Friday, March 24, 2006

Fashion and LA Punk, 1976-1980

Earlier this week I received an email inquiry from Natasha Perry. She is writing about early punk fashion and wondered how much fashion -- British punk fashion in particular -- played a part in the LA punk scene. This is my reply.

Oh, if anyone out there knows how to do these blogs so it's just a few lines, and a link to read more, lemme know!

I prefer formatting, making text bold and/or italic for easy reading. Blogger.com often won't allow me to post a formatted blog, using THEIR formatting tools and won't answer their emails regarding this issue. The work-around is to re-format it, when/if that works. Like I have time to waste doing that again and again!

I'll let you know the end: we laughed at British punk fashion, made our own, but of course loved the music and musicians. Not for nothing did the Go-Go's write "London Boys." We ALL got it on with those lads from across the pond! But we didn't wear their dark heavy clothes in sunny LA!

Questions for Jenny Lens

1) What attracted you to the punk scene in the first place?
A photo, a simple snapshot of an androgynous woman wearing a man’s jacket and long tie (rare during end of 1975), holding a small book and reading/yelling out poetry. I thought any rocker who knows the French Symbolist Artaud has my attention. The moment I heard “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine, my sins belong to me! They’re my own!” at the very beginning of her "Horses" LP, I was hooked. I read everything I could, which was minimal in those days, saw Patti Smith in January 1976 and that was that.

I read about the Ramones, got their LP the day it came out (spring, 1976 -- online sources list April. LP: “long playing record,” no CDs then), saw them at LA’s Roxy August 11, 1976, grabbed my camera, took photos of Dee Dee on August 12, cos he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, and I used to study old movie stills. I met them that night, followed them around and had the time of my life!

ONLY LATER did the fashion have an impact. Cos at that time, it was surfer bell bottoms, English disco velvet satin that was dying out -- there was nothing. But that would rapidly change by the beginning of 1977. Initially the MUSIC and the LYRICS and the ENERGY were the impetus for all of us. Fashion only affected a few creative souls in the midst of it all.

But really, why does one abandon 8 years of college, graduate degrees, the good daughter, the good student whom few knew even loved rock, change one’s whole life, move into West Hollywood, and live for rock? Who can explain that? It’s magic. It’s like falling in love and following your beloved to the ends of the world.

2) How did you get involved?
January 30 or so, 1976 – the night Iggy visited Patti and a radio station broadcast it. “Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night.” It’s out there, I have a tape from the radio and a LP. It’s gotta be on CD. That was the early show, I stood in the cold air for the second show. Then I saw them: the entourages, the groupies, the press, aka industry people. I didn’t know any of that. I said to myself: “I have to be part of this scene. [I had never gone to a small club to see rock, only Phil Ochs at the Troubadour], but I can’t sing, I’m too fat to be a groupie (and wouldn’t want to be that), I can’t write songs or play music. But somehow, I’m going to be part of this.” I couldn’t see Patti by the time I got in.

Next time she was in town, I was shooting her, on and off-stage, from San Diego to the Bay area (November, 1976). Some dreams do come true. Be careful what you wish for! I had no idea what I was doing, but I was having so much fun, taking so many cool photos. I’ve waited a really long time to share a few of them. I’m so glad people enjoy my photos and stories, cos I sure was involved and working my butt off (then and now) to document it. I also yapped on and on to every record company publicist, managers, and press. I promoted the scene. For that, most “industry” types, performers, and other photographers thought I was outta my mind. And when I started wearing wild makeup and clothes, with my already wild curly hair, later and now, magenta, well they all thought me very strange!

3) As a photographer, do you think the fashion element gave punk more of a presence? Or was the music and attitude enough?
Punk HAD no presence then, fashion even less. If that were true, wouldn’t LA be remembered in a different light? We were a blip on the radar. You think it was a good thing what Steve Jones said on the Bill Grundy show? Have you heard former Ramones manager, Danny Fields, in “End of the Century?” He relates the Ramones were going to finally get support from their record company, with record store prominent positioning and radio air-play. It was pulled after England made such a big deal outta what happened on your TV.

You think fashion mattered? People didn’t want to know about punk, that’s what gave us so much freedom and frustration.

Los Angeles is a totally different animal, with different mind-sets than New York or England. I truly think we are more like our sister city San Francisco more than the other cities. Political, more homosexuals involved. Tom Robinson Band was the only Brit punk band that was “Glad to be Gay.” It’s just a fact of life in LA and especially SF. It’s warm in LA, and SF more moderate than NY or England. Gas prices so cheap in those days, traffic so minimal, it was nothing to drive or fly readily back and forth.

LA was totally and absolutely about the MUSIC FIRST, SECOND and THIRD. I'll be the devil's advocate, more than likely. That's because I'm brutally honest and punk was not about fashion or even attitude at first. Music reflected the frustration of our life as well as the joys.

Attitude because people “beat on us cos we really got the beat” (X’s “We’re Desperate). We expressed frustrations, dreams, politics, in similar terms as others, aged from their teens to late ‘20’s – a rather large age group for a small cultural revolution – in Los Angeles, New York, England, San Francisco and a few other pockets.

Most people eventually moved to NY or LA if American. Many write online their scene was over-looked during those eras, but if you wanted to be radical and make a dent, you were in those cities. Sorry, but some city that rains or snows or is spread way out is gonna have a hard time supporting a growing art/fashion scene.

The fashion in LA was a whole different animal too. We were the “Entertainment Capital of the World.” Studios were selling off clothes, socialites always discard clothes for the latest trend. There were no resale stores or actresses wearing vintage clothes. My late ‘70’s photos show the ‘60’s at their brightest and wildest! I was about 8 to 10 years older than most of the LA people I hung with/shot. From childhood on, I studied art, music and fashion history because I was/am obsessed with the visual arts.

I lived through the Mod ‘60’s, inspired by those moppets from across the pond: the British Invasion! John Lennon cap worn by future Go-Go Belinda, early August, 1977. Onstage at the Whisky, March 5, 1978: Mary Quant orange slicker and white Lennon cap -- you can’t get more Brit/NY ‘60’s than that! (Alice Bag), wild Pucci-inspired dresses (Sheila Edwards, but Trudie with beehive hairdo), Connie Clarksville with similar makeup (oh those racoon eyes! And B52’s hair-do BEFORE we were aware of the band) but in an Op Art ensemble of black and white with large polka dots. OP Art was THE American art from New York in the late 50’s to early 1970’s (Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol, et al).

We grew up on film noir, the distinctly American black, cynical, pessimistic, foreboding black and white films after WW2 and into the McCarthy witch-hunts. Many were too young and unaware of the political and social sub-texts in these movies. Others, like X, Screamers, Weirdos, Dils were charged with noir and cultural references. NY’s Blondie and the Ramones sang about the purely American culture that we yanks grew up on.

“She [Debbie Harry] contributed to the vogue of the thrift-shop look as much as anyone, once appearing onstage in a tacky wedding gown and telling the audience, "It's the only dress my mother wanted me to wear." Joan Rivers goes punk.

Platinum Blondie, Jamie James, Rolling Stone, 1979, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/9437617/platinum_blondie?rnd=1143231258094&has-player=true
[a cursory search turns up many similar quotes throughout the years from various sources].

Joe Strummer totally understood our culture and one reason American youth, fortunate to hear and see them, regard them as our generation’s Beatles. The Edge said that at the Rock Hall Induction, but I saw the Beatles at Hollywood Bowl, but they were not MY defining band. The Clash were and will always remain the most phenomenal rock band ever. 1976-1980, RIP. After "London Calling, "well, all bet’s off. But til then, no one can touch them. Now our culture is broadcast around the world. Ironic cos it’s gone down the drain and horrifies most of us.

American films during the 1940’s are complex and often dismissed. Women slinked around in padded shoulders, slightly platform strappy open toed-shoes (very risqué in those days!), wore little gloves and clutch purses. The dresses weren’t as clingy and bias-cut, as they had been in the ‘30’s. That look originated in Paris in the ‘20’s, but I’m surprised to see so many dresses in silent films that were rather baggy or lots of fabric. I love my shot of Natasha at the second benefit for LA’s early “Slash” magazine at rented Larchmont Hall, just yards away from Paramount Studios. Paramount, although not the richest studio in town (that’s MGM), churned out many noir films. Paramount had a superb costume department and created many memorable looks. Who knows what actress or starlet or socialite wore this lovely evening dress from the ‘40s?

Natasha is wearing a beret similar to blonde Lana Turner, who so memorably wore a white one in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a early classic noir fave. The back of the hat, revealed in the mirror, indicates she attached a gift ribbon. How punk is that? Best of all, red-headed Natasha’s face was Betty Boop’s! An amazing resemble. Natasha was quiet, sweet and still lovely.

Brunette, Latina Margo at the Masque Benefit March 25, 1978, wearing lace, polka-dotted vinyl mini skirt, go-go boots up to her knees, with lace stockings – so Julie Christie. Julie was a MAJOR ‘60’s icon to me, born in India, famed British style icon. The cool blonde not afraid then nor now to reveal her deep intelligence, who rose to fame in “Darling,” similar to what Belinda would later experience on so many levels. I wonder if Belinda ever saw “Darling.”

Alice Bag wore hot shocking pink, glittery high heels. I admired them, and she leaned over Nickey Beat, her boyfriend and official Weirdo and unofficial Germs, Bags, etc. drummer. She handed me the shoe and I stuttered. “Schiaparelli? Do you know who this is?” She didn’t. “She coined the term ‘shocking pink.’ Her grand-daughters, Marisa Berenson, was THE SUPERMODEL Socialite of the day, still close friends with her co-star in “Cabaret,” the incomparable Liza Minelli. Her sister, Berry, had a more tragic life: lost her husband, actor Tony Perkins to AIDS and perished in -- I think second -- jet to hit World Trade Center, 9/11 on her way to LA to see her son perform at the Whisky. Their grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli was a surrealist couturier also collaborated with Jean Cocteau.

But ask any of those young women if they knew all this and you’d get blank stares from many. Belinda studied beauty books and magazines when I lived in their closet (Disgraceland) for one week in 1980. But few were brought up with the art and culture I experienced, being older and an avid “follower of fashion” to quote the great Ray Davies. I was too fat and broke to wear the fashions, but these looks were my teen years, a full decade before punk. You have to remember we were NOT bombarded with fashion on TV, mags, everywhere. Fashion, like other American cultures, was disposable. No one I know could afford those shoes these days, now found in museums, not thrift shops.

Remember, most of us had little money. Life was a helluva lot cheaper then. We all went to thrift stores to get clothes, we knew we’d get some discarded treasures due to rich socialites and “the industry.” But did they buy because it’s a Pucci or Halston or whatever? No way. But they knew these were cool clothes. We didn’t care if they were ripped, but many in great condition.

WE BOUGHT AND MADE COOL CLOTHES and accessories. We didn’t care about “labels” or “designers.” We didn’t copy each other. We inspired each other. Everyone had their very distinct look. Can you really tell the difference between Hollywood fashion stylist Rachel Zoe and her client, Nicole Ritchie et al? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think Rachel is a genius and more power to her. There’s so many great designer clothes out there, how cool your clients wear what she doesn’t have time to wear.

But we didn’t need any stylists, magazines, fashion shows. No one told us how to dress! The fashion attitude was: colourful, daring, fun, adventurous, creative and collaborative. Connie Clarksville bleached, dyed and cut a lot of heads of hair. I didn’t know that and fried my hair, but worth it, various shades of crimson, scarlet and magenta head of hair, gorgeous and out there (1978)! I dyed my hair later than my friends cos I had a straight job teaching elderly retired people, til my lifestyle interfered.

I will never forget visiting Pleasant Gehman, one of the most popular, early and important punks. I spoke with her mother, Betsy, a writer who tried to place a few of my shots, then stopped at the pile of clothes on the floor in the middle of her bedroom. I have the same image at the Canterbury, the infamous decrepit apartment building. People didn’t squat in LA, but they did at the Canterbury, around the corner from the Masque. That place was a pig-sty, much has been written about it, I’m not the first to say it. Alice Bag (alicebag.com) posted shots of Shannon, future Go-Go’s Belinda and Jane (and co-founder, bassist Margo), and others and you’ll see for yourself. With one bare yellow light bulb, I saw Shannon transform herself in front of the dirty mirror.

How they became the transcendent colorful butterflies I shot, by sharing clothes thrown in piles, discarded here and there (Hellin and Trudie left a pile at my home and finally picked them up after my numerous requests) is beyond a simple explanation. They were untrained artists, making the most of their environment. I can figure who was where and with whom and when a great deal of the time due to what the LA punks were wearing. It’s harder to tell when I shot Dee Dee and his hair length than a shot of Pleasant with either long or short hair. I never saw many wear the same thing twice.

Fashion was fun. Here’s all these kids from who knows where, in the land of cheap, classic, stylish clothes and accessories. And the more ripped, the better! A friend of mine, Mark Martinez, told me he liked punk because as a poor Mexican-American kid from Glendale, he couldn’t afford to buy glam/glitter clothes. He went to the shows, he loved Bowie and Queen (like the Germs and other punks). He could wear whatever he wanted and be a punk.

Music first, Attitude second, Fashion: part of the fun. It was a way to get attention, get backstage, photographed. It wasn’t to get into the papers or on the net (both were NOT options). Most have never seen their photos, no matter who took them. Being noticed was fun and validating.

As Alice Bag wrote: they “played dress up.” MEN AND WOMEN. Punks could take advantage of the many thrift stores and church sales. I studied theatrical makeup, I knew movie and art history. I was a Fauve, the French “Wild Beasts.” My makeup and colors were early Matisse. My college look, very Mae West but not corseted nor as over-the-top, was often compared to Matisse years before punk. He’s not my fave painter by any means. I prefer Renoir, Monet, Munch, Van Gogh, Chagall to pick my top five. I already earned a Master of Fine Art’s Degree, with most art history self-taught. But I was so alone, I longed for an art community, which I found in punk.

Everyone thinks LA is fun. The mid-1970’s were tough in LA too. People think we were all Beach Boys and surfer girls. Not true! We were economically depressed in some circles. Music was DOA, school meaningless, and many had little in the land of plenty. We were the outsiders: bright, outspoken, creative, energetic, not rich, minorities, non-heterosexual, fat, too this or that: pick a few from the list. We all loved music in ways that people rarely expressed in those days. We weren’t wired w/iPods. I purchased one of the very first Sony Walkmans ($200) and people couldn’t understand why I had to listen to punk while in the grocery line.

People already gave us a hard time. Why not take it to the limit? How far could we go? And Hollywood was wide open then. While the cops were busting the disco-goers and in many cases ignoring the under-age drinkers at the Masque, parties, clubs and elsewhere who were cavorting with the drug dealers out on the dance floor and backstage, and sex was anytime, anywhere. No AIDS. Others will tell you about being hassled by the cops. They never bothered me and I was dressed as wildly as anyone. But I didn’t hang out where cops would notice me, drunk and noisy. I was careful.

The phrase sex ‘ n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll was perfected as a lifestyle in LA, whether into the typical LA scene, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac (Brits who relocated here) to the punks. We had as much going on as the big “industry” events. A lot more fun, cheaper and more stylish.

4) Do you think it would've been so popular if there hadn't been that fashion element?
Music first, second, third, Attitude fourth, Fashion fifth. You know what put punk on the map, kept it going in the ‘80’s til people rediscovered the Ramones, the Pistols, the early Clash, X at its height? HARDCORE FROM LA. Then Grunge. Fashion look: jeans, t-shirts, flannel jacket for grunge cos Seattle is cold and wet, unlike LA. Fashion had NOTHING to do with it. Really.

5) Do you think that if it hadn't been for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, there would've been such an interest in the style side of it?
“Although Hell's musical ability was minimal, his influence on the early punk scene was considerable - New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren stole not just Hell's torn t-shirt heroin addict look, but Hell's "Blank Generation" (the basis for "Pretty Vacant") before returning to England in 1975 and recruiting the Sex Pistols.” Courtesy of http://www.warr.org/verlaine.html.

A cursory web search reiterates this, whether from performers, managers, writer, fans, from NY and England at that time who were there, but their words are still debatable in Europe. Of course one look does not a movement make. McLaren, and Westwood, like any great promoter/artists, recognized the marketability of this look and its accompanying NY music and took it further in both fashion and music AT THE SAME TIME.

England was into fashion as a punk statement earlier than NY or LA. Remember the music and the musicians came here later. Our local bands were transitioning from glam/glitter, but the scene was too small, too scattered to make either music or fashion statements as early as those cities, but we caught up quickly!

Most of us in LA didn’t give a rat’s ass about Brit fashion. We laughed at what Westwood was doing, making punk for the rich poseurs. The last thing we respected was seeing safety-pinned clothes on runways or in fashion mags. Getting one’s hands on an authentic Pistols t-shirt was a big deal and outrageous for its day. T-shirts just didn’t look like that. But that’s Jamie Reid’s art, not Westwood/McLaren. Hellin Killer was one exception who briefly sported Brit Pistols fan Sue Cat Woman riff for about 10 minutes. That’s as far as it went.

We DID NOT get into punk because of fashion. I don’t even have time to deal with the ridiculousness of that statement, especially dealing with British punk as worn by Angelinos (that’s what we call LA people). With rare exceptions, such as a rare Pistols t-shirt, and one jacket/bondage pants (both worn by Terry Graham, drummer of Bags and later Gun Club), all the fashions were extremely and only Southern Californian. The one punk fashion store, Poseur, was looked down upon by many of the early, real, grassroots punks who later became so infamous for bands or whatever. The proprietors were from England (and very nice; I wonder where they are?), the merchandise was authentic, but not home grown. It didn’t reflect the LA vibe of sunshine. The clothes were too heavy and dark. And they represented British punk.

The Bags sang “We don’t need the English,” although we loved the music, the musicians. The point was we didn’t need your clothes, your music INSTEAD of ours. Why not both? Why were the record companies only signing, in some cases, inferior British and New York bands? Many LA bands are revered today while some signed NY bands forgotten.

We couldn’t afford the clothes and accessories. Who wants to buy a look, when true art is making your own? We didn’t NEED art from elsewhere to make our own, while appreciating all that was around us in the same genre.

In those days when you lived in around Hollywood with rich Beverly Hills and beach socialites, you could pick up what are now collectible shoes, dresses, coats, etc but for pennies then, and they are all brightly-colored, why would you want to pay a small fortune (Terry’s jacket cost half my rent in those days!) for clothes designed for British youth? Why would you give a darn about what two Limey clothing designers are doing?

It was the Pistols music and lifestyle, and that great Jamie Reid art that turned us on. I’ll take the Clash’s one-offs over anything from Sex. Vivienne who? Malcolm was a clothing designer? Out of our radar of if we knew, we weren’t into copying or being influenced by anyone. Other than the spiky hair, which started in NY w/Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. Who had money beyond rent, a bit of food, and lots of drugs and booze and many times people couldn’t get in free, so tickets to shows? Money for over-priced bondage clothes, too heavy and warm for our mild weather? Nope.

Who started wearing lingerie in public? Madonna stole the look from LA and I have proof. She knew what was coming outta LA. She had a contact in NY who was very connected w/LA punk scene. It’s too cold and rainy for that look to start in either NY or England. That’s what we were about.

One should dress according to one’s heart, geography, weather, budget and lifestyle. Not cos Paris Hilton or Agent Provocateur or Westwood. I have long admired Vivienne Westwood, what a fabulous career! But you can’t credit LA punk fashion to anyone but those in LA.

And therein lies the problem. LA has NEVER gotten credit for the fabulous punk fashions we recycled with our own creations to create a totally unique look, reflective of the life and times of LA. Now that’s fashion that has taken hold, in LA and America, far more than Westwood’s. I see it everywhere, and it’s verified in my photos and photos of others shooting in LA in the mid-to-late 1970’s. That’s the only fashion I can discuss with absolute air of authenticity. Photos don’t lie.

2 Comments:

Blogger Lisa said...

Right on, Jenny! the questions are so assbackwards--it's about the music, music, music--first and foremost.
It's the MUSIC, stupid,as they say; the other stuff follows.

It's about comfort for me, I'm a function over form, sporty kinda gal and I grew up in FL where we have the same issues about lovely warm weather.

I've been meaning to send you scanned photos of me, circa '81 or in Orlando, FL with our scene. Ha, not much of a scene it was compared to CA, but we had one club that turned punk--sorry they called it New wave mostly--only one night of the week--on Wed--and we danced ourselves silly, sweaty. We threw on whatever we had--fun, ripped, colorful whatever--we were college students.

It's more important the revolution that's going on in my mind--not what I wear. Register Green, vote Green,live Green. I've been a Green Party and peace activist the last 6 years.

gotta go--off to work the Culver City election today. ugh.. 6:30am-8pm.. see ya

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenny:

The two brits who owned posuer were Jim O'Conner and Pamela Motown. Both of whom were involved
with the 60's King's Road institution, Mr.Freedom. Both of them had been involved with British fashion for many years before they came to L.A, dressing the likes of David Bowie,Brian Ferry,Rod Stewart,Marc Bolan,etc. And yes,they were very nice.I wonder what did happen to them?

11:41 AM  

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