"Ninety-nine percent of all the people in prison are going to be released," says Sammy Town, lead singer of the punk institution called Fang. "And I'm telling you, when you go to prison, you get meaner. You get bitter, you get bigger and more criminalized. And then"--a menacing cackle--"you get out."
Town's familiar with prison--especially the intricacies of the California penal system. At the start of the decade, shortly after Fang's breakup, Town began a period of incarceration that ended just last year. The fact that he was serving time for murder isn't mentioned in the liner notes of American Nightmare, a new disc by the latest version of Fang, nor is it a subject that Town is eager to discuss.
"Aw, you know what I was in jail for," he says quietly. "It's a long, ugly story. It had a lot to do with the fact that I was a fairly big drug dealer and there was a lot of bad shit that went down. Bad shit happened, and there's nothing I can do about it now. I can't change the past. It's something that I just have to deal with; I have to live with it. There were a lot of things involved... there was a lot of shit in my past. I don't really talk about that situation. A lot of the songs deal with prison, but my own story I don't talk too much about. I did write a book, Thirty Days in the Hole, that's supposed to be out in January, and it deals with it a little more."
In the meantime, there's American Dream. Musically, the album contains somewhat typical hardcore that hasn't altered greatly since Fang's early-Eighties inception. More interesting are its occasional glimpses behind bars--a place that Town says isn't all that bad. "I was in there for so long that it's just like a different world. There's good things about that world and bad things. If you get locked up for a long time, like more than five years, then it just becomes your reality. That's where you live and where you are. Some days are fun and some days suck."
A period that mainly fell into the latter category was a stretch of nearly half a year that Town spent all by himself.
"I put a band together when I was in Soledad [a central California maximum-security penitentiary] and created a fuckin' prison riot," he says. "I got five months in solitary confinement for that. We didn't make it that far. It was just me, a punk-rock guitar player from Orange County and two Mexican kids. We played out in the prison yard one day, and there was knives and ugliness. The song that all the shit came down on was called 'Electric Chair.' Although the music's different now, the lyrics to that song on the new CD are the same."
In fact, "Electric Chair," which features a chiming, almost melodic guitar that cuts out when a pummeling rampage begins mid-song, is far and away the standout track from American Nightmare. On it, Town sounds like a sick dog with a sore throat, alternately enraged and prepared to die. He sees considerably less danger in the punk scene Fang helped spawn. But now that he's back on the outside, he has a plan to change all that, Fang style.
"We've got to tear all the walls down!" he roars. "I got out of prison, and punk rock has become something that's fuckin' retarded. The people who are into the scene are the kind of people who made me get into punk rock in the first place. It's become a politically correct popularity contest, and that's bullshit. I don't understand how punk rock could be politically correct. It doesn't make any sense."
Neither politics nor correctness are much in evidence on Dream. "Eat A Vegan," for instance, is an attack on what Town sees as the compartmentalizing of punk.
"You've got crusty kids and hardcore kids and vegan hardcore kids and pop-punk kids and ska kids and sharps and skinheads, and it's all segregated. You'd never see a crusty at a punk-rock show. But I tell them to get over it. Punk rock's supposed to be about opening your mind, not closing off your mind. It used to be that you'd go to a show and there'd be all sorts of different bands, and everybody would be into all of it. It was just about music. Anytime you have a militant attitude about anything, you're wearing blinders, and that's lame."
Not that Town's personal tastes are all that broadminded. Rather than exploring other music while he was in stir, he stayed true to the punk gospel. He can count on one hand the cassettes that helped him stay more or less sane. "It took a while, but I finally got ahold of Anti-Nowhere League, Stiff Little Fingers, Motsrhead, Angry Samoans and pre-Rollins Black Flag. And that's it."
Such influences crop up frequently in Fang's oeuvre. Back in 1982, the group was probably the nastiest-sounding purveyor of California hardcore, and some of its early songs were covered by Metallica, Green Day and the Butthole Surfers. But over the years that followed, Fang suffered a plethora of personnel changes (23 players went through the group) and countless weary road trips involving broken-down vans, fistfights and so on. By the time the band fell apart and his bad deal went down, Town was left with little more than a handful of Fang albums, including the blistering Spun Helga and A Mi Ga Sfasas--Yugoslavian for the polite query "Give me head?"
The singer doesn't come right out and say that this phrase came in handy during his seven years of imprisonment, but he offers some hints. "The cells in San Quentin were initially made to house only one person. You can stand up and put your elbow on one wall and put your hand on the other wall. They're fuckin' teeny, and now they got two guys in there. So you better like your celly." He laughs. "But San Quentin was exciting, because it was five tiers high, and guys would get thrown off those tiers about once a week. Once a week, you'd hear someone splatter because they pissed someone else off, or didn't pay a dope debt, or wouldn't suck cock, or whatever."
The lineup of today's Fang has been no more stable than the pre-prison versions, but Town has found a new guitarist whom he describes as "a famous punk-rock star": Jim Martin, who once played in Faith No More. Martin isn't taking the high-art road like Faith No More singer Mike Patton, who's temporarily teamed with John Zorn. Why is he slumming with Fang? "'Cause I'm a fuckin' lowlife," comes Martin's reply, which is slurred with a healthy dose of hooch.
"I was scared when I first saw Fang," Martin admits, and given Town's reputation and formidable build, his reaction makes sense. He certainly could have chosen a safer gig: When Fang returned to a San Francisco club last spring, employees at the venue in question were cautioned to keep their eyes open because of rumors that Town would be killed on stage that night. But the band refused to back down, and played the show anyway. "We put the 'harm' in 'harmony,'" Town says.
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There's nothing friendly about the artwork gracing the American Nightmare album, either. Created by Joe Coleman, a crackpot performance artist known for biting the heads off live mice and strapping incendiary devices to his torso, "Divine Comedy," the cover painting, depicts pierced eyeballs, naked, bloody corpses staked out on lawns, diseased appendages and insects feeding on sores in an evil scene that makes Bosch seem positively compassionate.
The same is true of Fang's music. Still, Town feels that using the group as an outlet for his anger and visions of destruction is a healthy thing--healthier, anyway, than the alternative. Not that he feels he was rehabilitated in the joint. "To me, it makes a little bit of sense to try to straighten somebody out instead of locking them up," he says. "It's like rats in a cage, man. You come out so much worse than when you went in. All my homeboys who have gotten out, they're all back in now--every one of them. None of them can stay out.
"It's a fuckin' miracle I stay out of prison," he adds. "And probably the only reason I do is because I want to play music so bad."
Fang, with the Fuses, the Family Men and Still Left Standing. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 3, Club 156, CU-Boulder campus, $5, 303-492-8619.