We were bored, angry, and without cars, living in New Jersey. The driver’s licenses that came later did little to pacify us, the kids who ate bagels from the dumpster, drank Olde English in the woods, and took strangers at the mall for their spare change because we “only needed another dollar for bus fare home.”
One summer eve at dusk, my best friend’s younger brother and I sat on cement bumpers in a parking lot behind the local Rite Aid and a liquor store, smoking cigarettes after the girls we were supposed to meet at a carnival cancelled. Days before, someone told us how a ride broke down, spraying sparks amidst the families seeking good, clean fun, the smell of burned rubber in the air. It wouldn’t happen again. No danger, no girls, no car: time to go somewhere else.
That familiar circular conversation began: “What do you want to do tonight?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
I brought up a video I’d picked up days before in a record store on Thompson Street during my first trip to Manhattan alone: a bootleg VHS of Penelope Spheeris’s original The Decline of Western Civilization, Part I, the cult-classic documentary about LA’s punk scene.
At sixteen, I had never seen a concert movie or visited the West Coast. But as a fairly intelligent lower-middle class white guy, punk rock fit like a pair of old jeans.
We searched for danger in music that went beyond the recording studio and found second helpings in The Decline, from Black Flag’s Ron Reyes dedicating “Revenge” to the LAPD to Lee Ving insulting the audience. The music was like lighting fireworks in the house. The band Fear was in the room with me, shouting for a war that would start in my state and be blamed on the middle class. The Decline introduced me to bands like the Germs and X that I would come to love later in college when I needed a break from playing indie rock on campus radio. Only then could I appreciate the intelligence of Darby Crash’s lyrics or the fact that John Doe and Billy Zoom didn’t want to play the same simple chords.
We laughed when Penelope Spheeris asked, “How do you feel when you’re fighting?” and received the reply, “Violent. I feel very violent.” We knew it was a dumb question to ask. Keith Morris and the Circle Jerks traded lyrical content for speed in songs like “I Just Want Some Skank.” To be honest, I didn’t mind. I still don’t. And we didn’t get mad at the Germs telling the story of finding a dead painter and posing for pictures with the corpse. We got mad when he was referred to as a “wetback.”
We all knew about hard drugs, but none of us really knew the extent of newly crowned chief of police Daryl Gates’s soft spot for punk rockers and minority Angelenos, or the fact that the film’s midnight premiere was chaperoned by hundreds of LAPD officers who made our local lawmen look like Barney Fife. In fact, none of my friends, in our Garden State provincialism, knew about Los Angeles at all, except for what we saw on television and its negative connotation in my house. Nobody in my family had been there either or would ever go there.
My vision of Southern California as a congested area full of slow-moving oddballs and vapid but shark-like show-business folks was shattered by the directness of each song in The Decline. Years later, when I visited LA for the first time and stayed in artist Raymond Pettibon’s Venice bungalow, I had the same feeling of childlike wonder at a place I thought I would never fully understand.
I set aside nostalgia, of both the false and the real varieties. I didn’t visit the Whiskey-a-Go-Go or ask my host about the Hong Kong, the Starwood, or the Devonshire Downs, even as I saw Mike Watt’s phone number written on his studio wall. I felt the sand that met the Pacific Ocean between my toes. I sat in a cab that merged on the freeway. I wrote and did the book readings I was there to do.
Over the past several years, multiple bands from The Decline roster (including the Germs with actor Shane West replacing Darby) came through New York where I now live. Black Flag played as two different versions of itself, Ron Reyes in one and Keith Morris in the other. The excited tightness I felt in my chest at first hearing the announcements was fleeting. I didn’t attend the shows. Despite the temptation to buy a ticket and scream along with every song, I decided that such an experience would be akin to spending money on examining an old photograph of myself looking at another old photograph.
Although the void will never be filled by the endless “remember when” merchandise, a re-release of The Decline of Western Civilization could certainly be akin to that moment when an angry teenager in search of a different kind of rock ‘n’ roll first hears the phrase “It’s not my imagination, I’ve got a gun on my back.”
And to be honest, I’m already jealous of those who will be seeing it or hearing the soundtrack for the first time.