Penelope Spheeris chronicled the wild days of punk and captured a movement that has become a teenage myth. She talked to us about the last revolution in music.
In your acclaimed documentary-trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization, you portray the punk and metal scenes in California. Each movie has a different focus but they are all characterized by an extreme intimacy between the camera and the protagonists. Have you kept in touch with some of the people you portrayed?
Yes, absolutely. I am still in touch with Eugene for example – the young punk from the first Decline. But it’s especially the streets kids from the third part that I consider my punk-rock family.
There is the professional side of documenting their lives but then there is also something personal. I never just wanted to use them for my movies. I feel a very strong connection to these kids. I even met my boyfriend through the third Decline movie. He was one of the gutter-punks and was homeless for 10 years before I met him.
What was it that drew you to the punk scene in the first place?
I think my upbringing played a big role in it. I grew up in a dysfunctional family – to put it mildly. I grew up in a travelling circus; my father was shot when I was a kid and my mom was a hoarder who married one guy after another. There was a lot of physical and psychological violence and chaos in my childhood and early adulthood. I think that is something I share with many punks. People often ask me, how I managed to feel safe as a woman among all these brute characters that the punk scene attracted. But I felt right at home because it reminded me so much of my own family.
I guess for somebody with your background, the notion of an outcast or freak is something else than to the rest of society.
Exactly. I never considered the punks freaks or different from myself. Punk was always very closely linked to a certain style and you could spot a punk from far. I remember that when the first punks walked the streets of LA, people felt offended – afraid even. In London, that was a bit different. It wasn’t so shocking over there because it was more pervasive. Here, you were a complete outcast.
”Self-promotion is for the Kardashians”
You once called punks the “termites in the woodwork of society” …
They are! The reason I said that is because termites are very powerful, yet barely visible. I think that is also what true punk is about.
That seems at odds with the general notion we have of them as people that dress and behave in an extravagant way to shock and catch people’s attention.
True punks don’t promote themselves too much. They don’t care for that. Of course they might wear a yellow Mohawk but they don’t instrumentalize it. Self-promotion is for the Kardashians.
The punk movement started forty years ago and it has evolved from an underground subculture to a self-marketing opportunity for rebellious teenagers. Is punk dead?
No, I don’t think so. I just think that the label “punk” has been misused by many bands or people. I mean punk has always attracted the chaotic and the troubled souls but it was never really marketed as such. Punk has been bastardized by people that want to be associated with this radical movement but are in no way open to live the life that punks lived in the 1970s.
The myth of punk has destroyed the actual scene?
In a way, yes. At its core, punk is extremely moral, socially vigilant and politically active. These are the values and principles of punk and I don’t think they are being respected today. It pisses me off but there is nothing I can do about it. Punk is the ultimate sign of teenage revolution but it has been commercialized to a degree that it can no longer revolt against the system because it has become part of it. Maybe punk in the 1970s was the last youth culture that actually changed something.
In music or within society?
Both, really. I mean maybe the grunge scene after that but I don’t really care too much for it. Punk was just so unique and completely changed how we think about music and its place in society. Punk was never just about music but tried to go against the mainstream in every way.
In the first Decline, there is a scene in which the editor of the punk-fanzine Slash says that punk will be the last revolution. Did you think that too at the time?
It’s always easier to argue these things in hindsight. In that moment you consider it extremely important and unique but you not always know that this moment is going to have some special significance later on. I think most people in the punk scene thought they were part of something that defines their generation. We were clueless that it would also shape all the following ones.
”The Internet has annihilated the underground”
The title of the trilogy hints at a radical and decisive process or moment in time. How did you come up with it?
People are always curious about it. I was at a party on the rooftop of Slash. At one point Claude Bessy, the magazine’s editor, mentioned a book by Oswald Spengler called The Decline of the West and when I was driving home the title came back to me and just seemed very fitting. Of course it is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title but there is some truth to it. In the third part, Ron, the singer from the band The Resistance, points out that every culture has its rise and fall. And I think that the Western culture peaked a long time ago.
The irony is that in all three movies we see a subculture that is actually in decline. By the time the first part was released punk had peaked. When the second part about the metal scene was released, grunge was just around the corner.
There is some truth to that, yes. But when I did the movies, it was more than just the music that attracted me. I never thought, “this is the next big thing, I have to document this”. To be honest, I was more interested in the human aspects of punk than in the music. The punk scene was a treasure trove of extreme human behavior.
These characters are missing in today’s music scene, I would argue.
Everything has become homogenized and once you mix everything together, it becomes hard to be authentic. Today’s music scene seems very blunt. The Internet has annihilated the underground. Everybody knows everything. That’s why we miss and long for the days, when there was still authenticity and some edge to a subculture. We cherish this idea or this myth of punk because we lack an equivalent. That’s also why I stopped making music documentaries. What should I document? It has become easier for young people to romanticize punk than to create something new.
Also because subcultures like punk felt very holistic in the sense that they included fashion, art, music and everything else. The Slits-guitarist Viv Albertine even argued that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren started punk through their clothes and then the music followed.
I spent a lot of time with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and he complained a lot about that because he claims that he invented punk. But in true punk spirit, it doesn’t really matter who invented it. We should be happy that somebody did. And yes, it was a very complete subculture because there was some kind of shared codex that dictated how you had to look or how you had to go about things. It was not as chaotic and anarchistic as people might think. We lived by our own set of rules.
Commercial self-marketing was obviously something that was frowned upon. How did you as a director handle this? Did some people from the scene distrust you?
No, not really. I was one of them, so there was no feeling of exploitation. When I did the third part, I walked up to some punk-kids on the street and told them that I was working on a new Decline movie and they replied in anger that I couldn’t do that because Penelope had to do it. When I told them that I am Penelope, they all agreed on the spot to be a part of it. I earned their trust because they knew from the first two movies that I am not doing it to expose or capitalize on something.
For the premiere of the first movie, the LAPD sent 300 motorcycle cops to prevent a riot and the chief begged you to never again publicly show the movie in his city. It is very hard to imagine something like that today.
I never thought about it as a potential for riots. Looking back, I think we involuntarily invented the first flash-mob back then.
Punk is closely linked to trashy aesthetics but there is something extremely beautiful and gracious about the aesthetics of the movies. You almost glamorize the filthiness of the scene. Was that your intention?
It was a deliberate choice, yes. Not only the aesthetics but also the content was not meant to propel the notion that punk is about living in dirty squads and shooting heroin. That is nothing that I want to put on a pedestal. There is sensationalism and shock value in that but I don’t want to show that to young adults. I never wanted to provoke those sorts of feelings.
The movies also find a good balance between tragedy and humor. The protagonists tell their tales of anger and despair but they do it in the most uplifting and humorous way.
They don’t beg for pity and that makes the difference. That makes it more emotional and profound. They rise above self-pity, which is characteristic of punk. Are you a punk Max?
I am definitely not. I used to dress up as punk for the local kids carnival celebration but that’s about it.
I hope you have pictures of that, it sounds adorable! What music did you listen to when you grew up?
Techno for the most part.
I know very little about that scene actually.
Berlin is very notorious for it. When the wall came down, clubs just popped up over here and there was a growing underground subculture of ravers. Today, the city still lives off of that and the time is often romanticized as the last revolution in music – much like punk in the US.
I just remember seeing the band Einstürzende Neubauten from Berlin. It was a spectacular performance. I was on acid. Maybe that had something to do with it.