Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons: By David Ensminger, 320 pgs. By Jimmy

Nov 21, 2013

Ensminger is no stranger to punk rock—he’s been around the scene since at least the mid-‘80s, was a member of Texas Biscuit Bombs, was the driving force behind Left of the Dial magazine, and has penned a book or two highlighting different aspects of the subculture. This time ‘round, he strives to shed some light on punk’s underlying ethos “from the bottom up, directly from the participants, the pursuers of dreams, the folk of punk, the informants, the living actors,” as he explains in his introductory essay.

This translates to a collection twenty-one interviews that stretch back into the non-NY/U.K.-centric part of punk’s veritable “big bang,” what followed in its wake, how its excesses were stripped down and honed into a direct assault weapon against the status quo and, indirectly, how that weapon has dulled over time and what’s been lost with the massive infusion of corporate sponsorship and money into the punk scene. In addition to the usual go-to punk talking heads—the names MacKaye, Morris, Biafra, Sensible, Watt, Grisham, and Dictor are likely recognizable to those with a slightly more than passing interest in punk—Ensminger also has the wisdom to query folks one doesn’t run into quite as often these days about punk’s impact on them: Gary Floyd, Fred “Freak” Smith, U-Ron Bondage, Peter Case, and Greg Turner, among many others.

While there is much history packed into these interviews, including a nice oral history of legendary San Francisco venue the Deaf Club, it is less a history lesson in the strictest sense than an attempt to document the threads of punk’s ideological framework, its common core motivations, and its unspoken philosophies. Ensminger’s effectiveness in doing so is dependent on the reader’s level of attention—the passing reader will find interesting, engaging, and lively discussions about how this motley group of individuals live(d) and where they are coming from as artists. Buried inside the discussions, however, are glimpses of the DIY ethic wielded by these and other outsiders to subvert and directly challenge a world that continues to value homogeny and disdains anyone or anything that dares not to fit in. Scholars and historians will find it of great use in adding some depth and perspective to their efforts. Newer punks looking to cut through nearly two decades of corporate-spoon-fed misinformation and bullshit and wishing to reconnect with what made punk such a threat in the first place will find much here indispensible. –Jimmy Alvarado (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA94623)

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