I really, really try not to write about books before I’ve finished mulling them properly, but the one I am picking my way through right now has me thinking so much that if I don’t get something written down, I’ll never get through to review the book. Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California by Dewar MacLeod came to my attention by way of an email from my ever fabulous Librarian,* who keeps tabs on newly released books on punk, since I teach composition classes on the subject fairly regularly. I was standing in the middle of a bookstore during December when my phone announced the incoming email (now, as to why I was in a bookstore AND checking email, I can’t say. I can only assume it was destiny). The title grabbed my attention, and I shot over to the music section in the vain hope the book would be there. It wasn’t, so I ordered it and it has sat in my book pile, keeping a bio on Thelonious Monk company, while I wandered through several other texts before coming back to this one.
I was a mite surprised to see Exene Cervenka gracing the cover, largely because my initial impression of the title had me thinking several years beyond the advent of SoCal punk–I assumed that the book would trace, at the earliest, the decent of the HB hardcore crowd into the scene. My completely wrongheaded thought was this would look into the more recent punk phases in SoCal–primarily because I kept seeing phrases like “neglected episode in rock history” associated with the book (that phrase is off the back cover). Since it covers the advent of punk in Los Angeles, we aren’t talking an area that is completely neglected, even in academic circuits (or, at least, I spend so much time with my head buried in that period that it doesn’t feel like it to me). A jolt of honesty: the band that first came to mind upon reading the title (and, indeed, the first chapter–I’m further along than that, but I keep tripping over my own thoughts) was (and this is where the “that’s not punk” arguments begin) Avenged Sevenfold.**
Just hang with me for a moment.
In his introduction, MacLeod notes “In the post-war era alone, Orange County (south of L.A.) went from rural to suburban to post-suburban. The new types of localities contained industry (increasingly information-technology oriented), office parks, services, and shopping centers, as well as housing tracts. For bored teenagers, though, this new type of psychogeography represented the worst combination of suburban exile with posturban desolation” (3-4). I was a little surprised by this, in no small part because I needed to spend sometime boning up on my geographical terminology. My experiences with human geography have tended to deal with rural areas, not terribly surprising given that I live in the South (which is obsessed with its own real and imagined “ruralness”). I deal with cities on occasion, usually when dealing with, yes, punk, but I was out of my league here. I wouldn’t have posited any form of “postsuburbia” any earlier than the 90’s, so I was well and truly confused.
So, to research.
According to the editors of Post-Suburban California: The Transformation of Postwar Orange County, California,:
Postsuburban regions have distinct locations for commerce, recreation, shopping, arts, residences and religious activities. These activities are often all conducted in different places which are linked primarily by private cars. This fundamentally decentralized arrangement makes postsuburban regions complex, incoherent, disorienting, dynamic, and lively. Postsuburban regions cannot be easily understood with traditional categories of suburb and city or by focussing on one city, such as Irvine, since residents of any one city travel throughout a post-suburban region for work, shopping, worship, recreation, and arts. (Kling, Olin, and Poster)
The key elements of the postsuburban experience include the spreading out of services and experience–not insignificantly– a nightlife. Private cars are a necessity; often the post-suburban environment lacks significant (or any, in some cases) public transportation. If I am imagining this properly, we’re looking at rhizome (Dear god, Deleuze and Guattari find me here too??)–multiple population centers without any single one being the “center.” I’m familiar with the set up–it’s more or less how my hometown is organized, though in the last few years (I think the plan existed for 20 or more, but I don’t recall), there has been the artificial creation and placement of a “downtown,” which cannot hope to actually function as a “center” in any traditional sense, as all the same things: food, hotels, shopping, recreation, etc. are available in places throughout the city–in various segments we loosely referred to as neighborhoods.
Anyway, what struck me in MacLeod’s remark was the word bored, one often associated with suburbia and, I take it, with post-suburbia; certainly that seems to be part of his claim about Orange County. Suburban boredom came from exile–“there’s nothing to do here.” One fled to the city for recreation and the vaunted nightlife. So what of the post-suburban, when recreation moves home, though not necessarily next door (“over there” always has better stuff to do, more danger to find. Ask any 80’s or 90’s Virginia Beach kid where the best drugs and parties were, and my high school was always named. Except by us. Well, except for the parties. We’d claim those, but “they” always had far better access to far better drugs.) So what generates the boredom and the frustration in this environment? And why the heck did I keep thinking about Avenged Sevenfold, even as I read about X, the Screamers, and the transformation of one Jan Paul Beahm into Bobby Pyn and then to Darby Crash (who, let us agree, manages to focus me and is an interesting example in MacLeod’s work that I will look at later)?
Or, to be more precise, why did I keep coming back to the band members’ collective backstories, which are replete with arrests, fights, expulsions, and general mayhem, other than the two obvious things–OC and my own misapprehension about timing. The Orange County band has a heck of a backstory at that–ones that practically scream PR (and, are often dismissed as such), but not atypical, necessarily. Good kids who found trouble and turned that trouble into art. Kids with violent streaks, drug habits, and penchants for not always knowing where those fine lines between teenage misbehavior and troubled really were:
Shadows played basketball, earning a few scholarships – but only after years of run-ins over drinking. Vengeance was placed in honors classes, all of which he quickly flunked. Seward simply dropped out. “If it weren’t for this, I’d probably be working a normal job and playing on the weekends for 10 people at the Irvine Spectrum,” he says. Gates, who describes his divorced parents as “very supportive,” was still “tossed out of my home a couple of times. I was living out of my truck for a short while. My dad wanted to emancipate me at 16 and send me to music college. “But school never worked for us. We failed miserably, got expelled, you name it.” “We were all bad kids,” Sullivan says. “So, we stuck together. But what I got kicked out of my house for I make a living at now.”(Wener, OC Register)
Or this, which recounts Sanders’ (well, more to the point, his parents’) experiences. By their own accounts, he was pushed into basketball and practice (and if this didn’t remind me of more than a few friends over the years) by his parents. His rebellion? Alcohol. Fighting. Arrests:
“This is how nightmares arrive. They walk up your driveway in a pack. With knives and chains and baseball bats. Twenty, maybe 25 kids. All of them high on rage. Most of them high on something else, too. They are here, at your so-straight two-story, in your so-straight neighborhood, with one so-twisted mission – spilling your son’s blood.” (Miller, OC Register, Feb. 2000. Link points to blog with full-text. Register site wasn’t cooperating)
I’m not getting into the particulars of the parenting experience recounted in that article (my heart goes out. There are phone calls no parent wants to make and no parent wants to get. And damn near all of us get one or the other. My heart still leaps to my throat when the phone rings, unless TG is in the house with me. And even then sometimes. Miller follows up 7 years later, noting “And you just learned that, two weeks after the story appeared on these pages, Dad was summoned to the police station, where he found his son bloodied and handcuffed to a post. Arrested again.” (Miller, OC Register, 2007. Links to a blog with the article. Grrr.) . The articles–the second from well before A7x was of note outside the OC–strike me as capturing a question–something that hasn’t changed, why are they so angry? In this case, at least, boredom is not the word that comes to mind; if boredom, that perhaps it’s the boredom with false choices–be the basketball star or be the rebel. Be good (successful??) or be pierced and tattooed (guitarist Vengeance (Zack Baker) articulates this particular idea fairly often, actually, even now–wanting to be both the success and the guy no one would look at and think successful). If suburbia bored teens to untoward escapes to the city, what in the world did postsuburbia do?
The question of anger is one that comes up time and again with respect to punk (and metal, though they are handled rather differently). Often, the anger that fueled punk is regarded (by punks then and by academics now) as righteous–American punk responding to the failures of the Reagan administration, for instance, just as their British counterparts responded to their own failing economy. But, just as often, someone (yes, even the academics–and nearly always my students) asks–why so angry?
More than just a PR blitz for another angry metal band, the stories of the members of Avenged Sevenfold seem to tap at something essential, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what that is at present. They strike me as archetypal experiences–and not just for the subset who would get to ride off into rockstarland (the determination, drive, and, (occasional–more so now–less so in some early encounters with the British press. Oy. Youth.) professionalism of the band is another story entirely). Archetypes for a youth culture that has twisted and shifted and de-politicized (and repoliticized when useful) stylized themselves away from the youth culture of the 70s–but the anger has not abated, even if it has shifted–and, in the case of this band, perhaps shifted into a rejection of some proscribed visions of what success is supposed to mean. I see it in my responses as a youth (and I am all of 6 years older than the majority of the band, after all, so it’s not that unlikely), though less so in my son’s generation, who, at least the ones I interact with, are chafing for a fantasy world of yesteryear, where success followed a certain script (that script having long since been destroyed).
*Bonus points to anyone who pictured Noah Wylie just then. More bonus points to those who know why that would be appropriate.
**Hokay, let me
put my prof hat fly my geek/freak flag for a moment. No shit, not punk–metalcore band, initially. Metal, by their own estimation and by style (though with considerable punk influences. Another post?). Waking the Fallen and Nightmare are my favorite albums, in no small part because of the thematic similarities (go ahead, listen to Waking (ahem, WtF), you’ll hear the roots of virtually every theme (lyrically and musically) that the band works through in a more mature fashion on Nightmare. Got away from them in City of Evil and went WAY the hell away on Avenged Sevenfold (though, I am enamored of that album as well) . Seriously, same themes. Even the same fucking phrases. I probably should write through that some day too). Anyhoo, what I hear in Waking (and Nightmare and my favorite tracks on AS) is a persistent punk influence (not that this should surprise anyone and, lest anyone be under the impression that I’ve forgotten, such music exists on a continuum. How do you pick a punker from a metalhead circa 1983? Measure the hair), particularly in the speed of the drums. I didn’t go see them when Jimmy was still alive; figured I had time. I’d get around to it. That, by the way, is what being a Guns N’ Roses fan does to you–I mean, if those 5 can still be kicking…