Written by: Kyle Canyon
Legs McNeil gave Punk its name, when in 1976 he re-appropriated “punk rock” a term that Creem Magazine had been calling an emerging musical style to just Punk.
Before that Punk was slung around as a pejorative for young kids with a propensity for stealing pies off of windowsills and other acts of petty vandalism. McNeil published fifteen issues of a magazine under the moniker Punk, and the critics and consumers largely paid no attention. Until about twenty years ago when McNeil along with the help of some friends published “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” The book was met with great acclaim and sparked a re-interest in the hive mind of popular culture for this movement that McNeil called Punk. Institutions that once scoffed at Punk started embracing it. The 2013 Met Gala’s theme was Punk, Newark airport features a “recreation” of C.B.G.B.’s after the original was shut down and replaced by a John Varvatos, and even museums are starting to feature retrospectives for Punk bands. One example of this is the Grammy Museum’s retrospective for X, creatively titled, X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles.
Maybe this embrace is exactly what McNeil wanted when he titled his book “Please Kill Me” because the popular embrace of an anti populous movement can only mean the death of said movement.
So what do we take this embrace to mean? After 40 years X is being honored by the Grammys. Not with an actual Grammy—that honor has always been reserved for chart topping artists. Instead X is being honored with an exhibit at the Grammy Museum; a four story interactive museum dedicated to the glitz and glamor of the music industry in the heart of Los Angeles’ budding consumer shitscape. On display until spring 2018, tourists and locals alike have plenty of time to gaze at the relics of L.A’s once great Punk band. The title “once great” should now be used to differentiate classic Punk X from the Trump supporting, Sandy Hook-denying, keyboard conspiracists that some of the members of X are now. Which makes one question how out of touch you would have to be to give a band like this space in this political climate. The answer is a resounding, “as out of touch as the Grammys have always been.”
The first thing you see as you enter the exhibit through the gift shop is a timeline of “important” Punk events as well as social and political happenings around the age of Punk. However viewers might find themselves wondering why it was necessary that they needed to know that The Eagles released Their Greatest Hits on February 17, 1976 or that Superman: The Movie premiered on December 10, No doubt it is a reminder that to The Grammys success = units sold. Or… it puts into context for the not so Punk initiated what was going on outside of Hotel California and The Fortress of Solitude.
As you make your way into the exhibit you see five cases–one for each of the four band members, filled with personal belongings and mementos of their choosing and the fifth dedicated to their current accolades. Vocalist Exene Cervenka’s case is filled with lyric notebooks, collages, band pins, and dresses, including her wedding dress worn at her ceremony to bassist and vocalist John Doe. Doe’s case has some live pictures, clothing and two basses that were used on most of X’s recordings. Drummer DJ Bonebreak’s has clothing, road worn drum cases, and a pair of his personal drumsticks—portrayed in a rather obvious X pattern. Guitarist Billy Zoom’s case has articles of clothing and promotional photos as well has his signature silver glitter Gretsch guitar that he has played since the beginning of X.
The fifth case contains current items including personalized Dodger’s jerseys for the members, given to them when Doe sung the national anthem and Cervenka threw the first pitch at a game, and a plaque commemorating October 11th as X Day in Los Angeles. The fifth case feels awkward and out of place. Like its only reason for being there is to prove contemporary relevance, the only problem is X is far from relevant–they haven’t put out an album since 1993, and their last good album came out in 1983. Seeing original lyric notebooks and the instruments that were used on their great early recordings is cool, but customized baseball jerseys and basically meaningless city documents etched with fancy calligraphy should be of little interest. But for an institution like the Grammys, recognition is all that matters and the fifth case justifies X’s relevance in the eyes of the Grammy Museum.
The walls of the exhibit feature photos of the band throughout their career as well as flyers from shows that they played and along with opening acts who have gone on to eclipse them; most notably Red Hot Chili Peppers. There’s wall text explaining the importance of flyers and DIY promotion for early Punk bands, and a map of the important venues in L.A’s Punk scene. Finally for the vocally inclined, there’s an isolation booth where you can record your own vocals to a preselected sampling of X’s songs.
X: 40 Years of Punk in Los Angeles succeeds at bringing together a personal collection of the band member’s artifacts, and for X super fans it’s a fun exhibit to nerd out on. But you cannot escape the inauthenticity of the rest of the show and the utter irony of a band that has never won a Grammy –and though Doe was nominated for a “Best Spoken Word” album, the band itself has never been nominated for one— being honored by The Grammys. Why have the Grammys decided to latch onto bands and movements that they shunned in the first place? The exhibit before X was centered on The Ramones and the museum did an even worse job at exploring their importance. Most of the articles on display for that exhibit seemed to have been purchased from Hot Topic or Guitar Center and had no historical significance.
And the main feature of that show was that you could remix “Blitzkrieg Bop” into a more palatable popular genre. (Punk stuff ain’t so bad, if you make the drums electronic, slow down the guitars, make the bass more booming, and make the lyrics more sing along-y”…).
Maybe because one of X’s biggest hits is “Los Angeles” the Grammys thought doing an X exhibit could give them some L.A. street cred. Although in lieu of the recent political leanings of X members, what once passed as tongue-in-cheek lyrics featuring racial stereotyping in “Los Angeles” now feel pointedly more racist. Once the red ball caps go on, and the conspiracy theory videos go up, lines like “she started to hate every nigger and jew…” can no longer be excused. But expecting the Grammys to be aware of that would be giving them much more credit then they deserve, and after two trips to two different exhibits, its clear that they wont be getting it right any time soon.
Maybe we should have listened to Legs McNeil 20 years ago when he wrote “Please Kill Me.”
Maybe it wasn’t an invitation for a rekindling of interest in Punk after all but instead a eulogy for it.