The Agit Reader

Under the Big Black Sun
by John Doe with Tom DeSavia

May 5th, 2016  |  by Jamie Pietras

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA PunkEclipsed in popular consciousness by their distant cousins in New York and London, LA’s punk progenitors forged an eclectic scene where country, blues, and Latin music coalesced with glam, garage rock, and beat poetry under a unifying DIY ethos and rejection of contemporary mid-70s popular entertainment. In Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk (Da Capo Press), John Doe, bassist and vocalist from the quintessential left-coast punk band X, and Tom DeSavia, a longtime record publisher and A&R rep, present the scene’s history through a collection of 24 essays from the players who started it all. They include Go-Go’s guitarists Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, Minutemen bassist and vocalist Mike Watt, TSOL frontman Jack Grisham, and vocalist Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat, among others.

Doe said he wanted to document versions of LA’s punk story regardless of whether or not it jibed with his own memories. Nevertheless, a fairly cohesive narrative emerges. It’s a story of a lifestyle more expansive than music, a gay- and girl-friendly movement that spawned art, fashion, photography, and poetry and turned prevailing mores upside down—a scene that provided an outlet for prurient interests which, in the words of Pleasant Gehman, “included but weren’t limited to fluid-gender identities and nonspecific sexual roles, uniform fetishes, multiple partners, and especially, openly gay and bisexual experimentation.” Unfortunately for its founding members, the bacchanalian scene had expired by the onset of the Reagan ’80s, the movement co-opted by California beach punks who pushed it in a more violent and destructive direction. This pushed out many of the original movers and shakers, who then turned to genres like roots and rockabilly. The end of this era was marked by tragedy: the suicidal heroin overdose of Germs vocalist Darby Crash on December 7, 1980.

Those inclined to think of early punk’s sound strictly in terms of the three-chord songs emblematized by the Ramones (although Doe writes that “most Ramones songs are not”), might be interested in the left coast’s stylistic variations—from the synth-punk of The Screamers to The Blasters’ spirited take on Americana. “You would never listen to Black Flag and mistake them for the Weirdos, The Dickies, X, or The Plugz,” Doe says. Landmark venues like subterranean Hollywood nightclub The Masque and The Vex, the Chicano punk hub in East LA, helped publicize the nascent scene, as did influential fanzine Slash, which gave rise to Slash Records, who put out wax from Fear, X, The Germs, The Flesh Eaters, The Blasters, and others.

As one whose visual frame of reference for early punk was formed in part by the caricatures depicted in pop culture—from the campy VHS cult film Class of 1984 to the Mohawk-shaving scene in Scorcese’s After Hours—I found it funny how closely some recollections actually match up. “My senses were in overload,” Caffy describes descending into The Masque. “From the graffiti, to the sounds bouncing off of every surface, to the dog collars, safety pins, multicolored hair, crazy makeup, and wild clothing, to the toilets overflowing, to the feeling of the sticky walls and floors, to the nonventilated dense mixture of smells.”

While this isn’t the first book to canvass this anthropological terrain (a book of oral histories, We Got the Neutron Bomb covered similar ground in 2001, and 2007’s Live at The Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley provided a pictorial history of the fabled venue), the assortment of narrative voices make this read uniquely engaging—from Caffey’s novelistic scene-setting to Wiedlin’s pithy observations and punk rock aphorisms (“Go’s before Bro’s,” she writes) to Grisham’s sardonic sorry not sorry for the hardcore scene’s perceived transgressions. Even Watt’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling, disorienting as it is with its laissez-faire disregard for conventions like capitalizing the first words of sentences, will almost certainly be appreciated by fans who can more easily piece together the disparate details.

Like any rock memoir worth its salt, Under the Big Black Sun has its share of fun facts and hilarious anecdotes like Gehman describing being handed a lit joint by Tony Curtis and Doe describing his early days with X co-vocalist Exene Cervenka inwhat is easily my favorite sentence of the book: “Exene was hanging out with scary Vietnam vets who would twirl her over their head while alternately calling her Mary Magdalene or the Easter Bunny.”

In a culture of dedicated bohemians, “it was practically our duty to seek and find the other side of consciousness and break the rules of society along the way,” Doe writes. Still, despite the forays into biker crank, various prescription uppers, Mickey’s Big Mouths, and Camel filters, the specter of heroin abuse lurked quietly, with some “disappearing into their apartments only to emerge skinnier and stranger.” Doe and other scene elders avoided the trap and continued to have long and prolific careers. Their art endures, and this collection is a fine entry point for understanding the purlieu from which it came.

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