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)
In 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 Amazon.com 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: AllMusic.com 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.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.)
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)