Books

'Under the Big Black Sun' Tells of an L.A. Before the Kids From Orange County Arrived

They had the neutron bomb, The Masque, and all the youthful energy you'd ever want to muster. What became of the early L.A. punks, then?


Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk

Publisher: DaCapo
Length: 277 pages
Author: John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
Amazon

When talk turns to the birth of punk, Los Angeles’ role often gets neglected. Come 1976, everyone must have been sipping fancy drinks poolside, hanging with Don Henley and Glenn Frey and working on that post-apocalyptic tan. The specter of the Manson Family and Roman Polanski must have lifted. No winter, no discontent.

But there was plenty of malaise to be had in the days leading up to 1980, and the suburbs surrounding the Left Coast’s capital were as fertile a breeding ground as any. There were freaks and outcasts by the score in and around the city. Nobody ever had to scrawl Keep Los Angeles weird on the side of a building. This was the home of the Black Dahlia and Philip Marlowe, of Superman’s murder, where Ronald Reagan ratted out Hollywood friends.

Indeed, L.A. has a forceful pull for the disenfranchised. Hollywood serves as an Ellis Island of the West and you can ditch your old identity, chose something that makes you sound less like a couple of kids whose families know your families via the town horseshoe tournament or because your old man owns the corner bar. It’s a place where you can make it, talent or no talent, bright or dim as the inside of a revival theater. New York has its intellectual hurdles, Detroit its endless revolutions and London’s too far to go for most kids born in Illinois, then cast to Maryland and Florida. Two bright transplants from those very places came together to form X, the band at the heart of this version of this story. Their names were John Doe and Exene Cervenka.

Christene Cervenka made herself sound more exotic, John Duchac of Baltimore less so. He picked something that would render him indistinguishable from the huddled masses. Their story isn’t that far removed from the others told in these pages. Co-author Tom DeSavia tries to reconcile the good life his parents raised him to live with the sheer excitement he felt as punk rock began to creep into his bones. His DNA became reconfigured at an X concert. Later he became friends with Doe and helped issue an important retrospective from the band.

X doesn’t seem like a group all that concerned with its legacy. Active since the '70s, there have been quiet hiatuses and no new music since just after Bill Clinton first took office. A glossy, retrospective documentary film about the quartet has yet to surface and frankly seems unlikely. Despite taking its name from the third X LP, this book isn’t an X biography. It’s really a story about L.A. punk and everything that went down in the days before those meddling kids from Orange County arrived.

Hasn’t some of this been told before? Mark Spitz and Brendan mulled issued a 2001 oral history titled We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. But Under the Big Black Sun isn’t exactly an oral history. It’s presented as a series of essays in which each voice shines. There are sometimes charming, sometimes distracting elements of style. Mike Watt, up from San Pedro, delivers his spiel about meeting D. Boon and how they became the Minutemen. That he does this without care for capitalization will either make your smile or skip over his contribution.

Doe’s tendency to use the ampersand rather than all three letters that comprise the symbol’s corresponding conjunction gives his pages the feeling of having been culled from a zine. In fact, that’s one of the best parts of reading the book: These aren’t Rolling Stone profiles that have been sanitized to protect us from the truth, they’re the real conversations that you’d have with this gang if any of them were your friends.

Jane Wiedlin unravels the mysteries of how she went from being a middle class kid with parents from middle America who undersold her dreams to a Top 40 sensation. It’s all there: The deadbeat musician boyfriend, a cockroach-infested apartment and fast friendships with a fast crowd that routinely congregated at low-ceilinged dive, The Masque. That room was the early epicenter of a scene that would fall apart in the coming years, thanks to interlopers and police hassles.

There’s the reality, too, that scenes do themselves in faster than do external forces. X’s major label deal and Black Flag’s propensity for constant touring meant that both were from Los Angeles to the rest of the world but soon became tourists in their own town. Wiedlin’s bandmate Charlotte Caffey details her own climb from art rocker to punk rocker and the transformation proves more seamless than you might dream.

In “You Better Shut Up and Listen”, Chris Morris details how he left a less-than-ideal radio gig in Madison, Wisconsin, to become a central voice in Left Coast music journalism. Whereas others recall their fondness for the likes of Darby Crash and Black Randy, Morris sees the pair as troubled souls who were best not invited into his own. He writes about a particularly violent Black Flag show from early 1981 that left him with little desire to return. He also sheds light on the beauty of the Flesh Eaters’ classic A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, which he calls “an astonishing amalgam of fiery punk, swamp blues, and jazz atonality”, and which remains among the best things to emerge from that time and place.

Central to the Flesh Eaters was Chris D. who chronicles how that album came to be and how he was transformed from a charter school teacher with a fidelity problem to an employee at the Slash label who had trouble believing in the future of something he’d had a hand in shaping. Dave Alvin recalls the night that Peter Case stuck up for him and his right to carry a bottle of milk into a venue. Pleasant Gehman’s prose is some of the most remarkable here while Henry Rollins delivers some of his best work to date via “The Stucco-Coated Killing Field”, a piece that burns as brightly as his best vocal performances.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Rollins is that no matter how many times he tells stories of his early years in California, he always finds something new to reveal, a feat not many writers can claim. It’s not always easy to read Rollins’ diaries because there seems to be a strong disconnect between the man who preaches tolerance on the stage and man who grouses about the rest of humankind while banging out his thoughts of the day-to-day. But here he’s in fine form and we have to wonder why he hasn’t done more in this vein.

If Rollins is a hold out on the rock memoir cash-in, so be it. We can wait to get these stories piece by piece in the decades to come. Jack Grisham (TSOL) defends the Orange County kids and their like with a power that sets the pages aflame, concluding that he refuses to stand repentant “while the crimes of my past are read aloud in the court of post-punk history”.

Everyone in these pages seems to agree that Penelope Spheeris arrived too late with The Decline of Western Civilization, that much of the spirit had already floated away by that time, that there wasn’t as much to see after 1979 gave way to 1980. Slash Records, some would say, was only idealistic when idealism meant solid commerce.

Many dreams from that time went unfulfilled and others went up in ash and floated away over the L.A. skyline. What remains? The music. Some of it, at least. Like most scenes, the one written about here had those couple of good bands that never got around to making a proper album or changed in some radical way by the time they did.

The memories, some of them anyway, are here too for us to sort through and feel something akin to being there. What more could we want?

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