for Prof. John Fenn
Oral History Project Review
Who Owns Punk History?
Now that punk history itself has become an umbrella expanding over thirty years, multiple academic disciplines, and the mohawk-rigged mammoth known as pop culture itself, I realize that any history is likely to be partial, riddled with gaps, and rendered almost instantly obsolete, though certain “tomes” have been authored, such as Greil Marcus selected writings found in collections like In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk In Pop Music, 1977-1992, also known stateside as Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-1992, and the well-known England’s Dreaming Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by English critic Jon Savage. Other accounts, such as Punk in the Present Tense by noted female writer Gina Arnold have lapsed into relative obscurity. Meanwhile, the closest partner to We Got the Neutron Bomb, and likely the catalyst for the undertaking of a West Coast-based oral history of punk, stems from the publication, since revised, of Please Kill Me, by the former PUNK fanzine editor Legs McNeil, who was helped by co-editor Gillian McCain. This oral history has proven quite popular since its publication in 1997, and its approach, featuring “talking heads” on the page — key players reminiscing about their roles and experiences in East Coast punk culture – is emulated in We Got the Neutron Bomb and smaller pieces, like an oral history of hardcore punk in the Carolinas compiled for my own magazine by Brian Walsby, cartoonist (7 Seconds, Scared Straight) and drummer for Scared Straight, Polvo, and Double Negative. The formula is usually quite readable – both breezy and anecdotal – but exhibits some traits likely to stir concern among oral history traditionalists. More recent Do-It-Yourself texts, such as the hardcore punk historical reference book American Hardcore: A Tribal History and Going Underground, both written by 1980s scenesters or promoters, attempt to survey the vast landscape of suburbanized punk but also have been heavily critiqued for their shortcomings; for instance, Randy “Biscuit” Turner told me that the section on the Big Boys in American Hardcore blurred details, relied on gossip, and misrepresented the band. Hence, no account of punk is bound to be error-free, without gaps, or even fully democratic.
Elite Versus Non-elite:
When constructing any narrative about a diverse, trans-local, syncretic genre that inhabits a time, place, and musical movement, one prime question immediately surfaces: who owns this history, and how will this affect the shape of the printed overview, which in turn is likely to be canonized, at least within the pop culture? The authors of “We Got…” address this issue in their introduction, stating modestly, “We aren’t experts. We’re basically two record-collecting music geeks, born twenty years and oceans apart” who have a marked disdain for those who “want to seal their own legacy and sustain a quasi-mainstream career as a ‘professional punk’” while being unwillingly to legitimize the voices of surfers and skaters that offer different versions of the historic truth (XV). This commentary itself might be imagined as a marketing tool — an attempt on the part of the authors to distance themselves from profiteers who seek to sell history without respecting the rather vague notions of punk ethics. Whether or not they meant this to be aimed at the New York punk crowd is uncertain, although in interviews with web-based zines like 3 A.M., Mullen does berate the New York-tilt of punk histories. In fact, he suggests that the scene described in Please Kill Me was not the genesis of edgy, rebellious, restless punk as we have come to know it via Green Day or Bad Religion:
New York was basically all about derelict heterosexuals who shoot up heroin and fall about the set; while the L.A. version, according to Neutron Bomb, is about killing your parents. Which is more anti-social, which is more dangerous? Which strikes more fear into the status quo than killing and fucking your parents? Awaking at dawn with a machete for your Dad and a boner for your Mom or Waiting for the Man on some stench-ridden street in uptown Manhattan? Which is more “punk”? Which will provoke and upset more people? (qtd. in Ruland 2002).
Hence, his stance from the onset of the project, and likely the ideologies shaping his approach as well, were staked in a kind of blatant localism, a reading of the underground southern California musical tradition (from early surf to Dogtown, from biker rebels to Hollywood musical misfits) as the true progenitors of American punk. Hence, his work is not necessarily open-ended and inquiry-driven as much as it might be a way to promulgate a righteous replacement of the normative New York-centered definition of punk.
Although the book begins with a biography swathed in modesty, a power differential may still be present in the text, culminating in an approach resembling a top-down model rather than a generative approach that could have been more inclusive and participatory. For instance, the interviews do not simply represent a public oral history project intended for the special collections of a public archive, later to be examined likely only by a handful of researchers. Instead, these books shape the public discourse about punk rock itself, becoming a kind useful everyday reference text purchased by casual observers and fans. Plus, they are product, models of consumption and profit, however well-intended.
Brendan Mullen is by no means just a record collector: in fact, he owned and operated the Masque, one of the first west Coast punk clubs, iconic and immortalized both in books and records (Live at the Masque: Bacchus Archives, 2002). The club’s concerts featured seminal bands of the era, like the Dickies (signed to A & M), the Eyes (future members of X), Germs, Alley Cats, and the Zeros. At the time of the book publication, he also wrote for Spin magazine, which housed his co-author Marc Spitz as a senior editor. Spitz has also contributed to The New York Times, Maxim, Blender, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Nylon and the New York Post. Hence, their cultural authority over the topics, not to mention their professional flair and skill sets, likely shaped their oral history project. The interviewees, or partners, might have reacted to this in several ways, including withholding information. They could have harbored suspicions regarding the profit motives, egos, and self-promotion of the writers, or provided lengthy input meant to carve themselves a niche as living actors in the narrative of punk, scoring a place in history that was meant both for library file cabinets and Borders books. To what extent we should consider these factors remains debatable.
The approach might resemble the work of poplar historian and radio show host Studs Terkel, whose oral history compendiums on war and work became staples of a popular American discussion concerning “history from below.” Yet, some researchers find Terkel’s methods rather frustrating. Like Terkel, the book does not reveal the interview questions; therefore, questions may arise concerning how the author created a vivid, fluid, and cogent narrative from the rather fragmentary oral review process of doing in-person (such as tracking down Dave Alvin and Peter Case before a sold-out concert) and phone interviews that were weaved and integrated with source material culled from old magazines and fanzines. Hence, this narrative, although broken up chronically by time period (1971-75, 74-75…), genre or micro-scene (glitter, rockabilly, hardcore), or region (Hollywood and the Canterbury, Fullerton pop-core, and a chapter on the Vex, an East LA. Hispanic-founded club) retains a wholeness imposed by the authors whose methods appear invisible to readers.
There are many credited photos with key information relating to the names of figures represented, but the source material from print media is not always clear or fully documented. For instance, the Bibliography, called Source Notes, is not complete, nor does it reflect the guidelines of any major academic discipline, including the MLA, Chicago, or APA methods. Although there is some attempt to give credit to the sources, such as documenting that a conversation occurred in Flipside (like an interview with the Germs), the citation provides neither date nor issue number; hence, it obscures details and inhibits fact checking. Further, although a Cast of Characters is provided (the very phrase seems to suggest a kind of theater or performance, or a riff on the idea of “historical actors” – nomenclature used in the field of history itself), the information is, again, often incomplete. Whereas Nickey Beat is identified as a drummer from bands including the Weirdos, the Germs, and the Bags, no such information clarifies the “character” Gerber (aka Michelle Bell). As a result, the “roles” and context of some characters remains elusive and unknown.
Since punk rock is a multicultural, mixed-gender, trans-historic genre, another concern includes the “invisible memories” of non-white, gay, and lesbian historic actors. A gap exists in the text concerning the presence of blacks, since key punk community members such as the all-black band Warriors and drummer Mad Dog from the Controllers are completely left out. Gays are represented by Black Randy, the Screamers, and a few others, yet Craig Lee, guitarist for the Bags, music critic, and author of Hardcore California, lacks a voice. In terms of Latinos, the Zeroes and the Bags show up prominently, and three pages discuss the importance of the East L.A. club the Vex, home to the Hispanic cross-over punk band Los Illegals. Women are scattered throughout, including Alice Bag, Exene Cervenka, and members of the Go-Go’s, but noticeable absences include Lorna Doom of the Germs. According to the editor, “We begged for Lorna’s co-operation in the book, but she refused for no clear reasons (qtd. in Ruland 2002). Also, key player Lisa Fancher, who managed the label Frontier, which released cornerstone punk records by the Circle Jerks, Adolescents, and Suicidal Tendencies, receives scant attention. This was the result of a few factors, as Fancher herself noted to me in an interview from 2005:
Ahhh, do we have to go there? Brendan and I are friends, I just spoke to him on the phone yesterday… We had an unfortunate screaming match in his backyard as I was waiting to be interviewed by the Experience Music Project people (1999?), who had set up their cameras in his rehearsal studio. He was telling me that I was the enemy and that I was fake and that I only liked pop music… Of course, I like pop music, I love pop music! I like all music that doesn’t suck! Anyhow, I think I called him a pseudo intellectual twat and rip off and struggled for a slur against Scottish people. It was ugly and we scared the holy hell out of those nice people from Seattle. So, a couple years later I hear he’s doing this book with Marc Spitz, who had originally contacted me about an interview for the book. I’m an excellent holder of grudges (too excellent) so I said I wouldn’t do an interview until he apologized. He did finally apologize and everything is happy face now, unfortunately it was very late in the interview process so I think most of my quotes had probably been said by someone else. Cliff Roman’s the guy who really should be pissed, he wasn’t even interviewed though he founded the Weirdos and wrote the song “Neutron Bomb”!
Some fallibility of human memory may be at play as well in the text, since only some of the anecdotes are fully collaborated. Over the years, the editor’s memory has appeared slightly faulty; for instance, he told 3 A.M. web zine that Crass represented the Punk and Disorderly crowd in England (“Britain’s ‘Punk and Disorderly’ wave of Crass-inspired anarcho-hippie-punks”), though Crass did not appear on the Punk and Disorderly compilations, which tended to favor “street punk” acts such as Peter and the Test Tube Babies and American hardcore bands Channel 3 and Dead Kennedy’s (two of the few stateside bands whose music was licensed in England). None of the bands represent the “anarcho-hippie” genre, which was embodied by bands close to Crass, like Flux of Pink Indians, Dirt, and Zounds. Also, the absences in other works by Brendan Mullen have been furiously noted by bands like the Rotters from Los Angeles. Their single “Sit On My Face Stevie Nicks” was considered highly incendiary during the late 1970s, but when the single’s picture was used in a Spin article around the time We Got the Neutron Bomb was published, the band was displeased:
PHES – What those fuckers at Spin did was to contact us first for photos of the band from the era for that very article. But they didn’t use any and didn’t say one word about us while plastering “SIT ON MY FACE, STEVIE NICKS” under a full page photo of Darby Crash like it was his fucking song! “The history of SoCal punk” my ass! What a bunch of skull fuckers! And the article was written by Brendan Mullen who should have known better too. I’d like to think he had nothing to do with the title. Of course I complained like hell but got responses like “what’s the problem?” and “why are you upset?” They knew exactly what they were doing and why I was upset. But they’re a bunch of chicken shits. I suppose they felt that because we’re not fucking U2, or Aerosmith or Madonna we don’t count and screwing us is ok. The whole fish wrapping birdcage liner is run by pathetic little people who don’t get it. They don’t have any real talent, taste or integrity and measure quality by monetary success. By kissing ass to the big labels who spend big bucks for advertising and their lackey commercial pop bands while fucking over the little guys and real musicians they feed their own pathetic egos so they can think they’re hot shit. (#222, Nov. 2001)
This response from band addresses not only the issue of people remaining invisible, or left out of the normative discourse generated by so-called experts, it also taps into the issue of power – who controls the narratives — especially when the band might be considered less skilled, politically-incorrect, or deemed of minor importance. We Got the Neutron Bombs does not necessarily consciously perpetuate these same tendencies, since politically incorrect bands like Black Randy and the Mentors are discussed, but questions concerning the role of Mullen as cultural arbitrator do still resound in the punk community.