing full well the kind of lightning made by mouths or slapping strings can’t be captured on the printed page. The many differences between the sung and written word kept eating at me as I read Under the Big Black Sun—a Personal History of L.A. Punk.

The book is credited to John Doe with Tom DeSavia and friends. The friends, who include such luminaries as Mike Watt, Jane Weidlin, Chris D., Henry Rollins, and Dave Alvin, account for about half of the text. Peppered throughout by xeroxed show flyers, the book is a sort of written equivalent of a mixtape. Those old enough to remember making or receiving mixtapes will recall what a hodgepodge they could be. You’d love one song, then fast-forward through the next two, then play the fourth song over and over again. So it is with this collection of memories.

Despite the dozen and a half voice who contribute their reminiscences, some common themes emerge. Most mention the Masque, the Whisky, the Starland, and few other spots as the key clubs where the shows happened, half the contributors seemed to live in buildings with names like the Canterbury and the Wilton Hilton, and everyone bemoaned the premature end of the beautiful scene they’d helped create.

The L.A. Punk bands weren’t just trying to ape their N.Y. and London predecessors. Word spread about the new music through a few magazines and hard-to-find 45s and LPs, but there was no codified style. The scene was distinguished by its heterogeneity. There were Mexican bands from East L.A., hardcore bands from Hermosa Beach, art-rock bands from Hollywood, and half a dozen other unclassifiable styles originating up and down the coast. As a few groups gained a following outside a tight circle of friends, divisions began to form and rules began to be written. Doe describes the problem thus:

 

Punk rock songs are not:

all screaming & yelling
3 chords (most Ramones’ songs are not)
2 minutes long
stupid lyrics w/ no leads
fast, loud & atonal

Punk rock songs are:

provocative
immediate
hook driven (title usually repeated many times)
specific
fast, slow & in between

As wildly different as the music could be, so are the ways the writers here recollect the era. From Doe’s clipped but poetic prose to Mike Watt’s beatnik banter, each chapter offers a different slant. Some are illuminating and insightful, others merely descriptive, but each offers a sincere account of their part in the scene. Throughout my reading of the book, I kept putting on the music being described. The group mentioned more than any other is The Screamers, a combo that put out no official recordings and didn’t even feature guitars. They were nothing like the cookie-cutter punk rock promoted all over the world for two decades at this point.

There’s irony in the fact that the book’s forward is by Billie Joe Armstrong, who’s mallrat punk band Green Day did as much to popularize (and thus bury) much of what is being memorialized in its pages. Writers differ on what the true death knell of the L.A. Punk scene was. Some cite the death of Darby Crash, others say it was the car crash that killed Exene Cervanka’s sister Myrielle, but all agree that by about 1982 it was all over. Some bands would sign to major labels, others would implode, but in any case this particular communal moment was over.

From 1977 to 1982, the L.A. area produced some of the rawest, most adventurous music around. Under the Big Black Sun is a worthy scrapbook to remind people who forgot about these bands and a good primer for those who hadn’t heard of them before. But nothing can replace dropping the needle on a record, or even YouTubing the Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, X, or Black Flag, and just listening.

***

Under the Big Black Sun
by John Doe, with Tom DeSavia and friends
Da Capo Press; 336 p.

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