A WAILING OF A TOWN: AN ORAL HISTORY OF EARLY SAN PEDRO PUNK 1977-1985
illustration by walt! gorecki
The first time I heard the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Pt. 2,” it untangled something in my head like no other song had before. There was no distortion, no hard chords, no fast drums—just a story, really, told as clear and true as it could be told. And that’s the story of Craig Ibarra’s oral history A Wailing Of A Town, too, in which Pedro punks invent themselves, over and over and over. Assembled from more than 70 interviews with not just the musicians but the people who threw shows and put out records and took photos and wrote words and most importantly were there as it happened, A Wailing Of A Town is an overwhelmingly comprehensive and inclusive document of punk as it spread through the South Bay and a crucial complement to local histories like We Got The Neutron Bomb. It’s like the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, very arguably the definitive Pedro album: it asks a lot and offers a lot. Really, it’s a revelation, stripping away rumor and legend and delivering focus, depth and detail on parts of history that previously existed only in long-lost zine or personal archives, if at all. (For example: the often-talked-about shift from art-y punk to hardcore—and the riots and violence that followed—is here with more nuance, depth and detail than I think I’ve ever seen.) Not to put too broad a point on it, but this book offers vital perspective and inspiration for … anyone doing anything, really. It’s a story of people who really did do it themselves, and how they did it and why and what happened next, and it’s told with clarity and truth. As Watt says somewhere north of page 300: “The idea is to touch people. Convince them that their hearts beat. Everything’s a device to get that across. It’s open for everybody. No job’s too small for the Minutemen!” This interview by Chris Ziegler.
First, the mechanics—I know this book has been years in the making. What was the first interview that made the project ‘official’? And what kept you going through over four hundred pages?
Craig Ibarra (editor): I came up with the idea to do the book in January of 2007. I was inspired by two books: Please Kill Me and We Got the Neutron Bomb. I’ve always been interested in the early pioneering days of L.A. punk and beyond. I really liked the oral history format of these two books. I don’t consider myself a true writer, so the oral history format was something I felt, if I was gonna take a stab at doing a book, this was the format I might be capable of pulling off—which involves doing interviews, transcribing and mostly editing. At this time I was doing a zine called The Rise and the Fall, so I was doing a lot of editing and was getting better at it with every issue. The editing part seemed to come easy for me. Doing the zine was definitely good practice. The first interview I did for the book was with Victor Sedillo and his sister Lina, on January 27, 2007. It broke the ice and gave me a feel of what I was getting myself into. Eventually, I had to stop doing the zine in late 2009, after fourteen issues, so I could focus on the book. The book took about eight years to complete. I was working three part time jobs, running a record label and doing various other projects, so there were long stretches where I didn’t work on the book—weeks, sometimes months. I made sure to spread the word to all my friends that I was taking on this project. I figured since I let the cat out of the bag, there would be no turning back. In taking so long to complete, I would constantly hear people say to me, ‘How’s the book coming?’ which became annoying, but also helped push me harder to get it done. I think people were starting to have their doubts if I was gonna pull it off. The years kept going by so fast. I really pushed hard the last year and a half to get this done.
Why is a book like this necessary? How does Pedro punk fit in beside L.A. punk and O.C. punk, and why did you feel it deserves a book of its own? Or to put it another way – what happens in this book that isn’t adequately documented in Neutron Bomb?
Craig Ibarra: I feel this book is necessary cuz not a lot of people outside of the South Bay area knew that a San Pedro punk scene even existed, or that there were other bands around at that time in Pedro besides the Minutemen. I think fans of the Minutemen will find this book interesting and give them a better understanding of what really went down in Pedro during the early pioneering days. I don’t think Pedro really fit in so much with Los Angeles or Orange County punk as a whole, besides the real early Hollywood days, only because the early Pedro punk bands were so unique. Not to say that punk bands from L.A. or O.C. weren’t unique, but these early Pedro bands went out of their way not to sound like anybody else. I think a lot was left out of We Got the Neutron Bomb. It mentions the South Bay in a couple of chapters, but these chapters are mostly about the uprising of hardcore and the violence that occurred at these gigs. I heard [co-author of We Got the Neutron Bomb] Brendan Mullen was gonna do another L.A. punk book and maybe he would have covered more of the South Bay—not sure. We Got the Neutron Bomb concentrates more so on the early Hollywood scene like a lot of other books. A lot of these Hollywood people thought the South Bay was one big town. I don’t think a lot of them realized how big the South Bay really is. There are a lot of towns and cities within the South Bay—it’s really balkanized, and a lot of them had their own little scenes that you’ll probably never read about. So this was a good chance for me to make that clear and tell Pedro’s side of the story.
One thing I feel is very strong in Pedro and the book is the idea of DIY—it’s hardcore DIY on every level. In some ways, I almost feel like Pedro bands made punk more ‘real’ than it was. Like they took the best ideals the movement had to offer and brought them to life—I love bands like the Voidoids and Television and the Clash, for example, but those were all on major labels. And in Pedro, the bands are on their own labels. Or for another example, and much like Watt and Boon often said, to them punk REALLY meant no rules—even though a lot of punk bands out in the world were pretty committed to the same distorted guitars, scream-y vocals, 4/4 drums, etc. Apologies for the long question—I guess to put it simply … what makes Pedro punk Pedro punk?
Craig Ibarra: The Minutemen were the anchor of the early Pedro punk community, and still are in a way. They set the tone for originality. They blazed a path of creativity that was influential on all the other Pedro bands that formed after them. The Minutemen embodied the DIY spirit to the fullest. Most of the early Pedro punk bands were inspired by the early Hollywood scene, where it was wide open and there was no template. I think the early Pedro punk bands—Minutemen, Saccharine Trust—were more inspired by the real early L.A. stuff and some of the more experimental music coming out of England, not so much by the hardcore scene that came a couple years later. A lot of the hardcore bands sounded similar, which was the exact opposite of what the Pedro bands were doing. The Pedro bands were a little more experimental—some might even say ‘artsy.’ I think the early Pedro bands were a bit alienated by the hardcore scene, to tell you the truth. Most of these cats from Pedro were geeks and misfits that didn’t fit in with the so called ‘popular kids,’ so there were a bunch of unique personalities and kids just looking to find their niche—just like the Hollywood scene, I imagine. I think Lina Sedillo [of Peer Group] worded it best: ‘Being isolated enough from the Hollywood scene, while being aware of it, I think was a huge benefit in that no one felt a need to conform, and we were free to develop our own look and sound.’ I’m not too sure Pedro was very important to the hardcore scene, and maybe that’s why the Pedro scene was somewhat dismissed—that and the fact that it’s so remote. Not a lot of people outside of the South Bay would venture down this way. They would say, ‘All roads end in Pedro.’
Something I really liked about the book is the inclusiveness. Reading it, I found many names I didn’t recognize. At the end of the book, I discovered many of these people credited as ‘gig-goer.’ They were side by side with people who made albums, ran labels, were in bands, etc. As far as the book was concerned, they were just as important and deserved equal credit. In some oral histories, the perspectives of the people who weren’t the musicians or big movers or whatever—‘the stars’—just aren’t there. Why did you make this decision to include gig-goers and others? Surely it meant much more work, and yet it was important enough that you did it.
Craig Ibarra: From the get, I wanted the story to be told from mostly a Pedro perspective. I tried to stay away from interviewing ‘big name’ outsiders, like a lot of books and documentaries seem to go for—which I imagine is a good selling point. To be honest, I was worried at first, that readers wouldn’t be interested in hearing from people whose names they didn’t recognize, but I thought it was super important to include them and get different perspectives from everyone that was there, which includes gig-goers. After all, without gig-goers, there is no scene.
What kinds of things have been documented only in this book? I saw flyers and photos I’ve never seen before. Are you the first person to publish them? And there must have been people interviewed who’d never really done interviews before. What new ideas and information came to light while you put this book together, and how did they change pre-existing ideas—yours or just ‘common wisdom,’ or maybe both—about the larger story of punk in Southern California?