Thursday, October 22, 2009

You Weren't There (and Neither Was I)

Posted By on 10.22.09 at 01:45 PM

Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun
  • Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun
This Saturday night at the Portage Theater filmmakers Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman present another screening of You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84, their lively documentary about the early days of Chicago’s rock underground. (Miles Raymer reviewed the movie in his column when it came out in 2007.) On Tuesday, October 27, it will be released on DVD by Factory 25—and there will also be a limited-edition package that includes an LP compilation with tracks by most of the bands featured in the movie.

I settled in Chicago during the summer of 1984, though I’d also spent the summer of 1983 here, during which I attended the record-release show for Naked Raygun’s classic Basement Screams at Tut’s. But I missed out on most of the scene documented in You Weren’t There. Eventually I would hear music from early Chicago punk bands like Strike Under, the Subverts, and End Result, but I have to say, during the first half of the documentary I was learning an awful lot about a sorely underdocumented scene. I feel foolish admitting it, but I’d never even heard of Tutu & the Pirates.

Most of the key players from the scene are interviewed, and their often witty reminiscences are intercut with super-rare video footage of many of the bands. What emerges is a picture of the circumstances that helped produce some of the best music to come out of Chicago: because there was no industry, no infrastructure, and no hip media presence, anyone who wanted to make art or have fun usually had to create a situation from scratch. This explains why early punks often made common cause with the gay community and hung out in gay bars—two persecuted minorities joining together because they each had something to gain.

When the scene developed and some bands found a modicum of success in the early 80s, rifts started to appear, and in the movie you can still hear bitterness in the voices of singers John Kezdy (Effigies) and Vic Bondi (Articles of Faith) nearly three decades after the fact, as they harp on relatively benign philosophical differences as though they were mortal enemies. By the time hardcore rolled around, the punk scene was well into the hangover after the party, and the final section of the film devotes attention to some truly marginal acts—you could perusasively argue that they’ve been forgotten because they kind of sucked, not because the forces of history conspired against them. Nadsat Rebel, Verboten, and Losurdo’s Life Sentence weren’t any good the first time around, and they haven’t improved with age.

Clocking in at two hours, the film is about 30 minutes too long. Some easy fat to trim would’ve been the tedious coda, where many of the subjects come off as curmudgeonly old men (I think there are three or four women featured in the whole movie). They recall the good old days and rip on subsequent generations for lacking originality, failing to understand what punk was all about, and/or pursuing commercial motives. It’s at this point where I really started to notice all the balding heads and middle-age paunches.

Following the Saturday screening the Empty Bottle hosts a show featuring reconstituted versions of three of the bands from the documentary: Silver Abuse, Tutu & the Pirates, and Wes & Brian (of Savage Beliefs).

Below is the trailer for the film:

Today’s playlist:

Jimmy Ruffin, Ruff’n Ready (Reel/Soul)
Regina Souza, Outonos (Biscoito Fino)
Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, and Richard Stoltzman, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (RCA Victor)
Lokai, Transition (Thrill Jockey)
Pax Nicholas & the Nettey Family, Na Teef Know de Road of Teef (Daptone)

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