Rock and Roll Book Club: 'More Fun in the New World' follows L.A. punks into the '80s

'More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk.'
'More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"This record of ours and its subject matter might've been too big for us to capture," writes John Doe. "We tried to cram all the musical influences we had been exposed to or ones who had influenced us from earlier days. We were full of ourselves and thought we could define 'punk rock' any way we chose."

He's writing about More Fun in the New World, the 1983 album by his band X. He could also, almost, have been writing about More Fun in the New World, the new book he co-edited with Tom DeSavia...and he could also have been writing in general about the era it chronicles.

Doe and DeSavia, a writer and veteran record industry guy, previously collaborated on Under the Big Black Sun (2016), a multivocal history of L.A. punk and hardcore from the late '70s into the early '80s. With contributions by the likes of Exene Cervenka (X), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), and Mike Watt (Minutemen), Under the Big Black Sun was a hit and suggested a sequel.

This was never going to be a simple story; and Doe and DeSavia aren't looking to simplify it. As the '70s bled into the '80s, life for the stars of Penelope Spheeris's era-defining 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization — bands like X, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks — was a mix of agony and ecstasy. They saw their L.A. scene evolve and transform, and one way to tell the story is that "hair metal won the L.A. Sunset Strip war."

In an introduction, DeSavia says telling the story that way would be depressing, even if it might be accurate. So instead, Doe and DeSavia corralled the usual suspects — some contributors to the past book, some new ones — to write about what happened to all of them when the MTV era dawned.

While there's no master narrative, there are some strands that emerge.

Women rocked. A lot of the most popular and talented women in '80s rock came out of the L.A. scene, for reasons that seem to hinge on critical mass. Among the Go-Go's, the Bangles, and others, L.A. became a town where having an all-female rock band — not a "girl group," but a proper band that wrote and played their own songs — was a thing.

Those bands had massive success, while others remained local legends. One of the book's most entertaining chapters is written by Pleasant Gehman, who lived in a crash pad called "Disgraceland" with other stars including Belinda Carlisle, and played in a band called the Screaming Sirens. Among the many eye-opening stories in that chapter, the least scandalous involve Carlisle's torture at the hands of the unwitting teenager living upstairs, who played "Our Lips Are Sealed" on repeat; and Gehman pranking guests by telling them a couch gifted by Al Kooper (that part was true) had been farted upon by Bob Dylan (not true).

Two past or present members of the Go-Go's — Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin — contribute chapters, and Wiedlin's chapter makes clear that while the Go-Go's didn't party quite as hard as some of their infamous male counterparts, they partied pretty hard. In that chapter you'll learn about a new way of ingesting opium, about the groping gauntlet they'd subject their tour manager to, and about how Wiedlin's engagement to a male model ended over her affair with a Go-Go's roadie. In that chapter, Rod Stewart (who knows whereof he speaks) is quoted saying, "The Go-Go's could snort the varnish off a coffee table."

Dylan, who spent a lot of time in L.A. in the '80s, is often mentioned in the book. Maria McKee remembers when their A&R rep, who was dating Bob Dylan, got him to write a song ("Go Away Little Boy") for McKee's band Lone Justice. Dylan came to the studio for the session, and wasn't content until McKee delivered the lead vocal doing "the most over-the-top Bob Dylan impression I could muster." She would have preferred to work with another Minnesotan: "If she had said Paul Westerberg is writing a song for you, I would have been over the moon."

Hardcore got rotten. Hardcore, a proud product of the L.A. scene, became increasingly appropriated by white supremacist skinheads. You'd be onstage and see skinheads beating up on people of color or people who were gay, and if you called it out, you became a target yourself. By 1986, Rollins tells Doe in conversation, he had to stop shaving his head because he'd be taken for a skinhead compatriot. That was also the year he left Black Flag, increasingly focusing on spoken word.

Everybody still loved X. Of course, everyone contributing to More Fun knew they were pitching in to John Doe's book, but it's not a coincidence that it's Doe who's at the heart of this story. As Rollins notes, for punk rockers the '80s was the decade when they started to see their sound go mainstream — and X were a paradigm.

They signed to a major label (Elektra) and made acclaimed, successful records, but they kept their integrity. As Doe writes,

X has weathered many battles, successes, and failures and, to this day, remain a working, touring band — one who celebrated a fortieth anniversary in 2017 by playing over one hundred dates in the U.S. In those forty-some years Exene and I married, divorced, and stayed friends; Billy Zoom beat cancer twice, quit the band, and rejoined ten years later; and somehow DJ Bonebrake continues to be known as "the nicest man in rock 'n' roll." We can't play casinos or state fairs because we never had a bona fide "hit." If you ask Joan Jett or Blondie, they may say that can be a double-edged sword. I'll admit that sometimes we wish we had the bank account or luxury to reach the masses like they have. But at every X show I see some twenty-something or younger in the front row, losing their s--t and getting schooled in original American punk rock. In that way it's the best job anyone can have.

Bonebrake also, Doe reveals, survived a case of "Pac-Man elbow" while waiting around for the many overdubs on More Fun. A true rock and roll survivor.

The book also includes contributions from people outside of music proper who appreciated the scene: artist Shepard Fairey, who was inspired by L.A. flyer culture. Filmmakers like Allison Anders, whose Border Radio (1987) starred Doe and featured a wealth of L.A. rock music in a movie inspired by American Graffiti. Tony Hawk, the skateboarder whose wildly successful video game would bring L.A. punk to the ears of the Warped Tour generation.

Then there are contributions from the likes of Mike Ness, whose Social Distortion only took off after he sobered up in the mid-1980s. Dave Alvin writes about the Blasters, the band fronted by his brother Phil Alvin that found mainstream success without ever quite becoming superstars or making albums that really captured their legendary live energy. Peter Case writes about his bands the Nerves (their "Hanging on the Telephone" was covered by Blondie) and the Plimsouls. Louie Pérez, who refers to his group Los Lobos as "los rockstars accidentales."

That's just scratching the surface of the tall tales and short stories compiled in More Fun in the New World. While there's an inevitably bittersweet flavor to the book, it's more sweet than bitter. As the Bangles' Annette Zilinskas writes, even after she left that band and broke up with the boyfriend who became her musical partner in Blood on the Saddle, "I finally had learned how to walk on my own and find my own voice."

That's a victory, especially in a contemporary landscape that — as Doe notes — feels eerily similar to the Reagan-era America that gave post-punks so much fodder for rage and disappointment. Wiedlin may have the pithiest take on life as a former superstar.

"I continued to make albums that have sold less and less to this day," she writes about her life after the Go-Go's. "The good news is that I also came to care less and less what people think of me."

X are part of this year's Rock the Garden lineup.

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