Wednesday, Dec 05 2012 04:01 PM

MATT MUNOZ: Punk's past stays current here

By The Bakersfield Californian

Local gothic dance club night Heresy will be celebrating its one-year anniversary on Saturday at Riley's Backstage with a phantasmagoric double bill fit for the occasion.

The show is co-headlined by local veteran dark rockers Burning Image, and attendees will be paid a rare visit by one of the dark queens of punk rock's musical past, vocalist Dinah Cancer, performing with her band, 45 Grave.

Cited as one of the pioneering Southern California groups to mix the rebellious spirit of punk rock's political screams with horror-themed lyrics and a spooky onstage image, Dinah Cancer -- whose real name is Mary Simms -- said Bakersfield has always held a warm but bittersweet place in her heart.

"I spent a few months in Bakersfield in my teens," recalled Simms, 52, who answered our interview questions through email. "My mother sent me there to keep me out of trouble, but I would not say that it worked. I was back in Hollywood soon enough."

Like New York's The Cramps, who draped themselves in kitschy classic monster movie-inspired fashion, 45 Grave took their looks to more sinister depths after forming in Hollywood in 1979. Donning skeletal white makeup and wild hairstyles, the group's cadaverous look brought them immediate attention as did Simms herself, who, as one of the few female lead vocalists of her scene, proved to be tough as nails.

"In the early punk days it was rough; you had to adopt a tough persona to protect yourself. One of the great things about the L.A. punk scene in the '80s was that for the first time girls in bands were more than just sex objects. We could be as mean, tough, vile or strong as we wanted to be. That is still true today, but it is more of a choice. Back then we had to defer ourselves."

Following the 1981 release of their first single, "Black Cross," 45 Grave had positioned themselves as progenitors of the horror punk subgenre, along with bands like Christian Death, who prided themselves on shocking audiences with over-the-top theatrics.

"Part of the whole idea of 45 Grave was to be offensive to our audience. Paul Cutler (45 Grave's original guitarist) loved to annoy the punks at the shows by playing heavy metal or surf rock. He was much more rebellious musically than any of the punks we played to. So, the more punk the crowd was, the more we wanted to play music they would hate. Why conform in front of non-conformists?"

Content with toiling through the underbelly of the Hollywood music scene for a few years before calling it quits in 1985, the band coincidentally also scored a surprise break that year when their early single "Party Time" was chosen to be on the soundtrack to the campy zombie feature flick "Return of the Living Dead." But despite the recognition, 45 Grave didn't perform again until three years later. "Party Time" remains the band's biggest hit to date.

"There are actually seven versions of 'Party Time' in existence. The original punk version is my favorite. The story is about the last execution by guillotine on record in France. I wanted to give the victim of this terrible crime a happy ending. So we throw her a party.

"By the time we redid the song for 'Return of the Living Dead' in 1983, it had changed into a slower, polished rock song. The original band was falling apart around the time the movie was released, so it was a bit of a schizophrenic time."

Today Simms enjoys being recognized as an enigmatic figure and trailblazer.

"I see so many bands with strong female singers now and feel good that I helped open doors for them. I hear bands like Stolen Babies and feel a link. I get a lot of mail from young girls, musicians mostly. They ask for autographs and are just very appreciative. Nowadays it all comes to me on Facebook. I am not hiding in my haunted house, avoiding fans. Anyone can easily find me."

Its latest album, "Pick Your Poison," is classic 45 Grave, coinciding with the band's inclusion in the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles as "early proponents of American Gothic Rock."

"I was surprised to see that we are mentioned there," Simms said. "It is about time we got that kind of recognition. We are doing as many shows as we can right now. Part of that is this show in Bakersfield. We will be playing a mix of old and new songs. There should be something there for everyone, but only one version of 'Party Time.'"

Saturday's show begins at 9 p.m. Pre-sale tickets are available for $15 or at the door for $20. Special VIP passes are available that include a meet-and-greet with both bands and early admission into the club. Space is limited. Riley's Backstage is located inside Riley's Tavern at 1523 19th St. Special entrance for this night will be available behind the club in the Wall Street Alley. For more information visit heresygothclub.com.

We Got Power

A phenomenal new hardcover book, titled "We Got Power! Hardcore Scenes from 1980s Southern California," was just published, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy for review. It's one monster of a book at 3 pounds and features a nicely put- together compilation of historic photos and archived stories pulled from the fanzine We Got Power that, from 1981 to 1983, was essential reading for following punk's youthful underground. It was created by then-teen publishers David Markey and Jordan Schwartz, who found themselves at the center of the DIY excitement with cameras in hand, a sense of humor and an even bigger sense of adventure. Among the book's many highlights are the photos snapped at many of the shows around Los Angeles, Orange County, and beyond. Among the bands featured with detailed captions are Minutemen, Suicidal Tendencies, The Gun Club and The Go-Go's. A number of vintage We Got Power issues have been reprinted inside with original home typewriter text and cut-and-paste artwork. It's the scene mainstream mags such as Rolling Stone and Creem were too frightened to cover.

The book also has extensive commentary and stories from those musicians who made the music and lived to tell the tale: Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Mike Watt, Jennifer Schwartz, Tony Adolescent.

I was entertained by the show reviews that spare no detail about sneaking by nightclub bouncers, police harassment and uncensored rants from the frontlines. Mind you, these were kids. Essential reading for music historians and old punks who still own their original high school vinyl copy of Black Flag's "Damaged" with the SST Records order form, filled out but never sent.

"We Got Power!" is available for special order in Bakersfield at Russo's Books, Barnes & Noble, and through a number of online outlets, including Amazon.com. For more information visit wegotpowerbook.com.

Matt's picks

Classic Punk Show at Sandrini's, 1918 Eye St., Friday, $5, 9 p.m. 322-8900

It's a live musical tribute to the era that brought you the Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, TSOL, GBH, The Exploited, The Damned, Misfits, The Clash and more. Dust off your old leather jack with the faded "Anarchy" symbol, your oxblood-colored Doc Marten boots and mind your moshpit etiquette. Also appearing are KSVG indie radio deejays Jake Chavez and Greg Looney spinning vintage vinyl between sets.

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