Sincerity has never been so powerful
A review of We Got Power! Hardcore Punk Scenes From 1980s Southern California
By JoJo King
It reads like a yearbook. It’s wide, tabloid-like glossy pages and large typeface aren’t meant to provoke your inner critic, but rather allow you to embrace the pictorial adventure you’re about to embark on. Pictures of faces you feel you should recognize, but know you have never seen before run rampant across the pages. Actually, let me go back. You may have seen some of these faces before, if you were one of the few that lived this; for the rest of us, however, they are glowingly unfamiliar. But that’s the point. It’s not about the faces in the pictures; it’s about the scene that surrounds them.
In his essay “Punks Become The Media” visual artist and filmmaker Cameron Jamie briefly sums up the visual portrait of the scene depicted in We Got Power!:
What interests me most about any pictorial history of punk is not the iconic money shots of punk leaders from well-known bands. I’ve always been drawn to peculiar moments captured in the strange locations where gigs were held … It’s an incredible sight to witness; in the far background of a photo from a hardcore show, a young nerdy kid with pimples and braces wearing a Hawaiian shirt, skanking in the slam pit.
Don’t get me wrong, We Got Power! has its superstars. Henry Rollins, in both face and word, is alarmingly present across the first 20 pages of this Punker’s Almanac as are Mike Watt and D. Boon of The Minutemen. That said, We Got Power!, like punk itself, is about the scene, not the stars. In its 300 pages, We Got Power! provides an honest and sincere depiction Southern California’s hardcore scene of the 80s, if not the best.
The book leads off with “Everything Was Heavy” by Henry Rollins, perhaps for two reasons. Regardless of how profound your knowledge of Southern California hardcore punk is, Henry Rollins is, for the vast majority of readers, the most recognizable voice from the gamut of contributors featured in We Got Power!. But that’s a superficial reason. I’d like to think it’s because his essay sets the tone. This isn’t a bunch of 80s punkers looking back at their scene with some type of “golden age” nostalgia; they’re honest in both their praise and reproach of the scene. Or as Rollins puts it, “It is strange for me to live in [Los Angeles] and to drive these streets filled with so many memories, so many stories that had such bad endings.”
There is no glamour in We Got Power! just as there is no glamour in hardcore punk. The stories approach all topics – some poignant, some absurd, some geographical (thank you Mike Watt) – as if creators David Markey and Jordan Schwartz gave the book’s contributors the agency to write pretty much whatever they wanted as long as it somehow tied to the 80s scene. And so within its pages, readers are left to envision what it must have looked like to see Chuck Dukowski hanging out at a show featuring The Minutemen and Sacchrine Trust; Dez Cadena meeting Ron Reyes and then replacing him on vocals while playing guitar for one of the most transcendental punk bands of all time; or young punks running from Duane Peters in a skate park because if he caught you, he’d shave your head.
Though it can be a marvelous selling point to describe the time a young Mike Ness was playing in your neighbor’s kitchen, We Got Power! is so much more than name dropping. In “Frank Navetta And The Descendents” Joe Carducci provides an excellent piece on the band’s founding member Frank Navetta. At times heart-warming at others hilarious, the piece covers everything from Navetta’s mental disorders and parental abuse, to his love of fishing and the band’s lack of self-confidence regarding the opposite sex. One particular anecdote features the band waiting in their van for the doors to open for their gig at the Vex. As they wait, they watch how Black Flag roadie Mugger manages to attract a seemingly unapproachable girl by the name of Gina:
In the Descendents’ van, they mostly just drank coffee and vibrated with bitter resentment at their place beneath the lowest rung of the social world. They were rungless! … It started with Bill saying, “Look at that…” and went round and round, as Tony and Frank and Milo chipped in their umbrages over her preference for Mugger over any of them. Joe Vex took his time opening the doors to the club, so the umbrage piled quite high. It was a true Descendents moment I was privileged to witness.
There are stories of riots with police, anecdotes from the wide-eyes of a 105-pound Adolescent, moments of whit and profound creativity and moments of anarchical recklessness (they chose The Vandals for a reason) all documented in this work of art that includes the original five published and one un-published issues of the fanzine whose interviews alone provide the best insight into the mind of an 80s punker.
We Got Power! is a must have for anyone interested in the origins of punk, especially the oft-emulated Southern Californian hardcore sound. If you were there, it will bring back welcome, and perhaps some not-too-welcome, memories; in all likelihood, however, you weren’t there. You didn’t see punk’s prettiest drummer hit Tony Alva over the head with a bottle of Vodka; you didn’t get the chance to do an onstage pantomime during “Bleed For Me” with Jello Biafra; and you weren’t on set during the filming of Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. But you have these snippets, these wonderful pictures and amazing anecdotes told by the scene’s major players that allow at least a glimpse of what it may have been like.
It wasn’t the oxymoronic “golden age” of punk, but it was a sincere age. We Got Power! has the words and pictures to prove it.
We Got Power! is available from Bazillion Points Books and most of the normal places you’d expect on the web. Do yourself a favor and check it out HERE.
You can also check out more details and images from the book from related articles below.