“You cannot overestimate how big a deal this hair thing was at the time”: DAVID BERMAN on a certain shift in punk culture in the 1980s

Sometime in 2004, I asked Daniel Chamberlin to write a piece for Arthur to explain how on earth he could be so into the Grateful Dead—how it had happened, what was the nature of the appeal given his other tastes in music, yadda yadda. He’d talk about the Dead in conversation, but I’m not he’d ever thought about writing such a piece. I wanted him to go for it, to really think it through and get it down. Make the pitch for the Dead! I had a hunch it might resonate with Arthur’s audience, such as it was. Dan wasn’t sure, but he went for it.

Somewhere along the line, I guess I asked David Berman if he’d like to illustrate Dan’s piece. Berman had already let us publish some of his “Scenes From the First Yes Tour” comics in the first issue of Arthur, so this wasn’t a completely out-of-leftfield idea… But I also think it must have been because Berman had mentioned the Dead somewhere — in a lyric, or a poem, in an interview, in a comic strip, in private conversation, I don’t know; something about the space between the notes of Jerry Garcia solos being the key to the Dead’s appeal? (Maybe a Berman scholar can help us out here. Please.) In any event, David gave us two single-panel comics to run with the piece in the July 2004 issue fo Arthur. You can see scans of them here.

I don’t know where in the timeline of all of this I received the following email from DCB, addressed to Dan. Maybe there was some correspondence back and forth between them while he was coming up with the art to accompany the piece? Dan can’t remember and neither can I. All I know is that I’ve saved it all these years, and Berman either never sent a follow-up, or it’s lost.

—Jay Babcock


From: “D.C. Berman”
Subject: RE: Alienated Deadheads
Date: Wed, 05 May 2004 12:20:19 -0500

oops. this is the first part of my response to your question and I haven’t even gotten to the part where i start liking the dead yet. more tomorrow.

DCB

You see a lot of reassessments of 1980’s culture nowadays. These reassessments might lead you to believe that sarcastic new wave music was the dominant trend in the decade but i remember it differently. I remember new wave as an aberrant, sometimes top 40, middle ground between the more rigorous fucktruck of hardcore (and what we now call post-punk bands) and the true ruling culture of (hair and seventies) metal and classic rock. This revisionism is standard procedure (consider how hard it is to find an admitted Uriah Heep or Three Dog Night fan on the links nowadays), and will soon have its chance to do a number on the present era as today’s teenagers tomorrow, wised up through learned humiliation, will replace their memories of attending dave matthews concerts with false ones about chasing down royal trux bootlegs at the corner store.


I have always held contempt for people who trust those that do not have their best interests in mind (like poor people who vote republican, for instance). They are in a word, dupes.  And from my olympian perch (for I had placed myself above all mankind except Greg Ginn) there were no bigger dupes in sight than deadheads. Instead of creating their own culture they had borrowed that of their aunts and uncles. In fact that’s what deadheads seemed like to me, even ones my own age, prematurely elderly. But worse, old folks wearing pajamas with teddy bears on them (the grandma glasses, unkempt hair and frail arthritic music). It really gave me a stomach ache just to gaze on them. Meanwhile things were changing a bit for young strident assholes. Rollins grew his hair. The Meat Puppets slowed down, Karl Precoda grew his hair (you cannot under overestimate how big a deal this hair thing was at the time), DRI went metal as did plenty of other hardcore bands. I started to soften to guitar solos. There was less dexedrine and more acid.”You’re Living All Over Me” changed my mind about a lot of things (I remember where i was when i heard the news that a group of classic rockers nobody gave a fuck about had filed suit against Dinosaur about the name and remember feeling the helpless frustration that they (the hippies) had done it again! (Though forcing Dinosaur to add Jr. to their name might have been the original hippies final cultural victory). A lot of people started changing their minds. It seems that while we were railing against the classic rockers our heroes had decided that the real enemy was the boring rules of hardcore. In those days all shows of an “underground” nature attracted the entire “punk community” of whatever town. No band could command an audience large enough to justify subsets of fans, so touring bands were constantly the object of abuse by those in the audience of a different punk rock denomination. Why did Richmond skinheads show up at decidedly brainy Honor Role shows? It was the only game in town. This set up all kinds of conflict which (considering the artists were contrarian in nature) drove a lot of post-punk bands to adopt hippy tropes (just to piss rules loving militants off).


More than any other band I think the Butthole Surfers started to crumble the distinctions between hippie and punk.

Arthur Radio Transmission #19 w/ live set by The Beets

Above: This week’s collage with artwork by Matthew Volz

Swimming out from the Subterranean Melodic Fancifalities Exploratorium onto dry land, amorphous and amphibious flaneurs Hairy Painter and Ivy Meadows find the Newtown Radio garden has sprung us The Beets! We catch Brooklyn’s noble busybodies – not to be confused with The Beets, nor The Beats, The Beat, Beat, or The Beatles – in a brief hometown interlude betwixt their South North American (with German Measles) and North North American (with The Mountain Goats) tours, with just enough time for them to stomp us up some radio gold. The live set – abundant with garage harmonica, amp humping, flute solos, toy theremins, sing alongs, set-up banter, and a newly balanced gender distribution – is then followed by a bonus set of the band spinning recent favorites from the road into the wee small hours. Viva!

Stream: [audio:http://www.arthurmag.com/magpie/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/The-Beets-5-23-2010.mp3%5D

Download: Arthur Radio #19 w/ live set by The Beets 5-23-2010

A portion o’ playlist awaits beneath…
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JOHN SINCLAIR (MC5, etc) on ALL-AGES SHOWS (Arthur, 2006)

originally published in Arthur No. 24 (Oct 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part One
by Jay Babcock

After this spring’s ArthurBall, someone posted to our website saying, “Hey, how was Growing? I really wanted to see them, but I’m only 17.” Now, if anyone needs to see Growing—a drone duo who are making a very challenging, contemplative sound right now, not unlike the first Fripp & Eno album—it’s a 17-year-old: talk about raw material for a formative experience. And yet, he—or she—was denied, because ArthurBall was an 18 & over event. Which meant that I was partly to blame.

That wasn’t a happy thing to realize. I’d been 17 once. I still haven’t recovered from my own formative experience back in 1988 when I saw the Mirage/Huevos-era Meat Puppets at Variety Arts Center in L.A. I was a teenaged square amidst 1500 freaks of the universe at a cheap, all-ages gig headlined by true goners: enduring the Kirkwood brothers’ 20-minute encore cover of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” left a much deeper, richer impression on my tender, gradually opening mind than seeing U2 and the Pretenders at the Coliseum a couple months before. That was a painfully loud, stage-managed spectacle, a queasy mix of overwhelming power, machine precision and mass audience; the pajama-clad Meat Puppets, on the other hand, were… well, they were fun. They operated on a scale that was recognizably human. They seemed genuinely off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, willing to misfire. Their single stage prop, a pair of Playboy bunny ears spontaneously draped on a microphone, resonated with me in some deep, pleasantly weirdifying way. That Meat Puppets show pointed to a way out: a different way of leading one’s life—of embracing your idiosyncrasies and weird visions and interests rather than suppressing them. It was like some beautiful rite of passage, an initiation into art and imagination and other people—a sideways welcoming into a more creative, fertile, vibrant, rich way of being. Years later, I’d find out that, of course, I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone such an experience: almost everyone I know who is involved with music as a performer or enthusiast or whatever can point to some bizarro show that changed their life when they were a teenager, that lit up new paths.

I wonder if that kind of experience is readily available anymore to those who want it. I mean, the Mars Volta are amazing, but you have to pay $65 to see them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a basketball arena. Growing are cool, but Arthur Ball is 18 & up. And so on. The sad truth is that although exciting music is regularly performed all over L.A.—at backyard barbecues and loft district rent parties, dive bars and supper clubs, nightclubs and art galleries, high school football games and homecoming dances, city parks and Sunday morning church services, street corners and subways, outdoor amphitheaters and baseball stadiums—maybe the only time when a good number of people of all ages can gather together to witness quality music, at an affordable price, with a good sound system, is when an artist plays an in-store set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. Kudos to Amoeba for providing this basic public service to arts-starved Angeleno teenagers, of course—it’s more than the public schools and mainstream broadcast media do—but surely it’s not a positive indicator of a culture’s health when the best venue for all-ages music is a record store. ‘Dancing in the aisles’ should mean something more than grooving politely in the Used Funk/Soul section as cash registers ring in the distance.

We lose something as a society when we don’t allow our youth to experience music—by which I mean real, living, breathing music, as opposed to commerce-driven pop—in a decent, accessible, affordable, relatively intimate setting where music is given the opportunity to be truly experienced as music. Something has gone wrong here. But what has happened, exactly, to get us to this point? And is it just Los Angeles, or is it nationwide? What can we do about it? What did they do in the past?

I decided it was time to call John Sinclair.

During the 1960s, John Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, managed the MC5, headed the anarchist White Panther Party and got thrown in jail for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He was freed after serving two years due to the intervention of John Lennon, who wrote a song for him and appeared at a 15,000-plus arena rally to bring attention to Sinclair’s case (check out the “The US vs John Lennon” documentary for more details). He is a renowned poet, scholar, deejay and journalist, and at 64, still a towering presence. We talked about all-ages shows outside a brandname coffeeshop in Culver City over half-finished crossword puzzles.

John Sinclair: Here’s a point I want to make about this right off: This whole ‘age’ thing is a function of the whole white American culture—it isn’t a universal thing. When I was coming up, you had no congress with anyone more than two years older or two years younger than you, unless they were your brother and sister. You had no congress with adults, with anybody but your own age peers. Everything you did was around that; we were alienated from all the others.

Now, I grew up listening to blues and R&B on the radio in the Fifties. I’m not into country music. I avoided it like the plague. I came from a farming community, and I didn’t want no part of that! Once I heard black music on the radio, I wanted to be where those people were. They were having a lot more fun than anybody I knew, and then when I started going to their dances. It was a beautiful thing. They had big shows in Flint, Michigan. Rhythm and blues shows. I saw everyone that came to Flint between 1955 and 1960. I went to these rhythm and blues shows and there’d be 3,000 black people and 20 white kids who were music freaks and liked to dance. The thing that hit me the hardest about these shows was that there were people of all ages there: little kids, grandmas, and most of the crowd was young adults who were older than us. The teenagers like us were only a stratum. There were people in their 60s, people in their 40s, the finest women you’d ever seen in their 20s just dressed to the nines, red dresses and shit. Knock your eyes out. And there’d be little kids running around and it was no big deal. And the people who wanted to have a drink, they had a flask in their pockets. If they wanted to smoke a joint, they had a joint. It was just like going to a different planet. It was so much hipper. And they were also so accepting. It wasn’t like you would be nervous about being there. They’d let you have your fun, you’d dance with the black girls. It was just like being in heaven for me, man. Because where I lived, I hated everything.

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