BOOK REVIEW | "UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN: A PERSONAL HISTOY OF L.A. PUNK" BY JOHN DOE WITH TOM DESAVIA AND FRIENDS
photo & text by nacrowe
this book covers what i would consider an often overlooked history in the story of PUNK ROCK and HARDCORE, which is that of the first wave of L.A. PUNK ROCK which lasted roughly from 1977-1982. much as what distinguishes this scene in terms of the diversity of its participants (varying race, sexual orientation, geography, class, political affiliation) and their sound (rockabilly, traditional chicano, avant-garde, mixed-media, performance art), this book reflects such with its multiple authors as curated by X's JOHN DOE and co-author TOM DESAVIA. these writers include members of THE BRAT, THE GO-GO's, THE ZEROS, T.S.O.L., THE FLESH EATERS, THE MINUTEMEN, THE BLASTERS, BLACK FLAG, THE SCREAMING SIRENS and X. incorporating this many voices with their own chapters gives the book a unique depth from other books on the topic. you really get a feel for how the scene was initiated, evolved and ultimately fractured through the viewpoints of participants with varying perspectives on the topic. this was a deft structural decision by DOE and DESAVIA as it places the community as the author, which it seems was the ethos of the scene.
much of what has been written on L.A. PUNK is more or less associated with the HARDCORE scene of the 80s with such notorious bands as BLACK FLAG, CIRCLE JERKS, THE ADOLESCENTS, T.S.O.L. and THE MIDDLE CLASS, and deservedly so as such have had immeasurable effect on modern PUNK-influenced music, active sports (bmx, skateboarding, motocross, surfing, etc) and associated lifestyle industries. it could be argued modern youth culture is defined by this scene. what doesn't get as much appreciation is the fact that this scene evolved (or devolved) out of the first wave which was decidedly less violent and more inclusive.
in essence the first wave was an art movement informed by the previous GLAM ROCK fanbases of bands like T.REX and DAVID BOWIE morphing into the early PUNK crowds that first encountered 1977 PUNK bands like THE DAMNED, THE RAMONES, THE CLASH and THE SEX PISTOLS. its arguable that the ethos of the first wave was informed by GLAM ROCK and early PUNK. even hispanic participants from EAST L.A. took these influences as the impetus for picking up an instrument, not the inherited musical traditions of their parents.
the real inflection point of this novel is the transition that happened in the early 80s to HARDCORE, which was decidedly more violent, less inclusive and less experimental in its approach. this variant was all about aggression and spoke to an audience beyond the borders of the original scene. reading about how that played out and how both sides felt about it is beyond interesting as it constitutes a debate on the nature of PUNK ROCK and what that ever-mercurial tag actually means.
on one side you have a scene that prizes individuality and personal expression as a means of combating societal norms, whereas the other is not concerned with such subtleties and has more interest in burning the fucker down as a means nihilistic rage rooted in the subversion of the failed AMERICAN DREAM as exemplified by the vacuous SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA lifestyle. its all a matter of perspective and of course, there is no correct interpretation.
this confusion is what i expect DOE was interested in when writing and compiling this book and i highly recommend it for anyone interested in PUNK or HARDCORE.
last christmas was the perfect time to take stock and celebrate the omnipresent hellscape that is the current TRUMPOCALPYSE we are all living through by playing nothing but 1980s HARDCORE.
at the time i was revisiting the subject by reading two books on the subject: Lexicon Devil (2002, Feral House) by Brendan Muller and American Hardcore: A Tribal History (2001, Feral House) by Stephen Blush. both are oral histories of the scene. the second publication was the impetus for an excellent 2006 documentary on the subject also titled American Hardcore (Sony Pictures). while we are on the subject, i would also recommend the 2014 documentary Salad Days (New Rose Films) on the 1980s D.C. punk scene as well as the SOCIAL DISTORTION documentary Another State of Mind (Time Bomb, 1984) and, of course, PENELOPE SPHEERIS' classic The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris Films, 1981). and now i'm just gonna push my luck by also recommending two books by JOHN DOE of X, Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press, 2016) and the recently published sequel More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press, 2019).
the immediacy of the music is the draw for me. there is a no-bullshit, take-it-or-leave-it aesthetic to 80s hardcore. it is what it is. if you want musicianship, go listen to RUSH or your parent's stuff. if you want a soundtrack to brutality, you are in the right place. politically i don't understand how this music or something in the spirit of it doesn't exist today. as bad as RONALD REAGAN was, he's nothing compared to our current RAPIST-IN-CHIEF.