Some of you will never understand this, but punk rock saves lives. It certainly saved mine. There is salvation to be found in shared despair. You’ll have to excuse my navel-gazing for a moment, but when I was fifteen, things were pretty bleak. I’ll spare you the details but I was a really messed-up kid, brimming with rage and self-destructive tendencies. I needed therapy. It came in the form of two records: The Germs’ “(GI)” and X’s “Los Angeles.” Those records essentially talked me off the ledge. Those records sent me to dozens of all-ages shows, where bodies flung themselves against each other in a roiling sea of desperation. I felt like I had found the lost chord. I wasn’t alone either. Countless troubled youth found communion and an outlet for their angst when punk finally hit the city of angels.
Punk rock had been kicking up dust in New York and the UK for several years, and had been simmering here since roughly 1977, but the Los Angeles punk scene that erupted in the early eighties was a different beast altogether. L.A. bands largely eschewed melody in favor of a raw, visceral seething. From the harsh noise experiments of Black Flag to the giddy chaos of Circle Jerks, Los Angeles punk sounded like nothing else. L.A. bands knew how to promote themselves too. The streets were blanketed with eye-catching cut and paste flyers that would become an art form in its own right, long before Shepard Fairey ever cut that first Andre the Giant stencil. It remains a precious moment in time for many of us.
So it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I come to view David Markey and Jordan Schwartz’ exhibit “WE GOT P0WER!: We Survived the Pit” at Track 16 in Bergamot Station. Markey and Schwartz documented the whole scene in their early fanzine “WE GOT P0WER!”, some excerpts of which are reproduced in an accompanying book. The show has the feel of a teenage bedroom strewn with flyers, posters, skateboards and t-shirts, encased in glass, relics of a bygone era. The walls are covered with photographs of the bands, the fans, and various scenesters. Many of these photos pack an electric jolt, documenting a time before Henry Rollins was doing stand-up comedy, and Infinity Hybrid commercials, when he was a lithe, dangerous vessel with a frightening glint in his eye. One is reminded that Rodney Bingenheimer is truly the Zelig of rock-n-roll. A photo of Courtney Love hanging out with Kim Gordon at Lollapalooza documents the aftermath, when all of this was repackaged for the mainstream as, um, alternative.
It’s an impressive collection to be sure. I could nitpick about the absence of Shawn Kerri’s art, but Raymond Pettibon is well represented and no other visual artist better personified the Los Angeles punk movement. This is a show that is front-loaded with bittersweet nostalgia and one that has a very specific audience. I was pleased to see so many young punks venture out to the opening on Saturday, but then I had my old man moment. I watched them covet the Black Flag skateboards, and Saccharine Trust t-shirts, and I started shaking a mental fist in the air, thinking “You kids don’t know! You have no idea! I was there!” Then I saw Darby Crash’s Uni High photo in a collage and fell stricken with the knowledge that punk rock took a few lives too. Sadness overtook me and I had to walk away. As I did, it all clicked and I realized how fortunate I was. I survived the pit!WE GOT P0WER!: WE SURVIVED THE PIT Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980s Southern California Runs September 8–October 6, 2012 Track 16 Gallery Smart Art Press 2525 Michigan Avenue, Bldg. C-1 Santa Monica, CA 90404 Telephone: 310-264-4678
Text and photos by Keith Ross Dugas.