Most of us who get head-over-heels fanatical about rocknroll music typically see our fanaticism crest at a young-ish age, with the teenage and early 20s being a particular time of record-buying frenzy and live-show abandon. That’s how it worked for me anyway, and my glory period was roughly 1982-1995 or so, which bookended the years I turned 15 and 28. That’s when my 45rpm and LP collection was expensively crafted into the low four digits; when I thought nothing of going to a marginal, maybe-this-might-be-fun four-band bill on any given Tuesday night; and it also happened to be about 75% of the period covered in Eric Davidson’s total action-thwuper of a new book, “WE NEVER LEARN!”.
“WE NEVER LEARN” stitches together a topic that I really never thought anyone would care to tackle in a “literary” way – the garage punk heyday of the 1990s. This era is best represented (to me, anyway) by bands like THE GORIES, THE CHEATER SLICKS, SUPERCHARGER, THE OBLIVIANS and many other fine knuckle-draggers. We can all argue about how important this music was in the overall pantheon of rock & roll; about whether it represented a “reaction” to the mainstreaming of garage-based punk sounds or not; and about which bands are worthy of conversation in such a tome. Davidson, as the front-man of the NEW BOMB TURKS, a fine slashing combo in their own right who were certainly among the more popular of the garage punk bands, had a front-row look at many of the goings-on in this loosely-defined scene. I like his take on things because it’s not a “scene-y” sort of book; Davidson is obviously a music freak and record nerd first, and a glad-handing and back-slapping rock and roll frontman second. His mind was blown by Cleveland’s DEATH OF SAMANTHA, of all acts (though there was a short period around 1989 when I too professed them to be my “favorite band”), and that led him to go deeper into the more raw, 60s-influenced sounds coming from his home state of Ohio and across the US in the late 80s.
The book, through a series of interview and recollections with label heads, bands and even yours truly (look it up! I somehow made it in here four times, including a picture of my 90s fanzine Superdope), draws a sharp line in the sand, upon which one side stood the oft-mocked Beatle-boot-wearin’, shag-haircut-sportin’ 80s bands like The Fuzztones, The Unclaimed, The Miracle Workers etc. – bands that we used to call “60s punk” back then – and the new breed of raw, dirty and haphazard slop bands that came out in the late part of that decade – PUSSY GALORE, LAZY COWGIRLS and some of the better Sub Pop/Amphetamine Reptile label stuff. These new eye-openers tarted up their two- and three-chord action with a level of grime, reverb, or just all-out aggression that wasn’t seen on the other side of the line, and man, I took to it like white on rice, as did Davidson. His book adds another key element to what makes this music distinct from rote punk rock or noisy rock music – its sense of fun (or absurdity). Outside of perhaps the amazing Cheater Slicks – not a “fun” band most of the time, but still a little lyrically goofy on their best tracks like “Possession” and “I’m Grounded” – the bands recounted here were either musically or lyrically ungifted or tongue-in-cheek, with perhaps the best example (and obviously one of Davidson’s fave bands) being THE DWARVES.
As I devoured this book over 3 successive nights, I’ll be honest – I felt not only a little nostalgia but a hint of jealousy too. Thinking that this music that was so crucial to my own youth was too unimportant to the public at large, I never even considered that it might one day be captured in book form. I read this wishing I’d taken a stab at writing it myself – and I want to note that it’s NOT because there are wide deficiencies in Davidson’s account of it. Sure, I think I could come up with a better catch-all term than “gunk punk”, which is cringe-worthy but meaningless and harmless in the end. No, I’ve never heard the bands “The Candy Snatchers” nor “Nashville Pussy”, so their late-90s exploits probably wouldn’t have made my book. And I probably wouldn’t have defined the music as in any way a reaction to grunge mania, The Offspring, Green Day and whatnot – because bad or boring music then, as now, is exceptionally easy to ignore. My take is that these garage punk acts were more taking inspiration from each other and the sounds of the past than anything going on “above-ground”. Davidson does a great job recognizing the massive impact the BACK FROM THE GRAVE (60s punk) and KILLED BY DEATH (70s punk) compilations had on these guys, and that showed in his own band as well (my jaw hit the floor when I saw The New Bomb Turks perform “Job” by THE NUBS in Seattle in 1993).
“WE NEVER LEARN” provoked this twinge of jealously mostly because I feel like Davidson’s already captured the proverbial lightning in a bottle so well, and named all the names that needed to be named (save for Claw Hammer and Rob Vasquez &The Night Kings), that the book on the era and this music is very nearly closed already. If you “came of age” during this time, or have good tidings toward the music, you’ll absolutely find the book to be a stone-cold action thwuper, if you know what I mean.