“I like to keep my hair short and play my music loud / Does that really mean I’m a menace to your crowd?
Maybe you’ve been brainwashed by that bullshit on TV / Throw away your prejudice/Use your mind to see,”
– Ill Repute, “Book and Its Cover” from the album What Happens Next…, 1984.
For all of its simplicity, Ill Repute’s music was my high school soundtrack.
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1980s, we had plenty to rail against, and rail we did at punk rock shows populated by the disenfranchised youth of La-La Land. At the time, we didn’t know the bands we were seeing would come to be considered integral pieces in the history of punk rock, they were just what was available. Serving our needs as pissed-off kids out to cure the ills that beset society, and somehow establish ourselves in it.
Many of these shows were put on by a promoter called Goldenvoice. At their shows, for $10, you could gather with the other weirdos-in-the-know to see gigs with good sound, that were stacked with bands. Their signature fliers spread throughout the southland and lived my on my walls as a teenager as well as now, in the house I own; a testament to their continued importance in my life. So when I found out Goldenvoice was throwing a 30th Anniversary Party with three nights of shows at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium featuring the Adolescents, Bad Religion, Youth Brigade, the Descendents, TSOL, Social Distortion, Ill Repute, and X, my fellow local So-Cal friend and I quickly agreed: it didn’t matter that we have careers, families with young kids, and live in Boise, Idaho: We had to go.
The show flier was put up on the fridge, our old men were bribed into agreement (a new snowboard for one, beer camp for another) and the children prepped for their mothers’ absence. Tickets were bought, with shipping fees costing more than the entire amount we used to spend for one night. The pull of the tides drew us back to the west coast. Back to LA. Back to Santa Monica. Once there, our perfectly crappy motel gave us a tiny run-down kitchen and a light in the bathroom that involved screwing in the bulb, but how else should you live when you are seeing punk rock?
On the first night, we gathered in front of the mirror like two teenage girls with dueling eyeliners, trying to figure what to wear. What would the crowd be like? Who would actually go to this thing? So far, our only sighting was three young punks all dolled up. Our thought was, “Oh, shit: We are so old.”
We donned dressed-down uniforms which hadn’t changed much over the years – t-shirt of a favorite band (but which one tonight?), a flannel (blue plaid or leopard print?), jeans (black or blue?), shoes (boots or Vans?), and leather jacket – and headed over to the 6PM show to find a maze wrapping itself around the entrance, like a ride at Disneyland for punks. The first person we meet is the mother of 3 teenage boys who rode the bus from Arizona, to come see X. We understand completely. We spot a girl, probably 15, in a homemade Adolescents sweatshirt, looking excited and scared. We know how she feels, too. We are home.
The familiarity of the scene is giddying. Once inside with drinks in hand, the auditorium opens up before us and we are welcomed into its familiar fold of 3,000 people. The crowd ranges from teenagers to gray hairs, dressed up and downplayed, with everyone excited to be there. This is still where the outsiders go to fit in.
The show is loosely grouped by theme each night. Friday is the punk-n’-roll of X and Social Distortion, with, fittingly, the Adolescents getting the whole thing started. “No cash / no job / I’m just a victim of society / a slob,” are the first lyrics to be heard on the sound system and they set the pits a-rolling. We return on Saturday for a more politically-inclined evening featuring TSOL, Youth Brigade, and the convictional questioning of Bad Religion. Sunday night is full of lighter-hearted hardcore with The Dickies, Vandals, and the earnest Descendents. There is also a surprise appearance by Black Flag, featuring original members Chuck Dukowski on bass and the inimitable Keith Morris on vocals covering their entire first EP, “Nervous Breakdown.” The crowd is blown away by their appearance, and video cameras abound as people try to be still and still and rock out. None of the bands disappoint and the familiarity of the songs is in turn reassuring and inspiring.
At first, it feels like you don’t want to look too closely at the folks onstage, because if you refuse to allow yourself to do this, it could be 25 years ago. The enthusiasm of the performers and their demeanor seems just the same. But if you look hard enough, you see the lines that mark us all; the droop of the jowls, the sag of the skin, the circles under the eyes, those damn wrinkles. But in the lights and on the stage, everyone looks just like we remember.
One night on the floor I wind up next to two kids, aged about 11 and 13, there under the watchful eye of their dad. You can tell he is an old punk rocker like the rest of us. The younger kid, a boy, looks frightened at the bodies crashing around, and the sudden sways and surges that take the crowd along with them. When a second pit opens on our right, the dad moves over into a new protective space. We look at each other, and in the language of pit-speak it is established that he can trust me, that I can take over shielding the left side of his kids while he covers the right. It is sealed in a nod and we do our respective duties while the band plays on. We used to protect each other this way; now we protect each others’ kids.
Throughout the course of the three nights I don’t see a single person I expected to run into. I had imagined a sort of misfits’ high school reunion, but there are no identifiable faces, although there are plenty of recognizable types. It is a familiar crowd but not quite familial. I thought that it wouldn’t make sense to be there without seeing my old friends, but it still does. I do wonder, more than ever, where they are. I try not to wonder why they are not here.
When Ill Repute takes the stage, I am finally done in. The years melt away and I am back. I shout along to every chorus and favorite line, from “Oxnard,” “Wayward,” and “Book by Its Cover.” I am surprised I remember all of these words, but I do. The band’s hair is gone but their chops are on, and they carry themselves the same way I remember all those years ago.
Midway through a rousing rendition of “Cherokee Nation,” I have trouble containing my emotions. Everything comes back to me that once made me into a fucked up kid who needed this music: the decaying family, the inability to fit in, the awkwardness of being too smart for my own good, and the rage at the injustice that I saw everywhere, all leading me to find release in music that was as furious as I was.
I hadn’t heard these songs since before I went to college, fell in love, left home, supported myself, worked at real jobs, lost friends and family members, started my own family. I still see the evils of the world and I am still furious, and tonight Ill Repute still speaks to me. Does that mean that I never grew up, or that I kept my core values intact? Is it childish to still have a need for these sounds? Whatever it meant then, I realize it still means now, and it for a moment it is absolutely overwhelming.
It’s quite something to be part of a subculture, an individual that is a component piece of something bigger, to take an active role in a small corner of history, even if it is just pop culture. It wasn’t done on purpose or knowing what it would become; it was just an outlet that we found and threw ourselves into. We certainly never thought that we would be where we are today 30 years ago.
When the last show is over, the crowd dissipates, heading off into the night. There are promises made to come back again in 10 years for the 40th anniversary shows. We make our way back to the known and towards the future, ears ringing with the sounds that sustain us.
I am glad we are older. I am glad we made it.