When Fang formed in Berkeley in 1980, the band very quickly became one of the major players in the burgeoning Bay Area hardcore punk scene, alongside the likes of Flipper. The original incarnation of the band toured the country in support of the “Yukon Fang” single and then, in 1982, vocalist Sam “Sammytown” McBride was added to the ranks.
From that point, the band worked their asses off, putting out four albums in five years. But Fang were always a band balancing precariously on a tightrope of punk-level success over a pit of drug-fueled despair. Sammytown embodied that, a dervish onstage who never was really able to exorcise his demons through his art, carrying that manic fire into his regular life. Shooting, eating, snorting and dealing drugs was as much part of Sammytown's life as breathing oxygen and, at some point, something had to give.
In 1989, Sammytown killed his girlfriend, Dixie Lee Carney, suspecting that she was working with a different acid dealer to take all of his business. In a drug-addled rage, he crushed Carney’s neck with his bare hands. She was 24.
Sammytown went on the run for six months before eventually, inevitably getting caught. He was sentenced to 11 years for voluntary manslaughter and served six before being released. While there are many people who believe that he got off lightly, serving less than a decade after taking a life, what can’t be debated is that he did serve the time the state’s officials decided he should serve.
Much of that sordid, tragic history has been told and retold. For better or worse, it’s passed into punk rock folklore and divided opinions for all of the 22 years since Sammytown’s release. Every time Nirvana, Metallica, Mudhoney, Butthole Surfers or Green Day covered a Fang song, accounts of the murder would make the rounds all over again.
Here we are in 2017, and Sammytown remains a polarizing figure. He reformed Fang with a new lineup almost immediately after his release and got right back to work. But murder is the sort of crime that sticks in the memory, and people have understandably found it hard to forgive, never mind forget. So Fang have spent more than two decades treading water. They keep putting out records of varying quality, and they’re still playing the same level of dive bar that they played from day one.
It’s difficult to reconcile the junkie killer we read about with the man Sammytown is today, but reconcile it we must. Charming, polite, soft-spoken, funny and extremely likable, Sammytown is not only clean and sober but he owns a sober living house for men, helping people find their own redemption and way in life as he still flounders, looking for his own. Sammytown is the first person to stand up and own what he did and, as he raises his two kids, stays clean and works hard at his music and tattoo business, he continues to strive to be a better person.
So, facts on the table. Sammytown brutally took a young woman's life. He served time, came out, has had his ups and downs, but seems to be living a stable existence. Dixie Lee Carney, or course, doesn’t have that opportunity. Whether this is a hopeful story of redemption, or of a killer getting off light, that’s for you to decide.
Make no mistake, though: Life isn’t easy for Sammytown, or Fang. Something as simple as booking a show can be an enormous challenge, with many talent buyers and venues reluctant to have Fang in the building.
“There are definitely people that still will not book us,” Sammytown says. “They don’t want to have anything to do with us. That absolutely still happens. It is what it is. I understand. I get it. I made a decision a long time ago to start playing again. When I made that decision, it was knowing that there was going to be a backlash and problems from that.”
Among local bookers, opinions are split. Eddie Lopez of In Fuzz We Trust, who books punk shows at the Redwood Bar & Grill and Maui Sugar Mill Saloon, says he would have no reservations booking Fang.
“The band and the songs are bigger than one man's crime,” Lopez says. “Sammy will have to live with what he did for the rest of his life. He served his time and has a right to sing those classic songs to a new generation of fans. I will cheer him on and hope that he's judged based on his performance, not on his criminal past. I have nothing against Sammy. From my brief encounters with him, it looks like he's trying to better himself. I’m all for that. His past will always follow him but as an artist, it shouldn't define him.”
On the other hand, Dave Travis, manager of Cafe Nela, says he would have reservations booking someone who killed their girlfriend.
“If it actually came up that they wanted to play here, I would ask my staff what they think,” Travis says.
Nevertheless, Sammytown went in with his eyes wide open. While Fang formed in the Bay Area, they played so often around here that they became closely associated with the L.A. punk scene. Now, Sammytown says, the L.A. punks have largely been supportive of his ongoing career.
“I have a lot of friends from the old L.A. punk scene who still come out,” he says. “They knew me from before. Early on, I had a lot of friends in L.A. and we’d come down and play, but really early on there was a lot of tension between Northern and Southern California, in the early-’80s punk scene. Maybe a little bit of that carried over.”
Since prison, Fang haven’t been quite as prolific as they were in the early days; the records have come out, but there’s been more time between them. The last album, Here Come the Cops, was released in 2012, but Sammytown says there’s a new one on the way.
“We’re writing a new record that will hopefully be coming out in time for our tour,” he says. “I feel that musically, it’s harder. It’s taking a lot from the East Coast hardcore bands musically, and it’s an angrier record. Fang’s never been a political band, but starting with Here Come the Cops, and with what's been going on in the United States, the direction that things are going, even at 50 years old I’m madder now than I was when I was 15. That is definitely reflected in the music and in the lyrics.”
A clean and sober Sammytown channeling very normal political rage into a healthy outlet like music is progress. The fact that, as previously mentioned, some of the biggest bands in the world have covered his songs (usually “The Money Will Roll Right In”) also helps provide him focus.
“It was too hard to even fathom, especially when I was still in prison,” he says. “There’s definitely a feeling when you’ve been incarcerated for a number of years that you’re never getting out. I’ll never forget — they let me out and my wife at the time was driving me home, and I kept looking in the rearview mirror, looking behind the car, expecting them to say, ‘Oh no, this was a mistake, you have to come back.’ When I started hearing that huge bands were doing [Fang songs], it was too hard to even wrap my mind around.”
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So Sammytown is going to keep doing his thing — with Fang, with the Promise Sober Living House, with the Tiger’s Blood Social Club tattoo parlor. What choice does he have? And for those people justifiably thinking, “He should never be allowed to forget what he did,” rest assured that he never will. Prison changed him, for the better, but it didn’t wipe his memory.
“I had a lot of big changes in prison,” Sammytown says. “I had a moment of clarity when I had gotten clean and it really changed everything. But I also think that prison will either break people or change them in positive ways. More often than not, though, people do not change in positive ways. It makes people worse. I think I was extremely lucky. A lot of prisoners go to prison and never get out, or they cannot keep themselves from just repeating the same mistake, doing it over and over again.”
Fang will be at Alex’s Bar on Feb. 16, and the choice is yours to go or not. There will be new and old songs aired. There will be a pit of friends and fans going wild, because many people believe that redemption is a real thing. As for Sammytown, he’s not asking for sympathy. He’s not asking for success. He’s not even asking for forgiveness. He’s just trying to be the best man he can be, today.
Fang play with Stalag 13, Rhino 39 and Spider at Alex's Bar on Thursday, Feb. 16. Tickets and more info.