Standard Bearers and Filmage
Personal desires and drives are too often a mystery to me. Often they are fired by some long forgotten exposure to an idea and too often the source is long forgotten. Sometimes they are born out of basic frustration and boredom. One bad or good idea that leads for a longing for something new and possibly better. That need to improve on someone else's creation or to bring back a tradition that some how has been lost. It's my experience that it almost always leads to DIY. Yes, that glorious and often amateur world of rolling up your selves and making a complete mess of it. Then repeat over and over until you get it right. At some point in my personal development someone put the idea in my head that if I didn't do it, who would? That person influenced me more directly and completely then I think they even would care to know or intended to. It made a standard-bearer out of me. BMX, Skateboarding, Punk Rock, Piercing, Web Development, etc.. Why Not? Whenever I've been presented with discouragement in my life or general dissatisfaction, I've called back to that idea and asked maybe the more important question, Why Not?
It got me thinking back to something that I've been dwelling on a lot of late, what I call the flag-bearer syndrome. Often it is the source of my inability to judge when the time has come to throw in the towel and call it a day. At the source of this is my attraction to lost causes and what could be defined as underground culture. I'm used to fighting an uphill battle and often my inclusion in these battles are brought on by the chance encounter with a person who's passion is infectious. A true believer and I always picture them as that crazed standard-bearer madly leading the troops up the hill into certain battle with the hope that if they drop the flag, someone will pick it up.
Now I've been both the fool following the flag and the fool waving the banner but I've always felt blessed for the experience. The thing is that often it was hard not to feel like Mother Jones. I remember hearing a story of her being at the Ludlow Mine strike and the news came that the state militia was coming. Upon hearing this she jumped to her feet and yelled, "Let's get the Sons a Bitches." and with determination began marching toward the mine and confronted the militia. It was until she was getting arrested that she realized that she was alone and the rest of the strikers hadn't followed her. That might have spoke a great deal toward her drive and passion, especially when you consider that she was 83 years of age but it is a lesson I've always took to heart.
You see with hindsight, we see Mother Jones as a hero but the reality is that often she was not welcomed and was considered by most as more of a pain in the ass than a help. She wasn't a team player and tended to just do the first thing that came into her mind. The outcome was often positive but I'm sure at the time she often came off to the average Joe as completely nuts. I've been there and I understand that reaction to will. I think the most common reaction I've gotten to a majority of my "Projects" was, "It'll never work." or more often as a life long citizen of Des Moines, "It will not work here." It can be hard because you see the potential there and all anyone else sees is all the possible obstacles in the way. There is often very little difference between a visionary and a failure but the point that most miss is that the failed visionary is often the person that created the road map of the success of those that came after. It took their blind and unwavering determination to that gave the successful visionary the map to their success. It took that one person to ask that question, "Why the hell not?" and then raise the flag and march out into the darkness.
Yes, I'm going to get to the film Filmage, The Descendents, All and more important Bill Stevenson. The Descendents didn't fit into the established LA Punk scene of the late 1970s. In fact, most of the scene that revolved around Hermosa Beach and the Church scene didn't including the Descendents fellow sceen bands Black Flag, the Minute Men and Redd Cross. Though they didn't know it they were developing the Hardcore DIY movement. In the evolution of modern music regardless of how it is marketed has some roots in the Hardcore scene of the 80s. I'm bias and I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes but you have to consider that Independent music was all but completely existent by mid 70s. If it wouldn't have been for the efforts of these standard-bearers there is little doubt that there would be any kind of independent music.
I think it is hard for people in this day and age to understand that the idea that you would make money playing punk or hardcore was not something that was going to happen. Chances are that, except for only a few local or underground shows, you wouldn't get on the radio. The music industry had become so entrenched and controlled that they were not interested in anything that might upset the status quo. Even in Punk there was a first generation that was interested in controlling access to their scene. So, here is this group of outsider bands that didn't dress punk, sounded different and challenged the idea of what punk was.
Even the first generation of Punk tended to follow in line with the idea that they would move out of the Indy club to the established club. Next would come the record contract and then the world. For some like the Dickies and X, that did happen though they would never see the success or support they had hoped for. So, along comes these bands that don't fit. They dress like average Joes and sound completely different. None of the established clubs in Hollywood would book them and none of the labels were interested in put out their record. So, what do you do? You start your own thing and follow it to the end. Can't get a show? Promote your own. Can't get a label to release your music? Start your own label and release the record yourself. Can't get a booking agent? You book your own tour.
The thing that stands out about this group of bands is they looked like average guys, In fact, they looked like geeks and nerds. What was revolutionary about it is unlike earlier punk where fashion was as important as the music which was in part the influence of the art scene, it didn't seem to matter at all to these bands. They were the kind of guys that you would be shocked to find out they were in a band at all. In fact no thought seems to have been put toward image at all, which put all the focus on the music and made it clear that anyone could be a part of it. There were no clothes to buy, no look to get right, just show up.
The first period of the Descendents would be short lived, as the lead singer Milo would leave the band to go to college. The drummer Bill Stevenson would hop in the van with Black Flag and help to blaze the trail of underground touring. Doing will over 200 shows a year, Black Flag would not only open up new markets but create them. Their schedule was simple, tour, record an album, tour, tour, record an album and then tour and tour and tour. When Bill mentioned to Milo that he had some songs that didn't fit Black Flag, the two reformed the Descendents, Bill left Black Flag and they began a schedule in much the same style of Black Flag. When Milo decided to leave to continue his studies and passion science, Bill continued by forming All.
I have to admit that I never really got All. In fact, I have to also admit that I'm not a huge fan of a majority of the music between their first LP Milo Goes to College and their come back Everything Sucks. The thing is that I respected them and had the chance to see them a couple of times. When a majority of bands had broken up or changed their musical style, All still toured and progressed naturally in their style. Through a number of member changes Bill charged away. Not for the money or security but for the music and a belief that it was important. The reality is that there was very little reward for all the work but the truth is that he never considered this a bad thing or for that matter important. He was doing what he was meant to do and that was all that mattered.
The bands documentary does a much better job of telling their story than I can but I took one thing away from it. The last five years I've slowed down on my involvement in music. In the past, I often found myself in the right place or the right time where some new challenge happened by and maybe I got a little too used to that. When in the past I would have searched for it, I just seem to get to a point where I waited for it to come to me. Sure I was the Standard-bearer for live music and punk rock but I picked it up when someone else dropped it and there have been a number of people that have picked it up since I set it down. I had other things that interested me at the time and I needed a rest. It wasn't so much being burned out as much as becoming jaded and feeling less and less pressure that if I didn't do it, no one would. It felt safe to walk away.
It's been a strange adjustment and weekly I feel like something is missing but I'm really completely unsure what that thing is. I just know something isn't alright. Recently, I've had a number of conversations with different people that have asked me, "Why haven't you done _____ or stated ______." I could list a number of reasons but the reality is have no clear idea. The thing that got me thinking about all this is this documentary and Bill's story. He had gotten to a point where he no longer was driven to do music or much of anything. He began putting on weight, rarely left the house or went to the studio. It would take nearly dying to change this. Now it wasn't the near death experience that brought back the old Bill. It was the removal of the brain tumor that has been growing in him for years that did.
Now, I'm pretty sure I don't have a brain tumor but how he explained hit home. He said something to the degree, that he acclimated to it and the changes in his personality by explaining it away. He explained it to himself by telling himself this is how an old person's head felt. That it was just a part of getting old. It hit home because I've found myself limiting myself on a regular bases with the idea that this is just simply how it is. To be honest, it's been my reasoning for a great number of things over the last few years. In part because two people that would have slapped me out of it are no longer around. In a large way they were both standard-bearers to me. Lifting off this stink of inactivity will not be easy but if Bill Stevenson can over come what he has there is no excuse for me to sit on my ass any longer. Now it's just finding the right standard.
Sorry, reader as always I took the long way around the barn and thanks for baring with me. You should really watch the documentary even if you are not a fan. It's the story of the band that shouldn't have been. was always an underdog, saw little finical success but effected so many lives. However, more important than anything made the world a better place.