I Saw a Film!
I saw this one once before in the mid-80s when I was a baby of 20 or so. We made our way from the sticks, before any of us had cable or something called MTV, to Providence and the Avon Cinema on the once great Thayer Street (and the “town” of Brown University ( and the memories of racists and robber barons who built these education corps)) to see this document. There had been nothing like it in my experience. And I had been somewhat mesmerized by the bands and made somewhat ill by the interviews, especially of the fans. I’ve looked for this old film for decades and have not been able to acquire it until quite recently. No joke! It was either unavailable anywhere or exorbitantly priced.
I’ve always been a music fan since I discovered late night television on Saturdays had SNL and then Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. I became a guitarist right there, and managed to beat some guys up and make them play music with me. We had our ups and downs, but in all it was a fun occupation. I still play, but rarely with anyone. My guys and I only just discovered some of what would be featured in this film, but not all of it (I’m still not convinced that Alice Bag or Catholic Discipline were “real” bands (and now I see that the drummer for one was the guitarist for another) these items looked a bit staged and at least a third of the footage features members of the bands making asses of themselves in the audience for some of the shows. There’s especially a lot of footage of Darby Crash who wouldn’t live past the ripe old age of 24 (and was dead before this film got released!) and is goddamned hard to watch some 35 years later, but I’m getting ahead of myself, let me go through this more sequentially, this is going to be long.
The film opens with a skin-headed lad named Eugene who explains that the term “punk rock” is “stupid” and that it’s really just a revival of basic energetic rock. He’s right of course, the term was a media creation and nothing musically was really new. A little later we’ll also hear that the music isn’t really different in form and message than folk music of twenty years previous. Which is also largely true. It’s kind of funny to think of Pete Seeger as a “punk” but in essence it is the case. It is music of rebellion. But as we’ll see, that rebellion can have a variety of forms. At the start members of various bands are reading the “release” for the film, and since they knew they were being filmed you can bet the activities were a bit amplified. It is hard to explain the thrill of just getting to see so many of these performers back in the day. We are crushed by excess now, and it puts the exceptionalism of this film into perspective.
First we have an early incarnation of the amazing Black Flag. This was prior to Rollins taking the role of lead singer (it was prior even to Dez Cadenza!) and here we have Ron Reyes banging out songs called “White Minority” (which very nearly touches on a conservative “worry” but veers away last moment) and “Depression”. I like Reyes, of course, by the time I knew Black Flag it was Rollins at the helm. Reyes’s little segment of the film has him talking rather eloquently about being Puerto Rican and being unable to rent a real apartment (he shows off his closet “bedroom” and some of his collection of ladies’ signatures (off camera) on his wall and their underthings he shows one trophy) due to the fact that he can’t afford to pay the electric and other utility bills he’s run up. Sounds familiar. So Black Flag sort of live together in their rehearsal space. Robo talks about his schooling in neurology, and Greg Ginn talks a bit about having a hard time getting gigs as often enough fights break out at the shows. You can’t help but note the rather nice band equipment they’ve got. There’s at least one Marshall stack and and a Dan Armstrong Acrylic guitar. What money the boys manage to make goes directly into postering and gear.
Then we head into The Germs and the late Darby Crash (also featured on the DVD cover). Darby was hard to love even at the time I originally saw this film. I always shunned this band as immature and too drug-addled to pay attention to based entirely on this representation of them (try to make out those lyrics!), and especially his entirely childish responses (as well as Michelle, the lady of his kitchen) to Spheeris’s questions. As I mentioned, he’d be dead before the film was released so it barely matters to talk about them, but when you have a lead singer who spends most of the show demanding beers and so stoned (or acting it) that he can’t be bothered to use the microphone, at one point being implored by a bandmate “Darby, pick up the Mic, the mic!” you know you’re watching something other than musicians discussing music. His girl Michelle tells a charming story about a dead painter they found in their yard and photographed themselves with (reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle’s pose with a suicide victim at a famous jump spot), once they realized he was dead. When she’s asked if she felt bad for the poor guy, she says, “No, I hate painters”. Put cameras on some people and you’re bound to get a lovely feeding of what they think they’re supposed to say and do. A good deal of this segment centers on the young woman managing them, who quits before the end of the film. No surprise really. Throughout much of the segment Darby wears a regrettable Iron Cross, I’d forgotten how important some of that Nazi symbology had been to the early so-called Punks. But looking back from this perch, there was nothing necessary in that, it was just about being as obnoxious and difficult as humanly possible (like a Hell’s Angel). His rat-tail is pretty regrettable too.
We are then moved to the offices of Slash magazine where we meet Claude Bessy and some of the fellows who produce the little magazine. And we get to see it! Type-writers and paste predominate. Other than Bessy, who comes across as a ridiculous poseur who tells us that there’s no such thing as “new wave”, the rest of the fellows at Slash seem rather collected and intelligent. One points out smartly that hardcore is fast music and than it nearly doubles the beats per minute of most popular music and that this has an affect on those trying to dance. He believes is one of the reasons why it ends up being so violent. Another just says he’s been through too many youth movements and this just implies he’s unimpressed.
We are then taken to a show by Catholic Discipline headed up by Bessy. This is the first of one of the bands I didn’t feel was anything but a staged act. I’d never seen a record by this band at the time and was suspicious that I was being conned (I guess I needed a record for it to be “real”). But they clearly have songs and are doing a show, but who can tell how many people are really there. Bessy’s performance isn’t bad, he’s a-tonal and has that wonderful French accent, but there’s little that stands out. You’re again looking at nice instruments, Rickenbackers and nice amplification. One of the musicians is a lady called “Phranc”. There’s also, later on, an interviewee called “Jennipher” – I hadn’t noticed the Ph as f being a big punk thing before!
Circle Jerks are in here somewhere, and a youthful Keith Morris is remarkable. Today he’s got dreads down to his ass and wears round frame black glasses and heads up a band called OFF! which a CD by lasts about 30 mins with about as many speedy songs. Keeping it alive!
Now we move on to X, for my money the best band in the show. Zoom is a terrific guitar-player with more skill than the rest of the show put together, and their first three albums merging a rockabilly sensibility with surprisingly witty and thoughtful lyrics from Exene, along with her sweetie-pie delivery–really– I was swept up with her power and fearless vulnerability, as well as the physical baby-doll softness she embodied while showing off her collection of religious pamphlets and collages of found art items. We see X doing tattoos on one another and Zoom kinda steals the game by wiggling his ears. Exene calls him the last of the truly sexy, and the bit is finished with her saying: I don’t think of myself as a happy person, but I had fun tonight. And hiccuping.
I’ll skip to the end. We’re watching, but not interviewing Fear. Fear deliberately try to wind up the audience by making fun of San Francisco and delivering piles of bad homophobia (the sorts of jokes that were common in high school and in much of my blue collar work existence). Lee Ving (the cocky singer) nearly gets his ass kicked by a girl in a leather jacket, while most of the audience spits on them. I’m sure most of this was staged for the film. Though Fear is one of those bands that seemed to have no real redeeming qualities and instead did what I thought of as purely satirical dumb rock songs, Ving can actually sing. He does his best to do over-the-top bluesy impersonations while the guitar player does just awful stretched notes on his Gibson (again, nice guitars). There’s a safe space in “not being serious” I think Fear inhabit while spitting their vitriol. Their joke is their obnoxiousness. At one point talking about Altamont as there appears to be a fight in the crowd with a black patron. They do blast out “Living in the City” and “Lets Have a War” (which also ended up on the Repoman soundtrack) which I always kind of enjoyed, but never really returned to. Today Lee Ving dons a cowboy hat and I think does a lot of country music.
All these West Coast bands, especially X, could not help growing up with a lot of country music (hell Zoom was a bonafide rockabilly guy who worked with the late Gene Vincent!) if they grew up in the South West, and it influenced a lot of the work they would wind up doing, if not now, then a bit later.
The film is two pieces really. One is just the music and the musicians performing and talking. This is what I paid admission for. The other half of the film is the audience or the fans. There are a series of bare bulb, black and white interviews with some kids kind of doing their best to be either obnoxious or overly poignant. One girl admits she’s just a drunk. One dolt enjoys talking about how intimidating and violent he is. We return to Eugene who we saw at the beginning of the film and he reveals some racism. We also get a very heavily made up Asian youngster blurting how much he hates cops, “To the max!” These people are honestly very disappointing, though to be fair, it’s possible Spheeris encouraged and edited smartly.
Fans are often grotesque and some people go see shows to feature themselves in some kind of dumb drama. There’s an interview with club owners who are rather blase about the fans and the “Pogo dancing” as it was then called (what kids call “moshing” today). I’ve never been a fan of it myself and always did my best to stay away from it, and when it approached me, would (and still do) get rather aggressive (I’m large enough to make it difficult). The worst behavior I ever saw at a show however was some little boneheaded asshat swigging his beer and spitting it high into the air to let it shower down on the crowd around him. This was at a local metal show, and when I saw him gearing up to do it again I grabbed him and he accepted my threat and was good after that. I honestly don’t understand what people do these things for. Just enjoy the music let the bands be the show!
It’s boggling to hear people berating artists like Jello Biafra and Keith Morris for their liberal politics. I always wondered how these louts went to these shows and bought this music (though maybe they didn’t) and didn’t understand that these were socio-political rants. They weren’t always good ones, of course, and there were quite a few unfortunate misfires. If you’re listening to X or Black Flag and not getting a liberal social, and anti-authoritarian message it’s like being a hippy and somehow not realizing CSNY were serious about their left-wing politics. If you’re now wishing Neil Young would shut-up and play his guitar; YOU ARE A SHALLOW DUMB ASS! And, I am sorry to say, shallow dumbasses abound, these guys are political and may not be your flavor! [another common example of this in modern times is Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello getting hammered online by conservatives as if they never quite realized what “machine” was being raged against!]
Dumbasses go to these shows and they are there spitting beer and “rebelling”, making narcissistic spectacles of themselves. For such folks the music, the politics, the social messages, the art itself are far secondary to their own selfish exploits of getting drunk, acting “out” and possibly causing grief. They have no depth. They have no center. I mean, were there Pete Seeger fans who didn’t “get” his leftist politics? It’s hard to imagine but then I’m asking if there are dumb people, and goddamnit there is no end to the depths of depravity. Did Spheeris talk to any regular folks who were just there to hear their favorite bands? Who knows.
In the old comic book Usagi Yojimbo (loosely based on the character of the old Kurosawa film) Yojimbo hears that there’s a bully making trouble in another room of the in he occupies. He rises, drawing his sword, saying, “It’s not right to disturb other people’s peace.” (by the way Usagi Yojimbo is a kickass rabbit drawn and storied by Stan Sakai starting in the mid 80s). It’s this other people’s peace, in the midst of really loud and creative lyricism, that always impressed me about about our social contract, appreciating the art of musical heroes. You have that right to swing your fist, but only as far as the end of my, or my girlfriend’s nose.
When our blatant dumbass telling us he loves fighting, in the interview says he’s, “A total rebel, I rebel against everything.” we can’t help laughing and realizing he’s bloody paraphrasing an old Brando film that spawned millions of teenage rebels in his parents’ generation. What reality there is in the statements of these half-drunk kids enjoying a show is impossible to know, but we won’t find wisdom in Spheeris’s interviews.
At the start of the film we’re told that L.A. was meant to be a utopia, but that the air is now poisonous. And this “joke” is kind of the final one. Is punk rock a response to poisonous utopia? I doubt it. It’s just a song Pete Seeger didn’t write.