By 10 p.m. there are 300 of them, mostly second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, some with 4-inch-high bleached and spiked hair and some with skinned heads, not to mention piercings everywhere: septum, lips, cheeks. The girls' faces are thick with makeup. They wear fishnets and band tees for Vice Squad, the Expelled or any other influential punk band from the late-'80s U.K. scene, altered to flaunt bra straps. Their pink Doc Martens have steel toes.
It's Labor Day and they've come to see punk at a house in East L.A., near the City Terrace neighborhood between the territory of the Lopez and Lott gangs.
The three-story house — owned by a couple of dudes hoping to make a few bucks toward their rent — is full, more than full. It's got a patio on the second floor and a small yard in the back, which is about to burst.
The mostly underage kids have paid $3 to get in, the ones who aren't friends with the guys running the party anyway. But that doesn't include refreshments, which explains why their backpacks are heavy with 40-ounce bottles of King Cobra and Miller High Life. They're also smoking skunky weed from portable glass pipes and puffing grape-flavored Swisher Sweets blunts. Cocaine is trendy again, too, snorted off of CD cases or from the tips of car keys.
Word of the event was sent out to the faithful via mass text shortly before showtime. The best part is that most of the bands advertised have actually shown up; they tend to flake if they lack functional equipment or can't get gas money. On the second floor, the Stomp Outz perform their British-working-class Oi! songs, uncomplicated repetitions of two-finger power chords at upbeat tempos. Then the frontmen of Corrupted Youth screech their throats out to "The Beer for Breakfast" and "Confusion." The guitarist and rhythm section are playing so fast they can't always keep up with each other.
To be honest, though, the sound doesn't really matter, just so long as it's danceable. A mosh pit erupts right in front of the Stomp Outz, causing the guitarist to nearly topple over his guitar amp. A small coed group goes around in circles, its members pushing everyone out of their way, using all their might. If someone falls out, someone else picks them up and throws them right back into the pit. It's usually very friendly, believe it or not.
Unfortunately, just after 1 a.m., a couple of inebriated kids let their ghetto egos take over and start a fistfight out on the front lawn. Others quickly jump in and throw punches to impress their friends. The full-blown ruckus likely causes one of the neighbors to call the cops, and L.A.'s finest quickly roll up. (They always seem to make it to these get-togethers, sometimes wearing riot gear and shooting powder balls.) This time they give the members of one of the evening's bands, Who Gives a Fuck, a $400 ticket for loud and unreasonable noise.
Making lemonade, party organizer Ignacio "Nacho Corrupted" Rodriguera immediately suggests throwing a fundraiser backyard party for the group, to be held the following week.
Every Friday and Saturday night in East Los Angeles, whether the weather is decent or not, you can usually find three or four backyard punk gigs, populated by the angrier demographic of Chicano adolescents who are too young to legally get fucked up at bars but harbor an innate passion for desmadre (chaos!).
There are no promoters, no contracts, no set times and no set lists, just an informal network of eager young artists ready to play at a moment's notice. They tend not to care if they get paid, so long as they get to show off their stuff and score a few beers.
I grew up on the Eastside and discovered these DIY parties as a prepubescent. Despite its reputation, my end of town is not all bald dudes and gang warfare; being into punk rock, metal or skateboarding can help you escape that life. After all, as I discovered, if you have long hair or tight pants, you are considered a "rocker" and usually left alone.
"In backyards, it feels more at home. It's way wilder and has bigger pits than at bars or venues," says Edgar Fernandez, the drummer and lead singer for popular local band the Zoo, who play backyard shows every weekend. (Their members hail from Garfield High School, made famous by Stand and Deliver.)
The scene has been strong for decades. In the 1970s, Los Lobos made a name for themselves at residential ghetto venues. In the early '80s, a faster and more raw sound was born, highlighted by bands like the Brat, Thee UndertakUers and the Stains. In the '90s, Boyle Heights' own Union 13 were signed to Epitaph.
Their sounds often reflected the angst and frustrations of Mexican-American residents, struggling with identity crises. (There are Guatemalans and Salvadorans in the mix as well.) As an L.A. native whose parents were born in Mexico, I can sympathize. In Mexico I'm sometimes called a Pocho — a derogatory term referring to American-born kids. Here in L.A. I've gotten plenty of strange looks in fancy Westside restaurants.
But back to punk: In recent years it has fragmented into multiple subgenres. There's street punk, which is faster and more relentless than the traditional hardcore of groups like Black Flag. (You may have heard it in Larry Clark's 2005 film Wassup Rockers, which is actually pretty decent.) Ska-core is a ska/punk hybrid, while grindcore and krust are probably the heaviest and most ear-damaging — something like a rusty car's engine about to break down. DJ parties also have become very popular. But no matter the genre, the themes remain the same: anti-authoritarianism and teen angst.
In 2011 it's fair to say the backyard scene is as strong as it's ever been. "It waxes and wanes, but it never really dies out," says Jimmy Alvarado, an East L.A. punk historian who is preparing a full-length documentary titled Eastside Punks.
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The guy best known for keeping the movement vital nowadays is Rodriguera, who threw the Labor Day party and is also a singer in Corrupted Youth. "I love punk, there is a lot of unity, we treat each other like family," he says. Born in L.A. and raised in Culiacan, Mexico, Rodriguera is tall and pale; he wears tight pants and porcupine-like spiked hair. He's the type of guy who will call you in the middle of the night to ask if he can move the gig to your house.
He's tried doing that with me — a couple of times, actually. But I'm finished as a host, ever since the bash I threw in my parents' apartment parking lot for my 21st birthday party last year. Sure, it was a good time. About 200 friends showed up, including some I hadn't seen in years. They brought weeks' worth of booze.
Unfortunately I ended up gashing my head, due to the actions of some local gangbangers who didn't understand the concept of friendly slamdancing. Instead, they used the opportunity to beat up on drunken kids (namely me).
But, to be honest, even though I found myself in the pit with blood dripping down my face and all over my shirt, I really didn't care. It was fun. It was punk.