AUGUST 4, 2011
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) socio-historical study of SoCal punk precludes spending much time on the musicians themselves, like lone-wolf wing-nuts Black Randy and Geza X, or singular sensations Tomata Du Plenty, Alice Bag and Exene Cervenka, who complicate almost every given of the punk type. To include more of these voices would have gone a long way toward enlivening McLeod’s history-cum-mass psychology of punk rock — even as it may have complicated things considerably.
Plenty of Los Angeles and Orange County punk bands disprove the characterizations made in Kids of the Black Hole, about punks’ storied boredom, pettiness, tunnel vision, and lack of ambition. Many punks embraced the sixties, loved hippie music, and even bore a striking resemblance to bands of that era. Maybe X knew it held the torch as the Jefferson Airplane of its scene, based on its early label success, extended band “family,” ample musicianship (enlivened by a wildcard non-musician chanteuse), durability and versatility. Punks hailing from all corners of the scene, from John Lydon to Ian McKaye, make figuring out what was acceptable for punks to like and dislike endearingly slippery with their love of prog and Ted Nugent, respectively.
Fans are studiable, but they’re also fucking annoying, conflicted, and ephemeral. Why do we even bother with them? As MacLeod writes, “Many held the view that violent punks were not real punks, but rather posers and clones. It was the same line of ‘reasoning’ used by the violent punks to choose their victims.” Really, why care about these capricious meatheads? Yes, “punk identity remained in flux,” but it was because of the bands more than the fans.
MacLeod adds an engagingly written historical overview of the region that begat postsuburban punk and hardcore, too, and thus there are three potential books vying for dominance in Kids of the Black Hole. Each has merit, but here they are waiting to be unleashed in full out of the relatively short length of this study, the text of which numbers no more than 140 pages. MacLeod strains to reconcile them in this abbreviated space, but since he gives shortest shrift to the artists, he sacrifices some of what makes punk rock so eccentric and weird.
In contrast, Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s compulsively readable oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb piles on a clamor of voices — voices of the fans and scenesters, but of band people as well. It’s messy and at times claustrophobic, but in terms of conveying what life was like on the ground, Neutron Bomb is essential reading.
The scale of Kids of the Black Hole is not a human scale. Missing are personal anecdotes and stories, and any kind of focus on the scene’s “characters,” who could be so alluring and entertaining — not for nothing did they convert kids into rabid fans. What makes books like Aimee Cooper’s Coloring Outside the Lines (memoir) and Joe Carducci’s Enter Naomi (biography/social history) so affecting is the human interest. The former is a sweet, nostalgia-tinged slice of young punk life on the fringes in early eighties Hollywood, kids forging a fragile, scrappy, so-called family out of their shared lot; the latter, a story of an enigmatic young woman’s descent into an alcoholic abyss (and her friends’ inability to help her), placed against the backdrop of what Carducci calls “SST, L.A. and all that.”
Of course, as MacLeod makes clear from the outset, his book is not an oral history and it’s not a memoir; it’s a sociological examination and history of the Los Angeles and Orange County punk and hardcore scenes of the late seventies and early eighties. In fact, Los Angeles and Orange County emerge as “characters,” more than any other entity here, animated by their contradictions and dysfunctions and deep-seated dedication to crushing young souls. MacLeod does a particularly good job of outlining their unique sets of circumstances and the decisions that shaped the region and made each into the legendary beasts they are.
Read a few Los Angeles punk books — or read just one — and the canonical touchstones of the scene’s forming are recounted with regularity: The Masque, Slash, Darby Crash, Elks Lodge, the Canterbury, the Church, The Decline of Western Civilization, etc. What MacLeod brings to the table is a heavy socio-historical focus that situates Southern California punk in its time and place, taking us all the way back to subdivided land grants and the region’s emergent industries, the makeup of its housing stock (94% single family homes as of 1930!) — to the point of making me wonder if Eugene, the miscreant from The Decline of Western Civilization, is worthy of all this. Should he and others like him be positioned at the apex, as the manifestation of this epic, unprecedented, maniacal sweep of Western American history?
But maybe that’s the point of being a punk. For the legion of the unworthy, living as the culmination of something vast and diseased carries with it a Los Angeles-style invitation to dispense with all that came before, declaring themselves, just as the generations had before them, the vanguard of a world with no history — none that they could see from an Orange County tract house, at any rate.