Los Angeles punk has always had its own distinct aesthetic, inspired by New York and London but shaped by its environment: the West, Hollywood, the ‘burbs. Somehow, LA punks seem to be aging more relevantly than their peers. This weekend I saw three artists from the earliest, old school days of Los Angeles calling: Alice Bag (the Bags), Phranc (Nervous Gender), and John Doe (X). Punk’s disruption of traditional beauty standards and of heteronormativity always seemed particularly radical in the shadow of Tinseltown, but these AARP-age idols show that choosing original style over the surgeon’s knife is the best revenge. Their music has also matured not declined. Chops may not be punk’s raison d’etre, but these three have them: Doe has always been the genre’s most golden-voiced crooner, but Bag and Phranc are also skilled singers. They flubbed some lines but their harmonies were pitch perfect as they played their second gig as the act with the best “shipped” name ever …. wait for it … PHAG!
If you don’t know what a shipped name is, then clearly you don’t have a teenager: Short for relationship, it means the single name that results from the union of two, such as Brangelina, Kimye, and now, Phag. Phranc and Alice have known each other since at least the early ’80s, when they both were in Castration Squad. As that act’s name indicates, they were (and are) gender warriors. They found refuge in punk’s embrace of outsiders, as they discussed on a panel at the Grrrls on Film festival at Loyola Marymount University in 2016. But Phranc in particular also found racism and homophobia, and eventually she rejected the scene and rebranded herself as the “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” revealing the warm, womanly tones underneath punk’s noise and her flat-top ‘do. She’s still a little bit folky, while Bag’s a little bit rock’n’roll, as they sang Friday night at the Razorcake 100th issue party at Avenue 50 Studio. They were parodying Donny and Marie, but the original goal of their union, they said, was to be the Smothers Brothers. And sure enough, their act is satiric, slapstick, and also pointedly sincere. They sang songs dissing Mike Pence and praising Malala. They passed around their prototype for a new $20 bill, featuring Harriet Tubman instead of Indian killer Andrew Jackson. They were funny and sweet and sloppy and pissed. I told my compatriots Allison Wolfe and Sharon Mooney that we had to start their fan club now, and I have the perfect name for it: The Phag Hags!
Doe played the following night at Brouwerij West in San Pedro — i.e., walking distance from my home — for free. There was a time in the 1980s when X was my absolute favorite band, so even though I wanted to hang out a little longer at the Many Winters Gathering of the Elders up at Angels Gate and witness the Bear Dance, I decided my college-aged self would hate me if I didn’t go see John. His mournful tenor and big eyes have always broken my heart, and he didn’t disappoint. He delivered a tribute to his friend Harry Dean Stanton in gorgeous Spanish. X was always the top graduates of that first class of LA punk because their songs were literate and topical, destined to be classics. “See How We Are” and “The New World” sounded more timely than ever, especially the latter’s repeated indictment of apathetic Americans: “It was better before before they voted for what’s-his-name.” Cindy Wasserman sounded great on harmonies, but still, I will always hear Exene Cervenka’s voice when I hear those songs. I especially missed her on “Painting the Town Blue,” a song whose entanglement of violence and romance always seemed to me to be sung from the woman’s perspective in that storied couple.
Fortunately, I will have my chance to see John and Exene together at the Brouwerij November 4, though this one won’t be for free; it’s a benefit for the Palos Verdes Art Center, an excellent nonprofit that will also be hosting a display of Exene’s art opening November 3. And an exhibit about X just opened at the Grammy Museum. I’m not someone who likes to relive Glory Days, but particularly with Phag, this isn’t a case of reliving the past — it’s the past finally catching up with pholks who have been living in the future.