The Lost City of Punk


John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends – Under the Big Black Sun, a Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press 2016)

This is a wonderful multi-authored book not just about what turned out to be a key time in this music scene but with much wider resonance about invention, community and eventual dispersion and recuperation.

The recounting here, which can touch any music fan, is concerted by John Doe of X who pointedly dismisses some stereotypes, starting with three chords.

I have remained an admirer of X since I bought their second LP, Wild Gift, partly sold to me by its cover. I later bought the first, Los Angeles, which includes the track ‘The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss’, with Ray Manzarek of The Doors on keyboard.

Thanks to this book – and Discogs – I now have a copy of The Plugz and The Minutemen albums.

From the Foreword by Billie Joe Armstrong and onwards we get the awareness that something special was taking place, that some of the songs ‘don’t have expiration dates. And that’s at a time when the entire decade of the eighties WAS a giant expiration date.’

The contributions tell us about the diversity of the music groups, solidarities forming and distressing desperation, including what music was on offer whether live or on the radio.

For the people here one thing that happens is finding out, via an independent record shop, where popular American music came from and making their use of it.

This could produce homage: X did a version of ‘Dancing With Tears in my Eyes’ but also, as The Knitters, ‘Rock Island Line’.

It was also a renewal, an example for me being the music of Los Lobos. There was no dress code and I was very impressed to see Exene fronting X at the Town and Country Club in London wearing a demure Chanel-like suit (or maybe it was one).

Several contributors mourn the seeming take-over of the scene’s diversity and venues by a hard-core music and aggressive male audiences. The last two pieces in the book have a particularly valedictory tone. Kristine McKenna:

‘So many members of this community are dead now […] Time is a brutal, devouring force, and until it’s begun to do its handiwork, it’s impossible to comprehend how very beautiful it is to be young, how privileged and innocent it is.’

This straightaway reminded me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poet Laureate address in 2001 (City Lights) talking about his adopted San Francisco’s diversity and its poetry scene, here quoting Daniel Zoll in the Guardian:

‘Now it’s become almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city […] from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others – to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco.’

But to return to Kristine McKenna, ‘The music continues to mean something to those who need it, and those who need it will continue to find it.’

– Robert Galeta