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The Decline of Western Civilization

WE GOT THE NEUTRON BOMB: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, By Marc Spitz with Brendan Mullen, Three Rivers Press: 296 pp., $13 paper DANCE OF DAYS: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, By Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, Soft Skull Press: 420 pp., $20 paper

January 20, 2002|CRISPIN SARTWELL

WE GOT THE NEUTRON BOMB: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, By Marc Spitz with Brendan Mullen, Three Rivers Press: 296 pp., $13 paper

DANCE OF DAYS: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, By Mark Andersen

At the art school where I teach, the kids still wear purple mohawks. They practice extreme piercing and happily regard themselves as anarchists. They are, in brief, punks. Punk--the music, the fashion, the philosophy, the attitude--is surprisingly central to our era. Which is good, because punk--the music, the fashion, the philosophy, the attitude--rocks.

The counterculture of the '60s, with its music and its subversive hair, has been analyzed to death. For my students, the '60s might as well be the late Pleistocene. But Black Flag is on their T-shirts. It's not just a logo; it's a living culture. As for my own sub-generation (I was 18 in 1976, when the first Ramones album came out), the Clash was our Bob Dylan.

So it's time to write punk history, and folks are. In fact, punks are writing their own history. "We Got the Neutron Bomb" and "Dance of Days" are ideal anthropologies: They help us understand a subculture as its participants understand themselves. Each book is written by a central participant in the scene with the aid of a professional writer who was there, and each is fundamentally a collage of quotes rather than a linear narrative.

In the mid-'70s, as rock mutated into art under the aegis of bands like Yes, a back-to-basics movement swept New York and London and produced the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Everyone noticed the attitude, encapsulated by the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten spitting at audiences. But the music itself was back to basics.

By 1979, New York and London punk was losing momentum and a more uncompromising and problematic style developed, known as "hardcore." Centered in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., hardcore was the most direct possible embodiment of rage and alienation, inciting fans to violence at shows. Some groups flirted with fascist and racist rhetoric. Songs were howled or bellowed over rhythm sections that roared like chain saws.

In "We Got the Neutron Bomb," Marc Spitz traces the L.A. scene into the hardcore era: It is framed entirely as a dialogue among L.A. punks, though the dialogues are assembled quotations and not actual conversations. This method initially irritates but ultimately beguiles: It crystallizes the collective voice of a diverse subculture. Brendan Mullen founded and ran the Masque in the trashed Hollywood Center Building--first a rehearsal space, then a quasi-legal club and always the center of the punk universe--and his knowledge underpins the perfect pitch of the quotations, turning them into a definitive history.

The story starts with glam rock: David Bowie and Iggy Pop and misfits such as Kim Fowley, who worshiped the glam icons in the early '70s. It proceeds through the formation of bands such as Fowley's Runaways (which gave us the great Joan Jett) and then into the ascension of L.A. punk in bands as diverse as X, the Motels and the Go-Go's.

One iconic moment is the advent of the Germs in 1979, arguably the first hardcore band (though the D.C. band Bad Brains was emerging around the same time). Led by the self-consciously insane and sexually ambiguous Darby Crash, they rejected musical proficiency and perhaps even music and tried to perform a spectacle of rage and ecstasy, including self-mutilation and the destruction of the clubs in which they played.

"We Got the Neutron Bomb" leaves us as the scene shifts from Hollywood and a fairly small and tightknit community of musicians to what one participant calls "Clockwork Orange County": suburban zones such as Huntington Beach and nearby Long Beach, where truly screwed-up kids invented the slam dance and stage-diving. Soon the great L.A. hard-core bands such as Black Flag, Agent Orange and Circle Jerks were making focused and extreme music.

One thing you've got to give L.A. punks, they had the best names ever: Hellin Killer, Cliff Hanger, Lee Ving (of the great faux-fascist band Fear), Tomata du Plenty, Phil S. Teen, Billy Club.

Everyone seemed to be high all the time. Drugs, alcohol and rampant sex unified the kids but in the end destroyed the unity and the music. In a fairly typical moment in "We Got the Neutron Bomb," Slash Record chief Bob Biggs reports that Darby Crash would shoot up gutter water when he couldn't get heroin. Crash committed suicide by drug overdose before he even really found his voice. Like the drugs, AIDS exacted an awful toll, and by the mid-'80s there was very little left at all.

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