Splendid, humorous and gritty
profile of early punk life in the city
of Portland, Oregon USA back in
the late 70's. It maybe somewhat
exagerated and biased in Mr
Shirley's ego centric favour (this
is the geezer who's more famous
for his Sci-Fi writing than his punk
rock roots). However it's well
worth a look. Cheers to Mish
Bondage for passing this on and
Zach Dundas for doing the
|Punk Rock's PDX Genesis
BY ZACH DUNDAS
A musty old walkup on the lower Southwest side is packed with the cream of Oregon's New Wave elite, all
dressed in the height of 1980s mondo bondage fashion: lots of leather, short hair in every crayola hue, chains
and tight, tight pants for everyone.
--Mark Christensen on the punk club Revenge, Oregon Times, July 1978
John Shirley remembers the short, sharp shock to Portland's civic nervous system well.
"People were afraid civilization was creaking to an end," recalls the seasoned hell-raiser who led the
chaos-sowing bands Terror Wrist and SadoNation through the heart of Portland's first punk insurgency.
Malaise-ridden '70s music sat up in a cold sweat as the undercurrent of hard, arty noise that burbled beneath
the granola crust of American rock--Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvet Underground--mixed with
alienated British venom in a new, highly unstable brew. Disaffected kids across the Western world seized on
punk rock's confrontational, intentionally ugly styles and bracing noise. In Portland, then a depressed,
terminally unhip, third-tier West Coast burg, the challenge to the status quo rang loud and clear. While the
surge hit its high-water mark as the '70s bled into the '80s, the roots of rebellion reached back a few years.
"It was sometime in '76, and I went into this import-record store and asked them if they had any Sex Pistols
EPs," says Shirley, now a successful avant-garde sci-fi writer who is widely credited with inventing the
cyberpunk subgenre. "And the guys working there just looked at each other and said, 'My God, another one!'
People had been coming in all day, asking about this British band they'd never heard of.
"What happened was, Parade magazine had run an article warning parents of the dangers of this stuff called
'punk rock.' To me that was like, 'What, they're warning my parents? Must have.'"
Today, when even the most cosmic space brother ambling down Hawthorne sports aggro piercings and hi-fi
tattoos, it's hard to imagine the horror inspired by punk's S&M-clad pioneers. "The town was hostile," Shirley
recalls. "I mean, people were just getting used to hippies."
"Portland was considered a logger's town," says Greg Sage, the lead singer of the Wipers, a band still cited
as a pillar of Northwestern rock. "It was a very uncool place. In that era, if you weren't from New York, L.A. or
London, you didn't exist. It was considered prehistoric, some place you just didn't want to be."
Isolated from the more cosmopolitan centers of the global avant-garde, Portland attracted local style exiles like
Shirley, who'd been kicked out of Salem's McNary High School for locking a teacher in a closet. They put on
neo-Beat poetry readings, all-ages shows and Dadaist costume balls holding more than a hint of the city's
subcultural future. The resulting noise filled Shirley's short-lived Revenge--a rented lodge hall which he
stocked with popcorn and soda stolen from a Salem movie theater--and the Earth Tavern, Urban Noize and
As alien as the young punks of PDX may have looked then, fuzzy old videos reveal scenes that anyone who's
spent time around do-it-yourself rock, then or now, would recognize. Neo Boys--four wholesome young ladies
who could step comfortably into a modern indie-rock show--bash out skeletal pop, stiff with rookie rocker
nerves. The Kinetics aren't. The Fix smashes through rudimentary rebel anthems for a half-interested party
Bands played in dingy basements, neglected living rooms and fetid clubs. Fanzines came hot off the Xerox,
glued together and rife with spelling errors. The kids played too loud and too fast, recorded 7-inch singles and
sometimes whole albums, switched from band to band, broke up, reunited, moved away, came back. In other
words, punk spawned a tradition of underground rock that is still in rude health today. Though the initial wave
had broken by the middle '80s, new standard-bearers like Poison Idea and Dead Moon emerged, playing
venues like Satyricon, the X-Ray Cafe, EJ's and LaLuna.
The young rebels of two decades ago have, for the most part, moved on. But the energy they unleashed, in
all their ripening enthusiasm, still buzzes in the Portland air, a testament to the visceral charge of raw rock and
a taste for adventure that, for all its avowed misanthropy and rebellion, was and is sweetly naive in its own way.
"We were just sort of trying this on for size," Shirley says. "You know the early punk thing where people would
spit on bands? Well, if you look at videos from that era, you can see people sort of tentatively spitting. It was
"Our scene was small," he says, "but for some people, that's all there was.
For a few, it was that or suicide, y'know?"