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Under the Big Black Sun

A Personal History of LA Punk

by John Doe and Tom Desavia

Hardcover, 277 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $26.99 |

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Title
Under the Big Black Sun
Subtitle
A Personal History of LA Punk
Author
John Doe and Tom Desavia

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NPR Summary

Explores the evolution of the Los Angeles punk rock movement that occured between 1977-1982, through personal essays, photographs, flyers, and the voices of the people who were there.

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Exene Cervenka and John Doe perform in Hollywood in September 2004. "The first person I ever saw jump into the audience was me," Cervenka tells Fresh Air. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images hide caption

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A Personal History Of L.A. Punk: 'It Was A Free-For-All For Outcasts'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk

Something's Happening Here

It could've been 10 p.m. in July in a painted, plywood hallway upstairs at the Whisky a Go Go. There was a corner w/ red & black linoleum squares on the floor. This corner was at one end of another short hall & staircase that led down to the stage. I stood there breathing short breaths waiting for the rest of X to join me before we'd walk down those stairs. I imagined Jim Morrison & Ray Manzarek or Otis Redding or Arthur Lee or Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell standing on the very same spot, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to them. It wasn't the first time I'd been here & this had become a kind of ritual. But it was the first time in 1978 that the show was sold out & the Whisky added another. This was a place where you knew that something was definitely happening, that you were definitely headed somewhere. I would look down at my shoes and those red & black squares and think that we were part of something, like others had been part of something else. Where the people in their audience had known something that other people did not & were about to see something the rest of the world might see soon.

When we walked down those stairs, I knew it would go from zero to a hundred in a blink, cymbals would crash & DJ Bonebrake would hit his drums so hard that he'd probably knock something over or snap a hi-hat pedal in two. I might pull the cord out of my guitar & stop the giant, rumbling bass. And we would forget about the asshole soundman who said we were too loud. After all the nights of rehearsals & learning songs, bad equipment at the Masque & other DIY shows, this would be louder than hell & there would be sounds hurtling past & swirling around us all & somewhere amidst that mayhem, there would be a moment when everything would slow down & I would see things slo-mo. I'd catch someone's face distorted by a shoulder or the palm of another's hand. Or Exene's hair would rise into a fan as she flipped it into or out of her face. I would glimpse her dark red lips making wonderful sounds that I knew were the only sound that could be made at that moment. She would tell the truth to all these people who knew she would tell the truth. There would be flashing lights & sharp, piercing guitar notes & monstrous chords & Billy would look like he was straddling a wide creek w/ a smile that was genuine & scary & somewhat practiced because a fan of his rockabilly band had said he looked like he wasn't having fun while he played. I knew Exene & I would bounce around the stage unhinged, but Billy would stay still, play so fast & true & smile & wink at girls. There would be people's faces upturned to the lights & we would recognize over half of those faces & they knew where & about who the songs had been written. There would be sweat and DJ would have no shirt on. He would shine w/ the power of his driving hands & arms & legs & his eyes would roll back in his head & his chin would tilt upward and sometimes steam would rise from his back. And we knew then that we were unstoppable & that we had power. And that something was definitely happening here.

There had been so many other nights when the roles were reversed and Exene & I were in the audience seeing something — a band? — that was not fully formed but breaking something to pieces, getting to the bottom of some core. When The Screamers stretched heavy, black plastic across the entire front of the stage to obscure all that lay behind, only to slit it open w/ a knife & begin their jagged, distorted performance, it didn't matter what the sounds were, whether they were good or smart or accomplished. It didn't matter if they were pretty or polished. They had an edge & were cool & probably dangerous. You could just tell. And it was happening now, right now, in front of your face & no one had seen this before. Tomata du Plenty could've been wearing a straightjacket, could've escaped from the asylum, no one knew, but our imagination allowed anything to be possible — the wilder the better. It throbbed & pulsed & was part music, part theater & all live experience. No one cared whether they could buy a record later. No one cared to have a souvenir T-shirt. The band, any band, dropped complete onto this stage, right now & we may never see them again after this night was over. Rik L Rik from F-Word or John Denney from The Weirdos both seemed to move like they were dodging imaginary bullets, swerving & bending, choking the mic stand as their eyes bugged out of their heads. They had practiced & were prepared to meet whatever was thrown, sometimes literally, at them, but there was nothing calculated in what they did. The bands pounded & roared & droned & fell down & broke shit & got too high to play right, but it was all happening right there in front of our eyes.

From Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends. Copyright 2016 by John Doe. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press, an Imprint of Perseus Books, A Hachette Book Group Company.