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Arts and Entertainment

A Bevy Of New Books Chronicle L.A.'s Vital Yet Underappreciated Punk Scene

X, who alongside the Germs and Black Flag are one of the most enduring bands to emerge from L.A.'s '80s punk scene. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, from the Herald-Examiner Collection via the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
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While New York and London have been given their due when it comes to impact on punk rock music and culture, Los Angeles has had a way to go. Yes, Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of the Western Civilization gave the L.A. scene a deserving spotlight, showing not only the visceral power and creative talents that developed here, but their influence on the genre as a whole. But when it comes to memoirs and tomes, it's New York and the U.K. who've managed to get all the credit. The result? More people know about CBGB and bands like the Ramones and Sex Pistols than the short-lived nightclub The Masque, and bands like The Ramones and Sex Pistols sell more T-shirts to this day than bands such as X or The Germs.

But that may start to change very soon. This year has seen a blitz of books about the early L.A. punk scene, from oral histories to archival coffee table-style volumes to biographies. So why now, all of a sudden, does there seem to be renewed interest in the wild sounds that came out of Los Angeles and Southern California in the late '70s and early '80s?

Former Black Flag and Circle Jerks lead singer Keith Morris. His autobiography, 'My Damage', comes out on August 30. (Photo by Geoff Moore)
"You have to take into consideration that what happened at the Masque, Whisky a Go Go, Starwood, Baces Hall, Club 88, Elk's Lodge and a few other places was a once in a lifetime deal," says former Black Flag/Circle Jerks and current OFF! lead singer Keith Morris, who's about to release his own autobiography, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, end of this month. "We had a roster of bands that was easily up there with what was going on in London and NYC," Morris told LAist. "People are into these L.A. punk scene books because they were either there and want to remember all of the amazing things that were going on and refresh their memories, or were too young to have participated or witnessed the goings on."At the recent signing for John Doe's engrossing memoir, Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, at Book Soup, the reading featured not only Doe, but contributors such as punk author/zine queen Pleasant Gehman, The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin, the Flesh Eaters' Chris D., and co-author Tom DeSavia giving a reading. Photographer Gary Leonard, whose shots are featured prominently in the book, was shuttering around them just like he did in the old days. The crowd was super fan-heavy and mostly in their 40s and 50s—people who were there during the feral music's infancy or remember when it caught fire. The book perfectly captures the tempestuous decadence of the time in personal words and pictures.

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"What am I doing here today?" Leonard, camera in hand, mused to us outside the Book Soup event on the Sunset Strip. "Well I'm continuing to tell the story that I was telling 30 years ago. This era of music is being studied academically now. I've gone to classrooms at UCLA to speak about this, and so has Pleasant and Keith, and for me it's gratifying because documenting it as history has been my purpose all along."

At the art exhibit for another new book, Slash: A Punk Magazine from Los Angeles (1977-1980) the same weekend, the scene was similarly nostalgic, with luminaries featured in the scrapbook-like digest milling about and reminiscing, including Morris and The Bags' Alice Bag. Donning shocking pink hair, Bag (real name Alicia Velasquez) posed with the infamously ferocious Slash cover, one of the most eye-catching displayed at the event.

Alice Bag poses in front of the issue of Slash magazine featuring herself. (Photo by Lina Lecaro/LAist)
The Slash book, put together by Brian Roettinger and J.D. Gabel, is visually provocative in a graphic design-driven way that will surely attract younger fans looking to learn about L.A.'s early underground music revolution and its imagery, as well as older ones wanting to recall it. The zine's art and the diverse crowd who came to view it reflected not only the power of the aesthetic that was created right here in Los Angeles, but L.A. punk's current accessibility for multiple generations and fans of hardcore music around the world. The success of Bag's new music, and current tours by X and The Go-Gos, not to mention Morris' current band OFF!, are proof that Los Angeles' seminal music rebels not only left their mark, but continue to make new ones. And maybe we need them more than we ever did right about now.

"We are in horrible times and music's certainly a release from this whether it be aggressive or passive sounds," says Morris. "I've been a part of a very volatile form of music and there still seems to be a lot of negative energy that needs to be released somewhere... so why not jump around and blow off steam with a bunch of other like minded characters?"

Why not? Well for some L.A. punk fans, blowing off steam in the pit is a thing of their past best left to a new crop of young miscreants and rebels. Still, for many fans of this vociferous music, no matter age, reading about it and re-living the days when it all began, is the next best thing.

Keith Morris presentsMy Damage with Jim Ruland on Friday, August 26, at Skylight Books in Los Feliz at 7:30 p.m. 1818 N. Vermont Ave.

John Doe and Chris D. will be doing a reading and signing (along with a John Doe acoustic set) forUnder The Big Black Sun at Stories Books and Cafe tonight in Echo Park. 1716 W. Sunset Blvd.

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