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Book Details

Title:   Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk
Author:   John Doe, Tom DeSavia
Times Read:   1
Last Read:   04.06.24

Other Books Read By This Author (1)
- More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk

Notes History
Date Read Note
04.06.24 A while back I read a trio of books covering various NYC music scenes including Please Kill Me which felt like a monumental document of punk music, or at least where it started and flourished in New York and London. But aside from The Ramones, most of what I associate with "punk" came from the other coast due to exposure to a couple things at a formative age (most notably getting a live FEAR album after my first concert and watching Penelope Spheeris' Decline of Western Civilization around the same time). So I thought this book would be a good opportunity to fill in the blanks of the LA scene, a counterbalance if you will.

This is a great book. It's not technically an oral history but Doe and DeSavia took the approach of having lots of voices write essays to fill in each person's viewpoint of what went on. So It's kind of like an oral history in that you hear from lots of different people (I would guess Doe's word count probably accounts for... 15% of this book? His chapters are more guide posts, well-written but also kind of setting the stage) but in essay form rather than transcribed interviews intercut with each other. The effect is similar but not quite the same. For instance, in early chapters you get lots of overlapping information (including confirmation of a long standing affair) which is kinda cool since people and places become like milestones that keep popping back up, but for me things really got interesting somewhere in the middle of the book when a few essays were clearly written with their own style. Jack Grisham's chapter (singer of the band t.s.o.l.) read like a slap to the face, one of the Go-Go's ladies included multiple songs' lyrics, and my favorite chapter of the book written by Mike Watt made me a super fan of the man and his music.

Funny aside about Watt. When I was a teenager I blind bought this record because it stood out (it had a double-high booklet type format) and had a mega list of guest stars (including Eddie Vedder and Flea). I thought it was a kinda weird album but not bad and it faded from memory. Well, that was Mike Watt's first solo album. I'd never heard any Minutemen or fIREHOSE so it just seemed like a random thing to me but going back and listening to some of the songs now... they are great! I know nostalgia is a heavy factor here but this was not the first time I've revisited an album from the 90s that I thought was just ok at the time and found it to be really good now. I think I really was blessed to have those formative music years cross the span when such eclectic and adventurous stuff was coming out.

Anyway, There was one major theme that rose up through each individual voice/chapter in the book and that was that, basically, we all missed it. Even the punk as I knew it, documented in Spheeris' movie, was 'too late' as one writer remarked. I guess the golden era of LA punk was really 77-80 and that's it. What we now think of as punk is really just the hardcore scene where the tempos got faster and the songs simpler and basically bands took the speed of The Ramones but replaced any humor with rage and aggression. But I guess that was all 81/82 onward? Certainly when I went and listened to a few of the bands mentioned here which I was not familiar with (The Weirdos, The Flesh Eaters, The Blasters, The Screamers, X) I did not having any trouble distinguishing one from another. It's true that some bands like FEAR and The Germs were loud and fast right from the jump, but I have to agree with what the book explicitly states over and over which was that there's a bunch of genres and approaches here. There's rockabilly, experimental jazz (more akin to the No Wave scene), even a little country western. The Screamers are closer to dark synth, they don't even have guitars. So This was kind of a revelation for me and has led to me taking a closer listen to a lot of these bands.

It's also what makes chapters from Grisham and Henry Rollins stand out in the book in an interesting way. Most everyone sounds kinda hippie-ish then Grisham comes in talking about popped eyeballs and cumming and throwing bottles at cops. Rollin's brief recollection (surprisingly short, maybe because he's covered this ground in one of his many many books?) was somewhat negative. (paraphrasing): 'by the time i got there, everyone wanted to off themselves. i tried meeting the old people but they didn't like me so whatever, most of the time we were touring anyway." It's cool they included that other perspective. It didn't seem like there was any animosity toward bands in the scene but several times little rivalries were mentioned in a non-specific way where I wonder if there was more of that high-school clique stuff going on that most everyone was too polite to indulge in on the page.

So yeah... great read. I do kind of regret reading this on kindle. I bet (like the Beastie Boys book) it's better on audio if they got all the authors to read their own chapters, and I hate looking at the photos section on a kindle. I had to go online and rummage around to see the people and places they talk about instead. It also has me in a mood to watch some docs since, it being LA, good early footage still exists.

I was a tiny bit disappointed to not hear how the few other bands I'm familiar with worked into the scene. Like, no mention of The Plasmatics or the Chili Peppers. Another theme present here is that LA is not the same as NYC in that it's a sprawl so towns like Downey, San Pedro, even east LA are like miles and miles away from Hollywood vs. Manhattan where you had like 30 blocks separating the bowery from times square. So maybe that's it, but those early Chili Peppers albums talk about them being Hollywood kids! and Flea played with FEAR! So I was kinda hoping to hear how they wove into it... maybe that happened later. If only this book had a sequel...

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