Saturday, October 9, 2010

We Never Learn: Exposing the Gunk Punk Undergut


In his new book We Never Learn, the Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 (Backbeat Books, 2010), former New Bomb Turks frontman, and now author Eric Davidson occasionally uses phrases like “the last moment,” and “the end days.” Such phrases usually appear in the context of describing some aspect of now-extinct New York City and its last relevant spurts of rocknroll. For example, according to Davidson, the band Pussy Galore rose from “the very last moment of lower Manhattan as the glorified dung heap at the end of the American empire.” Similarly, the Devil Dogs, who formed in New York in 1989, did so during “the end days of the ol’ Bowery landscape.” These qualifiers get dropped into the copy fairly early on, and seem incidental enough at first. But read on and they begin to take on broader implications. In coining the admittedly silly name Gunk Punk and shaping it into a coherent scene worth chronicling, Davidson might be writing about the “last moment” and “end days” of rocknroll itself.
    About that scene: the Undergut stretched way past New York City, reaching as far as the West Coast, Europe, Japan, Detroit, Memphis, even Ohio! For its pioneers Davidson nominates bands like the aforementioned Pussy Galore, plus the Raunch Hands, Lazy Cowgirls, Dwarves, Cynics, Gories, Billy Childish, and Death of Samantha, among others. Somehow, without these antecedents, most of which go back to the ‘80’s, the early aughts wouldn’t have been blessed with goobers like the White Stripes and the Hives. Or so the hypothesis goes. In the middle limbo between the scene’s earliest detectable pulse and its commercially viable culmination, we get pretty much the entire Crypt Records catalog, circa mid-90’s.

    Big as the gut was, it still dwelled in the shadow of its contemporaries, Grunge and Indie-Rock. Gunk Punk so-called was largely made up of fellow outsiders who, as teens, grew up unable to relate to the unsmiling formula of hardcore, and who wanted to put sex, comedy, and ass-kickin’ back into the show.

Devil Dogs circa "the last moment"
    Davidson here compiles tons of interviews--and some of the more entertaining ones are with Dwarves frontman Blag Jesus, Billy Childish, and Crypt Records empresario Tim Warren--and stitches these together with extended prose passages. Davidson shows real talent with the art of the interview, up there with Lisa Carver for instigating hilarity. At Davidson’s prompting, Blag Jesus remarked that his fellow Dwarf Vadge Moore was “...born a Dwarf. He always fucked up and would sleep with anything that moved. Unless she was unconscious, in which case...she didn’t move!”

The Author as New Bomb Turk
But Davidson's prose--and here it comes, Ladies and Germans: Quibble Time!--can, in places, get kinda tedious. All too often his amped-up, overly alliterative style smacks of the record review section in the back of any of a hundred 90s music 'zines (and, who knows, maybe that's exactly the effect he's going for). For example, about the Cheater Slicks he writes: “their uber-distorted guitar gnash flails like Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster spitting sonic sparks all over the barroom...” And he calls Dead Moon’s sound “an anthemic midnight hooch-lurch through Roky Erickson’s demo demons, grounded by the most base AC/DC riffage swung out with a junky jangle, each song clogged with desperate tales of hardy hearts doggy-paddling the toilet flush of western civilization.” Sometimes this stuff reads like five miles of Byron Coley. If there was just a bit of it then I wouldn’t bitch, but it’s pretty thick throughout. And is all the record label name dropping really vital to the story? No doubt some of it is unavoidable. But it creates an effect not unlike getting cornered at the record store by Joe Underground the New Release Guy while he spins your head with insider minutiae.
    Despite these quibbles, let it be said that if you followed any of these bands, bought their records, or went to their shows, then you’ll probably find We Never Learn to be a pretty compelling read. Davidson’s sensibilities are locked on the important things, like putting the sex, comedy, and fun back where it belongs. He gains access to most of the prime movers in this scene and does a great job of blending interviews with much insider lowdown. Plus We Never Learn contains loads of cool pix, and it comes with a pretty shweet downloadable soundtrack.
    Speaking of downloads, etc., the Interwebs seems, in so many subtle ways, to have de-balled damn near everything that once was great. And that includes rocknroll. Maybe it has something to with putting everything at our fingertips, within such easy reach, but some vital physical thing seems to have disappeared for good now. Of course, to announce the “last moment” or “end days” of anything is to truck with hyperbole. That said, We Never Learn covers the last moment/end days of raunchy, pre-internet rocknroll, which happened just a short while ago, down on the street.

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