There have been several valuable punk rock memoirs from Los Angeles artists, but drummer Terry Graham’s mind-bending Punk Like Me stands apart in one significant way. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Graham successfully transitioned out of punk’s miserable 1979 implosion when he fell into Gun Club, one of the only bands that actually exceeded the promise of ’77 and made some of the most provocative, exciting and boldly creative records of the early 1980s.
“When I came out here from Texas in January of ’77, all I had were some clothes and a Ramones album,” Graham said. “The only person I knew was my cousin, and while I did miss the first punk show in L.A., I was here for everything else that happened.”
Punk Like Me, which comes out July 30 on Lost Word Press, isn’t perfect, but it is a very impressive achievement. By turns gripping, hilarious, intense and heartbreaking, the book is loaded with illustrations, candid punk party snaps, flyers and promo pics. Many of these are presented as full-page collages, elaborately fused with transposed graphics and images — “digital folk art,” Graham calls them. The text is a mostly straightforward chronological narrative and always maintains an acute sociocultural context, perfectly capturing both the drab reality of life in Brady Bunch–era America (“Around here, nowhere is everywhere”) and the thrilling, incautious joys of punk’s initial outbreak.
It’s all sharply observed and extremely vivid. Graham continually describes even the very pungent smells of his experience, an unusual and effective device. “I consciously avoided reading anyone else’s books,” hesaid. “I didn’t want to inadvertently take away anything from the efforts of others; I just put ’em all on a shelf so I can enjoy them after I get this out.
“I started this about 12 years ago, pretty much for myself, basically as a chronology, in third person, just trying to write down everything I could remember. When I got to a hundred pages or so, I thought, maybe this is a book? Sent it to a friend in New York who wrote back, ‘Where’s Terry? I don’t care about the scene, this is a personal story. Don’t be a critic, just make it personal.’”
After his first visit to the Whisky a Go Go, Graham was quickly absorbed into the small scene. With impressive recall (“I wasn’t a very good drunk”), the book roars through the fast-moving rise of Hollywood punk, with dead-on depictions of almost every local character, performance, venue and party. The reader actually feels as if he is brown-bagging some cheap hooch in the alley outside the Masque.
After Graham replaces Nickey Beat in The Bags, Punk Like Me conjures a from-the-riser perspective that further intensifies the wild narrative. By the time he and bassist Rob Ritter stumble into a Gun Club show (the very night Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s rhythm section quit, no less), things kick into screaming high gear.
Pierce, the bleach-blond butterball “Elvis From Hell,” was a demented genius who commingled blues and punk into lurid new permutations, and also one of the most brilliant, unpredictable and often downright obnoxious performers in pop music history. As Graham observes in the book, “Few people from the Hollywood punk scene had more creative gifts to offer than Jeff; fewer could squander their talents and gifts as recklessly.”
“Jeff wanted to create music that no one else was thinking of,” Graham says. “That was his genius. He’d bring these rough songs to rehearsal, we’d flesh it out, and Jeff just glued it all together.
“The night we recorded 'Fire of Love,' no one was feeling very good, we didn’t think it was gonna be anything. We were doing it for ourselves. We liked it and that was enough. We didn’t know if anyone [else would] like it. And when it came out, no one here really said anything, it was just a ‘whatever.’
“Then, Pleasant [Gehman] did a Gun Club story in L.A. Weekly. She understood it and basically told people they should like it. But when New York Rocker put Jeff on the cover, we were just completely shocked. They heard it for what it was, but even after that it took us a while to accept that people actually liked it.”
For music fans still dejected over the ignominious collapse of punk’s first wave, Gun Club represented a great deal — and, thanks to Pierce’s unhinged bandstand antics, any appearance offered unlimited opportunities for completely insane merrymaking. And when they teamed with The Cramps, which was often, it was a genuinely electrifying experience and a fully realized, ready-made, entirely new scene. But even back then, marveling at Pierce’s bizarre, profoundly disruptive persona, one couldn’t help but wonder how the hell his bandmates could possibly put up with him.
In Punk Like Me, every mad whim and self-destructive episode is detailed with the admirable combination of tolerance and exasperation that enabled Graham to soldier on through the band’s first three albums. “Gun Club makes itself up as it goes along,” he writes, “Each song a letter of hate to a world poisoned by Adam Ants and New Romantics.”
Once they start touring, things get even crazier (“What do people at the gas stations think of us? A cross between the Manson Family and Tiny Tim?”), as Pierce relentlessly indulges in the epic spree of dope- and liquor-fueled self-mythologizing that contributed to his 1996 death at age 37. For the most part, it’s not very much fun, and Graham relates it unflinchingly, climaxing in a lengthy, brilliantly written, semi-Beat passage framed within a preshow conundrum of an MIA Pierce and a complete backstage lack of hairspray.
While the book could’ve used a more stringent edit (way too much groupie nonsense), Graham’s structure and very adroitly handled conclusion ultimately knocks the wind out of you, leaving a deep sense of both bewilderment and satisfaction — a contradictive psychic state that characterized the experience of all fortunate enough to have been part of this glorious freak show.
Terry Graham celebrates the release of Punk Like Me: Liner Notes for a Revolution That Almost Happened with a book release party on Sunday, July 30, 2-6 p.m., with guest readers Keith Morris, Dave Markey, Jordan Schwartz and Hudley Flipside, plus DJ Lee Joseph, at Wacko in Los Feliz. More info.