Monday, October 15, 2012

I Was Not, In Fact, There

I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1987, in what was obviously, even to a kid from the sticks of Central PA, the post-punk era. WRCT was a great place to get up to speed on the local punk history. Frank Boscoe and I did a series of interviews and historical articles for our Cubist Pop Manifesto fanzine. Dave Martin and Mike LaVella were always happy to talk your ears off about the good old days.

And of course a lot of people from that period were still around playing music, although actually putting your hand on just 5-10 year old records or tapes could be almost impossible.

So anyhow, I wasn't there, but was just one step removed.

Meanwhile, in the past few years, I've watched and read more than my share of punk documentaries and docu-dramas. Most of these just leave me conscious of the fleeting ephemerality of what they're trying to describe. The great moments were incredibly... momentary, and if you try to make them carry too much weight or meaning, well, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?.

YOU WEREN'T THERE: A HISTORY OF CHICAGO PUNK 1977-1984 manages to bring across the spirit of the times as I understand it. It covers a long enough sweep of time and range of bands that it doesn't have to convince you that any one of them is better than they seem. There's unusually good archival live video and sound of the bands. Good interviews, spare editing. It is all about Chicago, but to varying degrees the same storyline was playing out to varying degrees in cities all over the country, including Pittsburgh. It is really a national story.

What I like the most about the You Weren't There is the way it pulls you through the rapid progression from anything goes 1977 full on freak show punk rock to the terminal point of by-the-numbers hardcore (on the cusp of The Great Crossover). It is a path that was followed all over the country, and in retrospect it seems both improbable and somehow inevitable.

Peter Margasak's review is pretty accurate, and I can't really disagree with his criticisms and those of some of the commenters, but I'd say You Weren't There's flaws as entertainment work to its advantage as documentary. You might find, say, aging punks picking the scabs of 30 year old internecine grudges to be tiresome, but honestly, a lot more time is always spent talking shit than actually playing and listening to music, especially since you can do both at the same time. That's the kind of thing that makes a punk rock scene real.

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