Thursday, March 20, 2008

Saving the Subhumans and their sweaty friends

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 19, 2008


Musicians scrawled set lists on scrap paper.

Kids in black leather glued posters to lampposts, or stapled flyers to telephone poles.

Budding entrepreneurs who were as much fans as businessmen released vinyl records on obscure labels in limited pressings.

The Vancouver punk scene of the late 1970s had a do-it-your-@%&*#!-self ethos. The musicians adopted noms des punque — Wimpy, Dimwit, Rampage, Useless, Jughead, Shithead. Bands formed and disbanded and reformed, sometime before ever performing. They called themselves D.O.A., Dishrags, Subhumans, K-tels, Moral Lepers, and they Rocked Against This and they Rocked For That.

Gigs were doused in blood, sweat and gob.

An exhilarating scene faded away just as mysteriously as it had first appeared. Over time, some of the musicians succumbed to 9-to-5 wage slavery. Others surrendered to addictions. A handful continued to make music in their own fashion.

Thirty years later, the W.A.C. Bennett Library at Simon Fraser University has launched what is believed to be the first institutional archive of punk material in Canada.

The library is seeking donations for the use of generations of scholars to come.

Perhaps some future doctoral thesis will explore the common themes to be found in such Vancouver punk anthems as D.O.A.’s “Disco Sucks” and the Subhumans’ “Fuck You.”

“It’s been fun building this collection,” said Eric Swanick, the head of special collections. His own musical tastes are such that he describes himself as “just an old rock ‘n’ roller.” The former New Brunswick Legislative Librarian was unfamiliar with D.O.A.’s oeuvre, but happily has a 15-year-old son who is an aficionado of headbanging hardcore.

The librarian has since attended a show by the Pointed Sticks (his verdict: “Not so punkish”) and continues to seek leads on other material. Punk’s ephemeral nature offers special difficulties for the archive. Posters were printed on the cheapest paper possible. Much else was temporary and disposable.

He struck a motherlode last year. John Armstrong, the writer who founded the Modernettes as Buck Cherry, a name he has since licensed to an American band, turns out to have been a punk packrat.

Mr. Armstrong collected comic books as a boy and, when he joined friend Art Bergmann in the nascent music scene of the late 1970s, he brought to it an acquisitiveness and a sense of history.

He kept flyers, set lists, gig posters, photographs, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, backstage passes, and handwritten lyric sheets.

“I started with a plastic Safeway bag,” he said. “Then it was two bags. Then three. Then a box. The box turned into a suitcase bought at Value Village.

“I just hung onto stuff and it grew and grew and grew.”

He schlepped the suitcase even as he moved umpteen times. When the hinges finally broke from trying to restrain the growing pile, he dropped $15 on a large, travelling wardrobe at a second-hand store.

When the librarian heard about the wardrobe, he asked for an invitation to Mr. Armstrong’s downtown eastside residence.

“We sat down in my living room. We opened it up and started going through things. Making piles. He played it pretty cool. He’d pick something up and go, ‘Umm-hmm.’ ”

Mr. Armstrong has written two brilliant and funny memoirs in “Wages” (his working life) and “Guilty of Everything” (his so-called musical career) for New Star Books. He was eager to let go of the material.

“Please take this away. I hung onto all this stuff. I did my duty. I’m sick of having it around.”

The librarian even took the wardrobe itself.

Some punk material is on display at special collections on the library’s seventh floor on the Burnaby campus, as are other items donated last year.

These include a book with an original Marc Chagall lithograph; a hymnal published in the Carrier language in 1901; a bound volume of the satirical journal Karagoz (Blackeye), published in Istanbul at the end of the Ottoman Empire; and, several works by William Cobbett, the popular English journalist and pamphleteer who championed rural peoples during the Industrial Revolution.

The novelist Eden Robinson donated her papers, making her the latest addition to the library’s roster of British Columbia writers, which includes Shani Mootoo, Bill Gaston and Michael Turner.

The library is the repository for the papers of the Little Sisters Bookstore in its long-running legal battle to import material for its gay and lesbian clientele. The Canadian Farmworkers Union has also placed its papers with the institution.

The editorial cartoonist John Larter, who was nominated last week for a National Newspaper Award last week, donated 1,185 works. Another 800 cartoons were added to the collection by Bob Bierman, Graham Harrop and Bob Krieger.

The library maintains a searchable database of 5,000 scanned toons. As it turns out, the W.A.C. Bennett Library holds 65 editorial cartoons poking fun at the foibles of its namesake.

Next year, the library and the English department hope to host an international punk conference for academics at the university’s downtown campus, which is only a short stagger down the road from the old Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, scene of many a punk bacchanalia.

As it turns out, the library offers donators money or an official receipt to be filed with Revenue Canada. For Mr. Armstrong, the call was easy, “It wouldn’t be very punk to take a tax break,” he said. He took the money. Unlike so many of his shows back in the day, his gig as amateur archivist ended with a payday.

Teen City, here we come

Some of the bands from Vancouver’s punk heyday have reformed in recent years, the reunions driven by a new generation of fans who discovered the music through the wonders of the Internet.

Joe Keithley launched Sudden Death Records in 1978 to release D.O.A.’s “Disco Sucks.” Thirty years later, the band and the label survive. D.O.A.’s uncompromising motto — “Talk Minus Action Equals Zero” — is a graffito that sums up the politics of punk in five words (or three words and two mathematical signs).

D.O.A. are recording a new album with producer Bob Rock. “Northern Avenger” is to be released this summer.

With amiable frontman Brian (Wimpy Roy) Goble and the classic songwriting of Gerry Useless (nee Hannah), The Subhumans cranked out raucous, two-minute, buzz-guitar anthems, some of the lyrics which can even be printed in this newspaper.

The Pointed Sticks were new-wave fave raves. Lured to Japan a few years back, fans stunned the band by knowing the lyrics to songs that hadn’t been performed in a quarter-century. Sudden Death Records has re-released the group’s early recordings, as well as a seven-inch record, “My Japanese Fan.”

The Modernettes were a co-ed trio with killer songs, the best-named couple (Buck Cherry and Mary Jo Kopechne) and a gutful of teen angst. John Armstrong has formed a new group under the same name. They have a Myspace page. The records are available on Sudden Death.

Among the many contemporary documentarians of the scene was the ubiquitous Bev Davies, whose black-and-white portraits capture the scene in sweaty, passout glory. Her photos now illustrate punk calendars.

Punk History Canada is a fun site covering Canada’s punk scene from 1977 to 1987. Check out the gallery to gander at some outrageous gig posters.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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