WE STILL GOT POWER!
1980s L.A. punkzine revived in new book
by Michael Layne Heath
David Markey is all kinds of Punk Rock on a West Coast OG level. His career as an independent filmmaker is a classic implementing of one of the basic tenets of Punk: transcending one’s creative or financial limitations, to produce something of worth and messy brilliance.
As a teenager coming up in Santa Monica during the early 1980s, armed with a Super-8 Brownie camera, Markey was inspired by everything from John Waters flicks to all manner of pop culture detritus. Thus, Markey created on the cheap such proudly trashy and compelling cult epics as 1982’s The Slog Movie, and the now-classic pair of films about ‘three hot chicks who’ll do anything to get a record deal’, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Lovedolls Superstar.
Markey is probably best known among Indie Rock fans for his documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, chronicling a European tour with Sonic Youth and an up and coming Seattle act called Nirvana. Since then, besides directing videos for the Muffs, Mudhoney, Black Flag, Shonen Knife and At the Drive-In among others, Markey has delved into deeper documentary territory with films like 2008’s The Reinactors, and this year’s splendid history of L.A. Punk mainstays the Circle Jerks, My Career As A Jerk.
Several lifetimes previous, however, when not making films, Markey was an active participant in what he terms “the trenches” of Southern California’s white-hot Hardcore Punk scene. Making use of his writing and graphic arts skills, and assisted by various pals including Jordan Schwartz, Schwartz’s sister Jennifer, and surfer-blonde Led Zeppelin fanatic Kim Pilkington (the latter two members of Lovedolls Superstar), Markey published five issues of the fanzine We Got Power! between 1981 and 1983.
We Got Power! was second only to that other L.A.-based zine Flipside, in conveying the humor and enthusiasm found in the fractious happenings of early ‘80s L.A. Punk. It accurately reflected and documented a local underground music scene, one fertile and diverse enough to spawn such groups as the Henry Rollins-era Black Flag (and its contrarian mirror-image White Flag, led by Pat Fear), the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Redd Kross, the Descendents, the Last, Gun Club, Suicidal Tendencies and more besides.
More important, We Got Power! never shied away from addressing and criticizing opposing forces. Those from within included the youth gangs encouraged and soundtracked by groups like Circle One (fronted by unlikely WGP benefactor John Macias) and Mike Muir’s Suicidal Tendencies. Those prominently from without, meanwhile, were the LAPD, and community watchdog groups like Parents Of Punkers and its infamous mouthpiece Serena Dank.
All five issues of WGP (with the surviving galleys of an unpublished sixth issue) have been compiled in a handsomely packaged new book, We Got Power!: Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980’s Southern California, published this fall by Bazillion Points.
The collected run of the zine is accompanied by an amazing array of vintage photos from Markey and Schwartz’s archives. It also features recent and illuminating essays by Markey and both Jordan and Jennifer Schwartz, as well as Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Jack Brewer, Mike Watt, Joe Carducci and others.
The essays are, by turns, transporting, hilarious (Rollins’ LSD adventures, abetted by Pilkington; Redd Kross guitarist Janet Housden’s run-in with skater Tony Alva; Jeff and Steve McDonald’s always entertaining recollections), and ultimately poignant (Pat Fear’s roll call of deceased scenesters, and elegies for Pilkington, John Macias and Descendents guitarist Frank Navetta).
Between promoting the book, by way of exhibitions of WGP-related photos and memorabilia mounted at various Southern California art galleries, and his new Circle Jerks film, Markey’s clearly a very busy guy these days.
Thus, I felt lucky and privileged to briefly run both him and Jordan Schwartz to ground, to ask about their Punk pasts as well as Markey’s cinematic present.
MARKEY & SCHWARTZ INTERVIEW
RCN: I recently read a conversation between John Cale and the actor Willem Dafoe, where at one point they talk about how when they first started in their creative pursuits, they were the youngest in any crowd of people so involved, but that nowadays the people around them involved or interested in such things keep getting younger.
Given the developments in underground culture/Punk/DIY over the years that you and Jordan Schwartz both took part in, is that something you’ve experienced, whether you’re talking about the WE GOT POWER days or more recent work, like your 1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE and MY CAREER AS A JERK documentaries?
David Markey: No one is ever younger than they were the day previously. I suppose it eventually happens, if you are lucky enough to be able to produce work and continue to make new work. If I can be an influence to someone younger and starting out in this world, then that’s a privilege. I know how crucial it was for me as a kid to have artists to look up to and aspire to, and be influenced by.
As far as my own work, 1991: TYPB is now over 20 years old too. My 2008 documentary The Reinactors is a good example of what I’m capable of producing now. It’s interesting: some really seem to burn out, or hit a peak and never quite match it. For me, I’ve always just existed in my own world, and made things when I felt so inspired.
But at this point, it feels good to be older, with the combined life experience and artistic output behind me. It’s nice to be able to have a new perspective and keep moving forward. Especially since my projects this year have been all about looking back.
Jordan Schwartz: [Dave and I] were both about 16 when we met; I helped him with his films and Xerox zine about things in the neighborhood. We didn’t hear the term DIY until we started getting into the Hardcore Punk scene; by then there wasn’t time for age checks because we were too busy getting bludgeoned by the music. So the short answer is we didn’t really have a creative community to compare ages with, we just did it.
WE GOT POWER, the book, is a fantastic read, a history and time capsule of that era that’s going to be hard to top. All this time later, what kind of emotions, feelings and such does having a proper document of such a heady, important time between (quite stylishly laminated) covers evoke for you?
DM: Thank you. [I’m] very proud of it, and pleased to get this project completed and out there, I think it came out great. I did so much copy editing on a computer screen with this, it’s awesome to actually hold the book in my hands and feel its weight.
JS: My mind was definitely blown when I first got my hands on the book. Fortunately Dave, my sister and I are all still friends, and can talk about all the good and crazy responses we’re getting to the book.
The other day, Tony Cadena (lead singer of the Adolescents) posted a picture of himself online with the cover of the book, and that almost brought me to tears. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s a mix of emotions — mostly good — pent up over the decades.
So if you really want to make me cry, show me Tony’s picture and play “Corona” by the Minutemen. I still miss D. Boon.
I guess the most obvious question would be: why did it take so long to decide to put out a We Got Power! book? One might think that maybe, when 1991: TYPB came out that might have been the perfect time to capitalize on your previous work.
DM: At that point in the early 1990’s I was busy making money directing music videos for major record labels, I wasn’t really focused on the less distant past at that point. I suppose this could have happened at some point in the nineties, but I don’t think it would have been as good. It needed a little more time to ferment. I think one of the advantages to waiting was the advances made in software for home computers, which is where this project started, with a negative scanner and film cleaner towards the end of 2004.
JS: The book took a long time to come out because it had to.
For starters, I didn’t really think my photos could compare with the photographers shooting the Southern California hardcore
punk scene at the time. Spe-cifically Ed Colver and Glen E.
Friedman: they had great shots including all of the darkroom aspects. I developed and printed my 35mm black and white film, which was good enough for the magazine but didn’t compare.
Fortunately time and the evolution of digital technology changed everything, when we ran my negatives through Dave’s consumer grade scanner a few years ago, the firmware was able to pull out a lot of the detail from the negatives and we knew we were on to something.
What inspired you, then, to finally get this into book form? And how did Bazillion Points get involved? As I understand, they had published an anthology of another well-known Punk zine from back then.
DM: The Touch And Go book [collecting the ‘80s zine helmed by Tesco Vee, later of The Meatmen] is what got me to look up Ian Christe at Bazillion Points and approach him with this project. Ian has a great eye, and was crucial to this project.
There actually was a different version of this book completed previously, entitled Party With Me Punker, put together for Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! publishing imprint.
JS: Thurston was interested in doing the project, but released a bunch of other titles before he was ready to start working on ours. Although this was somewhat frustrating, it was a great excuse to get on Sonic Youth’s guest list whenever they came to town, so that we could “talk about the book”. By the time he was ready to release it, though, Ecstatic Peace! Books had ceased operations.
DM: So that book was never published, and honestly I think it was for the best, as it was nowhere near as good as this. This project was actually kicking around for eight years before it became this book. And, really, it had everything to do with me taking the bull by the horns, and wrangling an entirely new project from the work.
When you and Jordan decided to go for doing the book, how much of an archive of photos etc. was there to draw from, how difficult was ‘the process of weeding out’ (Black Flag reference), and what were your parameters in picking the most representative visuals for the book?
DM: We were just looking for good photos, we worked from about 1600 images, ended up with just a little over 400. Ian Christe was great as our editor; having an outsider with a great eye for teenage culture really helped the book.
Having been involved in fanzine culture since the ‘70s myself, I know well the importance and adventure of documenting an ongoing music scene. The idea of ‘if we don’t do it, who will?’ or, worse, the risk of having it misrepresented or distorted by mainstream media. Was it the same for you when putting out WGP?
DM: You seemed to answer the question raised here. Yes, that was definitely going on. There was a reaction to the way our collective energy was being expressed in the media. First on TV news, and then on [the] CHiPS and Quincy [TV series, both of which did special ‘Punk’ episodes]. But actually those episodes were laughably bad, even back at that time!
JS: Kim Pilkington, Dave, and I used to make jokes about being punk rock historians when we were driving out to gigs and now Dave and I are kind of in that role. Back then we did it to do it: We Got Power! was a fanzine, we were fans. We didn’t have to worry about mainstream media distorting the history, because they were ignoring it.
Both you and Jordan had worked in audio-visual media, previous to and into your involvement with the local Punk scene and starting up WGP. Do you think that experience informed or affected the way you put together and created the fanzine (and vice versa)?
DM: It’s funny. Many years have passed and I didn’t really realize just how damn cool WGP was until recently. Some pretty stark graphics and unique ideas and work within those pages. Some of it is hilarious! I have never been one to be so full of myself or my work that I gloat or beam, you know? I kind of get over it and move on. But I have found a sort of happy place with the past, and I realize from a very early age I have had a certain vision that has remain consistent, but has definitely matured throughout time.
Clearly, the concerns one has as an 18-year-old are not going to be the same at 48. But I know now that my youth was not wasted, and I can look at all that stuff now and realize I was pretty much on the ball, even as it rolled and changed to a different ball, thankfully the ball never rolled over me.
Jordan eventually went the “straight job” route (he works doing computer IT stuff). I chose the starving artist’s route, and it’s not been easy, but I haven’t had to work for anyone else for many years…. and that is its own reward.
JS: Dave’s “pre-hardcore” films — some of which can be seen on his Cut Shorts DVD —definitely ,helped make The Slog Movie (documenting 1981/82 L.A. Hardcore) a better film. Regarding print, when we were sitting around Alan Gilbert’s bedroom in 1981 listening to a shoebox punk mix tape and decided to start WGP. We knew we could put out something interesting and fairly quickly, because we had already worked in the medium.
It seems in retrospect like what was going on in the South Bay was a microcosm of what was happening among musical scenes initially formed through the initial burst of Punk/Wave, only to split off on many disparate but thrilling tangents. (British music writer Simon Reynolds did a decent job of documenting that in his book Rip It Up and Start Again.)
There were the early stirrings of what became L.A. Hardcore, but also bands that were anything but straight-ahead Punk: the Minutemen, the Gun Club, the groups on the Happy Squid and New Alliance labels, the groups found on the LIFE IS…SO WHY NOT series of albums, Dave’s own groups like Sin 34 and so on. Any thoughts?
DM: Starting out in this scene as both a musician and documentarian gave me an interesting perspective. I was able to look past just one concern. It helped that I had many. It had me thinking differently, to be both the guy in front of and behind the camera. I think I’m better behind the camera ultimately, or perhaps that’s where I’ve settled throughout time.
For as much as playing music is fun, who wants to be in a band in their late 40’s/early 50’s? I don’t. Besides, I’ve had enough of dealing with the egos of certain people who do not deserve the right to have one: “Oh wow, you can play guitar. I’m sorry, but that does not make you special in the least.”
JS: It’s like the Ramones and Sex Pistols were sort of the big bang, and the thing needed to develop in various areas like galaxies. Some were able to evolve into new forms that influenced others.
The L.A. / So Cal scene is an interesting area to study because of the geography and demographics, as well as the range of output: from the early Masque-era Punk bands like X, the Weirdos and Dickies, to the suburban Hardcore scenes such as in the South Bay or Orange County.
As you know, it was a lot harder to get the information out there with no Internet, and the corporate media ignoring [the scene], except to negatively exploit it as in the punk rock episodes of CHiPs and Quincy.
With respect to “straight ahead” Punk: there were cool bands that weren’t following the Hardcore punk template from all
over the place. Of course there were quite a few from the South Bay, including Black Flag, which helped define the genre, then started tearing it down starting with the My War album, and bands
like the Minutemen, which were referred to as Weird Hardcore.
And of course Redd Kross, who would play Partridge Family covers to Suicidal Tendencies kids on the beach in Santa Monica.
Many of the bands ended up on SST, but there were other interesting labels in the South Bay, like (the Mike Watt and D. Boon-run) New Alliance.
There was also Gary Kail’s Nu Underground label, which put out the amazing Life Is… compilations. Regarding Gary Kail, he has passed away and apparently [the master tapes] had been lost before that, so now we can only listen to rips from existing vinyl.
David, you have over the years amassed quite an impressive career CV. As a filmmaker, what films and filmmakers inspired you to start making movies yourself, and how much of your aesthetic was an outgrowth of, or logical progression from, having done WGP?
DM: I started making films at the age of 11. I don’t know if I was inspired by any filmmakers at that point, as a kid I had not seen much. A few years later I definitely became inspired by John Waters. The Slog Movie was the most inspired by the scene around the ‘zine, but clearly both Lovedolls films also came out of my time spent in the trenches of L.A. Hardcore.
How important to the scene, as WGP covered it, were those on the second line? I’m thinking of such people featured in the book as John Macias, Pat Fear & Kim Pilkington (one of the stars of LOVEDOLLS SUPERSTAR)?
DM: Well, these people were friends, first of all. We were just kids getting our feet wet in the local music scene. In addition to the fanzine, most of us were involved with various bands, record projects, and also I was making [my] Super-8 films at the time, too.
I like the way that the book’s spotlighting those individuals — as well as others like the late Frank Navetta of the Descendents — is a reminder that, maybe those that don’t get the headlines or the write-up in this or that paper are as important to a creative scene as those who wind up getting all the glory and attention (though I’m sure no one thought in those terms back then!).
DM: It definitely was a creative scene, make no mistake. But yes, no one would have called it that at the time. We were too filled with piss and vinegar.
JS: People like John Macias were really important to us. We were into the character of the people, and what we felt was the quality of their music. We were not paying attention to just headliners, it didn’t matter how many magazines we sold; we just wanted to cover things we ,felt were interesting. Granted we were big fans of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys, so if we could get an interview or print a full-page photo [with them], we would.
What do you think or hope people will take away from having read WGP the book?
JS: For the people that wrote for the book, I hope it inspires them to keep writing. For the people in the book, I hope it brought back some good memories and that they can deal with the heavy or sad ones. For the people that weren’t there, I hope it answers some questions and inspires some new ones, including creating their own things.
DM: I hope that the reader can enter this world and immerse him or herself in it, and feel what it was like to be a participant in this particular place and time, and maybe come away with a larger cultural experience, or at least something a little deeper than what one would get from a more casual overview.
Finally, David, what’s up in the way of future plans? Obviously you have a few plates spinning at the moment, between the book and the new Circle Jerks documentary.
DM: This has been a very busy year, between finishing the book, the documentary, and the gallery show; I’ve not had the time to ponder what I’m going to do next. Perhaps it will be another book, or a film. I’m looking to get busy again soon.
JS: Now there is no more waiting, no more excuses. Everyone can go to Bazillionpoints.com to order the book, receive the WGP book bag and other schwag