While lively punk scenes thrived in many cities across the U.S. in the late ’70s and early ’80s, San Francisco’s had something the others did not. “It feels like the San Francisco scene is so overlooked, because it was more intellectual and more art-based,” says Colorado-based photographer Richard Alden Peterson. “That’s the part of punk people want to leave out of the history, because it doesn't make sense to them, because it wasn't anything like New York.”
Photo by Bruce Conner, courtesy of Richard Alden Peterson
And he should know: As designated “Aerial Photographer” for the San Francisco scene zine Search and Destroy (which was initially financed by Beat godfathers Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books), Peterson was front and center, meeting and observing the bands and people who dug out a punk culture at Mabuhay Gardens, a club in the heart of North Beach, just down the street from City Lights. Years later, it’s now his goal to give San Francisco punk its due.
“There was so much happening, so many interesting people — really, it was more like a hybrid of psychedelia, punk and Beat,” Peterson recalls. “It was a magical time. It had a lot of diversity, too, a real mix of orientations and races. We had dada and surrealism influences, and we had writers and poets who were more serious thinkers than people in other scenes. We were a lot more intellectual and self-exploring.
“The punk scene was a women's-lib moment, too,” he adds. “The women involved were just as important as the men. We had the most creative and strange bands, but a lot of them are now unknown for many reasons. There were a lot of AIDS deaths back then, and people disappeared.” To make his point, Peterson will kick off what he hopes to unfold as a live primer of characters from the scene with a first installment, San Francisco Punk Experience Part 1, an evening with major player Jean Caffeine, onetime drummer for the all-girl San Francisco band the Urge. Caffeine hits the stage on October 22 at Syntax Physic Opera. Depending on the success of the first show, Peterson hopes to ship in other players from the scene in the future, including Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.
Caffeine (her real name is Jean Leider) is currently crossing the country performing Sadie Saturday Nite, a sit-down blend of spoken word and music supporting her album of the same name on Joe Records; both tell the story of her roots in music as an underage punk girl in San Francisco, sneaking into clubs to gig and hear other bands. “But don't come expecting to hear a hardcore punk band,” warns Peterson. She’ll be performing all new songs, accompanied only by a guitarist.
“It’s personal and funny,” notes Caffeine of the show. “I like to say it’s for anyone who's been in a scene or wanted to be in a scene, or who’s had their heart broken. There’s a strong nostalgic component, with people coming up afterward to share stories.” But there’s appeal for younger audiences, too. “They’ve been enthusiastic,” she continues. “I think it speaks to younger people. In every generation there’s a desire to rebel, to find your tribe, go against society and distance yourself from your parents.”
The San Francisco punk band Crime, caught in the act.
Courtesy of Richard Alden Peterson
And, like Peterson, she’d like to be a voice for the forgotten San Francisco scene. “You don't hear as much about San Francisco, because we didn't have a record industry, but then again, there would be no DIY culture now if we didn’t first have punk. There was something fertile in that city that let underground things brew and come out. It was something like a cultural convergence in the late ’70s — people were ripe to be done with mass culture and dinosaur rock culture, and after hearing 20,000 drum solos, it was refreshing to see bands with no drum solos. People found one another and became family.”
Caffeine goes on first at San Francisco Punk Experience, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at Syntax Physic Opera. At the end of Sadie Saturday Nite, she’ll be joined on stage by Peterson and Jeff Raphael, a former member of the San Francisco band the Nuns (who opened the Sex Pistols’ notorious farewell show at Winterland in 1978), for a multimedia presentation reaping more memories through words and projected imagery from the time. Finally, the local two-girl DJ duo Nightshift will spin a San Francisco/punk-era dance set for a celebratory end to the evening. Admission is $10; learn more at the Facebook event page.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.