Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Search For The Sun
Found this while cleaning up old entries on defunct old blogs. It's a passage from the temporarily aborted punk rock memoir I was working on for a while and will one day resume work on. (Pauses, cocks ear to listen for clamor of eager readers begging for more...crickets chirping, tumbleweeds rolling past the window...OK, I'll check back later) Anyhow, this is the tale of how my late partner Maati Lyon ended up producing a classic anarcho-thrash album in 1983. Still a good story, worth rescuing from the far corners of the internet.
Crucifix were a group of young kids from the East Bay who had put out a couple of EPs on their own and appeared on the first Maximum Rock & Roll compilation. I'd seen them once at the On Broadway and heard some of their recordings, but they sounded like a big sloppy blur to me. Of all people, they had been chosen to be the first US release on the Crass-run Corpus Christi label. Crass had been looking for a band from the Bay Area that fit in with what they were doing.
"Why them and not, say, Social Unrest?" I asked.
Maati tossed her head dismissively. "Social Unrest are egomaniacs and they want too much money. Crucifix already have a rapport with Crass. They have the right kind of attitude." Her face suddenly lit up. "John Loder wants me to produce the album!"
"Wow." All I could think of was how cool it would be to see her name on an album cover. "You think you can get a good recording out of them?"
"You have to see them again. Wait till you hear the newest songs. And they're great people! They're just young boys, full of energy, but…really honest and respectful. Sothira was a refugee from Cambodia, did you know?"
"Really? So he actually knows a thing or two about war then, huh?"
"Exactly. He's not just another white suburban kid trying to look tough!" We were both getting fed up with the standard hardcore image: four muscular Caucasian boys barking orders at the world over a fast beat. It got monotonous very quickly.
"Well, if you say they're great, they probably are. I've always trusted your judgement."
"This is what I'm doing this for. You remember how we felt three years ago? First Reagan gets elected, then they shoot John Lennon a month later. It's not a coincidence."
"I certainly never thought so."
"Everything my generation worked for is being destroyed by these fuckers. I thought I was going to see something better than this in my thirties."
"Me too!" (I was 26 at the time.)
"And sure, it's great to have all these English people making a statement, but"…she flicked her wrist, indicating all the stacks of promos in the room. "Finally, here are some American kids. And they really rock. Maybe they can get across to the teenagers in this country now."
"They're that good, really?"
"Go see 'em again, Neo."
The hot, humid, smoke-filled interior of the Valencia Tool and Die was charged with energy. I was close to the stage, fending off the spiral of moshing kids behind me. I hardly noticed; I was so absorbed in the band. Sothira's raspy growl made it impossible to catch every word. (Comprehensibility was a common problem in thrashy punk bands with a message---some would attempt to remedy the situation by passing out lyric sheets at shows; others like Dave Dictor of MDC would actually recite a whole song as a spoken word piece and then the band would jump in and bash it out. Most just expected you to read their interviews, buy their records, and pay attention to what they had to say between songs. It was one of the unspoken punk rules: "Figure it out for yourself!") But certain phrases would pop out that made it clear where Crucifix were coming from: "These men! Bought by prejudice!" "Indochina! Lost forever!" "Youth! Violence! Youth! Don't! Fight!"
And the band was tight. Not quite stop-on-a-dime Minor Threat tight, but a unified roar that was fast and massive at the same time. Matt Borruso was an unbelievable bass player: strong and steady as a tree come to life, throwing out deep, monstrous riffs that grabbed you and pulled you into the current.
"This is our last song!" Sothira announced breathlessly. "It's called 'Stop Torture'!" The band crashed right in, faster and harder than ever, like "Ace Of Spades" played at triple speed, while Sothira ranted passionately, struggling to fit the syllables into the song. Suddenly they lurched into a slow, grinding Black Sabbath-like riff while Sothira railed, "US government-backed butchers! In the guise of friendly advisors! The friendly neighbor with a bloody trade!" then they returned to the fast verses and skidded off to a halt with one last shout of the title phrase. I was stunned and elated. Somebody finally got to the point and reduced the whole critique to a simple, perfect statement. Stop torture. Fuckin'-A. This is what rock and roll is supposed to do. Maati was right, as usual.
Maati and the band got to work, shopping around town for a studio and an engineer that could bring out the full force of their music. Crucifix's goal was to combine the speed and intensity of Discharge with the overwhelming, undeniable momentum of Motorhead. The winning candidate was a veteran English musician and recording wizard named Peter Miller, who had floated around the periphery of the music scene since the early '60s and had a passion for vintage rock & roll and vintage equipment. His own most recent self-released album was titled Pre-CBS, in honor of the guitars built by Fender before Leo Fender sold his company to CBS. A rock & roll "moldy fig" enamored with the technical minutiae of the past might have seemed an odd match for such a band, but Maati saw Peter as the perfect set of ears to see the project through.
The phone rang at Landers St. and I answered.
"Neo?" a familiar breathy female voice cooed.
"Maati! I haven't heard from you in a week! How are the sessions going?"
"I got so much to tell you. Why don't you come over right now? And bring a bottle of wine."
"Sounds good to me."
I arrived with a bottle of decent Valpolicella from around the corner and knocked.
"It's open." I entered to the sound of hyperfast instrumental thrash punk. "These are some basic tracks. That's all I've been able to bring home so far."
"It sounds even faster than they play live. How on earth is Sothira going to keep up with that?"
"Poor Sothira. He's a nervous wreck. He was supposed to finish the lyrics and he hasn't been able to. The others are getting really impatient, which obviously isn't helping."
"I didn't know there were songs that aren't finished. They seemed to have plenty of material when I saw them."
"Yeah, but they're not happy with all the songs. Now that Crass are involved…you know. Suddenly they're having more expectations put on them. But I think it'll be OK. I had them take a break and I took Sothira out for a walk. He needed some air. So I say to him, 'Look, you came here as a child from Cambodia. Your family escaped the Khmer Rouge and you lived here as refugees. But you haven't written about any of that yet. You have all these songs about war and prejudice and they're great, but maybe what's missing is your own story. All the people who come see your band don't have any idea of the things you've gone through. Why don't you try writing some songs about that? It might be what you're looking for.' And he was really listening. I think he'll come up with something good."
"'The personal is political', and all that?"
"Exactly." She paused. "This could be what I end up doing. I really like being in charge of a recording session. Being a record producer is a lot like being a teacher, and I always wanted to be a teacher." She focused her eyes on me. "You ever hear of the concept of 'right livelihood'?"
"You have to read more Buddhist books! You need to know about more things than just music! It means earning your living by doing things that are good for humanity. I want to make a positive impact on culture, and I like working with sincere young kids in bands. I can never decide what I want to do; maybe this is it! All I need is a good engineer. Peter is really cool and fun to work with."
She cranked up the volume on the cassette player. "Listen to that guitar sound. ADT really makes a difference. The sound is so big and full, they'll probably hate it at Maximum Rock & Roll," she grinned. "If it doesn't sound like shit, it's not real punk to them."
"It's gonna be an amazing record. I hope Sothira comes through with those lyrics. A well-told story is way better than a lecture."
Maati's pep talk was just what was needed. Sothira came back with "Another Mouth To Feed" ("from country to country/you're treated like shit/one camp to another/where do you fit?") and a rewrite of one of their most exciting live songs, a fast number with a catchy, lurching chorus, originally titled "Nobody's Fooled", now recast as "See Through Their Lies": "Slept under mosquito nets/we used kerosene lamps/I remember the discomfort/the air was so damp." On the front cover of the album was an image of a weary mother and a crying baby taken from Is Anyone Taking Any Notice?, a collection of horrifying pictures by the British war photojournalist Donald McCullin published in 1973. The book featured image after image of starving or disfigured children, dismembered corpses, desperate refugees, and other collateral damage from the ongoing global game where important men make important decisions and the human cost is hidden from the view of average citizens so as not to spoil their appetites over breakfast. The shot we chose was probably the mildest one of the lot.