Punk Grown Up: Avengers, X, Dead Kennedys at MOCA

The ironies of last Saturday’s Pacific Standard Time concert at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary were not lost among the estimated 1,000 in attendance. The bill of San Francisco’s Avengers and Dead Kennedys and Los Angeles’s hometown underground music heroes, X, was a flashback to the late 70s and a vastly different time. That a concert of this ordinance would occur in the institutional setting of a respected modern art museum was highly unlikely 30 years ago and, most likely, mutually disagreeable to both parties at the time. However three decades later, a sense of better-late-than-never was obvious to much of the middle-aged crowd, who had long recognized the artistic significance of these seminal California punk bands and lovingly accepted them as part of Southern Califronia’s extended cultural fabric.

As the crowning event of the Geffen Contemporary’s exhibit Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 (October 11, 2011 – February 13, 2012),the juxtaposition of music and art begged the question of what came first, a visual expression of an incendiary new music scene or a musical soundtrack to a new art movement. Using the title of X’s third record to name the exhibition explained the importance of music to this time-scape; where widespread frustration, alienation and disillusionment fed strong reactionary music and visual art, both too wild and expressive for commercial music venues and established art museums. Both of these movements were created in a vacuum. For artists, Los Angeles was far away from New York’s modern art scene, freeing their own explorations. For musicians and teens, the California 70’s FM soundtrack of the Eagles, Jackson Brown and numerous other soft country and soft rock expressions did not reflect the anxieties or realities of their existences and surroundings. While these two worlds overlapped, it is hard to say how much they directly influenced each other. The informality and overlapping of the movements suggest the intimate nature of the 1970s California DIY punk scene in which your idols were your friends and fans.

Fast forward 30 years: this dream 1979 line-up of punk bands was presented on the plaza/parking lot outside MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, formerly known as the Temporary Contemporary. Ironically, this location, if not for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Parker Center 300 yards away, could have served as a backdrop for these same bands 30 years ago, completely spontaneous and not permitted.  Long before the manifestation of “artist lofts” (apartment buildings) in the areas surrounding Little Tokyo, the neighborhood was distinctly grittier. Legendary punk rock establishments existed no farther than a half-mile away. The Atomic Cafe, now Senor Fish, was rumored to be the only jukebox in the world to feature both Sinatra’s and the Sex Pistol’s “My Way”. A few blocks farther, Al’s Bar served as Los Angeles’ take on New York’s CBGBs. Al’s featured top punk acts and also welcomed new bands, most of which learned to play their instruments on its sticky stage. This bohemian den served as a petri dish for the craziest rock and performance acts that LA has ever seen. Seeing bands like the Imperial Butt Wizards in the early 90s donning gas masks to light road flairs and burn plush animals on stage was not unusual.

The Avengers hit the stage promptly at 7:30 pm with power and precision. Except for the oldest scenesters, this would be most people’s first experience with the Avengers. Famous for helping create San Francisco’s punk scene, they are well-known for being the opening act of the last Sex Pistols show in 1979 at San Francisco’s Winterland. They would soon split up and reform in 1999 and 2004. Penelope’s passionate vocals and strong stage presence quickly stirred the audience to excitement. The loss of two original band members did not slow the band down. A particularly boisterous version of their song “Fuck You” kindled memories of the old days while sticking a celebratory middle finger to the downtown Los Angeles surroundings.

The Dead Kennedys started at 9:30 p.m. Never has so much gossip anticipated a performance. “You know it’s not same without Jello!?!” or “It’s not really the Dead Kennedys!”  Three out of four original members for a band that formed 35 years ago is not bad, people. For those who have never seen the DKs, including me, this is the closest you are going to get, so enjoy it! Their songs quickly excited a vigorous mosh pit and revealed how relevant their music remains. “California Uber Alles’” opening line of “I am Governor Jerry Brown” comes full circle.  Front man Ron “Skip” Greer did an admirable job of filling big shoes and being cheeky to the audience at every opportunity.  In punk rock fashion, he snarkily reminded the crowd of the institutional venue and taunted them with deeper questions of what art is. A sizable portion of the crowd blushed when told to throw their iPads away and say no to Facebook.
What else is there to say about X? Arguably, one of Southern California’s greatest rock exports. I could list 100 reasons why I think they are LA’s greatest export, and, yes, greater than the Doors and the Byrds.  No band’s music over the last 30+ years better reflects the fabric and urban consciousness of Los Angeles than X.  Better yet, they never broke up.  Billy Zoom’s return to the band last decade drew back old fans who lamented his split. Saturday’s performance was as energetic, tight and passionate as ever, playing their most popular songs off the first four albums. Even “Burning House of Love” (1985’s attempt at radio play) sounded one with their most classic material. DJ Bonebrake (the most eponymous name for a drummer ever) pounded rhythms through the entire set.  His drumming on “The Hungry Wolf” gave this reviewer shivers. The cathartic “Nausea” was by far the heaviest version I have heard in my 27 years seeing the band. Always passionate, Doe jumped about the stage with more vigor than past X shows. At one point he was on the drum riser with DJ doing extended syncopated quarter-note accents to terrific effect, perhaps demonstrating how significant this evening was for the band.  Exene performed exactly the way I remembered her in 1985, so clearly articulating the bands themes of despair and hope with her powerful voice. If there was ever a guitar god deity, Billy Zoom would be it: so cool, so calm.  His guitar screams with every lick and riff as he casually takes his trademark stance, smiles and winks at every female in the audience. My guitar deity theory held water at the end of the show when Billy rested a foot on a stage monitor and held one note for what seemed like an hour as he smiled and camera flashes illuminated his 1950s boyish/devilish looks.

MOCA should be congratulated for rolling out the red carpet for the Avengers, Dead Kennedys and X and recognizing these seminal punk bands in their rightful place in our cultural history.  I won’t hold my breath, but I would like to see more concerts at the Geffen Contemporary.  Security guards were in suits like Secret Service agents and guests were treated with respect.  Entering the show was more like arriving at an art show than a trip through airport security.  Guests amenities were plentiful and everyone had a good time.

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