Monday, March 13, 2006


Over the weekend I retreated once more into my youth, immersing myself in punk rock mythology, watching the 2003 documentary End of the Century - The Story of the Ramones and working my way through a book about the West Coast punk scene called We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk.

Punk Debunked
The Ramones DVD was great, but ultimately very depressing. At the time of its release, Joey Ramone had already passed away and Dee Dee passed away two weeks after the Ramones recieved their Hall of Fame induction. A year later, in October 2004, Johnny Ramone passed away in his sleep, leaving Tommy Ramone as the lone surviving original member. But the most depressing part of the documentary for me was learning what an unlovable jerk Johnny Ramone was.

Everyone loved Joey Ramone - he was the endearing Everyman, the Jerry Lewis nerd misfit who finally "fit in" thanks to the "beautiful mutant" punk aesthetic, an innocent, a perpetual kid trapped inside a 6-6 towering adult frame, and a diehard romantic. And, when he wasn't trying to stab people with his hunting knife, Dee Dee was just as loveable in his drug-addled goofball innocence. Dee Dee may have been a stooge, but he knew his limits (unfortunately not until his Rap career fizzled), was able to laugh at himself, and wrote some damned good songs - some of the Ramones' finest.

But no one will shed any tears for Johnny Ramone. His guitar sound may have been genius (as distinctive and unique in its way as that of Chuck Berry's or Jimi Hendrix's or Carlos Santana's), but he was a mean, humorless, egotistical, cold-hearted bastard who managed to break Joey's heart long before it stopped permanently in 2001 (R.I.P.) by stealing his one true love, Linda, away (OK, he married her, so it wasn't a cavalier, thoughtless steal, admittedly). And he was a right-wing Republican extremist, the polar opposite of bleeding-heart liberal Joey. But the straw that broke the Ramones back had to be Johnny's acceptance speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony where he thanked "President Bush and our country, God bless." Not a word about Joey, mind you. What a bonehead! In financial matters, Johnny was very together, but in practically every other arena - politics, personality, art, culture, he seemed to be braindead. Mind you, Johnny was the one who initially resisted Tommy's suggestion that Joey move from behind the drum kit to take over lead vocals. And Joey went on to become one of the most iconic rock vocalists of all-time, with one of the most distinctive voices ever. Johnny didn't even know Joey's "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg" was an anti-Reagan song (did he think it was just a fantasy about a monkey visiting Nazi gravesites?) and when he got wind of what it was about, refused to perform it in concert. What a boor!

Sometimes the cost of creating great art is running the risk of alienating those around you and sacrificing your soul. Johnny struck out on both counts. To paraphrase a Morrisey song, when Tomorrow comes, "will I still be human?" In Johnny's case, the answer is a resounding No! Or as the other Ramones put it when describing his harsh, controlling personality, Johnny became "a monster."

West is Less'd
I loved The Dickies, liked X and The Blasters and The Nuns and The Go-Gos and The Dead Kennedys, and found Fear funny, if somewhat one-dimensional (and I loved their stage vulgarity, especially when they dished such non-sensical barbs as "Eat my fuck!" - I used this epithet quite often during Road Rage moments). But I was never that big a fan of what was called West Coast Punk, believing it to be leftovers from the New York, London, Boston, and Cleveland scenes. But, because I didn't know much about it - my only real exposure was through Penelope Spheeris' documentary film and accompanying soundtrack for The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), which has been criticized for narrowly foccusing on just one negative aspect of the scene - I figured I'd be open-minded and give it a shot, hence I picked up the Neutron Bomb book by Marc Spitz (senior contributing writer at SPIN magazine) and Brendan Mullen (founder of the seminal Masque club that fostered many of the bands covered here). And though it blatantly pulls on the same stylistic "oral history" coattails as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me (which covered the East Coast - specifically New York and Cleveland - scenes), I learned a lot from it. Mainly, it made me seek out the work of The Weirdos (a great group whose "Neutron Bomb" song fittingly provides Spitz and Mullen with their tome's title!), the Latino punk ensemble The Zeros (the "Don't Push Me Around" guys, not the later glam-metal band of the same name), The Screamers (if for no other reason than Devo loved them and they experimented with concert video art years before the arrival of MTV), and others. Plus there's dirt dished about scary freak Kim Fowley (who sacked early Runaways guitarist Micki/Michael Steele for lacking "star power" - only to see her get the last laugh when she later joined The Bangles) and loveable freak Rodney Bingenheimer (the legendary KROQ DJ and erstwhile body double for The Monkees' Davy Jones whose DVD bio The Mayor of Sunset Strip, may just be my all-time favorite music documentary). I also learned that Darby Crash of The Germs was commissioned to write songs for the soundtrack of one of my all-time fave cult films, William Friedkin's 1980 fist-fuck-frenzied gay underground murder mystery Cruising. (The long out-of-print soundtrack contained the last recorded material by Crash, who subsequently killed himself at the ripe old age of 22. Bad timing for myth making: Crash's voluntary exit from his mortal coil was overshadowed by John Lennon's involuntary exit at the hands of Mark David Chapman less than 24 hours later. Advantage: East Coast. Even our rock stars deaths outshine the Golden State!)

There's even the Baltimore connection. Every respectable Baltimoron knows that Go-Gos drummer Gina Shock hailed from glorious Dundalk, but I never knew X bassist Joe Doe was also from Charm City. Another local son bites the dust.

But as the 1980s came about in the book, I realized why I disliked West Coast the first time around: the advent of Hard Core. All those slam-dancin', sweaty mosh pit surfer jock assholes took over, chasing away all the chicks so that Nazi skinheads headbangers could grope one another in an orgy of homoerotic Greco-Roman wrestling. Or as Jane Weidlin of The Go-Go's described it: "The whole L.A. scene had changed by the time we got back from England in early 1980, it had been taken over by all these real angry, young white boys...we were like 'What's this all about? It's really gross.'"

Unfortunately, the West Coast hooligan aesthetic reared its ugly head on this coast as well, regrettably finding a home down I-95 in Washington, D.C. - providing yet another reason for Bawmer locals to hate D.C.!

Jenny Lens: The Girl with the Camera Eye
Anyway, it's a good read, and it inspired me to do a search on the Internet for more info about some of the bands mentioned. While surfing I came across a familiar name, Jenny Lens (Jenny Stern, left), a pioneering punk photog from the original 1976-1980 Punk Era who covered the phenomena on both coasts, but mainly the West. Her name crops up quite a bit in Neutron Bomb, though she says she was misquoted therein. Regardless, Jenny Lens has a cool Web site with many valuable links to the bands of this scene. I e-mailed her, never thinking I'd get a response, and she e-mailed be back right away. This is truly a focussed Lens! She even put in a plug for Baltimore's notorious native son John Waters: "I always feel John Waters has not been given his due in the punk world. Who wore day-glo hair, even on their pubes, before Pink Flamingos?"

Jenny is currently working on various projects, including her first book, due out soon from Rizzola Books. As she described it on her MySpace blog: "Rizzoli called and my first book, Before Hardcore is being fast-tracked, Glen E. Friedman is editing/choosing my photos and I'm also writing accompanying text, telling stories of how I came to meet someone and shoot them, memories of the shows, parties, spontaneous fun. Just so happens many of the people I shot became famous later. Others infamous for being part of the scene and rarely seen."

Anyway, check out her site and check out her photos!:

Jenny Lens Website
Jenny Lens' Blog
Jenny Lens' MySpace Page

In the Wong Place at the Right Time
A lot of the L.A. punk bands played at Madam Wong's Chinese restaurant, owned by Esther Wong. Madam Wong passed away last August at age 88 and I didn't even realize that my friend Violet Glaze wrote a great obit about her ("Exit the Dragon") in the Baltimore City Paper.

Check it out:
Esther Wong Obit by Violet Glaze (Baltimore City Paper)

Best Punk Books to Read - So Far:

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
by Jon Savage

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk Rock
by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock
by Clinton Heylin

We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk
by Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen

Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
by Simon Reynolds

Jenny Lens also recommends:
Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs
by Brendan Mullen, with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I wrote the obit for Esther Wong for City Paper this year (shameless plug, but I'm proud of it), I emailed Jenny Lens asking for an interview and she talked to me for THREE HOURS about everything she knew about the LA scene, above and beyond what I needed to know about Ms. Wong. She set me straight about Wong's legacy and chatted about photo, about clubs, about how she was going to crash an art show later that night and drink free martinis, about EVERYTHING. It was a monologue of mammoth free-associative proportions. I told her if she ever published a book/came to Baltimore to look me up and I'd help a sister out. She is a trip and a half.

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