Maybe it’s the result of being brought up in the hothouse of 1980’s California subcultures, where white kids reinvented themselves as exotic and weird, perhaps either from looking longingly at the gloomy dark landscapes of England with the conspicuous and refreshing absence of tanned surfers, or as a result of co-existing among blacks Chicanos, and the many Asian nationalities who live here, but I’ve always been attracted to the strange and exotic and grotesque in music film, fashion and any other expressive area that I can find. Now that I’m just another layered haired, swim lesson chauffeuring New Jersey stepford mom, my punk roots are kind of hard to recognize, but they exist and it all started back in L.A……
Everything was in place for me to turn out kinda weird. My dad was a collector of strange 1950’s music and culture. Everywhere around our house were old records by Big Joe Turner, Richard Berry, the Moonlighters, the Orioles, Chuck Berrry. Mom and Dad took my sister and I to record swap meets at the Capital Records building in Hollywood. We would sleep overnight in our Chinook camper. In the morning my dad would sell records and sis and I would get to eat donuts with the other kids of record sellers. I was still just a nerdy kid and sometimes I hated my parents for their weirdness. My sister and I had to share a room because my dad needed the other bedroom to house 30,000 45 rpm records. My parents dragged me through an endless array of thrift stores in his quest for old records. I wanted to have clothes from the mall – bright, fresh clean smelling pastel Ralph Lauren and Izod shirts, jeans from Calvin or Jordache. But alas, it was so much easier to pick up a few promising, unfaded thrift store garments and try to convince me they were just as good. I hated those smelly, cramped places! How I longed to shop in the bright, musical, polished and mirrored shops! But this was all to change.
I think it was Soft Cell. I heard “Tainted Love” on the radio and forgot everything else. Marc Almond’s blank, androgynous English voice was strange and beautiful. I loved that “doot doot” beat in the background, the muffled electronic rythm distantly reminiscent of the cheerful american girl group sound of the 1960’s. I would take my little transistor everywhere, hoping that the local L.A. pop station would play “Tainted Love”. One day I requested it for my mom. She was embarrassed. MTV was the next step in my music and fashion evolution. I learned about Duran Duran, Heaven 17, and Culture Club and became nu-ro. I wore several skirts and Chinese cloth shoes and ripped t-shirts, long bangs. I tried to apply eyeliner with strange results. Around this time I was usually to be found sitting in front of the television, comparing “Hungry Like the Wolf” to “Life During Wartime” or “Penthouse and Pavement”. Some other life-changing moments were not long to follow….
Moment #1: I saw “Let’s Go to Bed” by the Cure on MTV. This video caused me to fall in love. Here was the man of my eternal dreams, in flesh, or at least bright video flesh. He was dark haired, pale, with bewitching dark eyes. He wore black clothes. He was as weird as I was. He sang lyrics erotic to a 13 year old girl, dancing around a bed making strange hand gestures. He was so much more extreme and pale than healthy tanned Simon LeBon, dancing in the Brazilian rain forest…though Simon had a sexy mouth and Nick Rhodes was still my future husband. Smith was sinister, he could have come from a dark alley behind a nightclub in a bad part of a sleazy city….let’s get acquainted…getting to know you. At this moment, I fell in love not only with Robert Smith, but with the remote corners of the oldest parts of my city, and every man who looked strange and dark and weird and intense and unlike the happy healthy tanned surfers that grew around me in this hothouse of malls and multiplex cinemas and bitchen Cameros.
Moment #2: I discovered that thrift stores could be good. This moment occurred on a family trip to Pismo Beach. Pismo was a slightly run down, slightly dirty beach straight out of Steinbeck or Tennessee Williams or Lynch. It was shadowy with drunken sailors and drug addicts and drifters, old faded storefronts with cheap rooms upstairs. I hated that my family dragged me here. I wanted to go to Disneyland, still. But they loved the atmosphere, the cheap seafood and the great thrift stores. One day, my dad insisted on stopping to go into yet another thrift. I was almost in tears, following reluctantly and dutifully into that endless plane of junk. Bored, I began idly browsing the racks of women’s clothes, into which I was just beginning to fit. Within minutes I had discovered a 1950’s sequined cashmere sweater, just like Annette or Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s might wear! Then I found a 1950’s satin prom dress – just like the cool Hollywood girls had worn at the at Big Jay McNeeley concerts. Then, within a few more minutes, I found tight black wool skirt with a matching beaded sleeveless top, very English Beat, very Detroit girl group, very mod. It fit me. Mom and dad bought the lots and I think it only cost them $4. I walked out of that store happy.
I had discovered my first rich ore of 1950’s style, so plentiful and cheap back in early 80’s Southern California, where kids still obsessed with the safe nondevience of pastel Esprit conformity. With that brilliant swoop of economy I would no longer be that nerdy girl going to school in old clothes she hated. I had an identity. I would show off my inner flame by proudly wearing old cheap thrift store cast offs not because I had to, but because I wanted to. The feeling of power in these clothes was as potent as atomic waste. That beaded black sweater set was cheap and slightly trashy and back-alley. It was from a cooler, earlier time of hepcats and garage bands and surf movies and Phil Spector. All the things my father had imprinted into my brain, which I had heretofore considered useless, could now be expressed through the fabulous revolutionary new wonder invention of retro fashion. Each thrift store item was unique, a perfect forgotten cast off unlike everything else on the rack. Unique and poetic and slightly rejected and out of place, just like I felt at 13 with my eyeliner, long bangs and fantasies of Buddy Holly and Robert Smith.
A little time went by and I was introduced to the girl who would be my best friend and partner in crime for many years. Her dad was a record collector too. She was slightly dangerous and wild and older – 15 to be exact. She had listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Now she was listening to the Sex Pistols. She knew about thrift stores. Her look was tight leggings with chartreuse men’s shirts and Chinese mary janes shoes. She knew how to apply eyeliner and I wanted to be just like her.
Before too long we were both sitting in her room listening to “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle”, drinking cokes and talking about how enviable Nancy Spungeon’s life had been. Outside her room her dad was smoking and drinking and listening to Albert King or Blind Joe something or other. All his favorite artists seemed to be blind or little or Joe. She knew boys from the local punk bands and they came over. She had the odd fortune of living right down the street from Zed Records, the legendary punk record store in Long Beach where the aspiring Billy Idol had been sent by his record label to learn how to dress punk. Every day we’d walk to Zed and look at the singles and stickers – Crass, D.I., Jodie Foster’s Army, PiL, Nina Hagen, Unit 3 With Venus. Sometimes, rarely, we’d have money enough to buy one. I remember buying “Nagasaki Nightmare” by Crass. Mostly we’d sit in front of the store and smoke cloves. We died our hair black. We went around to thrift stores and shopped for 50’s clothes together. We found huge crosses made out of nails (!) and wore them to be goth. She loaned me her black leggings.
Later, we discovered Melrose Ave. I remember my first trip there. My sister’s punk friend had an older friend with a car. She was willing to take us all there after 7th grade to shop at the hip stores – Flip of Hollywood, Cowboys and Poodles and Aardvark’s Odd Ark. I had $20 and was determined to get something cool. The stores were overwhelming. So many beaded sweaters and circle skirts! But I had enough of these and knew what I wanted – my first black leggings. This was about 1983. Until this point all my clothes had been baggy Duran pants and pastel esprit colors…or thrift store clothes. It had been very hard to be cool wearing aqua and white. Now I had something black…and tight…Time went by. We started going to see more concerts – My first concert was Big Joe McNeeley at the Wiltern. I was in heaven, 13 year old me surrounded by 1980’s Hollywood rockabilly punk types wearing 1950’s clothes, ratted died hair, stiletto heels and bolos. My second concert was X. We tried to stand apart from my parents so we could smoke cloves. Then it was the Cure, Love and Rockets, Lords of the New Church, David Bowie, Johnny Thunders, Redd Kross, TSOL, the Knitters, Tex and the Horseheads, the Gun Club and others, (though not especially in that order).
Los Angeles in the 1980’s – it had been an exciting time of punk bands, Chicano culture, smoggy bright streets, palm trees, mysterious canyons, old cars, record stores on Melrose, and strange thrift-store clothed people everywhere. I will be returning to streets next week for a couple of nights. I will wander around on Melrose again after about 15 years. I know all has changed. The record stores are gone now – Rhino, Aron’s, Rene’s, even Vinyl Fetish. The bands – The Dream Syndicate, The Gun Club, X, Thelonious Monster, are broken up. Jeffrey Lee Pierce is dead. I moved away. Yet, it is still Los Angeles. Pleasant Gehman remains as does Rodney Bingenheimer. The bulidings on Melrose are still the same – sick transplants from wholesome midwestern main streets, left to rot in the blazing California sun and smog. And the Hollywood and Silverlake Hills are still dotted with secret staircases that can provide a quick means of a escape for drunken girl in a 1950’s formal trying to dodge a cab fare…..