Under The Big Black Sun: Night Flight talks to Tom DeSavia about the late 70s L.A. punk scene

By on May 3, 2016

The recently-published Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press) — written by longtime friends John Doe (co-founder of the seminal L.A. punk band, X) and Tom DeSavia (Head of Creative Services at SONGS Music Publishing and co-host of the stellar podcast Live From High Fidelity) — explores the early days of L.A.’s punk scene, circa 1977-1982, before a new generation of young, hardcore punk rock bands came along and changed it forever.

Under The Big Black Sun (named for X’s third album, released in 1982) also features interstitial personal histories and anecdotal-heavy remembrances by many of their friends, including two of Night Flight’s contributors — Chris Morris and Chris D. (of the Flesh Eaters) — as well as some of the others who helped to make the L.A. punk scene what it was, including Exene Cervenka (X), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Mike Watt (The Minutemen), Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey (Go-Go’s), Dave Alvin (The Blasters), Robert Lopez (The Zeros, El Vez), Jack Grisham (TSOL), Teresa Covarrubias (The Brat), and scenesters and journalists Pleasant Gehman and Kristine McKenna.

X, photo by Gary Leonard

X, photo by Gary Leonard.

Co-author Tom DeSavia recently gave Night Flight an exclusive interview about the book, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at a lot of the L.A. bands — like X, the Blasters, the Circle Jerks, and the Angry Samoans — who also appeared on New Wave Theatre (watch our Best Of New Wave Theatre now on Night Flight Plus):

NIGHT FLIGHT: Let’s start at the very beginning. In the first few words of your Preface (“Post Apocalyptic Clowns”), you write: “I wasn’t there.” Where did you grow up?

TOM DESAVIA: I grew up in Chatsworth, California, and the family moved to Thousand Oaks in 1977 when I was ten. I only really got into punk because of a couple of friends I knew had some records: Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Pistols, and X… then “darker” stuff like Christian Death and Angry Samoans. Those were the first records I really remember getting into. I started seeing shows when I was fifteen, mostly new wave stuff at the Country Club in Reseda.

The first real punk show I saw was X, who were also my favorite band at the time… that first show really freaked me out, I felt so out of place. That same year I ditched school with some friends to go see the Who at the L.A. Coliseum and the Clash opened – so, basically, 1982 was the year that my head completely exploded and changed everything I thought I knew about music and art.

NF: Towards the end of your Foreward, you write that you told John Doe that it was important for the “true story” of L.A. punk to be told in the book… assuming you think there have been “false” stories about L.A. punk that have been told, what are some of those stories that you correct or tell the truth about in this book?

DESAVIA: When I first met John in 1996, the fifteen year old in me had so many questions, but I was trying to be cool around him, so I would casually try to drag stories out of him in conversation. I slowly started to find out that most of the tales I’d thought I knew were bullshit, and that the real stories were way better and more interesting. That’s exactly when I started to bug him about writing a book, but he would have none of it.

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Authors Tom DeSavia and John Doe, taken on the street outside the Biltmore on May 1, 2016, after John Doe and Exene Cervenka made a special appearance at the Central Library for an afternoon honoring the past, present, and future of the Los Angeles punk rock music scene and its iconic artists. Photo by Chris Morris.

NF: During the SXSW conversation you had with John Doe and Mike Watt earlier this year, John prefaces his reading from Under The Big Black Sun by saying that he didn’t want to write a book about punk rock (“That’s bullshit”) and says he was uninterested in the project at first because “it sounds like discipline and work and everything else” until he had the idea, maybe from a dream, to have everyone write the book for him… Did the two of you discuss that early on, who should be involved? Were there any people you wanted to contribute to the book you couldn’t get? Do you think there are any stories you’d still like to hear about?

DESAVIA: That was all John. I only personally knew two of the folks involved: Chris Morris and Charlotte Caffey, both of whom I met when I was around nineteen or twenty… everyone else were just people I knew from their records. When we started to “outline” the book we came up with topics first, and then it was almost like word association with John: “The Canterbury Apartments”… Jane Wiedlin! “The East L.A. Scene”… Teresa Covarrubias! It really came together that easily… there were a couple of folks we wanted, who weren’t able to join the project because their schedules wouldn’t allow, etc.

We both really wanted Keith Morris, but he was busy writing his own book, and we share the same publisher (Da Capo/Hachette), so that didn’t really make sense. Keith’s book comes out in the fall, I think… I cannot wait to read that.

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Circle Jerks at the Country Club in Reseda, 1982 (from L-R): Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Roger Rogerson. Photo by Ann Summa. Used with the publisher’s permission.

NF: Mike Watt makes a reference later on in the interview, about the original Hollywood scene having “a lot of ladies in bands, a lot of glitter and glam,” and that gives us a great chance to talk about the many contributions here from the women who were in bands, like Jane Wiedlin’s awesome memories about living at the Canterbury, and her bandmate Charlotte Caffey’s memories about the Go Go’s early days, and Pleasant Gehman, and Exene and others. Was that a conscious effort on your part, to make sure the women were well represented?

DESAVIA: It just worked out that way. There definitely wasn’t ever a conversation where we said “let’s try to get more women involved” or anything like that. It actually wasn’t until someone pointed out how many women were involved in the book, from the authors to photographers that we even noticed. Really. It’s pretty awesome, tho, the influence these women had on the scene. But in the end it’s just a book written by a bunch of humans, I guess.

NF: John talks about the L.A. punk scene being very collaborative, and the idea of having many contributors was conducive to telling the having a lot of people write chapters and having himself and you kind of being narrators fit into the feeling about how the L.A. scene was put together… what are some of your favorite parts of the book? Any particular stories that were new to you?

DESAVIA: The fact that all these cats LOVED the Screamers! I had no idea how much respect they received from everyone in the scene! NO idea. And we were just kind of blown away at how the chapters tied together, really telling a cohesive story. From my “fan boy” perspective, it certainly confirmed the sense of comradery that I believed they all had, especially in those early days.

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The Screamers on a bus bench, 1977 (from L-R): David Allen, K.K. Barnett, Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear, a little old lady, the photographer’s shadow at bottom left. Photo by Jenny Lens. Used with the publisher’s permission.

NF: John talks during your conversation about naming the band X’s first album Los Angeles as a way of letting other scenes know that their skid row was as bad as their skid row (“… and bohemians live on $200 a month, we felt pretty proud of L.A. and we were talking about Raymond Chandler, and Charles Bukowski, and film noir and all the more underbelly of elements of L.A. and not Farrah Fawcett and the Eagles, which is all kind of made up stuff.”). It sounds like he made a direct connection between the darker, seedier aspects about L.A. found in books by some of the city’s best writers, is that a connection that you’ve also made?

DESAVIA: As a kid? Absolutely! I unapologetically grew up on pop radio, TV, and all the rest of whatever mainstream media was back then. This music and the art and photography definitely beckoned you down this path – dared you to peek through the looking glass, you know? Some of it was really shocking… especially the Raymond Pettibon stuff, for example – as a kid those images really freaked me out and wonderfully fucked with my Catholic upbringing.

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NF: In the SXSW interview, Mike Watt talks about punk being a kind of “launching pad” into other interesting things — (“the stuff from Europe like Dada, or Oklahoma, like Woody Guthrie, or maybe out of New York, Walt Whitman, who put out his own book in 1855, talk about DIY… he writes twelve poems to try to stop the Civil War… I didn’t know about any of this stuff…”). What tangentially-related art and literature or music did you discover through punk?

DESAVIA: Mainly music, I guess. I was obsessed with records as a kid, and so many of these records and bands and songwriters were like treasure maps for a lot of us, I think – especially when it came to learning about early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly, country and bluegrass, and Latin music.

I remember seeing Exene do a spoken word thing kind of early on and it definitely opened my mind up to what poetry was – you know, beyond just the textbook stuff you learn from school environments.

John Doe & Tom DeSavia - Scott Sherratt

John Doe & Tom DeSavia, photo by Scott Sherratt.

NF: What about what John says about the “made up” stuff about “Farrah Fawcett and the Eagles,” do you think that’s an impression people have about L.A. music when you talk about the 70s, particularly the late 70s, or have punk rock bands, like X, diluted that image people have? Do you think it’s something people still think of when they think L.A. in the 70s? Have music fans overlooked the less sunny aspects of L.A. rock bands from the 70s?

DESAVIA: Of course. I grew up in a slightly lower middle class home – when we moved in ‘77 we moved from a house to an apartment, we weren’t poor, but we definitely didn’t have much dough. So even growing up without, I thought L.A. was all glamour and glitz and we were the only family that didn’t have all the nice stuff. I did have a Ronstadt poster on my wall tho… I still love her… but I guess the carefree babe rollerskating in Venice was the impression the world had of L.A.

The punk bands definitely sang of another L.A.. That line in “This Town” by the Go-Go’s always slayed me: “We’re all dreamers, we’re all whores/Discarded stars like worn out cars/Litter the streets of this town.” That song and, obviously, X’s “Los Angeles” were my hometown “pride” songs for sure. What fucking great tunes.

NF: Mike Watt says the violence was brought about by jocks, and younger people (“A lot of testosterone. It got kinda male dominated… it wasn’t still people going to high school like Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. and having to deal with jocks.”). Did you ever experience problems at school because of your interest in punk?

DESAVIA: Nope, because I never dressed the part. I had a couple of punk friends who did for sure… I remember a girl I knew – a kid who played me a lot of those early records – getting hassled really bad. I remember one day we were walking down the hall in a group and some asshole jocks in their Rush shirts or whatever threw eggs at her. She was real resilient, but I know that stuff fucked with the kids who got harassed, it had to.

There were a bunch of kids in my high school tho that were into the music, a decent amount of us were listening to X and Black Flag, especially. I was more frightened and intimidated of other punks, to be honest.

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NF: So, let’s talk about some of the violence associated with some of the bands, or the violence caused by the band’s fans, who came to their shows looking to get into fights. I was actually at several L.A. and O.C. shows that were broken up by the police in riot gear, swinging nightsticks and crackin’ skulls (like an infamous Black Flag show at the Hideaway). Is that something you ever experienced yourself, ultra violence at shows, or the cops showing up in riot gear?

DESAVIA: Oh yeah, but I was as far from it as I could get! I remember my first hardcore gig at the Santa Monica Civic – a Black Flag show… I remember seeing a bloodied dude being dragged out by his friends. It freaked me the fuck out. I was a scrawny kid, I wasn’t going anywhere near that shit.

I actually avoided going to some hardcore gigs because I was scared shit would break out. I mostly remember the asshole jock types – those one who came in basically looking to fight… you could spot them a mile away.

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NF: Watt talks about how, in the book, Teresa Covarrubias of a great band from the east side called the Brat talks about how the end of the scene comes about when the hardcore kids gig went to a Black Flag gig at the Vex, and basically tore up the club, and she cited that as sort of the beginning of the end of what it was. We certainly remember the violence, and the bands being banned or breaking up — but what do you personally think brought about the “beginning of the end,” anything specific come to mind?

DESAVIA: How fucking great were the Brat? I just loved them so much. I bought the 10” EP as a kid because Exene did the hand lettering on the sleeve, and I just wound up wearing that record out. I got to talk to Teresa a bunch while we were doing the book… She had such fascinating insight into the whole scene, from the East L.A. bands, to the hardcore kids sort of invading, and, ultimately, the dickheads from the music industry who came in and fucked everything up.

It’s funny, because I realize – now more than ever – that when I came into the scene the beginning of the end had already started. I guess everything has a time frame to be “pure” – and that, in it’s own fucked up way – is what I think that this book is about.

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L.A. Line-up, West Hollywood, 1977 (from L-R): unknown, Hellin Killer, Trudi, Pleasant Gehman, Bobby Pin, Nickey Beat, Alice Bag, Delphina, Lorna Doom, Pat Smear, Jena. Photo by Ruby Ray. Used with the publisher’s permission.

NF: Towards the end of your interview at SXSW, John Doe says this about asking the contributors who participated to remember what happened:

“There might be a little revisionist views, a little more romantic than it was at the time, that’s inevitable, but I think everybody was honest enough, and I realized after we got into it that that would be a benefit of it, then, it wouldn’t just be my perspective, there’d be all these different perspectives, there’d a lot of crossover, like we’re talking about certain bands… People were pretty honest. I’m surprised that it’s not more lurid than it is, it’s not really a sensationalized kind of book, these are the better parts of our artistic effort… I think people were still proud today that they were there.”

Do you agree? You seemed to disagree with him slightly that there are some lurid, sensationalized stories in the book, do you think it captures the “true” story you’d set out to tell?

DESAVIA: It’s definitely not a sensationalized story, that’s for sure… and we’re all real proud of that. The intention was never to produce some sort of salacious read, but more of an honest history. But, yeah, I disagreed with that statement a little, because there are some really gritty stories in here… no one sugar-coated reality. Jane Wiedlin’s chapter is one of my absolute favorites in it’s telling of some stark realities, and for the fact that she’s such a great writer. I want her, and pretty much everyone who contributed, to write their own books now.

I want the full story from everyone, now that I have a taste. Some of our authors – Chris D., Pleasant Gehman, Jack Grisham, Rollins – have great books out prior to this that I’d encourage everyone to seek out.

NF: Any final thoughts about the experience of working on the book?

DESAVIA: Corny as it sounds, I’m just honored to have been a part… and that these folks let me be a fly on the wall here while they told their stories. This was the book I always wanted to read, so I’m just really glad it exists.

(Incidentally, we recently learned that the IFC cable TV network have announced that they’re developing a new show, “Canterbury Tales,” based on the scene that takes place at the “the run-down, cockroach-infested Canterbury Apartments,” in addition to the 70s-era Hollywood punk scene described in Under The Big Black Sun. The show was created by Night Flight friend and contributor, screenwriter/director Allison Anders and Terry Graham, the drummer for seminal punk band The Bags, Gun Club and author of Punk Like Me. We hope to have an update on that project for you soon).

Read an excerpt from Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, published by Da Capo Press and available from wherever you buy books, including Amazon, and it’s also available in a 7-hour and 20-minute Audible audio book, read by the authors of each individual chapter themselves and interspersed with live performances of many of the best-loved X songs, including “We’re Desperate,” “Your Phone’s off the Hook (But You’re Not),” “I’m Coming Over,” “The Unheard Music,” “Nausea,” “White Girl,” “The Worlds a Mess (It’s In My Kiss),” “Los Angeles” and “Because I Do.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.