The X album titled “Under the Big Black Sun” was followed in the mid-‘80s by a record called “More Fun in the New World.” So when the band’s singer and guitarist John Doe teamed with author and veteran A&R exec Tom DeSavia a few years ago to write a history of the early L.A. punk scene from 1977-82, and they named it after “Under the Big Black Sun,” you would have thought they would have had a follow-up in mind at the time. Because the latter of those X titles sure sounds like it was intended for a sequel.
But they really had no design at all to write what became the just-released “More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk.” Having covered the rise of the scene, they thought its downfall was too depressing to cover. But the first book’s success demanded a successor, and so they tackled it in the same format as the predecessor, inviting “friends” to pen most of the chapters, bringing in such local or global luminaries as the Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, Maria McKee, Henry Rollins, Peter Case, Mike Ness, Keith Morris and Dave Alvin (as well as Variety’s Chris Morris). Also writing chapters were a quartet of non-musician punk lovers: skateboard king Tony Hawk, actor Tim Robbins, filmmaker Allison Anders and artist Shepard Fairey.
Although Doe and DeSavia might be loathe to admit it, since they had to be nudged into doing the sequel, “More Fun” might be a better book than the first — in fact, it might be one of the great rock ‘n’ roll books. It certainly helps if you were there for or have a next-generation affinity for Los Lobos, the Bangles, Black Flag, Lone Justice, Social Distortion, the Plimsouls, Rank and File or any of the other bands covered in the book. But even a rock lover with minimal awareness of the L.A. scene will find eternal truths in these first-person tales of van hijinks on the road, squabbles with A&R men, run-in with law enforcement, soul-searching over the sophomore effort, struggling with when to call it quits and, inevitably, sex and drugs. And death, too: Doe offers a closing chapter, “Fallen Soldiers,” that will move just about any survivor of any rock scene ever, and still make you feel like tearfully picking up a guitar.
Variety spoke with Doe and DeSavia as they headed out on their book tour last week.
Some of us who were around for these bands and this era feel like we’re having our lives flash before our eyes as we read this.
John Doe: As long as our book didn’t kill you.
This is such a great era to cover that it’s almost surprising that you didn’t try to pack it into the first book. Did you cut the previous one off in 1982 because you thought you’d do a sequel, or did that just seem like a natural ending to that story?
Tom DeSavia: Well, we didn’t think we’d do a second book. John had said, “Well, we’ve got to end it at some point or it’s going to be too big,” so we consciously ended the first book at the end of the first run of L.A. punk, at ‘82, the point when everybody started to get major label deals.
Doe: Right — ‘82 is where the audience has gotten big enough to support a bunch of different genres. It’s after “The Decline of Western Civilization” came out in 1980, after Darby (Crash) died in ‘81. The publisher had an option to do a second book, and when the first one did well, they said, “Okay, go.” But I would actually disagree with you that it was such a wonderful era to write about. We had a few people that (were asked to write chapters) that turned us down, because it was not as inspiring, maybe, as the first five years that we dealt with. For some people it was. But it was not as freeform. I think it was safer. But that’s another conversation.
Well, in saying “a great era to cover,” I meant as someone who actually enjoys hearing stories about record company battles and things like that, which is more the province of this one.
Doe: Oh, God. Well, this is your book, then! It seems to be kind of the same outcome, doesn’t it? Except Los Lobos navigated it pretty well. … The reality is that the years from ‘77 to ‘80 or ‘81 were glorious, and there was all kinds of discovery going on. And after you’ve written 50 songs, then you start having to dig a little deeper, and maybe it’s not quite as inspired, and maybe you’re a little more used to what you have to do to get there. And maybe you’re on the road s lot and don’t have as much community. So for some people, ‘82 to ‘87 was more about grinding it out and trying to sustain a career, and so it wasn’t that great.
Yes, Los Lobos is just about the only band that signed with a major that doesn’t have a “And then we kind of we sold out” moment in the book.
Doe: Yes. Well, to Lenny Waronker’s (the former head of Warner Bros. Records) credit, he had done a bunch of eclectic records, so when Lobos said, “We want to do a traditional record” (1987’s “La Pistola y el Corazon”) after their success with “La Bamba,” he wasn’t completely blindsided by that, and he said, “Okay, how are we going to sell it?” And that’s what they’re supposed to do.
But other Los Lobos, we get some stories where compromise enters the picture, or threatens to. The Blasters are ordered to take on John Mellencamp as their producer, Lone Justice gets mixed up with Jimmy Iovine (the band’s “hillbilly side … drove him nuts,” writes Maria McKee), and X takes its first misstep by using Michael Wagner as a producer for a mainstream hard rock sound on “Ain’t Love Grand.” Record nerds who remember that era are still curious, like, what were they thinking when those things were happening?
Doe: Not really thinking. Everybody had somewhat of the same result, through different paths and for different reasons. Maria didn’t really know any better, because she didn’t have the experience and didn’t have someone to guide her. And the Blasters, maybe it’s somewhat the same, because they were listening too much to the record company. But with X, we brought it on ourselves. We said, “Yeah, let’s go with this guy.”
But these moments of compromise are asides. It’s far from a downer book.
Doe: The saving grace to me of the book is the legacy part of it, that it’s looking forward. It was actually my partner Krissy (Teegerstrom)’s idea. I talked with her about what the book was going to be: It was all about community disappearing as people are going on tour, being lied to by major record companies, getting on drugs and dying … all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and maybe no point. And she said, “That sounds horrible!” And then we started talking about it and realized that there was this concept of throwing seeds, or just moving the needle so that somebody else could take over, whether it was Green Day or Neko Case or Wilco. I’m sure that No Doubt listened to Fishbone. And people taking it to a different level with a different art form.
DeSavia: The story we thought we were telling was based on these splintered off scenes — the cowpunk, the Paisley Underground — and diving into the disastrousness that came with major labels and the industry getting involved. And essentially the real story was: “And then Guns N’ Roses won,” and that was the end of the story. But there was a legacy, and when Krissy said, “I think that’s your story,” it was like a lightning bolt. Punk didn’t die; it continued to exist in film, it existed in art, it existed everywhere else. We thought we’d talk about those people who copped those scenes, too.
Doe: Certainly Tim Robbins and Allison Andrews have continued to keep that ethos in their work. And Tony Hawk turned a whole different subculture onto this kind of music. Shepard Fairey really encapsulated that I his chapter, because he said, “My life was bad, and I was not inspired. And I heard punk rock and I saw some street art and I thought, ‘This is the same thing. I think I’ll do that, and get the eff out of South Carolina.’” The world is a better place because Shepard Fairey has murals everywhere. He may be the most influential artist of our day, or one of them. Shepherd took no convincing, and as soon as he turned in his chapter, we thought, “This is going to be a great book.”
The book does a good job of getting across the idea that there was a turn, seen in the cowpunk scene, that predated Americana, when everybody decided it was okay to listen to old records and take in those influences.
DeSavia: I’m a native of the Valley, and my pop used to listen to KLAC, so we had a few of those records in the house that I loved, old Waylon and George Jones records, and I literally kept those records in the closet hidden from my friends. And then when Rank and File and Lone Justice and the Knitters made it okay to like that music, then those records literally came out of the closet. Country music at that point was relegated to “Hee Haw”; it was comedy, almost, in the way that it was thought about, in teen music circles. And then it became something you would put on at a party. … Plus, I loved punk rock, but I hated going to punk rock shows (as a teen). I was 125-135 pounds; I was a rag doll in mosh pits, especially at hardcore shows. I wasn’t running toward trouble, I was running away from it. But if you’d go to the Palomino, it was okay.
Who didn’t want to write a chapter for you guys? You don’t have to name names, but were there people for whom the era was just painful or uncomfortable?
Doe: Yeah, and I won’t name names — you’re right. Because the five years before it was pretty naïve, in its own way. Hollywood Boulevard didn’t scare us. There was the Hillside Strangler, so we thought, “Yeaahhh, let’s be careful. Let’s make sure that girls get to their cars.” You know, we were tough guys. But after that burst of creativity and openness and everyone exchanging ideas, it was … less.
DeSavia: I don’t know that if someone said to me, “Hey, go write about your five years after high school,” that I’d want to write about those awkward years as a human being when you’re finding yourself. But someone like Maria was very forthcoming in her chapter about what it was like, and those years were not great. It was an amazingly brave story she had to tell. Because for me as a kid who was just going to these shows and was in love with Maria McKee, I wasn’t aware what it was like for a female who was just one or two years older than me and what she was going through in the business. And I’ve known Charlotte (Caffey) for about 30 years, and she has been fairly public about being in recovery, so when john and I were plotting out who was going to write what, we said she should write about that. So we gave her that as a directive and said we’d love you to write about recovery. But when that chapter came in, it just knocked me on my ass, the brutal honesty. This is a person from a family of 14, a good Catholic family, who became a junkie, and it just hit me that that could have been any of us. And to become a junkie and not be identified with the punk scene anymore, so there’s not even that excuse you could give to the press, because you’ve been identified as one of the girls next door, and to go through addiction and recovery while not being encouraged to talk about it at all, was something that blew my mind when I read it.
Doe: With Maria and Charlotte and really for all of us, there were moments there was some real openness and vulnerability and courage to write about being foolish and write about getting taken. Having to write all the stuff I did about Exene and me — our relationship, and what I expected — it wasn’t easy. But it was necessary. So other people just said, “Eh, I’ve got a picture in there. That’s fine.” Or they said they would and then they looked at a blank piece of paper and thought, “Oh shit, I can’t.” And then we would say, “Well what if you just talked it out?” To be honest, that’s why I had a conversation with Henry (Rollins) and I had a conversation with Angelo (Moore) and Norwood (Fisher, both of Fishbone — they didn’t really want to, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to have their voices in it. And an added value to the audiobook is that, because we didn’t want to sit there and just read the book’s Q&A to each other, I had a different conversation with Henry and a different conversation with Norwood and Angelo in the studio.
DeSavia: But almost everyone we asked came forward, and at one point writing this book, we were like, “Holy s–t. We have like 23 writers already.” So we had to cut it off. There’s not very much Paisley Underground. We didn’t get (to) Dream Syndicate, Three O’Clock and Green on Red. There were big people we didn’t ask just because we knew we’d already run out of room.
For all the angst, there’s a lot of fun in this. Pleasant Gehman’s chapter (about Disgraceland, the legendary Hollywood apartment/flophouse where Belinda Carlisle and countless others lived) — that’s pretty rollicking. That’s just waiting to be put on the big screen as some kind of punk-rock ensemble sex farce.
DeSavia: Pleasant should write in every book written about everything, no matter the subject, and she’ll have better tales than most people. Jane (Wiedlin)’s was fantastic, in that way, too.
Do you ever think about the volume of great bands that were coming through the L.A. scene in those years and wish that we had even one that good coming to our attention today?
DeSavia: There was an article a few months ago in the New Yorker about the new East L.A. scene and the new sort of Hispanic punk rock scene that’s going on, and I read it at first almost aghast and clutched my pearls and went “Well, I don’t know any of these bands.” And then I went to listen, and they’re really good, and I’m like, “Wait, I’m not supposed to know about any of these bands. That’s the whole point.” It’s not supposed to be for grownups. It’s supposed to be these kids’ scenes. And I think talent doesn’t leave the gene pool, and neither does this kind of music. I think there’s a whole generation of musicians that are in punk rock again, and we’re going to find out about it just in time to f–k it up again in five years.
Doe: I agree. And I do think that we’ve aged out of that discovery. That’s for somebody else to do. But I know that Girls’ Rock Camp has now got adults that have been to camp and now they’re 20 and playing, touring, making records and all that. So that’s the good news.
DeSavia: I’m a record store geek. I buy vinyl, and every time I go to a record store now, on a lunch break and I’m there at 1 o’clock, there’s a bunch of kids that are obviously ditching school and smoking cigarettes, and I’m like, “All right. Same thing. It’s cool.” You know, it’s all happening again.
Doe: People still like to be bad.
DeSavia: Also, I see this book has already got people talking about Top Jimmy and there’s a lot of discovery of Jeffrey going on. There’s a lot of like bands like Blood on the Saddle that you can’t find on Spotify, though.
Doe: And Tex and the Horseheads…
DeSavia: So, hopefully you will in a few months. When our publisher asked us to put together a playlist, there was a lot of stuff that just wasn’t on the DSPs. Hopefully someone will figure out how to fix that. Fingers crossed.
The Grammy Museum and Largo both presented panel discussions with Doe and DeSavia last week — the former with Keith Morris and Allison Anders as guests, the latter with Tony Hawk, Charlotte Coffey. Hosting the second of these Q&As was someone who was a little too young to have experienced the scene firsthand but has become an X superfan, comedian-writer Dana Gould. Having just read the new book, Gould said, “It’s madness, but beautiful. It sounds like Disneyland for alcoholics.”
Doe was asked about the eternal perceived rivalry between the major punk centers, and how L.A. never gets its due — something he made it clear he’s not stewing over, but recognizes nonetheless. “One of the reasons I think L.A. didn’t get as much attention is by the time we were really happening in ‘81, ‘82, when this most recent book is starting, they had seen a bunch of images from New York and seen a bunch of images from London and they thought, ‘Yeah, we sort of covered that.’ Now it’s rewarding to have these two books out — and audiobooks where everyone is reading their own chapters — where it’s actually documented and people can say, ‘Oh, now that we’ve worn out the New York and London scene, we need some fresh meat, so we can (finally) cover L.A.”
As for the original punk scene in general, Doe said, “The common misconception of our work in the rewriting of history is that we wanted just to f–k up stuff. It’s like, no. The Ramones wanted to be the Beatles, and the Clash wanted to be the Rolling Stones.” (Left unspoken was what X wanted to be, though a combination of Dylan and the Doors seems as good an unspoken aspiration as any.)
Coffey addressed the eternal public fascination with the Go-Go’s, and admitted that Wiedlin’s story in the book about the entire band taking opium after a show in a particularly awkward orifice is true — although she thinks she might have already been too messed up on other substances to have participated with them. “The energy between all the girls — we were hysterical together,” Coffey said of the occasionally still reuniting and active group. “That energy could go really bad and it could be so hateful and horrible, and then it could go really good and we’d write really good songs. It was this moving thing. Still, to this day, when we get together, there’s just energy, and I really kind of thrive on it. … As I get older and get a little bit more mature, I love them all. I didn’t like some of the stuff that they did, but I love those girls.”
As for all the stories that Gehman tells in her chapter about longtime roomie Carlisle — including some amusing stories about boyfriends that didn’t realize they were being swapping — the writer said she did text the Go-Go’s singer to ask if she minded the stories being included in the book, and got the answer back: “I’m 60 — I don’t give a f—k!”
The conversation turned to the unwilling passing of the torch in the ‘80s from more poetically inclined bands like X to the hardcore scene. Doe waxed philosophical about that transition, but Gehman lamented, “They were so stupid. That’s sad. You couldn’t have a conversation with ’em.”
Said Doe, “We were just sad that an era had kind of passed, after 1977 to 1980. [He affects a self-mocking, cry-baby voice.] ‘Oh, you’re coming in and you’re messing up our scene. I’m not safe with my blazer on anymore.’ That’s what’s great about Jack Grisham in these books. He’s like, ‘You started this s–t, and we finished it. What is your problem? F–k you! We play faster and we’re more athletic.’”
In the Grammy Museum green room, Anders— whose first film, 1987’s “Border Radio,” had Doe and Chris D. as stars — told Variety why she was gratified to contribute a chapter to the new book. “That spirit continued on for us for a while as independent filmmakers — although that’s completely non-existent now,” she said. “I mean, there are independent filmmakers, but the way that they imagine themselves to be independent is a far cry from how independent we were. I mean, I feel bad for them. But it was a really good run for independent filmmakers, from about the mid-‘80s to the end of the ‘90s. And every filmmaker that I came up with was influenced by this culture, whether they realized it or not. There’s no way we would have been making those movies if that DIY scene hadn’t happened, because we were just as shut out from making films as they were from making records.”
So indie film had its own punk-style rise and fall? “Yes,” Anders laughed, alluding to the book’s title, “we have our own unmaking.”