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POP MUSIC : Getting Emotional . . . With a Bang : Suicidal Tendencies scores a Grammy nomination despite a de facto ban on L.A. shows

<i> Jonathan Gold writes about pop music and food for The Times. </i>

On the night war broke out, Suicidal Tendencies was on stage at Cathouse, the Hollywood nightclub most associated with the commercial L.A. rock scene. It was a special, unadvertised show for the club’s reopening party.

The audience of smooth industry guys and glam-rock followers was markedly different from the usual Suicidal crowd; the pointy shoes and designer leathers in sharp contrast to the low-slung chinos worn by the few friends of the band in attendance. Several also sported hand-drawn Suicidal T-shirts, Pendleton shirts and blue bandannas tied pirate-style around their foreheads, the full-on uniform of the Chicano street gang.

Cathouse owner Riki Rachtman walked out to a microphone and announced the band. “Welcome L.A.'s own, from Venice, Grammy-nominated . . . Suicidal Tendencies,” he said, tossing his jet-black mane in the manner that’s made him so popular as a host on MTV’s “Headbangers Ball.”

Suicidal lead singer Mike Muir winced at the words “Grammy-nominated,” but bounded to the front of the stage and launched into “Alone,” a sad, oddly beautiful speed-metal song:

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I’ve been down, I’ve been down

I’ve been down, down, down so low.

The audience exploded. A muscular security man crouched like a strong safety in front of the mixing board, protecting it from flying bodies.

Muir, a hunched, tan, unsettling presence with a bandanna all but covering his eyes, wheezed like Brando and bounced around the stage like a cross between a muscled beach crazy and the sax player from Sha Na Na. Lead guitarist Rocky George unrolled a maniacal grin that seemed to reach nearly to his eyebrows, and shrieked solos in strange modes no musicologist has yet bothered to describe.

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Even the guys upstairs in the bar were impressed--especially with the last song of the set, which the band dedicated to its friends in the Gulf: “Join the Army,” the title track from its second LP.

Suicidal Tendencies recorded the best-selling American punk-rock album of all time when its members were barely out of high-school, sold out the 5,500-seat Bren Events Center in Irvine, reportedly blew such bands as Slayer and Megadeth off the stage in Europe, was nominated for this year’s hard-rock Grammy . . . but this tiny, informal club date is the closest they’ve come to a show in Los Angeles since 1986.

Long before 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. excited the feds, Suicidal Tendencies, notorious from their days as a punk band, were effectively banned from playing a show in their hometown. What you might have called fans, some promoters called a gang.

Al Kowalewski, founder and editor of Flipside magazine, the Southern California punk-rock bible, remembers the earliest Suicidal shows: “They had a gang association--there was something of an ST gang, though even in his first interviews, Mike denied everything--and if you went to a show there’d be fights. The band had its own look, the cholo thing. But it wasn’t like the audience was in danger; it was more gangs fighting other gangs.”

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In the second week of the war, late on a January afternoon, Muir hunches forward in a utility room at a North Hollywood recording studio, his fingers beating a tattoo on the thin metal of his folding chair.

Dense and muscular, long-haired, wearing a mesh Dallas Cowboys jersey and a faded pair of jeans with his band’s “ST” logo doodled all over them in ballpoint ink, Muir is all but unrecognizable without his trademark bandanna over his eyes.

“Gangs?” Muir says in a husky whisper, his right knee bouncing up and down. “The problem with Suicidal was that we were different. There was that whole punk-rock thing--back then people were going up to us and telling us that we were getting up there with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. We had nothing to do with them, we didn’t care about those bands, and we said so. That was blasphemy, let me tell you.

“And the first people who got into the band were the people from around where we were from, Venice and south Santa Monica, mostly Mexicans and blacks. And people flipped out, because at punk-rock shows there weren’t that many quote-unquote ‘minorities.’ They hadn’t been exposed to that culture.

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“We’ll be places and people will bust out with old stories they’ve heard--part of it true, a lot of it not. . . . I’ve read about my death, I’ve read that I’ve been charged with murder. . . . Cats have nine lives, but I’ve gone past cats. It still hurts. We have to answer the question all the time, and it’s pretty much known around the world: ‘Why can’t Suicidal play L.A.?’ Everybody assumes we did something bad.”

Suicidal Tendencies, since its beginnings in 1982, was the sort of American punk-rock phenomenon that critics had been predicting for years: a political band with a broad-based, multi-ethnic, working-class following, which used the musical vocabulary and do-it-yourself ethic established by such bands as Black Flag, and which broke into mainstream culture without compromising.

Muir’s lyrics explored the acned emotional landscape of adolescence in a direct and very funny way, and from the start, Suicidal was enormously popular with Southern California’s skate and surf subcultures. Plus, Muir seemed to have an intuitive sense of vocal hooks and melodies and catch phrases equal to that of the best ‘60s garage-rockers.

The band seemed to rocket straight from self-produced Westside high-school parties--Muir attended Santa Monica High School in the early ‘80s--to prestigious shows at theaters and the Olympic Auditorium. Their 1983 first album, recorded in 12 hours, sold a phenomenal quarter-million copies for tiny independent Frontier Records.

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The single “Institutionalized” was the “Epic” of its day, with a video on MTV, near-saturation airplay on KROQ, and Muir’s breathy rant as a possible model for every psycho kid in every high school in America. The band did a guest spot on “Miami Vice.” They were named both Best Band and Biggest (Jerks) in a Flipside magazine poll before they’d played more than half-a-dozen dates.

Before 1984 was over, they had disappeared.

“It was one of those classic situations,” Muir says, clenching a fist. “We were going to start a band and we did it, and we didn’t know what we were doing.”

But there were personal problems.

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“I got hit by a couple of cars, and there was this and that, and we were confused,” Muir said. “If we had done a second record a year after the first, we wouldn’t be around right now. We weren’t that good. At the time, it was, ‘No album for four years--that’s lame.’ Now I know the time off was the best thing that happened to us.”

In ’87, Suicidal came back--as a metal band--with an album, a deal with major independent, Caroline Records, and a radically different lineup. The intensity was the same, the ideals were the same, but the improved musicianship of the band--especially the manic chording of guitarist Rocky George--made it possible to play the sorts of things Muir claims they wanted to play all along.

Suicidal next signed to Epic, Michael Jackson’s label, where they changed the lineup again--the band now includes George, rhythm guitarist Mike Clark, bassist Robert Trujillo, and drummer R. J. Herrera; Muir is the only original member--and released “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today,” “Controlled by Hatred . . . " and the Grammy-nominated “Lights . . . Camera . . . Revolution.” They’re poised to become a major band. And they’re still more concerned with emotions than with nuclear apocalypse.

“Alone,” from “Lights . . . ,” is about how loneliness is both inevitable and sort of sad; the song is as direct and touching as, say, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” but with neither the bathos nor the implicit sexism of that Guns N’ Roses hit.

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In many other songs, Muir describes both the power of his emotions and his inability to come to terms with them. Suicidal Tendencies works much the same turf--the pain of self-knowledge--as people like Sting and Sinead O’Connor, except they play real loud and they dress like thugs. It’s kind of touching once you get past the racket.

“People might not understand it, but we’re doing something we believe in,” Muir says. “We’re not putting on an act; we’re not running around the stage. . . . You can’t fake Suicidal. That’s a hard thing to explain to someone, because the heart doesn’t talk. If it were a matter of being successful, we’re on the wrong path, starting with the name.

“And the metalheads are just as bad: When I first did ‘Alone,’ people came up, worried that people wouldn’t like it because it was wimpy. Wimpy ? It’s easy to go up there and sing about partying and this and that; it’s hard to deal with maybe your weaknesses, and admit them, and deal with emotions and stuff like that. That’s Suicidal.”

So anyway, what does it mean, Suicidal?

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Muir scratches his head. “Well, not the No. 2 killer of teen-agers, that’s for sure. To us, it’s a very positive word, a lot of emotion, a lot of hatred, a lot of belief, a lot of things thrown together.

“It’s like the old skateboard term, ‘Suicidal, go for it.’ Or sometimes a tense situation becomes not so tense: ‘ Suicidal .’ Or like, ‘Oh well, whatever: suicidal.’ If you stand around saying ‘Suicidal’ as your response to almost everything, how can you possibly be afraid to fail? It’s like, Hawaiians use aloha to mean both hello and goodby , and people say, ‘How do they know?’ Well, they know.”


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