Tales From a Golden Punk State

under_the_big_black_sunBooks about the early years of the punk movement are almost a subgenre unto themselves, with seemingly everyone who once had a beer with Darby or watched Iggy get high feeling the need to throw in their two cents. Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (DaCapo Books, $27) is a slightly different take: John Doe of X is the lead tale-spinner (with Tom DeSavia), but many luminaries of the Los Angeles punk underground contribute their own chapters.

One of the liveliest entries comes from Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos, whose account of going from depressed suburban teen to art-school glitter rocker to Hollywood punk is livened with self-deprecating wit and an eye for detail. Robert Lopez recalls how punk rock transformed a chubby misfit who hung out in the school library into the legendary showman El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Inspirational, but certainly not sentimental.

Others share stories of playing packed gigs, cruising around in vintage cars and throwing the wildest of parties—but also stories of breakups, car wrecks and overdoses. Gradually, the aggregation of nerds, weirdos, gays and minorities that found a home in L.A. punk got elbowed out of the way by kids from neighboring Orange County. As author, Screamin’ Sirens singer and Velvet Hammer burlesque dancer Pleasant Gehman explains at the end of her chapter: “The idiots who just months before had been screaming at us from car windows and beating us up had decided that punk was ‘cool,’ and the original scene began to splinter.”

Still, Under the Big Black Sun captures a bit of a shining moment before mass media took over, where the underground was something you had to dig for. As music journalist Chris Morris says, “Today, some would call it history. Back then, we called it fun.”