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Punker Than Thou

Punker than thou: Jello Biafra.
Punker than thou: Jello Biafra.

I saw an old-school “punk rocker” on the street the other day — one with the full spiked-out mohawk hairstyle, in addition to the beat-up, torn, paint-spackled, button-strewn black jacket and pants and boots. “How quaint,” I thought. Those guys remind me of my mother — so concerned about how they look that it's really not much different than her getting ready for the opera. As Frank Zappa once quipped to an anti-war heckler, “Everybody here is wearing a uniform and don't kid yourself.”

There's a punk music store in Southern California whose theme is “Where it's 1982 every day.” Therein lies a central irony of this rebellious music: At this late date, to love the music is to be steeped in nostalgia. In fact, 1982 is a bit late for a peak punk era; the Clash was basically kaput by then, and there's precious little other “punk” sound from that era still being listened to today.

But there's no denying the whole punk scene was influential in other ways; some rare punk records now cost (more than) their weight in gold. “Punk” attitude never goes out of fashion in some circles, and as one slogan has it, “punk's not dead!” — rather like the defiant attitude punks disdained in hippies. Sparked by hatred of dinosaur bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship and Yes, the Bay Area punk scene followed fast on the Doc Martens-clad heels of London and New York, hotbeds of the Sex Pistols Patti Smith, the Ramones and others in the mid-'70s. The Ramones, in fact, might have ignited the local scene — they “were like the Johnny Appleseed of the punk movement,” recalls music executive Howie Klein. “Wherever they went, punk sprouted.”

Some trace the origin of Bay Area punk to when the Ramones played to a dozen or so proto-punks at North Beach's Savoy Tivoli in 1976. But, as journalists Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor aptly note in their book, “Gimme Something Better,” “Whatever you say or do, an obscurest will find something older, so there's no point in trying too hard to nail it down.”

Not surprisingly, not much is nailed down in their funny and fascinating oral history in a way that might satisfy an academic historian. The book consists mostly of recollections from a couple hundred denizens of the times, but even their real names can be hazy — the “authorities” here include Blag Jesus, Jello Biafra, Bucky Sinister, Jennifer Blowdryer, Ginger Coyote, Johnny Genocide, Klaus Flouride, Nicki Sicki, Robert Eggplant and many more, some of whom still boast names that cannot be printed here. But there are others, such as Mike Hennessey a.k.a. the real sheriff of San Francisco (until, er, Ross Mirkirimi came along), a punk supporter since the beginning. The original punk philosophy might be best summed up in the book's biographical blurb for one Mike K: “Primarily a toilet cleaner based in San Francisco. ... He maintains a long-standing blood vendetta and commitment to the destruction of American Empire and its quisling agents.”

Well, who doesn't? But these punks, those who cared, anyway, sought revolution of various sorts through music. Most of it stank out loud, and that was the point, mostly. However compelling they might be onstage in their prime, bands like the Dead Kennedys, Dils, Mutants, Nuns, Liars, Flipper, the Yeastie Girlz, Negative Trend and others did not make for timeless listening. Green Day broke into the big time, but of course the true punk faithful don't count them among the authentic. A few groups, such as the Clash and Ramones, made lasting “art,” although the term might make real punks puke. Some challenging and accomplished “post-punk” music from the 1980s did grow out of the original punk influence.

At its best, however, punk was less a true musical strain than a sort of latter-day Dada movement, complete with appropriation of sounds, costumes, images and behaviors meant to shock and dismay, or at least confuse. As punk artist James Stark recalls of an early show by Crime, “they played for about 10 or 15 minutes, and people were getting really upset.” That would be counted as a successful gig.

It's all here — the Fab Mab club, Jello Biafra's 1979 run for mayor of San Francisco, Gilman Street in Berkeley, Maximum RocknRoll magazine, Rock Against Reagan, and so on, including the less lovely strains of racist skinheads and other violent tendencies. As one interviewee puts it, “It was an exciting time historically,” and then goes on to cite the Moscone/Milk murders and White Night riots, the Golden Dragon massacre in Chinatown, the Peoples Temple tragedy, and “the golden age of the serial killer” before reflecting, “In retrospect, I think of punk music as folk music of the time.” Songs quickly documented the events of the day, if one could discern any of the words.

“After that, you can't go back to a normal life,” reflects Nuns singer and “fetish model” Jennifer Miro about an early gig, but she might as well be referring to the whole scene and era, however short-lived and ephemeral.

How much did the whole punk movement “accomplish”? Let's not go there. The loathed Jefferson Starship is playing a San Francisco run of gigs this very week. The punks are aged, evolved, dead, or hiding out. But one thing becomes clear from this story: A lot of people had a lot of fun, even though, as with the hippies, bad drugs took many down, and the lure of capitalism took many more if they had the chance. You can buy all the “punk” clothing and accessories you might desire on, say, San Francisco's Haight Street. It's fashion, and nostalgia, for most. Some things don't change.

Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk From Dead Kennedys to Green Day, By Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor (Penguin; 489 pages; $18 paperback

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