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:
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!
“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”
–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.
- Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.
- Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.
- Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.
- Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.
- Plato, 31.
- Hebdige, p. 63.
- Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.
- Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.
- Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.
- Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.
- Griel Marcus, p. 118.
- Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.
- Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.
- Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.
- Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).
- Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.
- 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).
- “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).
- Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.
- Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.
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 Me, Open 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.
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
(Note: This is part of a larger project chronicling the history of punk rock in Marin County, California during the 1980’s.)
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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>
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.