Sunday, March 21, 2010

I enjoyed this book a whole lot more than I expected. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot. Couldn't put it down. I purchased it from part of a $50 gift voucher I had for a certain book outlet down here, and immediately upon purchase I actually considered returning to the store and getting something else instead. I mean, really, here's the reasons I gave myself: A) I've got enough punk rock books; B) I don't need to read about Green Day; and C) At my age, I have this nagging feeling in the back of my brain that I should be reading the great works of William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy - classic works - and not this kind of "junk". I kept a straight line, got in the car and decided I'd stick to what I knew and loved: another fucking book on the history of punk rock.

What makes Gimme Something Better (Penguin/2009) an excellent read is that, like other similarly great books of the last 15 years such as Lexicon Devil (the Darby Crash/Germs story) and Please Kill Me (somewhat of a highly skewed but still hilarious and brilliant history of American punk and all its proto- contenders ca. 1965-1982 or so), it's an oral history, told by the participants, the wannabes, the hangers-on and all those surrounding them. When participant "A" says a certain show/band/fanzine/front-person/etc. was the bee's knees in one paragraph, there's a distinct possibility that particpant "B" will recall the exact opposite in the following paragraph. The truth possibly resides somewhere in the middle, but the perceptive differences makes for frequent hilarity.

The book probably should've been subtitled "From Crime and the Nuns to Green Day", but since those bands don't sell paper the way the Dead Kennedys do, that's nothing to hold against the publishers. The start of the book details the very early days of SF punk, starting in the mid '70s, when the usual glitter rejects who were taking their cues from the Dolls and the Stooges were punking it up in sleazy tranny bars and off-Broadway cabaret dives to a handful of folks. Actually, there is a reference to a band called The Rockets who were playing all the way back in 1972 and featured none other than Eddie Money, a band even referred to by Dennis Kernohan (Liars singer) as "San Francisco's first punk band", and if anyone can give me a yay or nay on this matter, it'd be appreciated. Things soon swing into gear w/ the Avengers, Negative Trend, LA transplants The Dils, Vale and Search & Destroy/RE/Search, the sudden and massive career trajectory of the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, the emergence of hardcore, Joe Reese and Target Video, the peace punk/squatting/junkie scene, the "negative punk" degenerates (Fuck Ups, Fang et al), the legion of Texan ex-pats who made SF their home in the mid 80s (MDC, Dicks, DRI), the rise and rise of the Gilmore/Lookout scene, etc., etc. You probably know the basic outline. I did, but I didn't know the minutae, and this is where the book delivers. For instance, did you know that Tim Yohannon had a kid? Nope, me neither. He never knew nor even met his daughter, claiming he never wanted children, but she was there, and others in the scene had made her aquaintance throughout the years. Did you know that Kurt Brecht from DRI spent roughly a year living up a goddamn tree in a park during lean times before the band "took off"? Do you know the full story of Fang's Sammytown and his conviction and sentencing for the murder of his girlfriend? There's a lot more similar questions I could throw at you and the answer from moi remains "No" to all of the above.

The most interesting aspect of Gimme Something Better, at least for me, is the history regarding the genesis of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll as a radio show then international punk fanzine. Say what you will about the publication (which I haven't read since 1993 or '4, though from the years 1986 'til then I read it pretty much on the month every month), and I know that MRR has always been a whipping boy for hipsters and wannabes worldwide since its inception, many claiming it ruined punk rock, but regardless of your feelings for the participants, it's a hell of an interesting story. And more than that, you must give credit to the likes of Yohannon, Bale, Schwartz etc. for the simple fact that it was - and still is - the only international-oriented punk/underground music-based magazine on earth which has managed to keep to its deadline, month after month after month. Yohannon, for all his faults (and they're magnified to great clarity here), was a guy who walked it like he talked it. He wanted a radio show, so he started one. He wanted a regular publication to document the international hardcore scene, so he started one. He wanted a venue to showcase new bands, so he started one. His dedication to the cause, especially from a middle-aged ex-Yippee who'd been "organising" since the '60s (and most of his old comrades had probably burnt out long ago), is staggering. Not only did he not make any money from his pursuits and line his own pockets, he periodically gave money away when he thought MRR's coffers were too full. Perhaps one of these decades I might even pick up a new issue again, though w/ the absence of Yohannon (who died in 1998), Bale, Livermore, etc., all of whom I considered to be the heart and soul of the magazine, I'm not sure I'd relate to it on any level. When I think of MRR in the year 2010, I have images in my mind of skinny vegan guys dressed in black riding on bicycles to college classes. I hope my perception is wrong. The story which hasn't been told before is the beginnings of MRR as a radio show w/ Yohannon, Ray Farrell (an interesting cat w/ a long history in the biz, from MRR to Rough Trade to Subterranean to SST to Geffen and beyond), Biafra and co. is one the fact completists will enjoy getting their heads around.

Where does the book finish off? Like the subtitle says: with the gargantuan success of Green Day, and, to a lesser extent, Rancid. Here's a secret, just don't tell anyone: back in 1990, I liked Green Day's debut LP quite a bit. It was fun, melodic, catchy as hell and kicked quasi-butt in a kinda Dickies/Buzzcocks way. Rancid? I was working for their Australian record company when ...And Out Came The Wolves broke big back in '95 and I heard the thing - whether I wanted to or not - approximately 75,000 times. Either through osmosis, brainwashing or the simple fact that it might just happen to be a really good rock 'n' roll album, I wound up enjoying the hell out of it. I'd rather chow down on my youngest's soiled nappies than listen to a second of any Green Day song in this millenium, and I've felt that way since about 1992, though exposure to subsequent Rancid records over the last 15 years have never been painful. Fact is: they make really great, hook-ridden and surprisingly gutsy punk rock albums for a band who sold a zillion albums in their day. Does any of this surprise you? Good. People complain that this blog is becoming too predictable. The point? Regardless of your opinions on the success and musical worth of both bands, the story of their rise is compelling, assuming you have the vaguest interest in pop culture, subcultural assimilation and the strange and unpredictable history of this thing we call rock 'n' roll. The early-to-mid '90s was, in retrospect, just about the oddest period ever for the major label music industry. Majors hadn't cared one whit for any kind of adventurous music since the early '70s, when the likes of Can and Robert Wyatt actually had "hit" records in the UK and mainland Europe (yes, there was that brief flash of interest when punk hit big, I know), and suddenly they were woken out of their comas and the rush was on. Tad, Pell Mell, Royal Trux, Jawbox, Jawbreaker, Shudder To Think, Sister Double Happiness - the good, the bad and the ugly, but all bands w/ an entrenched history within "the underground" - all made albums for major record companies. They were all gigantic flops, but the mere fact that they were signed in the first place seems a rather peculiar fact in this day and age. I rallied quite vocally at the time against this intrusion into "our" music, though frankly in 2010 I could care less. The music biz as we know it is in rapid and terminal decline, the serpent has eaten its own tail. Such a situation will never happen again. Green Day were lucky: they made it big, and they can make and sell millions of copies of their horrifically insipid music for eternity and that's nothing to lose any sleep over. After all, they come across as nice guys, right to the end.

I'm off the beaten track here... A summation of the great anecdotes contained within would turn into its own book. Editors Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor have done a brilliant job in editing down the story into a free-flowing, readable and highly entertaining book. You know what I'm going to say: ESSENTIAL.


Pig State Recon said...

Aww shit - I guess I'll haveta cancel my Amazon order for that TOMMY BOLIN bio I've been jonesing to read and put the money toward this book instead. Though I'm still not sure if I'm ready to get inside the collective heads of the 80's MRR crew - it can't be a very pleasant place.

Speaking of GREEN DAY: did I ever mention I once dated the gal who appears on their 39/Smooth LP? Yep. And she was aok too. So I don't ever complain about em, too much.

Dave said...

I'm reading the "classic" Little Richard bio right now. It tops everything else. No one can speak of being a "rock 'n' roll wildman" unless they've lived that kinda life!