Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Pain of Being Pure of Heart

Last spring one of my students at Evergreen State invited me to come to see the campus production of “American Idiot,” the rock musical based on Green Day’s album of the same name. I had never seen it performed before, and it was totally upsetting and weird for me to watch that play in the Media Studies building at TESC. For some reason, thoughts of Green Day are painful for me, as is anything to do with Berkeley in the 1980s, 924 Gilman, and East Bay Punk. Painful isn’t the right word, though, unless poignancy is a form of pain. When I think of that time, I get a knot in my stomach.

If I felt that way throughout a twenty-times-removed version of “American Idiot,” you can only imagine how I felt about “Turn It Around: the Story of East Bay Punk,” the Green Day-initiated documentary of the scene that came out a few months ago. Torn – that’s how I felt. Of course I wanted to see it but it was practically like “Schindler’s List” in the sense that I knew that I had to experience it but could hardly bring myself to do so. It had a week long run at the New Parkside Theater in Oakland this week, however, so one fine night I got in my car, blasted Team Dresch, and made it out there. It was the same night that Jawbreaker were headlining Riot Fest in Chicago and I felt like that was sort of significant.

Jawbreaker have broken
I was also pretty concerned about committing myself to a 3 hour movie, but it turned out all three of them flew by. I was riveted, not only by the story itself and the deep history it mined of a time and a place, but by the mental space it occupied in my life, and the imagined community it actually made real. The film did that rare thing, it actually captured the era – although sadly I think it may have only tightened the knot in my stomach rather than loosening it. That knot is made up of a ton of minutae to do with the East Bay Punk scene that the film unwittingly brought back -- the cutthroat punk-rock doctrinaire ethos of MRR (Maximum Rock N Roll); the wacked out emotional history of Lookout Records, the conflicted role of women in the punk rock scene: obviously, without women like Kamala Parks, who booked the bands tours, and Ruth Schwartz, who ran a distributorship, the entire thing wouldn’t have existed. But could they BE any more unsung?
Operation Ivy make me cry.

Did you have to be there? Maybe. But the film succeeds in part because there are some photos and videos in this movie – many – that will enchant anyone on earth. Some of them, like early, early performances by Green Day (then called Sweet Children), Operation Ivy’s last show, and a Gilman Street show by Fugazi where I can remember literally exactly where I was standing in the room, just slayed me. I was truly slain. Some of the people in the film cry a little bit while they’re being interviewed, and I am not surprised: I cried a little bit watching. In retrospect, it was a golden time.

It’s a beautiful movie in many ways, but it makes me feel a bit bad about the past. I was at 924 on a number of occasions, yet I somehow missed out on Gilman’s salad years. The club was just getting started when I graduated from Berkeley and moved to San Francisco, and I threw in with that SF scene more – as Penelope Houston says in the documentary, going to the East Bay was like going on tour. Also, I was slightly older than the kids at Gilman. And later, after I became relatively established as a local writer, I was scared shitless of Tim Yohannon – I mean, seriously scared. I don’t know why, it wasn’t like he would have hit me, but I certainly thought he was going to berate me in public, as Bill Graham did on occasion. Tim was very intimidating.

Oh, I wasn’t very brave in those days. Nowadays I walk down Oakland alleys at midnight and throw myself off very high diving boards, but in those days, I used to hide at night clubs, I made myself invisible. I actually used to go there in disguise, because everyone at Gilman Street so obviously hated me. I think they thought I was too mainstream, that I only cared about ‘major’ acts and that I didn’t give a shit about the local scene. And in some ways that was true. I had a defense for it at the time, but looking back, I see their bigger project, the aims they had, and their value overall, not just to Berkeley, but to society as a whole. There is no question that Gilman Street was one of America’s great institutions of the 20th century. 

“Turn It Around” doesn’t detail the real acrimony and hatred that roiled that scene at the time, how totally mean some people could be, and how closed it seemed to outsiders. I mean, I don’t know, maybe it was just me who experienced it that way. I did go to Gilman, though, with a fake name on my membership card, and I saw Fugazi and Jawbreaker and Pansy Division and Bikini Kill.  I never saw Green Day there though: the first time I saw them was at the Warfield and Operation Ivy came on stage and sang “Knowledge,” and they covered “Eye of the Tiger.” Green Day was just about to break: their a & r guy Rob Cavallo was running around telling me they were the New Beatles and there were actually people outside that gig protesting them, with signs up and everything, merely because they’d signed to a major.

All that would happen later, though. The film really focuses on an earlier era, and it focuses on the good of the scene, the place it gave kids to go, the way that it fostered and put into practice the concept of Do It Yourself, and many of its more magical moments, which were frequent.

“Turn It Around” is 2 hours and 45 minutes long and it ends in 1994, the same year that Rancid started recording “…And Out Come the Wolves,” a record which barely gets mentioned in it but which IdBM now calls “the best-selling punk rock album of all time.” It has to be as long as it is, though, because there were so many bands. Some, like Op Ivy, Sweet Baby Jesus, Jawbreaker, were amazing. And some, like Isocracy and Blatz, were just nutty. But the point isn’t what they were like, it’s that there were so many, because the Gilman Street scene really drove at the heart of what it meant or means to do art. To live art. To be arty, artistic, and artless, as well: to be pure of heart, which I think is the main thing that Gilman always was and is. It's a T.A.Z - temporary autonomous zone - of the heart.  

I think a lot about this now, about what it meant to participate emotionally in that world, and how we need to participate more emotionally, more fully, in the world now, because we live in such impure times.  It’s why I started writing this blog, because my life without music and writing was just too sad. But it’s really hard sometimes. For example, in order to go to see “Turn It Around,” I had to ditch doing homework with my daughter. She’d been assigned to write a bibliography of five colleges that she is interested in applying to, and she didn’t want to, and you can see why: can you imagine anything more boring to do with the minutes of your life?

So I bailed on helping her, and therein lies the rub.  On the one hand, I know I am supposed to be a good mom and encourage her to do her homework, but there’s a part of me that just objects to it all on some spiritual, animal, visceral level.  It’s not just that it’s not punk, but that it’s not fucking useful. Is it terrible of me to wish that she could be throwing herself head first into hedges like the kids of Berkeley in 1988?  
You can buy this to donate money to 924 Gilman Street

Yeah, it is terrible. That was then, and this is now. Today, there are many more urgent things to protest than whether a band signs to a major label, or if an independently owned brewery springs up next door to a night club: indeed, to have the leisure to protest those things seems positively quaint. That is why, at the end of the film, the narrator (Iggy Pop!) points out that there’s never been a time more suited to a scene like Gilman. And it’s so true. Coincidentally, as I drove away from the Parkside, I heard the film’s theme song, “If There Was Ever A Time” by the Armstrongs, on the radio on Live 105. “If there was ever a time to stand together,” they sing, “then the time is right.” Yep. My name is Gina Arnold, and I endorse this message.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Turn The World On. (A Requiem for Grant Hart.)

(In response to yesterday's sad news about the death of Grant Hart, many people are writing reminiscences of the band Husker Du. Here is mine - it's a brief excerpt from Almost Infamous, my never-to-be-published memoir.)
 In 1984, I graduated from college and immediately had to move home. There I was, living with my parents in my boring home town, wishing that my life could be more like a movie: the kind where the formerly average girl uncovers a terrible secret and starts an exciting campaign to get rid of the evil corporate entity that’s taking over her town, or meets a wacky and charming boy and together they galvanize the community by starting a dada theater group, or even just discovers that there’s a ghostly presence in the local woods. In fact, daily life as an adult had none of those elements. It was very disappointing.
To pass the time, I volunteered at the local college radio station, KFJC and they made me the editor of their newsletter. One of the first events I attended in that capacity was a fundraiser the station was giving at the cafeteria. My friend Isabelle, who served as my assistant editor, and I had never heard of the first three bands, and only knew the headliner, the Dead Kennedys, by repute. Even people a lot squarer than us knew who they were, because their lead singer, Jello Biafra, had run for mayor of San Francisco, but this was 1984, and the Kennedys had been around a long time at this point. Is and I showed up to the gig early, because I was supposed to interview the Dead Kennedys. It wasn’t the first time I’d interviewed a band -- I'd interviewed Jonathan Richman for the Daily Cal – but the Dead Kennedys were a lot more threatening because there were four of them and they were punks.
four years before they were dicks to us.
Well, I don’t know what went wrong in our first few minutes together, but I know that the interview went south very fast. It might have been my own fault, it often was in those days, but my impression at the time was that they were extremely obnoxious to me, in what I now recognize as a sexist manner, though at the time – not having the language we have now to describe that kind of power play -- I just thought, “Jeez, what dicks!”
 The problem wasn’t just that we were women. It was that we were dressed wrong. Despite our great and sincere love of rock music and punk rock in particular, we weren’t so immersed in it that we looked like we liked it. We didn’t have tattoos, or wear peg leg black pants and stilettos and torn white t-shirts with red bra straps showing. We didn’t even dye our hair. We looked like exactly what we were: two girls in college, with fluffy 1980s haircuts. And I can tell you, DJ Peligro, East Bay Ray, and Jello Biafra, were not nice to people who looked like us, i.e. ordinary.
The interview lasted all of five minutes before we got pissed off and left the room. I can’t remember what they said to us, but I can assure you it was horrid. Outside the “backstage” area, on the cafeteria stage, the first band was just starting: we’d never heard of them, but we stopped to see what they were like. Hopes were not high, to say the least. We were about as depressed as we could be, having just been called ‘dumb bunnies’ (or possibly ‘lame groupies’) by some stupid looking punk poseurs.
But just then the weirdest thing happened. We walked into the cafeteria, and a wall of sound hit us in the face, and locked us onto the floor, right in front of the band. We were riveted, not metaphorically, you know, but literally: we could not move because we had been enchanted. It was a magical thing. There was hardly anyone in the room yet, the place still smelled like food, and the band, a trio of men who looked about as opposite to the Dead Kennedys as it is possible to imagine, pudgy, mustachio’ed, in plaid lumberjack shirts – far, far more ordinary than us, if such a thing was even possible -- was playing like the world was about to end.
Not dicks to us.
I believe we gasped, more than once. We did not speak. We just…listened. It was like what Jacques Attali says about music being a harbinger, a bell tolling that the world is changing: we had quite literally met our future face to face. The music simply roared at us. When the band finished their set, which was short, we looked at each other, astonished.
 Then we walked out the door and into the parking lot and drove straight to the University Creamery, because why stay when we knew that we would not be seeing a better band that night. If ever.
“Did that just HAPPEN?” Isabelle asked. 
I was shaking my head. Then I laughed. “What the hell was I doing interviewing the Dead Kennedys, anyway?”
Isabelle nodded. “Well, at least you know what to write about.”
“Yeah, I’m going to shine those assholes. Their day is through. Now, what was that band called again? At the meeting they said they were from Minneapolis, I think. On SST Records.”
It was like the opening shot of that movie that I wanted to be in. We solemnly chanted the name together. Husker Du.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Stop the world I want to get off (and melt with you)

My friend Kammy gets free VIP tickets to the Mountain Winery in Saratoga through her work, and she recently asked me what I’d like to go see there for my birthday. I took one look at the list of upcoming acts and said, “Whatever is most convenient for you, Kammy.” That’s how I wound up at the top of that mountain at the “Lost 1980s” gig  on the hottest day ever recorded in the Bay Area, with Kammy, her husband, her father, her 11 year old and her 11 year old’s ASL teacher.

The music of the 1980s means a lot to me; it’s probably my most important era, but to the Mountain Winery, the”Lost” 80s doesn’t mean Dumptruck, the ‘mats and Mission of Burma, it means British synth pop and American New Wave. In the course of several hours at the top of that mountain, we saw the Flirts, the Motels, Naked Eyes, Wang Chung, Berlin and Missing Persons – in short, it was like we got jammed inside a radio set to KROQ circa 1983. In my memory, that kind of music – synth pop – didn’t get played all that much on the radio, but maybe I am mis-remembering, since a lot people in that audience acted like Wang Chung was Bob Dylan.
The guy in wang chung. Forget his name. Note dumb guitar.

As for me – I used to be a rock critic and I was completely unable to recognize any of the bands when they came on stage. 1980s new wave seems to be where my memory is going fastest.
Wang Chung was especially puzzling. What songs did they do again? I had to look them up on Wikipedia, and it said it was named for the phrase “yellow bell” in Chinese.

“It says here that Wang Chung means ‘yellow bell’ in Chinese,” I told Kammy, who is Chinese. She and her family consulted with one another for a while. No it doesn’t, was the consensus. 

So much for Wikipedia.

Those bands aren’t exactly worthy of a ton of sentient thought, but the show did give me a chance to reflect on two aspects of the 1980s I hadn’t thought about in a long time, namely, changing music technologies and the wretched “women in  rock” narrative that first reared its ugly head at that time.

Regarding the technology, suffice it to say that the evening was awash with synthesizers, saxophone, and those funnily shaped guitars, and boy do they sound old fashioned now! Sonically, they gave off the same whiff of moth balls that the men’s black peg leg pants and red tennis shows, skinny ties and – in one case – a slender silk scarf did.

Second, women. It was an era when a lot of that kind of music was made by men and sung by women.  Both Dale Bozzio, of Missing Persons, and Martha Davis, of the Motels, are in their mid 60s, and what I learned from watching them was that, as an aging woman in rock, you are supposed to wear a really large coat over your aging lady body, even if you’re a former Playboy Bunny, like Bozzio.
Dale bozzio. Big jacket

Come to think of it, I recall feeling infuriated at Bozzio’s bunny status, this being pre-3rd wave feminism (!); the sight of her prancing around in a see through raincoat on MTV used to bother me, especially when male critics would justify it by saying, “but she used to sing with Zappa!”

The thing is, thanks to 3rd Wave Feminism, I am no longer angry at her over that, because I no longer consider it to be her own fault. I still hate Berlin’s song “Sex. I’m a…” (“I’m a slut! I’m a geisha! I'm a little girl!” etc. etc.) but I can at least acknowledge that both Bozzio and Nunn were pretty good singers, indeed, last week they were far superior performers to the men in Wang Chung and Naked Eyes.

Still. Let’s face it, Dale Bozzio and Terri Nunn DID have a dampening effect on women’s role on MTV and subsequently in music – before them, you could be Christie Hynde, Patti Smith, a B-52; after, you had to boob it up all over the place. Honestly, the history of MTV and TV in general never ceases to remind me of that book “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart, in which kids in kindergarten are made to watch pornos and teenage girls wear jeans with cut outs over their crotches. Remember Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke? It feels that directional.

After Berlin, my friends and I decided to leave. It was a long way down the mountain and Cutting Crew and Spandau Ballet were not a good exchange for the giant traffic jam that was about to occur. But then, I was never going to wang chung, not that night, or any other. Later I posted a lot of nutty stuff about the night in twitter, and  people on social media suggested to me that they didn't actually like the music of the 1980s, that it was 'the worst time' for music. But I don't know about that. Sometime around New Year’s Eve of 1989, I was asked to appear on channel 2 news to comment on the music of the 1980s. For me, the 1980s meant REM, the Replacements and rap, but to the news station it meant Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson. Neither of us were exactly right, or rather, both of us were.

That night back in 1989, I remember, in honor of the decade changing into the 90s, Isabelle and I put on new romantic blouses and teased our hair up like Robert Smith of the Cure in memoriam of that style. We had, at that moment, already heard Nirvana’s “Bleach” – as well as De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” --  and we were about to plunge, like human knives, into the heart of grunge and rap. The 80s were indeed long since lost to us at that moment. I would be happy as hell to recover them, but I have a very different playlist going in my head, and I bet you do too. What would be your idea of a great 'lost 1980s' bill?