1977 was the year when punk rock took hold in cities across the U.S. and the world, weird bands popping up all over like flowers in a barren wasteland of boring. Many of these early punk scenes have been documented in books, and now we have a book for Portland: All Ages, The History of Portland Punk, 1977-1981 by Mark Sten.
Sten was active in many punk organizations from this period, and he played in a lot of the bands. He also kept stuff: in his book there are lists of every punk or new wave (whatever you want to call it) show that happened in the city, and flyers and photos from a lot of them. The overall effect is a feeling like you’re really there, at every show and meeting, as seen through Sten’s eyes and experienced through his brain. This is both awesome and a little ... maybe not the view that you might have from inside your own head.
But at least it’s honest! A lot of the books about punk rock scenes take the form of oral histories, with the story being told through quotes by the fans and the rockers who were there - this format sounds objective, except for the fact that the editor of the book has carefully chosen and arranged the quotes to tell the story that they want to tell. Sten’s book holds no such pretensions towards impartiality.
It can be interesting to read a few of these scene histories, to see what’s different and what’s the same. For example, take We Got the Neutron Bomb by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, a history of the Los Angeles scene. Whereas that city was full of celebrities and managers and professional schmoozers in the late 1970s (I’m sure it’s really different now...), Portland bands had no choice but to collectivize and create their own venues and opportunities. And in terms of the books themselves, Neutron Bomb is downright spartan and spotty in its coverage when compared to the comprehensive All Ages.
I love reading about punk rock scenes. There’s hope and excitement in the uninhibited creation of something new. There’s the spirit of rebellion, the drugs, the sex, the drama, and the part at the end where some people rocket to stardom and legend (or at least continue to tour in their 60’s) and others die or fade away. And, of course, there’s also the music, which was powerful, raw, intense, and changed our lives. And our hair.
(Thanks to Janice Morlan for her exceptional editorial assistance on this post.)