November 9, 2009


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GIMME SOMETHING BETTER: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day by Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor (Penguin p/b, 2009)

gimmeIn his introduction to Gimme Something Better, punk musician Jesse Michaels (ex-Operation Ivy) gives the thumbs-up to the book’s oral history format, in which quotes from dozens of interviewees have been cut up and assembled in roughly chronological order. “The oral history format,” he writes, “has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer. The Rock Writer writing about punk generally has one aim: to arrogate intellectual ownership of something he or she knows absolutely nothing about. That bullet is dodged here…The stories that follow are the real thing.”

One bullet may have been dodged, but a few others  have left noticeable holes in the pierced and tattooed corpus of Gimme Something Better. For example, specific dates are included only when someone remembers to mention them. Thus, we learn that The Nuns first played the Mabuhay Gardens in “November or December 1976” (per photographer James Stark) but not when either The Ramones and Patti Smith played their eye-opening San Francisco debuts, the shows that led directly to the formation of bands like The Nuns.

Many independent records are cited by various speakers, sometimes with extravagant praise: Fang’s Landshark, declares Fat Mike of the band NOFX, “is, behind the Operation Ivy record, the second or third best record out of the East Bay.” Extrapolating from the chapter [“Berkeley Heathen Scum”] in which Mike’s quote appears, Landshark would seem to have been released in 1984. But the current listing (for a twofer CD of Landshark and Fang’s follow-up Where The Wild Things Are) says 1982 and there’s no accompanying discography in GSB to clarify this or any other details of release dates, labels, in-print/out-of-print status, etc. (And Fat Mike’s crew are no slackers in the disc-production department themselves: credits NOFX with sixteen full-length albums over 20 years, right up to 2009’s Coaster.)

The last section of the book is a “Who’s Who” of interviewees arranged in alphabetical order by first names. In some instances, the subjects seem to have provided their own capsule descriptions, so details vary in quantity and quality. Anna Brown is a “Berkeley native. What she does is secret.” Dirk Dirksen’s role as “booker of Mabuhay Gardens” is noted but not his death in November 2006. And there’s no index.

The Mutants (S.F.) live at Hurrah - NYC, 1979 [Photo: Eugene Merinov]

The Mutants live in NYC, 1979 - Photo: Eugene Merinov

Finally, few of the speakers make any effort to describe the actual music played by all these bands. So if you’ve no idea what Crimpshrine or Isocracy sound like, you’re on your own on the ‘Net because Boulware and Tudor ain’t tellin’. Guess that’s a job for the dreaded Rock Critic in the next history of Bay Area punk rock (don’t hold your breath).

Despite these shortcomings, Gimme Something Better manages to effectively portray the scene’s divergent personalities, notable venues, and shifting tides of social history. The feeling is there even if many facts are omitted. (The 478-page paperback was reduced, say the authors, from an 800-page manuscript;  supplementary bonus material is posted on their web site.)

We see the art-student bands  (Mutants, Avengers, Crime) give way to satirical proto-hardcore (Dead Kenndys), then to younger and angrier hardcore (Millions of Dead Cops, Christ On Parade), then to chartbound pop-punk (Green Day, who I’m sure I’d rather listen to over MDC or COP). There are multi-faceted portraits of little-remembered venues like Ruthie’s Inn, a black-owned nightclub that hosted the likes of  Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin before giving way to early Metallica and Slayer; and The Farm, a rundown but still-working farm where gigs were “cold sweat and dirt and manure dripping down on you. When you got home, you were covered in dirt” (Zeke Jak, p. 229). Gimme Something Better also tells the story of two Bay Area punk institutions still hanging on after nearly a quarter-century:  924 Gilman Street, the all-volunteer co-op venue (first show New Year’s Eve 1986); and America’s premier punk-rock fanzine, Maximum RocknRoll (first issue published 1982, as an LP insert), and its intriguing founder, the late Tim Yohannon (1945-1998).

[“If you got rich from an East Bay punk band, you owe everything to Tim Yohannon. He wa making a world-renowned magazine. If you had a bumfuck band in Milwaukee, only some people in Milwaukee knew about it. If you had a bumfuck band in the East Bay, everyone all over the world knew it…They should have a fuckin’ permanent memorial to the guy.” — Blag Jesus, p. 467]

Never a habitue of the hardcore scene on either coast, I admit to being taken aback, even repulsed by some of the incidents of violence recounted in Gimme Something Better. During an Elite Club set in ’82, Misfits guitarist Doyle brings down his instrument and splits open the head of a fan, Tim Sutliff. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys calls it “the worst thing I’d ever seen at a show in my life, by far” (p. 207-209). At a show by L.A. band 45 Grave, one Bob Noxious “got really drunk and…I vowed to kick anyone’s ass who came from an out-of-town band.” His chosen target was 45 Grave’s diminutive female singer, Dinah Cancer: “Bob came running across the fucking stage and she went flying out into the crowd. She was unconscious, lying on the dance floor” (Bill Halen, p. 180-182). In 1989, Sam McBride a/k/a Sammytown, the badly strung-out lead singer of Fang, strangled his girlfriend Dixie Lee Carney. Convicted of manslaughter, McBride served seven years in San Quentin and Soledad; upon release, he formed a new Fang that toured as recently as 2008. (Green Day covered Fang’s “I Want to Be On TV” on their 2002 album Shenanigans.)

NOFX live in 1986 at "some Armenian bar in Detroit."

NOFX live in 1986 at "some Armenian bar in Detroit."

But something else, something better if you will, stays with me after reading Gimme Something Better: a sense of wonder that the Bay Area punk-rockers were able to create as much music and related culture as they did while struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, police harassment, and myriad intra-group conflicts. For better and worse, they made their own world, and the best of their efforts, their idealism and determination, remain a source of inspiration to this day, flowing through international youth culture like a subterranean stream below the concrete.

“We have a certain way of seeing the world. You can travel the world as a punk and people come to see you and you go to see them. That’s what you have in common and that’s actually a lot. It’s radically transformative. I am grateful. True ’til death! Just not death at 25.” (Anna Brown, p. 462)

June 22, 2009

Books, Gigs

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“You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other major achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog.'” — Nesuhi Ertegun (undated quote from the first page of Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography)

jacketimage1Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a creative pairing as significant as any in the history of Our Music, have written a book. Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography (Simon & Schuster). Their story is told entirely in their own words, with co-author David Ritz acting as chief interrogator and structural engineer in the style of his earlier collaborations with Ray Charles (Brother Ray, 1978), Etta James (Rage To Survive, 1995), and Jerry Wexler (Rhythm and The Blues, 1993). However, Randy Poe’s appended discography (“The Songs”) is necessarily limited to the Leiber & Stoller’s charting tunes: Deeper diggers may turn to the mind-boggling Nearly Complete Leiber & Stoller Discography. (You won’t believe how many people have cut “Kansas City” in the wake of Little Willie Littlefield and especially Wilbert Harrison.)

Jerry Leiber and MIke Stoller, along with David Ritz, came to Barnes & Noble (Lincoln Center) on the evening of 6/10/09. Born just weeks apart, the two songwriters turned 76 in the spring of this year. Stoller (the bald one) was alert, energetic, and witty. Leiber was more subdued and rather inert physically (in the book, he refers to a 20-year history of heart problems) but conversationally he got his licks in. Sadly but predictably, this SRO in-store attracted almost no one under 45 with a few notable exceptions such as Lincoln Barron (son of ace lensman Ted Barron) and Doc Pomus‘ grand-daughter. Actress Loretta Swit (of TV’s “M.A.S.H.”) and Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer were importuned for autographs by some of the pale, unshaven, middle-aged men in unironed shirts who are always part of the crowd at such events.

A 25-minute conversation in which the songwriters answered questions posed by David Ritz mostly just recapped anecdotes from the book or even widely known from previous books, interviews, TV documentaries, etc. A lengthy Q&A session proved only slightly more productive, with valuable time taken by such inquiries as: “I’m a singer, and my question is, when a vocalist is interpreting your material, what elements of the song do you think he or she should focus on?

Leiber, after pausing to stare silently at the speaker: “I didn’t answer because I’m still trying to understand your question.”

Vocalist: “What I’m trying to say is, what are the most important aspects of your compositions that a singer should understand or concentrate on?”

Stoller: “The WORDS and the MELODY.”

Asked by my friend Arthur Levy about their early relationship with Phil Spector early in the career of the boy-genius-turned-convicted-murderer, Jerry Leiber replied with this incomplete but telling sentence: “I never knew what a headache was…”

Mike Stoller: “Phil was probably 18 or 19 then but he’d tell people he was younger, like 16. We were 17 when we cut ‘Hound Dog’ so Phil had to be, you know, more of a prodigy than we’d been.”

An elderly gent raised his hand to announce himself “probably the only person in this room to have co-written a song with you.”

“Ray Passman, is that you?” replied Stoller, peering into the audience. “Ray, are you still alive?” (“Get Him,” a 1963 rarity by the Exciters, was co-written by Leiber, Stoller, Passman, and “Bert Russell” a/k/a Bert Berns.)

yaketyyak-cover_The event lasted for over three hours, mainly because of the sheer number of people who stood in line to get their books signed, have their pictures taken with the authors, and/or chat with L&S in order to lavish them with doofy if heartfelt compliments and reveal that person’s bottomless knowledge of the duo’s career, etc. Finally, after a tedious 45-minute wait, L&S signed my book (as did David Ritz, always genuinely warm and friendly) and both my LPs. One was a UK collection of Presley versions of their tunes, with a nice cover shot of the team and Elvis. The other was Yakety Yak, a 1958 Atlantic album by “The Leiber & Stoller Big Band” — actually the entire Count Basie organization playing jazz arrangements (both swinging and hilarious) of “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” etc. and complete with deadly serious liner notes by Nat Hentoff.

Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiographyreview by Geoffrey Himes (Baltimore City Paper, 8.12.2009)