It’s sometimes hard, even for someone involved in punk far enough back to have lived through it, to keep in mind just how different Los Angeles punk rock was in the 1980s. While the country’s current political climate skews so far right that it makes the “Reagan Revolution” seem like some liberal pipe dream, punk rock is far mellower than the scene’s so-called “golden era.” I don’t mean this in the pejorative—frankly I wholeheartedly prefer being able to see a random gig without having to constantly watch my back—so much as a reminder that things were much, much different then.
When L.A. punk’s initial 1970s salvo waned, a leaner, meaner “hardcore” scene developed, one fueled by younger adherents, more frenetic beats, and, for some, a yen to make its predecessor’s tongue-in-cheek violence more reality than fantasy. From this petri dish, L.A.’s first major punk gangs arose, and many more followed until things—to my recollection—reached its nadir in the late ‘80s, and it seemed like everyone at a gig was cliqued up. While a lot of great music and gigs were in the offing, it was also a very fucked up time where people often got hurt for no reason. It was an environment that infused things both with a jolt of adrenaline and a sense that, as the book’s title implies, safety might be found in numbers.
As author Adam Wilson points out mid-tome, many of these punk crews didn’t fit the stereotypical “gang” definition spoon-fed by film, TV, and lurid news stories: “We weren’t raised in Watts or East L.A. We all came from relatively safe neighborhoods in upper Los Angeles…. The reason we were so enamored by street gangs and the ghettos they came from was that we were spoiled, attention-seeking and mirroring. Nothing more, nothing less.” Nearly everything he recounts prior reflects this, both in his accounts of angry, fucked up kids doing angry, fucked up, dumb shit and in his descriptions of his younger self and his friends. This mid-point also marks when—like L.A.’s first wave gave way to something darker—his gang “mirroring” devolves into a much grimmer reality of ‘hood drama, drugs, violence, and deaths.
Another book by other authors was released a year or two ago, purporting to be about the city’s “deadliest” punk gang, by an imprint with a penchant for hyping the lurid and playing fast ‘n’ loose with factual information. True to form, that book is rife with salacious tales of murder, violence, and factional warring. Despite garnering much attention, closer inspection brings into question the veracity of its accounting—I know from personal experience that one incident it recounts did not happen as described and conversations about the book that have popped up, both personal and on greater social media platforms, indicate that other incidences might not have happened at all and some purported rivalries didn’t exist—and its reliance on bravado and an almost celebratory attitude towards the subject matter is disturbing and—rightfully so—controversial.
Unlike that book, Safety in Numbers reads more like a true memoir: straight-ahead storytelling, an aversion to the aforementioned bravado almost to the point sometimes being a little overly conciliatory in places (though I wholly understand the intent of Wilson’s effort is to dissuade those who might want to interpret things otherwise), and a genuine attempt to unravel what happened and why. A deft sense of “slow burn” plotting which includes the more mundane aspects of gang life adds to a deceptive normalcy that leads down a road where—like the author—readers ultimately, unwittingly find themselves in a world of crazy that seems sudden but—looking back—all the road marks leading there can clearly be seen.
Wilson paints clearly and concisely of a world few are aware, let alone have experienced. Those of us who do know it well will find his vision of it rings true and honest. Any errors that may be found in his words do not feel intentionally mendacious. It doesn’t read like yet another blustery brag-fest about how cool and dangerous he and his friends were, but rather like a true account of a kid whose life spun wildly out of control. He miraculously made it out the other side. It is a tale worthy of much attention and discussion. Wilson deserves maximum respect for plunging into a subject rife with landmines and managing to pull the hat trick of recounting his journey through one of punk’s darker corners without glorifying or trivializing it. Never thought I’d ever say this about a book covering this topic, but this comes highly recommended. –Jimmy Alvarado (Adam Wilson, [email protected])