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New Bay Area punk oral history unearths dead babies, stinky roadies, and strong community networks 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009

Few music books have had the impact of Please Kill Me. Reading the classic 1996 "uncensored oral history of punk" was like breaking into your idols' diaries. It revealed outrageous stories about the genre's earliest progenitors, most of whom either lived in New York or formed alliances with the bands based there. Its gossipy, inspiring, and hilarious anecdotes came without interruption from an omniscient music critic, making the book as real and raw as the music it discussed.

In 2001, We Got the Neutron Bomb used the same format to highlight Los Angeles' punk beginnings. That book also became a cult favorite, unearthing vivid memories from the Southern California scene.

The Bay Area had the first full-fledged punk scene behind New York and London, and yet we've lacked a comprehensive Please Kill Me of our own. Factions of the local community have made it into print — for example, in James Stark's Punk '77, or in 924 Gilman, which focused on the legendary Berkeley collective. But we sorely needed a rock 'n' roll bible gathering our droll stories from generations of iconic and unsung heroes.

Authors and former SF Weekly columnists Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor spent the past three years interviewing more than 300 local musicians and scene dwellers. They've edited those memories into a colorful, spirited oral history of our music scene: the 400-plus-page book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day and the Web site, which hosts a 23-chapter (!) addendum.

This overview never lacks insight, humor, or momentum. The authors start with the early San Francisco players (the Avengers, Crime, the Nuns, the Mabuhay Gardens club and its infamous MC Dirk Dirksen) and follow the growth of the scene over to the East Bay (Gilman, radio show and zine Maximum Rocknroll, and record labels Alternative Tentacles, Fat Wreck Chords, and Lookout!). Each chapter focuses on a different topic, whether it's a band (Flipper, Dead Kennedys, MDC), a random bonding event (one particularly violent Misfits show), grisly stories (the dead baby hidden at Gilman, Fang's frontman murdering his girlfriend), or an important subdemographic (the Jak's Team crew, homocore, skinheads, girl gangs).

These chapters have no introductory explanation — just bold type for the names being quoted, with a who's-who index in the back. The recollections combine into witty behind-the-scenes bios of cultural instigators, arrogant pricks, relevant publications, and long-gone venues that have fostered the past three decades of punk rock. The book's title, from a song by unheralded local heroes Social Unrest, encapsulates punk's yearning ethos; Boulware tells me that the "occasionally pointless" tag affectionately refers a Bay Area tendency to "hurl an immense amount of energy into something that will yield you zero financial return."

The best bits of Gimme Something Better show history repeating with a distinctly local slant. Some punk communities documented here were organized like political actions, with fierce commitments to alternately disrupt the status quo (aka piss people off) and address social ills. The book spotlights how this breed of activism has led to both creative breakthroughs and dogmatic political correctness. The fiercest keepers of the "what is punk" rulebook — Tim Yohannan and his "shitworkers" at both Maximum Rocknroll and Gilman, who shunned bands signed to major labels — are described with frustration and respect.

The book also highlights the importance of punk communities as grassroots social networks. Before there was an Internet, Maximum Rocknroll offered scene reports from around the world — and inspired bands to come to the Bay Area. Steve List (discussed in Gimme's addendum) photocopied listings of all the local underground shows. As Boulware and Tudor explained in a recent phone call, Gilman and Maximum became dominant narrative arcs because they've connected so many disparate factions and have survived the music industry crumbling around them.

Of course, punk rock also wrestled with more banal quests — kids getting drunk, getting high, refusing to shower (the stories by Richard the Roadie are so foul you can smell them through the book). Gimme offers many ridiculous and poignant memories of the harsh realities of addiction, death, and lesser downfalls that arose from so much speed and heroin abuse. The chapters on Flipper and Fang tell of the particular damage the needle has done.

With an oral history of this sort, readers will inevitably come away with a slant they wish had been included more. I would have loved a deeper look at the synth-punk scene and the Mummies/Budget Rock garage world. Perhaps those are woven somewhere into the Web addendum, where the authors hope the content will continue to grow as more vets contribute their tales to the mix.

With Gimme Something Better, the Bay Area finally has its own version of Please Kill Me. Boulware and Tudor approach local punk from so many different angles that their book is an engaging, rapid-fire conversation. There are quarrels never laid to rest and jokes that never get old (mostly of the drunken variety). Here, punk is smart, irreverent, idiotic, playful, earnest, political, selfish, violent, and always reinventing itself — which, of course, stands right in line with the region's fascinating cultural history as a whole.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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