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Let It Burn

Class, please pay attention. Uh, young man in the back there. That‘s right, baldy, you with the Doc Martens. Take those headphones off!

Sorry for the disruption. As I was saying, no one really knows when punk rock began. Some think it’s been around forever, but have no real solid theoretical proof of this, only faith. One thing we do know is that when it reared its ugly Mohawked head in England around 1976-77, it was played and embraced by poor, working-class youth.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. Punx not dead, oi-oi, but has morphed into a many-headed shiny beast. Some of this shit has little or nothing to do with the social or musical roots of punk, but it looks good with baggy shorts on a skateboard, so it gets the green light from the arbiters of culture. Looks wild, but it‘s really safe for the kiddies. No real threat, minor or otherwise.

Enter Union 13. Born in the East Los housing projectsbarrio of Boyle Heights about eight years ago, when the band members barely had pubic hair, this gang of screaming delinquents possesses all the elements that really classic punk should: wicked sarcasm, righteous anger against the status quo, deep dark cynicism, and just the right amount of damaged and heartbroken idealism owing to the generally messed-up state of things. And here they are now, somewhere in their mid-20s, getting ready to release their third outing for Epitaph Records, Youth, Betrayal and the Awakening. With a little more experience gleaned from the Punk-o-Rama and Watcha tours, a little more knowledge about getting your shit together so you can say what you gotta say when you get the big shot, and maybe a little more time and sophistication in the studio, Union, along with producer Donald Cameron, have come up with a snarling bouquet of crispy clean dirt, grit and soul.

”The sound of the street ain’t always pretty,“ sez guitarist Jose, which is truly the case here, as vocal cords fray and strain over bilingual tales of hardship, loss and survival. ”Where we grew up, our parents taught us to be honest. You had to be honest, and you had to be hard.“ Which is also the case with the music here. No concessions have been made to prettiness or poppiness for the sake of ”accessibility.“

This also holds true for the band‘s status in the murky waters of the musical community: They’re maybe just a little (or a lot) too brown and Chicano for the Wonderbread suburban punkers, maybe not rock en español enough for the hardcore raza, ‘cause they sing in both English and español. Like all real outcasts and rebels, they occupy a space they had to create for themselves -- thus a marketing person’s nightmare becomes a gift for those not looking for the same old easy things.

And that‘s really the case here. Sure, Union 13 cut their early musical teeth on 7 Seconds, Bad Religion, Crass and other punk luminaries, and you can surely still hear all that in the music. But what other punk band would list Mozart, b-ball, smoking herb and hip-hop as their main influences? Hell, Edward, the lead vocalist, still works at a skate shop in Cypress Park when the band comes off the road. What could be more punk-rock, blue-collar or kill-all-rock-stars than that?

The sad thing is that a million bands with half the talent and even less integrity have, unfortunately, sold tons more records and are far better known than Union 13. Hopefully, that’s all about to change. In the meantime, welcome to the world that Union 13 know so well and that Charles Mingus so aptly called ”Beneath the Underdog.“ Or, to paraphrase Frank Zappa -- as well as another group of heroes from the Eastside, Los Lobos -- Union 13 is just a little punk rock band from East L.A.

Union 13 plays at the Troubadour on Thursday, September 14, and at the Glass House on Friday, September 15.

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