By K.E. Roberts / November 7, 2016
Early in Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene, she asks Eugene, a 14-year-old skinhead who talks like a Valley kid, what he likes about punk. “It’s like, it’s not bullshit,” he responds. “There’s no rock stars now, you know?” It’s to the director’s credit that the next hour and a half, elapsing with the speed and eloquence of an autobahn car crash, both proves and refutes that answer. While certainly not a great technical achievement—it’s a near miracle that Spheeris and cinematographer Steve Conant, who half-seriously requested a shark cage for the live gigs, captured as much footage as they did—The Decline of Western Civilization is nevertheless a definitive record of a defiantly elusive musical and cultural force that, at the time, was either still coalescing or had already peaked, depending on who you ask.
Spheeris, who got her start directing Albert Brooks segments for Saturday Night Live‘s inaugural season and producing Brooks’ first film, Real Life (1979), was directing music videos at the time, shooting, in her words, “all kinds of old fucks” (David Essex, The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, The Staple Singers) during the day, and by night deploying her rental gear to catch whoever was playing at the punk clubs. Thus, the acts she ended up capturing were almost entirely the result of serendipity, as was the quality of the shows. Germs, for instance, are uniformly and ferociously bad, with front man Darby Crash limply slinging himself across the stage, slurring lyrics (sometimes into the mic, sometimes not), pleading with the audience for a beer (rendered “bee-uh” by his lisp), while the rest of the band resolutely tries and fails to pound out a coherent riff and rhythm. X, on the other hand, is about as close to perfection as a live act can get. Intercut with the concert footage are interviews with band and audience members, club owners, bouncers, and the writers and editors of Slash, a punk zine that spun off Slash Records, the label stamped on Germs’ and X’s first albums.
For all his onstage impotence, Spheeris was right to make Darby Crash the poster boy (literally) for the documentary. He’s a compelling creature, if pitiable, and he would kill himself, at age 22, less than a year before the film’s release. “It’s scary out there,” he says matter-of-factly, after Spheeris asks him why he gets “loaded” before going onstage. He’s in the process of making—as adept a cook as he is a performer—a truly unappetizing-looking breakfast. There’s a Sham 69 poster (promoting the band’s first U.S. appearance at the Whisky in 1979) on the wall, but mostly the kitchen is covered in stickers, magnets, and standees of popular Marvel and DC Comics characters: Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Wonder Woman, Batman. Crash is mild-mannered, even shy, as he and girlfriend Michelle discuss his many injuries in the service of punk, people holding grudges against him, the “wetback” painter who had a heart attack and died outside Michelle’s parent’s house, not to be discovered until days later when she nearly tripped over him taking out the trash. All of which belies the importance of Germs’ brilliant, massively influential, and only LP, 1979’s (GI). Produced by Joan Jett shortly after she left the Runaways, the album menaces with claustrophobia and decadence as Crash snarls about soon-to-be abandoned hope and the population of loss. From “Manimal”:
I came into this world like a puzzled panther
Waiting to be caged
But something stood in the way
I was never quite tamed…
Evolution is a process too slow to save my soul
But I’ve got this creature on my back
And it just won’t let go
If I’m only an animal
Then I can do no wrong
But they say I’m something better
So I’ve got to hang on
Crash’s suicide by intentional heroin overdose, following in the bootsteps of Sid Vicious, would further mythologize punk as an expression of desperation and self-destruction, a liturgy of the damaged and damned, what the outside world would translate—not always unfairly—as “contempt for society” and “disdain for the value of life.”
Like Germs, Black Flag had been banned from virtually every venue at the time for having “a bad reputation,” and Spheeris wisely rented a sound stage (Cherrywood Studios) so that both bands would have a chance to play. Where Crash and the Germs deal in private apocalypse, Black Flag is overtly social and political, with vocalist Ron Reyes railing against “white pride,” cops, isolation, and “being screwed” by whoever made the promises that “never became fact.” Huddled in the abandoned church where Reyes and drummer Robo live, songwriter and guitarist Greg Ginn, who looks not at all like a revolutionary and a lot like the president of a math club, explains with a mischievous smirk that his band’s name means “anarchy.” (A black flag is the traditional symbol of political anarchy).
They share the church with “hippies,” and Spheeris wants to know what that’s like. They’re “mellow dudes,” Ginn says, chuckling. “They’re neutralized,” Robo interrupts: “Even if they get pissed off, they have a joint and talk about it instead of doing something about it.” There are several dismissals of “hippies” throughout the documentary, and it’s clear that L.A. punk was in large part a reaction against the still lingering ideologies of the 1960s counterculture and its epicenter, the San Francisco Bay Area. From the perspective of non-compliant young people growing up in the 1970s, the peace and love crowd had accomplished little while wallowing in the benefits of the greatest boom in U.S. history, had in fact created a right-wing backlash that they, the kids of the ’70s, now had to bear, along with a devastated economy and a reeling middle class soon to be finished off by Reaganomics.
Circle Jerks, another Southern California legend, burn through four songs, Keith Morris (Black Flag’s first vocalist) spitting on bureaucracy and authority and “Beverly Hills, Century City/Everything’s so nice and pretty” while clutching an unopened Budweiser can to his face and forehead. Alice Bag is frenetic, fearless, and fearsome. She’s already beyond punk, beyond hardcore; she’s all at once more complicated and more pissed off. And maybe that’s why she gets overlooked: she swaggered out of the future, and no one had any idea what the fuck she was doing. If there’s a mistake in The Decline of Western Civilization, it’s the missing interview with Bag.
Spheeris also talks extensively with Claude Bessie (credited as “Kickboy Face”), one of the co-founders of Slash and vocalist of Catholic Discipline, an art rock facsimile of early Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground. Bessie, who was born in France and talks like one of his country’s existentialist provocateurs, infamously repudiates the existence of New Wave, reads hate letters from Slash readers (“I want them to hate me… It makes me feel good”), and more or less gives voice to the title of the documentary in which he’s playing a part:
There’s no more brotherhood shit… We’re not all grooving on the same vibes. We’re grooving on different vibes. Ugly vibes.
On the last song of X’s first masterpiece, Los Angeles (1980), Exene Cervenka would crystallize that sentiment, so crucial to punk’s brief candle: “No one is united/And all things are untied.” Do his songs “look on the dark side of things,” Spheeris asks John Doe, in the apartment he shares with Exene. “If realism is dark,” he says, looking up from the arm of the guy he’s sloppily tattooing, “then they’re on the dark side of things.” X was by far the biggest and best punk band in L.A. at the time—arguably the best L.A. band of all time, contested only by The Doors (Ray Manzarek produced the first four X albums)—and they’re obviously the centerpiece of the film. The owners of the Whisky have just sent the band two dozen pink roses—that’s how much money they bring in the door. (Although the performance footage was shot at Club 88, the interview was taped after a Whisky show.)
The cramped apartment is filled with roadies (another sign of the band’s eminence), assorted friends, empty bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a distinctly unamused cat. Exene, hiccuping throughout, shows Spheeris her wall of “ridiculous” Evangelical Christian pamphlets (Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” sired the modern religious right in 1979; “God must be dead if you’re alive,” the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra quipped of the group) and worries about what will happen to the band when they’re playing “We’re Desperate” without being desperate anymore—the concept of “selling out” was another punk innovation. What does his “FTW” tattoo mean, Spheeris asks one of the roadies, zooming in on it. “Fuck the world,” the guy responds immediately.
X’s live performance, as I said, is down and dirty immaculation. After “Beyond and Back,” Doe yanks a black comb out of his pocket and slicks back his sweaty hair like a Luciferian Elvis Presley. During the chorus of “We’re Desperate”—“We’re desperate/Get used to it/It’s kiss or kill”—the audience breaks on the stage front, a collective hemorrhage of empathetic catharsis. Exene leans into the crowd, coaxing, taunting. One of the kids gets too close to Doe, who launches a vicious kick at him. As the song ends, another audience member deeper back gets rowdy and the bouncers—nearly impossible to tell from the customers—lead him out. “Altamont, alright!” Doe jokes into the mic, a reference to the disastrous Altamont Festival of 1969 that left four people dead, one of them a black teenager stabbed to death by a Hells Angel.
Punk is inseparable from the violence Spheeris captures throughout the documentary. Not only are nonconformism and defiance by nature a perpetration of violence against the status quo, but the music itself is violent: Brendan Mullen, the owner of primordial L.A. punk club The Masque, describes its aggressive abandon as producing an “abnormal level of adrenaline,” and there was only one way to “dance” to it: moshing, called “pogoing” at the time. Punk as an artistic expression of ideological violence attracted young people who sought only the release of brute physical violence—and these kids, many of whom started their own bands, largely subsidized a movement they completely misunderstood. The scene quickly degenerated into what its early players abhorred and satirized: a crisis of young, white masculinity, what Flea (who starred in Spheeris’ 1984 drama Suburbia, about punk runaways) described in his obituary of Mullen as “macho and violent, with rules about haircuts and uniforms.”
The demographics of Los Angeles shifted drastically between 1970 and 1980—white flight was rampant, while Hispanic, Asian, African-American, and Native American populations nearly doubled as a group. Not only that, but “hippy” and disco attitudes and fashions had emasculated the formerly unchallenged dominance of white, working class maleness. Teenage Eugene, who Spheeris comes back to several times, blames his “pent-up aggression” on the city’s “dirt,” “ugly old people,” “poseurs,” and “niggers.” Fear’s Lee Ving provokes his audience to a riotous frenzy by calling them “fags” and “homos” and “queers,” accusing them several times of being secret residents of that most un-punk of American cities (which happens to be as important to hardcore as L.A., if not more so)—San Francisco. It’s a schtick—one they’d partly recreate on a famously destructive Saturday Night Live performance that was a result of Spheeris introducing the band to John Belushi—but a schtick designed to exploit the insecurities and prejudices of an adolescent demographic already soaked through with fear and insecurity and anxiety. One of the last shots of the film—no accident—shows a young man wearing a leg cast with the Nazi Party flag painted on it: an image of the hideous transformation already underway. Really, punk was a swan song before the Ramones finished their very first set.
Although there are several honest attempts throughout the film to put a point on just what punk is—“the kids are more desperate, or more bored,” “they have to be doing something different,” “it’s the only form of revolution left in the 1980s,” “it’s sort of like folk music, they’re yelling about the same things,” “there’s no rock stars now”—the answer is probably much simpler, and it happens to be the only reason anyone ever walks onto a stage to make a guitar wail or vocalize undisciplined squads of emotion into a microphone. At the end of the X interview, filmed directly after a performance, Spheeris asks Exene if she’s a happy person. The question catches her off guard. Her eyebrows shrug; her whole face contracts into a frown. She says, “I don’t think of myself as a happy person, but I had fun tonight.”