Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Poverty and Spit! Poverty and Spit! THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)


 Those of us who were punk rockers at some point in the 70s or 80s now feel old as fuck, clutching onto last ditch straws and first canes; our old hearts and puffy eyes trapped in middle aged, vice-tainted bodies, our tattoos gone to gray blobs, the safety pin holes in our ears and cheeks long scarred over, our livers shot from Hep-C and whiskey. But hey hey hey! In the words of this kid who sang for Black Flag before Rollins came along, below left...

 I was just a suburban poseur moping around the all-ages City Gardens shows in Trenton in the early 80s, smoking myself into a coma while standing in front of the stage, waiting, waiting, waiting... for one crappy opening punk act after another, to get it over with, so I could see the Replacements, Ramones, Iggy Pop, Replacements or X. Pogoing and slam dancing around until the skinheads took over and turned the whole front half into a war zone; coming back to our parents' houses exhausted, battered, and alive, triumphant, to catch NIGHT FLIGHT on the USA Network, none of us ever got a chance--despite these tawdry venues--to see Penelope Sheeris' punk-breaking ground anthem, DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981). It was far far tawdrier, so tawdry it's never been on DVD or tape.... until this week.... Finally America has matched Spheeris' wrist-openingly grim post-op LA moldy carpeted clang of a howl for sheer tawdriness. Onetwothreego! Our whole fucking life is a wreck! We got so complacent having no film we'd heard tawdry tales of live remotely close to our imaginations that when one finally busts in and pees on our mattress we're at first so shocked we think it's raining.

Darby, sings into 'the mic' 
In other words, at last the full tawdry skeevy glory of Ms. Spheeris's no-holds barred musical documentary can be seen and endured, for not only are music rights all aligned but our limpid corpses so befouled from punk rock sell-out options no further degradation can e'er befoul them. From the apocalyptic audience bashing and riot starting of Fear's Lee Ving to Jon Doe giving out jailhouse tattoos, shot on full frame 16mm, the film's never going to look like Kubrick or smell like Delmonicos, but the sheer poverty-stricken messiness of the punk lifestyle is better experienced at arm's length anyway, from within that City Gardens nicotine coma. I always needed an inch down my dad's Old Crow counter liter and a Silkwood shower after a trip to Trenton, I'd forgotten about that, til this shit came rushing back up Spheeris' sleeve like a bad wrist job.

Naturally when disparaging the citizens on display in this film I don't mean the artists from band X. To call them the most charismatic of the cast is to damage the word 'charisma' by comparison. Slash writer Kickboy is the most coherent and 'forward-to-Goth', and Darby of the Germs the most long-range offensive. Just seeing his inward-bridging townie teeth near a plate of eggs is enough to send me windmilling out of the room in concentric spewing arcs. Perhaps fascinated by his sheer loathsome mania, Spheeris gives us what feels like six hours of a Germs show in what looks like a parent's basement where the carpet was first laid during a flood: the whole vibe seems to slow into a druggy time warp as Darby crawls atop speaker cabinets and crowds like Harpo Marx in the stateroom scene of NIGHT AT THE OPERA, his vocals dragging behind the 'rhythm' of the band like Angel behind the Generalissimo's automobile in THE WILD BUNCH. Too many film references? Jon Doe wouldn't think so. He references PERFORMANCE and GIMME SHELTER after a tussle breaks out in the similarly orange carpeted basement of Club 88. You think he gives a shit about how bad that carpet smells? If it does, he keeps it to himself. He's such a trouper. Teeth like a real gentlemen.

In fact, Doe's such a presence he keeps Darby from looking like some trainwreck intersection between Sid Vicious and pre-sobriety Iggy Pop by association, and Spheeris' kind use of subtitles for the lyrics, all cute in the iron-on decal style Cooper font of the period, makes up the rest. It's an unusual and welcome touch, especially considering the snarling incoherence of the shouted vocals.

Then again, the speed and downer mess of the Germs is like the frickin' Beatles compared to Slash Magazine writer Kickboy's godawful band 'Catholic Discipline" which we see play to an audience of around six bored people in a Chinese restaurant (deliver us, Generallissimo Tso!). The 'Discipline' do what feels like 23 songs that plod so monotonously they make the Swans seem like Matmos. What? Too 'Other Music' for you, these references? Fuck you! By the time you read this, Other Music has probably long gone. And anyway, Billy Zoom wouldn't think so --Billy, why are you so serene? Even in the midst of skinheads bashing one another inches from his amp old Billy never seems like he's anywhere but on a peaceful hayride in the country.

At any rate, the most disturbing bits come towards the end, from the mouths not of bandmates at all, but just some cute young boys giving black and white talking head interviews, utterly terrifying in their calm discussion of punching out girls and breaking other kids' jaws with a tire chain. (Yet their own teeth are perfect --hmmm, are they just shining Penelope on?) and the vile gay-baiting rhetoric and unsubtle combative-for-the-sake-of-combativeness of Fear's Lee Ving. A kind of undeclared hate child of Travis Bickle and Sean Penn, Ving's hate speech might be just an act to get everyone's punk rage blood up (a girl declares herself a dyke and lunges at Ving, but it's never clear if she's just throwing down in the spirit of the thing, or is really gay and pissed) or might be real, that's the insidious thing about hate speech. Fox News, after all, got started to sell air space.

Fear ("You talkin' to them?")

But again (or for the first time) it's all worth the slog if you're a true X fan, for the on-again off-again marriage/romance between Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka. Even when they're at odds, their music only flourishes. Singing as frankly and honestly in one song as an entire Sam Shepherd play rolled into one playful glance and howled lyric, theirs is one of the great punk rock love stories of our time. Doe was the inspiration for me becoming a bassist. Aye, his bass guitar slid like a serpent across the dorm room and around my leg while the rest of the band was lamenting the loss of the band's old bassist during an all-night acid test. That very next night I was playing in front of more people than the goddamned 'Catholic Discipline' ever saw.

Not X, though. Even giving ratty jailhouse tattoos, there's no doubt Jon Doe is destined for stardom, or at least a future side gig as a supporting actor; and Exene is like a relaxed Lady Macbeth whose target isn't the current king but the entirety of narrow-minded American adulthood. I remember seeing X in 1984, touring for their last big release (sans Zoom), "See How We Are," an LP I still have, though never liked (title track aside). Exene smiling beaming down at me at City Gardens after one big dude clocked a skinhead who was about to knock my lights out--showering me in the skinhead's blood instead of vice versa- that's my big punk moment, my Corleone baptism. I don't even think there was the word 'skinhead' yet - or 'thrash'. They were 'baldheads' after the Jamaicans, and all punk was 'hardcore' (PS - See my lovingly detailed X discography "See How They War") by nature. It was a big tent.

And that's another thing: There are moments in the footage when we wonder just how much Spheeris is being put on by these clowns about the words, lingo and culture of the punk scene. Claude "Kickboy" (harumph!) Bessy especially seems to consider himself some kind of spokesperson for the punk movement. His sneering hatred of everything and everyone provides the entirety of the punk movement with its voice, soul, and spine--he thinks. But there's the feeling too that he's performing this iconoclast routine for Spheeris' cameras. When someone's a real brawler, they look like Mickey Rourke, or a toothless Glasgow soccer hooligan. They're certainly not all pretty and unmussed like these lads, at least not for long. So is this just say, 80% bullshit, just like most suburban punks themselves (i.e. me, in the early 80s) were?

X marks ze Monster

For me the punk-poseur scene dropped from my repertoire in 1986 when I found out all my  'Cure-Smiths-Siouxee' fan friends were gay and hadn't told me because they didn't know if my jammed gaydar was a result of being jut naive, closeted, or legitimately homophobic. Thus I peeled out in search of acid and hippies. When I windmilled back into City Gardens over breaks, slam-dancing and pogoing had become moshing. By then I was old enough for a wristband, so I drank in the back... sticking my head out only now and again to see what was going on. Eventually my band even played there, opening for the Spin Doctors. But that was the early 90s. Punk had split into a dozen warring factions by then and white boy punk-funk was the pre-grunge rage.

Well, either way in the early 80s I was too mellow to go full thrash, to uptight to be a squatter, too hetero to be what today would be called goth or emo, and too louche to be straight-edge. Without the black nail polish and eyeliner (as one used to wear) punk was just British, in America, hardcore was called 'thrash' and X, the Replacements, Violent Femmes, Husker Du, Ramones, Iggy, and Minutemen were all crossover artists, like the Clash, and then grunge splintered it still further, and today the kind of vitriol spewed by the likes of Fear. "Let's have a war / so you can go die! / Let's have a war! We need the money! / Let's have a war: We need the space!" is just one hair away from Skrewdriver or Prussian Blue, which is an insider Vice magazine way of saying white supremacist.

Then again, hearing all these boys' preference for rough masculine contact and their general aversion to girls, it's not a stretch to peg the whole punk thing as stemming from a kind of Jenner-esque macho burlesque, the safety of punching over the terror of embracing, or as Florence of the Machines sings (and BRONSON suggests), "A kiss with a fist is better than none."

Florence and the Machines, incidentally, would have been classified punk in 1981, as was Patti Smith, Television, and REM and, believe it or not, Bob Marley (thanks to UK bands like The Clash). My punk friend Billy told me to check out Marley and I bought "Natty Dread" for $5 at the local record store on a whim back in '84. No one but Clash fans ever even heard of him.

That's so punky: Eugene decries the violence of his scene before confessing he's punched out everyone he knows
I haven't pored through all the extras but already think the end shouldn't have been Fear's gay-bashing rhetoric but the 'X signing their Slash contract' a super 8mm extra wherein we finally get a glimpse of Penelope Spheeris herself, with new wave punk-approved but-soon-to-be-New-Wave-only oversize suit jacket and panic-blonde hair and the righteous sense that a lot of the pointless steam-vent fight club anarchy of the film we had just seen might be at least a little bit just semi-insecure throat pouch puffery done by insecure teenager and at any rate you can't keep both your street cred AND a record contract, so let the worthless one former go. Street cred? Shit cred, mate. What matters is a seven figure hit count; DIY has never been more alive than now, even if the 'alive' part is mostly virtual. The sell-outs are enshrined and the hold-outs are dust in the wind. If that's all they wanted, bra-fuckin-vo.

Spheeris, still smokin'
Times have gone moldy like a punk basement carpet but it's not us or that long-tossed shag who've aged, it's the vampire celluloid of the film. These vampire forever-youth reverse Dorian Grays throwing their coiled squatter angst upon the pyre that destroys nothing; goddamned them they seem younger than I ever was when I was their age. To think I once looked up in awe at the 'adults' Cervenka and Doe as they passed Budweisers out into that all-ages throng like proud parents at some kind of unholy graduation. Here in Spheeris' 1981 film they're like any other fresh-faced kids young enough to be scuzzy inbreds my daughter or son bring home on dates. They might have thought they were being toughened up by being artistic, drug addicted, boozed-up, bisexual or semi-insane--not getting enough sunshine or sleep, playing their hearts out under overhead lighting in community hall basements, giving themselves terrible home tattoos, and playing every lousy gig like it's the last show on earth--but boy were they wrong. OnetoothreeFour!

2 comments:

  1. Excellent entry. Thanks. I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon in August. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Correction - the first two DECLINE films have been issued on VHS previously. This is their first time in the digital format.

    ReplyDelete

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