.Punk Prophets

Where are they now? Revisiting the ghosts of punk past.

There used to be a punk rock oracle on Telegraph Avenue. His name was Orlando, and you could usually find him in Rasputin Records: a big burly black guy with a Mohawk, ripped army fatigues, and safety pins dangling from his ears. He wore funky little shades all the time, even indoors, and his demeanor was stoic. But if you could get him to talk to you, the musical wisdom of the ages — or at least, of that particular age — would be unleashed. Which bands to check out, which albums were cool. And where the whole scene was going. Because, like any cutting edge, it was ahead of its time, full of musical prophets. Just think of the now-iconic Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, capturing the zeitgeist of early Reagan-era discomfort. Tracks like “Kill the Poor” and “I Kill Children” are sickeningly relevant today, and as newscasts warn us to be vigilant of identity theft, even “Stealing People’s Mail” has become endemic.

As 2002 slides away, we’ve officially reached what most folks agree is the two-decade anniversary of the death of punk. It was a live-fast, die-young kind of scene, a burst of black leather blasting through the singles bars of the late ’70s, snarling into the divey clubs and college radio of the early ’80s, then fragmenting, fizzling, or selling out. Search the Web these days to see what’s become of some of the big Bay Area bands from back in the day: Dead Kennedys, all embroiled in legal battles over money and copyrights. Flipper, same. Other groups are scraping up ways to cash in on the ’80s nostalgia that was inevitable, now that everyone’s gotten sick of teetering around on platform soles, bellbottoms blowing in the wind — and Rhino Records has validated the shift with the release of its seven-CD, ’80s-revival box set. Penelope Houston, of the Avengers, runs a punk-grrrl Web site largely devoted to selling cute punk merchandise.

In an interview with Maximum Rock and Roll, the Lewd’s bassist Olga de Volga offers to sell “sealed” Lewd albums for $100 each. Oh, bitter irony — when it all shakes down, has the Bay Area’s raw punk become just another aisle in the market of 1980s collectibles? Will the punk prophets settle for profits? The question’s been asked before, but usually of the big guys, the Jello Biafras, the Henry Rollinses. To find out what’s really become of the roots of the scene, you have to dig out the ones less seen. And of course all digging leads — where else? — underground.

Case in point: Subterranean Records, started in Steve Tupper’s Berkeley living room in 1979, and still run by Tupper, whose dedication to the anticommercial stance of punk remains intact. The original mission of Tupper and cofounder Mike Fox was to get local bands recorded, a feat achieved on Fox’s four-track. “There weren’t any other labels around at that point,” Tupper recalls. “In the late ’70s, if you were a band, it was a monumental effort to get anything out, because very few had recording equipment. But Subterranean really helped solve that. Get bands recorded, get records pressed, get them out. We either knew the bands, or knew people that knew them. The scene was small enough.” And, in those early days, diverse enough. “The whole [label] was inspired by the punk social scene more than anything else, which was something that crossed a lot of stylistic barriers. I tried to keep things in the same vein. Punk was about trying to make a change, trying to overthrow the old order, more than trying to fit into a particular style.”

He found his calling in the scene’s heyday, recording any band he could find that was doing something “interesting, different, and challenging,” even if many of the bands he recorded had “the Subterranean Syndrome, as we called it: you break up before your record comes out!” But, by 1986, a somewhat disillusioned Tupper told Puncture in an interview: “Punk has degenerated severely. 1986 is to 1977 as 1975 was to 1967. That is, just as the hippies degenerated into boring nothingness by the mid-’70s, the punks have now gone the same way. A lot of people are just waiting for something new.”

Today, in Subterranean’s Mission District warehouse, where the company has become more of a distributor than a label in order to survive, Tupper reflects on the issue of commercial success: “We’re not really looking to make money — the distribution part of it pays the bills. The financial considerations were never very important, which a lot of the bands seem to be having a hard time with, in retrospect. Originally, everybody shared the same ideas: ‘We’re not here to be rock stars, and replicate the old stuff we were rebelling against.’ They wanted to do something different, not commercially oriented. But people change over time apparently, and they want to cash in somehow.”

And, as far as a vital new scene, he is waiting still: “There really hasn’t been anything comparable to punk … instead, you have a continuous recycling of past stuff. Grunge was just a joke — ’70s heavy rock, basically. Pretty soon,” he adds, “we’ll have a retro ’90s fad. But nothing like the punk movement has come along. I’ve been waiting for years!” While you wait, Steve, take heart: there are still some from the old-school scene for whom the bottom line is not the top dollar.

One thing Tupper is really waiting for, it seems, is more than music: It’s the sense of community that came with the scene. Maybe no band exemplified this more than one of Subterranean’s first, VKTMS. One of the four bands featured on Sub’s now-iconic first pressing, the “SF Underground” EP (the others were Flipper, No Alternative, and Mike Fox’s own Tools), VKTMS had come together in 1978, the lineup gelling around the charismatic lead of singer Nyna Crawford, who sealed her place in the band when, during her audition, her energetic contortions cracked a concrete floor — the stuff of punk legend. VKTMS became a mainstay in the scene, and after recording with Subterranean, began living together in what bassist Steve Ricablanca calls “a multipurpose house. It was party central, rehearsal space, cooking, and BBQ spot.”

Ricablanca remembers cooking for dinner parties at the house — perhaps an early inspiration for his eventual study at culinary school and a tenure at Masa’s. The communal household was important to the band’s “hippie connection,” Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane, who was for a time both manager and mentor, and got VKTMS one of its top gigs, opening for the Ramones. According to guitarist John Binkov, “[Dryden] said that as long as we lived together, we’d stay together as a band.” For a couple of years they did, eating, sleeping, and practicing in the house, and plastering the city with the lively gig flyers they created together: “It was scissors, Glu-Stik, and spit.”

Although VKTMS broke up in the early ’80s, the members remained close, eventually putting out an album in 1995 from resuscitated original tapes and a CD in 1997, and reunited to gig behind these releases. Binkov and drummer Lou Gwerder, reminiscing about the reunion, bicker and banter together like the Odd Couple — until Binkov sobers with sorrow as he describes singer Nyna Crawford’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer just before the band’s reunion gig. Though she continued performing with VKTMS, even through chemo treatments, Crawford eventually succumbed to cancer in 2000, days after her 44th birthday. “She was so witty, funny, saw things with such clarity,” Binkov says of the tough-edged singer and lyricist. “Her vocal prowess has become a benchmark among punk fans. Nyna’s lyrics are the essential part of the songs. They almost always have a weird twist, and her sense of humor was her trademark.” Perhaps he is thinking of the VKTMS classic “Midget,” in which Crawford extols the virtues of having a 3’3″ boyfriend when it comes to convenient oral pleasure.

After Crawford’s death, VKTMS thought it would be “dishonorable” to continue without her. Now they pursue artistic goals individually, yet remain in close touch. Binkov’s new band, D’Jelly Brains, has just released its first CD; Gwerder is a visual artist in San Francisco, and he still practices drums, “but I’m getting old. It’s a young man’s thing, especially the way we used to play.” Ricablanca, now transplanted to New York, is a chef by day, but creates bass-driven techno-style tracks on his home computer by night; he is also at work on a VKTMS video history. “He’s awesome, he taught himself how to do this shit,” Binkov says of Ricablanca’s video skills. “Now tell me that’s not punk rock. Punk rock is not short hair and a black T-shirt from Orange County. It’s do-it-yourself.” Gwerder adds, in a Zen sum-up, “We were so much a part of things then, we can’t remember why we did what, or how it happened … it just was.”

Another Bay Area punk band that took the do-it-yourself ethic and added a do-it-your-way spin, challenging the cookie-cutter image of hardcore punk, was also fronted by a powerful female singer and lyricist. In the spirit of true punk oddity, Romeo Void was essentially created by a fortune cookie. To hear singer Debora Iyall tell it, “I’d come down to the Bay Area a few times to see Patti Smith. Then I got a fortune cookie that said ‘Art is your fate — don’t debate.’ So I applied to the SF Art Institute.” The Institute’s performance and video courses were influenced by the surrounding punk scene, and soon after arriving in SF, Iyall began frequenting the Mabuhay Gardens, catching groups like the Nuns, the Mutants, Crime, and the Avengers. “After seeing Patti Smith, I still had it in my mind that you had to be skinny to be up there [on stage], but after going to the Mabuhay … you just do whatever you want, be whoever you want, just make it happen.”

Iyall started making it happen in a “fun band,” a ’60s cover band called the Mummers and the Poppers, but soon found herself sharing a studio space at the Art Institute with student Frank Zincavage, who had “a drum machine and a clear bass — very cool.” They decided to form a band, and from the beginning it was to be a band that embraced the ideals of punk, even at the risk of being categorized as New Wave: “Even though I was going to the Mab so much, I also had criticisms: Everyone was leaning against the wall wearing black. I guess we were considered New Wave, but for me Romeo Void was a reaction against the regimentation of everyone having to be bleached blond and everything being about despair and no future, when I thought the do-it-yourself thing should encompass all the different kinds of emotions, and all the different colors. … I was proud of being American Indian, so I purposely never bleached my hair blond.” With the whiteness of the punk scene, Iyall was glad to see bands like VKTMS and the Zeros, with more diverse lineups.

Romeo Void added another little-seen element to the scene: “I was told by our culture that I would never be a full human being because of my size,” Iyall points out. But perhaps both her size and ethnicity made the band even more punk, since “aggression was in high value at the time, and there was an aggression just in me being a singer, because I didn’t fit the mold.” It was soon clear that fans were ready to see a something that didn’t fit the mold, even the punk mold itself, and Romeo Void’s popularity grew rapidly, especially after Howie Klein of 415 Records caught a gig at the Savoy Tivoli, where Iyall was decked out in a nurse’s dress and zebra shoes. The release of their first album, It’s a Condition, soon followed, and the band began to tour. As they made the charts, mainstream rock stars like Ric Ocasek and Ann Wilson wanted to meet them when they came through town, though it was anticlimactic since Iyall wasn’t sure who they were — “I wasn’t ever really a rock ‘n’ roll gal; I might’ve been listening to Erik Satie or Billie Holiday!” And commercial success was double-edged: “It was frightening: we played a college in Santa Barbara, and there were all these blond people crowding the stage, and I thought ‘These are the people who hated me in high school!’ When you grow up being ‘outside’ — because I wasn’t white, and I was fat, and always a bit of a free thinker — it was strange. It was like, ‘uh-oh, I must be doing something wrong — they like me!’ ”
And Iyall liked them. Or, at least, liked the performances. “I love singing in big rooms. It’s very sensual, really intimate. It felt like I was whispering, getting into people’s brains — and that is powerful!” Despite the sensual and sexual nature of Iyall’s lyrics (including the trademark line from “Never Say Never,” “I might like you better if we slept together”), the Anaïs Nin-inspired band name, and the nurse’s outfit at the Savoy Tivoli, Iyall’s personal politics didn’t always lead her to an erotic onstage persona: “When we opened for the Plasmatics, I wore a cholo outfit, with a gray shirt buttoned up, as a statement against what I saw as [Wendy O. Williams’] crude sexuality.” Eventually, though, the very elements that lent uniqueness and vitality to Romeo Void in the beginning may have been an Achilles’ heel. After the release of the band’s third album, and two weeks into a nine-week tour, “Howie sold us from 415 to Columbia Records, and they were like ‘Who’s this fat chick?’ They decided that was as far as it was going to get, and pulled their support.” When the group returned, breakup wasn’t far off. “To San Francisco people we were a big success, but when you go back to the same town, the same club, the same number of people … you get tired. We got tired of each other.”

The band’s demise and the decline of the punk scene coincided, and Iyall returned to her roots in the visual arts and the Native American community, working in the Mission District at a gallery of contemporary American Indian art, and teaching printmaking as part of an inter-tribal organization called Ink Clan. In an irony of punk-vs.-mainstream, however, Iyall got dot-commed out of the city, and now lives in the Southern California desert, “surrounded by cactus, coyote, and tortoises.” She does Arts Council residencies, and teaches printmaking in schools. “I’m more serious about being a visual artist now than I ever was in art school. A lot of people who know me through my art have no idea about my music — and that’s fine, because if their parents heard some of the lyrics … ” Yet Iyall hasn’t left music behind; she is still writing songs, and has recorded new work as part of a duo called Knife in Water. And the lyrics, retaining her self-described “bold sexuality,” may still startle her students’ parents. “It’s still lyrically challenging. I want to be honest. Truth is important to me — things that go into the viscera. What’s most intimate about ourselves is usually something that makes us uncomfortable — that’s what’s valuable to me, not all the syrup. If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably good!”

And that philosophy seems to inform all of Iyall’s endeavors, whether it’s the Shockwave animation of her erotic prints on the Internet, her occasional appearances singing with a “twisted lounge act,” or her spoken-word performances. After all, this is all from the girl who, at age thirteen, jumped onstage after Joan Baez’ performance at a Fresno antiwar rally, and talked the manager into letting her read her poetry to the crowd. Success in a seminal Bay Area punk band is just one aspect of the multifaceted Debora Iyall, who describes herself as “compulsively creative.”

Grassroots punk is on one end of the music spectrum, and mainstream commercial pop is on the opposite end, and if any artist from the Bay Area scene has been beyond and back, it’s Bonnie Hayes. Coming to the punk scene from musical training in jazz, Hayes then made a stab at the commercial pop scene, but eventually became best-known (and best-paid!) for her songwriting, penning such hits as “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt. And although punk led Hayes to the brink of selling out, it has also brought her safely home to raw authenticity.

Like Iyall and many others, Hayes came to punk through the do-it-yourself aesthetic: She was touring as a keyboard player in a jazz band, when she caught a Sex Pistols show. “I thought ‘Damn! If that guy can be a lead singer, I think I can!’ When I came back to San Francisco, lo and behold, there was this wild punk scene here, and I just started writing songs.” Though she had loved jazz, there had been something missing, something she was able to find with the first San Francisco band she formed, the Punts. “There is a wildness in jazz with great jazz musicians, but for me, I wasn’t able to access the center of what I wanted out of music, in playing jazz. Punk was not about being good, it was about accessing that wildness, it was about going against the grain at all possible turns. It was right at a time when I wasn’t ready to play inside the lines.”

Though the Punts played for a couple of years, the restrictiveness of their “loud and noisy” punk was wearing thin, and Hayes couldn’t keep her musical roots from intruding. In an hour of frustration, she wrote “Shelley’s Boyfriend,” a perky girl-pop tune that quickly got radio play on KUSF and attracted six hundred fans to a City College gig. “I remember getting a lot of shit from my punk friends with ‘Shelley’s Boyfriend’ because that word ‘boyfriend’ is so wussy.” It was, in a sense, the beginning of Hayes’ break from what had become the regimentation of hardcore punk. “When I first started writing, I wrote no songs about romance at all; I never allowed myself to put the word ‘love’ in a song. But I was bored with the punk attitude, I was bored with the drugs, I was bored with the music — I was a musician.” As Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo, she signed a record deal with Slash and the album Good Clean Fun was released. Hayes was now entrenched on the New Wave side of the Great Divide, and she recalls Slash getting shit for signing a peppy New Wave band to what was perceived as a hardcore label. Although the band was soon dropped from Slash and never saw any money from the record, Hayes’ efforts to make it in the mainstream music business had begun.

The next step in that process was Bonnie Hayes, her eponymous attempt on Chrysalis in 1987. On the cover is Hayes à la early Madonna, looking cute as can be in a black and white tube top and black bowler hat, baring her tummy against a background of pink paint splashes. It’s not a fond memory for Hayes. “I hate that album,” she says flatly. “What happened to me internally is that I was no longer part of a scene. They put me on the cover of the pink section, and the caption was ‘Why Hasn’t Bonnie Hayes Made It?’ And the answer seemed to be that I hadn’t tried hard enough. But really” — she grabs the Chrysalis album — “I had tried, was trying, trying too hard. I have no doubts about myself as a musician, as a songwriter, as a performer. What I did have doubts about was my ability to be taken seriously by mass culture. Because I’d refused to do [albums like this], I felt I’d damaged my career. I felt that if I tried to be more of a ‘girl,’ I’d be able to reach more people, to have my say. Of course, that’s a devil’s contract. As soon as you start wearing a bra and leather pants and frosty lipstick and opening your mouth slightly and batting your eyelashes, you are reduced to that stereotype, no matter how smart your lyrics are. So there’s a balance that women have to strike, and this is me trying to find that balance. It was a pretty abysmal failure. It felt inauthentic — but being authentic hadn’t been working.” The experiences in this soul-selling pit of the music business led Hayes down a rough road to some deeper realizations: “In order to really know that what you’re doing is authentic, you have to have been inauthentic. You have to feel the weird empty feeling inside yourself when you look at yourself behaving in a way that isn’t resonant, and say ‘that’s what it feels like to be false.’ “

It was while Hayes was touring with Belinda Carlisle that Bonnie Raitt first asked to record some of her songs — and when Raitt’s Nick of Time won a Grammy, Hayes’ career took a new turn. “I went to LA to be a Songwriter. It’s so ‘making product.’ The problem with making money at something you love is that you corrupt it.” Though the wasteland of the business brought her back to the Bay Area in 1998, Hayes is, and always has been a songwriter — without capitals, a real one. “My songs are written in an attempt to create a voice for the person I’m trying to turn into at any given time — which is kind of myself, only better.” For several years now, she has also been a teacher of songwriting, primarily at Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. “I love teaching — my students are so brave, and they remind me what true devotion to music is about. If you have the balls to write a song, you should be taken seriously!”

What Hayes wants to be taken seriously for right now is Love in the Ruins, the album she’s just completed, and her first since 1997. Since leaving LA, she’s moved away from recording, finding that the process of production leaves music too far away from the power of the time of its creation: “I don’t make a lot of records; I only care about the moment, not the product. This record is the first that isn’t done after the moment of writing — it’s like a record of demos. To me, it sounds alive; it’s raw, garagey…and a lot of my guitar is very remedial! Here I am, 47 years old — note that I’m not lying — and this is all about telling the truth now. This is the real music, not all fixed up, and this is really how old I am, really what I’m interested in.” Clearly Hayes has hit her stride, and while she is certainly age-conscious, she is also age-confident. “Being 47 is not about wearing a muumuu and watching soap operas. I am as much of a punk, if not more so, than I ever was in my life. I have as bad of an attitude, I’m as flexible, as willing to confront or be occupied by any idea or cultural situation as I was then — and probably more, because I have less fear.”

And so the jazzy-punky Punt has journeyed through the dark forest of commercial mainstream, and has returned with a self-knowledge that goes back to beginnings, back to the authentic. And is ready to release some of that authenticity on record. “With all of the force that a 47-year-old woman who’s been an artist her whole life, who’s taken every drug known to man, who’s been all around the world — with all of the force that a person like that can bring to an idea, I bring to the ideas on this record. And that, to me, is punk.”


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