It's hard to overstate Larry Livermore's contributions to punk rock. He wrote for Maximumrocknroll. He gave a 12-year-old Tré Cool his first drumming gig, in his band, the Lookouts. He helped get Berkeley's legendary all-ages punk club at 924 Gilman Street up and running. And in 1987, he co-founded Lookout Records, which released seminal albums by Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel and Pansy Division, to name a few.
After Livermore left the label in 1997, Lookout lost its way. By 2012, it died for good. In his new memoir, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records (Don Giovanni Records, 301 pages, $14.99), Livermore looks back on the idealism, infighting and ineffable magic of the scene he helped build. WW caught up with Livermore to talk about the personal demons that forced him to abandon the label, reckoning with pop-punk sexism, and the possibility of a Lookout revival. CHRIS STAMM.
Willamette Week: By the time Green Day got famous, you must have known that the Lookout story would be one worth documenting. In the book, you mention keeping a diary. Did it guide you through the process of writing How To Ru(i)n a Record Label?
Larry Livermore: I actually had a pretty good hunch Lookout—or at least the scene it was documenting—would grow into something pretty big long before Green Day got famous. In fact, I wrestled quite a bit with my conscience in 1989 and 1990, concerned that too much exposure and commercial success might wind up destroying everything that I found special and precious about Gilman and the East Bay.
That being said, the diary I talk about in the book was primarily an outlet for the depression and emotional upheaval I was dealing with in the mid-'90s, and only touched tangentially on Lookout. I was able to confirm some of the anecdotes I recount in the book by referring to my diary, but for the most part I relied on my own powers of recollection, which I then did my best to fact-check by conferring with other people who'd been there, old interviews and articles, and what remains of the Lookout archives.
Kevin Prested's oral history, Punk USA: The Rise and Fall of Lookout Records, came out about a year before How to Ru(i)n a Record Label. You are quoted only a couple of times in Prested's book. Were you reluctant to participate? What did you think of Prested's version of the story?
I didn't participate in that book, not because of any particular grudge against Kevin Prested—I've met him and he's a nice, sincere guy, and a devoted Lookout fan—but because by the time he was getting started, I was already in the early stages of writing my own book, and didn't want to divide my attention. Also, by that time I had given extensive interviews to at least half a dozen other authors who'd wound up writing books about punk rock or Green Day or some other aspect of the scene, to the point where it almost felt like I was writing parts of their books for them. Also, Kevin's approach was rather different from mine. He was doing a more encyclopedic view of the entire Lookout story. I was more interested in describing what my own personal experience had been like. I think both books are useful, just not for the same purposes.
You were 40 years old when you co-founded Lookout, and for the next 10 years, your life was defined by a teen-heavy scene. Cross-generational friendships are not at all uncommon in the punk scene, but did you ever burn out on being surrounded by people half your age? And did parents ever wonder why their kids were hanging out with a middle-aged man?
True, I was 40 by the time the label got started. But I'd already been playing music, doing a zine, and in general immersing myself deeply in the punk scene for quite a few years, and during all of that time there was a great deal of cross-generational friendship. However, by the Gilman days, the age differential might have become more noticeable. I mention this in the book, marveling at the fact that I never really noticed it, at least not during the early years, and theorize that it might be because up until then I'd spent most of my time in a remote and isolated mountain community where there weren't enough people to segregate by age, with the result that everyone from children to grandparents tended to work and socialize together. The other two members of my band, the Lookouts, were 12 and 14 respectively when we started, and I realize this probably would have raised some eyebrows in the city. But their families were among my closest neighbors, and I'd known their parents and siblings long before the idea of doing a band ever came up.
You left Lookout Records in 1997, handing over control to Chris Appelgren, who took the label in a new direction that eventually became a dead end. By 2005, Lookout wasn't releasing new albums anymore. Do you think Lookout could have continued to thrive under your leadership?
A big part of my reason for leaving Lookout when I did was my emotional instability and personal unhappiness at the time. If I'd been able to get those demons under control while still maintaining my position at Lookout, then it's quite possible the label could have survived and prospered. But that's a pretty big if. I went through some pretty bleak times after stepping down. It was at least five, maybe even 10 years before I began to feel stable enough to handle the responsibilities of running a large company, and by that time, of course, it was too late.
In what ways did you feel unstable following your departure from Lookout?
I was depressed and angry about how everything had turned out. I had moved to the U.K., and as a result became disconnected from many of my longtime friends and family members. And perhaps most of all, I was drinking way too much as a way of coping with my feelings. Hint to anyone tempted to try a similar approach to dealing with disappointment and isolation: It doesn't work.
Two of the most popular Lookout bands, Screeching Weasel and the Queers, wrote some pretty cringe-worthy if not downright gross songs about women and girls. Songs like "She's Giving Me the Creeps" and "Ursula Finally Has Tits" probably wouldn't fly today. Not without considerable pushback, at least. The scene might have been different back then, but did such content ever make you uncomfortable?
The scene—and society in general—was different then. About the best I can say for it was that things were beginning to change, and continued to change, to the point where what was considered "normal" (or wouldn't even have been noticed) then would immediately raise eyebrows and objections now. Riot grrrl played a big part in this evolution, as did homocore/queercore, but like a lot of people who grew up in a different era, it took me a while to grasp why some lyrics and attitudes might be not just unpleasant, but even unacceptable. It wasn't until I was editing my book, for example, and got to a passage where I exulted about singing backups on "Ursula Finally Has Tits," that I suddenly realized that was no longer something I wanted to brag about, and I removed that line from the text.
As far as I can tell, Ben Weasel hasn't issued a public complaint about your book, which, given his prickly nature, is kind of surprising. He isn't exactly a villain in How to Ru(i)n a Record Label, but he does emerge as a truculent and troubled character who couldn't stop rocking the Lookout boat. Have you managed to maintain a friendly relationship with him? And do you know if he's read your book?
I haven't had any contact with Ben Weasel in a number of years. We inhabit fairly different worlds now, so much so that I really have no idea what he does or what he's thinking. Occasionally he's in the news, of course, and we have a couple of friends in common who sometimes mention him. But as to whether he's read my book or has an opinion about it, I have no idea. I tried to write a balanced and nuanced description of our relationship and our work together, and I think the book has much to say about him that's quite positive, especially when it comes to praising his remarkable talent as a writer and performer. The book might also contain things he'd prefer I didn't write about, but I tried very hard not to include anything that might be construed as negative unless it was specifically germane to the story. I literally left out far more than I included. If or when he reads it, I'd like to believe he'll recognize that.
Plenty of Lookout's most popular titles have been reissued by other record labels, but there are some that might never be pressed again. Which Lookout release would you be most upset to see fade into obscurity?
I would say Brent's TV, but their stuff is being re-released even as we speak. That leaves Nuisance, especially their epic first album, Confusion Hill.
Hopeless Records now owns the Lookout trademark, which means a Lookout revival of some sort is still possible. There's got to be a market for Lookout nostalgia. How would you feel about a second life for this thing you built?
I read that in Kevin Prested's book, too, about Hopeless owning Lookout's trademark. I found it completely baffling, since at least for as long as I was at Lookout, we never even had a trademark. So I have no idea if the people who took over Lookout after I left created a trademark and then sold it, or if Hopeless just noticed that nobody owned the trademark so they pounced on it and claimed it, or what. Regardless, it would be kind of—and by "kind of," I mean "really"—gross if someone were to try to market a new set of releases under the Lookout name. I suppose it might take in a few people, but I don't think too many would fall for it. Especially since the original Lookout audience are now mostly in their 30s or 40s or 50s, and are old and experienced enough to know what is really Lookout and what isn't.
As evidenced by the 2012 comp The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, you are still keeping up with contemporary pop-punk. Let's say you decide to start a new label. What band do you sign first?
First off, I'm not going to start a new label. Second, that was 2012, not 2016, and while at the time I thought those bands might form the nucleus of the next wave of pop-punk, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Some of them, like Night Birds, Vacation, and Emily's Army (now known as Swmrs) have gone on to considerable success. But I'm busy writing books now. There are other, people better equipped to run (or ruin) record labels.
GO: Larry Livermore will read from How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records at Green Noise Records, 5857 SE Foster Road, on Friday, Feb. 19. 7 pm. Free. All ages.