Last week, I found myself caught in a bruising verbal brawl between a couple of punks. Granted, they are both aging punks, but they still have a lot of street fight left in them.
On one side is Brendan Mullen, an author and leading figure of the 1970s punk music scene in Hollywood, where he ran the Masque, a club at the epicenter of the local punk movement. On the other is Willie Herron III, a Chicano artist and musician who co-founded an East L.A. punk venue called the Vex as an alternative to the Hollywood circuit.
If these guys were to tangle in a mosh pit, there would be blood. At issue is Herron's contention that he started the Vex because Chicano punk bands were shut out of the Hollywood club scene. To Mullen, more offensive fighting words were never spoken.
"I'm reacting because basically something that I stood for is being called racist by people who weren't there," says Mullen. "All I'm asking is, can they name one specific incident? Not like, 'Oh, they might have felt excluded.' I'm demanding more. Who exactly and where? In other words, what is the punk scene, this abstraction, that you say excluded you?"
Herron, a former member of the pioneering Chicano arts collective ASCO, dismisses the attack as the rant of a "grumpy old dude." He insists that bands like his Los Illegals were spurned by Hollywood because they stood out from all the Sex Pistol wannabes by brazenly asserting their Chicano identity and their East L.A. roots. Other Chicano bands may have had an easier time by disguising their Chicanismo, he says, but even they were often relegated to backyard parties and disco dances.
"They weren't flying the Chicano flag, and we were," says Herron from his home/studio in City Terrace, where he grew up. "They [the Westside punks] hated us because we were throwing it in their . . . faces. . . . Our punkers were into the street. They were cholos with all the angst and the anger that was in our community. That was our punk music."
Beyond the fighting words, what happened in some rowdy clubs 30 years ago is taken seriously by musicians and now even museum curators and scholars as part of the city's tangled cultural history.
The old wounds were recently reopened -- albeit unintentionally -- by a new exhibition at the Claremont Museum of Art, "Vexing: Female Voices From East L.A. Punk." It was curated by Pilar Tompkins, a young Chicana artist originally from Texas, and Colin Gunckel, a grad student from UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.
The show, featuring bands such as the Brat, Thee Undertakers and the Odd Squad, has helped document a musical scene largely overlooked in histories of rock in L.A. The debate it has engendered shows how an emerging group of young curators and researchers is reshaping cultural history by giving institutional credibility to artists whose perspectives were once ignored or marginalized.
"I think it's just a major shift in the way history is written," says Gunckel. "You realize that Chicano and Latino art and music in the past has been seen as an addendum to these larger histories. When you have [new] people in positions as curators and scholars, you shift that perspective entirely and say, 'Oh, no, there's more to this than you've acknowledged. This is an integral part of the larger story you're trying to tell. It's not a footnote.' "
The Chicano battle for cultural legitimacy has roots in ASCO's guerrilla-style aesthetic -- reacting to exclusion by renouncing the need to be included. It's an idea that led to the group famously spray-painting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "What we want to do, more than anything, is empower the people involved in that scene to tell their stories and encourage others to come forward," says Gunckel.
The curators say they found a dearth of documentation on East L.A. punk, even in Mullen's 320-page history, "We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk," published in 2001 by Random House and co-written by Marc Spitz.
For the exhibition, they interviewed artists and persuaded them to open their private collections of photos, newspaper clippings, concert fliers and old recordings. That material is being digitally stored at the Chicano Studies Research Center, where it will be eventually available for study.
The work has paid off for the fledgling Claremont museum, opened in 2007. The premiere of "Vexing" two weeks ago marked the museum's biggest opening night, with 800 visitors attending a concert by Chicana punk veterans such as Alice Bag (nee Armendariz) of the Bags and the Brat's Teresa Covarrubias.
Mullen didn't attend, but he hit the roof when he read an account of the show in this column. He later took out his fury on Herron in a 5,000-word e-mailed manifesto, "Death to Racism & Punk Revisionism," that accused the artist of trashing the punk scene to cover for the alleged failings of his own band, Los Illegals.
"Why do desperate people always need someone else to blame their failures on?" wrote Mullen, in one of his more civil passages. "Sometimes a horrible rock band is just a horrible rock band, Willy, no matter which way you try to slice it with the race card."
Mullen's missive also accuses me of being a "professional divider of people whose meal ticket is to keep on perping racial differences." Yet, the story never mentioned race. "There were barriers, but nobody ever said it was racism," says Covarrubias, the Brat's lead singer and songwriter from 1978 to 1984. "It surprises me, for him to take such offense, and to be so angry about this. What's that Shakespeare line? Methinks thou doth protest too much."
Racism did creep into the punk scene, the musicians say, after hard-core, skinhead elements appeared in force in the late '70s. Covarrubias recalls being called "beaner" during some performances.
Stereotypes were also at play with some clubs managers, wary of booking Chicano bands because they feared they might bring a dangerous gang element across the river. (Or worse, from a punk viewpoint, they might sound like Malo.) But the clubs also worried that these untested bands might bring no audience at all. Mullen makes a distinction between the unspoiled, racially mixed punk scene of the early days and the later period after 1979. By then, the Masque had closed and punk disintegrated into sub-faction -- ska, goth, psychedelic, hard-core. In that cliquish environment, even he felt excluded at times.
For East L.A. bands, Herron says, Hollywood doors opened only after the Vex won attention from a Times Calendar cover story on Oct. 12, 1980. "All of a sudden, we could get booked overnight," he says.
Mullen says Chicanos were always a big part of the punk scene in all its manifestations, and a big reason for his success. Raised in Britain, Mullen admits he had lived here for four years before stepping foot in East L.A. He got his first barrio tour after Chicano friends challenged his racial attitudes. "It was Chicanos who corrected me -- a once dumb, real illegal immigrant from another country myself -- when I once made a stupid stereotyping statement in passing without realizing it," writes Mullen, who later played the Vex himself. "Even more embarrassingly [and] inexcusably . . . I realized I'd never once been over the bridge before opening my trap. Thank God they forgave me at the same time as they expanded my learning about people."
Finally, a meeting of the minds.
"The focus of Los Illegals was to unite Eastside and Westside," Herron says. "It was this idea of unity that finally opened the doors for us in Hollywood."