The Groovers’ Grotto: Memory Boxes, Secret Histories and Music (Always Music)

To quote a favored, silly-serious culture hero of both your humble Grottomaster and Mr. Otherland himself: ‘life’s like that, isn’t it?’

And while I wouldn’t dare speak for T.W., my last few weeks have been chock-full of occurrences both affirming and intense. Meeting up after 30+ years with one of my few genuine pals from high school, now head of our home state’s House of Delegates, was one of the former. A hair-raising health scare involving my partner, and the seeing of a mutual longtime friend to her final rest, made up the other end of this spectrum.

Somewhere in between was getting a large, 20-lb. parcel in the post from my mother. Mom recently decided to give up the house our family lived in for many years for cheaper, less roomy digs. Thus, a lot of things needed to be gotten rid of, including items from me and my sibling’s childhoods (keeping essential family memorabilia for herself, natch). Hence this ‘memory box’ – whole chunks of juvenile evidence, school records, baby shoes (not bronzed), honest if teen-angsty personal journals, early creative writing and more – showing up at my door.

A lack of storage space in my shared flat, along with my own trepidation over hanging onto perhaps unnecessary minutiae, meant that 95% of said box went in the trash (luckily, with Mom’s considerate blessing). All the same, it’s amazing the recall one has when sorting for several hours through such things of a life’s past, both good and bad.

Memory is always a faulty and deceptive thing: it wants to be rose-colored but is usually more black and blue instead. It also can be a reminder of the potential one had as a kid, a measuring device for how close one stuck to the promise in that potential over time.

As for me, it’s pretty bittersweet to read old junior high/HS essays, or articles for the school paper (and yes, I was its resident rock critic), at once feeling thrilled that there was a creative spark even then, while also feeling a ripple of brood over how much one has kept or not kept true to it all these years.

Mostly though, it was heartwarming and surprising (for better or worse) bits that the box recalled. Did I really plan out a production script for my high school Drama class of a one-act play by Leonard Cohen, perhaps the only one he ever wrote? Here’s the script. Did I really, at age eight, dress up like (what I thought was) Mick Jagger and do a lip-synch mime to ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ for the school talent show? Here’s the playbill…and snapshots.

And so it is that, before delving into the at times embarrassing self-revelations of the enclosed journals, we judiciously draw the curtains.

Of course, everyone has their caches of memory – accompanied by sorrow, if not thorn. Most mean everything to the person who lived those memories and nothing to anyone else, which is maybe and non-judgmentally as it should be. Then there are those fortunate ones whose memories are so singular and vivid that they can potentially serve to enlighten and enliven future generations.

A recent one I was lucky to pick up on is the memoir of O.G. Los Angeles punk rocker Alice Bag, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage To Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story (Feral House Press).

L.A.’s ‘70s punk scene always seems to come in third in the conventional-wisdom hierarchy behind London and New York – indeed, many on those scenes regarded the So. Cali contingent as bandwagon jumpers of no importance.

Which is a shame: while perhaps ultimately overshadowed by the Hardcore mob, the original prime movers in the L.A. Punk community – including The Germs, The Weirdos, X, The Dils, and personal favorites The Last – produced some quality beat noise, the best of which still holds up on this side of the Millennium.

Growing up in the Latino community of East L.A., the young Alicia Armendariz found in music – first as a teenage Elton John fan, then becoming aware of what became Punk via magazines and a legendary Patti Smith Group gig at L.A.’s Roxy – a means of expression and escape from a fractious working-class upbringing.

Thus emboldened, Violence Girl follows the girl now called Alice as she takes the leap from spectator to performer, finding infamy as the fiery front-woman of The Bags, rocking the underground rock dives of late ’70s L.A. with songs like ‘We Don’t Need The English’, and cutting a single for local indie label Dangerhouse (their now-classic ‘Survive’).

Simply but capably, Alice recounts the highs and the lows of L.A. Punk life, not shying away from its more unpleasant aspects, not least of which was prejudice towards Mexicans and Latinos from both within and without the scene.

It’s a highly personal and entertaining read, bringing to light the story of a woman whom to this day – whether it’s teaching literacy skills to Nicaraguan villagers, or maintaining an invaluable ‘Women Of L.A. Punk’ website (at – has clearly hung onto the values of independent, individual thought and action.

(And who is still an amazing performer as well, having seen her tear it up earlier this year, at a combo reading/miniset at San Francisco’s intimate SubMission art/music dive.)

As mentioned above, L.A.’s Punk scene then and now has never received the love that those in London and NYC did (and I’m sure folks in Cleveland, Toronto, Wash. D.C. and right here in San Francisco feel similarly aggrieved). One of the more choice attempts at redress was UK label Domino’s recent excellent CD anthol Black Hole: California Punk 1977-1980, assembled by the veteran British pop-culture scribe and historian Jon Savage.

I’ve always had time for stuff under Savage’s byline since the ‘70s – let’s not forget he wrote the damn-near-definitive history of Punk, England’s Dreaming. And while he has had his share of disses for being ‘pretentious’ and ‘too intellectual’ over the years, it’s precisely Savage’s intellectual curiosity and articulation of that hunger for extraordinary sounds that, for me, makes his writing and archival work valuable.

Add to that the fact that, compared to most pop-culture observers of an academic bent, when reading Savage one gets a sense of someone far more engaged with their subject than detached. I mean, try as I might, I can never imagine Greil Marcus pogoing down front at a Punk gig.

Even more recently, Savage can also take credit for a marvelous compilation of that what came after Punk’s initial buzz dissipated on both sides of the Pond. Called Fame: Jon Savage’s Secret History of Post-Punk, 1978-1981, Savage has skimmed an enlightening and diverse mix from the sonic streams that split off from Punk, a time when anything beyond the codifying, three-chord loud fast and snotty was deemed valid, worth doing and hearing.

Thus, these representative slabs take many forms: electronic abstraction, jumpy trebly art-guitar racket (whether from London or downtown NYC), head-spinning beat blare, midnight musings, and no-apologies, confrontational non-music. With deep cuts from the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu, Subway Sect, Mars, DNA and Chrome, along with obscurities from Joy Division, Wire, Human League and more besides, it forms a seriously Sci-Fi portrait of a musical future both dystopian and utopian.

Released in the UK by the Caroline True label (albeit in a limited, 2-LP vinyl edition), it’s truly well worth snapping up.

Out of space, but more to come in a decidedly horror-ific style anon: everything from the unsavory slime of early Rock and Roll that would inspire two crazy kids named Lux and Ivy, to what we’ll call ‘The Night and Day Of The Living Dead Ramones’. Till then: Pleasant…screams? Myah haha hah.


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