WE NEVER LEARN Eric Davidson & the Gunk Punk Undergut (Pt. 1)

If you were on the
garage-rock scene circa 1988 – 2001, these bands might have been your life.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Where were you in ’92? It’s a fair question, and think
carefully before answering, because if your answer even tangentially involves
invoking such terms as “Seattle,”
“grunge,” “Nirvana” or – worst of all – “alternative,” then this story ain’t for
you, pal.

 

For me, in 1992 I’d landed in the desert where for the next
decade I helped operate a Tucson,
Ariz., independent record store.
During that time I experienced firsthand, as only a record store clerk can
experience, the alterna-ascent and its subsequent crumbling; and having already
lived, musically culturally speaking, through the tail end of the ‘60s and all
of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I’m confident in my assertion that for the most part the
‘90s were an aesthetic wasteland. Ask me sometime about selling Limp Bizkit CDs
to scary-looking shaved-head dudes and their skanky girlfriends… but I digress.

 

There were, however, occasional glimmers of hope that always
managed to pull me back from the do-a-Cobain precipice of despair, and it now
does my aging ticker and cholesterol-clogged arteries good to learn that I
wasn’t quite as alone as I sometimes felt. To wit: the just-published book We Never Learn (Backbeat Books), by
journalist Eric Davidson (CMJ, Village
Voice,
etc.) – some of you may also know him as the frontman for the late,
great, and occasionally reunited, New Bomb Turks.

 

We Never Learn is
subtitled “The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001,” and you won’t be surprised to
learn that the tome takes a good hard – if sometimes freewheeling, and of
necessity (considering the topic) sprawling – look at what was going on outside
the mainstream. And by “mainstream” we are indeed talking about alterna-rock
and its crummy variants and not Madonna, Aerosmith or the Backstreet Boys. Make that under the mainstream – an alternative to “alternative.”

 

As the subtitle suggests, the book takes up the tale in the
late ‘80s following a quick recap of some of the musical events earlier
during
the decade. Davidson points out how the critical consensus
has typically been that the eighties were rock’s worst decade, a notion
that’s
probably as much eye-of-the-beholder as anything else (see my own
assessment of
the nineties, above), but there’s no question that a lot of what went
down did
make things ripe for a new rock ‘n’ roll rumble along the lines of
1976-77. We
Never Learn
ends, more or less, with the neo-garage movement of the
early
‘00s – White Stripes, Hives, Strokes, Jet et
al
– and notes, accurately, that by this point the music scene had
become
too fragmented to support a bonafide, lasting “movement.”

 

In between, We Never
Learn
road trips from Cleveland and Davidson’s home base of Columbus over to Detroit
and New York; down to Pittsburgh
then out to Clackamas, Ore.;
across the Pacific to Australia
and Japan, then across the
Atlantic to England, Germany and Sweden; and myriad map-dots in
between. Boy meets girl; girl won’t sleep with boy; boy forms band to impress
the girl; girl still won’t sleep with the boy so he records a 45 and his band
goes out on tour; band gets ripped off by shady club promoters and fly-by-night
record labels but still has a whale of a beer-swimming, living-room-crashing
and (on occasion, at least) nubile-poking good time; band breaks up; repeat
cycle.

 

Oh, almost forgot – band gets to dress up like total
lunatics if it so desires, as this quote from a member of the Mummies, about
their pre-show ritual of donning mummy attire, so vividly illustrates:

 

“We were getting
dressed, but there weren’t any dressing rooms. So we’re in the alley behind the
club, fucking freezing, getting into these wet stinky, cold-as-fuck costumes.
When we started, we actually wrapped Ace bandages, and then we realized that
took too long. So we sewed stuff onto pants and shirts. So here we are getting
dressed in the alley… We carried a can of Lysol with us. We suit up,
spread-eagle, and one of the guys would spray us down… It’s not like the next
morning you want to go to a Laundromat. You want to go to a record store.”

 

Now that’s entertainment.
Really, you had to be there. But if you weren’t, We Never Learn is the next best thing.

 

And Davidson, from his twinned perspective as a collector of
both vintage and contemporary punk rock records and as a touring and recording
musician – the New Bomb Turks were, happily, one of the era’s semi-success
stories, having formed in Ohio just as the ‘90s were dawning and lasting
through 2002, in the process cutting records for such tastemaker labels as
Crypt, Sympathy For the Record Industry, Get Hip, Epitaph and Gearhead – is
eminently qualified to tell the story. He rounds up many of the usual suspects
and then some, eliciting choice quotes (and in some instances printing,
verbatim, entire Q&A sessions) from the likes of Crypt’s Tim Warren, In The
Red’s Larry Hardy, Sympathy’s Long Gone John, Billy Childish, Jon Spencer, Blag
Jesus of the Dwarves, collector Johan Kugelberg (of Killed By Death punk compilations and Matador Records fame), Greg
Cartwright of the Oblivians/Compulsive Gamblers/Reigning Sound, Eddie Spaghetti
of the Supersuckers, Nicholaus Arson of The Hives, producer Jim Diamond, fellow
journalist Byron Coley (who also pens the book’s Foreword)… the list is nearly
endless.

 

As is the list of bands who get their 15 minutes’ worth of
retroactive fame in We Never Learn.
Just to name a few who, not so coincidentally, are also included in a handy
appendix listing Davidson’s picks for the Top 50 singles and Top 100 albums of
the era: Cosmic Psychos, Death of Samantha, Gories, Lazy Cowgirls, Dead Moon,
Teengenerate, Cheater Slicks, Gaunt, Gibson Brothers, Reatards, Doo Rag, Devil
Dogs, Prisonshake, Pussy Galore, Muffs, Bassholes, Mono Men, Raunch Hands and –
yours truly’s fave outta the whole batch – Union Carbide Productions.

 

(Ironically, one of the bands featured prominently, and
rightfully so, is the White Stripes, whose contributions to the punk-garage
scene are enormous, but whose frontman, Jack White, essentially turned down
Davidson’s request for a brief interview by instead sending back a cryptic
manifesto involving Edgar Allen Poe.)

 

At times the names of Davidson’s correspondents and the
bands being discussed tumble off the page like magnetic alphabet letters being
violently shaken off a refrigerator door, leaving the reader to try to make
sense of the resulting jumble of reflections, anecdotes and descriptions.
That’s okay; having been neck-deep at the time in this whole scene myself,
writing about the bands as they were happening and also, as record buyer for
that Tucson store, stocking their 45s, LPs and CDs, I reckon that the anarchic
pace at which We Never Learn reads is
a pretty fair approximation of how events were actually unfolding in real time.
I mean, I seem to recall how in just one memorable two-week stretch alone I got
to see Prisonshake, the Lazy Cowgirls, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Cosmic
Psychos AND Stone Temple Pilots… whoops… well, you get my point.

 

Granted, with just a few exceptions, nobody caught up in all
this got particularly rich or famous. But nobody fully expected to, either.

 

“The concentration
[was] on action,”
explains Davidson, in his Prologue, “and for that, these acts ultimately released an intensely impressive
mountain of music, toured like mad with a perseverance and revived desire to
entertain (in the face of hardcore punk’s serious scowl), and engendered the
kind of slobbering fan loyalty usually reserved for Kennedy assassination
aficionados.”

 

Come to think of it, maybe the ‘90s didn’t suck all that
bad. It takes a book like this however, to excavate the silver lining from the
charred detritus of the decade, pardon the fractured metaphor. Much like
Michael Azerrad’s crucial volume Our
Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991
outlined an
earlier milieu, We Never Learn offers an invaluable secret history that
by virtue of its pre-Internet origins was in danger of remaining secret. Here’s
hoping that more folks gradually come out of the woodwork to get their stories
down on paper (blog?) along with a steady stream of reissues to ensure that the
actual music doesn’t get lost in a labyrinth of dusty garages, attics and
closets.

 

Speaking of resurrecting the music, included with the book is
a card containing a download code that will nab you a free 20-song compilation
of choice songs, several of them (by the Dwarves, Cheater Slicks, Cynics, No
Talents and New Bomb Turks) previously unreleased live or demo tracks. Most of
the tunes have never been digitized before, so consider the We Never Learn anthology a tossing down
of the gauntlet. Who’ll step up to the plate next?

 

I traced Davidson to his digs in Brooklyn and, resisting the
urge to get all “oooh, Brooklyn, how trendy – are we talking Park Slope?”
on him, I took a ride down memory lane with the fiery singer-scribe. Check it
out, and after you’re done, hop over to (1) our gallery of selected images from
the book; and (2) Davidson’s WeNeverLearnBook.com blog, which is loaded with
even more extended looniness (that repro of a late 1990’s Guitar Wolf gig
setlist – scrawled in Japanese, no less – is pretty ace) along with loads of
essential supplementary gunk punk info.

 

***

 

BLURT: First of all,
why a book that essentially covers the ‘90s milieu NOW? With Alice
In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Third Eye Blind,
Soundgarden, etc. all back in the news, we’re rapidly approaching ‘90s burnout
already.

 

DAVIDSON: Har! Yeah, forget all the Mummies, Rip Offs,
Oblivians, Gories, Teengenerate, and New Bomb Turks reunions! (Did we mention
the Pixies for the millionth time?) Well yeah, you probably need at least 15
years away from something to gauge “import.” And 1988 was 22… But “import”
wasn’t what I was after so much as stories of thrown bottles, fast records, and
European bands with miniskirts. And lord knows crap like Alice in Chains got nothin’ to do with the
inspiring scrounginess of the We Never
Learn
landscape! Plus, walk through Williamsburg
and you’d swear it’s still 1987 anyway; yes, people wear acid washed jeans and
think Paul Simon’s Graceland is good. It’s a 1987 mom paradise… so I’m way ahead of the curve.

 

You don’t have to
sell me on the importance of documenting it. But if the proverbial Martian
landed and wanted to know what all the fuss was about, what would you say to
convince him that these were groups that mattered and that their stories need
to be told?

 

“Mattered” is too loaded a term, and I’m not one to say. Of
course I think all the bands I covered in the tome put out more than one great
record, and might and/or already have slowly wormed their way into the
underbelly of the underbelly of the trashiest guitar bands out there – Black
Lips, King Kahn & BBQ, Jay Reatard, Times New Viking, No Bunny, Spits,
Cheap Time, Human Eye, Baby Shakes; all the trash punk labels that have revived
the vinyl 7″ of late – Goner, Criminal, I.Q., HoZac, etcetera; and on and on.
For those who know this stuff, no justification is necessary, just more fun stories
of thrown bottles.

      But for those
outside of that bunch, I do think if you grew up in or are a general fan of the
1990s alternative rock explosion thingy, this book gathers stories of many
bands that floated just below the hype radar, and have stories of that
skimming-by world that would interest you. Lots of wild rock stories in
general. And by the end of the book, some somewhat known bands tell their major
label tales – Muffs, Rocket from the Crypt, Nashville Pussy, Jon Spencer,
Supersuckers – and it all ends with the White Stripes/Hives/Strokes/Jet
“neo-garage” trend of the early 2000s that sprung from all the ‘90s gutter
garage punk action.

      As far as trying
to determine “influence,” again, I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. Except to say
that with the digital age, delineating musical influence will be much more
complicated than it used to be. I remember buying the first Velvet Underground
reissues in 1985, and thinking – since none of my friends knew much about Lou
Reed, forget the Velvets – like, “Wow, a major label is reissuing these
records; R.E.M. and U2 are covering them; and it’s like 20 years after they
formed!” It took a looooong time for “lost” bands to make their way through the
tape trader/college radio/grumpy record store clerk pipeline… and aside from
the cool sounds, that time and effort also added to the bands’ presumed
visionary importance.

      Today, hep blogs
trip over themselves to be the first to find that great lost band – usually
just typing the name into Google – that they’ll then instantly post an mp3 of,
before another blog finds the next band in the next hour. And these could be
bands that put out two great singles in 2006. Not to say that that is any less
important or meaningful to the person posting those songs or whatever. I’m just
saying that as genres, fans, and the loss of defined record labels and ideas of
a “hit” or “bomb” disperse throughout the digital ether, nailing down a few
bands that made an impact will be, well, just different. So who fuckin’ knows?

      Plus, in America, things
usually “matter” based on sales; and if that’s your bag, this ain’t the book
for you.

      As for the
Martians, I’d start with explaining Little Richard first… 

 

In your prologue you
state that “an identifiable and marketable genre name” for these bands hasn’t
yet been coined – and then you turn around and coin it: Gunk Punk. Care to tell
us the origins of that term?

 

“Action punk” ain’t bad… From the start – and part of that
particular passage you mentioned was one of the first things I scribbled out
for the book, sans the “gunk punk” term – I didn’t want to shove everything
into one genre tag, since you know how bands hate that. “Hey man, you can’t
define me, man!”

      I respect that.
But that was slowly happening over the writing/editing process anyway. Now I
know – beyond the guitar-bass-drums-lead singer set-up – that this is a fairly
diverse group of bands. I made up the “Gunk Punk Undergut” subtitle a long time
ago just because I thought it sounded fun. I love me some rhyming alliteration!
But the editor convinced me that beyond the people who will already know this
stuff, you kind of need to cobble so much together into some kind of narrative
or connective idea/term. And gunky sounds about right. All the bands, no matter
the diverse tempos, stage presence, or attitude, all put an emphasis on trashy
sound quality, loose playing, sweaty stage show, and musical roots in garagey ‘50s/’60s/’70s
stuff, with less regard for ‘80s hardcore – which most “punk” bands in the late
‘80s/early ‘90s would’ve said they mostly grew up on. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Black Flag.)

      So yeah, it’s
strange, but I think Byron Coley did an amazing job in his Foreword at
conveying the “what the heck” impetus of trying to label all this, uh, gunk.

 

I relate your book a
lot to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could
Be Your Life
– was that an inspiration?

 

Yeah, of course, total inspiration! As was Please Kill Me, and in another weird
way, My So-Called Punk. The author of
that book is a totally nice guy, and it’s a decent-written thing. But it
covered so many bands I thought were – while nominally and briefly “popular” –
totally inconsequential, forgettable, and dopey. Admittedly, the author was
just trying to show where the 2000’s mainstream definition of “punk” – Green
Day, mascara, and Hot Topic – came from, and covered the pop-punk world. I’m
sure it will outsell my book tenfold.

      But all the
recent “punk” books and documentaries inspired me, because most all of them – NOT
Our Band Could Be Your Life – seem to
jump over most of the ‘80s and all the ‘90s to just name Nirvana as bringing
punk to the mainstream. As if that was the point of punk in the first place.
That might be because the people writing those histories are even older than me;
and let’s face it, the 1990s were not that long ago (despite the internet’s idea of “generational”); and most of the bands
in my book did not dent mainstream charts.

 

What do you think
were some of the more significant parallels and differences between the
experiences of the bands in Azerrad’s book and the ones in yours?

 

Needless to say, all the bands in We Never Learn benefited from the DIY template that was nobly set
forth by bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, etcetera. I hate when old dudes,
especially old musician dudes, blow hard about the “In my day, we used to have
to walk 20 miles, with our gear, to play for frozen pizza rolls!” So I
consciously kept that kind of bitching in mind and out of the book – I hope.
It’s true that cell phones and wi-fi laptops might’ve alleviated a lot of
sitting around, planning cancelled gigs, or thumbing rides out on the flat tire
tour road. I thought that topic would be a much bigger part of We Never Learn.

      But really, when
I asked bands, “How could today’s internet technology have helped the band…?” the
tales weren’t too interesting: “Eh, I guess having a cell phone woulda helped”
was the usual brief response. Though of course I think there is a thread
underneath a lot of the stories in the book that current young’uns might
identify as “Whoa, that musta sucked!” Promoting your band via Facebook,
MySpace, email, et al is much easier
and direct than spending hours and afternoons running around town stapling up
fliers and having disgruntled shopkeepers or other local bands tear them down
the instant you walk away… And I do think home recording via ProTools and such
will make “forming a band” a much different proposition. See: Wavvves, Kurt
Vile, etcetera.

      I will say that,
compared to the Our Band bands, during
most of the ‘90s, clubs were more amenable to booking bands that played
originals and noisier music. Most of the bands I interviewed that began their
musical work before 1988 mentioned how the clubs in their towns only wanted to
book cover bands, and they had no place to play besides house parties.
Basically no bands that formed after 1990 said that. The idea of VFW halls,
abandoned warehouses, or some buddy’s basement as completely suitable places to
play a gig were becoming an accepted norm for bands and audiences; so finding gigs was probably a little easier.

      Also, the
relatively larger amount of money in the major labels around the late-‘80s (CD
heyday) and early/mid-‘90s (alt-rock explosion and dot.com boom) meant that
bands that got signed were getting decent advances and a little tour support –
both of which are simply gone and never coming back in the music industry except
for obvious huge pop stars.

      Those things are
sort of connected parallels and differences.

      Obvious differences
would be that there were many, many more indie labels to choose from for these
bands; 4-track recording became more accessible; and the 7″ became more popular
again in the early-‘90s, and so you could find out about how to get one made a
lot easier. I remember when I first starting meeting local bands in the mid-‘80s,
if one had a record coming out, it seemed impossible, some magical dream,
wondering where the giant pressing plant may be hiding on some hill in Croatia
or something. The whole process was so divorced from everyday reality. Now,
it’s an icon sitting next to the “Drunk Friend Pix” folder on your laptop.

      Also, the indie
labels’ importance became greater on a larger level, not quite as cloistered as
in the early-‘80s. Like Entertainment
Weekly
coming to Columbus
in 1994 and doing a four-page spread on “an indie scene!” (Ironically, I was
just told that EW would probably not review my book because “1990s indie
punk is not a mainstream enough topic.” Isn’t “indie” a pop culture buzzword
these days?)

      All that said,
for the majority of the bands in We Never
Learn
, that money I mentioned that was floating around was floating around
the major labels; and most clubs were
still dicks about guarantees and such; soundguys still weren’t patient with
our, uh, less obsessive musical expertise. Insurance was becoming a bigger,
more expensive problem – a concern when booking Gunk-y bands. Your band could maybe get a decent guarantee because
even if no one came to your show, they’ll come to see the NOFX or Butthole
Surfers show later in the week, so the club would make their money. (I realize
I’m relating this from a standpoint of my band being on Crypt and Epitaph, so
having a little name cred helped when booking shows. I can’t speak for every single
band.) But that didn’t mean the promoter wouldn’t leave before you finished
your set, or the huge bouncer got in the way when haggling afterwards. Us punks
were still the gutter bums coming around for our government cheese. “Perceived”
profits of that era often meant clubs and labels thought they should be making
more off of you – y’know, that band that just got “paid” with 20 tour copies of
a single. Plus, there weren’t a lot of trust fund kids in this scene to
buttress the lesser bands, like say, oh, at Dischord Records. (Hey-o! I kid, I kid!)

 

 

To be continued…
tune in tomorrow for part two of my interview with Davidson, in which he talks
about the contemporary trash rock scene, his bizarre interaction with the White
Stripes’ Jack White and the career arc of the New Bomb Turks, plus a checklist
of key bands and events marking the gunk punk milieu.

 

Go to our little gallery of We Never Learn photos and gig posters right here at BLURT.

 

[Pictured above: The Mummies (duh)]

 

 

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