Remember when I was talking about Joan Didion and Tom Waits, and saying that perhaps I’d rather be from his California than from hers? I’d like to add to that by saying that this is also the California I’m from.
Repo Man is a cult film made in 1984 by Alex Cox. It’s about a guy, a car, capitalism, drugs, the possible end of the world, LA, some unseen powers, and a lot of punk rock songs. I’m sure it’s about some other stuff—it’s been forever since I saw it—but in my teenage memory, those are the things that stick. I had friends who were absolutely obsessed with this movie. I loved it, saw it many times, but I never knew all the lines like some guys did.
“Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ‘em.” –Bud, Repo Man
Pretty much anyone I knew in high school that was obsessed with this movie hung out across the street. You know what across the street is in high school, right? It’s the steps of that big old wooden house with the big gate and the shading vines that provide a nice cover for lighting joints. It’s the small alley around the corner whose curbs cradle you when you’re making out or coming down or just having a break from the constant barrage of authority known as the high school experience. In some schools, it’s the parking lot, or behind the church, or under the bleachers. It exists in every teenage world: the place in high school where kids who are a little bit outside hang out.
I liked to move around in high school — I hung out across the street, and I also didn’t. But some of my favorite people were usually there. People who weren’t from perfect one-story craftsman family homes on the West Side but instead grew up in the mountains, by the beach, in ramshackle family situations, in unheated garage bedrooms, a little closer to the edge than other people liked to acknowledge.
In high school I didn’t do drugs, didn’t even smoke cigarettes, was fairly tame in my sexuality. I was from a comparatively sane family, I did theater, I worked hard, and I wore interesting clothes. But I had friends who were far more adventurous than I was. And I loved them, and I hung out with them. Across the street.
Get outta line, next neck on the block –Circle Jerks, Coup D’Etat
Once my high school principal actually tried to talk to me about hanging out across the street. I was in his office for something unrelated, and he mentioned that it seemed like I was hanging out “over there” with “the wrong element.” My parents worked at the university. I used to be friends with (actually, date) his own son. I was a bright girl with a bright future and I wouldn’t want to, well, you know… I stared at him, at first honestly not sure what he was implying. Then I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about, and my friends were some of the smartest people I knew, and I walked outside. And across the street.
People who have had to fight for their identities—and especially people who have had to do this as children and teens—guard them with a mixture of unwavering pride and a sense of underlying vulnerability that never goes away, no matter how black your clothes or scratched your arms or loud your culture. If you are a teenager and someone puts you down, hits you, ignores you, or even just doesn’t really notice you – or if you feel in some other way (culturally, sexually) disenfranchised, it shows. If you can find something that somehow, with its mix of intelligence and fuck-you-ness and bitter humor, speaks to your feelings, you memorize it. It’s punk for a lot of people, or movies like Repo Man, or theater or video games or whatever culture catches you in that moment of vulnerability and allows you in.
I’m not crazy / you’re the one who’s crazy / you’re driving me crazy –Suicidal Tendencies, Institutionalized
Listening back, this music sounds much mellower than I thought it was at the time. Punk. It is so angry and so about rebellion. But it is also just, really, rock ‘n’ roll, no? Sometimes faster, sometimes yelling-er , but always about a guitar and a kid who wants to be heard. I must have heard these songs when I first saw the film – probably in junior high, considering the fact that I had an older brother. I know that I loved Suicidal Tendencies and their dirty lack of tact or melody. I loved The Circle Jerks even though I wasn’t even really sure what their name meant. Black Flag was a presence that invoked Cool even if I never got super into them – channeling disaffected teenagers everywhere with we’ve got nothing better to do than watch tv and have a couple of brews, dude. And just today I realize that this soundtrack album contains the first version of “Pablo Picasso” I ever heard, long before I knew who the Modern Lovers or Jonathan Richman are.
I’m glad to have listened to this music young. I’m glad to have identified, even tangentially, with the cultural place this record represents. This place of rebellion and humor all at once, this cult Hollywood outsider status of whatever was happening in the 80s and 90s in California that left such an impression. And I’m glad people listened to me when I was a kid. I wish they’d listened to more of my friends.
Because this record is about them. Kids. About the way it sounded to be a teenager in this place, dreaming of access to a car or money, avoiding the crush of pressures large and small, feeling acutely aware of our impending-apocalyptic era, the hot California pavement shaking beneath our skin every day, trying to understand and accept and get the hell out of and fall in love with where we were from. Across the street, in a cul de sac, or on the open radioactive road. This is California, too.