NOVEMBER 19, 2020
Imagine the scene back then: the pink fire of Slurpees, slip-on checkered Vans, the graphics of Ocean Pacific, neon, no bicycle helmets, and myself, aged 12 or 13, riding up and down escalators at the Galleria, my head pinging and rattling from PAC-MAN and the opening riff of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Borges claimed that we’re all born in the worst of times. We all certainly come from a childhood that can be easily parodied. One of the popular tee shirts back then was emblazoned with the words “Leave It to Beaver.” The ’50s were written off as camp, thoroughly square. We were too cool for that… Our slick President had deemed ketchup a vegetable. We had Donkey Kong, food courts, sleek, angular Diamondback dirt bikes, the “genius” of Chevy Chase. I graduated from Dixie Canyon Elementary School and entered adolescence singing “We Are the World.” All so ’80s, like Velcro wallets and Mötley Crüe.
It was also the era of heavy metal logos and album covers — pyromaniac explosions, Pushead’s art of skulls, an axe dripping in the bone-clutch of a longhaired skeleton peering out from a dystopia, a pentagram of crossing swords, a demon and his “Holy Diver,” a metal mask wearing a straight-jacket. At nine or 10, I couldn’t discern the glaringly camp concoctions from those meant to terrorize mom, dad, and the whole of the PTA. The one that rattled me most was the cover of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil: Brady Bunch squares of four weirdly effeminate yet testosterone-fueled warlocks. Everyone who loved the album seemed built for mayhem. We called them “heshers.”
Oh, the heshers… How they terrified me and my friend Tyler, astride their Mongoose BMX bikes (Baroque little brothers to monster trucks and SUVs). Hershers’ cheeks were crusted with acne. They hocked up loogies at a frenetic, obsessive-compulsive pace. To them everyone outside their own crew was a “fag,” everything they didn’t like was “gay.” And one could tell they had a very demanding and specific idea about what was truly American. In Balboa, San Diego, and Valencia, locals ruled. Tyler and I — Jewish, middleclass admirers of New Wave and readers of poetry — were forever foreign, and so had bull’s-eyes on our backs. While walking up Ventura Boulevard to Tower Records, and maybe a scoop of chocolate gelato from the neighboring Ciao Livio!, we found ourselves surround by a crew of six or seven heshers. There was nothing to do but to prepare for the usual taunting and well-aimed blows.
Strange, considering I was from Los Angeles, that I bypassed The Doors, Love, or the Paisley Underground. In those years that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, my guide to music was the charming English VJ Richard Blade: Duran Duran aboard yachts or hunting down females in sweltering tropics, Haircut One Hundred… That’s what I knew of style. Angular haircuts, skinny frames, tight suits, a pansy in the breast pocket. As “artificial” as possible, in the best Wildean sense. The polar opposite of David Lee Roth or Mötley Crüe.
Then my life veers away from all this, towards snowbound years in Syracuse where I studied Spanish and English, stuck to Nabokov’s index librorum, and only listened to Bartók, Stravinsky, and Elliott Carter. In other words, further, more refined snobbery.
In the late 1990s, when I returned to Los Angeles after living in Ciudad Juarez, my friend Robert would make me mix CDs of his favorite Brit Pop. (At a shop next to Penny Alley in Santa Monica, one could record a CD from a catalog containing just a little more than the entire universe.) Aghast at my ignorance, he fed me a nutritious porridge of the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Kula Shaker, Cornershop, and the few American bands that passed muster, such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre, which we saw perform in a weed-smoke-webbed tiny auditorium at the defunct Knitting Factory before Hollywood Blvd. transmogrified into Disneyland. (Back then, the Frolic Room still stank, sweetly, of urine and staleness.)
My favorite, to this day, are the Manics. I’m a sucker for bands who slap quotes on their album sleeves from William Burroughs, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Kierkegaard, Edward Hopper (“Maybe I am not very human — what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house”). Such gravitas. A granularity of thought you could run through your fingers, brain, and ears. The musicianship, the songwriting. James Dean Bradfield still has a lifting voice that doesn’t crack coyly like Bono’s. The arpeggios in “Design for Life” are rendered a hundredfold more powerful by the lyric narration of bleak lives in Wales: “The library gave us power / then work came and made us free / what price now for a shallow piece of dignity? […] We don’t talk about love / we only want to get drunk. / And we are not allowed to spend / as we are told that this is the end … / A design for life.” It doesn’t approach the poetry of R.S. Thomas, but it’s several cuts above anything by The Offspring or Limp Bizkit.
National pride demands a digression. Although NME and the Brit Pop cosmonauts barfed at the mention of American rock, there was always the undercurrent — as deep and mysterious as Alph, the sacred river — of begrudging admiration for The 13th Floor Elevators, the Velvets, The Stooges, The Doors, or Love. Indeed, I came to Love by means of The Damned’s cover of “Alone Again Or.” Should I be embarrassed that I was in my late 20s when I first learned that the exquisite Flamenco riff, the Mariachi trumpets, the haze and heat so redolent of Los Angeles were in fact native to Los Angeles? Of course.
Now, from a distance, I can regard the unease of all adolescents in the 80s, heshers included, with sympathy. Fearing nuclear war, numbed by the daily newsfeed of rape, murder, genocide in Central America and the drug epidemic in inner cities, and frenzied by the increasingly crass, conspicuous consumption encouraged by Reaganomics, we were all in the same boatload of corrosive acid. I still remember listening, at 11, to the extended version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s“Two Tribes,” with its eerie loop of a BBC newscaster repeating, “Mine is the last voice you shall ever hear,” and what to do when you hear “the air-attack warning.” Other boys and teenagers were tapping into and trying to conquer a similar sense of dread, but doing so via Ozzy, Slayer, Megadeth, and, of course, Mötley Crue.
One Sunday when the poems weren’t blossoming as I sat before my computer, I opened Spotify and thought I might as well listen to something I usually avoid. Well, Mötley Crüe was up there, and something about their LA origin pulled at my blood. I clicked on their debut album, Too Fast for Love (1981), and the on the song “Public Enemy #1.” I listened to it twice. On the second listen, I nodded my head and said: “I see it…” The opening riff could have come straight from the Manics, reminding me especially of “Motorcycle Emptiness” or “From Despair to Where.” Tracks from other albums — the chugging guitars blasting apart the opening bars of “Dr. Feelgood,” the clever lyrics of “Looks That Kill” and “Too Young to Fall in Love” — proved themselves the equals of hard-rocking ballads and anthems by other British bands. I found myself reassessing “Girls, Girls, Girls” and bathing in the joyful hedonism of Sunset Boulevard. Heck, the Lizard King himself was a denizen of those clubs and delighted in the Strip’s red weather. Why did I ever sell the Crüe short? Their leather pants were just as genuine as Jim’s.
For too long during the ’80s and ’90s, the trench between the Valley and “Los Angeles” was deep, although cross-fertilization occurred. Prior to the Metro Red Line, a Valley Boy like myself had to trek on the RTD (lines 424 to the 420 to the La Brea Line) to get to Sunset or Melrose, to the “scene,” the energy raining in Los Angeles, so foreign from Blade’s video clips of Brits riding elephants, gazing in awe at Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka, or leaping among warm ocean waves in Speedos. The distances then — between heshers and New Wave kids, between the sun-dazed parking lots of the Valley and the “real” LA — seemed insurmountable. Perhaps my reassessment of the Crüe is part of an ongoing search for a pan-Angelino vision, a yearning to reach out. To whom? To Dr. Feelgood, to the Soul Kitchen, to the poets of X, the denizens of Beyond Baroque, a cultural vitality I thought completely lacking in my city. It is a feeling that I could have — should have — found my electric guitar, struck three, four chords, and found my way to home, sweet home.
Anthony Seidman’s most recent collections of poetry are A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed (Eyewear Publishing, 2016) and Cosmic Weather (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2020). His latest book-length translation is Caribbean Ants: Selected Poems of Homero Pumarol (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2020). His poems and translations can be found in such journals as Huizache, World Literature Today, Crítica (University of Puebla, Mexico), The Bitter Oleander, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poets & Writers, and Poetry International.