New on Video: Decades of Despair & Decadence in The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection

I'm not a big punk rock fan. I like it on a song-by-song basis, and I respect the original punk scene for having birthed the goth aesthetic which informs my sartorial elegance to this day — that is, I look good in black clothing with dark eyeliner — but I've never identified with/as or been inspired by punk in any way. But I've always admired the work of Penelope Spheeris, particularly her Decline of Western Civilization documentary trilogy, and Shout! Factory is releasing the entire series in a Blu-ray box set on June 30.


In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman nailed my feelings on the subject:

'I hate punk rock.

Actually, that's not true; I kind of like punk rock, sometimes. What I hate are people who *love* punk rock. There has never been a genre of anything that has made more people confused about what art is capable of doing, and they all refuse to shut up about it.

A few years ago, one of my favorite humans of all time died from bone cancer. A few hours after the funeral, I found myself in a conversation with someone who was as depressed as I was and almost as drunk. But—in order to avoid talking about our friend, probably—we started talking about pop music, and this guy kept saying, “Punk rock saved my life.” He said it like four times in ten minutes. “When I was in high school.” he insisted, “punk totally saved my life. If not for that music, I wouldn't be here today. Punk rock saved my life, man.”

I have heard those exact words said thousands of times by hundreds of people, and none of them are ever joking. They exist in a culture of certainty. They want to believe what they are saying so much. They want to believe that this sentiment is literally true. And all I could do while I listened to this dude tell me how punk rock saved his life was think, Wow. Why did my friend waste all that time going to chemotherapy? I guess we should have just played him a bunch of shitty Black Flag records.'

— Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, p. 165

Yep. My annoyance with it these days mostly comes from middle-aged white guys who cling to it as a sign that they haven't lost whatever sense of youthful rebellion they desperately want us to believe they once possessed. And they have an unfortunate tendency to inject it into any discussion of music, just so we know that they're totes punk; for example, last July on my Radio Valencia show Nose Hair Lint Gland, I did a show that was all about Japanese pop culture in anticipation of the upcoming J-POP Summit Festival, with an emphasis on Miku Hatsune. (Hello, people who will only see this because they have Google Alerts for Miku set up! I'm not going to say that her hometown is Tokyo, 'cause I learned my lesson last time.) And, wouldn't you know, on that episode's Facebook page, a middle-aged white guy felt that need to chime in let us know that he prefers J-PUNK to J-POP, because of course he does. And another middle-aged white guy agreed with him “1,000%.”

For those who are interested, here's the Miku-heavy episode in question. It's good stuff, if'n I do say so myself as a middle-aged white woman. I'll also say that one of my favorite punk rockers was actually Link Wray, who pretty much invented guitar distortion back in 1958 with “Rumble,” and forty years later embraced all that he'd wrought:

All that said, I love Penelope Spheeris's Decline films. Released in 1981, the first film is an in-depth look at the Los Angeles punk scene of 1979/1980, with interviews and performances footage including but not limited to X, a pre-Rollins Black Flag, John Belushi's favorite band Fear, Germs, and others.

My personal favorite, and for years the only one of three that was remotely available, is 1988's The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which goes deep into the L.A. metal scene from 1986 to 1988.

In her commentary with London frontman Nadir D'Priest, Ms. Spheeris discuss the lengths fans would go to get a copy of this film after its lone VHS run went out of print; I was one of those fans who bought a bootleg copy on eBay many moons ago, so I'm super-excited to have it all shiny-looking now. The most famous scene from The Metal Years, of course, is the guy from W.A.S.P. being very very very drunk in a pool next to his mother.

Some laugh at the movie, some with; Mrs. Spheeris and Mr. D'Priest are very much in the latter camp, as am I, particularly when it comes to the optimism of the metal kids you've never heard of, though she does point out that “making it” and “being happy” are by no means the same thing.

Hells yeah. Their answer to “What if you don't make it?” is the same as mine, to this very day.

Focusing less on musicians and more on homeless kids and gutterpunks in L.A., and shot after Ms. Spheeris had an unexpected degree of mainstream success with Wayne's World, 1998's The Decline of Western Civilization Part III wasn't released so much as it picked the lock and broke out.

The picture never got a proper theatrical or video release, instead playing festivals and the occasional repertory house. How difficult was it to see, and how little attention did it get at the time? In the included booklet, Shout! Factory quotes extensively from Heather Wisner's contemporaneous SF Weekly review of the picture's weeklong run at the Red Vic. It's a very well-written review from back when the paper actually had standards for such things, but speaking from experience, nothing says “lack of options” quite like quoting from the Weekly.

The whole set is brimming with extras, including a fourth disc with over an hour of cut footage from The Metal Years. Whether punk saved your life or not, it's all good stuff.

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