Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images are alphabetical, and from the Internet
Text previously published at jerseybeat.com
Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, 1977-88
By Liz Worth; Edited by Gary Pig Gold
Bongo Beat Books (Montreal), 2009
This will be, what, the third punk oral history I have read? And like Please Kill Me (N.Y.) and We Got the Neutron Bomb (L.A.), it is also named after a song (from the chorus of Simply Saucer’s “Bullet Proof Nothing”). And, also like the other two, this one is excellent.
Treat Me Like Dirt is extensively detailed by those who lived through the scene, either directly day-to-day, or sometimes in spurts, such as Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome or Lydia Lunch. Told generally chronologically, jumping sections broken up from band to band and back, the handy reference of people - listed alphabetically - explains who they are and their association to the scene, in a very handy reference right up front. I’m happy to say I personally know a few, some of whom I call friend.
Liz, who was born the year after the period this book technically ends, has done an above-and-beyond, exemplary job taking a complex multi-character / band situation and made it possible to follow the story of each of the bands covered, in almost a narration. Sure, I had to go back and forth to remember who some of the huge cast was, but as the book progressed, that needed to happen less and less, as the people became so familiar. This is especially important for those who are not very familiar with the inhabitants who were involved with the scene.
As with any scene, there are the “big boys” and the “second tier” bands (my quotes); for example, in New York, every history seems to be about the Patti, the Ramones, the Dictators, the Heartbreakers, Television, and Blondie, but there were many other groups just bubbling under, such as the Mumps, the Marbles, and tons of others who were also important, but still never went anywhere. This is also true of the Toronto / Hamilton scene, where the first level is discussed, such as (in no particular order) Teenage Head, the Viletones, Simply Saucer, Forgotten Rebels, the B-Girls, the Ugly, the Demics, plus others, and she also delves into the secondary level with the Secrets, the Curse, the Androids, and the Poles (though I’m surprised there isn’t more about Johnny and the G-Rays), etc.. There are a number of tertiary bands that get mentioned, but not really covered, such as the Loved Ones (editor Gary Pig Gold’s band), the Eels, the Shakers (who were on the pop side), and some great band names like Crash Kills Five, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and my favorite name listed in the book, Dick Duck and the Dorks (perhaps some of these were later than the 1981 cut-off, I’m not sure).
The presence of Liz’s voice in the book is among (or, for the Canadian readers, amongst) the least, with but page-long preface about her undertaking to write and publish this tome, and another page of acknowledgements / thank yous that is mostly the names of those quoted.
As Bruce Mowat (whom I had sort of expected, and I say this bemusedly, would write his own history of at least the Hamilton phase, as he did for FFanzeen many years ago) rightfully says in his review of this book at his gmole.blogspot.com, “A couple of pages of historical context from the author, a discography and a time line might have helped.” [As I’m wont to digress, please permit me to do so here: on a dark and gloomy day in 2006, Bruce led me on a tour of Hamilton, and many of the places he took me are mentioned here, such as the Lanois Brothers’ house in Ancaster, the spot on Hillview Street where the Teenage Head first played, the place in the Jackson Square Mall where Simply Saucer had their noted performance, and he even brought me to meet Simply Saucer’s Edgar Breau at Edgar’s house.] This is the only close-to quibble I have about the book, as well.
You may ask, “Why Toronto of all places?” Well, if you don’t know (in which case you really need to get this book), Toronto (in this review, when I say Toronto, I’m including Hamilton because even though they are separate cities, they have overlapping and cross-pollinating scenes) is arguably one of the four concurrent places where punk really started on its own at the same time, including New York, Boston, and London (UK)., even while New York was considered the “leader” thanks to the early signing of bands).
One aspect interests me is that while comparing the New York and Toronto scenes, as presented in this book, they pretty much followed a similar path, where it started insular with a few bands, and then it exploded with crowds from the surrounding areas (and the increasing gentrification of those slum areas since); likewise, the early bands came from nowhere and most of them burned out pretty fast, be it from infighting, lack of label attention, or substance abuse (as is chronicled in Treat, there was lots of booze, and eventually heroin). As Ralph Alfonso wisely points out in the book, at the time, “you’re dealing with bands and a genre of music which is completely based and derived from, and owes all of its existence to, music by bands who had failed. So when you’re talking about the MC5, Stooges, Flamin’ Groovies, Dictators, Velvet Underground even, these are all bands that, in their time, were commercial failures. None of them sold records and they all got dropped. But they were so influential that they were responsible for punk. So, ergo, the cycle will repeat itself” [p. 344]. In other words, in most scenes there is the initial bands that come out that are mostly ignored by their contemporaries and they pass quickly, but are still the artistic foundation of the bigger bands to follow. Some groups do survive on some level (e.g., Teenage Head have more than a dozen albums), but many more schism.
A theme that runs throughout the book is that at some point, after the first year covered (1977), there is sure to be someone who says, “This is the moment that punk rock ended in Toronto.” That sentiment comes up often by numerous people, nearly from the beginning. I certainly remember that happening in New York, as well. “Oh, the Ramones signed to Sire; the scene is dead!” “Blondie has a disco song that’s a hit; the scene is dead!” Here it’s the end of the Crash ‘n Burn club, the signing of bands, a riot at a public concert, the entrance of a gang of bullies, the introduction of rockabilly (to North America what reggae was to the U.K.), what-have-you. Another theme is that it seems that no band was happy with their first album for whatever reason. Yet these records today are considered classics.
Also, as with most scenes in the four cities, in the Toronto area there was a division between the art students and the, well, not. Here in New York, it was the experimental Talking Heads and Theoretical Girls types vs. the Ramones and Dead Boys anti-intellectuals. In Toronto, it was the arty and experimental Diodes and the Dishes, vs. the Viletones and the Ugly. Similarly, even though they both resented each other and there was strong jealousy, they often shared bills and, on some level, supported one another because they needed each other.
One of the outstanding elements of Treat is that the quotes are thorough enough that the personalities definitely shine through. You can feel the excitement of when the members talk about their bands starting up and the early scene, and the tiredness of when they are held back by circumstances (e.g., label indifference, car accidents, squabbling). But there are more subtle nuances that one can “read,” such as how in-the-moment some were, such as Mickey DeSadist and Freddy Pompeii, and how self-promoting and pretentious are others, so in love with their image, such as Steve Leckie (Nazi Dog, of the Viletones) and Michaele Jordana (of the Poles). Leckie has jumped image a number of times, from Bowie-clone to punk to rockabilly, and even though he pushes the envelope in each phase, it’s more calculation and self-promotion than living in the moment and being. This is evident in some of the earlier pictures, where he consistently refuses to look at the camera during group shots; he’s too cool, I guess. I believe, in the context of this book, he comes across as the person most widely disliked for his manipulation of people. That being said, I cannot underscore enough how much of a seminal work their first EP was, especially “Screaming Fist,” which may be the first hardcore punk record on this continent. With Jordana, well, it’s just pretention and self-glorification all the way: “We created the look and the sound and the language of new wave, which survived…I am an artist. I’m not really meant to be totally commercial. I’m more of a seer.” If you watch the very last video below, you can see the artiste overshadow the artist.
What turned me on to oral histories, and what keeps me enticed, is certainly present in Treat Me Like Dirt, and that is since it is first-person histories, there are contradictions of stories from person to person. This goes from the mundane, such as who started a food fight with stale buns (and how it began), to the question of how the Ugly’s singer, Mike Nightmare died (everything from heart attack to being shot by the police).
In case I haven’t been clear, this is a thorough and excellent must read that will keep the reader involved. It is also well-edited by scene chronicler (and also one of my favorite music writers, as well as a damn fine musician) Gary Pig Gold (www.garypiggold.com), who ran the Pig Paper fanzine (past issues can be found here: www.archive.org/search.php?query=%22Pig%20Paper%22). Lastly, and it really does deserve mention, the book layout and design by ex-Diodes manager / Crash N Burn doorman / musician and poet / Bongo Beat publisher Ralph Alfonso, is a beaut. With two columns of text per page at (if I’m not correct, Ralph, let me know) 10 pt. Ariel Condensed type, there is a lot to read without having to trail all the way across the page, making this book an ergonomic ease on the eyes. Plus, there’s tons of pictures (quite a few by Ralph, himself).
Reading this made me think of two things specifically: one is that I would love to hear a clear CD collection of this music (below there is a smattering of some of the bands), and I wish there was some indication of what some of these people are doing now. Perhaps on a Web-site? On the other hand, I was impressed by how many of the people interviewed here mentioned Marshall McLuhan (who taught at the University of Toronto).
Now I’d like to see an oral history on some of the other important punk sites, such as Boston, Vancouver, Ohio (Akron/Cleveland),
P.S., Get well soon, Imants Krumins.
Reply from publisher Ralph Alfonso to this review:
Hahaha. The font is not Arial, and the type size is 8pt. A lot of work went into the layout and trying to make it all fit in 384 pages (that's a standard book size - price goes up after that). Discographies & etc. would have ballooned the book up to 500 pages or more. The way the story line worked out, there was no real room for everyone; that can all be the subject for a follow-up, I guess. Once people actually read the book (and not count their pictures or index instances), it makes a lot of sense as a unified storyline that moves chronologically in the continuous present. We did try to insert some mentions of tertiary bands but it just didn't work and looked like it was inserted for no real reason, since they had no relationships with the main players. The public agrees - we're about to go into a third printing! Crazy! I had no idea this would happen.
News Report ’77
“Tired of Waking Up Tired”:
“New York City”:
“Bomb the Boats”:
[This whole series is worth watching, starting at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvxI-xOAH_M&feature=related]