Punk Prophets 

Where are they now? Revisiting the ghosts of punk past.

There used to be a punk rock oracle on Telegraph Avenue. His name was Orlando, and you could usually find him in Rasputin Records: a big burly black guy with a Mohawk, ripped army fatigues, and safety pins dangling from his ears. He wore funky little shades all the time, even indoors, and his demeanor was stoic. But if you could get him to talk to you, the musical wisdom of the ages -- or at least, of that particular age -- would be unleashed. Which bands to check out, which albums were cool. And where the whole scene was going. Because, like any cutting edge, it was ahead of its time, full of musical prophets. Just think of the now-iconic Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, capturing the zeitgeist of early Reagan-era discomfort. Tracks like "Kill the Poor" and "I Kill Children" are sickeningly relevant today, and as newscasts warn us to be vigilant of identity theft, even "Stealing People's Mail" has become endemic.

As 2002 slides away, we've officially reached what most folks agree is the two-decade anniversary of the death of punk. It was a live-fast, die-young kind of scene, a burst of black leather blasting through the singles bars of the late '70s, snarling into the divey clubs and college radio of the early '80s, then fragmenting, fizzling, or selling out. Search the Web these days to see what's become of some of the big Bay Area bands from back in the day: Dead Kennedys, all embroiled in legal battles over money and copyrights. Flipper, same. Other groups are scraping up ways to cash in on the '80s nostalgia that was inevitable, now that everyone's gotten sick of teetering around on platform soles, bellbottoms blowing in the wind -- and Rhino Records has validated the shift with the release of its seven-CD, '80s-revival box set. Penelope Houston, of the Avengers, runs a punk-grrrl Web site largely devoted to selling cute punk merchandise.

In an interview with Maximum Rock and Roll, the Lewd's bassist Olga de Volga offers to sell "sealed" Lewd albums for $100 each. Oh, bitter irony -- when it all shakes down, has the Bay Area's raw punk become just another aisle in the market of 1980s collectibles? Will the punk prophets settle for profits? The question's been asked before, but usually of the big guys, the Jello Biafras, the Henry Rollinses. To find out what's really become of the roots of the scene, you have to dig out the ones less seen. And of course all digging leads -- where else? -- underground.

Case in point: Subterranean Records, started in Steve Tupper's Berkeley living room in 1979, and still run by Tupper, whose dedication to the anticommercial stance of punk remains intact. The original mission of Tupper and cofounder Mike Fox was to get local bands recorded, a feat achieved on Fox's four-track. "There weren't any other labels around at that point," Tupper recalls. "In the late '70s, if you were a band, it was a monumental effort to get anything out, because very few had recording equipment. But Subterranean really helped solve that. Get bands recorded, get records pressed, get them out. We either knew the bands, or knew people that knew them. The scene was small enough." And, in those early days, diverse enough. "The whole [label] was inspired by the punk social scene more than anything else, which was something that crossed a lot of stylistic barriers. I tried to keep things in the same vein. Punk was about trying to make a change, trying to overthrow the old order, more than trying to fit into a particular style."

He found his calling in the scene's heyday, recording any band he could find that was doing something "interesting, different, and challenging," even if many of the bands he recorded had "the Subterranean Syndrome, as we called it: you break up before your record comes out!" But, by 1986, a somewhat disillusioned Tupper told Puncture in an interview: "Punk has degenerated severely. 1986 is to 1977 as 1975 was to 1967. That is, just as the hippies degenerated into boring nothingness by the mid-'70s, the punks have now gone the same way. A lot of people are just waiting for something new."

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