Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Instead of a John Doe book, this is set up as John Doe curating a book about the LA punk scene. The stated objective of the book is that the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 70s doesn’t get enough respect and attention in comparison to the London and New York scenes.
I admire working towards that end, although for me, it’s impossible to beat the UK and NYC for depth and quality, as well as diversity. Still, LA is very important. For starters, Doe’s band X is despite many plaudits, still underappreciated. As is so many of the bands that former the LA scene- the Go-Gos, Fear, TSOL, the Weirdos, the Dickies, the Germs- and there is a wealth of diversity and thought- Black Randy and the Metro Squad, the Blasters, the Bags, the Polecats, the Zeros, the Plugz, the Screamers and many more.
The book are short pieces –about 20 or so from 15 of the scene’s members- musicians, journalists, film makers. Billie Joe Armstrong with the introduction, and pieces written by Henry Rollins, Exene Cevenka, and more. The best in my opinion were the ones written by Doe, and Jane Weidlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Gos. They really captured that period of youth where you discover others with the same tastes as you, and start making towards a scene, capturing the energy and the lack of money, no car, dead end jobs but also as the scene evolves over time. I was very inspired to think of my teenage years and early 20s and surely others will be reminded of their local scenes. Maybe not everyone we knew ended up on MTV, but we were inspired and created and made the scene in our lives.
Mike Watt has an excellent piece which is a fitting tribute to D Boon but also captures that feeling of being a lonely outsider and is written in the captifying way of ‘wattspeak” like only he can. El Vez (and others) pointed out the openness of the scene and that it was not just a white male scene, but everyone was equal, and the scene was accepting of women, gays, Latinos and everyone.
I found Dave Alvin’s piece worthwhile in that it argues over what punk is. If punk is ‘do what you love no matter what’ then the Blasters were indeed punk; but if punk is a haircut or a uniform , his band did not fit in. The Blasters shared stages with acts as diverse as Queen, Fear, Los Lobos, Bo Diddley, and Dwight Yoakam. It was cool that Lee Ving had the band’s back, and that their rockabilly-influenced sound fit in a scene where they did not sound like anyone else. I also really appreciated Jack Grisham’s piece. Most of the book follows the same thread- there was this magical group of outsiders who came together to form art, then hardcore came in, hard drugs were introduced, the scene was violent and testosterone driven. Grisham offers a great rebuttal on what drove bands like TSOL and others to do what they did. They were coming into a scene that had become the establishment it once railed against.
Journalist Kristine McKenna and Doe end the book with two pieces that sum up the chapters before. McKenna is a great writer, though I think she is a bit off with postulating that the scene wouldn’t have been created in world of social media. This to me hits a bit too much “Get off my lawn” for me. I get her point, but scenes involve. Now, there are blogs, sites like Bandcamp, kickstarter campaigns, guerilla marketing, and people across the world with similar tastes can connect, and artists like car Seat Headrest can go from home recordings to national stardom without leaving the bedroom. Her other contention borders on the “youth is wasted on the young” meme, which is mostly true. Without being ageist, many of her points are valid. The young have the time and energy and drive, before worrying about bills and families set in, and other motivations drive decisions. Another point made is that the scene once rebellious and considered something the mainstream would ridicule turned into something that corporations like record labels and MTV embraced because they saw financial implications. What was pure art was now being tinged by the greed of Capitalism. Doe ties it all together, capturing the points where the scene moved from a collection of creative souls to where it loses the plot- Go Gos Top 10 success, X’s major label signing and national tour, Darby Crash’s death. These things led to the scene no longer being this pure uncorrupted thing.
For me, this book was really powerful, and reminded me so much of my younger years and “the scene”, and I think friends of mine would say the same. Granted, we may not have the level of fame, but the scene for us was just as important to shaping our lives. To McKenna’s point, it was a time that you could get beat up for the way you looked, a nostalgia that the alt-right apparently wants to bring back. When I look at the reviews, they seem mixed. I think it may help that I know these bands very well. For me, this book was perfect for what Doe wanted to accomplish.
I would be remiss if I didn’t end this review with a glowing appreciation of my local library. In the last year or so , they have brought in not only this book, but a bunch of significant music biographies- Unfaithful Music, Porcelain, Trouble Boys, How Music Works as well as this book. Not to mention a lot of other cool books like Richard Zacks’ Mark Twain book. This is an amazing selection that I doubt my Big Box store can compete with. Way to go local library!
View all my reviews
- Book Review: Under the Big Black Sun