The Pukes

(Note: This is part of a larger project chronicling the history of punk rock in Marin County, California during the 1980’s.)

The atmosphere was somber at the Sleeping Lady Café. It was September, in the year of Orwell – 1984 – and Ricky Paul, the lead singer for the Pukes had recently hanged himself, dying at the age of 22. The young people gathered that evening were there to remember, mourn and share their grief over his passing. Erik Meade, one-time member of the Pukes and other Marin bands, summed up the feelings of many when he said that along with Ricky, the Marin punk scene had died. The sentiment, while not literally true, successfully conveys Ricky Paul’s central importance for Marin punk during the early 1980’s.

The Pukes at College of Marin, c. 1983: (From left to right) Brook Johnson, Ricky Paul, Nicky Poli, and Mark Wolf

Creative, friendly and full of enthusiasm, Ricky was known and loved by just about everyone. His band The Pukes played often in Marin and in San Francisco. Whether at house parties or clubs, they always attracted a large throng of young, enthusiastic fans. The Pukes were so named because Ricky had the talent of being able to vomit on demand at key points during performances, to the delight – and often the horror – of those in the audience. Wolfing down large quantities of pizza or other junk food before getting on stage, Ricky would then stick his finger down his throat halfway through the set and upchuck, providing visual punctuation for the lyrics of one song or another.

“It always grossed us out, but it was the one thing that set us apart from other punk bands, so we never complained,” remembers Brook Johnson, founding member and bass player for the Pukes.

Audience members unprepared for the messy display inevitably recoiled in shock and disgust, sometimes experiencing something close to trauma.

“I’ll never be able to look at him the same way again,” one of Ricky’s College of Marin classmates, Kent Daniels, once lamented, his face flushed white in shock after witnessing the voluntary vomit launch for the first time.

Walter Glaser, back-up vocalist for the Pukes, and later, after Ricky’s death, the lead singer, recalled a show at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco when Ricky, after vomiting on stage, began throwing the mess at audience members; including a group of skinheads. “All the skinheads basically ran out of the club, which was hilarious, because they were the notorious ‘tough guys’ of their day. I remember the skinheads coming back in after we were done and I was scared they were going to kill us. But they didn’t. Instead, one guy, ‘Crazy Horse,’ introduced himself and said he thought we were cool!”

When he wasn’t puking on stage and screeching punk rock lyrics, Ricky spoke in a nasally, hoarse but gentle voice; described by one interviewer as half the time like “a 331/3 at 45, the other half like a 45 at 331/3.” He was thin and wispy in build, with hair of changing colors; sometimes shorn into a crew cut, sometimes grown out long and unkempt, sometimes fashioned into a mohawk. In a 1983 profile appearing in the Music Calender, Rebecca Solnit described him as “a self-acknowledged wimp. …a pale boy with prominent, fragile bones and eyes like myopic morning glories. His voice conveys his sincerity. It’s soft and hoarse, the aural equivalent of out-of-focus.”

Ricky Paul, c. 1982.

In contrast to his onstage persona, which was outrageous and confrontational, offstage Ricky was sensitive, tender and sweet with his friends and comrades. Juneko Robinson remembers the first time she met Ricky when he approached her at a Marin County bus stop. Recognizing her as a fellow punk, Ricky greeted her excitedly, exclaiming “Hey, punk rock!” before offering to share his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was something child-like and innocent about him, she remembers, even if when performing he had an unruly lack of inhibition.

When it came to confronting bullies, however, Walter Glaser remembers that Ricky was assertive, standing up for himself and unhesitant to tell them “to ‘fuck off’ to their face even when it seemed disadvantageous to do so.” He wasn’t gentle or a wimp when it came to “fighting against things that he thought were wrong in the world.” It seems that the anger and outrage that Ricky channeled into his onstage performances could also come out on the street if there was enough provocation; for example, when he once deliberately puked on the hood of a car occupied by one of his high school enemies!

So there was not such a clear incongruity between his on- and off-stage personae after all. Performing was just his opportunity to share with a sympathetic audience something of his own real-life disgust with the injustices of the world. Indeed, Ricky claimed that his Jewish identity and his identity as a punk were connected, as both groups are “oppressed minorities,” with a duty to confront and challenge a society that misunderstands and derides them. He felt that minorities and punks needed to make their voices heard. He thought speaking the truth about oppression was an act of rebellion against those who didn’t want to listen, who wanted to block their ears to the anger and distress of the outcast. Singing in a punk rock band, then, was the perfect outlet for those most authentic emotions that Ricky was struggling with throughout his life, and the band, rather than being a sideline, was central to who he was. As he once said in an interview, “It’s honest, the most honest thing there is.”

“Ricky once told me that the Pukes were his life,” recalls Brook Johnson. Brook had first been introduced to punk as a high school freshman in 1981 when he saw the Ramones play in Sonoma County. The next year he and his friend Mark Wolf started to talk about forming a punk band, and when they met Ricky things quickly came together. Sporting a green mohawk and possessing an enthusiastic, do-it-yourself attitude, Ricky wanted nothing more than to front the group as lead singer. Lacking a drummer, he encouraged his friend Nicky Poli to learn how to play and to join the band as well. Thus The Pukes were born. Within a month, they had developed something resembling a set of songs and played their first gig at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, opening for another Marin punk band, U.X.B.

“We sounded terrible,” says Brook, “but a reporter from a local newspaper, The Marin Independent Journal, was there and did a story on us along with a photo.” In that article, the author, George A. Frasier offered his own assessment of the Pukes: “Primitive is not the word for the Pukes. They produce a cacophony that would send almost anyone over the age of 30 running from the room.” Despite (or because?) of this, the Pukes became something of a local legend, with people thereafter recognizing them as “that band with the singer who pukes on stage.”

Some of the songs played by The Pukes were just flat-out noisy, with Ricky moaning and screeching incomprehensibly against a background of droning guitar, bass and clunky drumbeats. “Sometimes he would freestyle the lyrics, making them up as he went along.” But they also developed more polished songs like Parents, or The Question Is?, which had an upbeat, catchy sound that successfully harnessed the raw energy and anarchic nature of the group’s talent to great effect.

There was nothing despairing or sad about The Pukes’ music. Even as Ricky spewed anger at his parents, the police, or at jocks, their mood was consistently buoyant, inspiring fans to dance, laugh and interact with the band. Part of this probably had to do with the fact that through this music audience and performers found solidarity and unity against common enemies. The song Parents complained about the bane of all teenagers: chores and rules set down by mom and dad. A song like Macho took good humored jabs at the jocks and tough guys who were the natural foes of punks in Marin, while Red Badge of Courage used the title’s literary allusion to comment on the ongoing hostility between punks and the police. If you didn’t listen closely to their music, it might be easy to dismiss it all as noisy, mindless punk rock. But once you really gave them your attention, it became clear that they were doing more than just making a racket. They were actually making a statement. Their music was social and cultural commentary done in true punk style, conveying what it was like to live as a punk in Marin County.

 

 

 

The song S and M Waltz was a particularly good illustration of how the Pukes gave voice to the Marin experience. It poked fun at the image of Marin punks as softies, as coddled residents of one of America’s richest counties, living in the seat of luxury and who were thus perceived as less “hardcore” than punks from San Francisco or from Huntington Beach:

“We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!

This is the S and M Waltz;

Sonoma and Marin,

And we always dance the Waltz, no matter what county we’re in.

We do not thrash, and we do not bash!

We dance the S and M Waltz, around and around,

We like the Waltz, and the 3, 4 sound.

We like to waltz,

All day long.

But we do not thrash, ‘cause we are not strong.

We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!

This is the S and M Waltz,

Dance it if you can.

We know you can’t,

‘Cause you’re such a Man.

We’re not from San Francisco, or Huntington Beach!’

These lyrics were delivered against a punked-up, “oom-pah-pah” musical backdrop that encouraged audience members to join together in pairs and perform an exaggerated version of the waltz, frantically running in circles about the dance floor. It all had an aggressive yet silly and fun-loving feel to it that resonated perfectly with the image of the Pukes themselves.

Ricky Paul playing the saxophone, c. 1984.

Toward the end of his life, Ricky became increasingly fascinated with beatnik culture and art, adapting his appearance with the addition of a beret and learning how to play the saxophone and bongo drums. This new interest served as his motivation to begin attending the San Francisco Art Institute.

Brook Johnson and Walter Alter both remember Ricky expressing irritation with the San Francisco art scene after he started attending the Art Institute. “He told me he had become disillusioned with the teaching approach and the negative, nihilistic work that was being encouraged by the faculty,” Walter Alter writes. “The last time I saw him several days before his death he looked worried and distracted, like something was up.”

Apparently Ricky would sometimes spend the night in Studio 8A of the Institute, which is where he was found hanged in September of 1984.

Brook recalls learning of Ricky’s death from Mark Ropiquet (AKA “Snoopy”) –then guitar player for the Pukes – after Ricky failed to show up for a scheduled film shoot. The true circumstances of his death are still a matter of controversy for those close to him, with speculations ranging from suicide, to auto-erotic asphyxiation, to a performance art piece gone wrong. Whatever the real truth, in the end it all amounted to the same thing: Ricky was gone, leaving his family and friends to mourn his passing, and his musical collaborators to struggle with how to carry on and to honor his memory in the future.

The Pukes didn’t die with Ricky, but they were transformed. Walter Glaser stepped in as lead singer and Dave Lister took over as guitarist. “In retrospect, I think we should have changed our name to something else. You could say we kept it out of respect for Rick,” Brook explains, echoing a sentiment also expressed by Walter: “Ricky was not only my bandmate, but also a good friend, a Marin punk legend and really, an inspiration to me. No one could fill Ricky’s shoes. We kept the band going out of respect for him.”

Walter Glaser, c. 1985.

The “New” Pukes wrote an original set of songs and continued to perform at venues in Marin and San Francisco. There was no more on-stage vomiting, but Walter had his own hilarious stage presence, altogether different from that of Ricky Paul. He sported a simple, down-to-earth style, with cropped black hair and a wardrobe rarely deviating from t-shirt and blue jeans. He would bounce around the stage – sometimes being silly, sometimes aggressively confronting audience members – all the while making exaggerated faces and hand gestures reminiscent of the Don Martin cartoon character Mr. Fonebone from Mad Magazine. His voice, like Ricky’s, was nasal and came from the back of the throat, but it was less high pitched, sounding more like the growl of coyote than the shriek of bobcat. His lyrics continued to lash out at familiar targets, but instead of parents and cops, now they denounced asshole drivers, tedious loudmouths, and the patrons at one of Marin’s popular punk gathering places, Café Nuvo:

I’m so hardcore, don’t you know,

‘Cause I hang out at Café Nuvo.

Everyone knows how punk I am,

Then I go home and listen to Duran Duran.

I got my boots for 35,

And I’m the toughest guy alive.

I need some pot so gimmee some dough.

I think punk rock is a fashion show.

Think I’ll go scam on a chick,

And brag about my 10 foot dick.

Picking up girls is such a gas,

So I can get a piece of ass.

These are the people that make me ill,

To the point that I could kill.

Stupid attitude I can’t bear,

They’re just fuckin’ jocks with short hair.

Walter says that all of the shows he played with the “New” Pukes were “really fun,” especially when the audience was filled with lots of friends. “The Pukes were a pretty beloved band amongst a small group of people.” That was certainly true; and it remained true all the way up until their final breakup sometime in the late 1980’s.

Sources:

Alter, Walter. “The Death of Ricky Puke,” (Blog posting).         <http://gordonzola.livejournal.com/125133.html > Last accessed 3/13/18.

Anonymous. “Odd One Out,” (Newspaper article. Source and date unknown.)

Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.     <https://digital.library.cornell.edu/collections/punkflyers&gt;

Daniels, Kent. Interview with John Marmysz. December 17, 2018.

Frazler, George A. “The Punk Scene: It’s Alive and Ill in Marin County,” in Independent Journal, Friday, May 21 1982.

Glaser, Walter. Interview with John Marmysz. March 7, 2018.

Johnson, Brooke. Interview with John Marmysz. February 2, 2018.

Marin Underground (Compilation tape. c. 1985.)

Meade, Erik. (Myspace Page). < https://myspace.com/erik_meade/mixes/classic-the-pukes-friends-362755/photo/91231825> Last accessed 3/13/18.

Pukes Demo Tape. < https://youtu.be/j3onVSzX354> Last accessed 3/13/18.

Robinson, Juneko. Interview with John Marmysz. January 3, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Marin Punk Explained!” Music Calendar, November 1983.

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Cinematic Nihilism Presentation at College of Marin

On October 26th I delivered a presentation on my new book, Cinematic Nihilism, at the College of Marin. This video of the presentation is about 56 minutes long and includes a group discussion at the end. Thanks to David Patterson, who both organized and filmed the event, as well as to everyone who attended!

A New Semester

The Fall 2017 semester has begun at College of Marin. After a summer of relative leisure, I’m finding myself falling into some recognizable mental patterns of reflection now that I’m back in the classroom.

This semester, in addition to three sections of Introduction to Philosophy, I’m teaching Ethics, Logic, and World Religions; 18 units altogether. This is a normal load for a community college instructor, though for university instructors it seems excessively heavy. I recall, many years ago, when I was hired at my first teaching job at a community college back east, my graduate school mentor was incredulous when I told her how many units I would be carrying. She was convinced that teaching so many classes was an impossibility. Of course the difference between her position and mine is that she’s required to produce a consistent body of research while there are no such pressures on me. At the community college, the emphasis is on teaching, not research, and so most of my time is spent in the classroom or in my office preparing lectures and assignments, grading, or (more often than I like) sitting in committee meetings that go on for way too long and that accomplish way too little.

I think I would be doomed if I had to go back to working a regular 9-5 job at this point in life. I’ve become so used to the rhythm of the academic semester system that I just could not imagine working without the anticipation of midterms and finals, or the end of the semester and graduation ceremonies. These markers help to put a frame around the march of time, giving me something to look forward to and making it feel as if there is a predictable and finite span until significant goals are achieved. I like the beginning/middle/end structure of the semester. It suits my Aristotelian tastes.  Each term begins as I meet a new group of interesting (and interested) students while reconnecting with familiar ones. There is a sense of excitement about the material that we will study and the conversations that we will have. I enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain this excitement as the weeks draw on into months and the initial novelty of taking a philosophy class starts to wane for some students. It is usually around midterms that parking becomes easier to find on campus; an indication of diminished motivations and recalculated priorities. But nevertheless, as the semester races toward final exams, there is a crescendo of anticipation that seems inevitably to reinvigorate even the most lax students. They all want to finish strong, and so do I.

The fact that I’m the only full-time philosophy instructor on the College of Marin campus means that I get to schedule the times of my own classes. This is yet another aspect of my work situation that I can’t imagine giving up. While there are certain time slots that are in high demand with students, happily those are usually the very periods that I myself prefer in any case. Online classes are particularly popular, and the late morning and early afternoon on-campus classes allow a leisurely and refreshed start to the day, with time to study books that, even if I wasn’t a teacher, I would read during my free-time in any case. What other job pays you to read Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Stirner? Most jobs probably discourage it!

But my greatest source of enjoyment teaching at College of Marin comes from having regular conversations about philosophy. Socrates, in his Apology, said that daily discourse about virtue is a necessary component of a life worth living, and while I have my own struggles with despair and meaninglessness, it would be much more difficult to endure these struggles without my daily conversations with students. There are mornings when I wake up gripped with fears about death and the pointlessness of doing anything at all, but then when I walk into the classroom and conversation takes off, I feel swept away by a flow of ideas and thoughts that make me forget about anything else. Often, I’m surprised (and disappointed) when the period comes to an end and I have to retreat back to my office to work in solitude on other projects. I often tell students that we are uniquely lucky to have the opportunity to discuss and entertain the most important questions of all time in our philosophy classes. Outside, in the everyday world, we are discouraged from asking these very same questions, as they are considered by many people to be troubling or useless. To me this always seemed odd and ironic. Why are the most important questions – Who am I? Why am I here? Does life have any meaning? – disparaged and dismissed by those we spend most of our waking lives talking to? Why, instead, do we spend most of our time engaged in activities that, in the grand scheme of things, really are meaningless; activities like watching stupid TV shows, shopping, surfing the internet, working at boring jobs, or making small talk? Is it because we are scared to confront the big issues? Or is it because we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by others who want us to remain placid and complacent with the way things are?

In annoyance, I once told an advertising specialist who was designing an ad campaign for the College of Marin, “I do not teach students anything. I learn along with them.” To my surprise, I later found these words emblazoned along with my own photograph on ads that appeared in local newspapers, on the sides of local buses and on a larger-than-life-sized banner that now hangs in the College of Marin Student Center. It’s rather funny how an off-the-cuff, irritated remark could be construed as a slogan that might attract students to the school. Now that I have some distance from that remark, however, I’ve come to realize that it does honestly sum up my own attitude toward teaching philosophy. While the Truth forever slips through our grasp, it is the process of  jointly (and vainly) searching for that Truth that is important. Nothing else.

 

The Pukes

The Pukes were one of the great Marin punk bands from the early 1980’s. There is very little online information about them, but someone on Youtube has just posted their demo tape:

Headed by lead singer Ricky Paul – who would vomit on demand while performing – The Pukes regularly played at the original Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax, CA, as well as at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, and at many underground warehouse shows and parties in and around Marin County.

Ricky committed suicide in 1984 while attending the San Francisco Art Institute. His death affected all of us young Marin punks very deeply. It was, in fact, the first time that I myself had ever experienced the loss of a friend, and it was to have a permanent effect on me. I still often think about – and miss – Ricky to this very day. He was a sensitive, friendly and very smart guy.

I have a lot of warm, hilarious memories about Ricky. There was one time when I gave him a ride home from the College of Marin and, upon dropping him off, he attacked my car with a dead tree branch that he had found lying somewhere nearby. As I tried to speed away, he jumped in front of my car, bounced off the hood and rolled off into the street, coming to rest immobile on his back. I thought I had killed him, but when I ran to his aid, Ricky jumped up, laughing. He threw his arms around me and thanked me for the ride.

My wife remembers the first time she met Ricky. She was waiting at the bus stop when he came walking by. Upon seeing a fellow punk, Ricky greeted her, shouting “Hey! Punk rock!” He then sat down and offered to share his lunch with her: a tuna fish sandwich that he had carried to school.

A friend who knew Ricky, but had never seen him perform, attended a show at the Sleeping Lady Cafe one night. This friend was unprepared for the vomit launch that occurred about halfway through the set. He turned white and fled the club, later telling me that he would never be able to look at Ricky the same way again.

The Pukes continued on after the loss of Ricky, with Walter taking over as lead singer. Walter was a unique character, hilarious in a way different from Ricky. He fronted the “New” Pukes for quite some time, playing lots of shows with Sacripolitical in Marin and in San Francisco.

A memorial gathering took place in honor of Ricky at the Sleeping Lady Cafe after his death. Sacripolitical played, and just about every punk in Marin attended. People shared memories, tears and grief. For some of us who had personal grudges against one another, this was an opportunity to come together, forget old feuds, and affirm our solidarity in Ricky’s memory. We all loved him.

The Pukes @ College of Marin. 1983? Ricky Paul on the microphone.

Paul Christensen, 1941 – 2016.

Paul @ TablePaul Christensen died on June 18th, 2016.

Paul was a professor of sociology at the College of Marin for over 40 years, serving as the chairman of the sociology department and as chief negotiator for The United Professors of Marin. A controversial figure on the COM campus, Paul was a tenacious fighter for worker’s rights, brokering one of the strongest teacher contracts in place at any US college. His efforts in this regard earned him a hated reputation among many COM administrators, while also earning him the gratitude and admiration of many of his peers.

Students, likewise, had widely polarized opinions of Paul. Some loved him while others hated him. Comments posted on Rate My Professors range from the laudatory to the insulting, with his outspoken, sometimes “vulgar,” manner being appreciated by some as “awesome” and condemned by others as “repulsive.” Either way, student opinions of Paul were never luke-warm. He was a teacher who left a lasting impression on anyone who sat in his classes.

I am one of those students who loved Paul. In 1982 I had just graduated from high school and was more concerned with riding motorcycles and listening to punk rock music than I was with studying. I began attending the College of Marin mostly to appease my parents, and it was during my first semester there that I enrolled in Paul’s social deviance and problems course. The class, unsurprisingly, was filled with a large number of nonconformist youth, including a gorgeous girl with a purple crew cut who eventually became my wife.

Paul had what it took to grab my attention as a 17-year-old. He was big, – well over 200 pounds – bald and aggressive. He lectured in an informal style, hands in pockets, freely using profanities. During one discussion on the dynamics of state power, I vividly recall him warning the class how in the real world, challenging police authority gives cops the permission to “kill your ass!” Such gruff vulgarities turned some students off, but at that point in my life, Paul was exactly what I needed. He spoke frankly about violence, power, sex; all in a down-to-earth manner that was startling but also attention grabbing and entertaining. Here was a teacher who appealed to my teenage sensibilities, showing me that academic study did not require the adoption of inauthentic affectation or pretension.

I recall being overwhelmingly excited that a block of the social deviance and problems class was devoted to the study of punk rock. In connection with this, Paul introduced students to Dick Hebidge’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a book that remains a landmark in subcultural studies, and to the works of Erving Goffman and Edwin Pfuhl. At that pivotal point in my life, he showed me that it was possible to apply serious academic theory to things of intimate importance to me; things that were a part of my own experience. He taught me that I could bend my educational experience to fit my own passions and interests rather than passively allowing myself to be bent by the school establishment.

After leaving the College of Marin – and because of Paul’s inspiration – I went on to study sociology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I eventually decided to switch my focus to philosophy; a switch that Paul at one point told me amounted to “the same thing.” All through the years I pursued studies in philosophy, Paul’s influence remained present in my mind, and indeed, I count him as one of three professors throughout my life who have (knowingly or unknowingly) been my most important guides and role models. With his death, only one of these role models now remains.

My relationship with role models has always been fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, I need them. Their presence in my life offers concrete proof of what it is possible to achieve, giving me confidence that my own dreams and hopes are not completely implausible. On the other hand, I’ve found that if I get too close to my role models and start to see their flaws, they begin to fall in my eyes. For this reason I have found it necessary to keep them at a bit of a distance if I hope to retain my sense of idealistic admiration.

This certainly applies to my relationship with Paul Christensen.

After earning my Ph.D. in philosophy, I eventually returned to College of Marin as a professor, and thus became Paul’s colleague. It was impossible for me to shake off the feelings that I had developed toward him as a student, and though I periodically socialized with him and other COM professors, I retained the need to keep him at arm’s length so that he would not become too familiar or commonplace to me. This eventually became harder and harder for me to do.

As Paul’s physical condition began to decline, and as I became increasingly unnerved by what looked to me like a disregard for his own health, I one day made a comment about his overindulgence in alcohol; a comment that he did not receive very well. He became angry at my impertinence, telling me that his drinking habits were none of my business. He was right of course, and I apologized. Nonetheless, I told him, he really did not understand exactly how important he was to me. It was a confession I felt I needed to make, and it stopped Paul in his tracks. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the previously welled up anger dissipate in an instant. Although he didn’t say anything in response, I’m certain that he knew what I was getting at; or I at least hope he understood what I was getting at, since it was one of the last times that I talked with him before his death.

Without Paul Christensen my life would have been very different than it has turned out to be. I already miss him very much.