The Upshot: An engaging flashback to the pre-Internet DIY era and, for residents and ex-pats of the Northwest, a crucial historical document. All hail Smegma!
BY FRED MILLS
Cast your mind back to the dark ages, when the likes of Billy Joel, Journey and Genesis ruled the airwaves, satin baseball jackets were considered “musts” for the erudite concert-goer, and “Quaalude” was not yet a dirty word that Cosby-haters flung as an epithet. In the mid/late seventies, every city in America was under the thumb of The Evil Empire, but a rebellion was brewing, one which would soon attain such cultural prominence (or, depending your outlook, notoriety) that it would be impossible to ignore: Punk Rock, and its slightly less-abrasive sibling, New Wave.
For those of us who had a stake in such things, that rebellion against cultural lameness wasn’t merely a dalliance or a hobby en route to adulthood; it was a calling. To some, like Portland’s Mark Sten (née Mark Stanley) it even represented an imprimatur, and he, along with a cadre of like-minded miscreants, set about doing something about it.
All Ages is Sten’s documentation of exactly what the 316-page book’s subtitle (The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981) announces, additionally serving as a sort of personal diary for Sten that he freely admits is how he remembers things going down. As such, it’s inevitable that any number of the NW scenesters who were present during that 1977-81 time period will have recollections at odds with Sten. (Show me a thriving music scene from back in the day and I’ll show you a potential story line suitable for turning into a modern-day Rashomon.) That Sten was one of the movers and shakers in Portland—not only a musician in a number of bands (notably the bassist for King Bee, featuring a pre-Dead Moon Fred Cole) but a key organizer of the Alternative Arts Association (AAA) collective that was instrumental in putting on scores of punk and new wave shows—will only make his book suspect in the eyes of some who no doubt will launch accusations of revisionist history and territorial pissing on his part.
I’ve read enough of these scene documents and have filed enough of my own over the years (though not in book-length form), however, to feel pretty confident about Sten’s reportage. Yes, he disagrees with a number of the book’s characters; yes, he’s not above a little score-settling here and there; and yes, he retroactively ascribes motivations to some of those characters even though he clearly did not interview them for the book, chief among them Greg Sage of the Wipers, easily one of the most important artists Portland’s ever produced. The latter situation is actually kind of saddening, because early on Sten had a very good relationship with Sage, working with him both on stage and in the studio, but at one point they had a falling-out stemming from a failure to reach an agreement over a pending project (Sten notes that Sage declines to return his phone calls; still, he has nothing but respect for Sage, and he obviously regrets the split). Conversely, he apparently did interview Fred Seegmuller (aka Fred Noize) and Veronica Schleining (Ronnie Noize) even though he had a major split with the duo following a misunderstanding at a concert they were all involved with, which resulted in the Noizes opening up their own club that became a major competitor of the AAA for concert bookings. The final page of the book lists nearly 50 individuals Sten interviewed while researching it.
So while time clearly doesn’t heal all wounds in Portland, it at least allowed enough distance and perspective to get more than a few people interested in sharing their stories. And Sten, to his credit, doesn’t let himself off the hook when he comes to the conclusion that, yeah, I misread that/I acted like a dick regarding some of the scenarios he found himself in. Owning up to one’s faults and failings and refusing to play the “I was young and stupid” card counts for a lot, you know? Plus, there’s a larger and, dare I say it, loftier goal here, which is to get as many of those stories on the record and them attempt to weave them into the larger context. Remember, Portland wasn’t Portlandia in the late ‘70s, and for every enlightened kid working his/her butt off to give local musicians a shot at recognition and/or to bring in national acts and put the city on the touring map, there were probably ten others who did their level best to let indifference—and in a number of instances, outright hostility—rule the day. Alt-weekly the Willamette Week in particular gets singled out by Sten for not only arriving ridiculously late to the party but seemingly going out of its way to mock or dismiss some of the bands and events that Sten and his crowd championed. (That particularly rings true to moi, having lived in Charlotte, NC, prior to the arrival of any form of alternative media, during which time the local daily, The Charlotte Observer, faithfully covered all those, uh, Billy Joel, Journey and Genesis arena shows at the expense of some genuinely talented and unique-sounding regional bands. Go HERE to read about the time the Replacements came to town and the local musical powers only grudgingly admitted that it might be a concert of note.)
Now, to be perfectly honest, good chunks of All Ages will have only limited appeal to non-Portlanders; entire chapters are given over to describing the ups and downs of long-forgotten bands that never even pinged the national radar (although the aforementioned Wipers and Fred Cole most certainly did, along with a few others profiled here, like Poison Idea, Rancid Vat and Smegma—I recall reviewing an early Smegma recording for one of the music rags I was scribbling for in the early ‘80s). Too, long stretches of text describing the inner workings of the AAA’s meetings and planning sessions made my eyes glaze over at times; for an outsider like me, the narrative primarily picks up steam when Sten’s describing a situation that’s a bit more universal or even personally familiar, such as the frustrations of trying to get a compilation album recorded and released, or butting heads with a clueless, bottom-line club owner, or navigating the minefield of divas ‘n’ egos and agenda-driven personalities that underlies any local scene.
Still, I consider having to sift through some of the Portland-centric minutiae a small price to pay for the wealth of archival info presented here. In assembling it all for posterity, and that includes an astounding number of vintage handbills, posters and photographs as well, Sten had done an invaluable service. His memories of people, places and events from more than three decades ago are remarkably lucid and detail-centric, too, giving his narrative crucial oomph and color. That he can be a wryly funny sonofabitch, self-effacing one moment and deeply sarcastic (but not cruel) others doesn’t hurt, either. If the creators of Portlandia ever want to do a special flashback-to-1980 episode, they’ve got a go-to guy in Sten who can supply some of the specifics and the dialogue. (Are you listening Carrie and Fred?)
As suggested above, as the primary demographic for All Ages, NW residents and ex-pats aiming for a traipse down memory lane, take a near-history lesson or simply cheer for old friends and heroes will get the most out of the book. (For some individuals that impact may be more akin to a punch to the gut, but hey, that’s why God made internet forums and reader comments sections, right?) A solid and entertaining read, All Ages isn’t a nostalgia trip like some books of its ilk can be, but it definitely will induce a least some nostalgia for the pre-internet DIY era no matter what city or music scene you found yourself part of back then.