We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001
Book Review for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 330 part 2.
My friend Marisa once astutely explained to me my aversion to mainstream culture. We were talking about movies, but it could also apply to music. She commented that because I expose myself to such a diverse selection of films, I couldn't simply watch a mainstream film without the knowledge that there are better films out there to be seen. It is hard to be satisfied with something mediocre when I am aware of what else I could be watching. It is the same for me with music.
That is probably one of the reasons why I got so involved in the '90s garage punk scene. There were lots of other things going on. I tried them out, but that was where I belonged. It was what I liked, what I still like, what I'll always like. I would like to assume the same was true for Eric Davidson. His new memoir We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 purports to be a history of that scene. Davidson is the singer of the New Bomb Turks so his recollections are slanted toward the people and places that helped his band through their career. That is why this book comes off as more of a memoir than an actual history.
We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 starts with a strange, convoluted reasoning for why he calls it "gunk punk undergut". He needed to give it a name so he did. Fine. Move on. The band Davidson starts his story with is Death Of Samantha. An odd choice, but I'd be willing to see where his reasoning leads. As with most of the bands featured in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 it doesn't really go anywhere. Davidson is so quick to switch to the next thing that he leaves the reader hanging. He quickly jumps from topics in a seemingly nonsensical fashion. In one chapter he starts with Johan Kugelberg moves on to the Pits club in Belgium and ends with the Candy Snatchers. No connection is made between them. Fortunately, most of the bands, labels, clubs, hangers-on are barely mentioned so there is no reader investment made. There are few bands that get an almost full treatment including an interview, but even those get cut off before things really start to get interesting.
The people he does interview more in-depth such as Billy Childish, Blag Dahlia, Trent Ruane all seem to have interesting stories, but Davidson is more interested in the gossip and in-fighting, not too mention those illusive brushes with mainstream success as well as inserting his own band into the dialogue. I'd agree that these bands were better than the '90s top 40, but he disparages that assertion with his obsession with being successful. This is most notable in his interest in Jack White and the White Stripes. White may be the asshole everyone in the book seems to say he is, but why talk about him so much? The book should be talking about all the great bands that never got that much fame, but still made cool music. Instead the whining comes across as if it was from an internet message board. I know it was unfair that pop punk and grunge had all the success, but I really don't care about it. I don't remember caring about it back then either. I'd rather hear about the Oblivians and not just about that time on tour when they saw the Country Teasers harass the Chesterfield Kings. It's a cute story, but why waste the few pages allotted as great a band as the Oblivians with such trivial nonsense. Never mind all the discussion of Dead Moon and The Mummies lack of being able to do laundry on tour.
Davidson never manages to get the reader to the point where she/he would want to further explore this scene. He does not do justice to the music or the bands. Instead, he resorts to ridiculous metaphors and hyperbole. "Ass-shake rock'n'roll was about to be washed into history's moldy basement". "...The Mummies nonetheless became the rickety axle of one of the two wheels of the '90s garage punk motorcycle". Others border on plain lazy. When discussing the first show of Death Of Samantha at the Ground Round restaurant in Parma, Ohio on chicken wing night, Davidson in the next paragraph comments that performance "was the first of many subversive pranks Death Of Samantha doled out like chicken wings at a suburban family restaurant". He is not even trying.
As I have learned from the musical histories of every genre, things don't really start in one place. They are similarly happening in different locales. When the word starts spreading and bands start touring they build up some synchronicity and suddenly there's a scene. I am in the San Francisco Bay Area so that's where I saw it beginning. Davidson is in Ohio so that's where he sees it. The difference between us is that Davidson is convinced Ohio is the place where everything happens and he tries unsuccessfully to argue the point. He hates San Francisco so all those bands didn't matter. He likes some zine that put out ten issues so that zine was more important than a zine that is still around on issue 329.
Of course the zine I am talking about is Maximum Rock N Roll. Some of the people interviewed in the book acknowledge MRR's contributions. Johan Kugelberg recalls reading Tesco Vee's 1984 article about collecting rare American punk. Greg Lowery remembers his bands Supercharger and Rip Offs getting glowing reviews. Shane White of the Fingers, Rip Offs, et al wrote for this magazine. Tim Yohannon was a fan of these bands. I have been writing in these pages since 1991. Davidson dismisses MRR with the same old tired cliche of being the punk bible that points out band's misogyny. I always laugh when I read this because I immediately think that one of two things has happened to the writer. Either his/her band got a bad review or he/she has never actually read the mag, but that is what he/she has heard others saying so that becomes his/her opinion. In Davidson's case I think it is probably the former.
Of course, it is easy to complain about who got left out and who was erroneously included. I could overlook some of those things if the author managed to properly capture the time. For someone so seemingly vested in the perceived importance of the era, Davidson doesn't manage to sell it. He also has a strange disdain for California bands. He never saw the Mummies until 2009 so he dismisses them as a novelty. There is only one brief mention of the legendary Purple Onion. Missing an interview opportunity with Michael Lucas, Russell Quan or Tom Guido is a shame. The only mentioned person who declines to be interviewed is Estrus Records' Dave Crider. He does so graciously, but that doesn't stop Davidson from repeatedly putting down his label.
One of the disadvantages (advantages?) of being so involved in this scene is that the mistakes in the book really stand out to me. I know Steve Turner is not the bass player for Mudhoney. He is the guitar player. I know that Leather Uppers were around before the Spaceshits and other mundane things. The funniest mistake in the book is when Trent Ruane of The Mummies is quoted as saying the band played a lot in the "South Bay and Santa Bay". I wondered were the hell Santa Bay is until I read the next sentence, which mentioned the club Marsugi's which I knew was in San Jose. Then I thought Santa Bay rhymes with San Jose so Davidson must have misheard that during his transcriptions. It makes me think there must be more I don't know about.
The book Davidson should have wrote and probably wanted to write was the New Bomb Turks story. It is the direction he is going toward. Every band, person, reminiscence and historical placement in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 somehow seems to come back to the New Bomb Turks. Every time a list of bands exemplifying some aspect of the scene is written the New Bomb Turks are included. It's classic lead singer egomania. I think he should have just gone all out and wrote the story he obviously wanted to write.
The book I would have preferred to read would be the history of Ohio music. Davidson insinuates a lot of importance to the Ohio scene. I like a lot of the bands and there are obviously many wild characters involved. Plus the life story of Mike Rep who is only briefly mentioned in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001 is probably a lot more fun than hearing about the Supersuckers. Hopefully, someone else will step up to write that book. As well as a book about '90s garage punk that really gets it.