by Jeff Goldthorpe
Stage diver at "Rock Against Reagan" concert in then-empty lot between Mission and Howard, 3rd and 4th Streets, during Democratic Convention in July 1984.
Photo: Keith Holmes
|San Francisco’s punk subculture of the late 1970’s and 80’s symbolized a rejection of the previous generation’s subcultures, its followers taking pride in the relative authenticity and intimacy of its counter-culturalism. San Francisco punk also distinguished itself from punk in other American cities, being less elevated in its own coolness and intellectualism, and more rooted in San Francisco’s urban bohemian and experimental art spheres. The author explores how San Francisco punk, while certainly embodying the cynical and destructive energy of punk elsewhere, carried potential for fresh social and political change, the city itself a central and necessary agent in differentiating San Francisco punk from that of other parts of the country.|
This is a story about the American hardcore punk scene, but it does not begin "once upon a time." Its beginning is my own fascination with punk, my love of punk's exhilarating destruction and my own desire to let out a "barbarous yawp" after a long decade of suffocating political certainties. But the story also begins with my revulsion from punk, which was part of the fascination; a numbness, disgust or feeling of contemptuous distance which sometimes came over me, a feeling that the music was sick, not just a commentary on sickness. For example, there was Flipper's "Love Canal." Its painful, monotonous beat pounded you into the ground and the singing, equally painful and distorted, translated the Love Canal victims' horror at carcinogenic toxins penetrating "our every cell" into the band's own feeling of poisoning and corruption. Flipper was not sympathizing with the victims as much as presenting their suffering as a metaphor for being used, lied to, raped, corrupted and finally poisoned. This music was not about gaining purity as much as revelling in your sin.
Greil Marcus located punk as son of Dada, the negationist art movement that took off from the rubble of World War I Europe (1982). But I wondered, as a bedraggled but still determined radical in the early eighties, what all this raging cynicism had to do with creating the new day of humankind. David James summarized the dilemma of punk's negation like this:
...punk's self-definition...made its attempt to produce itself outside of the entertainment business internally logical and indeed allowed its utopian aspiration, one form of which was the innovation of alternative modes of cultural production...Thus the increased audience participation in concerts with open passage through the stage and the flourishing of recording and record distribution outside corporate channels, as well as the constant formation and dissolution of bands and the do-it-yourself philosophy that allowed the typical producer/consumer proportions to be inverted--all were antithetical to capitalist social relations.
[But]...Having by definition no positive terms, and in the absence of any social movement that could supply them, punk was thus condemned not only to manifest itself purely as style, but condemned to manifest itself as a style that would always be in the process of pushing itself over into self-parody, to the point at which it would find itself only able to mimic its former gestures (1988, p. 168-9).
Punks rock out in front of the Moscone Convention Center during protest concert at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Photo: Keith Holmes
This captures two sides of punk and its ultimate dead end quite well. Yet it ignores the hopeful political currents which I was seeing punk unloose in the early eighties, even in the United States, "in the absence of any social movement" (the latter term to be redefined later). I have to 'fess up here that in the early eighties my hippie hopes were reborn and while I never really jumped whole hog into the hardcore punk scene, I desperately hoped that it might be a part of the subcultural cohesion of a new subversive social movement. Consequently, my particular aim in this essay, unlike most rock or academic writers, is to point out the political dimension of punk's idioms, gestures and repertoires of negation, despite the non-political context of their expression, and how these styles and gestures broke out in short-lived political actions. I want to explore how even the most cynical youth subculture carried utopian potentials in a negationist shell in a time of rampant political and cultural reaction.
The historical narrative here focuses on the Californian punk scene, primarily San Francisco and Los Angeles; how it originated in the seventies; how it grew, changed and fragmented in the early eighties and how by the mid-eighties two factions, peace punks and skinheads, went off in opposing political directions. Writing a history was not my original intent, but I found a theoretical analysis beyond me without some empirical sense of what happened first. My account is often dependent on "in-scene" materials like fanzines and fan books (like "Hardcore California," Belsito and Davis, 1983) that I have collected as an inquisitive fan over the years without this project in mind, supplemented by my own observations as a marginal participant and some interviewing. Social and political aspects of punk subculture are at the center of this study, although the punk scene was obviously musically centered. Music is discussed here as an articulation of feeling which the audience translates into behavior. Bands are emphasized for ways they typified an element of punk style, rather than how they shaped up in terms of some standard of musical excellence. Slight attention is paid to the production of music by bands in conjunction with club owners, record companies and radio stations; rather it is the consumption of music by audiences and subcultures which is emphasized. As for objectivity, its only possibility exists in my own conflicts and questions about punk, and careful pursuit of those questions, not in a "scientific method." I hope that the same doubts that made me an indecisive, overly cautious activist will make me a better historian. For those familiar with the white "new left," this book might best be understood as a contribution to the "hip vs. politico" debate which has simmered steadily since the late sixties and can be traced back even further.
While there is ample documentation of the scene in fanzines, on records, film and video tape, such accounts often have a false sense of neutrality akin to a news photograph (shot, selected, altered and laid out in such a context that provides silent meanings as the "transparent" record of an event). I persist in believing that the truth of a thing can only be seen in its connection to the whole, however full of holes that whole is. Thus my history of punk is interwoven with larger political and cultural histories and with theoretical questions about the specific forms and general potentials for social change. But I hope to avoid the reductionist account, which oversimplifies in the search for explanatory causes. I want this story to leave room for the other stories that remain to be told, as well as opening up the deeper questions about what it all meant. In addition to the authorial voice, I include personal accounts by three participants in the punk scene.
77 PUNK: THE KIDS BEGIN TO FIND THEMSELVES
The Kid turned twenty one that year. Though the average age in the "new communist" formations was about thirty, there were a small number of youth in their early twenties who joined in. Another small cluster of misfits in their early twenties who hung around S.F.'s North Beach neighborhood (of late Beatnik notoriety) found their outlet in punk rock. The August 1976 Ramones gig played a catalytic role for the proto-punk scene in San Francisco: "In the backroom of the Savoy Tivoli on Upper Grant Avenue about thirty people had their ears blasted and their lives altered by the leather-jacketed boys from the East" (Erickson, 1985, p.11). The local detonator was a cabaret act performed by "Mary Monday and her Britches" at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Broadway restaurant-nightclub. Though Monday claimed to be an original, sporting green hair from the age of fourteen, her all-female troupe was in the pure punk mode, smashing "bottles, microphones , tables, props and costumes in a dangerous, spontaneously incited girl gang war .... the bug-eyed audience could not believe the real-life trashing, slugging and ripping of flesh. BY WOMEN!" Assisted by producer Dirk Dirksen and by an ambitious publicist Jerry Paulsen, bands and audiences were soon attracted by the commotion. By December 1976, the Nuns and the Dils played their first show at the Mabuhay (or Mab), leaving the 40 person audience in shock ("New Wave History in San Francisco...", 1977, p. 3).
In 1977, the direct inspiration was clearly from Britain; the scene from "New York was too cool, too intellectual, too boring for the California set" (Lee and Shreader, p. 11). The historical accounts of scenes in both cities in Hardcore California stress the tremendous impetus given in spring 1977 by The Damned from Britain, playing non-stop half hour sets, as well as television documentaries on British punk which gave local scenesters a "new sense of style," and "made Punk a movement overnight..." In San Francisco, this documentary sent a local Eyewitless News team "scurrying for a story on local punks," at the Mab, taping a mock cat fight on stage as a feature on local punk violence. (Belsito and Davis, 1983, pp. 74-5 and p. 14) It was easy for some to dismiss the whole thing as a transplanted fad. But this is the wrong way to define authenticity in the era of global telecommunications. While the original generation of this style was by copying the Sex Pistols and other British bands, the impulse to slay the rock 'n' roll father and to scream out against the what Ellen Willis called the "smug consensus" of the Carter years was authentic, allowing for the emergence of a small American punk community.* If one's idea of authenticity hinges on direct experience, note that both the San Francisco and Los Angeles scenes were small face-to-face subcultures, at times surrounded by media attention and gawking spectators but quite small in themselves. "I knew everyone in the audience and I knew all the bands," says Penelope Houston, former lead singer of The Avengers in San Francisco (Tim, 1985 "Maximum Rock'n'Roll #27"). Four or five bands in Los Angeles were supported by "only a hundred hardcore punks" (Lee, 1981).
By mid-1977 the shape of the scene for the next couple of years was set: a musically-centered subculture, inspired by records and publicity from the U.K., centered in live performance in small nightclubs in North Beach and Hollywood, neighborhoods laden with both bohemian/ counter culture traditions and commercial sleaze culture. Many people got jobs in the same areas, where bizarre looks or behavior had some market value. They had no set ethics or alternative values. In both scenes you found promoters, some idealistic, others into pure sales technique and shady practices with the money taken at the door. The bands were a mixed bag too; punk wanted to destroy rock but there was almost no independent record network to reach the young folk who alone could overthrow the old order. Bands aiming for contracts with major record companies coexisted with bands that never even thought of studio recording. Both scenes began with a great deal of cooperation among local bands, but in time mistrust, backbiting and competition became more prominent.
Consider this story: In April 1977, Mary Monday had a cabaret show with David Bowie, Iggy Pop and members of New York bands Television and Blondie in the audience. Afterward, according to Search and Destroy, "with true Punk Spontaneity, [their caps] Blondie's keyboard player kicked in the glass door of 'Art Hypocrite' Superjoel's 'exclusive' warehouse party for Bowie and Ig." ("New Wave History in San Francisco...", 1977, p. 3). Given the prosaic pop stardom which Blondie was then headed toward, was the keyboard player attacking the rock star/publicity cabal or was he trying to join the club? Surely he was doing both. Much of early punk's history is capsulized in that moment.
What about politics? These were really just music scenes, but San Francisco's always had a more political tone. The Hollywood punks, with their roots in glitter rock, "were not political activists," they preferred "instigating fashion anarchy and musical chaos" (Lee and Shreader, p. 11). A major reason for the more political tone coming out of S.F. was Search and Destroy. Launched in June 1977 by Vale and Violet Ray (the latter had been owner of North Beach's Icepick Gallery. Erickson, 1985, p. 14) it went far beyond the normal fanzine in style and content. Its graphic style was innovative, its photography excellent, including large pics of the local heartthrobs with properly wasted expressions, and its text was mainly long interviews with various musicians. At the same time the editors were familiar with anti-art artists from Dada to surrealism to situationism as well as having detailed knowledge on punk pioneers such as Iggy Pop or Captain Beefheart. Political discussion was woven throughout the interviews but there were also articles on punk politics in Britain, on European urban guerrillas and even on the 1978 strike wave among American workers.
Flyer, typical of the era, for a benefit show at the Fab Mab in March 1978 on behalf of striking coal miners.
San Francisco bands like the Dils and the Avengers had a more optimistic, political tone, similar to the Clash in the U.K. The Dils, hard line radicals as well as hard rockers, were originally from San Diego and initially played around the L.A. punk clubs. However they quickly moved to S.F., where the scene was more amenable to their political style. A cursory look at Search and Destroy also points to connections between the S.F. punk scene and North Beach's literary counter-culture. The magazine used Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore for a mailing address in its first issue, which also contained a short endorsement of the local scene by Allen Ginsberg, shown posing with the Nuns in a photo. The editors always showed a special affection for the writing of William Burroughs as well. Likewise, the Los Angeles scene showed an affinity with the poetry of lowlife bard Charles Bukowski. John Doe and Exene Cervenka, founders of X, one of the most popular LA bands met in a Venice poetry workshop.
In the S.F. scene generally, the influence of North Beach's population of poets, writers and artists was evident, particularly in the symbiotic relation between the Mabuhay and the nearby San Francisco Art Institute. Not only did several bands draw members from among SFAI students, but these bands brought visual and performance art into the scene (Irwin, 1982, p. 52). In a 1982 interview, promoter Dirk Dirksen bemoaned the loss of this early influence in graphics and in bands: ".... some of the earlier bands were into .... the total communication aspect .... because they had their roots in the Art Institute." (Dirk interview, MRR# 2, 1982). Video cameras became a ubiquitous presence at even small concerts. Target Video, which began in Oakland in the mid-seventies in reaction to the "esoteric ... dry, stagnant, closed off" New York style of performance video, specialized in documenting local punk performances. Target Video's San Francisco warehouse later became a space for punk music gigs.
The scenes in L.A. and S.F. are best understood within the urban bohemian/ artist tradition, (rather than in a model of simple class culture) in which politics is not activist and the social milieu is mainly young students and ex-students who've arrived in multicultural city centers from elsewhere, usually from suburban middle class and sometimes working class homes. This student-bohemian core drew all sorts of rebels, teenagers and misfits "recently released from universities or mental hospitals... transsexuals, derelicts and just plain weirdos ... whose median age must have been about 23," says S & D editor Vale about the S.F. scene (Erickson, 1985, p. 14).
The presence of art students in the punk scenes of New York, London, San Francisco and Los Angeles may seem almost too obvious to mention. The art school typically promotes a more open, experimental approach by the musicians than could normally exist in a purely commercial or a narrow ethnic/ neighborhood context. It provides a potential audience prepared for an outrageous, perhaps idiotic performance, which gives musicians experience and nerve to try new approaches constantly. And the modern art school often acquaints students with the subversive, deconstructive practices of earlier art movements such as Dada, Surrealism and art/politics syntheses like Situationism. For if we are living in an image-saturated world that pacifies and consumes us as we consume it, as the post-modern theories tell us, then creating open spaces where people can grapple, experiment with and deconstruct the new means of communication can be a crucial act of empowerment. As Simon Frith and Howard Horne write in Art Into Pop, "Postmodern culture makes possible post-modern politics; their very involvement in the pop process gives artists new opportunities for cultural intervention" (1987: p. 8).
TAKING A SLASH AT THE "ME GENERATION:" THE SEMANTICS OF PUNK
A punk is somebody who's taken himself hostage and is waiting for somebody to let him out.
---Andrei Codrescu (in Sukenick, 1987: p. 272)
Like most of their peers, first wave California punks grew up with rock and roll and sixties counter-culture. Punk style was both a ironic-celebratory funeral anthem for white youth's particular effort to change the world and an attempt to clear new symbolic space for an oppositional cultural stance. This space was impossible to create as long as the decaying, media-packaged sixties experience set the parameters of activity. Thus American punk can best be understood as an energetic annihilation of the leftover hippie-new age-liberal-stadium rock-symbolism:
I recall seeing the Bent play the Mabuhay.
They were theory in motion, very danceable.
Their cover of 'Love Me Do'--already rendered
of most emotional fat by the Beatles flat melody
and zombie vocals--pulled off an expert raid that
stripped the tune of what artifacts of sentiment and
culture it had left. As a coup de grace, Bent's last
number featured an inflated party doll to which the
lead singer crooned 'I Want Your Body.' Then he
punctured it and it flew about the stage, bleating
pathetically. At that instant, part of my vestigial
romanticism died forever." (Kester, 1982, p. 12).
In fact, early American punk is the only youth subculture to have defined itself mainly through the symbolic destruction of the previous era's youth subculture. Hippies may have sensed their distinctiveness from the beats, and heavy metal fans may be aware of their distance from sixties' hippies or greasers of the fifties, but neither of them have based their main rituals on symbolic negation of their predecessors. Let's look at the minute particulars of how this negation worked.
To begin with the obvious, there was punk's amateurist, anti-rock star performance style which sought to bridge the gap between band and audience. Drawing on the down-home suburban tradition of garage bands, and filtered through Bowie's recasting of rock as a dying religion and Iggy Pop's confrontational performance style, punk evolved against the rock model of the pouting, masterful macho singer/guitarist. It also violated the protected distance of rock stars, guarded by their layers of bodyguards and functionaries. Even a popular band like The Clash, by Lester Bangs' 1977 account, maintained an open door policy backstage, hanging out with fans, even inviting them back to their rooms afterward to talk and party with, not to fuck (1987, pp. 231-33). The punk phenomenon of bands beginning to perform without knowing how to play their instruments was repeated in California, although some, like the Mutants improved while others, like the Germs, never seemed to catch on. As for confrontational stances, musicians swooped into audiences, flipped over tables, spilled drinks and broke bottles. In turn the audience would throw back verbal insults and blows, toss objects (benign and lethal) at the band and on the less hostile side, might grab the mike to sing along.,
Another counter-culture tradition that early punk declared war on was "naturalness." Punk, denying any simple escape from our synthetic society, ironically embraced the plastic and the artificial consumer shlock so abhorred by the hippies: geeky-trashy clothes, garishly dyed hair, leopard skin pants, leather pants, fish-net stockings and any garish, clashing colors. People wore items, such as plastic trash bags fastened with tape, that were not even defined as clothes. Punk also appropriated the old show business convention of making patently artificial identities through name changes. Thus you had names connoting anonymous conformity-- John Doe, Jonathan Formula, commercial names slightly askew -- Lorna Doom, Tomata Du Plenty, pure unreadability -- Geza X, or mass media juxtaposition reducing all realities to spectacle --Jello Biafra. Rather than attempting to oppose kitsch with the "authentic", yielding names like Sunshine, Sweet Basil or Rosewoman, punk sought to overthrow established symbols of appearance by Dada collage and surrealist juxtaposition of estranged objects (the bricolage of Hebdige, 1979, p. 102-6). While the hippies also used bricolage, using military and marching band regelia and items out of grandma's attic, their typical sartorial statements centered on natural/rural/earth images: blue jeans and overalls, peasant blouses, Nehru jackets and other traditional designs from the "primitive" third world, the "cowboy" (fringe leather jackets and cowboy hats) and "Indian" motifs (headbands, moccasins) and a general proclivity toward soft, flowing natural cotton fabrics as opposed to the newer synthetic fibers. During the seventies the whole concept of "natural" was used to sell everything from hair dye and make up to Presidential candidates, such as down-home Jimmy Carter with matching redneck brother. As naturalness became a ideology separating the hip, intelligent middle class from the slovenly white bread-eating working class ( Ehrenreich 1989, pp. 238-41) punk style announced its disaffliation from middle class standards.
Against the new age concepts of benevolent human nature, punk explored the seamy side of life. Remember that with the rise of secularism, psychology had achieved an important place in general ideology and has reflected its times as well as shaping them. The earlier crash landing of the Woodstock Nation signaled by the Altamont concert murders, and the more recent arrival of a gloomy "stagflation" economy (high inflation combined with high unemployment) had weakened the foundation of the "human potential movement," leading to an ever more selfish, inward focus. Humanistic psychology had largely discredited the earlier Freudian model of "normality" and "maturity," replacing it with an assumption of unlimited "growth," yielding an ever more rewarding "self-actualization." "Do your own thing" was borrowed from a little homily by Gestalt therapy founder Fritz Perls, not the Beatles. But this psychology never faced the larger social structures and traditions that limited "self-actualization," discrediting itself when the road to happiness meandered off into the briar patch of real American life (Ehrenreich, 1984: pp. 88-98).
Characteristically, punk reacted extremely, with ornaments signifying sadism, masochism and bondage: the spiked wrist bands, handcuffs, leather outfits and other S & M regalia. Some items blended the S & M insignias with the dailiness of dog collars, leashes, safety pins or other metal objects piercing the flesh in various "unnatural" ways. While X-Ray Spex famous song "Oh, Bondage, Up Yours" referred to S & M strictly to parody the normal masochism of the everyday, punk always played with the notion that dominance and submission were inherent to human relations. Tattooing, carrying connotations of working class-male-sexual-sailor-biker, also became a popular way to decorate the body, implying permanent deviancy (see punk features in Tattoo Time, Vol. 3 No. 1). Another common item connoting perversion and sexual kinkiness was the cruddy trenchcoat, under which lurked, who knows what? Again punk names symbolized threat-- Darren Peligro (Spanish for danger) or Darby Crash, the repulsive--Paul Rat, violence -- Hellin Killer, disease -- Dinah Cancer, and self-destruction--Will Shatter. Rather than a sartorial identification with a rural/natural/earth bound other (Native American, Asian, peasant) punk played urban outcast (derelict, sexual pervert, science fiction mutant). Early Dead Kennedys songs written from the viewpoint of madmen/murderers or Black Flag's Manson motif played with the same assumption of human corruption or toxicity. As usual, the degree of irony in these identifications was not always clear. But clearly these destructive, self-hating "others" are different than the emulated, heroic outsiders of the fifties (the mythic Negro jazz musician/ freewheeler of Kerouac or Mailer's imagination or the Marlon Brando biker, James Dean delinquent that thrilled white youth) or the sixties (the holy primitives of Native American tribes, the gurus of the Far East, at times the black militant or even the Hells Angels).
As a mostly white youth scene, punks, like most white Americans, were dazzled by high visibility of blacks in music, sports local newscasting and situation comedies, believing that the civil rights movement had been brought to fruition, rather than aborted. On the other hand, as novice city dwellers S.F. punks encountered verbal harassment and physical confrontation from black and Latino youth, who didn't always dig punk style and had long lived with violence as an unavoidable part of their inner-city environment. So with a mediated perception that racist discrimination was past and direct encounters with normal urban race hatred, many punks discarded liberal guilt, along with most liberals:
Blacks are bigots/ it makes me sick
They scream equality/ but now it's a joke
Blacks are bigots/ they've gone middle class...
(refrain) Everyone's a bigot/ 'cause no one's perfect
Blacks are bigots/ the 22 bus [runs in S.F.'s black Fillmore-JG]
If you don't [be] careful/ They put you down
Blacks are bigots/ whites are bigots/ yellows are bigots
Reds are bigots/ Browns are bigots/ and you're all bigots
(Offs from Let Them Eat Jellybeans compilation, Alternative Tentacles).
The Offs' song was very catchy, its rhythms very herky-jerky funky/reggae, very un-punk, with horns blaring and sung out like a hickish hog call. Great stuff! The song's emotional impact though resided less on its refrain ("everyone's a bigot") than its complaint about blacks, who themselves are seen only racially, referred to as a lump (the young kids who hassled him on the bus standing in for all blacks). Even stranger, "The Offs were fronted by a charismatic vocalist Don Vinil, an ardent audiophile, who found his inspiration in Negro [?] spirituals and reggae" (Belsito and Davis, p. 82). While American punk did not posit a pure ideal of "whiteness," neither did it assume a symbolic solidarity with American blacks and their music as British punk did with the West Indians and their reggae music.