Memoir is a smooth sounding word that can often deliver either salacious insight or NPR-friendly whisper-soft introspection. In the hands of a writer like Allan MacDonell, you will get something that flirts with both approaches and yet ultimately is something entirely its own creation. Hence, you get a gem like Punk Elegies in your hot little hands. MacDonell, whose resume boasts writing for the seminal early punk zine, Slash to being a renaissance man/editor at Hustler, an experience that he documented in his excellent 2006 book, Prisoner of X: 20 Years in the Hole at Hustler.
While a number of books and films have been made about various players and aspects of the late 1970’s west coast punk scene, Punk Elegies stands out from the herd. There’s the obvious draw of having the writer/narrator being someone who was there and survived to tell the tale. That’s a given, but MacDonell’s approach, always intelligent, solidly articulate and ballsy enough to paint himself in the most unflattering colors, is the true sturm und drang to snag you and keep it fresh in your mind long after you finished the last page. Klaus Kinski once said that “Virtues can be faked. Depravity is real.” Mercifully for the author, MacDonell’s journey never quite gets to red-level-Kinski’s, but the quote still fits. Nobody comes off worse than the man himself.
Punk Elegies also features key peeks into the short-lived but still legendary punk scene in Los Angeles in the late 1970’s. Artists ranging from X to The Screamers to The Go-Go’s to Black Randy & the Metrosquad and more all pop up throughout the tome. All of this adds up to a beautifully written book that is one part punk culture and all parts gut-throat memoir. Allan MacDonell was nice enough to agree to some questions regarding Punk Elegies.
How was it revisiting this part of your life for Punk Elegies? Was it pure reflection or part-exorcism?
First off, there’s not a lot of purity in anything I’ve done, but reflection is one of my great gifts, like it is with any self-loving, self-lacerating narcissist. Long stretches of pond-staring went into mapping out Punk Elegies. I tried to clarify, for myself, what I’d been up to with all this baffling behavior. Unfortunately, none of my demons were exorcised. They’ve all made themselves more at home.
What does LA feel like for you now? Is it still a vibrant hub of artists and misfits or more like a city of ghosts?
For me, L.A. now feels like it’s being overrun by a massive influx of real-estate refugees from Manhattan and Brooklyn. The hilarious rise in cost of housing, the absence of available parking, the increasingly ill-mannered gamesmanship on the locked traffic grid, these are a few surface indications of a deep metaphysical congestion in this city that has choked off the ghosts. I still like it here. They haven’t squeezed me out yet.
Have you gotten any feedback from anyone who was in your inner circle during the time period of Punk Elegies?
Most of the feedback I’ve received has come in the form of silence. Germs drummer Don Bolles, who plays a role in Punk Elegies, gave the book a video endorsement. I only had to pressure Don slightly. The original keyboard player for the Screamers left a nine-paragraph elegy of his own in the comments of a Punk Elegies playlist I put together for Decibel.
Are you still in touch with your first wife, Tommie, who is hugely prominent figure throughout the book?
I’m still in touch with practically no one who is depicted in this book. Inspirational kitten memes tell me there’s no point in wishing things were different, but sometimes I do.
There are a lot of great stories about Black Randy in Punk Elegies. It’s a safe statement to say that there really was no one like him back then or even now. In a just world, he would have all the cult appeal and fandom of, say Sid Vicious or Darby Crash. What is your take now on the legacy of Randy?
I do presume to speak through Black Randy a lot in Punk Elegies, but I wish he were around to answer this one himself. Somehow, I suspect he would object to being grouped with Sid Vicious and Darby Crash. I’m pretty sure he and Darby liked one another—Darby sang in the Metro Squad chorus at one of Randy’s live shows. But Randy operated in a separate category that included him and almost no one else. He had an acute disdain for herd mentality and smug groupthink and Halloween rebels and for self-proclaimed mavericks living out on the copy-and-paste cutting edge. In the decades since he’s been gone, it seems that fewer and fewer of these teachings of Randy are being passed down and honored. In that sense, it’s like his entire legacy is a vanishing ideal.
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