Kids of the Black Hole : The 1970s Were Waning When Orange County's Punk Rock Scene Roared Its Dark, Hostile Message

When the responsibilities of being a young father and the pressures of college course work begin to weigh on Frank Agnew, he sometimes finds himself taking the long way home.

It leads him to a place from his past--a nondescript, concrete apartment complex in a quiet neighborhood of Fullerton, across a narrow street from a schoolyard. Agnew, 24, will open the metal gate and walk through, satisfied to see that nothing at the place has changed, except for the child-proof fence that now surrounds the swimming pool. Then, standing beside a towering palm tree, Agnew's gaze will move to the right, to a screened door on the ground floor of this two-story horseshoe of apartments. Unit 2.

The Black Hole.

House of the filthy, house not a home

House of destruction where lurkers roamed

House that belonged to all the homeless kids,

Kids of the Black Hole.

It is unlikely that local officialdom will ever approve a plaque for Unit 2, a marker to commemorate what was born there 10 years ago. Punk rock--a distinct Orange County brand of punk rock--sprang from the Black Hole in 1979.

Not only from there, but from back yards, garages, living rooms, warehouses and crash pads elsewhere in Orange County where musicians and fans gathered to share a raw, new kind of music and fashion that was faster, stranger, more overtly hostile and violently antagonistic to authority and established social norms than any previous form of pop-culture rebellion.

For a small, shy, guitar-playing teen-ager such as Agnew, at 15 the youngest of the Black Hole denizens, Unit 2 was a place for fun and comradeship, for listening to records by such punk icons as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, from whom budding suburban punks could draw nourishment and inspiration.

More than that, the Black Hole was a refuge where Agnew could hang out with fellow punkers and be free for a time from the ridicule and abuse that most of Orange County's punks were subjected to in those early punk days of 1979-80. In the high school halls and on the streets, a youthful minority bent on overturning prevailing norms of dress, music and social status often found that there was a price to be paid for being different.

A punk's refuge was a parent's horror--but few, if any, parents cared to take a close look into the tumultuous world chronicled in "Kids of the Black Hole," one of the benchmark songs about that scene.

Sex, drugs and fun is their only thought or care

Another swig of booze, another overnight affair.

The song, written by Agnew's older brother, Rikk, stands as all the commemoration that the Black Hole needs, thanks to an explosive, relentlessly driving recording by the Adolescents, the band that included both Agnew brothers.

The Black Hole days of illicit experimentation and extremist fun ended with the punks' eviction in the spring of 1980; before they left, they wrecked the single-bedroom apartment in a vandalistic frenzy in which cabinets were torn from hinges, sinks were ripped from their moorings, and walls were kicked in and spray-painted with graffiti.

That night of destruction crystallized the dark side of punk: a mindlessness driven by the fury in the music and the youth of its fans and performers. Punk's mindless side gave rise to drug and alcohol abuse that would hamper more than a few of the county's punk rockers, and it fostered fan violence that would mar many shows and stigmatize punk as a musical movement.

But the Orange County punks also founded their musical approach on high ideals. Punk was to be a source of creativity and originality, a forum for individual expression as well as an outlet for fun.

For anyone who could yell lyrics into a microphone, or grind out a few chords on a guitar, punk rock offered a chance to speak one's piece and stand out from the crowd.

But not just any old yelling would do. The best of the local punk rockers were musical diarists, using punk to sort through confusions, voice opinions, tell jokes, and vent angers and fears. After their first spark of rebelliousness flickered, many of those bands proved to have a staying power that carried them through personal and business problems and through the waning of a local punk club scene.

Most of those teen-age punks of a decade ago are in their mid- to late 20s now (Rikk Agnew and Casey Royer, mainstays of the original Adolescents, are punk elders at 30).

In some cases, the Orange County punk rockers have gone from spouting rampant, firebrand rebellion to reflecting maturely on the consequences of past extremism, while drawing upon musical resources that allow them to go far beyond the old punk formula that called for an unrelenting sonic slab of hard, fast, assaultive sound.

A surprising number of those original local punk bands are still going strong. While groups have splintered and lineups have changed, a roll call of the OC punk classes of 1978-80 finds Social Distortion, Agent Orange, T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty), the Crowd and the Vandals still answering the bell. (While the Adolescents recently broke up for the third time in their unstable history, the five original members are still fronting groups of their own or hatching plans for new bands).

In what amounts to a music industry acknowledgement of punk's maturation, Social Distortion is about to record for Epic Records, making it the first band from the original Orange County punk rock movement to sign with a major label.

The band is led, fittingly enough, by Mike Ness, the original kid of the Black Hole (Unit 2 was his apartment), whose career of brawling, boozing, and heroin addiction, followed by survival, maturation and thoughtful reflection, embodies the worst excesses and the finest achievements of Orange County punk.

Sunny, affluent Orange County is not the sort of place one would expect to find any Black Holes, or any musical movement founded largely on alienation, discontent and angry rebellion.

To Frank Agnew, it was "lack of companionship, lack of love, lack of relationship at home" that brought most of the kids of the Black Hole together in Fullerton. "It was a lack of attention, and they found it at the Black Hole. It had nothing to do with social stratification or social classes. It was all lack of a family. None of us had a close family. We were all each other's brothers and sisters, and we took care of each other."

It is not unusual to find instances of family tension or divorce in the backgrounds of some of Orange County's most significant punk rock musicians. Mike Ness and Tony Montana, lead singer of the Adolescents, had particularly difficult upbringings marked by divorce and financial hardship--and they became known as two of the most hard-core extremists of the early punk scene.

But punk rockers' family histories also include homes that were stable and affluent, with parents who were supportive of, or at least not set against, a teen-ager's leap into punk. Punk certainly was a haven for kids who fit the alienated "problem child" profile, but it also had room for someone like James Levesque, longtime bassist of Agent Orange. As a sophomore at Placentia's El Dorado High School, Levesque was the starting quarterback of the varsity football team. By his junior year, he had given up football to become a punk rocker--a development that Levesque said gladdened his mother. Pleased that she wouldn't have to worry any more about her son getting hurt on the football field, his mother was happy to pitch in and help do legwork to boost Agent Orange's following.

Steve Soto, a founding member of both Agent Orange and the Adolescents, said it wasn't family woes that made him one of the Black Hole regulars. "I lived in a nice house, and my family treated me fairly," he said. "It wasn't rebellion against my parents or authority. It was just the state of music. I thought it was all really boring, and I wanted to be part of something more intense. I wanted something harder and faster. Any of my rebelliousness came from hating the (social) structure in high school. I didn't want to play music that those kind of people liked, anyway."

That dissatisfaction with the mainstream rock music of the day--the Journeys, Bostons, Bee Gees, Ted Nugents and Led Zeppelins who dominated radio and record sales--is the common denominator linking the players and bands who shaped Orange County punk. Their rejection of mainstream rock had sweeping significance: It made punks see themselves--and be seen--as fundamentally different and set apart from the majority of their peers who liked the old standbys. The punks pledged their allegiance by adopting the short-haired, often outrageous look of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Billy Idol and the other stars of British punk. That made them instant outcasts.

Their antagonists would be the jocks--the football set--or the long-haired hard-rock fans. There would be taunts, epithets, salvos of food and trash in high-school cafeterias. Sometimes there would be more than that.

In Huntington Beach, where many of the punks were big enough to fight back (T.S.O.L.'s members were all muscular, strapping surfers-turned-punk-rockers), these social differences often would be resolved with flying fists.

"One group used to go out looking for people like myself, for the sole purpose of beating up people like myself," recalled Jan Ackermann, the Huntington Beach punk rocker who founded the Vandals. "They called our haircuts 'crop tops,' and they called themselves 'crop dusters.' I was always one step ahead of them."

"Every party we went to there was a fight with people who didn't like the way we looked," said Mike Roche, T.S.O.L.'s bassist. "It was constant, and if you got caught somewhere alone, three jocks would hop out of a car and chase you and beat the (stuffing) out of you. I carried a Mace can in my pocket all the time, and sometimes I carried a blackjack. It was not a friendly time."

Roche and others say that police routinely would stop punks on the street, photograph them and compile personal data on them for their file cards (the fact that some Huntington Beach punks liked to sport Nazi insignia for shock value hardly endeared them to the authorities or to the public). In one such stop, recalled Steve (Stevo) Jensen of the Vandals, police asked a punk nicknamed Joe Shmoe whether he had any scars or tattoos. "He pulled out a razor blade and slashed his chest, and said, 'Now I do.' "

In Fullerton, where the punk rockers tended to be smaller in stature, discretion often proved the better part of valor in the face of abuse (one prominent exception was Mike Ness, who would fight every antagonist, even when it meant being overmatched and taking a beating).

"I was a real timid person," recalled Frank Agnew. "I was small and skinny, 5-3, 100 pounds, and I was dealing with the kinds of people you can't reason with. They had nothing upstairs, but they were big and burly. I'd say, 'OK, so I look silly. Just let me go my weird way.' Sometimes I was able to talk my way out of it without completely selling out."

Agnew wound up dropping out of Fullerton High School, largely because of anti-punk harassment. Tony Montana was another who left school and earned an equivalency diploma rather than lead the life of a harassed social minority.

"One time some guy on the swim team, he looked like a Marine, he had a bad attitude," said Montana, thinking back on his days as a frightfully scrawny and awkward-looking punk at Anaheim's Magnolia High School. "He started verbally harassing me, the usual thing, 'Punk fag, what's your problem?' So I mouthed off at him. He followed me and smashed my head into a pole, knocked me out cold. School was a place I could go for a good assault and battery. I wasn't safe there and I knew it. I never was a fighter. I had a mouth that wouldn't shut, and nothing to back it up."

The punks had a way of assuaging the pain of taunts, cuts and bruises: They roared against their foes in songs such as the Adolescents' "Amoeba," a memorable anthem in which lyricist Casey Royer identified with "a one-celled thing (that) hardly knows it's alive." By the end of the song, though, the amoeba/punk is thinking, growing, surging into a higher state of being, ready to lash out at a scientist--symbolic in the song of social authority--who has dismissed it as an insignificant lab specimen.

Opposed to social norms, and finding themselves opposed, Orange County punks were able to thrive.

"People hated us," said Royer, "but we fed off it."

Soon, though, it became apparent that the punks offered a form of musical excitement that substantial numbers of people craved. With no clubs booking punk at the start, the Orange County bands started on the grass-roots level, playing house parties. In Huntington Beach, the Crowd began playing back-yard parties in the spring of 1978, and built a solid following with a good-time brand of punk rock that kept the energy but eschewed the anger of most of the other Orange County punk bands (this good-time quality, and the fact that all but one of the band members were already out of high school, allowed the Crowd to escape much of the harassment suffered by other Huntington Beach punks). Among the Crowd fans watching closely from vantage points close to the stage were Mike Roche and Ron Emory, future T.S.O.L. founders who cite the Crowd as a significant influence.

In Fullerton, the scene began to take shape early in 1979, when Agent Orange and Social Distortion played an eventful house party in Yorba Linda, thrown by two tiny twin sisters known as the Midget Twins. The Social Distortion lineup that night included Mike Ness, Casey Royer and Rikk Agnew--the latter two both destined for the Adolescents. The singer was a 6-foot, 9-inch Cal State Fullerton varsity basketball player named Tom Corvin, whom Royer had befriended while working as a breakfast server at a student housing complex. The evening's highlight, however, was non-musical: Mike Ness was led off in handcuffs for spitting in the face of a plainclothes police officer.

Like the Huntington Beach punks, the Fullerton bands were taking some musical and fashion cues from the original British punks and from the Los Angeles punk-rock scene, led by such groups as X and the Germs, that had sprung up in 1977. But the most immediate influences were close to home: bands like the Middle Class, the first Orange County punk group to make a splash in Los Angeles, and the Mechanics, a new-wave rock group that virtually every one of the Fullerton punks cites as an essential influence.

Musical tastemakers in Los Angeles began to take note and dispel the prevailing canard that rockers behind "the Orange Curtain" were all rich, suburban kids whose punk efforts would, by definition, be fatuous.

Rodney Bingenheimer, whose weekly new-rock shows on KROQ were important in spreading punk through the Southland, would air demo tapes by bands including Agent Orange and the Adolescents. At the same time, a punk entrepreneur named Robbie Fields was combing those back-yard punk parties, seeking talent for his Posh Boy record label.

"I felt the kids in the suburbs had a greater feel for popular culture, and the popular culture that swept Orange County in 1978 to 1981 was punk," recalls Fields, who had lived in Anaheim as a child before moving to England. "In Hollywood, the people are coming from all over the country. They're coming starry-eyed, they're thinking about their career. You go to the suburbs and the kids aren't even thinking (about show-biz advancement). They could barely believe in 1980-81 that local music was being played on a real radio station like KROQ. It was fantasy land. Consequently, the music was totally uncalculated. Even though they might have been influenced by the Damned or the Clash or the Ramones, they were making their own statements, they were writing about their own lives."

Fields was behind the first record releases of virtually all of the prominent Orange County bands. But most of them regard him now with bitterness, casting him, in the words of Rikk Agnew, as an opportunist "out with a mission to use all these naive kids to his advantage." Contractual disputes between Fields and Agent Orange led to a lawsuit that was settled out of court; T.S.O.L. also had a contractual conflict with Fields that climaxed when Jack Grisham, the band's volatile singer, punched Fields in the nose outside the Galaxy, a Fullerton roller rink where punk rock concerts were staged for a brief period.

Those disputes have since been settled, Fields notes. "I gave them their start. Almost without exception, they recorded for me because there was no other avenue open to them. And if not for me, they wouldn't have made those recordings. They say I exploited them? Believe me, it was the other way around."

Another key business figure in punk's emergence in Orange County was Jerry Roach, owner of the Cuckoo's Nest. The Costa Mesa club was Orange County's leading punk rock venue from 1978 until late 1981, when the club closed after a long court battle with the city. Much of the trouble arose from clashes outside the Cuckoo's Nest between punk rockers and the older patrons of two neighboring bars.

"We had urban cowboys, construction workers and punkers, all next to each other," said Roach, who emerged as one of the few adult voices in Orange County--albeit one with his own profit motive--to defend the punks. "One of the big problems was what went on between these three different types of people. (The older punk antagonists) would apply hippie stereotypes. They'd think they could hassle them and they'd go, 'Peace, brother,' like the hippies did, and it would be cool. But the punks would get in their face. The punks would say, 'Hey cowboy, you look stupid.' The punks had numbers on their side, and these people resented them."

With the Cuckoo's Nest packing in 600 or 700 people on peak nights--far above legal capacity--and with local bands also emerging as strong draws in Los Angeles, Orange County punk had its most flush period in the early '80s.

But none of the bands was able to capitalize by building steadily upon early successes. With "Amoeba," the Adolescents scored a major local radio hit on KROQ at the end of 1980. Within nine months, the band was finished, torn apart by internal bickering and personal excess that were, indeed, adolescent.

The key conflict arose between Rikk Agnew and Tony Montana. Agnew, 22 at the time, had harbored ambitions of rock stardom since boyhood, and wanted to take the band in a more accessible, less undisciplined direction. Montana, four years younger, hewed to a punk ethic that the music should remain an uncompromising, underground form, and that seeking wider success would mean selling out. Those internal tensions made for explosive performances on the band's superb debut album. But soon they exploded in the Adolescents' face. Rikk Agnew was kicked out of the band before the album's release in May, 1981, and further disputes between the remaining members spelled the end of the Adolescents by that August.

T.S.O.L. was another early contender for success, emerging in 1981 and 1982 as one of the leading punk draws in Southern California. Eventually, though, the chameleonic band's chances were sidetracked by continual stylistic changes and internal dissension that broke up the original lineup in 1983.

"T.S.O.L. would play to 2,000 people, and major labels weren't interested in us," said Jack Grisham, T.S.O.L.'s original singer. "Maybe it was because of the bridges we burned, the violent, troublemaking image of the band. We were there, but the opportunity wasn't there. Punk wasn't acceptable then. If (a contemporary rock band) were headlining the Palladium and had 2,000 to 3,000 people coming to the show, they'd be signed in a minute."

Much worse than the career setbacks suffered by any one band was the fan violence that pervaded punk rock by the early 1980s. Most Orange County punks contend that early media coverage painted a sensationalized, violent picture of their scene. Consequently, they say, a substantial number of brawlers began to show up at concerts, attracted not by the music, but by the punk scene's violent media image.

"Once the scene started getting a lot of publicity, all the losers found an excuse to go beat up on people," said Frank Agnew. "It had always been a peaceful scene. There (are) fights wherever there's booze, but it was nothing until the media flooded it, and these airheads would go, 'I want to be punk.' So they would cut their hair and go, 'Slam dancing, great, this is an excuse to go beat up on people.' That took over, and the violence destroyed much of the punk scene. Bands didn't want to play shows because they got sick of seeing their real fans beat up by these thugs."

When Agent Orange released its fine debut album, "Living In Darkness," in 1981, the death of punk's promise was one of the record's main themes. The problem wasn't only fan violence, says Mike Palm, the trio's singer and main songwriter, but the calcification of punk into a uniformity of expectations and a rigidity of taste among many of its followers.

Too many punkers insisted on the thrashing beats and hard-and-fast playing of the "hard-core" approach, while resisting the more melodic inventions of punk musicians who were expanding their tastes and discovering new musical resources as they matured. What's more, Palm said, he saw a number of his friends in punk wracked with personal problems that included heavy drug abuse.

"By that time (of 'Living In Darkness'), it was basically ruined," Palm said. "All the fun had been drained out of it by then. It kind of divided into cliques. It was punk versus punk--cannibalism. It was pointless. Originally, to be punk, you just had to have some ideas and get up and do it. It was all originality. Then it became, 'You gotta have a black leather jacket and dye your hair black.' It fell back into the very thing we were trying to get away from: stereotypes. There was also a lot of other stuff going around that wasn't healthy for a scene like that. There was a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol. A lot of the people around me were really (messed) up. It started out as a healthy thing, and as it went on, everybody fell into the same rut. And it was pretty depressing, seeing your friends slide into drug addiction, alcoholism."

By 1983, however, Agent Orange was singing an anthem called "It's Up To Me And You," that looked forward, in a chastened way, to new possibilities for a punk rock movement that Palm felt had hit bottom.

We must improve by learning from the past

Creating something new

It's up to me and you

As the '80s have gone on, many of the original Orange County punks have proven themselves up to that challenge.

* The Adolescents regrouped from 1986 to 1989, and, in a last hurrah, delivered "Balboa Fun Zone," a masterful, often elegiac album that spoke of surviving youthful excesses and coming to a more mature understanding.

* Social Distortion, a band built on firm, longstanding friendships, survived Ness' heroin addiction (these days, after more than three years of sobriety, Ness frequents flea markets and swap meets rather than shooting galleries, pursuing a benign addiction to antique dolls and other knickknacks). Social Distortion re-emerged last year with "Prison Bound," only its second album in 10 years. In it, Ness reflected on the consequences of the punk wildness he had celebrated in the band's 1983 album, "Mommy's Little Monster." Several tracks on "Prison Bound"--especially the brilliant title song--merged country influences with Social Distortion's trademark wall-of-guitars sound. The album displayed a promising ability to achieve depth through mythic, roots-rock shadings without sacrificing punk-infused energy.

* T.S.O.L., down to only one original member, Mike Roche, is no longer a punk band, but it is striving honorably to bring some punk and blues-inspired grit and realism to the fantasy world of heavy metal. T.S.O.L. alumni Jack Grisham and Ron Emory also are still rocking and expect to emerge later this year with new albums by their respective bands, Tender Fury and Lunchbox.

* Agent Orange, with only Mike Palm remaining from its original lineup, is still dogged by the internal and business disputes that Palm says have played a large part in limiting the band's output to only two albums in 10 years. But Palm says he has a strong backlog of material ready to be recorded when the logjam breaks.

* The Crowd, reformed in 1987 after a four-year hiatus, has released a new album and continues to rock hard and prove that there is punk life after 30.

* The Vandals, like that figurative punk amoeba, have split in two. One lineup is due back soon from a summer tour of Europe. It will arrive to find another group of recently revived Vandals that features Stevo, the satiric punk band's original singer, and founding guitarist Jan Ackermann.

* Of the ex-Adolescents, Casey Royer continues in his longtime slot as leader and front man of D.I., championing the sonic-boom sound of the early Adolescents. Steve Soto is preparing to launch a new band, Joyride, while the Agnew brothers are woodshedding on separate projects. Rikk Agnew still harbors his old rock-star ambitions while, at 30, acknowledging for the first time that it might be prudent to have a steady day job as a fallback position. Frank Agnew, a husband and father of two, aims to complete a college degree in communications, positioning himself for a film or entertainment business career in case his continuing rock music efforts don't pan out. Tony Montana, who has lived in Los Angeles County since 1981, continues to sing dark, hard-edged punk with the Flower Leperds.

Few, if any of these musicians have ever earned a full living from music. Yet, albums by the Adolescents, T.S.O.L., Agent Orange and Social Distortion have sold 40,000 to 50,000 copies or more, according to band managers and record companies--strong figures for albums on small, independent labels. Many of the early punk recordings continue to sell steadily to a new generation of teen-age fans, the labels report.

Best of all, some of the punks have shown the capacity to grow in their lives outside of music. The biggest surprise of all may be Tony Montana's new career: When he isn't ranting about the dangers of the world with his band, this one-time hellhound of the Orange County punk scene teaches students who are emotionally, mentally or physically disabled at public schools in the San Gabriel Valley.

It's a far cry from the days when Montana, now 26, would pull such antics as deliberately flopping face-first on stage, without breaking his fall, or taking out his displeasure with the Adolescents' recording process by spraying the studio with a fire extinguisher.

"They were all fighting and yelling, and they wanted to kill Tony," recalled Lisa Fancher, who, as owner of Frontier Records, had the chore of baby-sitting the Adolescents while they recorded for her label. "Now I like him a lot, but at the time he was an insufferable little turd. On that album, he just summoned up the total anger and fury that he felt."

Montana's constructive new civilian life--which he says is by far a greater priority than his continuing musical career--comes as a particular surprise to Jerry Roach, who always saw the Adolescents' singer as the epitome of punk rock recalcitrance.

"Tony, the singer, he really lived the punk-rock world," Roach recalls. "He really tried to be a punk more than anyone else. He was so down. But that proves it. This horrible little punk rocker--and believe me, he was the most horrible of them all--and he's grown up to be a schoolteacher.

"I always used to say that these horrible punk rockers would grow up to be decent citizens."

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