a riotous disarray

Pleasant Gehman - writer, vocalist, promoter, and actress from the first wave of Los Angeles punk

summer 2011

pleasant gehman

[  introduction ]

One night a friend laughingly joked with me that no matter how hard you try to fight or deny it, habits tend to eventually come back full circle, sometimes startling you when you unexpectedly catch a glimpse of your past re-emerging in the present.

Before the internet, the history of punk's early days -barring the hazy memories of those who were at the shows and the parties- was available either through mainstream media that, by nature and almost without exception, had a tendency to sensationalize or trivialize it, or through self-published zines, magazines and newspapers created by the people who were there. Los Angeles was in the unique position of being at the center of both large and small media, and growing up in the outskirts a decade or so later, I soaked up every reference I could find to those bands that I had missed the original wave of. Pleasant Gehman is omnipresent in LA's punk past - her words have composed the eulogies of some of the landmark bands and clubs, her image an anchor in much of Jenny Lens' photographs of the early punk gigs, her image synonymous with punk in movies like Back To The Beach, Thrashin, Suburbia, Valley Girl, and her recollections contributed to more recent books about LA punk in a historical context like We've Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk and Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times And Short Life Of Darby Crash. She sang in bands, booked the clubs, wrote for the magazines and newspapers, wrote movies, acted, danced.....

As a teenager I came across a book of hers in the small press section of a large bookstore (she laughed when I told her about shoplifting her book). The book, Escape From Houdini Mountain, was a collection that read like a highlight reel of the most debaucherous nights and lust-hungover days of that era, describing with sass and candor the drugs, the flings, the trespassing, the natural disasters, the drag queens and the delirium. Houdini Mountain, along with her two other books, Senorita Sin and Princess Of Hollywood, captured the trashiness, the decadence, the recklessness, the intensity of a scene and a city that were enmeshed in each other, and gave rise to bands and personalities that would go on to inspire future bands over a far larger area.

I'll admit here that I was most drawn to her for being the literary voice behind, and often at the front of, LA's earliest punk tremors, a tireless fixture in a scene that exerts a hold over me through today - where the Go-Go's singing about coke-fueled nights are still the records that I put on when Saturday night rolls around, the candid naivete of a punk scene in its formative incarnation captured in the documentary film The Decline Of Western Civilization never ceases to reignite a certain sense of nostalgia and youthful angst- and alcohol-charged vows to set the mundane world on fire, and Valley Girl's cinematic 'City Punks vs. Suburban Squares' contentiousness crescendoing into an epic food fight where a hijacked limo carries the protagonists into the streetlight-tinged glow of the LA freeways is still - no exaggeration - the greatest movie of all time!

In writing, her poems are odes to a grittier era of Los Angeles that often goes without a proper level of appreciation. In a way, her writing becomes an unintentional history of that era of early LA punk written from within its chaotic and discordant midst. For with history, it's one thing to construct a picture in hindsight, but often this lacks the elements of urgency and recklessness that make up the intensity of why a certain time was so significant to begin with. In person, she has a natural way of telling stories, recalling atmosphere and tangents that draw you in until she reveals the punchlines and climaxes of each one.

But then again, that was all years ago. I know the role that punk played in my life. How those albums, those shows and those nights are some that I get most nostalgic for. But I wondered to what extent the past is still in the life of someone who wasn't only in it, but had a hand in shaping it. I met Pleasant in a coffee shop inside the gates of the old Hollywoodland development, almost immediately beneath the Hollywood sign which was built, aged and nearly crumbled in the sun-soaked haze of Los Angeles before a handful of people took it upon themselves to come up with a way to preserve and save it, leaving its presence steadfastly a part of LA's surreal and cinematic landscape.


[  interview ]

Pleasant Gehman: ...I'm really specific on the details, but sometimes not on the dates. Like I can remember a gig exactly, what people were wearing and who said what, but then can wonder, was that '78 or '80?

Can you talk about your own timeline, of when you came to Los Angeles, and maybe of your introduction to some of the others in LA, in relation to when the punk scene really began to form.

I came to LA in March of 1975, and a few days after I got here I turned 16. My mother was working at 20th Century Fox, that's why my family moved here. They had already been out here for a couple of months, I was finishing out a term at boarding school, where I was sent, I got a scholarship because I was smart, but basically I was sent there so I wouldn't be screwing around and smoking dope with my mother's theatre students. Anyway, I came to LA and all I wanted to do was be a groupie and, you know, go to Rodney's [English Disco] and shit like that. So the first thing that happened was when I went to visit my mom on the Fox lot and look at everything. I was walking and someone said, 'do you want to be in a movie?'. I said, 'sure. What is it?' They were like, 'It's Roger Corman,' and I loved Roger Corman. I loved all that trashy shit. In the days before cable, all the channels would have a film library and they were usually hellish B-movies from the 50's in black and white, and I'd seen so much of Roger Corman's stuff and all I could think of was Little Shop of Horrors. I was like, 'Yeah! I'll do it!' Then she asked how old I was, I was 16, so she said they'd have to get permission from my parents. I said my mom was right over here. And so she was saying I was going to be in a movie but I didn't tell my mother it was a Roger Corman movie because she probably would've flipped out, knowing it was going to be some kind of exploitation movie. But she gave her permission, so I was in Hollywood Boulevard, getting sprayed with a firehose across the boobs with a bunch of other girls. That was the first few days.

Then, within that first week, another girl that I knew from boarding school, she had quit and had left the school before I did, her family already lived out here, and she liked like glitter rock and all that kinda stuff that I liked. So as soon as I got to LA she called me up and told me that Queen was playing at the Santa Monica Civic. We went, and I smoked pot with Tony Curtis. Then I saw Georg and Paul, who later turned into Pat Smear and Darby, at the Queen concert. Georg was wearing, like, no shirt and long black bell bottoms and a floor-length black cape, and Paul was wearing all white with a red Bowie cut and that Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across his face. So after I was high on Tony Curtis' pot, I got a pen and I drew saturns and moons and stars all over the back of a matchbook and I said, 'Aladdin Sane, you cosmic orgasm, call me'. I threw it at them and they got it and they called the next day, they both called at different times, and I was talking to both of them. And I learned about emergency breakthrough telephone calls from them. They used to be free. So you'd be talking to someone on the phone and it would be like, 'there's an emergency breakthrough from Mott the Hoople' or 'Mark Bolan has an emergency breakthrough for you.' So we were all emergency breakthroughing to each others' calls and watching weird movies late at night on the phone together for like a week and then we decided to meet in Westwood, because they both lived towards the beach and I lived more up in this direction. So I took the bus down there, and we met in Westwood and they were with Chris Ashford who was their friend and had a car, he was a little bit older than them. And we all immediately took Quaaludes and smoked pot and ran around Westwood tipping over stuff in office buildings. After that we would cut school to go to each others' schools or I'd call and say I was getting on the bus to go down to the beach, and they'd wait ten or fifteen minutes and go to the bus stop so when I screamed out the window, they'd know what bus to get on. And Paul Roessler [later of the band, the Screamers] used to hang out at the beach, he was like a total west side beach boy, and Kira, his little baby sister, who else? Gerber, a lot of those people were west side beach kids.

Do you remember some of the events that led to your initial involvement?

Right after I met Georg and Paul in Westwood, they were like, 'do you wanna meet Iggy?' and I said, 'YEAH!' They were like, 'We know where he lives.' So we went to this giant palatial apartment building, like a 1920's apartment building, and I thought, you know, even though I got all his records from the cut out bin or I shoplifted them, I didn't know what that meant, I just thought that if you were a rockstar you were immediately rich. So I remember I thought that the whole building was his house. But he turned out to have a really hellish tiny bachelor apartment. There was fast food garbage all over the place, half-drunk beers, it was like psychotically gross. And he came out of the bathroom wearing unzipped messed up cut-offs and was all tan and his hair was still white then, and the first thing he said was 'does anybody have any drugs?', and I was like [in a pipsqueaky voice] 'I've got a joint in my purse,' and I was sitting there in complete disbelief.

So it went on like that, with us just knowing about gigs. There were some gigs that were pre-punk rock like the Zippers, or the Imperial Dogs, local bands like that, The Runaways, The Quick, that were kinda edgy, punkish. I mean it sounds really pop but they were not like normal mainstream bands and they were't signed. I was really good friends with the Runaways and I used to cut school to go watch them practice at S.I.R. with my friend, Randy, who I did Lobotomy fanzine with, whose been deceased now for a while.

Anyway, the first real 'punk' gig was probably Patti Smith at the Roxy in 1976, right about when Horses came out, and everybody was there, EVERYBODY. Including Iggy, who invited me and my friend, to go swimming at the Beverly Hilton the next day. We used to do that anyway, because we were going to Beverly High, and we used to put on bathing suits under our clothes and cut class and sneak int through the open back doors at the back of the hotel and just grab towels off the maid cart and then walk into the pool and pretend we were staying there. Eventually the pool workers started recognizing us, but every time they tried to kick us out we'd start making a fuss and always someone from like Bad Company or Led Zeppelin or someone would be like, 'no, no, no, they're with me.' It was crazy in those days because there was no security anywhere, you could just do shit like that. You could just walk backstage and stuff, well, maybe it's because we were girls. Anyway, we went up to Iggy's room. We were going to go swimming, and then Ivan Kral came to the door, and we were all in awe because he was Patti Smith's keyboard player and he had just played the night before. And he and Iggy disappeared into the bathroom for a long time and we didn't know what was going on, like we didn't know if they were doing drugs or something else, you know what I mean.

I could look in my diaries. I used to keep page loads of diaries. When I was in school I would basically write everything down that happened the night before, like everything, full conversations. I would like to do more book projects, but with my dancing, my concept a while ago was if I was going to dance, I was going to do it full-blown, because I didn't think my joints would last as long as my brain would. I'm still writing, but my dancing just takes up a lot of time.

Yeah, it seems like there's been a recent wave of books and films documenting the origins of punk, especially LA and New York punk. But you've pretty much been writing consistently this entire time. Your books are almost like unintentional documentaries from within. Are you planning on working on any new writing projects?

I actually have a book of insane road stories. If you count in the Screaming Sirens, I've basically been on the road for 35 years straight. And those are stories that rival anything that's in Houdini Mountain.

Escape From Houdini Mountain is probably the only book I've ever seen that comes close to the Motley Crue book.

[laughs] And you know, that's not even the tip of the iceberg. What's really funny is at the time it came out, the publisher wanted to publish it as fiction, because, she said, memoir doesn't sell. And I was like, 'but it's not fiction,' and she said 'I think it will be better.' And, stupidly, I let her do it. The thing that's crazy about it is after a while I had that and the Underground Guide To LA and the other books, so I had some book proposal ideas, this is right before I started dancing full-blown, so I sent full stories to some agents, and one of them wrote a letter that I remember by heart. A bunch of them wrote letters that kinda said the same thing. But the letter said, 'Your stories are implausible and your characters are unbelievable.' [laughs] I thought, 'okay, maybe I oughtta work on my fiction a little bit better.' Like they haven't even been embellished in the slightest, and if anything, they were underplayed.

Houdini Mountain, the idea was just all crazy love stories, love and sex and drug stories. The Screaming Sirens stuff was just outta control. I'll tell you a good Screaming Sirens story, if you just wanna know how out of touch with reality we were. We were on tour, going through the Rocky Mountains, and we were really fucking late for a gig, we were just maybe barely going to get there on time. Our van was always breaking down. We used to call it the Pupa because it looked like Mothra's pupa cocoon, and we had a trout on the back of it that we thought would make people think we were just some old people going camping, although that was kinda belied by the fact that one of the back windows was blacked out with taped up tampax boxes, there were fishnet stockings hanging from the ceiling, and like beer cans and mismatched cowboy boots on the floor everywhere. We were driving through the Rockies and we had had this blowout and it's getting later and later, and we were just listening to a Johnny Cash 8-track, because the van had a 8-track player. We had a bunch of good 8-tracks, stuff like the Sex Pistols, but Johnny Cash and the Sound Of Music soundtrack, those were our feel-good 8-tracks that we listened to when we were stressed out and running late. It was getting a little bit dark, and of course there's no payphones for us to call the club. We didn't know where we were. We didn't know what time it was, because, of course, none of us had a watch. And finally somone had the bright idea, let's turn on the radio and find out what time it is. So we turn it on and it was coming in really bad because we're in the mountains, it was coming in all staticky and squeaky, and all we heard was this crackling faint thing about the nuclear disaster, and thousands presumed to be dead. And we were just like, what? What the fuck?! And we heard something else at the end of it about the nuclear explosion, and then it was just like sizzling static noise. And all of a sudden I start getting these panicking OCD thoughts, like, 'you guys, when was the last time we saw a car?' And I think as soon as I said that, other people were either thinking it at the same time or they realized that, someone goes, 'oh, I don't know, like two and a half, three hours ago', and I was like, 'where do you think that nuclear explosion was?' you know what I mean? And we all started panicking. And we tuned into, like the one radio station that came in clear, it was a preacher. The only other station was like middle-of-the-road stupid music, any other radio station was not coming in, so we drove in suspense for probably like an hour and a half and then we started seeing some cars again, and we were like, 'oh, thank god. It's not where we're going.' But we still had no idea. And the next day we found out it was Chernobyl, and that same day we made a resolution that, out of our $5-a-day per diem, each of us would have one day of the week to buy a paper and read it to everyone else when we were driving.

When you put out your first books, had there been any other LA punks who had been putting out books by that point?

I think Exene and Lydia had already put out Adulterers Anonymous, it was right around then. And Iris Berry and I, as well as a lot of other people, were making chap books of our stuff. Me and Iris had it made because she was working a job at Paramount that she didn't know how she got and she didn't know what she was supposed to be doing for months, no one had ever told her, and she was getting paid a lot of money. She was jumping out of her window, because she didn't want people in the hallway to see her leaving her office, and playing basketball with the Fonz. She went in there completely hungover and she filled out an application and she thought, well I'm never going to get that, and then they called her to work and they gave her an office and stuff and they never told her what she was supposed to do or who she was supposed to report to, so she sat there day after day doing nothing. So we used to go and sneak in there at night and print our books for free. We would all have lipstick on, we would just wink at the security guy and just say hi, and he wouldn't think that two girls were going to do anything. You know, I wish we woulda been able to rob the costume department. Anyway, so we'd been doing that a lot, and there were some books coming out, and mine was one of the first on Incommunicado Press. There were three that came out at once, one was Nicole Panter's and I can't remember who the other's was. And after a while, Gary was like, 'wow, your book is outselling all the rest, people must really know you'. And I said, 'Gary, I know they know me for my writing,' because I was working for national magazines at the time, 'but,' I said, 'I can guarantee you it's the cover...'

So you wrote the book on LA, having edited The Underground Guide To LA, I was wondering how you felt that LA as a place - in the sense of it being this unique kinda glammed out, heavily-wardrobed and surreal environment - influenced the punk scene that began here, and also, over time, if the punk scene had any influence over the culture of LA.

It's weird because when punk was going on, I knew it wasn't just 'a phase' that teenagers were going through. I knew it was an important historical moment, like Paris in the 20's or the Beats. I mean I wrote shit like that in my diaries all the time. I knew that it was going to be a real historical thing. Anyway, I think most of us that were here came here, a lot of the punks came from the glitter rock scene or had grown up in the LA suburbs and really had a wacked skewed view of the world through the filter of Los Angeles. Just take the Weirdos for example, just the insane amounts of stuff they wore, it was just crazy, it was Dada-y, it was kinda Flintstones-ish, it was weird b-movie, wild. Or the Go-Go's, like total Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon. That was their whole aesthetic at first. A lot of us were really into the whole 60's beach movie looking thing, or into looking like people from Warhol's Factory, and 20's movie stars. I mean Hollywood seriously informed a lot of the fashion choices, even though we would also do stuff that was like punk rock. Like you would wear a dress that was a 20's looking dress, shredded up, and then you would put safety pins on it. And you tried to have perfect shoes that went along with it, but it was fine if your stockings were all ripped. We tried to look like Beatniks. We all wanted that 60's look. Guys would be really into those pointy-toed cockroach killer shoes with the heels, and we all like Jackie O. So a lot of the look of it was completely from movies.

And then as we started influencing movies, this was more in the 80's, like Janet Cunningham who used to run the arts space called C.A.S.H., she started an agency that would supply real weird looking people to movies, so they'd ask for punks and they'd get like four central casting punks and then four of her punks, and they'd look at us and they'd look at them, and their 'punks' would have like one safety pin on acid washed jeans, and they'd send them home and they'd say to Janet, 'do you have any more bikers or, like, fat tattooed people?' Also, a lot of us were totally making a living being punk movie extras in the early 80's because no one would hire you in those days with weird colored hair, and in those days weird color didn't even mean Crazy Color, that didn't come in until a little bit later. Weird was just like white or Lucille Ball red or black. And if you were black and had like blonde hair, people were horrified on the street. They would throw garbage at you, they would yell at you out of cars, male or female, it didn't matter. And then after a while they started yelling, like, 'Devo!' or 'Bowie!', you know?

Also, the places where we all lived had a lot to do with the movies. Like the Screamers house at 1845 Wilton, the 'Wilton Hilton', that was built by William Randolph Hearst for Marion Davies. It was one of her houses, but I think it was later bought by, I could be wrong, by 20th Century Fox and it was kinda a house that they used to have parties in, and then, later, it was kinda a starlet dormitory. That house was totally crazy haunted. But buildings like the Canterbury, and the Hillside, and the Hollywood Gardens, which has been torn down, those were all, I don' know how common this phrase was, but we used to call them starlet apartments because they all had these bitchin Murphy beds and built-in vanities with lights around it, and that really was where all the starlets stayed.

So, especially in Hollywood, there was always some huge connection to hte movies and to the past. But on the flipside of that, we didn't really relate much to Hollywood as it was going on then, at that moment in time. I mean, who gave a fuck about Farrah Fawcett and Charlie's Angels. The only thing I consciously remember about pop culture or movies or tv then was thinking that if Mr. T was an idol to millions, why was my mother and other people complaining about my hair. [laughs]

I've heard people say that the punk scene specifically in LA at the time had an equal participation by women.

Oh yeah, there was a huge amount of girls in it.

Was that something that you acknowledged at the time, did it seem unusual later when a lot of punk scenes became pretty male-dominated?

It didn't seem weird at all. It seemed like, of course there would be girls and guys. Seeing girls play in bands didn't seem weird to me. I mean, I knew who that band, Fanny, was, and that was like '73, '74. It was June Millington, and actually Brie Howard was in Fanny, who wound up being my drummer in the film, The Runnin' Kind, and then wound up playing with us live a lot. Anyway, I knew about Fanny, I knew about Heart, I was friends with Joan [of the Runaways] and Belinda [of the Go-Go's] and knew the Bangles a little bit later. It seemed like a logical thing. It just seemed like whoever had access to equipment could start a band. Later, after I started the Screaming Sirens in the 80's, I started noticing how weird it was. We would go into Guitar Center to get sticks or strings or whatever, or any music shop anywhere, and we would get stuff like, 'oh, what kinda drums does your guy play?' and we would be like [in a deadpan voice] 'no, it's for her'. That's when I started noticing there really was a prejudice.

Pleasant Gehman Interview continues here.

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