Friday, November 13, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: L7's Smell the Magic (1990)

The myth of progressive history is here refuted. The idea, championed by Christians, capitalists, Hegelians, Marxists, Nazis, you name it, that, primarily because of a technology, maybe Geist, maybe Christ, history is moving in an ascendant direction to greater perfection, can be junked irrefutably by viewing the two videos below, two versions of L7, the all-women Los Angeles Grunge rock quartet, performing "Pretend We're Dead" in 1992. The first, is the ballyhooed L7 appearance on the English television program "The Word," famous because lead vocalist Donita Sparks bared her ass and bush at the end of the song; the second, is an incendiary performance on The David Letterman Show:

Something has been lost. Nothing today can come close to this. We -- and when I say "we" I mean Western society -- are incapable of producing anything as powerful, fun, hopeful, self-deprecating as L7 in the band's prime.

I first heard L7 when "Pretend We're Dead" came on the radio in the kitchen of a house I rented in a rundown neighborhood in San Antonio the summer of 1993. The house was a few blocks from San Antonio College. San Antonio College had a radio station with an eclectic programming mix; Friday nights featured a show devoted to contemporary rock 'n' roll. It was a couple of hours of pure Grunge.

At this time, late summer of 1993, Grunge was approaching its zenith. After Cobain's suicide the following spring, Grunge would collapse in a year or two due to the insatiable greed of the recording industry promoting bands like Hootie & the Blowfish as the next Nirvana.

L7, slang for "square," was an essential band during the Age of Grunge. Hard-partying women who could out-cock-rock the greatest cock rockers (or, to crib a line from "Fast and Frightening," "Got so much clit she don't need no balls") I used to enjoy reading about them in SPIN magazine. They were honest about using a rhyming dictionary when writing lyrics. They didn't take themselves too seriously -- like the New York Dolls, except they were actually women -- but they were a serious band. They began Rock for Choice, a pro-choice benefit concert series that ran throughout the 1990s.

I decided to devote this morning's post to L7 because they reformed recently and our on tour now. They were in town at the beginning of the month. But most importantly they are my age, of my generation, and the generation of my old flame who is locked in a neck-and-neck race for a city council district that looks to be headed for a recount; that, and they are the cultural progeny of Patti Smith.

I had copies of L7's best known albums Bricks Are Heavy (1992) -- the record on which "Pretend We're Dead" appears -- and Hungry for Stink (1994). But I was unfamiliar with their earlier work, the eponymous 1988 debut album and the follow-up EP, Smell the Magic, released on Sub Pop at the end of the summer of 1990.

I got both over the weekend and have been listening to them all week, but mostly Smell the Magic (famous also for the t-shirt):

It is a great record. Christgau gives it an 'A':
Generalizing the hostile "Shove" with the balls-to-the-wall "Fast and Frightening," dissecting everybody else's suicidal tendencies on "Deathwish" before joining the fun on "'Till the Wheels Fall Off," humping a "Broomstick" as a preamble to "Packin' a Rod," these clitocentric trouble girls are everything the Runaways were supposed to be. Afraid of nothing including the four-syllable F-word, they go for an obsessive, dirty, punk pop-metal so aggressive it'll scare damn near every sister in sight. But the bravest will grow stronger. Soon they'll tell others. And start their own bands. And conquer the world. Right? A
But back to this idea of history moving in a regressive direction. Grunge was an attempt at a grand synthesis of Hippie and Punk, something I think it accomplished here and there, certainly in the case of L7's prime.

Then along came Riot Grrl, and things got preachy and precious and lost their sense of humor. The music market tended toward greater and greater segmentation. Interestingly, the recording industry today survives as an ever-diminishing corporate behemoth thanks to the continuing cross-over popularity of three young women artists: Adele, Taylor Swift and Beyonce.

Everyone knows today we're nowhere. Everyone subliminally understands the planetary crisis we're in. Things seem hopeless. And when things seem hopeless, it is hard to muster up any energy. That's why I say we can't match what L7 put out there 23-years ago. We don't have the time or the space -- after each economic downturn since the early '90s it has been more difficult for young people to find housing and work in the urban milieu while pursuing creative endeavors -- to articulate a counter culture. I think Grunge, however brief, was really the last time. Maybe now Black Lives Matter. But seeing that old video of "Pretend We're Dead" I can't help feeling some generational pride.

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