Mark Sten was at ground zero when punk hit Portland. He played inbands with Fred Cole long before there was a Dead Moon, and calls Greg Sage of the Wipers a longtime friend. In addition to his 15,000-piece record collection, he also cultivated an archive of local punk ephemera. After nearly four decades of gestation, these notes, handbills, photos, interviews, and personal recollections coalesced into the fascinating, thorough and acerbic book, All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock, 1977-1981. Self-released in black-and-white as a high quality monster 'zine, Sten describes the arc of the local punk scene from its fitful birth to its streaking zenith and eventual crumbling. WW visited Sten at his overgrown Southeast Portland home to discuss the scene's lack of all-ages venues, its proliferation of women and oldies, what caused it to disappear from memory, and whether punk matters today.
Willamette Week: When did you start writing this book?
Mark Sten: 1978. At the end of the first year, I wrote about 20 or 30 pages for internal distribution only. That rough draft was kicking around for decades until I started putting it into shape in 2007. It began as a serious project around 2008. I had a finished document that I was able to present to [The Oregon Historical Society] that actually seemed to skew their [2011 Portland music history] presentation toward my main point of view which was that the entire period was dominated by the Neo Boys and the Wipers.
I've heard it told over and over again that punk was a fashion movement created by a crass English boutique owner named Malcolm McLaren. It seems you have a more optimistic, almost utopian view of what was possible with punk music and culture in the late '70s.
It suggested the direction that music could go in, both as a musical form and a marketing form. It raised issues of economic fairness that hadn't really been part of rock before that. It introduced political and anti-capitalist ideas into the culture that had only been nascent, if they existed at all. In other words, for all the Sturm und Drang of the Sixties, no one was putting out their own records. Everybody was looking for a record contract. Whereas when punk came along, it automatically suggested "do it yourself." In that sense, McLaren may have been one of several triggers, but I just think it's a drastic oversimplification to say that anybody started punk rock any more than it's realistic to say that one thing started the Renaissance. It was a movement that was poised to happen and it was caused by any number of contributing factors. It wasn't a monocausal event.
They say that history is written by the victors. For this era, there kind of weren't any. Does that mean it's written by the survivors?
First off, I would dispute that history is written by the winners, because I think the Confederacy rewrote the history of the Civil War in a way that survived for 100, 150 years. Anybody is capable of hijacking history if it's well phrased to appeal to a general populace. I think the disparagement of Grant's presidency, for example, is a perfectly good example of history being written by the losers.
There are probably people written about in this book who might feel this way. The quote I heard from Jerry A is that "people remember things…differently."
Well, that's for sure! And that's a biological phenomenon. Our memories degrade themselves over time. There's no avoiding that. People simply remember things wrong. The best you can do with a book like this when you're interviewing survivors is to talk to as many as possible and come to a sort of consensus agreement on what actually happened. Because people just remember things utterly differently. And it's not even from self-interest. It's just that abstract questions become garbled in everybody's memories. I'm not sure how memory works, but I have a feeling that it's periodically refreshed biologically. In other words, I don't think our memories are intact from the events that happened. I think that they are periodically renewed by whatever chemical process maintains memory. And anytime you have that kind of transcription going on you have errors in coding the same ways you would in a medieval manuscript where monks are getting tired and they get something wrong. It was really surprising to me the divergence between how everybody remembered particular events. I knew I'd be facing it, but it was worse than I thought.
It's impressive how much documentation you have from the era.
I kept it. I hung onto a lot of papers and then I interviewed a lot of people. I did call a lot of people for half-hour to an hour apiece, talking to them about what they remembered about specific incidents. It was just background. Anybody could have done it, but I just happened to do it, as far as squirreling away memos and posters and that kind of thing.
You were also older and more experienced than most of the people who were involved at that time.
Yeah, except that there were a number of people my age. I don't think there was anybody older. I think that 30 years old in 1978 was some sort of a cut-off. But there were a cluster of people who were 30 in '78, '79. I think that was probably true in other cities as well. But Portland had an unusual collection of them. Dead Moon, Sado-Nation, the Wipers, the bands that I was involved with, the bands that Danny Dungeon was involved with, Ice-9, Vertical Hold and Miracle Workers—these were all 30-year-olds. And if the prime age would have been 18 in 1978, you also had an entire distribution of people between 18 and 30 like John Shirley and Larry Lee. Ageism was very much an issue at that time, but all the 30-year-olds just ignored that and participated anyway.
None of it probably would have been possible if it was only on the shoulders of teenagers at that point.
I wouldn't say that. People like me and Fred Cole and Greg Sage were used to talking to club owners from years of doing it already. That was a skill that nobody who was 18 would have been able to bring to the table. And that did make things easier, the fact that you had some people who were already capable of successfully interacting with square club owners. That helped. I ended up cleaning up any number of messes that would have been terminal if there hadn't been somebody there going, "It's OK. We'll take care of it."
What is it about the glory days between '77-'80 that makes that era so worth remembering?
Any art form in its earliest incarnation has a vitality to it that never reappears. I'm thinking specifically of rockabilly and Renaissance dance music, as well as punk. In other words, there's a liveliness to an art form that has suddenly been discovered where a group of young people who realize what they can do that had never been done before. It lends a particular tone to the very beginning of any movement that's just different from the tone you get once the movement has been established and guidelines have been clarified and rules have been laid down. It's always an exciting period when people first discover something. That's very much behind this particular era of punk.
Do you think that things got better for Portland when more privately opened bars and venues opened up and were hosting punk bands?
Definitely. It's too bad about all-ages. But by that time, the large majority of the audience is over 21. Nobody really seemed to be making any effort for people who were under 21 so that entire audience is just like, "Get lost kid. You can't vote." Which is too bad, but you can still have a perfectly healthy scene coming out of bars. I don't really have a problem with people doing it privately, as long as somebody is doing it. Given the failure of earlier anarchist-syndicalist models to get anywhere, that's all that matters.
If you tour around the country there are so many states that facilitate all-ages shows. The OLCC is still stuck in this post-prohibition mindset.
Yeah. They defined their mission statement as Making it Hard to Drink, back in 1933. I'm not going to vote to privatize alcohol sales. I'll stick with the OLCC as the lesser of two evils. But they've always just been assholes. This is not widely trumpeted around town: They were unflinchingly racist for so many decades. I know just one black owner after another who gave up over the course of the '80s and '90s because they couldn't get any kind of decent treatment out of the OLCC. That whole stretch on Mississippi in the '70s and '80s—that was one of the most active street scenes in the black community. That four or five block stretch, you'd see people frying fish sandwiches and everything. It was just great. Everything you'd want in an urban scene was right there. They wouldn't give anybody a liquor license. They spent decades turning down every single application that came across their desk.
Aside from the Wipers, it seems like almost all of the bands in All Ages are unremembered today. What is it that made the scene so ephemeral?
Maybe being in Portland. It's not a good place to launch a career from. Sage, as always, went at it sideways by moving to the desert rather than a population hub. You know, when he left town he went the opposite direction. A band from Los Angeles is simply going to stand a better chance of getting records out and getting publicity generated, certainly in that period. Portland's maybe now on the map along with Asheville and Denver as being kind of hip. But at that point, there was nothing remotely hip about Portland. At that point, it was simply the biggest thing between Seattle and San Francisco. I think there are probably other reasons why Portland seems so ephemeral, but they are too abstract. I don't understand what they would be. It's easier to just say it's because they were from Portland.
Well, you note in All Ages that there was a dearth of clubs and recording studios.
Wave studio was open to everybody for a period of about 10 months. That's when a lot of things got done. It's too bad that Sado-Nation wasn't in a position to take advantage of Wave while it was open, because I think their album might have come out better if they'd been able to spend some time at Wave rather than just rushing through it the way they did a year later. But that also has to do with switching lead singers.
It seems like there were a lot of women in the early punk scene here.
Yeah, there were. No one even thought about it, either. There was no consciousness of achieving a gender balance. It just worked out that way. It's not really the singers that are as interesting as the instrumentalists. There have always been female singers in rock'n'roll and pop music in general. It's when they start playing instruments that you've crossed an important line and that we [culturally] still haven't crossed. Most scenes and most cities don't feature a lot of female instrumentalists. I mean, Portland has backslid from this era compared to what it was back then.
Following this era, the most successful underground punk bands were following the touring blueprint laid down by Black Flag. It doesn't come across in the text that touring was of much importance to you or any of the bands in Portland at that time.
No, it wasn't. The one band that should and could have toured much more was the Neo Boys because they were well-known up and down I-5. But they really didn't get out of town. I don't know what to attribute that to besides inertia. The Wipers went down and played one show in Los Angeles in 1979. And that was a complete novelty. That really wouldn't have occurred to anybody but the Wipers. People would go to Seattle occasionally but only very occasionally. Nobody really was thinking in terms of getting out of town at that point. Which would be another decent reason why the scene stayed ephemeral. It just disappeared when it was over.
What feedback have you had from other participants? Have you heard people grousing?
No, I haven't, because I went through a process of providing text to people ahead of time. In other words, I would interview them, I would do up the passage concerning them, and I would email them that text. With Danny Dungeon, he came over and we spent an hour rewriting this and that to his taste. Most of the people involved have actually not only signed off on but tinkered with the writing. Because I want everybody happy, within the limits of remaining factually correct. I have no interest in disparaging anybody at this point.
Are you a fan of books like Please Kill Me or any other rock criticism?
No. I thought Lester Bangs was funny, but Please Kill Me is an example of how to put your name on a book with absolutely zero effort. I don't want to do a Capote but, "That's not writing, that's transcribing." I'm not actually a big fan of rock writing in general. The exceptions would be, I do think Lester Bangs is funny. I like Albert Goldman, even though he's been fact checked about being badly wrong about some of the things in the Lennon book. Which brings the Presley book into possible dispute. But I thought he did a good job on both of those books.
Do you think punk is still in any way viable or meaningful in 2015?
If you're 40. I'm willing to accept it has zero appeal for a 20-year-old. Let's not say zero. The idea of punk absolutely attached itself to the culture as a whole. Whether people are listening to guitar music or not, it's clearly a set of fashion presets that are not going away anytime soon. It may be dying off as a music, but it became one element in a multifaceted American popular culture landscape that seems permanent. Which is the last thing that we thought was going to happen in 1978.
The vanguard and the most important music that was happening was forcibly divorced from where the mainstream was going. It was the best music of its era, and it was utterly marginalized. And that had never happened before in popular music. In other words, the best psychedelic music was also the best-selling psychedelic music. The best British invasion stuff was the highest on the charts. Punk was the first time that the best music of 1978 and 1979 was completely invisible on the charts of the radio. And I think that was a drastic loss when that happened.
Especially when it's continued to happen pretty much ever since with very few exceptions.
Yeah, that set a pattern that became permanent. It's damaged the musical culture in ways that we can't really begin to fathom. That divorce has been devastating.
It's hard to come up with a new twist on an old form but that doesn't mean it isn't worth striving for. But people aren't rewarded for creativity and originality anymore. Is there a point in being a part of a tradition, or is it about making something new at all costs?
If a tradition has not been fully explored, it's worth going back and exploring it. Rock through the late '50s and early '60s was moving too quickly to take advantage of what it had discovered. Let's say Hank Ballard, from the late '50s. When he invented "The Twist" and then went on and did a number of really great singles, it opened up a whole new area that didn't have any time to be explored before you'd moved on into Phil Spector girl-group era and that was already obsolete. It's valid for people to be going back and further and exploring what Hank Ballard came up with in 1958, and I'm still not sure that that's actually been done in that particular case.
Punk was the same in 1978 and '79. It was generating ideas that weren't being explored before the music continued evolving more quickly than it allowed these things to be explored. But punk has been explored to death in the interim. Any ideas that were suggested from the Ramones on, people have gone back and mined that well until it was empty.
All photos courtesy of Mark Sten.