Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk By John Doe with Tom DeSavia

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk By John Doe with Tom DeSavia
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Punk rock can save your life, if it doesn't kill you first. That's the notion tying together Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, a collection of oral histories, war stories and elegies compiled by X bassist John Doe, with help from writer Tom DeSavia.
 
Instead of providing a linear narrative, Doe and his cast of storytellers, which include members of Black Flag, the Minutemen and the Go-Go's, are content to jump around in time and space, orbiting around the axis that was late 1970s Los Angeles. The book's 13 authors range from amusing (writer Chris Morris) to tragic (Doe) to both (the Minutemen's Mike Watt). This can be jarring at times, but the tactic pays dividends, considering the immense diversity in the L.A. scene: from the rockabilly sheen of the Blasters to the Bukowski nihilism of X to the raw power of the hardcore bands who would come to dominate the '80s.
 
If it reads like a whirlwind pastiche of different styles and tones, that's because that's the way the scene really was. Besides, there's real delight in reading about the wild and often unstable alliances forged between bands desperate to make it in unforgiving L.A.; in one particularly memorable passage, the Blasters' Dave Alvin describes fearing for his life before taking the stage to open for Black Flag. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
 
In any book with 13 authors, there are bound to be misfires, and Under the Big Black Sun is no different. Some chapters overstay their welcome; others are gone in a flash. The Go-Go's' Charlotte Caffey's chapter comes off as a below average Behind the Music special (nobody really cares what inspired the lyrics to "We Got the Beat"), while Henry Rollins' chapter, though interesting, ends just as it seems to be picking up steam. Perhaps even more concerning is the lack of writing from the three surviving members of the Germs, whose dissolution following the suicide of singer Darby Crash spelled the end of the era for many.
 
Though flawed and incomplete, Under the Big Black Sun is valuable for not only giving us a glimpse into what punk rock looked like and sounded like, but also what it felt like. Stories like Jane Wiedlin's (the Go-Gos) coming of age in the infamous Canterbury Apartments and El Vez's punk rock education with the Zeros remind us that many members of the L.A. scene were little more than kids still looking for a home in an environment wrought with poverty, violence and drug abuse — but also community, rebellion and excitement.
 
Some died before they could find it. It's well worth reading the stories of the ones who survived. (Da Capo Press)