Monday, June 6, 2016

Book review: John Doe's punk history

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk 
John Doe, with Tom DeSavia and Friends
(Da Capo Press; hardcover; 277 pages) 

In 1977, John Doe co-founded the seminal Los Angeles punk rock band X. The bassist/singer’s new book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk is more anthology that your average autobiography. It chronicles the early years of the frequently bleak and gritty scene through various contributors who were front and center.

A brisk read, the 24 unflinchingly real chapters were penned by Doe and co-writer Tom DeSavia, along with Doe’s female partner in musical crime Exene Cervenka, Dave Alvin (The Blasters), Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey (The Go-Go’s), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Mike Watt (The Minutemen), Jack Grisham (TSOL), plus SoCal music scribes Chris Morris and Kristine McKenna and others. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong does the brief foreward.

There are reproductions of classic L.A. punk club flyers and 50 rare black and white photos. Both provide a good glimpse at what that period was like (cramped stages, mosh pits, parties, gigs getting shut down by the cops).

Doe starts his first chapter off by describing the anticipation of X’s first sold out 1978 show at the Whisky a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. Cervenka writes about the bleak state of music two years prior: “I thought punk was gonna end the corporate takeover of America’s rock ‘n’ roll, our real music, and we would never have to give in to the dumbing down, mass minded crap of the now ruined radio.”

Among the longest and most interesting sections was handled by Wiedlin. She recalls how punk rockers’ formative musical tastes were inspired by the early Seventies glam rock of David Bowie and T-Rex, then vividly describes the chaos at the Canterbury apartments, a “dormitory with heroin, rape and plenty loud punk rock music” where many movers and shakers lived.

Caffey goes into great detail about how the Go-Go’s formed after her first group The Eyes (with X drummer DJ Bonebreak) ran its course and their songwriting process. She uses some lyrics as reference points (key example: the L.A.-centric “This Town”). One error comes when Caffey describes Wiedlin writing “Our Lips Are Sealed” with onetime boyfriend Terry Hall of Madness (he was actually singer for The Specials; The Go-Go’s first toured the U.K. with Madness).

Alvin’s chapter is equally fascinating. He explains how the Blasters’ rockabilly/blues/rock hybrid sound managed to fit in with the punk crowd: “We happily and proudly bashed our tunes fast enough and loud enough to compete sonically with most of the cutting edge groups on the L.A. scene.”

While the book would have benefitted from added input by Doe and Exene about X, there’s still enough here to keep old school punk aficionados interested.

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