I recently finished reading the book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe (of the band X) and Tom DeSavia.
The book features several chapters written by John Doe, interspersed with single-chapter reminiscences from many other luminaries from the L.A. punk rock scene of the late 70s, including his bandmate and ex-wife Exene Cervenka, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Gos, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Dave Alvin of the Blasters. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, but the penultimate chapter from writer Kristine McKenna (one of the first mainstream journalists to chronicle the early L.A. scene) really sums things up nicely:
By the time the Sex Pistols released their first single, “God Save the Queen,” in May of 1977, the LA scene was already percolating, so we found our way to the mountain without a map. We weren’t copying anybody else, and from the start there were things that distinguished LA’s punk scene from the scenes in other cities. The first generation of LA punk was literate and really smart, for starters, and each band had its own sources of inspiration. Much of the punk that came in its wake wasn’t very smart at all, nor was it particularly original. A tremendous amount of diversity coexisted under the rubric of early LA punk too, and there was a surprising degree of parity between men and women—it was not a sexist scene, and women were treated as equals. Latinos and gays were welcome too, as were old people: your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? It was that way for a brief spot in time.
Later, she points out a key difference between a “scene” back then and now:
All kinds of people materialized, and anybody who’d gone to the trouble of showing up had a right to be there. It took a while for all this to start cooking, though, which brings me to the scourge known as social media. LA’s first punk community took a while to get up to speed because things didn’t “go viral” then. The jungle drum of word-of-mouth was how information got around, and measured against the lightning speed information travels today, LA’s first punk community coalesced at a glacial pace. People had to physically be in rooms together and talk to one another to learn about things then, and that world was intimate and tactile and visceral in a way texting can never be.
And I loved the way she described the innocence and optimism of youth:
We’re all like trees, and the leaves that are the people we love flutter to the ground one by one. Time is a brutal, devouring force, and until it’s begun to do its handiwork, it’s impossible to comprehend how very beautiful it is to be young, how privileged and innocent it is. You may think you know the score when you’re twenty-four years old, but you never do, for the simple reason that you can’t: life lobs curveballs that are unimaginable at twenty-four. We believed we were dangerous and subversive back in the day, but in fact, we were babies, yet to rub the fairy dust from our eyes. Time takes a heavy toll on ideals, and looking back, it all seems unbearably idealistic and sweet.
She does end on a redemptive note:
So the scene is gone, and many of the people who created it are gone too, and I suppose that’s how it’s meant to be. Great art is immutable and eternal, though. I recently attended an X show where I watched young people—yes, they were young—crowding the lip of the stage, mouthing the words to “White Girl” and “Year One.” The music continues to mean something to those who need it, and those who need it will continue to find it.
If you’re an oldster like me who enjoyed (and still enjoys) bands like X, The Blasters and The Minutemen, this book is definitely worth a read.
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