When Stacy Russo headed to a Voice of Witness oral history workshop in San Francisco, she thought she might be able to apply what she learned to her work in education. She came out of the experience with the idea for her latest book.
Russo is a librarian and professor at Santa Ana College as well as an artist and writer. Her latest book, We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews With Women From the 1970s & 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene, released in August, is a collection of recollections of the era from those who were there. Russo thought it might take a year to gather interviews and get the book together. It took four. In the process, it became an incredibly special project for her.
“It ended up being one of my favorite things that I've ever done,” Russo says by phone. “It quickly became much more than a research project. It really became something that I was personally dedicated to. It was even very emotional for me.”
She adds, “I guess that's the best that you can ask for when you're doing a project like that.”
Russo herself grew up punk. Her family moved to California right before she started sixth grade and she spent her adolescence in Fullerton, where she found her way into the punk scene and attended shows at the likes of popular ’80s venue Fender's Ballroom in Long Beach. Hardcore was the sound of the punk scene during Russo's youth and, while she's not quite sure how she found the sound, she recalls how it helped her grow. “It gave me an awareness and it gave me a voice. I guess you could say that I woke up in some ways,” she says. “I shifted, although I feel like it was already inside of me.”
After punk entered her life, Russo's politics manifested in her life choices. She gave up eating meat and became interested in animal rights. She opposed war and started protesting. Back in the day, she and a friend started a fanzine called Anti-Establishment. “It had innocent articles in there about overthrowing the government and things like that,” she recalls with a laugh. “We were just teenagers and we put that out and we would take it to different stores. Some places sold it.”
Even today, Russo is influenced by punk rock. She still makes zines. As a librarian, she has focused on women's studies. “I'm concerned in general about women's stories in general being told by women and women being able to have their stories told without a filter as much as possible and not having them be overshadowed, so that they're seen as important and valuable,” she says.
That impacts the work Russo has done with We Were Going to Change the World. Her book has more in common with the work of Studs Terkel, the radio host and author who popularized oral histories, than with music journalism. Like Terkel, Russo's work doesn't emphasize celebrity. There are interviews with recognizable figures from the Southern California punk scene in this book, including Alice Bag, Exene Cervenka, Jennifer Precious Finch (L7) and Kira (Black Flag), but there are also interviews with women who contributed to the scene as fans. Russo said that, while working to get the book published, she was adamant that the stories of the fans wouldn't be scrapped in favor of the bigger names. She also ensured that the interviews appeared alphabetically for that reason. “Punk rock is not just about the famous or the elite,” she says. “It's about everybody.”
That egalitarian approach to We Were Going to Change the World is what makes it an essential read for anyone interested in punk rock and Southern California music history.
While Russo tracked down some of the subjects of the book, she also posted flyers at various locations in Los Angeles and Orange County and posted in Facebook groups. Ultimately, women started contacting her to be a part of the project. Through the interviews, we read about punk from its infancy in Los Angeles to its spread to the suburbs. We read a variety of opinions on how the scenes changed and how they intersected with art and politics. More important, we read the personal stories of who the participants were before punk and how the movement shaped them.
“I wasn't really prepared, maybe, for the intensity and the power of sitting one-on-one with all these women, usually in their homes, and having them share with me their personal story,” Russo says. “I felt an immediate connection to the women and I felt such compassion and also thankful for the time that they were spending with me.”
There was a question that Russo considered as she worked on the project: “Did punk rock make everyone who they are or were they already a little different?” Although the individual histories are unique, the answers to that question serve as an underlying theme throughout the interviews. We Were Going to Change the World is about punk, but it's also finding one's place in the world and the ways in which music inspires lives, whether or not you choose to pick up an instrument. That's particularly important given that the subjects are women, whose voices are often muted in punk histories and whose personal connections to music, in general, are frequently under-explored outside of the context of pop.
“I think [punk] gave people a voice for how they were feeling,” she says. “I think that, for women, it also showed different ways that you could live your life that were maybe nontraditional and that was OK.”
Russo says she hopes the book will inspire others to work on their own oral history projects, to consider including the perspectives of the fans and to “gather as many voices as they can.”
Stacy Russo will be joined by several of the interviewees from We Were Going to Change the World at Book Show in Highland Park on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 6 p.m. and at MADE by Millworks in Long Beach on Friday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m.