Moshpit Metaphysics: The Politics of Punk in San Francisco 1976
Issue #56, Summer 2001
What we have now is government-sponsored clownspeak artists vs. the darker underground side — And the people who play that game emphasize the same things over and over again: sex, macho, money — placing themselves on a pedestal compared to other human beings. This is done on purpose to give other people a sense of being smaller, a sense that all that they can really hope for is being a happy insect rather than an unhappy insect working for someone else's bee colony. Maybe they hope that if they keep people uninformed and insecure, people won't get up off of their asses and take charge of their daily lives.
— Jello Biafra, interview with Peter Belsito, 1985
Conventional wisdom has it that punk came late to northern California but, when it did come, it arrived with a delightful vengeance. Some cite the 18 January 1978 Sex Pistols concert at Winterland as the generative moment, even though it was the last concert given by that legendary and prototypical punk band from London. It was there that the obstreperous carrot-top named Rotten repeatedly hectored his audience with the accusatory encore of the Stooges' "no fun, no fun." The majority of those in attendance thought that they were indeed having fun, but only the kind of fun that might have been soundtracked by the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" or Boz Skaggs's chart-topping disco anthem "Dirty Low Down." Rotten made it clear that there was another kind of fun that could be had, a forbidden fun that was riskier and more dangerous because it aggressively put the lie to the self-congratulatory lassitude of the 1970s. It was the kind of fun that had everything to do with reacting to the fact that that the way things had turned out was very different from the way things were supposed to be.
To partake of the exhilaration born of the absurd recognition that "we didn't have a chance, so we used it," such oh-so-precious fun required catching the kind of clue that most of the post-hippie voyeurs attending that concert would have found particularly daunting. It implored them to recognize that their longstanding fantasy of being at the center of a generational revolution had, with embarrassing quickness, turned into a load of misspent bollocks. Their fantasy had been repackaged and sold back to them by the very authorities against whom they thought they had successfully rebelled. Once this hard pill of a contemporary reality check was swallowed, everyone had to accept being just another middle-class poser, or else discover that their revolutionary pretenses had not yet been wrapped in macramé and sequestered into an international orange or evergreen green nylon backpack.
At that time, it was easy to gain a refreshed sense of outrage at the way the Carter-era world was turning: The June 1978 passage of California State Proposition 13 (the so-called Jarvis-Gann tax cutting initiative) gave the first clear picture of the onrushing tidal wave of Reagan-Thatcherism. At the same time, the new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (a.k.a. SALT II) that had been negotiated with the Soviet Union failed to pass the test of Senate ratification. The stock market took a significant dip immediately after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, sending interest rates and the prices of oil, gold, and real estate through the proverbial roof. Soon thereafter, Russian tanks were rolling into Kabul, where they were only a short day trip from the Persian Gulf oil fields and the fate of the energy-dependent free world. The lingering fantasy that nuclear power could free us from our dependency on imported oil went up in the cloud of radioactive steam released from the power plant at Three Mile Island in March of 1979. Secretary of State Alexander Haig defied constitutional authority to proclaim that he "was in control of the White House" when Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in March of 1980. In Europe, anti-nuclear demonstrations drew crowds that numbered over a million people in 1982 and again in 1986 and '87.
To add local insult to world-wide injury, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk (the city's first openly gay supervisor) were assassinated in November of 1978 by a former Supervisor and ex-policeman named Dan White. White then successfully evaded conviction by claiming that "diminished capacity" due to a binge on Hostess Twinkies prompted his hypoglycemia to get the better of his judgment. Only a few days earlier the world had learned of the mass suicide of over 900 members of the People's Temple in Guyana, most of whom followed its leader Jim Jones from his humble starting point just two doors down from San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. San Francisco Supervisor and Mayor-apparent Dianne Feinstein was seriously promoting a much talked-about "Manhattanization of San Francisco," prompted in part by the construction of the Rockefeller family's Embarcadero Center, originally to be called Rockefeller Center West. This process set into motion lucrative opportunities for Feinstein's husband, real estate developer Richard Blum, even as a budgetary crisis in the other Manhattan had forced New York City Mayor Abe Beame out of office. In short, the big fix was everywhere in evidence, and the squeeze was felt then just as it is being felt now, especially by younger people who had come to San Francisco to partake in that city's traditional bohemian ambiance of relaxed lifestyle, cozy caf.s, and affordable rents.
No amount of flowers in anybody's hair could dispel the omnipresent anxiety quickly permeating a world that had perhaps rested on its complacent laurels too long for its own good. If punk was a sociocultural explosion of anxiety turned into anger and aggression, then surely it was prompted by the dramatic disconnect between a deceptively comfortable day-to-day experience and a new sense of growing global tumult.
In a reminiscence of the Pistols' concert, Greil Marcus wrote: "Walking the aisles of Winterland as the Sex Pistols played, I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new. Thirty-two years had not taught me what I learned that night: when you're pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, shove back."
Indeed, for many including myself, the anarchic metaphysics of the moshpit were revealed to northern California for the first time that night. And they made a kind of perfect sense — not only as a much needed cathartic experience that was an antidote to quotidian anxiety, but as a new form of collectively determined meaning that was saturated in a fresh relevance. Once again, we knew who "we" and "they" really were, rather than who they pretended so very poorly to be. "We" were those who had a clue and because of said clue we would broach no bullshit, for the world was clearly going to hell in a new kind of corporate handbasket that no amount of self-empowerment rhetoric could hope to stop. "They" were the complacent ones without said clue, those who unconsciously counted themselves as the members of the hypernarcissistic "me" decade of the 1970s and who couldn't quite grasp the fact that the idealistic dreams of the sixties had in fact died at the hands of their own pseudo-radical hypocrisies. After that moshpit baptism, one could awaken to the new tone and texture of the emerging world's changing drama. And in so doing we could say that the 1970s was "then" and this moment of fearful aggression — the age of Ronald Reagan's friendly fascism — is "now." Because of that moment, new possibilities seemed to emerge. By my gauge, that particular now lasted clear up until the spring of 1989, when striking ship workers in Poland took the metaphysics of the moshpit and successfully rewrote them on the world historical stage by finally triumphing in their decade-long challenge to Warsaw Pact totalitarianism. Less than two years latter, the whole world saw Berlin turn into yet another moshpit as the Cold War's emblematic wall came tumbling down. Then the situation chilled into the kinder-gentler brand of corporate rule of Bush the senior. At that point, the United Colors of Benetton, Huey Lewis's bland party mix, and World Beat were in the ascendant, and punk was but a dim and very hungover memory.
But here we are getting ahead of our story. The sudden emergence of punk may have been a vivid and unpredictable sign that the socio-political stalemate of the late 1970s had been ruptured if not completely broken. But more care should be given to the constituent parts of that stalemate, lest the thing that reacted so profoundly to it be misunderstood yet again. By the end of the 1970s, it was only a matter of time before droves of former '60s radicals would jump like lemmings onto the Reagan bandwagon, motivated by sheer greed, stupidity, and peer pressure. For them, the end of the Vietnam War and the advent of mostly toothless civil-rights legislation were the only laurels necessary to prove that the good fight had been honorably undertaken and as such they were laurels that were all the better for resting upon. No need to seek out new outrages here, for to do so would require giving up on certain comforts, most especially the comfortable delusion that one's comforts were somehow not tied to the misery of others. As for those who still fancied themselves as keepers of the radical faith, their vision of an inevitable "dictatorship of the proletariat" oftentimes was translated into a entry-level teaching job in one of America's high schools. With consummate smugness they then coughed up a patronizing curriculum that was rich in self-esteem building while failing miserably to speak to or even recognize the emerging experience of a new generational anger. This was an anger that percolated in the television-addled suburbs, an anger directed primarily against the growing epidemic of disengaged complacency (of whatever political stamp), and against the seemingly endless self-congratulatory boredom of it all.
If Reagan rode on a popular wave of blaming the lassitude of the 1960s for all of the world's woes, then the keepers of the radical faith also showed an alarming tendency to mask their myriad failures by pointing at convenient scapegoats. They usually did this by way of prattling about "late capitalism," as if the grim character of the moment was but a moment of darkness before the advent of a new post-capitalist dawn. Of course, the only place that this kind of talk made sense was in the halls of government-funded academia, and as such it could be counted on to support the proliferation of stylish academic workstations (which in turn supported comfortable middle-class lifestyles). Yet it threatened nothing, least of all the status quo. "Hypocrites!" cried Rotten to his disheveled followers. For, in winning its early battles, the so-called Baby Boomer generation had also lost the war. From the standpoint of punk, this had always been a class war fought on behalf of an anarchist's notion of freedom and an eternally unrealizable moment of self-determination. All that was left was the soon-to-be-completed corporate sponsorship of reality itself. All of this sickened punk's snarling heart, especially when that sponsorship manifested itself in the despised melodies of corporate rock or the robotic gyrations of disco.
Punks held no such illusions, because they knew that they would be fucked no matter what happened, unless of course they made something happen! And make something happen they did, on their own terms for their own kind who were quickly growing in numbers. Punks prided themselves on the illusion-free character of their lifestyle, and they cobbled together a kind of homespun Nietzscheanism of mock triumphalism and exaggerated despair to sharpen this view, as a way of transcending the circumstances which gave rise to it. Righteous indignation gave way to rage, as well as the idea that rapture and salvation could be found within a rage that was truly of its own time. Punks used this rage to fuel its attempt to build an alternative culture based on the idea that you could "do your own show" and, in so doing, build your own community of disaffiliated desire.
It was this message that was latter taken up by the ravers of the late 1980s and 1990s, albeit with very different ideas of "show" and "community" in mind. If the MDMA-loving ravers sought to redeem and exaggerate the eroticism that had been cheapened and bowdlerized by the cocaine-sniffing disco dancers of the mid-1970s, then conversely punk's perverse amphetamine-driven message was to embrace aggression as morally and libidinally superior to any misguided fixation on the erotic. Not that the punk scene was devoid of eroticism — in fact, it was particularly welcoming to a wide spectrum of participants in the erotic undergrounds of its day, be they of the pre-AIDS gay bathhouse set, rough-trade lesbians, BDSM enthusiasts, or others whose sexual identity operated in a high degree of experimental flux. But there is an important reason why there are no love ballads in the punk discography: It is because punks felt that anger and despair were bigger and more worthy subjects for song, and any fluttering of the erotic heart that went past animal impulse was dismissed as distraction.
It was a message that caught on quickly, and by the fall of 1978 there were more than a dozen very good punk bands making San Francisco their base of operations: The Avengers, Dead Kennedys, the Mutants, Romeo Void, Flipper, and Chrome were perhaps the best known, but these were among many others. Other bands from L.A. such as X and The Germs were frequent and welcomed visitors. San Francisco punk also had a house organ and a local headquarters. The house organ was a tabloid publication called Search and Destroy, edited by Vale. From 1977 to 1979, S&D ran twelve issues. It then resurfaced in another incarnation, coedited by Andrea Juno, as the more stylish RESearch, which was published intermittently up to the early 1990s. From the pages of Search and Destroy one could learn that there had been a vital punk scene in San Francisco prior to the arrival of the Sex Pistols, and that those who had been part of that scene had a clear idea of the political implications of their efforts.
As Dead Kennedys' singer-songwriter Jello Biafra remembered: "Search and Destroy was about the best fanzine ever made. They were there early, when we all felt that the times were getting dangerous, and it was up to us to provide the danger. There was a feeling among most people that this raw, repulsive music and visual art was the beginning of the new uprising — what fun it [was] to free other people from the 1970s!" Indeed, the cut-and-paste graphics and political rant and fanzine rave articles found in Search and Destroy did a great job of capturing the ineffable texture of the moment, which included, featured, and valorized the esthetics of youthful indiscretion without the faintest whiff of apology.
The local headquarters for northern California punk was an obscure Filipino restaurant located at 443 Broadway called the Mabuhay Gardens. This was the most frequent and durable venue for what promoter Dirk Dirksen (black-sheep nephew of Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen) called "avant-garde musical theater," and it operated up to 1987. At the time of this writing, the scene at Mabuhay comes into focus slowly, fleeting memories being what they are. Impressions: standing in line outside the club while barkers from the adjacent strip clubs gawked in stupefied amazement at the leather and flamboyant body piercings; the clink of Budweiser longnecks and the periodic bickering of the surly waitstaff; lots of admiring-of-regalia while standing around between sets; the sneering, gimlet-eyed Dirksen making yet-another de rigueur hectoring plea for the continued "support for this kind of theater"; the 1-2-3 clack of drumsticks leading into an obstreperous guitar-growling rendition of some panicked anthem about rising rents or police harassment. Bouncing bodies respirated in and out of the moshpit and performers such as Jello Biafra launched themselves into the crowd, only to be returned to the stage by a hundred hands. The straight newspapers called Dirksen "the Pope of punk," but he was really following rather than leading the crowd — in fact, he had been booking shows at Mabuhay since early 1976 and came to punk by way of a happy accident when he booked the Ramones and the Dils early in 1977. In a comic following of his family's political footsteps, Dirksen also served as campaign manager for Jello Biafra's 1980 run for Mayor of San Francisco, which netted some 4000 votes. About the same time, the Roxie Cinema on 16th Street was offering midnight showings of David Lynch's darkly surreal film Eraserhead, which was showing with a short film by and about the band Devo. This too had quite an impact, fueling the work of another early San Francisco synthesizer band, the Residents, who made similar films.
As the late 1970s turned into the early 1980s, other punk venues began doing shows. This author's personal favorite was The Deaf Club, a loft on Valencia Street that in the daytime was a social club for the hearing impaired. At night it offered a perfect blend of the surreal and the makeshift. The bartenders and the door staff were recruited from the club's hearing-impaired community and seemed to enjoy the shows as much as anyone else, partly because they could feel the music through the floorboards. Also, these shows brought two separate communities of social outcasts together, and each seemed to sustain a special respect for the other, an unspoken agreement about who was phony and who was cool. On nearby South Van Ness near 18th Street was an after-hours club called Target because it had no sign other than a crude red-and-white bullseye painted over its roll-up door. This was the production headquarters of Joe Rees's Target Video, a small production company that deserves credit for documenting the scene. Across the bay in Berkeley, a University Avenue bar called Berkeley Square became a respectable venue for such out-of-town bands as the Butthole Surfers.
No synopsis of the 1970s-1980s punk scene in San Francisco would be complete without a valorizing mention of the student parties during those years at the San Francisco Art Institute, or at the spacious south-of-Market loft of professor Sam Tchakalian. Several prominent local musicians were also students at the school. Freddy (a.k.a. Fritz) of the Mutants was studying film, while the painting and sculpture departments were haunted by Penelope Houston from the Avengers and Deborah Iyall and Frank Zincavage from Romeo Void. Art Institute old timers could even hark back to 1973-74, when the proto-punk band the Tubes were students at the school, and their hit song "White Punks on Dope" was commonly understood as an assessment of the school's student body. The Art Institute parties of the late 1970s and early 1980s were wild scenes, and their rugged art studio ambience was perfect for the provocative music and the slam dancing. The Art Institute had always functioned as a basis for the San Francisco bohemian underground, traditionally drafting its faculty and students from that milieu since the turn of the century.
Punk did have important visual-arts equivalents. It doesn't seem like any coincidence that those same years brought with them a cinematic renaissance in slasher movies like Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter's Halloween. At the same time, a European-derived painting style called Neo-Expressionism proved to be infectiously popular amongst the Art Institute students. Perhaps most noteworthy of the punk-related visual arts were the hyperdestructive machine performances of Mark Pauline, an Art Institute alum who founded the still vital Survival Research Laboratories in 1979. In SRL's performances, large, freakish robots did the radio-controlled slam dancing, and their ultraviolent activities implicated the whole world into a particularly grisly moshpit that gave mechanical flesh to dramatist Antonin Artaud's giddy prophecy for a "Theater of Cruelty."
It was only a matter of time and tradition before students from the school would go on to found their own underground spaces in the manner of the Beatnik-era Six Gallery (where Allen Ginsberg first read his controversial poem "Howl" in 1955). Painting student Sabina Ott founded JetWave on upper Market in 1979 as a space devoted to exhibiting "New Wave" and "Neo-Pop" artworks with a punk-inflected aspect to them. Some of the very earliest works that responded to the AIDS crisis, particularly the works of photographers Bill Jacobson and Jack Johnson, were presented at a space called the A-Hole Gallery.
And of course it was but a short walk from the school to the Mabuhay, making the latter a well known hangout where students could unwind after an arduous day of lectures and studio work. As the students walked south on Columbus toward Broadway, one could hear snippets of conversation: "fuckin' cops," "hippie assholes," "who's playin' tonight?" What was never, ever heard were any remarks about the avant-garde tradition of transgression-as-revolution. This is an important point, for it brings Greil Marcus's 1989 book Lipstick Traces into focus. Billed as a secret history of the 21st century, Lipstick Traces puts forth a tremendous effort to locate punk within a lineage that harks back to the French Situationists of the 1960s, and further back to the variant of Dada that was expressed in Berlin during the 1920s. This book is a fine effort in art history contextualization, but it loses track of the topical rubber-meets-the-road sociopolitical realities which were the real-life conditions that motivated punk's particular brand of anarchic immediatism.
Marcus's book placed punk within the great tradition of 20th-century revolutionary practices. But it failed to account for punk being the first popular art movement to recognize that said tradition had become an ossified and obsolete part of the euphemism-saturated clownshow of everyday business as usual. Stanley Kubrick's futuristic 1972 film A Clockwork Orange was much more of an influence on the esthetics of punk than the "revolution of '68" or any of Guy Debord's neo-Marxist tantrums. This is borne out by the fact that as early as 1973, the changing world order to which punk responded had been prophesied and valorized by John D. Rockefeller III. In his 1973 book The Second American Revolution, Rockefeller pointed to the "black and student revolts, women's liberation — and — yearning for non-materialistic values" as being both a crisis and an opportunity that could allow for the development of what he called "a humanistic capitalism." For the most part, the children of the 1960s who grew into the 1970s bought this oxymoronic line of post-Vietnam reasoning, while punk and only punk saw it for what it was: the big fix newly anointed in hypocrite's perfume.
Mark Van Proyen is a San Francisco-based artist and art critic. He is Associate Professor of Art History, Painting and Digital Media at the San Francisco Art Institute.