Ludovico Teknique

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

After the breakup of UXB in 1983, Peter Hansen, Derek Johnston and Scott Williams formed Ludovico Teknique. In need of a new rhythm guitar player and bassist, Derek posted flyers in local music, record and book shops, advertising for musicians friendly to the band’s punk influences, which ranged from Iggy Pop to The Angelic Upstarts.

It was during this period that Derek first met Mike Crowell at the Rafael Book and News, a beloved Marin newsstand and meeting place on 4th Street in downtown San Rafael. Located next door to the Rafael movie theater, the Book and News attracted a wide and diverse variety of patrons in search of everything from paperback novels and pornography, to movie and music magazines. It went out of business in the late 1980’s when George Lucas bought the building in order to expand his film archive, but in its heyday, this was where you could hang out, socialize and browse through magazines such as Violent World, Hammer’s House of Horror, Cinefantastique, UFO Report, Creem, Punk, Slash and hundreds of other titles. Juneko Robinson recalls that, “it was filled with a lot of stuff that appealed to young people. As a teenager, I remember saving my money so that I could buy a copy of The Encyclopedia of the Occult there.” The place was crammed full of books and periodicals found nowhere else in Marin. With narrow aisles that could accommodate only one person standing sidewise, the store was definitely not wheelchair friendly, and with about 500 square feet of tightly packed books, newspapers, magazines, tobacco, lighter fluid and matches, it was a also a fire hazard. Nevertheless, it was a one-of-a-kind gem that many long-time Marin residents still, today, remember fondly.

Derek was in the Book and News one day when he encountered a couple of metalheads who were looking through music magazines. “I heard one of them say ‘Judas Priest,’ so I leaned over to him and said, ‘Lame.’ Then he said something about The Scorpions, so I leaned over again and said, ‘Lame.’ Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Motorhead?’ I gave him the thumbs up.” The metalhead was Mike Crowell, who recognized Derek as the guitar player from UXB. Derek invited Mike to audition for the new band, and he soon became Ludovico Teknique’s first bassist. He also exchanged his long hair for a skinhead haircut. Kent Cates joined as rhythm guitarist, but was replaced by Ronnie Montana before the band’s first gig.

Ludoviko Teknique’s musical style was in some ways stylistically continuous with UXB, but it also in some ways took a different, more polished and experimental turn. “UXB’s songs were machine-gun like,” says Derek. “If you listen closely, a lot of the guitar parts actually resemble songs by the Circle Jerks. With Ludovico Teknique, I wanted a more ethereal sound. I was looking to do something a little bit different; something more arty.” The “artiness” of Ludovico Technique was reflected in many of the flyers that Derek made to advertise the band’s gigs; one of which invited audiences to “An Evening with Ludovico Teknique” against a backdrop of Greek statuary. The band bio – written by their “press guy” Lon Huber, a cashier at the Book and News – emphasized the band’s synthesis of arty inventiveness and punk belligerence:

“This power-mad, high-energy rock assault team has been known as an art band (tell that to the lead singer Peter and he’ll show you why he has a criminal record), but Ludovico Technique’s music is aesthetically confused enough to drive audiences to frenzies of “dancing” otherwise associated with animals lacking complex nervous systems.”

The bio goes on to suggest that, among all of the band members, it was only Derek who had “a complete sense of the unit’s direction, often sharing his personal philosophy with audiences by whipping full cans of Econobuy beer between songs.” At once aggressive and reflective, raw and polished, the contradictions in Ludovico Technique’s music sought an uneasy compromise between elements of 1970’s British Oi! and street punk (as evidenced by the band’s Clockwork Orange inspired name) and art-rock.

For some fans of UXB, the “ethereal” transition made by Ludovico Teknique was not immediately welcomed. Derek recalls the band’s first performance in 1983 at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax. Instead of a ripped t-shirt, he had decided to appear dressed in a collared shirt and blazer in honor of their new image, but was greeted by jeers from a member of the audience taunting them as “sellouts.” As the band started playing their new set of songs, Derek remembers hearing that same voice yelling, “Play Jesus! Play Jesus!” The reference was to a song that UXB would regularly cover: the incredibly vulgar and sacrilegious Jesus Entering from the Rear, by the Phoenix punk band The Feederz. Derek could see that Peter was getting agitated by the heckler, and in exasperation Peter finally handed the microphone over to the obnoxious audience member, telling him, “You go ahead and sing it!” before storming off stage. Unsure if the other members of the band knew how to play the Feederz song, Derek nevertheless launched into Jesus Entering From the Rear, and John Marmysz, the obnoxious heckler, jumped up on stage to sing the song that would bring their first show to an end.

Ludovico Teknique went on to play regularly in Marin and San Francisco, garnering a dedicated following of fans and good reviews. One critic wrote, “Peter Hansen, formerly of UXB, is a strong lead sing, not too hysterical but histrionic enough for proper entertainment. Excellent lead guitar by Derek, very sensitive for hard rockin’.” When their music started to get local radio play, Derek reports feeling as if things were moving in the right direction. “After we played at the VIS Club one night I was approached by the club’s owner who told me he was interested in promoting us. I thought, ‘this could be good!’” In the end, despite their ambitions, and though Ludovico Teknique would be in existence a year longer than UXB, they would remain an underground, Bay Area phenomenon.

Over the course of three years, Peter and Derek were the band’s core members. Mike was eventually replaced by Darcy ? on bass, and just like UXB, Ludovico Teknique went through a long string of drummers – including Tony Short (from 5th Column and the Toiling Midgets) and Brookes DeBruin – until finally Gary Benson took over as their last drummer. Mike returned to play bass in the band’s last year of existence, 1986; an incarnation that Derek judges to be the band’s finest.

One of Ludovico Teknique’s best numbers, which received a lot of radio play on KUSF, was Blind Justice. Accompanied by a harmonica and female back-up singers, in this song Peter’s vocals fluctuate between punk-rock rawness and operatic grandeur. Peter and his wife had recently had a child, and his lyrics reflect his experience, lamenting the oppression of struggling, working class families by the rich and proposing a revolutionary change in leadership that would balance the scales of social justice:

Blind Justice

Your time has come to pay!

 

I see you drive by every day,

But you don’t ever stop and look my way.

Behind the blackened windows in your Mercedes Benz,

You secretly do condemn.

 

You rob our families, one at a time,

You’ve ripped off everything but our pride.

Well now finally on top and feeling free,

I can see you but you can’t see me!

 

You can have this for free,

A little shot of reality!

Righteous leaders for me!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Now I’ve got you in my sights,

And I think I’ll take my own sweet time.

Don’t you worry about your family,

Because you’ll get your justice tonight!

 

It’s a golden opportunity,

To return all the favors that you did for me.

Return your money with lightning speed!

The secret is a shot of reality.

 

Your time has come to pay!

You won’t have to suffer,

I will make you pay!

I wanna see leaders like these!

 

Your lawyers they can buy you time,

But there’s no place left to hide.

You will pay your debt to mankind,

‘Cause justice is no longer blind!

 

They can’t control the masses,

Or any man.

They don’t know the masses, NO!

It’s just an unpaid plan!

Blind Justice illustrates some of the ways that, while rooted in the hardcore punk sensibilities of UXB, Ludovico Teknique’s music was also evolving in a different direction. Their songs were becoming more musically complicated, and their lyrics, while still political and angry, started to focus on the personal struggles and frustrations of adult life.

Ludovico Teknique. From left to right: Mike Crowell, Derek Johnston, Peter Hansen, Gary Benson.

Peter’s appearance and behavior also started to evolve with the band. He grew his hair out, and, as Derek states, started to cultivate an “impressive set of dreadlocks.” His usual mode of dress was no longer “punk,” but was characterized by regular work clothes, and sometimes by a fedora that he would wear on stage. Derek reports that toward the end of the band’s existence, Peter became increasingly distant from his bandmates. Whereas in the past he had been very easygoing and tolerant, he began to exhibit a temper, which Derek recalls once seeing on display at a party. “He was holding his kid and someone sneezed right next to him. Peter blew up, yelling at the guy and threatening him with violence. Peter had always been someone you didn’t want to mess with, but I had never seen him react like that before.”

In addition to the pressures of adult life, it may have been the influence of drugs that were a factor in Peter’s changing demeanor. Peter had developed a heroin habit, and both Derek and Gary recall that this was something that increasingly became a problem for the band’s practice and performance schedule. Derek recalls one show, when they were headlining at the 16th Note in San Francisco, that the band was forced to take to the stage without their lead singer, who was nowhere to be found. They began playing their set, not sure what to do, when finally Peter appeared halfway through the first song. As he began to belt out the lyrics, Derek looked over, and Peter stared back at him wide-eyed, gesturing to his own rear-end. After the gig, Derek learned that Peter had shit his pants on stage.

Another time when Peter was shuttling band members and equipment in San Francisco, Gary recalls that he made an unannounced stop, double-parked his truck and ran into an apartment building. When he came out, he jumped back into the truck, and started speeding down the road. As he drove, Peter threw a heroin filled rig to the person riding in the passenger seat, ordering the passenger to inject it into Peter’s arm. After his fix, Gary reports that Peter acted normal, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Regularly, according to both Derek and Gary, Peter would disappear when they went into the city, saying that he would catch up with them later, but never reappearing. “We knew he was out looking for dope.”

“I don’t want to make Peter look like the only guy who did drugs,” Derek cautions. “We were all pretty loaded.” But it was Peter’s obsession with heroin that had the most profound impact on the group, affecting both their performances as well as influencing the message of their music. Take, for instance, the lyrics to the song Everything, which Derek calls “Peter’s ode to heroin”:

Everything

 

I run up the stairs, third floor on the right,

Give you a call and I walk up inside.

Surrounded by videos and blinking Christmas lights,

You’re perking your soup there in the candlelight.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie there on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re right beside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

When I see you, you always make me wait,

But I know you’re up to something now behind that iron gate.

When I try to phone you, you pretend like you’re not home,

Leave me freezing and shakin’ all night alone.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

 

Walk through back alleys in the early morning light,

If I don’t see you everyday I just don’t feel right.

Keep me awake as I knock up on your door,

I see you laying there stretched out on the floor.

 

Everything I need is right here on the table,

All I want to do is lie here on the floor.

I’ve got you, you’re deep inside me,

Everything I need is right there on the floor.

Ludovico Teknique continued performing into 1986. One of their last performances was on the bill with The Pukes, Sacripolitical, Victim’s Family and Fang at the Warehouse in San Rafael. It was a packed show with an enthusiastic crowd. Despite an ungrounded microphone that sent electric shocks through anyone who touched it, all of the bands played their hearts out, putting on tremendous performances; except for the headlining band Fang, whose lead singer was so intoxicated that he was unable even to stand up on stage. After the end of the show Derek and Mike approached the organizer, Mike Kavanaugh, asking to be paid, but Kavanaugh complained that Ludovico Teknique had not put on a very good performance. Besides, he pleaded, he had to reserve enough money to pay the “big name” act that evening, Fang! As a consolation, he offered them $7. Outraged by the injustice, Mike Crowell began yelling at Kavanaugh and spit in his face before storming out of the warehouse. Outside, he discovered the members of Fang crouched inside a sports car doing drugs in the parking lot. Still seething with anger, he proceeded to kick out their headlights with his steel-toed Doctor Martens before stomping away from the scene!

The year after the breakup of Ludovico Teknique, Peter Hansen was killed in a construction accident in Davis, Ca. He fell from the roof of the house that he was working on, hitting his head and dying at age 30. Despite his later drug problems, his bandmates remember Peter warmly and fondly as a friendly, kind and talented man. “He was just this very fatherly, nice sort of guy,” Gary recalls. Derek remembers him as “a really nice guy,” while Mike Crowell says, “He was a fantastic lyricist.”

After Ludovico Teknique, Derek Johnston went on to play guitar in a series of San Francisco acts, including The Noise Boys and The White Trash Debutants. Mike Crowell started a number of bands, the longest running being the Reducers SF, who still perform about once a year. Gary Benson continues to play drums, most recently in the band Earstu. Kent Cates currently plays in Altar DeFay. The other members that made up Ludovico Technique remain MIA.

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Seen in San Francisco

Seen in San Francisco is a website featuring photos taken in San Francisco. One page highlights Bound Together Bookstore; and in particular three books that everyone should read:

The Nihilist @ Bound Together

I dropped by Bound Together Books in San Francisco on Sunday and was pleased to find that my novel The Nihilist has continued to do good sales. I’ve sold books and fanzines through this store for decades, and I hope to continue supporting them for a long time into the future. It’s one of my favorite bookstores anywhere!

Home and Homelessness in Punk Rock

“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”

–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1

Introduction

Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.

But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.

In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.

Homelessness

Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold ­– as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.

However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.

When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.

This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4

As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.

Home-building

Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.

The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.

Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.

The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.

We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.

Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.

Subcultures and Home

When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.

Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.

As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.

Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.

But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.

In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.

Punk Rock

There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.

This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.

The Swastika

A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:

It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13

Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.

In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:

You still think swastikas look cool?

The real Nazis run your schools.

They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.

In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16

Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.

The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.

Underground Clubs

The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.

The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.

Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.

Fanzines

Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.

The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.

And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.

Notes

  1. Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.

 

  1. Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.

 

  1. Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.

 

  1. Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.

 

  1. Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.

 

  1. Plato, 31.

 

  1. Hebdige, p. 63.

 

  1. Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.

 

  1. Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.

 

  1. Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.

 

  1. Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.

 

  1. Griel Marcus, p. 118.

 

  1. Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.

 

  1. Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.

 

  1. Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.

 

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).

 

  1. Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.

 

  1. Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Ibid.

The Avengers

Since I was a teenager, I have adored the legendary San Francisco punk band The Avengers. Their self-titled pink album – released after their breakup in the early 1980’s – was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Whether it was on the stereo at house parties, on the cassette deck in the car, or on the sound system at local clubs, songs like We Are the One, I Believe in Me, The Amerikan in MeOpen Your Eyes, Second To None, and Fuck You always seemed to be there, playing in the background. Often, these songs refused to remain in the background, as the defiant passion of the music had the power to get everyone within earshot to stop and sing along. These were songs of unity, self-confidence, and rebellion against the corrupt, adult world. It was music that united young punks like some sort of alternative national anthem.

I was too young to have seen The Avengers perform live in their original incarnation, but now, almost 40 years later, I got the opportunity to see a reformed version of the band play at The Ivy Room, a small, intimate club in Albany, CA. The new lineup retained Penelope Houston as lead singer and Greg Ingraham on guitar, while adding new members Joel Reader on bass and Luis Illades on drums.

Two opening bands – The Neutrals and The Smokers – began the evening with some rousing punk numbers. The Neutrals somehow reminded me of the British band XTC, though they cite Wire as one of their influences. A three piece band whose British lead singer was at times snotty, at times aloof, at times frantic, The Neutrals played a simple, tight and aggressive set of songs. Following them, The Smokers, a four piece band from Oakland, roared through their repertoire of punk songs with great gusto and enthusiasm. They were also very enjoyable. These are two bands I would go out of my way to see again.

When The Avengers took to the stage, it felt as if I was in some sort of wonderful dream. The familiar songs of youth filled my ears. As one, the crowd sang along with Penelope Houston (who seems to have lost none of her passion and energy), raising fists in the air while swaying back and forth like waves on the surface of a single body of water. The strangers around me were mostly my own age, making me imagine that they – like me – were also reliving some of their own youthful, teenage punk rock memories.

But what made the evening especially terrific was to be with some of my old friends; people with whom I share concrete experiences and memories. My wife Juneko Robinson (who I first met when I was 17), my old friend Matt Forristal (with whom I have had many teenaged adventures), and Derek Johnson (whose bands UXB and Ludovico Technique were among my favorites in the 1980’s) were all there, sharing in this punk rock communion. For the duration of The Avengers’ performance, it felt like we transcended current time, entering a trace-like state separated from the worries and obligations of the present.

The wonderful dream came to an end after The Avengers concluded their encore and left the stage for the evening, forcing me to wake up to the realities of the present: going home to let the dog out, getting some sleep, and anticipating work that would have to get done the next morning.

I look forward to more dreams.

Top Ten Nihilist Songs

A playlist of 10 nihilist themed songs.

1. Flipper – Nothing

2. Rancid – Nihilism

3. Sacripolitical – Nihilist Void

4. Fear – No More Nothing

5. Agent Orange – No Such Thing

6. Sex Pistols – No Feelings

7. GG Allin – No Rules

8. Fuck Ups – Negative Reaction

9. Angry Samoans – Lights Out

10 UXB – Anti-Everything

UXB

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

UXB at the Shelter. (Left to right) Bob Christman, Julie Resing (BB Gunn), Peter Hansen (Ira Hood), and Derek Johnston (Brian Barbituate). Photo courtesy of Shaaron Murphy.

UXB was among the most noteworthy hardcore bands to emerge out of Marin County during the 1980’s. “They were not just one of the best Marin bands; they were one of the best punk bands of all time,” says John Marmysz, vocalist for Sacripolitical. Called the “pride and joy” of the Marin scene by fan Gordon Edgar, and “kinda the biggest band in Marin” by Walter Glaser of the Pukes, UXB was formed in 1980 by Bob Christman. Bob had discovered punk rock three years previously when he attended a 1977 performance of the Nuns, Dictators and the Ramones at Winterland in San Francisco. “I was blown away with the high energy, machine gun beat and cool looks. I had never seen anything like it before and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. I saw GOD!” In a strange case of missed connections, Derek Johnson, who would become UXB’s lead guitarist, also was introduced to punk rock at that same concert, though Bob and Derek did not know one another at the time, even though they lived in the same Novato neighborhood.

The only Marin band to have a track included on the now classic Northern California punk compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, UXB was in existence for just three years. During that time, they performed regularly with local bands, while also appearing on the bill with many more well-know, legendary names in West Coast punk – bands like Black Flag, 45 Grave, Social Distortion, and DOA. With this sort of exposure, one might expect that UXB’s success would be assured, but despite frequent high-profile gigs, enthusiastic fans and positive critical reviews, Bob says that UXB waited in vain for “the call that never came.”

“To tell you the truth punk bands from Marin were looked down upon by the so called ‘core’ from the city. They thought we were just a bunch of rich kids from the ‘burbs. We were prejudged by everyone in the city as poser punks. This was coupled with having to deal with petty philosophical differences with the ‘punk powerbrokers.’ Even with the Marin County albatross proudly worn around our neck we did everything we could to change the narrative…by kicking ass!”

And kick ass they did. Musically tight and lyrically sophisticated, UXB was aggressively hardcore while also delivering a smart libertarian message. Bob reports, “I wanted us to be a more cerebral punk rock band using satire, metaphors and humor to get [our] underlying message across. I got tired of hearing ‘fuck this, fuck that…anarchy shit. …Many of our songs were written about freedom: freedom from oppression, personal freedoms, freedom of speech/expression, and 2nd Amendment freedoms.”

Take, for instance, “Die’s Song,” a pro-gun, anti-Dianne Feinstein number:

 

Should of known it wouldn’t work

You can’t take our guns away

We’ll stand up and bear our arms

To protest this constitutional rape

Die-anne, you’re a nazi are you a party member too?

Hitler tried it in ’35 and the same thing is going to happen to you.

Meet your new fuhrer… Dianne Feinstein

Hail to the fuhrer … Dianne Feinstein

Bow to no one… Die Feinstein

Do us all a favor and go die… Feinstein

Your Gestapo, your men in blue

Will do anything that you say

But the D.A. won’t prosecute

Cause he knows that he ain’t got a case

Die-anne, you’re a nazi and now we’re going to recall you

Don’t you know the only real crime was that White shot Milk instead of you!

Wave goodbye, die Feinstein

Cause you’re going to, die Feinstein

Guns on the crosses, die Feinstein

Political suicide, we’ll have the last laugh on you die… bye bye…

As Julie Resing (AKA BB Gunn), UXB’s bass player attests, “Making outlandish statements was part of the whole punk thing,” and indeed while UXB’s lyrics – written jointly by Bob and lead singer Peter Hansen – were audacious, unapologetic and belligerent, they were never uniformed or unintelligent. It was hardcore with a message: that people should refuse to submit to authority of any kind, whether from the left or from the right.

UXB began when Bob learned to play guitar and then convinced his best friend Peter Hansen (AKA Ira Hood) to ditch his “disco polyester for a black leather jacket” and take on the role of lead singer. Bob’s then girlfriend Julie Resing (AKA BB Gunn) learned the bass and Bob’s friend Daniel Dee was recruited to play drums. Derrick Johnston (AKA Brian Barbituate) was added in 1981 as a second guitarist in order to develop a heavier sound. Over the course of their career, the band went through a number of drummers, including Rick Wreck, Scott Williams and William Shore. With these frequent changes in the percussion section and with their many absurd, hilarious adventures together, Bob likens UXB’s career to that of the fictional band in the movie Spinal Tap. Despite the likeness, he insists that UXB “didn’t get a dime in royalties!”

UXB at the Shelter. Photo courtesy of Shaaron Murphy.

Brooke Johnson, bass player for the Pukes and Sacripolitical, recalls that the first time UXB performed live, “they only had a few songs, so they just played their set twice.” However, after Derek joined the band, they developed a full repertoire (enough to fill an unreleased album) that they played with rare skill. “They were really good, tight and seemed to really have their shit together,” says Walter Glaser.

UXB’s razor-sharp sound was the result of frequent and rigorous practice sessions coupled with the able musicianship of the band members. “We didn’t get so tight by fucking around…we worked our asses off,” Bob recalls. As the self-confessed “taskmaster” (and sometime “asshole”) he made sure that everyone gave their all; and it showed. UXB’s music was dominated by the buzz saw roar of Bob and Derek’s guitars. While Bob’s rhythm guitar was raw and ferocious, Derek’s lead guitar was sophisticated and unusually complex for a hardcore band. Derek was the talent behind the innovative and unique hooks, fills and solos – like those heard in Breakout and Anti-Everything – that gave UXB’s songs their catchy but menacing appeal. Julie’s precision on bass contributed a bottom end to the rhythm section that audiences’ felt deep in their bones at the same time the guitars rattled their teeth. Put it all together and the resulting sound was powerful and aggressive, while still being tight and disciplined.

Peter Hansen (Ira Hood). Photo courtesy of Shaaron Murphy.

Lead singer, Peter Hansen, had an on-stage presence and commanding voice that constituted another huge part of UXB’s allure. Though he wasn’t an unusually big man, Peter, a construction worker, did exude a kind of working-class toughness that gave the band’s performances a sense of authenticity. He did not screech his lyrics, but actually sang them with a voice that, despite its husky, gravelly rasp, was able to hold a note and stay in tune. At times he would dye his crew-cut brilliant colors, like green or blue, but otherwise his style was simple and down to earth, consisting of jeans, a t-shirt, a thermal, or a Boston Celtics jersey. Bob remembers that Peter was a bit of an exhibitionist, enjoying his role as the center of attention; though he was occasionally upstaged by the only female member of the band, BB Gunn, who was singled out and praised as the band’s “smoking hot bass player” by one critic for both her musical talent and good looks.

UXB initially held their practices in the garage at Bob’s parent’s house in the suburban waterfront neighborhood of Bel-Marin Keys. Derek recalls that despite copious sound proofing, neighbors still complained about the bone-jarring percussion that would quake through their community when the band practiced. Noise complaints, coupled with the sometimes rowdy groups of teenage punks who would show up at practices, eventually created enough upset that UXB, in 1983, moved their gear south to a larger, rented warehouse in Sausalito. Bob recalls that the landlord of the new space was friendly and the acoustics were good, but “a few times each year a heavy rain in combination with a high tide caused flooding in the building… that’s why the rent was so cheap!” In order to keep their equipment dry, Bob and Peter constructed a raised stage, which transformed the practice studio into a club where UXB and other local bands could perform and hold regular shows. The place became known as The Shelter, and in addition to UXB, it hosted performances by bands such as the Pukes, The Fuck-Ups, Verbal Abuse, TOC, Urban Assault, and 5th Column.

The police break up a show at the Shelter. Photo courtesy of Shaaron Murphy.

Walter Glaser recalls, “The Shelter was awesome. It was about as punk as you could get.” Located on Gate 5 Road in a boat yard near the waters of the San Francisco Bay, The Shelter drew a diverse crowd of punks and weirdoes who usually – though not always – got along with one another. John Marmysz remembers “the police would often break up shows around midnight. One night as the police were coming into the club, UXB started playing a medley of the songs “White and Proud” and “Kill Whitey” in mockery of the cops. It was hilarious!” Nonetheless, according to Derek Johnston, “Most of the cops were cool and expressed concern about the safety of the young girls in what they considered an unsavory area.”

Punks at the Shelter: Myka Ransom, Linda Murphy, Sara Parker, and others. Photo courtesy of Shaaron Murphy.

There was a lot of underage drinking and other questionable activity that would go on in the lot out in front of The Shelter, and at least once, a young punk rocker drunkenly stumbled and fell into the bay waters. Fights, though not common, did happen. On one memorable occasion, the audience ganged up on a fellow who would not stop smashing beer bottles on the dance floor. After repeated attempts to get him to behave, a crowd of angry punks beat him to the ground, kicking and punching him until he was forced to flee the building in fear for his life. So much for mellow Marin!

In addition to frequent gigs at local punk clubs, UXB also performed under some rather unusual circumstances to less than punk-friendly audiences. Perhaps the most infamous show they played was one that barely happened at all. Somehow invited to appear at a noontime homecoming concert at Redwood High School in Corte Madera, the band was warned that there was to be no use of profanity during the performance. Things were instantly off to a bad start when the Vice Principal saw that Peter had arrived at the school wearing a black t-shirt with the word ‘fuck’ printed on it repeatedly. When the Vice Principal demanded that the shirt be turned inside out, Derek protested and was verbally threated and jabbed in the chest by the hostile school administrator. Things only went downhill from there.

As they took to the stage, UXB’s opening number was Breakout:

 

Are you blind, can’t you see

We’re all just prisoners of society

Locked in the suburbs, they’re all the same

In life we’re numbers, ain’t got no name.

Breakout, fight the system

You’re not all alone

Breakout, let’s stand together

Breakout.

Propaganda on your TV

Say what you want but we don’t believe it

Fuck your rules, your conformity

We’re marching to an urban blitzkrieg

We don’t fight here among ourselves

We stand together and share your wealth.

Breakout, fight the system

You’re not all alone

Breakout, let’s stand together

Breakout.

The song includes only one occurrence of the word “fuck,” but this apparently was one occurrence too many. After this first number, the plug was literally pulled and all went silent. The abrupt halt to the music was followed by a volley of apples, soda cans, and full yogurt cups lobbed at the band by an assembly of angry football players. Bob recalls that he was “totally pissed off,” and, wielding his guitar like a baseball bat, started hitting “the yogurt bombs back into the crowd.” Derek remembers that Julie avoided being hit square in the face by a full soda can only because it was intercepted at the last minute by Peter, who reached out to stop it in mid-flight. At this point, the teenaged football players, whose anger was in full frenzy, began to converge on the stage. However, when they realized that the band members were ready to actually fight, the jocks pulled back, and things devolved into a shouting match.

Walter Glaser, Linda Sue Koscis and Robert Jupe Jr., all Redwood High students at the time, recall the fracas, with “people throwing food; maybe a few punches.” “It certainly woke my ass up!” Robert remembers. Enough chaos was generated that the police were called and the band was advised by the Administration to leave the campus immediately. With the help of the Redwood High punks, UXB loaded up their equipment and tried to make a quick escape. However they were again confronted in the parking lot by the angry mob, and once more they were pelted with cans, rocks and other projectiles. Derek had borrowed his brother’s truck for the day, and after he and Bob piled in to make their getaway, the ignition would not catch. Sitting ducks, they remained in place as the engine repeatedly sputtered and died as bottles and cans ricocheted off of the hood and the sides of the vehicle. Finally, the truck started and they peeled out, making tracks across the school’s playing field, jumping the curb, and then hitting the road just as a Corte Madera SWAT van and multiple cop cars made their arrival.

Despite the truncated performance, Bob remembers that the Redwood High punks were elated. They were “totally stoked that we shit on the jocks in front of the whole school!” Derek reports that one of the Redwood students thanked him, saying, “It was great to have someone give the jocks something back. Do you know what it’s like to have to go to school with those assholes?!” In one final afterword to the incident, Derek learned that when the new wave/pop band Tommy Two Tone later played a gig at the same high school, a riot again ensued. This time, however, the band was not lucky enough to escape before all of their equipment was trashed!

Another one of UXB’s memorable, Spinal Tap-esque gigs also occurred on a school campus; this time at Mills College, a then all women’s school in the East Bay. As Bob recalls, someone must have decided that the school needed “an injection of coolness that only a punk rock show could supply.” The problem was that the college was in “a place no punk would ever venture or even know existed. I guess the plan was to have a punk show and not have any punks show!” UXB was scheduled to hit the stage at 10pm, but when it appeared that there was going to be no audience, Derek decided to drop acid and the rest of the band proceeded to get falling-down drunk. When show-time rolled around, the inebriated band took to the stage for a 20 minute set that, according to Bob, was just terrible. “It sounded like a free form punk version of a Dead concert.”

It was then, Bob claims, that the band realized there actually was an audience that was hiding in the shadows at the very back of the hall, as far away from the stage as they could get. At one point, some of the elusive Mills College students finally mustered the courage to approach the stage for a closer look. Bob reports, however, that “as soon as eye contact was made they scurried back to their safe haven in disbelief as if we were creatures from another planet. They thought they wanted a punk rock show and we gave them a freak show that they will probably never forget. I know I won’t!”

Derek’s recollection of the same evening is quite different. It was the first live show he had played with UXB, and so as he recalls it, he was very eager to perform well. “No one was drunk or on drugs. We actually played a good set. And there were plenty of people slam dancing and enjoying the music.” What Derek didn’t realize at the time, however, was that they were sharing the bill with one the greatest of all San Francisco punk bands: MDC. “I saw their Marshall stack, but I just thought one of the other bands was borrowing it. I didn’t even know it was them until they took to the stage. If I had known, I would have included their name on the show flyer!” This incident, Derek claims, established a pattern that would continue throughout the time he was with UXB. He remembers being regularly left in the dark until the day of a show, which meant that he often had no idea with whom, or where, they would be performing. But then, sometimes the best things do happen at the last minute!

A case in point was the biggest concert that UXB ever played; a booking that Derek was not aware of until one week before the event. The show was at the LA Olympic Auditorium, in downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1924, this was the location of the 1932 Olympic boxing, weightlifting and wrestling competitions, but by the 1970’s and 1980’s, the venue had switched to hosting regular music performances; including high-profile punk rock shows. The concert that UXB was booked to play was a sort of punk rock Woodstock, featuring Black Flag, 45 Grave, DOA, Descendents, and Hüsker Dü.

The trip to and from LA was one of the absurdly memorable parts of this particular adventure. Derek traveled with his own girlfriend, drummer Scott Williams and his girlfriend, as well as UXB’s roadies – including Ricky Paul of the Pukes and a couple of Ricky’s female friends, dubbed the “Pukettes” by Derek. Peter drove separately in his own truck, which was decorated in an especially eye-catching way. Peter’s uncle was Bob Dornan, a controversial right-wing Republican and member of the US House of Representatives who had earned the nickname “B1 Bob” because of his stanch support of the B-1 bomber program. In ridicule of his own conservative relative, Peter had plastered his truck with Bob Dornan campaign posters, each of which was spray-painted with a large, black swastika! “It was a real sight to see a caravan of punks with crazy colored hair driving down the freeway like that!,” Derek recalls. They must have turned some heads, indeed.

Arriving in Southern California, the band and their friends stayed in Huntington Beach. The night before the big show at the LA Olympic Auditorium UXB practiced their set in their host’s backyard. Derek remembers that there was a good turn out of punks at the evening party, but mid-way through the performance they were interrupted by the “chop-chop-chop” sound of rotor blades. An LAPD helicopter appeared overhead, spotlighting the band and, over a loudspeaker, ordered them to disperse. Derek says that his instinct was to flip the cops off, but when he did so, his hosts warned him that such behavior was especially risky in LA, as the police wouldn’t hesitate to “beat your head in” if you showed them any signs of disrespect or hostility. Luckily, the party ended without anyone going to jail.

The next day UXB arrived at the Olympic Auditorium and set up their equipment. After “a lot of waiting and sitting around,” both Bob and Derek remember that the show went really well, with UXB putting on a great concert. “The entire set flew by and was well received by the So Cal punks,” according to Bob. After a “killer encore,” the members of the band went backstage to drink beer and congratulate one another on a job well done. As they were doing so, Bob recalls that Henry Rollins, the lead singer of Black Flag, came wandering around while making “primal grunting sounds” and “hammering the walls with his fists and his head.” As he continued to grunt and carry on, Bob came to realize that this was Henry’s “pre-show psych-up routine.” The backstage performance reached an amusing conclusion when Henry staggered over to a dirty drinking fountain, and bent over to take a sip. The fountain had been booby-trapped by some prankster, and so when Rollins turned the handle “a high pressure stream of water hit ‘ol Henry in the eye,” provoking laughter from the members of UXB.

After witnessing Henry Rollins’ amusing run-in with the water fountain, Derek recalls breaking away from his band mates, eating nachos and having a really good time mixing and socializing with the audience and members of Black Flag. Black Flag, in fact, ended up borrowing UXB’s amps for their headlining performance, which ended with a rousing rendition of “Louie, Louie.”

Though he would have liked to have spent more time in LA after the show, Derek says that he had to catch his ride back home with Scott Williams and his girlfriend. “Scott’s girlfriend was this kind of natural, hippy girl. She was sitting up front when we hit the freeway, and at one point during the trip she rolled a hash cigarette.” Taking a puff, she became nauseated from the smoke and began retching, and so frantically rolled down the passenger side window in order to be sick. The problem was that the car was moving at 70 miles per hour, and consequently when she vomited, it all came rushing back inside, creating a “hurricane of puke in the car.” Derek remembers thinking that the vomit looked like “pancake mix” as it splattered both himself and his girlfriend, who were sitting in the backseat. “It was all over my face and in my girlfriend’s hair.” This was a messy ending that would have certainly been appreciated by Ricky Puke had he been lucky enough to have been in the car.

In addition to their live performances, UXB also did a fair amount of studio recording. The song Breakout, from 1982’s Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation, was recorded, engineered and produced at the Big Pink studio in Mill Valley. Afterwards, the band rented time at a 16 track studio in San Rafael, recording songs for an album titled In Your Face. The album, however, was never released because, according to Bob, “I ran out of time and money.” Two of the tracks from In Your Face – Die’s Song and Anti-Everything – were supposed to be released as back-to-back singles, but that also fell through. Anti-Everything ultimately appeared on the compilation tape Marin Underground.

 

Two other punk bands from around the same time period also bore the name UXB: one from the UK and the other from New York. The website Last FM warns readers not to confuse the Marin group with these other bands, but then mistakenly attributes an album released by the UK band, titled Crazy Today, to Marin’s UXB.

“All good things must pass,” and so in 1983, UXB broke up. “I always embraced change. If one did not evolve they would soon face extinction. That’s where I thought our music was headed.” Bob recalls that he tried to introduce a synthesizer at one point, hoping to augment the guitars and to add another layer of sound to the music, but some members of the band objected, claiming that it sounded like a “sell-out” and “too new-wavie.” “I said to myself, don’t you have to make money to sell out? This question brought me to the fork in the road.” These sorts of creative differences, along with personality clashes, expenses, work pressure and sheer exhaustion, led to the band’s breakup in 1983. The split was nevertheless amicable, and Peter and Derek went on to start a new band, called Ludoviko Technique.

Sources:

Christman, Bob. Interview with John Marmysz. April 9, 2018.

Christman, Bob. Correspondence with John Marmysz. May 1, 2018.

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

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

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

Johnston, Derek. Interview with John Marmysz. May 11, 2018.

Jupe Jr., Robert. Facebook posting. April 1, 2018.

Last FM. < https://www.last.fm/music/UXB/+wiki > Last accessed 5/16/18.

Resing, Julie. Correspondence with John Marmysz. March 26, 2018.