THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION: THE BEST TIME OF MY LIFE
illustration by nathan morse
Until now, The Decline Of Western Civilization series was one the great lost artifacts of American music—three full-length documentaries covering the first wave of L.A. punk in the 70s, L.A. hair metal at its decadent height in the 80s and hardcore street kids at the end of the 90s. Watching some (or all of these!) on VHS—or for the unlucky, a rotting VHS bootleg—was something between a rite of passage and a cultural touchstone for decades. Now after too many years out of print, director Penelope Spheeris (who directed Wayne’s World and more between Declines) and daughter Anna Fox have cracked open the vaults for a comprehensive DVD and Blu-Ray issue of the entire series on Shout! Factory, decked out with never-before-seen bonus footage and packaged with an exclusive mini-book by L.A. historian non pareil Domenic Priore. (Oh, and Dave Grohl’s on the commentary track, too.) Obsessives, prepare for full interviews (with bands, ‘the lightbulb kids’ and more) and additional concert footage as well as period news reports and media ephemera; newcomers, prepare for total immersion in a series of films that introduced—or maybe inflicted—each of these Southern California subcultures on the world. Spheeris speaks now about how making Decline was the best time of her life and how putting together the re-release was the hardest job she ever had. She will appear at a screening of Decline Part 1 on Thursday, June 25, at the Arclight in Hollywood. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You said getting these on DVD was the hardest job you ever had, and I know you’ve had some hard jobs. Was re-releasing Decline worse than waitressing for twelve years?
Penelope Spheeris (director): Was I exaggerating? No, I don’t think I was exaggerating. It’s been very, very difficult on a lot of different levels. On the deepest level it’s because I subconsciously relate it to—believe it or not—having lost my identity when I was seven years old when my father got killed. For me, The Decline is my identity. I was so afraid of putting it out there and having it be wrong. Of all the various work I’ve done, it has the potential to be the most lasting and meaningful. Like 50 years from now, I don’t think anyone’s gonna give a shit about Wayne’s World. If [Decline] helps future generations remember these people, and even me, then I think the job is done, you know? Even if they’re not remembered and I’m not remembered in the most positive light—at least we’re remembered.
These are high-stakes documentaries because you don’t have the distance of an exploitative perspective. In the news footage from the bonus features, you can tell they’re like, ‘Ha, look at these freaks.’ But you treat these people like people. That requires a personal connection.
Penelope Spheeris: You’re right. It’s too easy to close our eyes to other people’s troubled existences. I try not to do that. I try and look at each person as they are. As special as I think I am, I like to think of everyone else that way too! These people are treated as equal human beings. I’m so thrilled you noticed that’s the way we interact. I’m not better than them and they’re not better than me, or worse than me. We’re equal. I saw a very, very significant shift in the social environment and the way people were acting and behaving and dressing and the music was so different … I felt compelled for history’s sake to document it. I didn’t have any exploitation in mind. I think my attraction to it was to the chaos because in my family situation growing up—my sister and brother both, we often talk about how there were knock-down drag-out fights in our family at least three nights a week. Like—bloody people, OK? The reason I was attracted to it in the first place was the chaos, and then I wanted to organize the chaos, you know? I studied human behavior in college before I went to film school. I did this from a perspective of trying to understand why humans behave the way they do and I put it in a rock ‘n’ roll environment. It’s all part of evolution. People have to try different things to decide what the right thing to do is. There is a line in Wayne’s World—my favorite line—when Garth says, ‘We fear change.’ You know what these movies are about? They’re about the public that fears the change they see in these movies.
The trailer for the first Decline is hilarious for how exploitative it is—it’s all fighting and grotesque imagery.
Penelope Spheeris: The trailer was an afterthought after the movie was done. It does look exploitative but people pushed me in that direction. They were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this. This is so violent.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, let’s make a trailer about violence. What the hell?’
And that tagline: ‘See it in the theater … WHERE YOU WON’T GET HURT!’
Penelope Spheeris: I know—I made that up. It was a joke. It was a total joke. Let me go back on how this actually came into being. About two and a half or three years ago, I asked Anna if she would come to work with me and do my various things. She said she would but there was one requirement and that would be that we would do the Decline DVDs. We started and it was miserable. It’s like having your life flash in front of you. She would go down to the vault and dig out old pieces of film and old VHSs and find shit on the Internet and go, ‘How about this, Mom? How about that?’
Anna Fox (producer): She hated going. It’s a cold vault. It’s creepy. You don’t want to go in there by yourself. You have to go in with somebody because if you go by yourself a horror movie will start immediately.
Penelope Spheeris: It’s been like seriously having my life flash in front of me. I feel like I could either be reborn right now or just die.
So everyone needs to know—did you empty the vaults on this? For years, the rumor was you had complete footage of a bunch of early L.A. punk bands.
Anna Fox: I got pretty much everything. The extra footage that we had was the Gears.
Penelope Spheeris: And you put Fear songs and Germs songs in there, too.
Any other bands?
Anna Fox: Other bands? No.
Penelope Spheeris: When we gave all our materials over to Shout!, one of the comments we heard was, ‘Wow, this is more extras than we’ve ever had for any of our sets.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we save some out and we’ll do a re-release later?’ ‘No, no, you don’t want to piss your fans off. You want to put everything you have in there and that way they’re not going to be mad that they’ve got to buy something else.’ So I did.
Why did you shoot the bands you did? The criticisms I often see of the first Decline are about who was left out. No Weirdos, no Screamers—
Penelope Spheeris: I would have loved to have the Weirdos and the Screamers in there and plenty of other bands of the times. A lot of it just came about because during the times that we had the cameras, those bands were available. We were shooting film—it wasn’t like you could just go run a video camera that keeps going and you’re not paying for it. I was shooting music videos at the time as a way of making my living. I had a company called Rock ‘n’ Reel way before MTV. So whenever I had the equipment, I’d go, ‘OK—where can I go and shoot this band?’ It was just a matter of convenience, as opposed to ‘Oh my God, the Germs are the best of every punk band in the whole wide world.’ The Go-Go’s were supposed to be in the movie but they crapped out at the last minute and I’m glad because they turned into a bubblegum band. Margot Go-Go [a.k.a. Margot Olavarria] was in the Go-Go’s. She started it. That’s when we were talking to them about the movie and then they kicked out Margot and it sort of became taken over in a commercial way. It didn’t feel right. The funny part is, years later, they wanted to … what did they want, Anna?
Anna Fox: They wanted to use Decline footage of the crowd shots to show that that’s where the Go-Go’s came from.
Penelope Spheeris: But they didn’t want to do the movie. I think at the end of the day, the bands are probably thankful that they were in the movie but don’t want to give the movie credit for helping their career because they want to believe they did it themselves. That’s fine with me. I’m not asking for any credit for helping anyone’s career. I’m barely helping mine.
Do you want to take credit once and for all for destroying hair metal with Decline II? That’s something else I’ve seen out there.