the screamers live at target video
Joe Rees’ Target Video filmed hundreds of hours of video footage of about every punk band that pushed through San Francisco as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, including such ultimate artifacts as the Cramps live at the Napa State mental hospital and Crime live at San Quentin. He will present never-before-seen clips of punk bands from all over America tonight at Cinefamily. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What are we going to see at this screening that no one has ever seen before?
I have some things I’ve never shown before—for example, Suburban Lawns. They were from the Western Front festival. You have to understand that some of these don’t have the best audio quality because in those days we were working with a paper cup and a string for audio. But I tried to select the performances which were the most effective and gave a good representation of the bands. I mean, I love them all but there’s some that I care much more about. The situation was better for a band called Female Hands—they have a song called ‘Get A Job’and it’s a real pounding beautiful performance and you’ll see it in the show. Many of these bands, they may have had one or two songs that were outstanding—I usually got at least three songs from everybody but Female Hands, I got a half hour of their stuff. And then you had some nights that were better than others. When I’m working in a place like Club Foot or the Deaf Club, they had a real problem with AC power and they had a real problem with lights. But you know how it isyou get a good combination of energy and an outstanding performance, like the Flesheaters when they came on—it didn’t make any difference, it communicates. So that’s the kind of thing that goes down. You’re going to see stuff like Geza X. Geza X was the audio person for so many groups for many groups like the Screamers—he was the genius behind the Screamers. But he never really got a lot of his own recognition. Now I know Geza as friends and I admire him but I don’t think he got the breaks that he deserved. I do have a couple of Geza’s records. It was a battle between him working on audio things for the Screamers and various other groups and doing his own work. It was tough. I’ve got the Bags where you have Alice Bag in that band and you’ve got her in another group called Castration Squad. You can see the thread that goes through a lot of these things and that’s what’s really nice—that’s what I really enjoy. Now I didn’t know the L.A. scene all that well—I met these people and I wish I could have spent more time down there but I was living in San Francisco and of course I was dealing with the Dead Kennedys and the Dils and that was my main focus. Negative Trend was one of my favorites. But I always loved going to L.A. and I loved shooting it and of course I was a Screamers fan from the very first day.
Do you think they’re L.A.’s greatest ‘lost’ band?
I think so. This is the honest to God truth because I’ve looked at hundreds of punk bands from all over the world—I went to Europe and spent three years over there shooting punk bands—but the Screamers had a unique style. Tomata, Tommy Gear and K.K. and Paul really had their own unique approach and let’s face it—Tomata did plenty! He was an incredible person and he really projected a performance style—I love it. Sometimes I think it was better that they didn’t get a lot of breaks but on the other hand I’m just so grateful that I have a lot of video tape of them and a lot of audio recording of them because I’m still not through with that. Every time I go back to it, I get excited—I get goose bumps all over my arms. It’s that exciting and that’s why I opened my show at the Museum of Contemporary Art with the Screamers because I really think they had that savage, wild Los Angeles scream.
How many bands are there who were documented only by Target Video? What do you have that exists nowhere else at all?
It’s hard for me to keep up with that part of it because I work with so many different groups. I don’t compare myself to other things that are out there. I do know my experience and the people that were working with Target—you know we had a three-story brick building in the Mission District in San Francisco and people would actually live there for a while, so it was a family thing. We all had business to deal with and that’s the number one issue. We weren’t just screwing around all the time. We wanted to get serious. Especially when I think of bands like Black Flag who would come around. Whenever they would come into town, for me that was like, ‘OK, clear the decks!’ I’ve got from when they had Chavo. Black Flag was an exceptional band just because of their commitment and their dedication, you know—all the miles they put into hauling around in that van. They were great to work with. Chuck—thank God we’re still close friends and Henry, Henry is off doing his own things, but we formed a bond, and Dez, I love him—he’s another person that is so easy to get close to. When I look at—for example, today I transferred over some old material again of Black Flag and Dez is the lead singer, not Henry. But my God, they could stand against any band any day with that intensity. Dez singing—it was just kick ass. It just rips me out. I get energized—it gets me excited, it gets me really pumping. And I can watch Henry, he’s got a different style. I always tried to shoot Henry like King Kong—I tried to get a real low profile on him because he had that real muscular build and he does that song ‘Rise Above’ and I wanted to just drive that thing right through the screen. I wanted Henry coming out like King Kong belting it out.
Is that kind of energy what made you decide to start shooting punk bands?
My background is that when I was a little kid I was totally crazy about rock ‘n roll. I wanted to be a performer myself. I played a guitar and was in a band for a while. A band that was never heard of—just a local band in a little town in Iowa. We went on the local television broadcast and did a pantomime kind of thing but I was only about 11 years old then. I had this determination but I kind of lost that—lost my way for a while because I was also really into being a visual artist. I grew up in a place where it was pretty rough to be an artist period. In the middle of Iowa they always rejected those kinds of people but when I got a chance to go to art school because of my visual art abilities—my talents—I got into that right away. I got into art school as a painter and then I found my way to sculpture but I always had a total fascination with music. I had to have it in my life. When Lou Reed came out with Rock n’ Roll Animal, I thought that was the greatest breakthrough. When I heard punk rock in the ‘70s, oh my God—it just hit a button with me. That was the message. I’m a social-political animal—I’ve always had an anger about life and the way it treats people and to combine that kind of assault with music, I mean—my God, right away I was totally blown away! Obviously the Clash and the Sex Pistols came out, but even other bands like early Killing Joke and then the California bands when they rolled in one after another—the Weirdos’ ‘Life of Crime,’ it just got my blood pumping. So when I got to art school I met the Mutants—they were all friends of mine and they were forming a band and Penelope at the Art Institute was organizing the Avengers at the time and then I met David Byrne from the Rhode Island School of Design and he was doing that band Talking Heads. When he came to town, he came to the studio and it was great. He was enthusiastic about what I was doing and gave me so much support. I shot early stuff of the Talking Heads doing a free concert at Berkeley which was mind blowing. All of this kind of stuff stirred up in a big mixer and I became totally addicted to performance art and noise. We were also going through this problem the whole time. I was into performance artwork myself and the thing of it was we were going through this problem with art galleries and museums—they didn’t want to cooperate. They only wanted stuff that was saleable—that was marketable. So there was this great thing going on about alternative spaces in the ‘70s—an alternative space, an abandoned building. Some place where you could do your thing and invite your friends over to watch and it usually involved song and dance and movement and poetry. So that’s what the deal was. I worked with a lot of those people. Some of them made the change and started to deal with night clubs, some of them stayed the other way and that was what was going on in the ‘70s. And I got really excited about it and one thing led to another.
Why do you think it was necessary for Target to exist? What made this such a part of your life for years?
Back then I was a so-called established sculptor—in other words doing sculpture in galleries and art museums. That was a real disappointment because I was on a roll and had a lot of support. The so-called art critic in San Francisco was spreading the news that I was hot shit but the thing of it was that I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t getting the feedback that I wanted to get—obviously the people who would come to those kinds of events were real saps. I just didn’t like it. I found a need to communicate to my own peer group—my crowd, the people that I respected. And so that’s why I started an alternative art space myself in Oakland in the early ‘70s to present performances and artists that were what I called fringe—front-line people, people taking chances, real edgy stuff. Because it got me excited—that’s where I saw this whole thing going. So I started that and before Target Video it was called Targeted Open Support System. It was a completely different kind of idea but I was experimenting. I was trying things and so that started working. But then I realized that Oakland wasn’t the place to be—there was too much heavy crap going down. Black Panther Party was going down and there was a lot of trouble in the city so San Francisco was the place to be. So I hitched up my horses and moved to San Francisco. I get over there and as luck would have it, I found this three-story brick building in the Mission District. I met the owner and he told me that there was nothing going on here except some pretty heavy crap on the top floor and ‘I want those people out’ because it was too weird. He wanted to get rid of them so he rented me the place. It couldn’t have been better—they had a loading dock, three stories and an elevator and it was only a couple grand a month. Now I didn’t have that kind of money but I did have skills in those days—and a lot of friends—and we went in there and cleaned it and painted it and turned it into a shiny type of jewel. And I rented out the top floor at the time to a company for storage. They paid the rent.
How were you able to sustain an operation like that for so long?
Well, at the time I was on a roll with my sculpture and the art critic in San Francisco at the time got me a job as chairman of the sculpture department at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. As a young snot-nosed guy I got this big buck job. I knew that I liked the fine arts scene but at the same time it was only just a step—it was servicing my desire. I took the job of course.
What was the Target Video TV show like? What would someone have seen if they were just flipping around the channels?
After I graduated with a master’s degree in fine art I wanted to learn more about television production because I was already stirring up the thing with Target and I realized that there was a lot of things that I didn’t know. You’ve got to be in the right place to get any information out of these people because they’re so secretive and I was always beg, borrowing and stealing. I was making one deal on one side and one deal on another to get my hands on a good camera in order to do these shoots. When I first started back in the ‘70s, the only equipment available at that time was Super 8 and if you could afford it, 16mm. So I started with that but it was really difficult because you’d always rely on the whole thing of processing the film and waiting for it to come back to see what you got. It was a real challenge. But back in the ‘70s when I was in graduate school, the Sony Corporation donated a new device called the Portapak and it was one of the first single tube black-and-white cameras. And I did some stuff to alter the camera. Once I found out the limitations of shooting at night—a tech geek guy at my campus, he was always trying to give me advice and he was like, ‘Look, put in one of these security camera tubes because they are more sensitive to light.’ and you could shoot in night clubs which sometimes had only a little light. You’ll see, for example, the Dickies—when they first hit the stage, the lights from the stage would kind of blow their faces out so you get this black background with white silhouettes but as I adjust the aperture to try to deal with it—because it is such a radical change—it comes into zone and it looks pretty damn good. But at least we could shoot those! Otherwise we couldn’t shoot them at all—the early video cameras required so much light and so much intensity, it was a nightmare. So of course I signed up at Merritt College and started to take their video class and their TV production so I could have that access. Through that access I found out about a free cable channel that would service the Bay Area through San Francisco called Cable 25. Most of the shows on there were cooking shows or how to breast feed your children—the Maharishi had a show on Wednesday nights. Well lo and behold, I got my little piece—it was an hour-long section right after the Maharishi. When I first started—you have to understand this was the beginning of video, the beginning of editing, the beginning of cameras, but I had this determination. I said, ‘I want to get this stuff out there.’ The first shows were a lot of poetry and art performance combined with punk music but it was a mixture and then I’d follow Maharishi. The problem with the Maharishi was that by the time he finished with his show, it was always kind of sleepy time and I would go in there with my friends wearing our leather jackets and our defiant look and there was the Maharishi who was just his sweet person but it really irritated the hell out of me. I had to come up with an opening to my show that really was different than the Maharishi because he was doing the lotus position. So I came up with the idea of using a machine gun from an old movie and I would edit this montage of all the faces and issues of social political things that I wanted to talk about during the show—I would open the show with about a 3 minute blast of machine gun fire and it was so irritating. It was so completely the opposite of the Maharishi that at first people were totally distraught at the TV station—they thought, ‘What the hell is he doing? We got everyone all relaxed into a coma and up comes Target Video!’ And it was this punk thing. But listen—the Maharishi being the all-knowing all-wonderful guy thought I had a great idea.
So you got the spiritual support of the Maharishi?
Yes, I did! Goddammit, I swear!
Did he ever mention how much he liked Crime or anything?
No, no, it didn’t go that far. He knows how to handle anything—the point of it was that it served my purpose because we did have to shock the hell out of people to get some attention.
How were you ever able to get Crime into San Quentin? Or the Cramps into the Napa State Mental Hospital?
Because times were different then. We’ve got such an anal-retentive society these days you cant hardly do a thing. We’re destroying creativity—we are really destroying creativity with all the laws and restrictions. It’s a nightmare. Even my own kids—I am so sad about what is going on. It is so difficult to be creative. In the ‘70s people were begging. California was an open place, they poured tons of money into colleges, into art programs. I don’t even know if you were born yet, but believe me I would go to universities as a guest lecturer and they would have these incredible foundries for casting metal and making art. And they would have these incredible studios for graduate artists and they’d pay you a bunch of money—you could actually make a good living being an art teacher. The only problem was that it was still really conservative and they weren’t taking the big chances but that’s cool because when you have a situation like that it allows young snot-nosed people to come and say, ‘I want to try and do something different.’ So that is why we had a whole organization of people who were trying to think of ways to break out of the mold and that’s why when we contacted different places like San Quentin prison. I know all about those prison programs because I worked there for a number of years putting these things together—they were so happy to see you, you couldn’t believe it. That was an organization called Bread and Roses that used to exist in the Bay Area—they put together a lot of shows. Some of them real high-end commercial, some of them art-performance type of things but they were just into the arts and like I said, no one got sued in those days. People were willing to take chances—people were open-minded and that was what was so wonderful about the times. If you could come up with an idea like that, they were happy to hear it. The same with the Napa State Mental Hospital. You think that could go on today? No way! There would be like fifteen lawyers standing outside the gate licking their chops. One of the greatest things about that event—even to this day I am so moved when I watch that video over and over. But the thing of it is—those people who were going through such a heavy experience in life and were confined to that mental institution, the freedom and the happiness that they had that day during that event was almost like a miracle! It was almost like watching something biblical—something from a Cecil B. DeMille film but in a real sense, a true sense. Nobody was acting and I have never seen anything in my life so moving and I’ve been told that a thousand times. We were at the right place at the right time but we had the right thing in our hearts. We wanted to have an experience and it all came together with magic.
Are those the twin pinnacles of the Target videography?
There is one that you left out that was extremely important and that was the Mutants at the School For the Deaf. That was mind-blowing and you had to be there because the happiness and the joy on the kids’ faces and everybody. See, when you get this reciprocal thing going down—nobody made any money! It was the magic of putting these elements together. The Mutants doing a free show for deaf kids. The kids responding because it was exciting and nobody ever pays attention to them plus the energy that the Mutants generated because of their music and the kids responding to it—it was just a phenomenal experience. If you could bottle that experience it would be worth millions of dollars an ounce! If mankind could be like that, wouldn’t we be in a better place right now?
Why do you feel that punk was such a positive humanistic thing? And what do you think of its casual reputation for destruction and nihilism?
That’s because there are so many people trying to cash in on it and trying to find a way to market it and in reality the only good thing—and I got kind of bitter about the way things were going because I could see that there wasn’t enough of that true punk spirit that existed back in the ‘70s—but you know what I think? There are new kids who are innocent and idealistic enough to be able to generate the same kind of feeling. And I’m thinking of my own two boys who have a punk band that doesn’t have a name yet.
Have you filmed them yet?
Not really but they’re 14 and they’re getting close because they’ve been playing their guitars now for about three years. And then I’m thinking of Chip Dil and Tony Dil of the Dils and his son Dewey who has a band called the Plimptons and I heard them—they’re incredible because they’ve got that raw excitement and that energy. And I think if we encourage that, if we really support that—if you think of something that is really clean, idealistic and fresh, that’s where it’s at. That is gold! And the problem with the world we live in is we have a tendency to tarnish everything right away and exploit it to the point that it becomes dirty. It’s not good for us to think of anything like that because if we don’t have these fresh things in our life, then we don’t have this wonderful excitement of creativity. We need something fresh like that.
Why is the time right now for this Target Video resurgence? It seems like there was nothing for years and then suddenly the vaults crack open.
Because I’m not happy with the way things are going. That’s why. I’m not happy at all—I just explained to you what I do believe in. I believe in the young people—I believe in really trying to leave these kids alone and it’s just horrible how we trash the youth. They can see this world and they can see we have a lot of problems. We need a way out and we can’t seem to do it because we’re too prejudiced and I’m saying the only thing I can see as an artist is to open up these doors and let these kids talk and leave them alone.
Does that connect to what Target was doing in the ‘70s?
Well, it does. I was in the ‘60s and the ‘60s was a very exciting time—we had a purpose. We had an army of people going in the same direction and I really think it accomplished a lot of good things but then things got real convoluted. Then in the ‘70s you had another rebirth of excitement—and personally I have to say that the ‘70s were one of the freshest and most creative times. Because not only music but visual art, the poetry and all the posters and John Denney designing clothes for the Weirdos. There were so many levels and it was a profound movement of time that never got the recognition because it was saleable enough right away. We might even see a revisit to that in a phony way.
What kind of practical things do you want to communicate to people now who are still working on these same kinds of things?
To be honest I don’t think this show is going to communicate all of it—I think this show is more like a primitive MTV. I talked to the people at the Cinefamily Theater and they want to give a good example of a lot of bands they’ve never seen before—but for me to try to cram 50 bands into two hours, for God’s sakes that’s not Target Video show! That’s cramming 50 bands into two hours and that’s more like a primitive MTV. So I’m saying this is not really the Target Video show. What I’m trying to do is make people happy because a lot of people are curious to this band or that band they’ve never heard of. But give me a chance—if I get more support, and I’m going to do it anyways, but if I get more support I’m trying to break into a new audience. I think there are a lot of young artists out there and I’m trying to pump up a bit more excitement. I might be moving to L.A. before all this is over—that’s the master plan. I don’t know where else to go. I have got this humongous library of material and to be honest, for the last 30 years I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve been in New York, all over the place, and to be quite honest L.A. is where it’s at. That’s the only place that I could see where this stuff could be put to good use and inspire more creativity.
Why do you say that?
Because there ain’t a goddamn thing going on anywhere else really. There’s all that bullshit going on in London, the French are sucking each other breasts, San Francisco is all involved with who’s got the most money—I mean, that’s not gonna work. Artists can’t survive in an environment where you can’t even rent a studio. But at least L.A., for some reason will hire people and put them to work and they can continue as a creative person and besides that, what can I say? Most of the people that I know in the punk rock scene—the older crowd—are living down there.
What do you want to happen to your archive? What’s the ideal future for everything you filmed?
Without sounding commercial or crass, the big dream at this point is to put together a downloadable website and an underground library of visual images of music that people can download and view when they want to in their home—a digital Internet library. I have a rough estimate of my library—I have over 300 tapes that are in ¾ format and I have another 75 or 80 of ½ inch reel-to-reel tape. Not all of those have been transferred over because of the format jump. A format jump to ¾ and a format jump to DV which I’m doing these days—basically what I’ve been doing over the past few years is transferring this stuff over to digital. By hook or by crook! Either I try to talk a museum curator into using their facility or the college where I work—whatever it takes. The thing about it is that no matter what, it does inspire fun and activity—it just does. The beauty about L.A. people to me is that you can put on some music and a video or whatever—get some people together and things happen. They talk and make things happen—they want to make things happen. It’s an enjoyable thing. It’s a part of life, business or whatever you want to call it—it’s just a good thing. You don’t have to be judgmental. We’re not anal-retentive like the New York scene, oh my God! L.A. people take care of themselves and it’s not a perfect world, but the point of it is that I still have fun there. I’ve been to enough events and I’m like a hound dog—if I smell something good, I go for it and this is where it’s at. Thank God I have Jackie Sharp down there. Look, I’m never going to be a perfect politician—not everyone is going to like my point of view, but at the same time I do love art and I do love music and I do love L.A. bands. There are so many bands that mean so much to me with what they’ve done. I want to stimulate—I want to be a part of it! I want to stimulate the arts scene and I can because I might be a bit of an old soldier but I’m still a pain in the ass.
JOE REES AND TARGET VIDEO PRESENT ‘RAW POWER’ ON THU., APR. 30, AT CINEFAMILY, 611 N. FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 7:30 PM / $12 / ALL AGES. CINEFAMILY.ORG. TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE. VISIT TARGET VIDEO AT TARGETVIDEO.BLOGSPOT.COM.