I once spent four gloriously unemployed months living nearly rent-free in my bandmate’s basement and going to shows almost every day. In honor of my living the punk rock dream, a friend loaned me a well-loved copy of his favorite book,Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. He wasthoroughly disgusted that I would deign to call myself “punk” despite having never read it. He was even more disgusted when I handed it back to him mostly unread a year later. The junkie pride, gossipy pettiness, and arty narcissism contained therein is the stuff of East Coast punk legend, but while the desire to burn it all down is seductive, my personal punk rock ethos has always been rooted in the desire to build something better.
This experience is why I began punk rock polymath Craig Ibarra’s A Wailing of a Town with great trepidation. An oral history inspired by the likes of Please Kill Me, the book is a collection of interviews with heavy hitters from the rarely scrutinized late ‘70s, early ‘80s San Pedro scene. It took thirty pages for Please Kill Me to show its ass, but it only took fifteen for A Wailing of a Townto show its heart. Toward the end of the third chapter, entitled “Joy,” Andy Tuck—described in the helpful name glossary as “a gig-goer”—says, “As naïve as it seems, punk rock was very hopeful to me as a kid. I really believed that we could make change.” This positivity pervades the rest of the book, even in its darker moments, as it celebrates the scene’s inclusiveness, inventiveness, blue-collar work ethic, and emphasis on friendship.
Despite being relatable and approachable, A Wailing of a Town is not without its legendary stories. Remember when Black Flag played your high school? Uh, no you don’t. But the SanPedroHigh School class of 1982 sure does! Ibarra includes a genius excerpt from the school’s yearbook, Black and Gold: “The surprise band was a real surprise to everyone. Black Flag, a well-known punk group drew a large crowd during lunchtime. […] ‘This was my first taste of real punk—and my last,’ added Spence Stafford.” Ibarra also includes thirty-six pages of black and white photography, flyers, and handwritten lyrics to help transport you back in time.
While the book centers around San Pedro’s most famous exports, the beloved Minutemen, it also recalls some of its lesser-known offerings such as Saccharine Trust and The Wigs!, and prominently features the invaluable insight and poetic nostalgia of Gary Jacobelly, formerly of Peer Group and The Plebs. Unsatisfied to focus only on bands, A Wailing of a Town leaves no stone left unturned, outlining the scene’s most iconic labels, zines, artists, and hangouts. The proceedings—though mostly being related over twenty years later—sing with youthful insubordination and exuberance in equal measure. Several early chapters speak on the harassment and abuse loud and proud Pedro punks faced from community members and local cops in the pre-hardcore era, while “Shit You Hear at Parties” captures the timeless energetic anarchy of a house show in any era, (although these house shows just so happened to feature D. fucking Boon manning the barbeque!).
Though painstakingly thorough, richly detailed, and impeccably researched, this oral history is really all about D. Boon, the beating heart of the San Pedro scene. One particularly endearing story comes—naturally—from Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, who celebrates his bandmate’s lesser-known talents. “We had a ‘Dance Contest’ when we played at Club Lingerie (March 31, 1983),” he recalls. “The prize was a pizza. D. Boon ended up eating all the pizza and the winner never got any. D. Boon danced like a motherfucker!” Ibarra wisely incorporates snippets of past interviews with the iconic frontman, allowing him to tell the story of the scene he helped build alongside the surviving comrades with whom he built it. The book’s final chapter is dedicated to D. Boon’s passing, which marked the end of the San Pedro scene as its denizens knew it. The late Lisa Roeland explains, “Once D. Boon died, everybody went their separate ways. He was the guy that kept us all together. He changed all of our lives.”
Punk means many different things to many different people, and no one definition is any better or more accurate than the next. There’s no denying the talent, importance, or cultural impact of the larger-than-life New York punks shooting up and checking out in Please Kill Me. However, based on the current trend of bands standing for inclusion, collective action, and hope for a better world, perhaps San Pedro’s sustainable positivity was an equally powerful force.A Wailing of a Town is required reading for anyone who believes that, as Jacobelly puts it in the book’s prologue, “Punk Rock is what you make it.” –Kelley O’Death (End Fwy Press, endfwy.bigcartel.com)