I sold most of my punk-rock collection to a record dealer a few years ago when I was strapped for cash. The rest went bye-bye on eBay a year later for gas money. I no longer had a record player, and punk was officially dead the day I could buy the Sex Pistols on CD.
Descending into the YouTube rabbit hole, where all of those old albums have been digitized, memories of that time come flooding back: the stifling air in the slam pit and a breathlessness that would usually cause me a panic attack, which disappeared in the flailing of boots, arms and elbows. The sleek embraces of boys I didn’t know, as they squeezed up against me, across me, pulling my shirt and wrapping their arm around my waist, while we danced together, the music fast and loud, obliterating thoughts so that just senses are in play. My heart beating times 10, my face flush amid an ocean of testosterone and acne and sexual frustration, with only a few badass girls right in the middle, keeping pace in an otherwise-regimented male community.
There’s no audible music at Chapman University’s new exhibit, “Kids of the Black Hole: The First Two Decades of Punk in Orange County,” in its Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives, so those blatantly softcore hardcore reminiscences weren’t present. There are plenty of other surprises, however, in the voluminous collection of former punk Jay Bauman, all of it curated with simplicity and clarity by Wendy Gonaver and Rand Boyd.
There’s the requisite leather jacket, studded and spiked, with band logos—Canada’s D.O.A. and Pico Rivera’s Circle One—painted on the sleeves. There’s the Adolescents’ blue album, with late member Steve Soto’s band Manic Hispanic nearby. There’s a VHS copy of the punk tour documentary Another State of Mind, featuring Fullerton’s Social Distortion. A Dickies T-shirt with a parody of Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur is folded on the bottom shelf, and OC-friendly LA record label Posh Boy is on the shelf above; squeezing into the last few years of the exhibit’s decades is the Offspring’s 1997 album, Ixnay On the Hombre.
There are more records inside the Special Collections office, four display cases of them artfully staggered between 45s, photos and handbills: Middle Class, Rikk Agnew, Vandals, D.I., the Beach Blvd. album, Agent Orange, Channel 3, Shattered Faith, Social D. and M.I.A., among them. The majority of fliers are essentially Xeroxed ads for bands playing at the legendary Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa. Also on display from that long-dead nightclub is the equivalent of a holy relic: the letter “E” swiped from the sign when the place was bought by the shitkicker bar next door.
There’s a variety of fanzines and house-party leaflets, including a timely handbill for a Rock Against Fascism concert at Orange’s Hart Park. Accompanied by color photos of punks playing in the bandshell, it’s a story that would make a great exhibit all by itself. Special to me—and wholly unexpected—is an anti-Reagan collage that my brother Paul had designed as a handout promoting the fanzine we did together in the early ’80s. Titled He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands, it shows the former president holding the Earth as tomahawk missiles soar overhead and drop headlines from Middle East and Central American conflicts. I hadn’t seen a copy of it for a decade, and I’m honored—and surprised—it’s considered an artifact of sorts.
There is the assumption that the viewer has some working knowledge of the time period and the music, but there are short curatorial notes throughout, aimed at giving the barest of facts. Nothing is as complete, or even as thorough, as something like this could be, but no one is making that claim, either. If a place with more room and resources—Muzeo or Fullerton Museum Center, for example—were to do a deeper dive into Bauman’s punk-rock hoarding, expand the purview to include the lost stories of local bands and talk to the punks who went to see them . . . after so many years, with so many of the major players long-gone drug and suicide casualties, the promised old-school nostalgia might even reward the investment by selling a ticket or two.
As remembrances are placed behind the confines of glass cases or show up unexpectedly in documentaries and novels, it can be destabilizing to see significant events from your life become history. When they’re political or social movements that changed how you looked at society or how you saw your place in the world, they remind you not only of the swift passage of time, but also how your echoes and impressions from the past are now being analyzed, examined, dissected and shared. They’ve become fossils of lost culture. The only thing you can do is tell your side, fact check and ask yourself whether it’s time you started making some new memories.
“Kids of the Black Hole: The First Two Decades of Punk in Orange County” at Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives/Chapman University, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 532-7756. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Dec. 18. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.