Ever since 1996’s “Please Kill Me” by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil, oral histories have become the go-to genre for underground music narratives. In “A Wailing of a Town,” the latest addition to this populist discourse, San Pedro artist and musician Craig Ibarra interviews the bands and partisans that made his hometown an unlikely harbor for creative protest during punk’s middle passage (the years between 1976’s “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” and 1991’s “Nevermind”).
Because Pedro, despite technically being part of the city of Los Angeles, is in spirit a peninsular community, Ibarra’s book turns into something more than another fanboy factorial. It’s expressly an antidote to “We Got the Neutron Bomb,” the 2001 Hollywood-centric oral history of L.A. punk. “Wailing” is a flannel-flying “Our Town,” populated by some 100 diverse characters whose lives weave in and out of one another’s, building into a profoundly moving tragicomedy (as one San Pedro band called itself) with a devastating ending.
Much of the book is, naturally, about the Minutemen. That storied trio provided the scene’s heart and soul; its proletarian politics and beyond-hardcore sound set the creative bar high for port punks. Numerous acts heeded the Minutemen’s call for “a band on every block,” and “Wailing” documents such worthy but overlooked groups as Saccharine Trust, Hari-Kari, Peer Group, and Mood of Defiance. Whereas elsewhere in the Southland, knuckleheads were codifying punk into the reactionary extremism of hardcore, the Pedro scene valued experimentation and self-expression.
“We thought every band having their own sound was the actual way,” says Minuteman Mike Watt. "… Everybody lets their freak flag fly the way that’s natural to them.”
Ibarra’s subjects are remarkably broad-minded and mutually supportive. They seem to have honestly felt that they were all in this together. “One of the cool things about San Pedro is it had this persona of a small town, but it always had this edginess of a port town, which lent itself very well to an underground art and music scene,” says Jeffrey McLellan, who played in the band the Wigs!
As in a Wilder play, Ibarra crafts precise scenes that act as their own mini-dramas: The riot at the Longshoreman’s Hall in Wilmington; the lunchtime Black Flag gig at San Pedro High. Violence threads throughout, as punks battle cops, locals and one another. The participants are generally honest about their own culpability and insensitivity in some of these skirmishes and not so much nihilistic as outnumbered. Still, there are frighteningly offhanded racial slurs — like from the band Nip Drivers — and confessions of mosh-pit mayhem.
In the do-it-yourself spirit of New Alliance Records, the influential label run by the Minutemen’s D. Boon and Watt, Ibarra compiled, edited and published this paperback himself. He ably follows in the noble lineage of oral historian Studs Terkel, capturing some epic personalities such as the dancer turned death rocker Jimmy Mack, the philosopher-poet Gary Jacobelly and the town’s loquacious ambassador, Watt, who speaks in the scene’s singular lingo about “mersh” (commercial) and “econo” (anticommercial).
The book ends with Boon’s death in an automobile accident. You know this is coming, and yet by filling our heads with these voices for 340 pages and then allowing them to express their loss one by one, Ibarra makes this tragedy palpable. “Wailing” is not just a history of a micro-music scene: It’s a story of kids in a community coming together to make art, then having their hearts broken.
A Wailing of a Town
An Oral History of Early San Pedro Punk and More, 1977-1985
END FWY: 362 pages, $20 paper
McDonnell is the author of “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways.”