Archive for gang green

Peroxide in the Scablands

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2019 by Magadh

[History has always fascinated me, so I can’t stop writing about when I know anything at all about it. I wrote this when I was supposed to be writing a review of Move, the new disc by The Proletariat for Souciant.com. After getting into it, I realized that I was getting way too far off topic. But I think this is an interesting story. The music of The Proletariat ran like an electric wire through my youth, shaping the lexicon of my disaffection in ways that it’s still difficult to parse at a distance of years. It’s impossible for me to tell that story without telling the story of those days, of that weird set of kids in that weird little town in a valley in the high desert of eastern Washington. This is a part of it, albeit a small one, and there is much more to say about it when I have the time. Maybe I need to tell this story to let the people who grew up in bigger and more central places that we were dialed into what they were doing. But it’s also the story of the kids who grew up in Tri-Cities, and Moses Lake, and Twin Falls, and Moscow, and Ellensburg, and dozens of other little towns in the backcountry trying to find a way to exist and to rebel in the cultural wasteland of Reagan’s America.]

On a hot Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1983, I let my buddy Brian convince me to go to Hot Poop. In those days, Hot Poop was a weird sort of combination record store and head shop jammed into one half of a tiny building that they shared on with a beauty parlor on a part of Alder St. well away from the commercial main drag of Walla Walla, Washington. My mom had warned me repeatedly about going there, which of course made the joint completely irresistible. On previous visits, I had come away with the Blue Oyster Cult classic Agents of Fortune, copies of Heavy Metal magazine, and the first copy of Maximum Rock n Roll that I had ever actually seen. The place was tiny, no more than 200 square feet and absolutely packed to the gunwales with vinyl of every description. There were Bowie bootlegs and Hendrix records in plenty. But on this particular occasion, I was a man on a mission.

Brian had turned me on to a few things in the preceding years since we had met in 7th grade at Garrison Junior High in 1981. These included The Clash, Black Flag, and smoking hash. There was a tiny but committed punk scene in Walla Walla, Washington in those days, comprising maybe ten or twelve kids. We only sort of knew what punk was. We had access to a lot of the standard early punk material (Never Mind the Bollocks, London Calling, Unknown Pleasures, etc.), and every now and then a new item would break into our little cultural zone and give us some more reference points. The arrival of VHS copy of the UK punk documentary UK/DK resulted in a lot of mohawks that otherwise might never have been. In any case, by the summer of 1983, I was looking to start buying punk records and Hot Poop provided me with the opportunity.

Walla Walla is a town of around 35,000 people in the southeastern corner of Washington state, maybe ten miles from the Oregon border and a hundred or so from Idaho. People hear Washington state and they think of evergreen trees and rain. That’s the soggy side, as we sometimes like to call it. But eastern two-thirds of the state, separated from that by the Cascade Mountains, is mostly high desert, with wheat, pea, and onion fields, apple orchards, and a geographical formation called channeled scablands. Part of eastern Washington is commonly referred to as the Inland Empire. There’s probably a precise designation for what it comprises, but no one I knew at the time knew what it was, nor did we care that there were parts of California (and Texas) that claimed the same moniker. We also knew that we lived in the Palouse Country, a region of rich farmland stretching south roughly from the Spokane Valley down into eastern Oregon and east into Idaho. Out beyond the fields, among the scrub brush and the butte lands, you sometimes feel like you are looking at the surface of the moon. Growing up as teenagers, my friends and I often felt like we were living in a place that was hardly less isolated.

These days, Walla Walla is known, at least regionally, for the wine trade. But back then there were really only three things of note in and around the town. There was (and is) the Washington Maximum Security Penitentiary, home to some of the worst offenders in the state and lit bright as day at all hours, so that the valley gives off a glow at night that can be seen from at least thirty miles away. There’s also Whitman College, quite a good little liberal arts college, where my dad was for years the Dean of the Faculty and where many of my friends’ parents worked. And there are the onions. Forget what people say about Vidalias, or whatever they’re growing down in Chile these days, the Walla Walla sweet onion is king of the hill. No, I am not fucking kidding. It is just a superior sweet onion. Really, ask anyone. It’s just objectively fantastic.

An hour’s drive from Walla Walla would get you to Tri-Cities. Richland is home to the Hanford nuclear reactor. Pasco, I’ve been told, was named for the Pacific Steam Ship Company, which seems kind of odd since it’s located several hundred miles from the ocean. But of course, this is on the route of the mighty Columbia River, a gigantic artery of commerce linking the hinterland with the coast and markets beyond. Then there’s Kennewick. I’ve never actually been there, so far as I’m aware, and I haven’t the faintest idea why it’s there. Three hours drive to the north is Spokane. I only ever went there a few times, mostly for like debate team trips and such. One of my high school friends moved up there, but most of us would never have considered it. It would have been a lateral move, like going to Boise or Moscow, just a bigger version of the same shit. We all wanted to get to the coast, either to Portland or Seattle (or San Francisco if one were particularly ambitious), where things were actually happening.

But even in those pre-internet days, little bits of culture filtered into us and Hot Poop was the nexus point for us. In all times that I’ve ever been in Hot Poop (which still exists in new and more salubrious premises in downtown Walla Walla) I’ve never thought to ask the guy who runs the place why it was that he started stocking punk records. But he did. Not a lot, but over the years I did come out of there with some real gems, including Black Flag Damaged, Bad Brains Coptic Times/I and I Survive, the first Clash album, the Flex Your Head compilation, and (even weirder by my lights) Hell Awaits. On this particular day, I just wanted to buy any punk record. The first one that came to hand was a compilation of Boston bands called This is Boston, Not L.A. I hadn’t heard of any of the bands and, for that matter, I hadn’t the faintest idea of why anyone would care whether it was Boston or L.A. or anywhere else (all of those places being about as proximate and familiar as the surface of Mars to me). But the cover looked cool: one of those crowd shots of kids who looked a lot cooler than me moshing all over each other, so I bought it.

Listening to it was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. The punk that I had been exposed to by that point was mostly the rock n rolled flavored variety offered up by the British punk bands of the 77 era. Even Black Flag didn’t move all that fast. This is Boston opened with six cuts of truly blazing thrash from Jerry’s Kids, absolutely dripping with aggression and executed at a speed that I had simply never heard before. There were also some pretty savage blasts from The F.U.’s and Gang Green. At the time I wasn’t quite in the right place to grasp this, although I came to really dig all those bands. I was more sympathetic to the music of The Freeze. It was at a tempo that was more familiar to me and had choruses that me and my friends could sing along to, or shout at passing cars.

But what I found most arresting was the three songs by The Proletariat. They sounded different, not only from anything else on that record, but from anything I had ever heard in my life. It would be another year or two before I would be introduced to Gang of Four, and years after that until I came to understand the complex ways in which they functioned as a precursor to The Proletariat. I had heard The Clash singing about politics. But their music had an element of foreignness, not least because it has such a pronounced sense of time and place. The Clash were the sound of London in the mid-1970s. I had no idea what the Westway was and only the vaguest idea where Mayfair was or why one would have a meeting there. I found The Clash really fascinating. They were, and continue to be, one of my absolute favorite bands, but it wasn’t until I learned who Dillinger and Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson were (and really until I moved to the U.K. in 1986) that I would really grok their music.

The Proletariat were political too, but in a way that was absolutely straightforward and unmistakable. When I heard Richard Brown singing in “Options” about choices like military service, or factory employment, or welfare assistance, these were things that I understood immediately, even though as a small college faculty brat I was unlikely to have to confront any of those prospects myself.

Then there was “Religion is the Opium of the Masses”. I’d read a bit of Marx and other socialist literature by that point, and although I didn’t really understand it all that well at that time (and as a child of the late Cold War I was inherently suspicious of it), I did know where the quote came from. Walla Walla was a really churchy little place. Hardly a weekend would go by without the devotees of some loopy sect or other coming to one’s door, although my father’s habit of inviting them in to torture them with his extensive knowledge of the Greek and Latin texts of the Bible (products of his intensive training at the hands of the Jesuits) meant that we didn’t get as much of that traffic as other people on our block. Needless to say, although my family were confirmed atheists, I had developed a sort of habitual deference to religion. I had never heard any human actually utter words like, “Religion is the opium of the masses, the blind will follow like sheep.” The effect on my head was electric.

“Allegiance”, their third cut, constituted about as thoroughgoing a critique of Americanism as I had ever heard in those days:

True Americans refuse to question
The self-serving tactics and utopian efforts
Nationalist cheerleaders lead the parade
The infectious chatter, a conservative rage

I don’t want to be like them
Mindless conformists, token brigades
Issues are secondary in this age

God bless America they instinctively say
Divine providence an unexpected fate
Apolitical figures quote the scripture
Today’s sermon a repeat, repeat

I don’t want to be like them
Crusading for justice, holy reign
Public apathy deeply set in

Without regard for loss of life
We infiltrate their countries amid chaos and strife
The American ideal to preserve democracy
Has turned against us no one else to blame

I don’t want to be like them
Russian roulette thousands of men
Code of ethics that promote bedlam

This is Boston was the only punk record that I owned for a while, although my man Brian soon supplemented it with cassettes dubbed from his own ample collection of the likes of Dead Kennedys, The Effegies, Blitz, GBH, and other random stuff. But I listened to This is Boston a lot, and specifically to those three cuts. There was something that set them apart even from other political punk at the time. Sure, Jello Biafra sang about politics and was really critical of a lot of the bullshit that was going on. But his take on it was heavily enmeshed in his advanced cultural references and a way that took a bit of parsing. With The Proletariat, knew exactly what they stood for and why. They gave to me and my friends a language for dissent. I was pretty privileged, and so were a lot of (but not all of) my friends in the punk scene. Listening to The Proletariat went a long way toward equipping us with a language of dissent, and a mirror in which we could see our privilege, at least to an extent.

A couple of years later, and equipped with a much more extensive knowledge of what punk was all about, I drive with a bunch of my friends over to Tri-Cities to see my first actual live punk show. We were going to see a band from Walla Walla, The Ambitions, who weren’t really punk (they were big fans of The Jam) but that didn’t matter much. We hopped in my pal Kathy’s van and made the hour-long drive on a Friday night, swilling beer all the way. The gig was at a dumpy little joint called The Saddle Club. We didn’t really know anyone else there, except the guys from The Ambitions (who were a little older than we were). We hadn’t yet hooked up with the punks in Tri-Cities, as we would do in the years that followed. But everyone was cool and soon the music started.

There were only two bands on the bill that night as I recall. The Ambitions played first. Then came a band from Richland called Diddly Squat. They are hardly remembered these days but they were fucking awesome. If they are remembered it is because their bassist was a wiry kid named Nate Mendel who would later go on to playing in Brotherhood, Christ on a Crutch, Sunny Day Real Estate, and then, much later The Foo Fighters. They later put out a really awesome demo tape called Peroxide in the Scablands (from which the title of this piece is drawn). Even later (while I was living in Nottingham) they broke up after Jason, their guitarist (and a real salt of the earth kind of guy) drowned while swimming in the Columbia.

Anyway, Diddly Squat came on and rocked pretty hard. The had some cool originals and we started a small slam pit. Then they busted out with a cover of “Options”. What followed was a sort of weird moment of recognition between the Walla Walla and Tri-Cities kids that we had a common reference point, over and about the normal punk standards, and it was a crazy band from southeastern Massachusetts. Diddly Squat ended the night with a truly spectacular cover of “Moon Over Marin”. We all knew the lyrics and sang it together. Then someone tore a sink off the wall in one of the bathrooms. The joint flooded, and we all had to go home. But it was one of the earliest points of intercity contact among punks in eastern Washington, and it would open the way for a lot of interesting things that happened later. We could all shout “Tell me the options!” to each other, emulating Richard Brown’s slightly robotic delivery, and each knew what the other meant without having to articulate it more fully.

Over the years, I would time and again come into contact with The Proletariat’s music, and almost invariably it would function not only as a bridge to political understanding, but also as a marker indicating that one had accessed a secret culture of rebellion. “We lived what the others never understood” the Berlin punk band Die Ärzte would sing some years later. When I heard that I really knew what they meant. Later I would pick up Soma Holiday and Indifference, The Proletariat’s two absolutely essential LPs, after I moved to Portland to go to college in 1986. I would hear “Marketplace,” its haunting opening passage blaring out of the studio of the college radio station in the basement of my dorm, having wandered down at two in the morning in a stoned haze. Even after all these years, that still makes the hairs on my neck rise.

And then, out of the blue, I heard that they were getting back together. I knew that they’d gotten all of the original members back together under another name (Churn I think) at some point in the 1990s. But then I heard from a friend that they were doing some shows to celebrate the reissue Soma Holiday. I have to admit I felt a sort of bitterness. I lived in Boston for three years in the late oughties. If they were going to get back together, what couldn’t they have done it then? As a side note, they recently played a gig with a reformed version of Moving Targets (my other favorite Boston area band) at a venue literally ten minutes walk from where I used to live in Somerville. Needless to say, my level of bitterness went through the roof.

But, in all seriousness, the news that broke a few months ago that they were going to come out with an album of new material filled me with excitement and apprehension in equal amounts. Few bands have changed my head in the way that they have. But I’ve heard all too many bands try to recapture the magic of earlier decades only to damage their reputation, sometimes irreparably. The product of their reformation, Move (recently released on Bridge 9 Records) was the most pleasant of surprises. It’s like meeting a friend from your youth and finding out that they shared the ideals and feelings that drew you together originally. In these days, when so many good things and so many hard-won victories seem to be spiraling the bowl, that’s a bit of inspiration to hold on to.

Magadh