The documentary film “The Decline of Western Civilization” is a raucous tour through the underbelly of L.A.’s 1970s punk scene, but for filmmaker Penelope Spheeris the rock underground was home.
“I was raised in total chaos,” says Spheeris of her upbringing by an alcoholic mother and a string of stepfathers. “My family — twice, three times a week somebody was always bloody. … When I finally was introduced to the punk scene I felt like I was right at home, where it was bloody all the time.”
But after a riotous 1980 theatrical release of “The Decline of Western Civilization” — hundreds of LAPD policemen arrived on scene to quell the crowd of thousands at the film’s midnight premiere on Hollywood Boulevard — it took over three decades for Spheeris to feel comfortable enough sharing the punk scene she knew so well with the world again. The documentary, which gained cult status for being hard to find, was released with Parts II and III on DVD in a deluxe box set just last year.
“I never put these movies out, because for me, I felt like a sellout. My hardcore punk rock ethic is I shouldn’t be selling this shit,” explains Spheeris.
It was her daughter, Anna Fox, who convinced her to restore and re-lease the “Decline” trilogy.
“My daughterly influence won out on that one,” says Fox. “I just knew people wanted to see it.”
Fox and Spheeris, who speak Saturday after a screening of the film, headed deep into “the vault,” a storage facility where Spheeris keeps her archives, to dig up material for the DVD’s bonus features.
Then Fox had to find video equipment old enough
to play back and transfer the antiquated tapes to digital. Former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum even contributed his DAT (digital audio tape) player
to the cause.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it back to you soon,’” recalls Fox. “And he says, ‘Keep it. I don’t need it. Who’s gonna ever use that thing again?’”
Technology changes, as does music, but Spheeris still feels that punk is misunderstood.
“I wish somebody would write a manual so people could understand it,” she says. “I mean, here we are 35 years later and they just think that somebody with a safety pin in their nose is a punk rocker, but it don’t work that way. It’s much deeper than that.”
For Alice Bag, weirdness is barrier-breaking. Bag — then Alicia Armendariz, a bespectacled kid from East L.A. — remembers how seeing one of her first punk shows at the Orpheum Theatre was life-changing. The Germs played with abandon even though they barely knew how to play their instruments. The Zeroes were all of Mexican descent, just like her, and The Weirdos were as strange as their name implied.
“They were just insane,” recalls Bag, who will speak on a panel about L.A. punk culture on Saturday.
“They had created these outfits that were hand-painted or spray-painted and assembled with these bright thrift-store accessories. I remember the lead singer had different colors of tape wrapped around his pants, and he had this weird-looking haircut that looked like the guy in the Three Stooges whose hair is cut with a bowl.”
It was “the weirdness of it all,” says Bag, that inspired her to become the frontwoman of her very own band, The Bags, a legendary first-wave punk group immortalized in Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization.”
“[The show] kind of gave us permission to move forward — just leap over any boundaries we might have thought existed,” says Bag, who describes her first moments on stage as her punk alter ego as liberating. “I felt like I was almost a women possessed, like something took over me, and I had all these feelings that came pouring out of me that needed to be expressed,” she says of her band’s first performance at The Masque in Hollywood, where they played frequently in the ‘70s before dissolving in 1980.
Being a pioneer in L.A.’s punk scene taught Bag to always behave as if boundaries didn’t exist.
“Punk told me that there are no limits,” she says.
These days Bag, married and a mother of three, frequently breaks out on her own creative ventures. She’s written a memoir, self-published a diary about her experiences in post-revolutionary Nicaragua, run a successful blog and is gearing up to release her first solo album next year.
While each project brings its own challenges, Bag doesn’t see obstacles, only new adventures.
“Whether it’s singing or creating visual art or maybe the clothes you wear, or how you decide to do your hair, whatever your form of expression is, the more you push boundaries, the more people are going to celebrate it.”
Few people ever expect the stuff they write in college to become the subject of college courses, but punk singer and Riot Grrrl movement cofounder Allison Wolfe’s lyrics and zines now show up on the syllabi of classes — including Evelyn McDonnell’s LMU seminar on Riot Grrrl.
“It’s kind of weird,” says Wolfe, who will emcee a line-up of music and spoken word at the Grrrls on Film festival Sunday. “Sometimes you’re just like, ‘This is just what I was doing when I was in my early 20s. … So it is a little bit weird to have it studied, ‘cause you’re like, ‘It’s not like I thought about it as much as you’re thinking about it.’ But at the same time it does feel good to feel validated.”
When Wolfe started the fanzine “Girl Germs” with friend Molly Neuman while in college and then the three-piece punk group Bratmobile in 1991, she had little idea that her group would go into punk rock history as a pioneering force in the Riot Grrrl movement.
Rather Bratmobile was the vehicle for Wolfe, Neuman and guitarist Erin Smith to spread Riot Grrrl’s revolutionary ideas about punk rock and feminism through a do-it-yourself music style that would combat punk rock’s male-dominated mentality and resonate with young girls like themselves.
“The point of Riot Grrrl was really to … assert the cross-section between academic feminism and punk rock. And so basically we felt like our punk rock worlds were too sexist and not feminist enough … but we also felt like our academic worlds were not … punk enough. They didn’t speak to our daily lives or use the kind of the everyday normal street language that we used,” says Wolfe, whose angst-ridden songs about boy-girl playground hijinks, high school hierarchies and cootie phobia confront sexism and violence against women.
Even though Wolfe’s words have been immortalized in music, videos and countless articles, it’s taken years for Wolfe to take her own Riot Grrrl philosophy that “everyone has a story, everyone has a voice and everyone has the capacity to be creative” to heart.
“The years of people interviewing me, it made me realize that I had something to say … that maybe I could tell my own story and produce my own stories,” says Wolfe, now a graduate journalism student at USC.
At the moment she’s doing just that — writing a personal memoir about her life and working on an oral history of the Riot Grrrl movement.
Phranc, often described as an “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” never really felt like she fit in until she discovered punk rock. After finishing an art program at the Women’s Building, a hotbed of feminist art activity during the ‘70s in downtown L.A., Phranc went to San Francisco seeking to connect with the city’s legendary gay community.
“I thought I was going to find a whole new world of lesbians, and instead I found punk rock,” says Phranc, who’ll participate on Saturday’s L.A. punk culture panel.
“It was a great time and a life-changing time for me,” Phranc told writer Denise Sullivan. “I felt like I had a peer group. Not only did I identify as far as politics and music, but also age-wise. I had been with people because they were lesbian and women, and we had a lot in common, but they were all a lot older. So for once, I fit in. Where could a freak fit in? In punk rock!”
So when the Mar Vista native returned to L.A. and didn’t know a soul in the city’s punk scene, she went out to punk shows anyway.
“I’d get up and put on my little suit and my tie, and I would go and I would stand up against the wall and I’d see these amazing bands,” says Phranc.
It wasn’t long before the she was noticed for her sartorial style and recruited into the band Nervous Gender. Phranc went on to play guitar with Catholic Discipline, featured in “The Decline of Western Civilization,” and later Castration Squad.
By 1979, Phranc was a recognizable figure in the punk scene, but by the early 1980s she had to take a stand when punks started wearing swastikas.
“I’m Jewish and it really made me angry. So I wrote a song called, ‘Take off Your Swastika’ … and I played it acoustically and I played it solo so that everybody could hear the worlds,” says Phranc.
The folk song was a departure from her punk pursuits, but it launched Phranc’s solo career and reaffirmed her place in punk society.
“The personal is political,” says Phranc. “You take your politics with you wherever you go … so when I got to punk rock it was kind of natural. I wasn’t trying to be anybody that I wasn’t.”