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And in this corner… | July 13, 2018

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It hooked me immediately. I was a preteen when I first heard of punk rock and was all-in as a teenager. I loved it because it was mine. I grew up with a full music diet from my older brother and sister, and now came the time for something to call my own. Punk rock was new, weird, intimidating, angry and menacing. To me, it seemed like the people in the scene were all from a different planet and I wasn’t in that universe. They seemed to know something I didn’t, and I wanted in on it.

Punk rock was outrageous. Dangerous. Unpredictable. There was rebellion to it. It went against the grain. It was all the things I wasn’t but was attracted to. It also mocked classic rock and the status quo while being offensive and shocking along the way.

I certainly learned some new words like anarchy, blasphemy, neutron bomb, bureaucracy and bourgeoisie. There were so many new bands around L.A. that I was thrilled I didn’t have to listen to disco or any tired, laid-back ‘70s pop music anymore. No more Boston, Styx or Kansas on the radio for me.

Images courtesy Blair Cohn

I liked punk for the same reason I had been into dinosaurs, monsters and KISS when I was younger. It was different and had touches of darkness and edginess to it. Maybe I liked it because my nerdy self could hide inside the craziness of it. I could do the opposite of everyone else and wear it like a badge. I was never mad at my parents, didn’t rebel against them or about living in our east side suburb. I always got good grades, went to soccer practice, spent time with my grandparents. But I was attracted the scariness and newness of it all. I liked the shock value. I liked the anti-authority nature of it since I never liked being told what to do.

In 1980 my brother took me to see the midnight showing of the new documentary about the LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization. One of the kids with a shaved head interviewed in the film said that punk rock was “fun, fast and for real.” I agreed. I was a little behind in its inception and growing scene in the late 1970s, but my coming of age was timed well enough. Most of the local punks were older and had been at it already, but my 13-year-old friends and I watched carefully and did our best to emulate.

And I had certainly had a front-row seat to the local scene. Across the street from me was the punk-rock mecca. There lived two siblings who were like chief instigation officers who had packs and packs of followers and fans. I got up to speed pretty quickly from those neighbors who seemed to reincarnate into these punk-rock personas. Everything happened at their house: band practices, loud overflowing parties, cars of all types covered in band stickers, and once an abandoned delivery truck that said “Torture Wagon.”

My neighbors were major influencers in the scene, and I got to see all the characters coming in and out of the house. I spent a lot of time there watching, listening and learning. It was my equivalent of sitting next to Paul McCartney as he wrote, or in Brian Wilson’s house and sandbox, or standing on the corner of Haight-Ashbury when it was all happening.

I’d go sit in D.D.’s room and try to memorize her album covers, photos and concert flyers on the wall. She had chopped-up spiked hair, numerous ear piercings and dark eyeliner. She looked far different than the girl that used to organize games and Barbie doll parties on the block. One night she told me “I like being in a band so I can scream and yell!” She seemed to know everyone.

Her older brother Jack was the surfer turned charismatic punk-rock cult leader and straight-jacket wearing singer for Vicious Circle and (now legendary) TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty). He was the chiefest instigator of all. Everyone flocked to him like a Colonel Kurtz or Jim Jones. He could command the whole room from the stage in his whiteface makeup and black eyes and mouth.

Unbelievably (and fortunately) he took me under his wing and had patience enough when I glommed on to him. I followed him around to band practices, shows and lots of time on the front porch or back yard trying find out what being punk was really about.

One night my family came home and my dad cheered thinking he finally saw the police on the neighbor’s lawn. Nope. It was Jack and the guys in the band, all 6’3” or taller looking neo-militaristic in trench coats and boots with their dyed hair taking photos of each other. It was thrilling for me. It would have been like seeing Robert Plant in your neighborhood.

For me, punk rock was also about the fashion. Or anti-fashion. All the 1950s-style sweaters, dress shirts with safety pins, leather jackets, tartan pants, Chippewa boots with chains and bandannas, mismatched patterns and shirts, pins/badges of band logos or slogans of despair. It definitely was about the girls in black eyeliner and lipstick and black vintage dresses. It was spiked hair, mohawks, dyed hair and shaved heads. Anything that wasn’t a pair of Vans, feathered hair or a Scorpions T-shirt was considered outrageous, and I loved it all. It was for shock value and the sense of self-expression. I once wore a catholic school girl skirt over my jeans like a kilt to school. A teacher told me to get rid of it, and I dodged being in trouble claiming that I was Scottish and it was my culture.

And there were plenty of characters and icons in the scene, too. Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, Steve Ignorant, Jello Biafra, Rat Scabies, Beki Bondage, Exene, X-Head, New Wave Dave, Lorna Doom and Darby Crash. Wanting to be a part of it, I became Mr. DDT and then the Scottsman James McFarlen.

And I loved all the music. It was a bevy of fast and aggressive songs cramming everything into two minutes or less. Maniacal singers roared about abolishing government, red tape, nervous breakdowns, problem children, dysfunctional homes, addiction, school, fast cars and cheap thrills, the LAPD and holidays in Cambodia.

And my favorite bands had names like The Germs, The Weirdos, Middle Class, Dead Kennedys, Wasted Youth, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, Adolescents, The Vandals and Rhino 39. Regional Confusion was the edgiest name I could come up with as a 14-year-old putting my first band together and practicing in a friend’s garage. Later I joined Abash with the older guys at school. It was really Three Mikes and a Blair. I loved playing in bands, and I taught myself to play the drums after years of the clarinet. My band played house parties and underground venues and was fortunate enough to open the shows for TSOL.

It was a thrilling time of homemade black-and-white concert flyers with images of skulls, bombs and Ronald Reagan. I collected plenty of those and fanzines and band T-shirts. My buddies and I would take two buses across town to 7th and Junipero to Zed Records to buy more pins, Slash and Flipside magazines, and all the vinyl records our allowances could buy. Sometimes we’d just buy the record that had the best skull on it.

I went to a ton of underground shows throughout Hollywood and Orange County and had my older friends or brother drive me. We could go to the Olympic Auditorium and see 10 bands for $8. Once inside a show, there was always the feeling that anything could happen at any minute. One night at the Hollywood Palladium an unlucky hippie on skates rolled into the middle of the pit and flailed and flopped as he tried to make his way back out of the building. Not quite the right place for peace and love. That same night we watched a guy and girl fall from the balcony with a thud that could be heard over the angry guitars and tribal drums. There were many nights spent in garages, house parties, private halls or club gigs that all had the same smell of leather jackets, clove cigarettes and beer. It was a badge of honor the night I jumped off a stage and shredded my lips on my braces by a fist waiting for me in the pit.

My finest hour came when my parents went to Jamaica and left me home for three weeks. I had bleached my hair platinum blonde and shaved one half of it. I had a friend come over and dye the other half blue. I put an “X” on my forehead, heavy black eyeliner on, three layers of black clothes including a black skirt and walked across the neighborhood to the house party where my band was playing that night. We were thrilled that all the local punks were there, and even our heavy metal friends came to see us, but we anticipated the house getting wrecked at any second. It was fun for all, and we even had our long-hair friends’ band come and play after us. Then came the police cars and helicopter. We cheered about that, and I walked home smiling. However, it wasn’t as easy and fun the night of the riot at the Longshoreman’s Hall in Wilmington. That was more scary than thrilling.

I was really into it all. I wanted it to last to use it as my teen-angst outlet. Most of my classmates just knew me as the friendliest punk rocker they had met. But like everything, the novelty wore off and by the end of my junior year in high school when I saw that the non-conformists were all becoming conformists within this scene, I dyed my hair black and just tried to enjoy the last year of high school. I wasn’t as impressed anymore with people being dysfunctional or acting out just to act out. For some people, the drugs took over. And all the new songs were sounding like old songs and saying the same things. Same stuff show after show.

Shortly after graduation, I grew my hair out, slicked it back like Don Johnson, put on my khaki pants and penny loafers and walked across the USC campus to my economics class. I transitioned out of punk to heavy metal and then embraced all things new and creative. But to this day I can still recite most of those old songs and lyrics and recall all details of all those shows. I still try to do things slightly off the norm, go against the grain at times, and more often than not dress in black as part of my ongoing punk-rock rebellion.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “And in this corner… | July 13, 2018”

  1. Pat West on July 12th, 2018 8:32 pm

    Blair. After reading this my parents told me I can’t hang out with you anymore. (Haha!)

    [Reply]

  2. MARK D HAWKINS on July 13th, 2018 10:18 am

    I’m calling The Police.

    [Reply]

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And in this corner… | July 13, 2018