The Truth About Punk According to Penelope Spheeris

Punk has been tamed, punk has been neutered, punk has been domesticated. The album The Stooges is fifty years old this August, and the music of omnidirectional bile and antiauthoritarianism that it anticipated has been museumified, the subject of a Met Gala and a Museum of Sex show—this despite Johnny Rotten’s staunchly anti-erotic definition of love as “two minutes and fifty seconds of squelching noises.” Punk has been turned into something that it never was, as has so much “problematic” art, in this case retrospectively cast as protest music with clearly articulated social justice–oriented aims that if stated wouldn’t ruffle the feathers of a contemporary middle-class liberal. This required a process of selective amnesia: we can remember Joe Strummer yawping about Sandinistas or whatever, but not Rotten growling seemingly anti-abortion sentiments in “Bodies” or Siouxsie Sioux performing in a swastika armband.

All of this only underlines the importance of Penelope Spheeris’s achievement in her punk films, for they offer a from-the-pit perspective on what American punk and hardcore was—not what many of its contemporary interpreters might have liked it to be—an idiom cleanly classifiable neither as progressive nor as reactionary, a nailbomb chucked in the direction of popular entertainment, a subculture whose identifiers projected a clear “KEEP OUT” stance to the wary. This body of punk films may be said to include Spheeris’s fiction feature debut, Suburbia (1983), and Dudes (1987), and the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy of documentaries, released in 1981, 1988, and 1998. Part I and Part III are addressed to two generations of Los Angeleno punkers, while Part II, subtitled The Metal Years, focuses on the Los Angeles hair metal scene as centered around Sunset Strip clubs like Gazzari’s, Rainbow Bar & Grill, and the Cathouse club. It’s a bit of an outlier, but the film finds enough affinities between this world and that of punk to merit inclusion.

It was the first Decline that tagged Spheeris as the foremost interpreter of the punk phenomenon. The film was shot between fall 1979 and spring 1980 using equipment checked out from the music videography company she ran, Rock ‘n Reel, a world away from the yacht rock outfits and bloated FM rock acts that she made a living shooting. A lightning-in-a-bottle document, The Decline of Western Civilization catches a pivot point in the southern California punk scene, as the center of gravity is moving away from the older, artier, more queer-oriented crowd in Hollywood, represented by the likes of the Alice Bag Band and X, and moving toward the dowdier precincts of the unfashionable South Bay and Orange County, where bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were playing in a headlong, raw-power style that would eventually be distinguished—if never particularly well-defined—as “hardcore.” Brendan Mullen, founder of Hollywood punk club the Masque, identifies the key element in this new music as breakneck velocity, playing at “upwards of 250, 300 beats per minute.” Recording a moment in punk history, Decline also helped to make it. On the other side of the country, punkers in major cities saw Spheeris’s movie and started to imitate the roving, herky-jerky dance seen in the SoCal pits, dubbed the Huntington Beach (colloquially shortened to “H.B.”) Strut. And if hardcore might’ve eventually made inroads in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., Spheeris’s movie certainly did its part in expediting matters.

“Spheeris caught something essential about the scene, specifically the degree to which it revolved around music by and for damaged individuals.”

The Decline of Western Civilization

Spheeris was in her midthirties at the time of the shoot, a decade or more older than most punkers at the time. If her age might’ve marked her an outsider in the milieu she was capturing, she was in other respects its ideal chronicler. Freak shows were in her blood, coming as she did from midway folk. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1945, her father, Andrew, was a former Olympic wrestler from Greece who created his own traveling carnival, Magic Empire Shows, and performed in it as a strongman. Penelope—the first of four children to Andrew and his wife, Juanita (nicknamed “Gypsy,” and picked up by Andrew at a stop in Kansas)—traveled with Magic Empire Shows until, in 1951, at a stop in Troy, Alabama, her father was killed while defending a black troupe member from harassment. Spheeris’s mother thereafter took her children to California with their first in a series of nine stepfathers, shuttling the family between trailer parks in gritty, working-class Los Angeles neighborhoods like Long Beach, Chula Vista, National City, Midway City, and Venice Beach, where she tended bar at a dive called the Circle.

Through Spheeris’s peripatetic youth, rock and roll was the one constant, her shelter. She was a regular at venues like the El Monte Legion Stadium, the Rendezvous Ballroom on Balboa Island, and the Cinnamon Cinder in Studio City, a devotee to surf rock acts like the legendary Dick Dale and the Deltones. After putting herself through film school at UCLA waitressing at Denny’s and the International House of Pancakes, she started making the scene at LA’s punk clubs—the Masque, Club 88, Blackies, Cathay de Grande—and saw something that was worth setting down in celluloid.

Young enough to feel the goaded animal anger of this anguished music in her gut, old enough to bring some perspective to bear on the men and women making it, Spheeris caught something essential about the scene, specifically the degree to which it revolved around music by and for damaged individuals, people practically radiating with their hurt, for whom this music was nothing less than a lifeline. Her childhood marred by violence and instability, lived in part in the highly unorthodox familial environment of the circus, Spheeris understood something about her subjects, and was able to put them at ease in a way that many filmmakers might not.

Now treasured as a time capsule, Decline was on its initial release more of a succès d’estime, and it succeeded in catching the attention of producer Roger Corman. As the newly inaugurated expert in the mores and folkways of hardcore punk, Spheeris was given her first fiction feature by Corman, a punksploitation picture to be titled Suburbia. The film’s opening, one of the most bracing and brutal in ’80s American cinema, depicts a toddler being mauled to death by a stray dog. Undeniably something to get an audience standing at attention—the movie inspired the Pet Shop Boys song of the same title, and the lyric “Let’s take a ride, and run with the dogs tonight”—it also effectively introduces the underlying themes of the film: child neglect, child endangerment, the hostility of the suburban environment.

Suburbia

The dramatis personae of Suburbia have made it to the threshold of adulthood, but as walking wounded. Through the characters of teen runaways Sheila and Evan (Jennifer Clay and Bill Coyne), Spheeris introduces the viewer to a group of squatters who call themselves T.R.—The Rejected. Having left home, they’ve created their own makeshift family, like the one jerry-rigged together by James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), though with none of the Gothic romanticism of their abandoned mansion retreat. The backdrop here is the decidedly non-picturesque cities of Downey and Norwalk, the T.R. manse a run-down tract house located near the Alondra Boulevard off-ramp on I-605.

As to lend the proceedings a level of verisimilitude, the young cast was made up mostly of street kids and punk scenesters—among them Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea and more than a few clunky line-readers—and Spheeris gets to make use of her concert film–shooting bona fides, interpolating semi-documentary scenes of bands in action. T.S.O.L. perform “Wash Away” and “Darker My Love,” the Vandals contribute “The Legend of Pat Brown,” and early on in the film D.I. offer “Richard Hung Himself,” with frontman Casey Royer fashioning a noose from his microphone cord while a kewpie-ish New Waver–type girl in the audience is first accosted and then stripped nude, mocked and jeered. As teen punks my friends and I scoffed at this moment, which smacked of scare tactic “Do you know where your children are?” propaganda, but I’m less inclined to do so nowadays, for in its over-the-top way it expresses something true about the free-floating misogyny in the scene being covered—the stories about T.S.O.L.’s malevolent jock frontman, Jack Grisham, as circulated through various proliferating oral histories, are enough to curl your hair.

In a recent miniseries for the Epix channel, Punk, the accusation is leveled that Spheeris, in particular with the first Decline film, helped to disseminate the more boorish aspects of the hardcore scene by focusing on its sensationalistic and intolerant aspects, and the aggro scene developing at venues like Redondo Beach’s Fleetwood—where Spheeris shot FEAR, the Alice Bag Band, and the Circle Jerks—that was driving women away from shows. It’s true that Spheeris gravitates toward hardcore’s destructive rather than constructive aspects—the DIY ingenuity and egalitarian spirit, for example—and has a definite taste for the scurrilous side of life. Along with the circle-the-wagons insider ethos of punk, she seems to be fascinated by its puritanical undertone—an understandable emphasis given that it sets punk apart from its countercultural antecedents, with hardcore among other things appearing as a response to the license of the positivistic “Do your own thing” sixties, which had produced skyrocketing divorce rates and the broken homes from which T.R. flee.

Evan’s mother is an embittered, divorced lush; Joe Schmo (Wade Walston) bails to the T.R. house because he can’t stand living with his “homo” father, glimpsed lazing in a Hockney-esque poolside scene; peroxide blonde Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen) is running away from his stepfather, who he doubly disdains as both a cop and a black man. The racism in this scene is very much in evidence in Decline: one of Spheeris’s star interviewees is a skinny, bigoted fourteen-year-old skinhead called Eugene, who appears between testimonial from an Asian-American punker wearing a swastika T-shirt, a pointed juxtaposition that limns out the scene’s paradoxical position as a forbidding shelter, an incubator of intolerant tolerance.

It should be noted that the demimonde shown in Decline is neither as straight nor as white male as some contemporary nose-wrinkling commenters have claimed, but we’ve little bandwidth to process such inconvenient ambiguities today. Black Flag is at this point half Hispanic, and in this context the Greg Ginn–penned anthem “White Minority” becomes not an expression of white panic but a leering wait-and-see threat from the Other. Beyond the macho bluster in evidence in Spheeris’s Decline films, there was a strong gender-bending tendency in both hair metal and punk—“In punk, all the girls looked like boys, and in metal, all the boys looked like girls,” the director would tell an interviewer—and there one can trace this interest in upended gender roles back to the films she made at UCLA, including a twenty-minute depiction of the relationship between a lesbian and a transgender man, I Don’t Know (1970), and its semi-sequel, 1972’s Hats Off to Hollywood.

“What comes across is not contempt but a real bemused affection for these bozos—Spheeris adores showmanship even at its most farcical.”

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II

Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine—who grew up on the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys and who released an album with one of the most hardcore titles of the ’80s, Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying?—would also glancingly touch on this sense of subcultural gender fluidity when he characterized the proximity of punk and metal some years after he was featured in Spheeris’s second Decline film, calling metal “Punk rock with long hair.” Putting Megadeth in its headliner slot, Decline II essentially extols the more than slightly punk ethos of this rumpled, blue-collar, no-flash-all-riffs outfit, who are cast as Gallant to the movie’s many, many glammed-up Goofuses. (Though Mustaine was, it should be said, not precisely the paragon of workaholic discipline he’s depicted as in the film.)

For much of its runtime, Part II plays as a burlesque of the grasping, oblivious, fame-whorish elements in the rock and roll sweepstakes, as members of also-ran acts like Seduce and Odin express world-conquering vainglory in their interviews only to display borderline ineptitude in performance, the movie drifting giddily in the vast gulf between massive ambitions and minimal talent. What comes across is not contempt, however, but a real bemused affection for these bozos—Spheeris adores showmanship even at its most farcical, as when a band called London unsuccessfully attempt to burn a hammer-and-sickle flag while fumbling through a song called “Russian Winter.” So tickled was she by the shit-stirring stage persona FEAR frontman Lee Ving displayed in the first Decline that she would later cast him as the leader of a murderous hillbilly gang in her lightly likable punk road movie Dudes. Daughter of an ex-wrestler with carny genes, Spheeris recognized a heel when she saw one, and knew that FEAR’s schtick—belting out works endorsing population control via mass mobilization (“Let’s Have a War”) and performing swinging-dick machismo (“Beef Baloney”)—was mostly wind-up, the-band-you-love-to-hate boardwalk ballyhoo.

FEAR belonged to a long lineage of “Is-it-a-put-on?” punk or punk-descendent American acts including the Meatmen, the Angry Samoans, and the Frogs—quintessentially underground tongue-in-cheek provocateurs who play on countercultural us vs. them assumptions and a tacit audience agreement to be “in” on the “joke.” Where the metalhead party animals of Decline Part II are beyond irony in their loutishness, the punkers of Part I are steeped in it—which means nothing to the dopey Eugenes of the scene spouting casual racism. That a culture that at various times has been a bastion for nihilistic, anti-everything attitudes should attract some genuinely disturbed individuals should come as no surprise, and a culmination and logical endpoint of this is reached in the coda and capstone of Spheeris’s trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, in which whatever humor may have been seen in punk provocation, and in fact all sense of play, have disappeared.

In her subjects, the gutter punks of Los Angeles, living communally and pooling spare change to support suicidal substance dependencies, Spheeris finds a real-world analog to Suburbia’s T.R. kids. “I wrote Suburbia and it was kind of a derivation of actual real-life events,” Spheeris told me in a 2015 interview. But in Decline III she found the bastard children of her fictional squatters. As in the case of Decline’s impact in broadcasting hardcore to a national audience, life followed the example of art. “I met these people who were living Suburbia—they lived in squats, they dressed like that, they looked like that, they talked like that.”

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III

In Decline III, the sense of despondency and distress that’s been gnawing and clawing at the edges of the previous installments has chewed straight through. The movie is a black hole, a no-hoper free fall of self-medicating substance abuse where the music has become close to an afterthought. As, indeed, it is for more than a few of the delusional, fame-chasing ponces that Spheeris interviews in Decline II; watching plastered W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes dousing himself in vodka while swilling himself into a self-loathing stupor in his in-ground pool in that film, you may become acutely aware of the terrible lack that pushes some people to seek audience approbation.

While punk at least superficially rejected the trappings of fame, the bands featured in the first Decline have in the main been better remembered than most of the hair metal acts of the second. “We’re desperate . . . get used to it,” went the anthem performed by X in the first Decline—though at the moment of filming, the band are aware that their truly desperate days are behind them. X garnered the respectful Rolling Stone reviews that the bands on the SST record label never could, thanks perhaps the fact that Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek produced their 1980 debut album, Los Angeles, tacitly providing an elder Boomer stamp of approval. A thoroughly professional outfit, they give their interview in a room decorated with two dozen pink roses from the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood, gifted, per Cervenka, “’Cuz we do a good job whenever we play there.”

The same trajectory wasn’t in the offing for the Germs, whose ramshackle live performances, frequently including acts of self-harm by singer Darby Crash, led to their being banned from a multitude of L.A. venues, forcing them to play out under the alias G.I. (for “Germs Incognito.”) Perhaps the most moving moment in all of the Decline films is the band’s captivating train wreck of a performance at a Cherrywood Studios soundstage rented for the occasion, in which Crash, near insensate from drink and drugs, rolls and caroms across the stage in a shambles, gutturally heaving and wailing. There’s nothing to romanticize here, just the sight off a brilliant, fucked-up, self-mythologizing megalomaniac kid with a swastika drawn in permanent marker on his stomach and a death wish who’ll see his wish fulfilled before another year’s passed, jerking at the end of his tether. “We really bleed . . . we really mean it,” Crash gargles over the dirge-like coda of “Shutdown”—and for a moment, you can still taste the blood.

“No More Heroes”: the title of a half-elegiac, half-celebratory anthem by the punk-adjacent UK act the Stranglers, it encapsulates something essential to the new happening that Spheeris set out to document almost forty years ago. And what remains unique about her punk films is the degree to which they take that plaint and internalize it as a dictum. Doing away with heroes, she sets herself apart from the hagiographic rock documentary tradition. Following this logic to its natural conclusion by doing away with villains, she created films that stubbornly resist the insidious impulse to shunt art into Right and Wrong Side of History columns. Coming across a mess, she did the best thing an artist can do—keep it that way.


A series of Penelope Spheeris’s films is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.