In completely parenthetical news, I seem to have gotten Duff excited about Kids of the Black Hole. Well, truth be told, I think the title got him excited, but I’ll take what I can get. Taking over the reading habits of the planet, one fellow geek at a time.
So, onwards. I’ve finished mulling Dewar McLeod’s Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, which led me to this peculiar interlude the other day, and I’m pretty sure there will be at least one more post on this subject as it continues to rattle around in my brain. Fortunately, the rattling is largely positive; MacLeod’s book makes for an excellent narrative introduction to L.A. punk as well as a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the underlying causes of both the music itself and the social context of the music. I’m particularly excited about his analysis of the role of contention in punk.
One of the complaints I’ve made about punk research and writing is that so much of it is rooted in the “I was there”* (see also O’Hara’s Philosophy of Punk: More than Noise) or a variation on the theme, which is perhaps best regarded as “we were there”: the multitude of oral histories that have been published over the last 10 or so years, including Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History and Marc Spitz’ & Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. MacLeod doesn’t do this, though he acknowledges his place in the growth of California punk, remarking about his experience seeing the Ramones at the Whisky “They all seemed to be having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure what to make of them” (11-12). In fact, rather than grounding himself as one centered in the experience of SoCal (or California, for that matter) punk, he describes himself as having “missed it,” particularly the early days when he was
…young and couldn’t drive. But also I didn’t think it was mine.[***] These people were older, cooler, realer than me. I wasn’t like them, and never could be. They came from somewhere else.
Of course, I was wrong. They came from places just like mine, and from the vast range of the broad middle class of postsuburban California. (13)
As it happens, he was in the midst of one of the turning points (MacLeod certainly argues as much) in SoCal punk–the Elks Lodge show on March 17, 1979. When he tells the story of that night, though, MacLeod stands back and lets others, including reviews from the Los Angeles Times and seminal punk zine Slash. MacLeod reappears in the chapter, not to paint the image of the night, but to offer excellent context and critique as to how and why that night was a turning point in punk.
This particular argument, regarding the co-existence of punk and New Wave, is one of several well-documented and nuanced arguments that MacLeod weaves together in the book. The first half of Kids revisits much of the ground covered in We Got the Neutron Bomb and elsewhere, but, of course, he’s not relying exclusively on oral narrative; MacLeod creates a cohesive narrative using the various punk stories and conflicts over what constituted punk. The latter half of the book turns to the advent of SoCal hardcore, where, as I mentioned, I thought the book might begin. In wrestling with the text, it is more clear to me now why the first part is necessary–it offers a narrative that contrasts with the development of hardcore (punk and New Wave being elements of the city and the immediate suburbs, hardcore coming from the exurbs and remaining there, largely).
I have to say that one of the most interesting elements of the book is that MacLeod doesn’t wax ecstatic over any particular group, save arguably for Black Flag (though it is rather difficult to write about SoCal hardcore without writing extensively about Black Flag, so it’s rather easy to see why). Most shockingly (I jest), he is all but dismissive of Darby Crash, who we see moving through his various permutations from Jan Paul to Bobby to Darby. While not the first to make this particular observation, MacLeod is perhaps the most understated about the Germs’ eventual move away from the strictly amateur: “…even the Germs occasionally managed to play a song that actually sounded something like music to more traditional ears” (62). The failure to laud the Germs as the be-all-end-all of LA punk is, I admit, refreshing (even if I am a bit of a Germs fangirl), and his otherwise straightforward tone throughout the book sets off the periodic wink-wink, nudge-nudge (though tinged with love, no doubt) one-liners well, including one about Germs guitarist Pat Smear’s time with Nirvana: “And thus, thirteen years after Darby Crash committed suicide and the Germs died with him, L.A. punk produced its first rock star” (135).
MacLeod tells the story of the Elks Lodge a total of three times: in the introduction, in the argument about the attempts to mediate the first phase of punk, and again as a link to the development of hardcore, fraught as it was with violence and police action. In effect, the night, though MacLeod himself stays at a remove in telling the story the second two times, serves as the pin that binds SoCal punk entirely in the text. Further pulling his narrative together is, of course, the theoretical premise that something in the human geography is at work in the development of both of these eras of SoCal punk.*** The premise strikes me as sound, and it is certainly intriguing. Combining the exilic function of suburbia with an economic milieu rooted in information technology, postsuburbia created a youth who were
…fully “postmodern…,” whose alienation resulted from the “impact of modern information technologies spread by global capitalism,” as the corporate-controlled media and consumer environments increasingly supplanted the home, family, school, and workplace as sites for socialization [qtd. in MacLeod 99)].
While I understand–and tend to agree with– the argument MacLeod is drawing here–that one of the recognizable features of a shift from suburbia to postsuburbia is that the home (and, indeed, workplace, school, family, etc.) is no longer the center of authority as existence and experience became “fragmented” (104)–I am also tempted to quibble. Clearly the fragmentation to which he refers was evident–one can certainly hear it in the lyrics of SoCal hardcore (MacLeod uses one song in particular to support this conclusion, Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 “Institutionalized”), but I still can’t shake the feeling that were applying terminology more apt for a slightly younger generation to the early days of hardcore. On the whole, however, MacLeod’s thesis is most intriguing and well-explored; he made me curious enough to keep digging into the subject(s).
My only significant point of contention comes in the conclusion, which MacLeod begins with “Hardcore was white music” (131). He’s right, of course; one of the realities of hardcore was its present and largely un-named whiteness, though his stated rationale for the claim is hilarious: “Musically, the sound stripped out nearly all rhythm and even melody. Generally, the only variation occurred in tempo” (131). To which I would add the qualifier: tempo equaled mind-alteringly fast to even faster.**** I appreciate his humor here.
MacLeod’s too-brief exploration of race in hardcore is problematic for me, largely because he appears to buy into a fairly either/or notion; that is, either hardcore had racist elements or it didn’t. He notes that “…while Black Flag’s “White Minority” seemed to lament the day in the near future when ‘all the rest will be the majority….We’re all gonna die,’ their singer at the time when they debuted the song was Latino” (131). After cataloging several of the racial markers in hardcore lyrics, MacLeod remarks “As hardcore style emerged, race itself was strangely almost absent. The social problems hardcore punks did address did not include race” (132). I can’t tell if MacLeod is suggesting that race was truly not present, even if it went unmarked, or not. Even so-called “casual racism” (MacLeod’s term) suggests something about the context, even if race does not appear to be a concern for the majority. One of the hallmarks of whiteness, is, after all, that it goes unspoken and unrecognized–especially for the white majority. And, of course, for the majority white musicians playing to majority white crowds, how easy is it to be casual in the racism. How easy to use the Latino singer as a token. As a later for instance, the much-discussed Guns N’ Roses song “One in a Million” got much more commentary in the press from liberal-leaning (and talkative), white Seattleite Duff McKagan than it did from Slash. Indeed, the media seldom even noted Slash’s parentage when asking about less-than-casual racism of the song. In short, I don’t know that MacLeod and I would actually disagree on this point, but I’d have liked to see a less casual inclusion.
*Let us agree that for those of us who weren’t there (I was three at the time of the Elks Lodge show mentioned below. My forays into punk came a tad later), the “I was there” is not so much problematic [read: aggravating], but the reflexive dismissivness of those who were not is.
**MacLeod writes about this notion, but I can’t underscore the importance of the perceived ownership of music enough.
***He does ever so briefly nod at the later developments of punk in Orange County and the Bay Area. I’d throw in A7x to his list as well, but you probably saw that coming already. I’ve reconsidered my position in the earlier Author’s note (and the 8 sentences I cut out of it). I’ll revisit sometime. Until then, an early clip for your consideration.
****Aaaaand later drummers, like the Rev (ahem), would use their access to technology to improve their speed–via practicing while gaming.