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Under the Big Black Sun

Under the Big Black Sun

Under the Big Black Sun

Sometimes I feel like my life is a research project that I started in my ‘tweens.  It was at that time that I remember really paying attention to what was happening around me and in the summer of my sixth grade year a boy who was interested in my oldest sister started hanging around our house.  He came over on a skateboard and he carried a big maroon boom box that had stickers all over it for bands like The Dickies and Black Flag.  I was still trying to come up with dance routines for George Michael songs and jump roping in the driveway but as all things ‘older sister’ were inevitably more interesting I soon trailed along to see what this new boy was up to.  What I heard were my first sounds of punk rock and two years later coming out of eighth grade I was almost fully morphed into what I had imagined myself after some solid investigation into Sid Vicious, Henry Rollins, and Joe Strummer.  My life since in some aspects is a study in understanding this movement in music that happened during the years of 1975-1981 – of which I totally missed because I was born in 1975 but the scene had reverberated and morphed into what had become ‘indie’, ‘college-rock’, ‘new-wave’ and eventually what my generation knows as ‘grunge’.  I watched as Nirvana did their MTV unplugged set with Pat Smear, not knowing who he was entirely but understanding that even by 1992 he was some sort of punk legend.  At the core of all of the alternative music I knew, though, was a punk rock ethos that espoused a youth culture that was free to look how they wanted, say what they felt, and change the world. Nothing could have seemed more attractive to me.  The research continues as I look for snippets of the real thing, and John Doe’s newest book, Under the Big Black Sun is a peak into the California scene that gave birth to seminal punk bands such as The Germs, X, The Plugz, and The Screamers.

John Doe of X leads the series of essays written by folks involved in the L.A. punk scene by decidedly stating “This was a place where you knew that something was definitely happening, that you were definitely headed somewhere”. Unapologetically the essays describe a scene involving kids that had escaped suburban lives and headed to the dirty city where they found cheap housing among the criminals and everyone played in bands.  Places like The Masque hosted the burgeoning scene by not only providing club space for shows but also rehearsal space for bands.  Early zine’s like Slash came out and provided a record label for bands to put out 7″ singles.  This allowed the music to travel as far east as Washington D.C. (also having its own punk scene).

There is a uniqueness to the California scene influenced by Hollywood and old cars, they hosted several Chicano punk bands as well.  One of my favorites, El-Vez, started in a band called The Zero’s and played alongside The Germs and The Weirdo’s in clubs like the Orpheum, “How much could we get away with before someone told us to stop” he writes remembering Darby Crash of The Germs cutting himself on stage or covering himself in peanut butter.  “Those early years were pretty inspiring. I felt part of a movement, or something at least.  Part of a music scene. It was a great feeling after years of misfitdom” El Vez writes, and I think that’s a good summary of the impetus behind the movement- kids who don’t fit in making a life of their own.

By the time MTV showed up in about 1981 the scene in California had run its course.  Drugs took a fair amount of talent, some sold out for the money (The Go-Go’s) and others like Pat Smear showed up on my television with Kurt Cobain in the 90’s (now he plays with Dave Grohl).  John Doe and his ilk are giving to us a bit of history, a scrapbook into a time that is revered among some.  My only regret is that Billy Joe Armstrong does the introduction, a lot of us thought Green Day was the real death of punk rock as we watched kids buy their clothes at new stores like Hot Topic.  But I digress- Under the Big Black Sun is a great read, a look into the rawness of a scene before it goes huge and an honest reflection of those who survived.

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