‘We were clueless, we didn't know what we were doing,… We were the blinds leading the blinds’ says Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris at one point in the film.
‘Now, we are the old school punks, but there was no school at the time, we wanted to burn the school!’ says Dead Kennedys'Jello Biafra later.
‘We Were Feared’, the documentary directed by Jonathan W.C. Mills about the famous club, the Cuckoo’s Nest on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa, is not another movie about punk rock but rather focuses on this time capsule from the late 70s to the early 80s, the golden period of hardcore punk in Southern California when the club was a punk rock haven.
The movie is built around old and recent interviews of many punk rockers, with the likes of Mike Roche (TSOL), Keith Morris (Circle Jerks), Joe Escalante (the Vandals), Henry Rollins and Chuck Dukowsky (Black Flag), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Jon Decker, skateboarder Steve Olson, Casey Royer (Social Distortion), Steve Soto (The Adolescents) and many others, sharing their thoughts or memories about this crazy period, which saw the birth of hardcore punk in Orange County, something they picked up from skaters and surfers, and from people with ‘no hope and no interest’. Many of them were entering the club with fake IDs, being underage, with a do-what-you-want mentality and a will ‘to blow the boring 70s music out of the window’.
But the central figure in the movie is of course Jerry Roach, the club owner and a sort of father figure, as his club hosted live shows by tons of punk acts, X, 999, the Go-Gos, the Ramones, Red Cross, Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Circle Jerks, the Blasters, the New York Dolls and even Iggy Pop, as well as local talent like D.I., TSOL, the Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange and the Vandals. Jerry, who was regarded as ‘a dick’ at the time by the punk rockers, thinking he was not paying them enough money, is now recognized as a hero, seeing the love fest that ends the movie. ‘Jerry made history big time’ as someone said during the Q&A, and his club helped ignite the punk scene in Southern California, with its ‘very sexy scene’, its high stage and its clouds-in-blue-sky-kind-of-hippie background. The club is even claimed to have invented the slam dance, and seen the birth of moshing, Jim (Trash) Decker declaring that he never invented it, but that ‘the kids picked up my style’.
The movie is rich in grainy 16 mm footage of bands performing, from a Ramones show on November 1980 – with a spoiled customer declaring ’I was sick seeing the Ramones, I had seen them like 6 times!’ – to a Circle Jerks show in 1979, and many others by Social Distortion, Iggy Pop, and the TSOL heroes, ‘Everywhere TSOL was, blood follows’ as Rollins is saying at one point.
The parking lot of the club, where punk rockers were offered drugs and often engaged in drinking fights, was a big part of the scene, as the Cuckoo’s Nest shared the parking lot with a ‘redneck’ bar, populated by ‘cowboys’, some ‘well-fed, very able guys’ as Rollins put it, who soon became the enemy, armed with baseball bats and even more dangerous weapons. And from this point, mayhem arose, violence escalated, the police became more and more present, and the Vandals’ friend, Pat Brown even tried to kill a cop
The outside violence was just paralleling the ‘fake’ athletic violence inside the club, a sort of release, like football out of the field, which could turn really badly, and gave the label 'hardcore' to the scene. It was some stupid violence, with lots of dangerous stage diving and moshing, which gave the bad reputation to punk, as if the music only was about violence and beaten up people. Rollins remembers about his fear, being just happy that these people were not turning their violence towards him, just seemingly saying,‘Ok we are going to beat up each other, and you are the soundtrack’.
At this point, everyone in the scene was tired of violence, and it became 'a threat' as Dukowsky said. The club was witnessing a real youth movement, the police did not understand what was going on, but ‘the police always win’ as Morris said.
The Cuckoos nest was closed down, and despite Roach’s efforts to appeal to the Constitutional Court and to reopen the club on May day with Black Flag and TSOL, it was over, 25 police cars showed up and mass arrests followed.
A funny moment in the movie is a juxtaposition of Rollins’ declaration that they knew what they were doing and Biafra declaring they basically paved the way for the OC sound, with the later emergence of bands like Bad Religion, Offspring and Greenday, and Keith Morris, with his usual bitter tone and mordant irony yelling ‘We were clueless, and people who said the contrary ‘are full of shit!’
The room of the Arclight theater was full of punk rockers, and even Gary Tovar, founder of concert promoter and organizer Goldenvoice, was present.
During the too short Q&A that followed the screening, the panel with Casey Royer, Henry Rollins, Jerry Roach, filmmaker York Shackleton and director Jonathan W.C. Mills reflected on the legacy of all this. It was the first time that a movement was challenging the authority and the police, and that they could articulate their believes in society, and it was also life changing, the movie really providing a better understanding of what punks went through: the scary barbarous shows with people at the peak of their physical shape, the fights and the punk image, ‘Outside we were freaks, we were fags, with no jobs, constantly repressed by the police'.
But it was an intense, magical, even legendary time: ‘If I can survive this, I can survive anything’ said Rollins during the Q&A, talking about the brutality of the shows. And the best thing? It ended up just before it got boring.
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