Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: Underground: The Subterranean Culture of DIY Punk Shows, by Daniel Makagon

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Underground: The Subterranean Culture of DIY Punk Shows
By Daniel Makagon
Microcosom Publishing (Portland, OR), 2015
223 pages (inc. photos); USD $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-62106-518-0

The central focus of this book is a look at independent venues that put on shows and produce their own idiosyncratic scenes, rather than the usual bars, theaters and other licensed places with names that many are familiar with, such as the 9:30 Club, the Channel, and so on. Rather, we get to see an inside look at the positives and negatives of holding performances in houses, garages, and shows in rented spaces. He also handles the topics of the differences between being payed to put on shows, and having volunteers who are there for the excitement and experience, more than for the payload. An example of a New York volunteer-run space discussed here is ABC No Rio.

House shows are nothing new, and were certainly not invented by the punk scene. Folk music has been doing it for decades, under the Scottish term, Cèilidh (pronounced as KAY-lee). Sure it started as just some friends coming over and bringing their own instruments and playing together, but it also developed into house shows for pay in the 1960s, at first as to raise money for civil rights causes, but now it’s often done to support the space and musicians; it continues on to this day. I once saw a community centre dance during 2003 in Mabu, Nova Scotia, with world renowned musicians such as fiddlers Natalie McMaster and most of the Beaton family for CAN$7 (McMaster alone usually sells out Carnegie Hall). Recently in Saskatoon, there was a local political rally for a local political party held in a backyard [HERE].

However, punk shows are their own kettle of fish, dealing with a totally different kind of audience. Rather than sedate handclapping-along, with the amplification comes energy and a larger chance of mayhem, substance abuse, and dealing with anxious police enforcement. Makagon is correct when he posits that “each city has its own unique roadblocks” (p. 198).  As I’ve oft said, most local scenes start off small and intimate, and as they catch on, they tend to attract a violent element (usually jocks that destroy the joy, usually starting from their actions in the pit) which eventually wears the scene down to extinction, or other factors associated with that popularity. As Makagon puts it, “The whole scene can be let down by the actions of a select few fools” (p. 214).

The local scene that last attracted me was in Brooklyn, called the Punk Temple, where a bunch of entrepreneurs rented out the basement of a Bensonhurst synagogue [HERE]. There were shows approximately every three weeks featuring bands touring from all over the country (but mostly from the Tri-State area), for a few years in the early 2000s. As the Temple (as it was known to its regulars; Makagon shows that all scene places have a unique name) became better known, the pit became more ferocious, and though all ages and substance free inside its doors, people (mostly teens) would hang around outside to do their imbibing. The noise they made did not sit well with the lower-middle class area and there were some complaints from the neighbors. Finally, during a sold out show with Leftover Crack headlining, the Police had enough and pulled the plug. Through the precinct’s influence, the synagogue stopped renting the place and in a couple of years, the building was replaced by a condo complex. Other local offshoot scenes were tried, but over time they vanished as well, like the mist on the moors, or the clouds from a smoke machine.

This is the kind of situation that Makagon addresses, about how the scenes get started, and the people who run the show. This is certainly not a how-to primer, but rather what to expect from the crowds, from the bands, and the neighbors.

Broken up into sections dealing with different aspects about the positives and the negatives of DIY shows, in the book Makagon follows a formula that is reminiscent of a graduate school project (not saying this as a complaint in any way, as I am certainly comfortable with that style). For example, he talks about an issue for a bit, and then has a quote from someone who has experienced it for a bit. The writing style varies from keeping it on a level that the average reader can appreciate (i.e., not opaque, or in academic lingo), but still manages to throw in some theory that is juuuust academic enough to make it bona fide. Again, this is not meant as not an argument for or against the book, it’s just an observation.

The book covers multiple scenes from across the US, and is well researched, even beyond the author’s Chicago locus. Part of what makes this viable, to me, is that he is not an author in search of a topic to dissect, but rather he is involved in the movement, so it’s something that is close to him, and it shows. His describing himself as one of the oldest on the scene is also something with which I can identify.

Also included in the book are a large number of monochrome photos from various scenes published in dark green rather than black, as is the text. While a bit wordy and could easily be trimmed by quite a few pages (that is the academic’s albatross, needing to say volumes; it’s very common, even to me), there is still plenty of material that’s worth sorting through.

Overall, the book is not only informative, but it’s also quite enjoyable, even through the occasional dry spots. If you’re thinking of throwing some shows, or want some more knowledge about it, even to just see that you’re not alone in whatever you’re going through, it’s worth it to add this to the list of books about the topic. Again, this is not a manual, but it is a good source to help keep it going, including on a psychological level, from both a level of an academic and a fan.

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