The Very Definition of Lame

Punk Rock Nostalgia

The show was promoted as “Waking the Dead,” the final event to be held in the Grand Olympic Auditorium, a Los Angeles wrestling emporium, before it’s converted to a megachurch. Suicidal Tendencies and the Germs headlined, with Fear, Marky Ramone and Flipper opening. It’s finally come to this: a punk rock oldies revue with paunchy middle-aged guys in tattoos and leather jackets playing their 1982 set lists.

Rough body count: Suicidal Tendencies is down to one original member, though they recorded actively into the late nineties and evolved into a credible speed metal band. The Germs haven’t played since 1980, when Darby Crash finally made the leap from Iggy manqué to corpse. Fear’s recorded here and there since their Decline of Western Civilization peak but they were always more renowned for their audience baiting than their repetoire. Three of the four original Ramones are dead now; Marky joined the band right when they ceased to matter. Flipper lost Will Shatter (the smart one) to heroin in 1987; Bruce Lose (the smartassed one) was seriously injured in a car accident in 1993. That’s three out of five bands minus their frontmen (and primary songwriters), four out of five essentially reforming for this show.

It should have been a lot worse.

The crowd was split between geezers like me, younger kids and a frightening battery of gangsters and bikers. Two rows ahead of me sat a punk rock family spanning all three demographics: Dad sported gang colors, Mom was demurely tattooed and their Mohawked six year old sang along to half the songs. The Grand Olympic is designed for sports, with a floor big enough for ice hockey surrounded by tiered seating. The bands played on a short stage set up on the floor, but a general admission ticket only bought a seat in the gallery with no access to the pit. (A few hundred people milled around down there: the guest list must have been enormous.) Once the bands got going, every kid in the house spent the evening jumping the fence separating the seats from the floor to join the pit. Security would throw them back and they’d line up to do it again.

As the evening wore on, fights began to break out on the floor, until Suicidal Tendencies threatened not to go on if they didn’t “take it outside.” I sat back, sipped my beer and admired my shiny new concert T-shirt, glad to be at a show with seats and a metal fence between me and the guys throwing punches.

The first time I saw Flipper would have been 1982 or ’83. The show opened with Ted Falconi tuning up, which crept from a few overpoweringly loud harmonics to a dense, buzzing wall of droning feedback. It was closer to pure tone than anything I understood as music, the feedback so loud that the air in the club seemed to congeal and stutter. After a few minutes Steve DePace sauntered out, stood for a while watching Ted and drinking a beer, then sat down and started playing a churning backbeat. Bruce (or maybe Will — it’s been twenty years) drifted out later and added a bassline, the noise suddenly lurching into song: “Way of the World” or “Ever,” one of the ten or fifteen songs they played every one of the dozen or so nights I saw them.

The Grand Olympic was too big to fill with noise that dense, so the overpowering, ecstatic quality of their early shows was lost. Those sets were sodden, drunken sprawls, often ending with instruments turned over to the crowd as the night wore on. At “Waking the Dead,” they sharpened the rhythmic attack — the anonymous young bassist who stood in for Will Shatter drove the music rather than plodding through it, with the result that they were the last thing one would expect: tight. Will was missed (both as a voice and as an endearingly drunken, goofy frontman), but Bruce Loose took up the slack, limping in circles and waving his cane like the cranky, addled old man he’s become. I don’t expect anything new from this band (American Grafishy, their 1992 attempt to reform after Will’s death, is a sad footnote to their great early singles and debut album), but this performance honored their past rather than recycling it.

Most of the other bands worked some variation of nostalgia for the music that set out to destroy nostalgia. Marky Ramone was the worst, a bad bar band pointlessly covering Ramones hits — playing “Leave Home” through the PA system would have been more rewarding.

Fear played most of their debut album straight-faced. Lee Ving has all but abandoned his Don Rickles-taunts-the-mosh-pit shtick, and the old question — “Is he a homophobic rightwing nutjob or is he making fun of homophobic rightwing nutjobs?” — was neatly resolved in the one memorable bit of between-song patter, a creepy patriotic appeal to support the troops.

Weirdest of all was the Germs, who performed a set Jean Baudrillard himself couldn’t have scripted. Three of four original members — one now an authentic rock star after stints with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters — played to an audience that likely outnumbered everyone who ever saw the Germs with Darby Crash put together. Playing the part of Darby was Shane West, who will be playing the part of Darby in the upcoming movie What We Do is Secret. He did okay for an actor, snarling on cue and whining through the songs with Darby’s spoiled little boy’s mewl. The band was focused and driven, sounding set free by backing someone who wasn’t really a drugged, stumbling disaster but was instead just pretending to be a drugged, stumbling disaster. Playing a simulacrum of themselves, an actor playing the part of their dead bandmate more coherently than the bandmate ever managed, they sounded like the best Germs cover band ever.

Suicidal Tendencies ducked the issue of how to replicate their glory days with a brawny set of speed metal anthems: as the one band that’s actually continued to produce new work and grow musically, they had nothing to prove to an audience that had largely shown up to cheer them on.

But since much of that audience was by now drunk, surly and looking to bash heads, I left before the encore. Call me a poseur (I always was), call me an old man, just don’t hit me with a beer bottle.