Live in a Doom Town

Punk rock's PDX genesis.

John Shirley remembers punk rock's rude awakening in Portland well.

"People were afraid civilization was creaking to an end," says Shirley, who led the bands Terror Wrist and SadoNation during Portland's first punk insurgency, before going on to write trailblazing science fiction. Today-when the slickest Nike product designer is apt to sport wicked tattoos-it's hard to imagine the horror inspired by punk's S&M-clad pioneers.

"The town was hostile," Shirley recalls. "I mean, people were just getting used to hippies."

As the '70s wheezed to an end, the larger musical world had already absorbed punk's meteor strike. But the disaffected children of a depressed, third-tier West Coast timber town were just getting started. With '60s idealism long gone rancid, punk's blaring sound and willfully obnoxious aesthetics found fertile soil in Oregon.

"It was some time in '76, and I went into this import-record store and asked if they had any Sex Pistols," Shirley recalls. "And the guys working there just looked at each other and said, 'My God, another one!' People had been coming in all day, asking about this British band they'd never heard of.

"What happened was, Parade magazine ran an article warning parents about this stuff called 'punk rock.' To me that was like, they're warning parents? Must have."

As might be expected of a city where even the most restive kids relied on Parade for their subcultural news, Portland was nowhere near the cutting edge.

"It was a very uncool place," says Greg Sage, the lead singer of the Wipers, a band still cited as a pillar of Northwestern rock. "In that era, if you weren't from New York, L.A. or London, you didn't exist. Portland was considered a logger's town. It was prehistoric-some place you just didn't want to be."

Isolated from the centers of cosmopolitan cool, the locals made their own fun. By decade's end they created a buzzing milieu of neo-Beat poetry readings, all-ages shows and Dadaist costume balls, staged in catch-as-catch-can venues. Shirley ran the short-lived Revenge, stocking the rented hall with popcorn and soda liberated from a Salem movie theater.

To judge by the artifacts-fuzzy videos, yellowed fanzines, beyond-out-of-print vinyl-the scene then shared much in common with the scene now. Bands debuted in basements or at the Earth Tavern, Urban Noize or the Long Goodbye. Kids changed bands like sultans switch concubines, broke up, reunited, moved away, came back, grew up, dropped out-or not.

And despite the calculated viciousness of the sound and styles, some remember the first wave for its naiveté as much as its angst.

"We were just sort of trying this on for size," Shirley says. "You know the early punk thing where people would spit on bands? If you look at videos from that era, you can see people sort of tentatively spitting. It was like that.

"Our scene was small," he says. "But for some people, that was all there was. For a few, it was that or suicide, y'know?"

This provincial movement of the socially desperate packed unexpected aftershocks. Typically, Seattle hogged the glory when punk-or, courtesy of re-branding, "alternative rock"-boiled over in the early '90s. But Portland bands like the Wipers, Dead Moon and Poison Idea did much of the blueprint work for the grunge revolution. Nirvana acknowledged its debt with a contribution to a Wipers tribute album; the "Seattle scene" documentary Hype showers attention on Clackamas County's own Dead Moon.

In the course of nearly 30 years, the micro-underground founded by Sage, Shirley and their comrades has mutated into a sprawling local music ecosystem. Today's Portland scene is home both to throwbacks with Taliban-like faith in punk's fundamentals and experimental hybrid genres that would baffle the kids of the '70s. Early punk is nearly as dated now as Sinatra's first solo work was in 1979. The term itself is obsolete for all but the diehards. Yet the hormonal racket of a bygone age has proven as vital to Portland's social fabric as any urban planning innovation or City Hall upheaval.

Most of Portland's underground music pioneers were bored locals. Today, hipster transplants from all across the country dominate the city's music scene. Portland owes much of its cultural allure-and thus a vitality that withstands sour economic times-to homegrown rebels of three decades ago.

* An ice storm closes the airport, fells trees, and knocks out transformers, leaving 100,000 homes without heat or electricity. The National Weather Service can't predict when the freeze will ease, because the storm cuts power to its Portland computers.

* A solar eclipse darkens the Pacific Northwest for two minutes beginning at 8:13 on the morning of Feb. 26. Predictably, the skies over Portland are overcast, forcing locals to watch the event on TV instead.

* Ominous signs of economic trouble on the horizon: Unemployment is inching upward, gas prices are soaring, tourism is down and inflation climbs to 15 percent.

* After 123 years of local ownership, the Blitz-Weinhard brewery at Northwest 11th Avenue and West Burnside Street is sold to Pabst Brewing of Milwaukee, Wisc. Things get blurry soon after: Pabst will sell the brewery to G. Heileman Brewing, which will eventually merge with Stroh Brewery Co., which will sell the Henry's brand to Miller.

* A new technology-the color copier- re-energizes a flagging art form: Xeroxing your naked body. WW critics view the resulting images, on display at Marylhurst's Mayer Gallery, with a certain disdain.

* Retired painting contractor and carpet-layer Walter Powell and his son Michael join forces to form what amounts to a bookselling revolution-juxtaposing new and used titles on the same shelf. Powell's Books, which Walter started in the early '70s in a derelict storefront in Northwest Portland, will grow to employ 430 people and carry an inventory of more than 1 million titles.

* The Oregon Dairy Products Commission defends its failure to use black models in its billboards by claiming that "blacks can't digest milk."

* Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl publishes The Growth of a City, an influential look at Portland power and politics in the first half of the century.

* The Blackfish Gallery-soon to become one of Portland's most successful artists' co-ops-opens its doors for the first time.

* After asking for the resignations of his entire cabinet, President Carter appoints Neil Goldschmidt as his new Secretary of Transportation. Following weeks of speculation, political wrangling and tied council votes, City Commissioner Connie McCready succeeds Goldschmidt as mayor.

* The Lotus Cafe and Card Room "has a forbidding façade with a reputation to match. A gaping hole in the plaster by the door stands above a littered stairway leading to a now-defunct hotel. Tired old men with sunken cheeks stand outside the card room entrance smoking cigarettesÉ. Beer is only 30 cents until 10 am."


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FEATURES: Hell on Wheels: John Callahan | Neil Goldschmidt's Web of Power | Gus Van Zant: The Camera Man | Homer's Odyssey: Matt Groening | Quadruple Expresso: MAX Makes Tracks | Nike's Achilles' Heel | Biting Our Time: Restaurants Revisited | Highway to Hell

WWeek 2015

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