Scribes Sounding Off

By Chris Estey
October 2, 2013

It’s great to see that excellent, keenly questioning, perennially rebellious, truly inspiring, and high quality reading/viewing/listening materials keep being published and produced in this extremely DIY economy. Forged in the fires of pre-economic collapse in 2007, Oakland, CA-based PM Press is a focused cell of thought-provokers in various mediums with combined aeons of protesting, punk rocking, printing, and subversive media marketing. Two of the primaries involved, Ramsey Kanaan (founder of AK Press, punk kid and folk performer, vegan gourmand) and Craig O’Hara (co-founder, and the guy who sells you the good stuff to read out of the back of his car everywhere punk rock flea markets to snooty book events, bike lover) are perfect examples of the firebrand literacy and activism in the belly of this anti-authoritarian culture-creation collective. They hit rallies to support many causes for the poor and working class and marginalized, help organize tenant rights’ unions, and put out some of the very best comics, philosophy, fiction, and performances of all kinds in all formats out there.

My first PM Press purchases were made at the Vera Project-based Short Run small press festival, and were the Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Living trade paperback manifesto (with lived-through lessons based on tons of personal anecdotes and underground music culture history), and the amazing, generous Leon Rosselson folk-rocking four CD set, The World Turned Upside Down, which collected all the brittle, brilliantly funny and passionate sides recorded by the spiritual father of Billy Bragg and UK musical cousin of Phil Ochs. Both were very necessary to my library.

Barred For Life is one of the most recent of PM Press’s works, and it’s a gorgeous yet stark, huge B&W coffee table photo documentary featuring lengthy chats with several players in the band (Dez, Ron Reyes, Kira, Keith Morris, and Chuck Dukowski), photographer Glen E. Friedman, and the black bar tattoo god himself, Rick Spellman. The photos are big here, but that doesn’t rule out the substance from co-pix-taker AND author Stewart Ebersole regarding a rock band that were all about putting politics into action (as well as inspiring art upon their fans’ bodies). Jared Castaldi helped with the photos as well. That must have been a fascinating road trip, collecting these yarns, sharing some tea and whiskey, playing some SST sides as the chatter hit the matter.

The black bars of Black Flag always meant someone was probably into heavy dark underground sounds from Southern California — but also wasn’t into BS, government subterfuge, making secrets, excuses, or lies to keep the privileged in power. The great diversity of personalities photographed and interviewed here, well-titled in chapters such as “Awkward Moments And Amazing Recoveries In The History of Punk Rock Music,” and “My Bars, Your Bars, And The Bars,” speak of unity and struggle, good humor through dark days. But “Like the handshake of some secret society, the Bars can be jokingly placed in the most conservative of places”: For example, an architect once “designed an entire manufacturing complex in the likeness of the Bars.” (The company was unaware of the ideology behind the design.) That is some ambitious subversion, but right away we are reminded that the whole meaning of Black Flag’s music was to rise above the boring, painful, oppressive nature of society — and those who evaded suicide, slow or fast, by taking to art and music and getting in the van to help inspire others defined the best aspects of the anarchist underground in recent decades.

Black Flag’s own hectic and heart-pounding story, excellently delineated by Ron and Kira and the others, offers many more revelations about what it took to develop the networks and niches in 80s America where a band with an unrelenting message of social change might be able to play. Though pretty much sticking to the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, the diehard fans shown and allowed to express their fandom in free thought here come from various genders, class and racial backgrounds, ages, and are a surprisingly diverse lot, making us remember just how far reaching those Reagan-era tours BF took were. (At a Flag show I bounced in Spokane in 1985, it seemed like there were punks from at least five or six different states all coming together to see the band.) This sleek heavy tome is a perfect combination of art and politics, beauty and truth, gift and emblem of history.

PM Press has also put together the entire run of Anarchy Comics, edited by Jay Kinney, and underground title that was very instructive and mind-blowing when the individual pamphlets were sold in hip and political bookstores, head shops, and music stores back in the 70s-80s. Anarchy was filled with short form histories of radical movements, peculiar revolutionaries, despairing police-led events that needed uncovering and denouncement, and it served as a great bridge between the street fighting politics of the Yippies and the next generation that squatted and stuck up middle fingers to the Yuppies.

Anarchy Comics features a lot of my personal favorite underground and independent-thinking cartoonists, including the late and beloved Latin proto-punk Spain Rodriguez, Paul Mavrides (who also worked on the Freak Brothers, knowing how to spin a freak yarn in sublime detailed weirdness), Greg Irons (whose twisted Americana is perfect here, showing the violent surrealism of our bloody inclinations as a nation), the punk Expressionism of pre-RAW Gary Panter, and the delightfully witty and thoughtful activist biographies of Melinda Gebbie (who would go on to co-create Lost Girls with Alan Moore). Through it all was maverick editor Kinney, keeping the party going and infusing it with a metaphysical energy that kept Anarchy from being just another collection of polemical rants or libertarian complaints. All four issues, from 1978 to 1986, are presented together for the first time, and also features unpublished work as well. The various parodies, jams, and educational comics are a wonderful assortment of styles and truly show how diverse an ideology anarchy can be among artists.