Mike Ness, Whisky a Go Go, 1983
The Invisible Lens
A few years ago a scientist claimed he could predict the future. His theory was based on the fact that most years, days and moments are not exceptional. Chances are this is not an unusual time, no matter how strange it may seem. And when you’ve been around for a while, you realize that to be true. All the seemingly dramatic peaks and valleys stretched out over the years suddenly look more like a slightly jagged straight line. And for that very same reason, there are certain moments in one’s history that resonate even more clearly as extraordinary. It’s that way in the lifetime of a person, and in the lifetime of a city.
I first met Jennifer “Precious” Finch back in 1980, long before she would go on to play bass in the infamous all-girl band L7, when the two of us were teenagers attending summer art classes at Otis Parsons across from MacArthur Park. I fancied myself an angry young artist, and she was studying photography. There weren’t many punk rockers around at the time, and we could easily recognize each other from afar. She had short spiky hair and was wearing a man’s blazer. I had short bleached hair and was wearing bright-red leather “creeper” shoes with huge rubber souls. She marched over and demanded to know who I was. Within a few weeks, our respective worlds collided as my friends met her friends and a complex chain reaction of sexual hookups, long-term romances, undying friendships and petty feuds followed in our wake. It’s been that way ever since.
Then last year — some 25 years later — I found myself writing an article about her (now ex) husband, who had built a robot car and was racing in the DARPA Grand Challenge. Jennifer had just returned from a European tour with her new band, the Shocker, and was rearranging the house as we talked. At some point, I noticed a row of photo albums haphazardly stacked against the wall, and I began to look through them. What I found were thousands of images composing a visual history of West Coast punk culture, starting with Jennifer’s teenage Hollywood years and proceeding through her time in Seattle for the birth of grunge, and then on tour with L7 for Lollapalooza and later on several Warped Tours with both L7 and the Shocker.
But what captured my attention beyond all the history and rock stars were her earlier pictures, from our teen years in the Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. There was admittedly a wave of bittersweet nostalgia, seeing so many old friends looking young and unscathed, if not particularly innocent. But when I managed to step back, what resonated far more was the undeniably troubled quality of the subjects in her images. I had seen the energy and defiance captured by other photographers, but while many have been able to render the rebelliousness, none seemed to grasp the underlying discontent like Finch. And the truth is, as provocative and exciting as those years were, what attracted such a disparate cross section of kids to both the music and one another was that, more than anything, the scene gave purpose to the pain. Perhaps because Finch was a part of it, one of us, it’s there on display in her photos — the uncertainty, deep friendships, youthful sexuality and eyes-closed comfort of the heroin that would eventually destroy the scene and so many of us.
Flea and Beth, 1984
“Being a 14-year-old girl made me kind of invisible,” says Finch. “I don’t think anyone was even paying attention when I had my camera. A lot of the subjects were friends, some weren’t. I was always taking photography classes and so a lot of those early pictures are actually just lighting tests. It was just something I enjoyed, and it allowed me access. I would tell bands that I would take their pictures if they put me on the guest list so I could get in free. It was a way to meet people and be part of the scene.”
The majority of her pictures do not focus on the raucous musical performances or riots that occurred regularly, but instead examine the loose-knit social scene that existed amid all the chaos and upheaval of the drugs, violence and crash-pad living. These are images of kids caught in that uncertain time between childhood and the looming consequences of adulthood. Some are forging dramatic new identities, while others make potentially dooming choices. Most are at a juncture where the stakes seem preternaturally high, diverging between creativity and premature destruction. Many pictures feature Finch’s two young girlfriends Maggie and Yasmin. At times they appear quite childlike, young girls playing dress-up, while other times they indulge in far less innocent pursuits like intravenous drugs and a precocious sexuality. What for normal kids might have been a time of high school dances and college beer bashes is instead spent late into the night at Hollywood nightclubs and halls seeking an exotic sense of danger and decadence, all to a radically evolving soundtrack.
“It was a really amazing time,” Finch says. “You could go see some weird cabaret act one night and Black Flag the next, and it would be a lot of the same people. The whole thing attracted this incredibly diverse cross section — the privileged children of celebrities all the way down to kids from the slums and a criminal element. But it was also a more innocent time. There was still this sexual freedom right before AIDS was discovered. Drugs were a big part of the scene, but people were really young, so there was a lot of bounce-back.”
The milieu revealed in these photographs was a truly exceptional period in this city’s cultural history — a radical aesthetic shift, from an aimless, post-hippy hedonism to an explosive merging of stripped-down rock & roll with local skateboard/surf rebellion. The aftershocks still reverberate through popular culture like some lingering light beamed from deep in space. Yet the intent of these images is not to further mythologize that subculture. There has been plenty of that. Instead, they reflect the scene as viewed by a young girl of 14 to 16 who was just making the scene.
“When I started going through these pictures, it was almost too emotional,” Finch says. “It was a great time, but then we lost some of those people — not all, but some. I don’t ever try to overanalyze my own experiences. I had a crazy childhood, and I got through it. But the irony is not lost on me when I’m driving from my house just blocks from where I grew up, and I’m heading to the L.A. Weekly to publish pictures of us as kids hanging out and shooting up, 20 years ago. It feels weird but strangely hopeful. That was a totally unique time and it defined who we are, so then maybe it’s not a bad thing to be nostalgic about.”
The young man wearing the dress, smiling
and saluting the camera, is named Wayne. He was around 19 when the
picture was taken. Earlier that day, he had pulled up in front of the
small house I shared with my friend Peter Andrus, driving a green Army
jeep and wearing his uniform. He might have had a rifle over his
shoulder, though no one can remember for sure. There is no denying he
was technically AWOL, since he admits he never asked permission to
leave the fort near Monterey where he was stationed, let alone
commandeer the jeep. It was something he had done before, so we weren’t
really surprised to see him. Amused, but not surprised.
thought I was in the barracks the whole time,” Wayne remembers. “I had
a friend who would log me in if I left. I would be driving around the
base and just think it was a good idea to drive down to your place and
get high, and so I would. They never had a clue.”
originally from the north end of the San Fernando Valley. After
discovering punk rock at a local record store, he met a punkish girl at
school who had a car, and they started heading into Hollywood. His
first punk show was the Germs, at the seminal Masque club. Soon after
that he was kicked out of three high schools in the span of three
weeks. Following the expected blowup with his father, Wayne left home
at 15 and moved into Hollywood, where he shared an apartment with his
friend, future L.A. restaurant icon Fred Eric.
Wayne was laconic
and handsome, a punk rock James Dean type with homemade tattoos and a
leather jacket. Two years after arriving in Hollywood, burned out on
the drugs and debauchery of the scene, Wayne moved back to the Valley
and started cooking at a local Bob’s Big Boy, listening exclusively to
rockabilly music. Hyped on a newfound sense of Americana and influenced
by a particularly effective late-night recruitment commercial, he
enlisted in the Army. He was 17 and had blue hair when he arrived at
“I was recruited in Hollywood and immediately
shipped off to Fort Dix in New Jersey,” he says. “I was this L.A. kid
who was into the Cramps. It was a real world shift, like jail or
something, when you’re forced in with people you wouldn’t normally be
around. I mean, I had a roommate that was into Loverboy.”
spent the following three years in the service, getting stationed in
New Jersey, then Kentucky and then Germany before finishing out in
Monterey, where he was assigned to drive an old ambulance turned
bloodmobile between the base and San Francisco.
“One weekend I
took a bunch of the guys to San Francisco to see [L.A. death rock band]
45 Grave,” he says. “We stopped in Santa Cruz and bought some acid.
They had never heard or seen anything like that in their lives, and
they loved it. There was this guy everyone called ‘Hillbilly’ from West
Virginia, and he just went totally ape-shit. I always think most of
those guys ended up as drunks or something. But then most people
probably think I’m dead or in prison, and here I am sitting in my nice
backyard in Mount Washington working on kids video games.”
Henry and Chuck of Black Flag, Cathay de Grande, 1983 (above and two below)
Rozz Williams, the king of death rock, hanged himself in 1998.
read about it in the newspaper with my morning coffee and I cried. Not
so much for the influential cult figure and Christian Death front man
adored by black-clad fans throughout the world, but for Roger Painter,
the funny, brave, awkward glitter-rock fan from Pomona, California, who
would ride his 10-speed over to my house with a backpack full of T. Rex
records. You can actually see that guy in the picture where he
is not singing and his eyes are closed. If you look through the
kabuki-style makeup, that is my old friend — shy, introverted and
Rozz, Whisky a Go Go, 1983
school, getting drunk and listening to records. In the afternoons, we
played minimalist punk rock in my parents’ garage and then ventured
into Hollywood at night in search of adventure. When Roger changed his
name to Rozz and began playing a slower, darker, more complex music, I
followed, until my own drug addiction and lack of talent prevented me
from going any further. But what I remember most is our friendship in
those life-defining years, and it’s what pains me now. I was one of
many old friends who had faded from his life by the time he needed us
most. I suppose it’s lonely being the king.
friend, collaborator and onetime wife, Eva, is pictured here as well.
It says a great deal about their connection that the two of them would
marry, since most, including her, acknowledge that Rozz was gay. It
seems that love can truly conquer almost anything, except, perhaps,
addiction and an unshakable depression. But Eva stayed with Rozz
through it all, until the very end.
Eva had moved here from Las
Vegas at 18 to meet her idol, Joan Jett, which she did her very first
night. She then stayed on and played in several bands before forming
her own punk-dirge-metal trio called the Super Heroines. It was at a
1979 Super Heroines performance in Chinatown that she first met Rozz.
Their initial introduction was admittedly awkward, as most promising
“He came over and said he really liked my band,”
Eva says. “I had seen him before, and I was really into him because he
was wearing a suit. I didn’t know what to say, so I said thanks and
A month later Eva went to see Christian Death
play a concert in San Diego. There she again met the singer along with
his fearsome, tattooed lover, Ron Athey. The three of them ended up
living in a Long Beach apartment together.
“When I first saw
Rozz onstage, I didn’t even hear the music,” she says. “I was looking
at him and it was like this puppy-love crush. But later when he came to
move in, he was like Jesus to me. This holy vibe, like he was this
really special person.”
The two of them eventually married in
1988. But even as Rozz’s star ascended and he became a worldwide cult
figure as one of the inspirations for what would later be known as
goth, his descent into drugs, alcohol and depression grew more and more
James of Christian Death at the Whisky, 1983
“I think that maybe he just didn’t fit into the world
he was in,” Eva says. “And I think he was really scared when he wasn’t
high. I would get him off the drugs for eight or nine months. But so
many people wanted his attention, so they would give him drugs. I hated
it and I couldn’t watch it anymore.”
Eventually Rozz and Eva
separated, but the two remained friends in the ensuing years,
collaborating on several musical ventures and talking on the phone
almost nightly. The night before Rozz finally killed himself, they
talked, agreeing that she would take him to the hospital in the
“Rozz had talked about suicide since we first met,”
Eva says. “In the time before he finally did it, he told me he wasn’t
going to drink water, he was only going to drink alcohol. He was just
letting himself die. But when I think back to that time in the ’80s
when we were all living together in Long Beach, it was one of the
happiest times of my life. I always think about those days and I wish
they had never ended.”
Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin (left) and Brett, Music Machine, 1982
Tony Alva (playing bass with the Scoundrelz), Cathay de Grande, 1984
Maggie, 16-year-old scene girl on the nod, 1984
Anthony Kiedis, Stardust Ballroom, 1984
Courtney Love, 1984
Flea (with hat) and Jack Irons watching the Minutemen, 1983
The first time I saw John Macias, the hulking skinhead pictured here with Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, was at a club called the Starwood, which no longer exists. I remember looking down upon the crowd in the pit and seeing this enormous kid with a strange smile on his face hurling people out of his way. About a year later, I was walking along a darkened side street heading for the Cathay de Grande nightclub. Gathered under a streetlight was Macias and about 15 muscular sidekicks, their faces all painted in camouflage like a scene from The Warriors. When I later asked about it, a friend told me about Circle One.
John Macias and Greg Graffin, 1982
Circle One was actually the four-piece punk band Macias sang for. The band’s huge and dedicated following, labeled by many as a gang, was called the Family. Guitarist Mike Vallejo started Circle One in the working-class neighborhood of Pico Rivera in 1980. He recruited Macias to sing.
“He had this magnetism that just attracted people,” Vallejo says. “And around that time is when the scene started to get pretty violent. Everyone was trying to see who was the toughest, and it was pretty much John. The Family wasn’t really a gang to us, it was just our following. They were just all my friends and seemed cool, but if you rubbed them the wrong way, or they were mad at you, then there were
Macias sang predominantly about Christianity and even briefly started his own ministry. Vallejo says the other band members were not into it. “That was really John’s whole thing,” he says. “He was into religion and incorporated it into the lyrics. People started wondering if we were Christians, but then thought we couldn’t be because they [the Family] were beating people up at gigs.”
Then around 1985, Macias just seemed to disappear. Vallejo says the singer traveled to Egypt and then became intensely reclusive. There were rumors of increasingly eccentric behavior.
“Some guys told me they went to see him and he had a long beard and was wearing a potato sack,” Vallejo says. “He never really talked about it, even with me, but John was diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic. Most of the time he was on the medication, then sometimes he would stop.”
The band re-formed briefly in 1988 before Macias disappeared again. He reappeared in 1991 and the band played a few times. Their last performance with Macias was out in Riverside. “It was one of our best shows ever,” Vallejo says. “John was real quiet that last show. Before, when we would play, we would go hang out afterward. But later he would just go straight back home He said, ‘I just want to play and sing and just get the message out.’”
A few days later Macias told people he was headed for San Diego. Instead he ended up at the Santa Monica Pier, where he started to preach loudly to passersby. Eventually someone called the police. Vallejo says he only knows what was in the papers: that Macias started running and knocked a security guard off the pier into the sand. When a police officer told Macias to stop, he turned and began walking toward the officer, allegedly with a jacket in his hand. The officer warned him again, then pulled his gun and fired eight times. Macias kept walking, then collapsed and died before the assembled tourists.
“His death shocked me,” Vallejo says. “I didn’t know it was that bad. We used to hang out a lot in the early days, and I never suspected it. But later I started thinking, this guy has this problem with religion and violence and drugs — and all that combined is not good.”
Frankie, 14, one of the scene’s ubiquitous street urchins, 1981.
He was recently released from prison after serving time for bank robbery.
The Minutemen, Cathay de Grande, 1983
L.A. Weekly presents “14 and Shooting,” Jennifer Finch’s never-before-seen images of early punk Los Angeles, opening reception Sat., Nov. 4, Aidan Ryley Taylor Gallery, 1639 Vine St., Hollywood, 6 to 10 p.m. Special musical guests: Black Fag, Gabba Gabba Heys, the Shocker.