Although Jennifer Egan now lives in New York, she grew up in California, and her knowledge of the Bay Area/Los Angeles music scene gives the book a gritty authenticity, with references to bands rarely mentioned in the pages of literary fiction: the Dead Kennedys, the Nuns, Black Flag, the Avengers, the Germs, and Negative Trend are all name-checked. "Nineteen-eighty is almost here, thank God," sneers Rhea, scoffing at the Haight-Ashbury's burned out hippies and reveling in her identity as a green-haired punk. Bennie plays bass while Scotty sings lead in their band, the Flaming Dildos, and Rhea and Jocelyn, attired in dog collars and ripped stockings, attend thrillingly aggressive shows at venues like San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens (the Bay Area's answer to New York's legendary CBGBs).
The "Fab Mab" and its L.A. equivalent, the Masque, are now sadly defunct, but 30 years later, the West Coast punk scene continues to fascinate, arguably more for the ragged lifestyles of its participants than for the actual music. Long overshadowed by the formidable bands of New York and London, L.A. one-upped both of those cities via the sheer grittiness captured in Penelope Spheeris' groundbreaking documentary, The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, Part I. Released in 1980, this film showed a seedier, more unsettling side of punk than the stylized attitudes of New York acts like Blondie and Suicide and the alternately impassioned and ironic lyrics of London rabble-rousers like the Clash and the Sex Pistols.
Watching Decline and Fall is often akin to watching the proverbial train wreck, particularly when singer Darby Crash from the Germs staggers around the stage, slurring lyrics about puzzled panthers and evolution while the band willfully plays out of key behind him. Crash's manager claims that she can't get him to sing into the microphone, then describes his Iggy Pop-esque penchant for cutting himself on stage. "I just get bored sometimes," explains Crash, frying an egg on his stove while chatting with Spheeris. (He would overdose on heroin later in 1980, at the ripe age of 22.) Other interviewees include Black Flag, X, and Fear, the music varying widely in quality but the interviews themselves providing fascinating documentation of a grungier, nastier version of punk that made the Sex Pistols look like the manufactured icons that they were.
Rumors have been floating around for some time that Decline and Fall will momentarily receive a pristine DVD release, along with its companion volumes, II and III, but as of this writing, only bootleg VHS copies lurk on the shelves of independent video stores (come to Baltimore's Video Americain if you want to rent it, but be prepared for the staff to place a hold on your credit card to ensure that you'll bring back their treasured copy!). In the meantime, an array of books and films have appeared over the past decade that lovingly document California punk, that red-headed stepchild of the underground music scene. The 2007 documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen profiles the pioneering hardcore band best-known for their double-album, Double Nickels on the Dime, a much-lauded classic that appeared on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Not to be upstaged by the 1997 warts-and-all bio Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, which focused on New York punk, California got its due in 2001 when Random House published the even more warts-and-all We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. Even Darby Crash received star treatment when a feature film based on his life, What We Do Is Secret, premiered in 2007. And just in time for summer, former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle (originally a formative member of the L.A. punk scene) has issued a memoir, Lips Unsealed, that's earning positive reviews not only for its honest portrayal of the dark side of fame but also for its acknowledgment of punk as her "refuge" and "safe haven, the forgiving and understanding world" where misfits could belong.
This article was originally published in July 2010, and has been updated for the
March 2011 paperback release.
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