Punk snot dead

Andrew Hamlin

January 26, 2016

Maire M. Masco, publisher of Seattle's 1981 punk rock newspaper Desperate Times, had to consult her own copy to define “donut-holer” — an epithet from the first issue and a few more down the line. Masco for the record:

“At 1st and Pike, the entrance to the Pike Place Market, was a notorious donut shop. The place was open 24 hours a day and particularly after dark, was full of drunks, derelicts and street people. A ‘donut-holer’ was a homeless kid who hung out at the Donut Shop. They were considered somewhat dangerous because they dealt drugs and did tricks and were prone to thievery.”

“Heavy metal kids,” adds arch-punk/goth/queen/horror scribe Wilum Pugmire (spelling it “Pugmyr” then), “who hung out at the donut shop adjacent to the Showbox, who would often attack and beat up punx [sic] that were on their way to a punk show.”

Masco and friends shared the Desperate Times house on 9th Avenue Northeast in the U District, near the heavily-ignored-by-punks Rainbow Tavern (“That was a ‘straight’ club as far as we were concerned”). It was a punk rock house but the paper’s staff evinced with print, not guitars, drums, and forced vocal folds.

“Rock music,” recalls Masco in her introduction to her anthology Desperate Times: The Summer Of 1981, “was reviewed in the Seattle P-I, the Seattle Times, the Seattle Weekly, the Seattle Sun, the Rocket and that was pretty much it. None of these papers reviewed ‘punk’ music. We considered ourselves the only newspaper that covered punk music and punk culture.”

“P-I” was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city's other daily, two years from being folded into the Seattle Times, twenty-eight years from folding its print edition. The Rocket, spun off from the Seattle Sun and nineteen years from its own demise, covered music for most musos and fans — but it took flak from punks for insufficient punkness (and local music fans for too much ink to big-name touring acts). The Seattle Weekly was for yuppies—still an alien vocabulary word. The Stranger was ten years off.

Seattle’s version of the "Monopoly" board designated "Boeing" and "Weyerhaeuser" the most expensive properties. Microsoft was six years old, fairly fresh from its 1979 move, New Mexico to Bellevue. Amazon was thirteen years in the future. Jeff Bezos was eighteen years old; shortly before Desperate Times' nativity, he graduated valedictorian of his high school class in Miami. Seattle's 1980 urban population: 1.607 million. (Today that's 3.671 plus change.)

Typewriter-and-rubber-cement fanzines fanzines or 'zines, traveled hand-to-hand and/or off stacks in record shops. Pugmire launched Punk Lust, his passionate public confessional, in April 1981. Desperate Times proclaimed itself a proper newspaper, albeit one produced, Masco confesses, using "the lowest grade pulp paper and leftover ink...The printers, bless their hearts, did their best, but frankly we gave them the most horrible paste-ups imaginable."

Still, the staff, brandishing paste-ups, pasted-in photos, letters to the editor (pump-primed from a quiz in the first issue), headlines, sections, and reports phoned in from other cities, declared their work a newspaper, from issue #1 dated July 8 of '81. No disrespect to 'zines. Just a conceptual cut above.

“Communication in general was also obviously slower…” elaborates Masco. “…young people did not have their own phones. Our idea of ‘texting’ was leaving graffiti messages in the bus stops and bathrooms we frequented.” People hung around in tedium awaiting the next communique, the next show, the next explosion.

And communication could not keep up with news. Venues thrived and wither almost as fast as bands — notably the Gorilla Room, closed on what Desperate Times considered rigged liquor license violations, and could not be revived despite a big benefit show to re-open it (details from Pugmire in issue #5). A Liquor Control Board rife with blue laws still held sway over the club scene and the club scene was the music scene; all-ages shows made occasional curiosities. (The F@rtz, a legendary hardcore band whose four members adopted the last name "Fart," once got paid in beer. But that was okay with them.)

"Seattle never had a reputation in the punk and new wave scene,” The Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra curtly told Masco and Co. for issue #2. We can laugh about that now; back then he'd pressed a shameful nerve. To kick, the Seattle scene needed to be kicked, chest-compressed sometimes mouth-to-mouthed, or it would flatline. Desperate Times rolled out an ambulance, a summoning siren and a bullhorn, or at least the megaphone, to donut-holer dodgers looking for a lifeline and the shape of community. A colony.

Like punks in bands and 'zines, they sweltered to be heard. Like hippies (who share more with punks than either side cares to cop), they railed easily against all they condemned in culture. What they wanted after condemnation and eradication…aye, there's the dry rub.

"Although we fashionably hated big business, we secret desired to be rich, to have freedom from money and the constant worry of paying the rent or purchasing food"

“We were easily bored and often confused,” confesses Masco. “We were creative, inventive, sometimes even gifted, but mostly self-centered, with a political objective that even to this day I can’t define.” (Hippies again.) “Although we fashionably hated big business, we secret desired to be rich, to have freedom from money and the constant worry of paying the rent or purchasing food.” (Sounds perfectly bourgeoisie to me — how did those three syllables wax syphilitic anyhow?)

Selling point from the anthology’s back cover: Mark McLaughlin, better known as Mark Arm, from issue #2 condemning Mr. Epp and the Calculations as “pure grunge!” Flashpoint for the firestorm! Except, Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden beat McLaughlin to the punch by four years when they dismissed KISS as “recycled heavy metal grunge” in their Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock (Revised Ed.) published 1977.

Masco admits the term existed before. Its divine comedy lies in McLaughlin/Arm slagging his own band — which didn’t formally exist yet. From this exchange, he manifested Mr. Epp.

If you know grunge, you know the rest. But I still grin at this Bellevue kid reading his fake band name in print. Imagining what else he might make.

The anthology renders these Times in a font size unkind to middle-aged eyeballs. I bought a magnifying glass and turned on four lights. Tiny print sparks inadvertent gnosis. “The crown was clotted around the stage,” reports someone called “Captive” on John Cale at the Showbox (donut-holers dodged). Five passes later I figure that “n” in “crown” was probably supposed to be a “d.”

New Wave? Nominally, hate, spit, curse, stomp to concrete. Throw it to the donut-holers. Diana Darzin taking on Plasmatics for issue #1: “This country will always buy hyped up laugh-all-the-way-to-the-bank performers over real talent, so it might as well be [Plasmatics singer] Wendy [O. Williams].” Erica from across that same spread, scoffs off the Vapors as “trying to sound like the Jam, but failing miserably…these guys were really depressing me…”

…Except Masco and Pugmire confess they each bought DEVO as one of their first punk records. Pugmire bought his alongside the Dead Kennedys, he remembers, and “I also got Shaun Cassidy's Wasp album, thinking it was punk rock…”

Wilum never stopped loving disco, but he got turned around on Shaun Cassidy fast. He shaved his head and wore a Dead Kennedys anti-Nazi armband. Gay men on Capitol Hill mocked him. Pedestrians everywhere took him for an actual Nazi. Punks dug his look but “had a bit of a problem with how absolutely queer I was. So I felt like an outsider in both worlds, until doing ‘Punk Lust’ kind of made me a local punk ‘hero.’"

No, gay was not good in early punk. Bowie-esque bisexuality, perhaps, had you the cheekbones, hair, all that “Fashion.” But Wilum could only be who he was.

Masco warned the world “we are not music critics,” but they got off a good one here and there. Dennis White consigns a Zounds single to “the anus of time” adding “(sorry)” after and finishing how he doesn’t know what the hell the band is up to but “sounds like they don’t either. Guess what? I like it.” (Many critics wouldn’t confess confusion.)

They wrote very much in the present tense, so Clark Humphrey muses in issue #2 how if Duran Duran “could come up with such a great band name, they might one day have some musical ideas.” They played pranks, so a fictional band called The Hertz showed up in issue #2 and drew some local club interest. They didn’t believe wholeheartedly in self-destruction, so up pops Captive plugging earplugs — “if you’re too old to die young anymore, you might be well on your way to dying deaf.”

Gregor Gayden, who sang for the Telepaths and diagnosed Bauhaus with "a fascination with the things on the dark side of life" (“goth” wasn’t common currency), died in 2008. Masco’s outlived at least a few of her friends. “Heroin is really bad for you,” she sums up. “So is alcohol. So is getting old. Take your vitamins and try, try, try moderation. RIP.”

Some typewriter-and-rubber-cement fanzines don’t last six issues. Desperate Times, with layout flats, with photos, with “basically only our friends” buying ads, a deliveryman who didn’t have money for gas, a publisher who rode (and sometimes delivered papers from) the 48 bus, pumped out five between July and September 1981, took a month off, caught a pulse long enough to deliver in October, then flatlined.

It wasn’t fun anymore. “But it was a good summer,” Masco concludes.

The Rocket took up some slack; Masco met her partner, graphic designer Art Chantry, there. So did Dawn Anderson's Backfire and Backlash; and Wendi Dunlap's Yeah magazine. In 1991 Nirvana (who just might have been punk) broke, forcing the mainstream’s hand to Cobain’s man-kissing and cheerleader drag. Pugmire Punk Lusting. But those Desperate newspaper aspirations of style, scope, format, fell silent.

Thirty-four years later Mark McLaughlin is still Mark Arm, Mudhoney still Mudhoney, although a CD compilation of Mr. Epp and the Calculations made the rounds some years back. Clark Humphrey has several books in print, including a compendium on grunge (revision in progress), although he often stares through people trying to talk with him. Masco concedes anything in her paper would be just a click away. She doesn't have to like it. "Video killed the radio star, and digital killed everything else."

Could something like these Times exist today? Tesco Vee, musician and co-founder of the Touch & Go ‘zine which grew into a record label, chops out the party line: “The Web will see to it that [any] idea is co-opted, bastardized, and rendered passe within 24 hours.”

Still, I've heard through the grapevine that "one or two" print punk rock 'zines exist on what's left of Capitol Hill. I wish I knew more.

A certain music editor at a certain prominent Seattle publication turned down Desperate Times coverage, emailing “I just don’t want to rely too heavily on nostalgia vibes.”

And I wanted to discuss the difference between nostalgia and history. But I bit my fingers.

I took the anthology to my book club downtown. One lady wanted to know if the band called The Enemy was the one her sister-in-law sang for. I told I thought Seattle only had one band called The Enemy with a female singer. She made a note to tell her sister-in-law.

A few days before I bought frozen yogurt from Carson at the Safeway. He’s mentioned the Dead Kennedys so I recited Jello Biafra's crack on Seattle. Carson didn't wait an instant.

“You remember Romeo Void [from San Francisco] when they played WREX [later the Vogue]?" I don't, but I let him roll. “They were a half-hour late and the crowd was just waiting like a crowd at Benaroya. Completely quiet. So the bass player came out and started cursing them..."

“I went down there,” says Carson, remembering WREX, remembering 1980, when he landed in town. Joining 1.607 million.

“I had nowhere else to go.”

Books in this review:
  • Desperate Times
    by Maire M. Masco
    Fluke Press
    May 31, 2015
    172 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Andrew Hamlin was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, USA, where he resides today. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly and his work has appeared in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone Online, Seattle Times, San Diego Reader, Goldmine, Seattle Weekly, The SunBreak, and other publications.

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