Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Vexing Questions

This coming weekend, the Claremont Museum of Art will be holding an opening reception for a new exhibition called Vexing: Female Voices from East L.A. Punk. I am excited about having been invited to participate in the show because I'll have the honor of being in the company of some very talented artists, but that's not why I'm writing this entry. In the process of promoting this show, doing interviews and talking to people, I have encountered some confusion not only about the show, but about the East L.A. (ELA) punk scene itself and its relationship to the early L.A. punk scene, which I was a part of. I get asked all the time about the ELA punk scene and all I can say is, "Sorry, I wasn't part of that." So it's valid to ask why someone who only played the Vex once (as part of Castration Squad, not the Bags) is a featured artist in this exhibition. And yet, I have had young Chicanas tell me that just by being Latina and doing what I did, I am a part of the ELA punk scene. I understand that, but just as a disclaimer I want to say that I still do not consider myself part of the early 80's Vex scene.

Because of this confusion, I set about on my own to interview several people who were, in fact, part of the ELA scene to get their take on several of the assumptions that have arisen around the Vex and the ELA scene in general. I also spoke with one of the Vexing organizers to try to understand the aim of the show. I myself was interviewed for the LA Times and because that interview has now raised some questions about my own perspective, I feel compelled to explain my quotes. The interview in question ran for almost one and a half hours. From that, a few sentences were culled and used in a piece which condensed a three to four year timeline in the LA music scene into a short article. As I will discuss below, having accurate chronology is critical to any real understanding of the LA punk scene. It's important to note that I spoke at length with the interviewer and told him that my own experience in the early scene (1976-1979) was not one of exclusion or racism, but that other people who were part of the later scene (1980 and beyond) may have encountered racism and closed doors (and let's be honest in saying that there was a growing skinhead contingent in the early 1980's punk scene) and if that perception forced them to create their own scene to overcome this obstacle, then that was a blessing.

According to Colin Gunckel, who is curating the Vexing show along with Pilar Tompkins, the exhibition is meant to show the ELA punk scene as it intersects race, time, gender and location. "I didn't want the show to be based on ethnicity, because it didn't happen in a bubble" says Gunckel. He's right about that. Most of the people whom I've spoken to who were actually part of the ELA scene were going to Hollywood to see punk bands even before the Vex existed.

In order to understand the ELA scene in a broader sense, we have to have some sort of timeline to sharpen our perspective. In the Fall of 1977, The Masque opened its doors in Hollywood as a alternative cabaret. Although it was not the first venue for punks, it became the epicenter of the budding Hollywood scene. It was a place where creativity was nurtured and differences were accepted. Years later, in the Spring of 1980, The Vex would open its doors to a similar group of young artists. Like the Masque, it was not the first place to feature punk talent but it fulfilled a very special role. Like The Masque, it was a place that nurtured its artists and the ELA punk scene coalesced around it.

Here's a quote from an interview I completed in 2007:

When punk came along, it was just the perfect vehicle for me to express who I was an individual. It was new enough and open enough to allow itself to be defined by people like me. Just a couple of years later, that would change and people would have to fit into preconceived notions of what punk rock was or wasn’t. The early scene had no such limitations because we were the ones creating and defining it. If you had been at the Masque in 1977, you would have seen very eclectic shows, ranging from the Screamers to Arthur J. and the Goldcups, from Geza X and the Mommymen to The Controllers. There was no clearly defined punk sound, no dress code and all you had to do was show up and make your presence known. The movement was one of individuals and individual expression, each of us bringing our heritage and formative experiences with us in an organic and in my case, unplanned way."

What happened between the Fall of 1977 and the Spring of 1980 is perhaps at the heart of some of the confusion about the points of intersection of these two scenes. My band, The Bags, played the Masque in September of 1977. As I have repeatedly written and said in interviews countless times over the years, my own experience of the original Hollywood scene was that it was open, egalitarian, limitless and creative. As the years passed, the scene changed. As the scene expanded, new members brought in new value systems. A scene that had once valued diversity and originality became a place where white males in uniform-like jeans, boots and leather jackets became the norm. It's no surprise to me then, that in late 1979 and early 1980, just months prior to The Vex's opening, some Latinos were feeling unwelcome in the Hollywood scene. Of course, the perception of racism differs, depending on who you ask. We all perceive these things differently and react to them differently. When I asked Tracy Lee of Thee Undertakers if he'd ever experienced any racism in Hollywood, he replied that he hadn't except for someone once throwing a screwdriver at him at The Whisky A Go-Go.

It's also true that not all Eastside bands felt unwelcome or closed off from the Westside, and even if they did, many of them played there before, during and after the existence of the Vex. Teresa Covarrubias recalls that it was very difficult for her band, The Brat, to get shows on the Westside until the Vex opened and they had established a measure of popularity, although as Brendan Mullen points out, "Bookers back then and to the present day are generally concerned with assessing whether the band mean any bodies in their club space.' Ironically, the club which Brendan is most associated with, The Masque, did not follow this commercial policy and thus helped to foster a vibrant and creative scene, perhaps in much the same way the Vex did in East L.A.

When the Vex finally did open, it welcomed bands and artists from all over. It wasn't unusual to see the likes of X, The Blasters and Social Distortion on the east side of the L.A. River. I think that maybe this was one of the intersections Gunckel refers to. I'm sure there were many intersections, but it takes some work to find them. One could easily go back to the Gronk/Dreva Art Meets Punk show in 1978 to find an early example of a Hollywood punk band crossing over to the ELA art audience. The Chicano art collective ASCO pre-dated punk, but could certainly be considered kindred spirits of the early punks. I also know that I am not speaking about the many other artists who were involved in creating poetry as well visual and performance art which coincided and collided with the punk scene. I don't really know how those scenes intersected or if they did, but perhaps this exhibition will help shed some light on those questions.

Perhaps most importantly, the Vexing exhibition will also showcase younger artists alongside the OG punks. The connections between our generations may not be obvious at first glance. It could be that those of us who time travel through our music, art or poetry and defy boundaries touch the younger generation in subtle ways that even we are unaware of, just as so many women before paved the way for us.


LouisJacinto said...

I moved to Los Angeles in 1975 from Bakersfield, CA, to begin my third year of college. I was 19 years old. I grew up in a diverse community where everyone lived, worked, worshiped, etc., together. I thought Los Angeles was backward and behind the times with their sense of segregation.

When the punk scene happened which everyone was a part of - women and men; Latinos, Blacks, Whites, Asians; gays and straights; musicians, fans (like me), artists (like me) - I felt at home again. And everyone fit into more than just one of the categories that I've listed. I thought, "Great! Los Angeles has finally caught up to what Bakersfield has been doing for years!"

What Alice says about the punk scene changing by 1980 is true. The whiteboys in their skinhead drag was not punk. It was not the punk which truly liberated us kids from having to be "hip" to be complete. It was now our choice; not some big corporate company deciding what kids should be wearing, what kids should be singing, what kids should be thinking - not anymore.

Of course, the "punk" scene eventually became the hip thing, for the masses, but it wasn't punk anymore.

I didn't follow the scene that continued at the VEX. I felt it was just more segregation that Angelinos seem to thrive on.

I can't help feeling that way. I'm just a simple country boy from Bakerfield, CA, completely liberated! Sometimes I think that Alice is secretly a simple country girl from Bakerfield, CA, completely liberated! Luv you Alice! - Louis Jacinto

Anonymous said...

How interesting that we are still, almost 30 years later, discussing whether or not there was a "closed" Hollywood scene...the question is whether or not the closed doors were based on race or something more mundane like drawing power of a particular band. It's so easy to fall back on charges of discrimination/racism and cry foul when things aren't going your way.

Anyway, interesting questions and ones which will probably never be answered, because as you state, it's all in how someone perceives it. What is clear is that something changed in the years between 77 and 80 that made the scene less open to new ideas and new styles. Every historical account and source who "was there at the time" backs this up. You have only to watch the first Decline to see the way the scene had changed by late 1979. Very unfriendly and closed to outsiders, even though more and more outsiders were pouring in every day. Maybe that's what caused some people to form a negative opinion and assume that racism was behind it.

gunckel said...

Yes! Thank you for this blog, Alice.
I think what makes this show both worthwhile and challenging (and what has also generated confusion) is that it attempts to understand the ELA scene in its complexity. Historically speaking, it’s impossible to draw strict boundaries around any scene. So since many accounts have treated ELA it as if it existed in some kind of vacuum (both on the level of art and music), we think it is important to place it in relation to multiple points of intersection: the Hollywood scene before and after, the downtown art scene (you are dead on about LACE), and the Chicano avant garde. All of these things informed the way things in ELA took shape, and, we also argue, and artists/musicians in this scene made major contributions to the broader cultural landscape of LA, a fact that has frequently been overlooked. The idea is to understand the Vex scene as a unique phenomenon, while also arguing for its place within a number of parallel histories.
Given the lack of substantial research on this subject (or on LA punk in general), the show is intended to elevate the level and quality of discourse surrounding this period of history, and to generate constructive dialogue. So it’s fantastic to see so much discussion going on, even before the show opens.

EL CHAVO! said...

That's quite an informative post Alice, adds that much needed background reporters tend to drop as inconsequential since they always seem focused on just one angle to whatever the story may be. And I appreciate that you specified that YOU found the Hollywood scene to be open, and didn't assume everyone else would have that same perspective; it's often the case that people take their own experiences and apply them to everyone else, which is usually not correct.

Seems like the history of ELA punx will yet be written by those in the know.

Anonymous said...

eloquent as always, alice.

i think it's a very slippery slope to speak of the l.a. and east l.a. punk scenes as "history." both scenes have continued to thrive over the years since the masque and the vex closed their doors. some of it was good, some bad.

while i understand mr. jacinto's belief that what came after the 77-79 period was not "punk," i would venture to modify the statement that it was not HIS interpretation of punk. like culture, ethnicity, race, whatever, one's interpretation of the punk ethos is very personal and varies wildly from one person to the next. is punk darby crash snorting street runoff? is it patti smith dueting "because the night" with springsteen? is it trying to channel your angst and anger into something positive?

i embraced punk in 1981 and became part of what would probably be considered the "second wave" of east l.a. punk bands, though what we were doing overlapped the vex bands. we were too young to play the vex (yes, we tried) and, like our predecessors, hollywood didn't wanna hear about us, so we built our own scene in the backyards. though less celebrated than either the masque or the vex, it was nevertheless vibrant and creative in its own way and served as the bedrock upon which what became known as the "chicano groove" scene of the 1990s was built -- out of bands like no church on sunday, bloodcum, butt acne, peace pill, copulation, the republic, resistant militia and many others came quetzal, ollin, resistant culture, blues experiment, and so on. many of us involved in those 80s punk bands moved on and left the backyards, and punk, behind. the scene, however, continued on without us, and i have little doubt the backyards will be packed with bands and fans every weekend this summer, same as it's been for years. is it the same? is it MY punk? probably not, but it's someone's punk and if it gives a kid the motivation and opportunity to create some music, or poem, or painting, and challenge the status quo in which they find themselves entrenched, who am i or anyone else to question its authenticity or their dedication?

the same thing can be applied to the question of racism -- one person's joke is another's denigration. were the brat, the illegals or any other band shut out because of skin pigmentation, cultural identity, gender or location? maybe, maybe not. some of them may have felt it was such, others like the stains or circle one didn't seem to have the same perceptions orproblems. whatever the reason, the difficulty of said bands to secure a show on the westside was obviously enough of a problem for herron to make the vex a reality and those of us that came afterwards to build a scene out of backyards and cassette tapes. while a comment like mullen's can be used to dismiss said difficulties with the wave of a hand and a "well, they wouldn't draw anyone," it neither washes away the bands' shared experiences nor does it explain the subsequent marginalization or exclusion of east l.a.'s punks from the history of the greater l.a. scene, including his own history of l.a. punk, "we got the neutron bomb," which dedicates less than ten pages to east l.a. and most of those tying grammy winners los lobos to the hollywood scene. is this racism, or is it simply the historians weeding out what doesn't fit into whatever thesis they've cooked up?

punk was, punk is, and punk will remain, whether we participate in it or not, and all the silliness and infighting and exclusion and glory and bliss and great art and great music will continue to make life a little less miserable for someone.

-jimmy tumors

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah and AMEN! Jimmy Tumors nailed it. Thank you!
And thanks to all for sharing their perspectives and insights on this subject.

Anonymous said...

i was in the hollywood scene when it started. it was a good time, and I never remember any racist stuff. THAT is what I loved about the punk scene, everyone was equal. i left the scene for a few months, left the state. when I came back, the scene i was a part of, wasn't there like it was in the beginning. the movie, decline had been made in the summer of 78.
but for the racists stuff in the hollywood punk scene from 76 on, I NEVER saw anything like that. NEVER SAW IT. So if you were smart, go out to the Claremont Museum of Art before Aug. 31, see the VEXING show, it is amazing and brilliant. The Art is something I have not seen in a long time. Run there and see it.. It is a loving tribute to the girls from east l.a., that were very important to the punk scene, be it hollywood or east l.a.
Thank Goodness that a museum had the balls to put it on. Don't Miss Out!