Punk PassageNovember 5, 2009
Dils singer and guitarist, Chip Kinman, to the San Francisco Chronicle, April 1979: “I don’t see punk rock as a movement because one, that implies direction, and, two, a united sense of purpose; and punk rock has neither… What I think punk rock will bequeath the world is a lot of good bands.” And many, many great bands it did, but by the time Kinman offered his remarks, punk rock’s inherent lack of direction had largely led itself down a one-way street, particularly on the West Coast. Sid Vicious, a sort of guru to California punks, had overdosed on heroin. Bands weren’t attracting record contracts and were having even more trouble staying together. The scene’s hip, dubiously malcontented fans were beginning to move on to postpunk. To make matters worse, San Francisco punk bands toured very little outside California, and even a popular group like The Dils released only three seven-inch records during their nearly four years of performing together.
Much of this context is lost amongst the self-congratulatory, but fascinating exhibition of photographs and ephemera on display in the Jewett Gallery at San Francisco Public Library. Entitled Punk Passage: San Francisco First Wave Punk, 1977-1981, the show attempts to document the city’s nascent scene through the photography of Ruby Ray, supplemented with posters, flyers, zines, and other collected minutiae. The work on view here predates punk’s decline, before the scene’s anti-everything nihilism would cannibalize—or simply get bored with—itself. In 1977, things were still loud, edgy, and fun. Weird kids got together, formed bands, dressed up, made art, and pogo danced at shows every night. It was a captivating time to those who lived it.
Working largely under the auspices of San Francisco zine Search & Destroy as in-house photographer, Ray’s modus operandi as both fan and documentarian establishes the perspective for much of the work and tone of Punk Passage. She took most of the concert photos at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach. It is here we see The Germs’ Darby Crash—already evincing self-inflicted razor blade scars as far back as 1978—back-stage looking pensive. Avengers’ lead singer and pioneering punk rock vamp, Penelope Houston—or rather, her fish-netted legs: “too sexy” to some, she noted—taunts a motley rabble of fans. A crowd rips the pant leg off a young Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys’ singer and enfant terrible. The defiant Nuns play on despite an appreciative hail of beer and spit. And in another photo, Sid Vicious, nearly passed out back-stage, clutches a cigarette, exactly one day after the Sex Pistols called it quits at San Francisco’s old Winterland Ballroom in 1978.
There’s other photos here too: Los Angeles’ Zeros—aka, “the Mexican Ramones”—reenacts a murder scene in an apparently once-dicey Russian Hill, and an exhausted Bruce Conner at a Crime show in 1977. There are also many fine examples of collage flyer and poster art; the first ever West Coast punk record, Crime’s 1976 Hotwire My Heart/ Baby You’re So Repulsive; as well as a few priceless mementos of Biafra’s failed 1979 bid for San Francisco mayor (he came in fourth).In her artist statement, Ray claims that San Francisco’s punk shows were more intense than parallel scenes in L.A. and New York, and since she was present, it would be prudent to take her word for it. But the library’s press release asserts that the city’s burgeoning scene was “as innovative for its time as the beat and hippie movements were,” a statement that is hardly true, and really, a gratuitous pat on the back that should give one pause.
Community support for its artists is a good thing, but it is not an unqualified good, and it takes only a short leap from communal pride to abject localism. Undoubtedly, The Nuns, Avengers, and Crime were good bands, and the work collected in Punk Passage is important within a history of San Francisco’s larger counter culture. To suggest, however, that the mere existence of a local punk scene—a community of friends, bands, and some zines—sets San Francisco’s musicians on par with the genre-bending and rigorous music that was occurring at the same time in New York—or late ‘60s Haight-Ashbury—borders upon revisionist history.
For a community that prided itself so much on the bedrock notion of Do-It-Yourself, the paucity of San Francisco bands’ recordings is astounding. For better or worse, the memory of a great show—or a photograph of one—is less transferable to a lone punk living in Topeka, Kansas than a slice of wax. The success of San Francisco bands like the Dead Kennedys and Flipper is due in no small part to the fact that they actually recorded albums. They didn’t wait around for major labels to discover them—they probably would’ve broken up before that could have happened—so they formed their own labels. They organized national tours, and they made contacts with other bands and scenes. Why didn’t the Avengers or Crime do this?
San Francisco punk rock owes an almost irredeemable debt to Ruby Ray and fanzines like Search & Destroy who truly understood what it meant to be DIY, and for that, the work collected in Punk Passage acts as a willing tribute. All the same, it is at times difficult to view the show as none other than a sad indictment against bands who bequeathed little more to this precious time than a few scattered and poorly recorded singles and demos. Ray’s photos retell a familiar and cruel irony. They capture an era, a scene, and a lot of talent that could have been great, but will forever remain on the defense against that long shadow cast by New York and L.A.
Punk Passage: San Francisco First Wave Punk, 1977-1981 is on view at the Jewett Gallery of the San Francisco Public Library through December 6, 2009.