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Punk's Past Meets Its Present

At Saturday's Inland Invasion, elder statesmen and newer acts tried to stay true to their anti-establishment roots amid an event with corporate trappings


"Has anyone got a safety pin?"

It seemed for a moment that John Lydon, back to his rotten ways on stage with the Sex Pistols, was performing a credibility check on the 52,000 fans packed into Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion for a massive punk-rock festival Saturday.

It turned out, though, that, well, his nice new shirt just wouldn't button properly. "Important part of my punk apparel," Lydon sneered as he accepted a pin from the pit.

Crises of punk fashion were everywhere Saturday in a strange, epic and memorable day of music. The Inland Invasion stitched together a bill of punk stars old and new, and more daringly, tried to make the genre's anti-establishment ethos fit into an event sponsored by Levi's at a venue with $20 parking spaces and ivory stretch limos idling out front.

The musical success of the all-day show was assured, though, with searing sets by the Pistols and their fellow U.K. punk elder statesmen (think about that concept) the Buzzcocks and the Damned.

The Southern California punk strain, though, dominated the bill, with longtime stalwarts X, Bad Religion and Social Distortion up through the more pop-leaning acts of today, such as the Offspring, Blink-182 and Unwritten Law. "This," said John Doe of X, "is the desert bloom of punk rock."

The feast brought fans from across the country and beyond, but backstage, some of the artists conceded that the trappings of the event gave them pause.

"It's either going to be spectacular," said the Vandals' Warren Fitzgerald, "or the biggest disaster ever and the end of punk."

Mike Ness of Social Distortion viewed the day as a precarious step in punk's ongoing ethical tightrope walk. "It's something I've had to struggle with for years, the conflict in my mind.... Are we being turned into the same kind of marketing tool and the things we rebelled against? Or is it just that, 25 years in, punk has caught on enough that it can change things and maybe open more minds?"

In matters of punk credibility, not all minds were open Saturday. The pairing of veteran and newer acts created some chasms on a day when numbing heat and desert winds in the San Bernardino area, plus the densely packed crowd, had already tested fans' patience.

The young Florida band New Found Glory, for instance, had the misfortune of taking the stage between X and the Buzzcocks. The group's feckless, ragged set got some of the youngsters dancing on the back lawn, but the older punk fans who were close to the stage let loose with abuse that was both relentless and creatively lewd.

The band, visibly shaken, chided the audience members who "weren't very nice"--a response that, on analysis, is not very punk.

What exactly is punk in 2002? The acts Saturday often shared common ingredients in their sonic recipe, and each had the requisite rebellion in its set. But the nature of their targets was revealing. Bad Religion rebels against corrupt government, hatemongers and false piety. Blink-182 rebels against gym teachers. The effect of their playing back-to-back was jolting, the difference between a prank call and a ransom demand.

But Captain Sensible of the Damned says it's the act of questioning, not necessarily the questions, that defines punk sensibility. "It's about not compromising, not playing the game."

Walking through the stands to check out the set by the Buzzcocks, the Captain (his given name is Ray Burns) was stopped every few paces by fans seeking a handshake, hug or autograph.

He recalled gigs his band did in 1977 with the Buzzcocks when the other band arrived with guitars that were down to four strings and carried in grocery bags.

"I never thought in those days that something like this could happen," he said, scanning the massive crowd. "Playing here in these bloody mountains, in America, which I thought had completely given up on this kind of music in the 1980s and 1990s and gone to soul-destroying, long-hair metal music. It's amazing and wonderful.

"And today, seeing a lot of familiar old faces, well, it's good to see them playing and, you know, still alive."

Punk remains a volatile world. On Saturday, there were several stabbings and brawls near the second stage, where a large mosh pit kicked up a two-story dust devil that left onlookers caked in brown. Random bonfires added to the heat and hazard. No life-threatening injuries were reported and the preliminary tally of six dozen arrests was not unusual for an event of such size.

In all, 11 acts played the main stage while six others hammered out songs on the far more raucous secondary stage.

The sophomoric lunacy of the Vandals inspired delirious howls from the fans, especially when guitarist Fitzgerald took a turn on vocals, wore his yellow gym shorts in a style that might be described as a thong diaper and began exhorting the crowd.

"If you're punk and you love it, scream 'Yeah!' " When the expected response came back, Fitzgerald, perched on a tall amplifier, shook his head in mock disdain. "That's so not punk! You're supposed to yell 'No!' "

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