The Smell, LA punk club

In the 2000s, I was in high school outside of Los Angeles and worshipped the hardcore/grindcore scene throughout Southern California. Every weekend, I would attend backyard shows in the shacks that spread throughout the prairies that surrounded my hometown. There were orange trees, grapevines, abandoned homes that provided shelter for houseless youth, meth labs, graffiti-covered fences and boulders, cheap tattoos, bad haircuts, and a lot of sweat. Some people had nice homes and “cool dads” who would watch the shows through the windows on the second-floor of their homes. Some people had no dads and no money and would host backyard shows, selling drinks and drugs to youth in order to pay their rent. Some youth were addicts and some were straight-edge. Everyone was in a band and had a side project. My main band was called The Ambulance Ride. I was the vocalist and lyricist. Some shows were not at houses but in venues, such as The Showcase Theatre in Corona, The Glasshouse in Pomona, or my favorite The Smell in downtown Los Angeles. At The Smell, they would host $10 shows on Sunday afternoons where your favorite bands, such as No Age or Mika Miko, would cut your hair for free and serve free pancakes with orange juice. A man who lived on skid row would direct the traffic at the back alley of The Smell. He knew everyone and his face was on the shirts for the venue. Inside, there were old abandoned car seats in the corner and board games. Vegan snacks were sold, but I think that just meant water and Oreo cookies at the time. Oh, and the venue in my hometown was called The Haven. I was in a clique that called that venue home. When it closed, everyone brought baseball bats to the car windows in the parking lot.

When I say “punk,” I use it as a term broadly to reference my days in the hardcore/grindcore/thrash/power-violence scene outside of Los Angeles. I’m not currently interested in writing about the history of the term punk or defining the history of (queer) Latinx punks in Los Angeles. In this essay, what I want to do is talk about one vocalist and lyricist who was crucial for me in building a literary aesthetic and understanding the tone, themes, voice of my own poetry. Justin Pearson is my forever literary crush. Pearson was part of the Swing Kids, The Locust, The Crimson Curse, Holy Molar, Head Wound City, Ground Unicorn Horn, Some Girls, All Leather, and Retox. His impact on the West Coast grindcore scene is immeasurable. He ran it. He runs it. In 1994, Pearson started his own record label called Three One G that produced some of the best grindcore bands nationally. More than listing band names, what I want to do is take the song titles from one of Pearson’s most renowned bands, The Locust, and discuss how the song titles function (or how I have used them to understand my literary style). Thanks to Justin Pearson, whose work has undoubtedly changed my life and given me a place to exist on the fringes of society.

The song titles below often contain various poetic techniques but do not usually follow closed poetic forms. What makes punk lyrics recognizable for me is the tones and themes, which will be discussed. Below, I have cited the song, then the album, from which it was released, followed by the record label and year it was released. The main text to focus on is the song title in quotes, as it relates to the tone or theme given.

Tone:

When imagining a punk tonality, I imagine someone with a smiling face and two middle fingers up. Punk is often meant to be taken direly serious in its politics. Yet, the delivery of those politics is frequently done with wit, humor, sarcasm, flippancy, or other comedic forms. The juxtaposition that often happens between the seriousness of the subject matter discussed in punk lyrics with more comedic elements, is similar to laughing away the pain. As if all you can do is laugh and make fun of the situation, to use comedy as a method of making the hypocrisy of the oppressor visible. The hypocrisies that punk often points to is also what makes oxymoron so popular in punk lyrics. It is from a feeling of outsiderness, of disenfranchisement that these anti-authoritarian politics often come from. The comedy used in punk is sometimes like a mask to protect the vulnerability of one’s situation. When looking beyond the crudeness of punk lyrics, there is often tenderness and pain and a desire for change in one or the collective’s condition.

Tone: Wit and Humor and Sarcasm and Flippancy and Other Comedic Forms

"Stucco Obelisks Labeled as Trees" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Dog Without a Collar (Run over Red Rover)" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Can We Get Another Nail in the Coffin of Culture Theft?" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Twenty-Three Full-Time Cowboys" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Alas, Here Come the Hypochondriacs to Wait With You in the Lobby" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Recyclable Body Fluids in Human Form" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Immune System Overtime" from Safety Second, Body Last (2005, Radio Surgery) 

"We Have Reached an Official Verdict: Nobody Gives a Shit" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)

"Backbones of Jack Asses" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

Themes:

Punk themes can vary from band to band, but one of the consistencies is anti-authoritarianism: the belief in a collective and DYI ethos because all other systems are untrustworthy, and a feeling of persecution and outsiderness imposed by the state or by the public. To be punk is to be seen as the other. Have you ever walked around the city like a freak, with your pants sewed too tight, face all pierced, hair dyed the wrong colors, smelling like your latest dumpster dive? I would add that anti-racist, sex positive, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic politics are also compatible with a punk ethos. There is often a desire to be as inclusive as possible, in response to one's perceived otherness. There is a desire to be spontaneous and find excitement in a world filled with routine, regulations, and mundane assimilation. These notes are, of course, broad generalizations used to discuss the song titles and lyrics from The Locust (and other Southern California grindcore bands that I love) and cannot be applied universally to all “punk” bands ever.

Anti-War / Anti-Authoritarian

"Wet Dream War Machine" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-) 

"Siphoning Projectiles During Selective Amnesia" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Late for a Double Date with a Pile of Atoms in the Water Closet" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"One Manometer Away from Mutually Assured Relocation" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)

"Follow the Flock, Step in Shit" from Follow the Flock, Step in Shit (2003, Three One G)

"The Unwilling... Led by the Unqualified... Doing the Unnecessary... for the Ungrateful" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)

"Live from the Russian Compound" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Kill Roger Hedgecock" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

Sexually Perverse

"High-Maintenance Libido, Bring the Whole Family" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Gluing Carpet to Your Genitals Does Not Make You a Cantaloupe" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Bring Your 6.5 Italian Carbine" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Identity Exchange Program Rectum Return Policy" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Who Wants a Dose of the Clap?" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-) 

"How to Become a Virgin" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Psst! Is That a Halfie in Your Pants?" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Twenty-Three Lubed Up Schizophrenics with Delusions of Grandeur" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-) 

"Full Frontal Obscurity" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)

Sacreligious

"Get Off the Cross, the Wood Is Needed" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Anything Jesus Does I Can Do Better" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Priest with the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Get Out of My Bed" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-) 

"God Wants Us All to Work in Factories" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)

Affinity for the Grotesque, Morbid, Carnal

"Moth-Eaten Deer Head" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Spitting in the Faces of Fools as a Source of Nutrition" from Flight of the Wounded Locust (2001, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Hairy Mouth" from Safety Second, Body Last (2005, Radio Surgery) 

"Hot Tubs Full of Brand New Fuel" from New Erections (2007, ANTI-)         

"An Extra Piece of Dead Meat" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Skin Graft at Seventy-Five Miles Per Hour" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Cattle Mutilation" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

Oxymoronic or Nonsensical or Odd or Needlessly Provocative

"Teenage Mustache" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-) – 0:55

"File Under 'Soft Core Seizures'" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Practiced Hatred" (Crossed Out cover) from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"How to Build a Pessimistic Lie Detector" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)

"Nice Tranquil Thumb in Mouth" from The Locust (1998, Gold Standard Laboratories)         

"Solar Panel Asses" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

"Pickup Truck Full of Forty Minutes" from Plague Soundscapes (2003, ANTI-)

Before leaving the essay, here is a video of Justin Pearson’s newest band, Retox. This song is titled “Boredom is Counter-Revolutionary” from Ugly Animals (2011, Ipecac Recordings). The tone and themes and energy of the lyrics that Justin Pearson produces have sculpted my writing practice as much as my favorite poets.

Originally Published: September 12th, 2017

Poet and activist Christopher Soto, who also uses the name Loma, is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants. He was educated at New York University.  In his poems, Soto engages themes of intimacy, trauma, and identity. In a 2014 blog essay for VIDA, Soto writes, “At dinner she asked why I...