“Who Cares Anyway? Post-Punk San Francisco and the End of the Analog Age” – by Will York

I recognize that writing about Will York’s engrossing new book on San Francisco’s 1977-94 “post-punk” sub-underground takes us off our chosen journalistic beat a bit. Clearly, this is a book, and my site focuses on fanzines, and yet I just devoured this 560-page tome in what was effectively three glued sittings, and I’d very much like to tell you about it. It’s one of the best rock books I’ve read in years, and I’ve read a few. And to wit: what is a book about music, if not a very large fanzine? I rest my case.

Let’s set the stage a bit for what Who Cares Anyway? is and isn’t. It is decidedly not a book about post-punk writ large, i.e. music with watery basslines, angular rhythms and whatnot. In fact several of its core bands in the early chapters, such as Negative Trend and The Sleepers, were very much concurrent with first-wave punk. It’s also not a place where you’re going to learn a whole lot about Chrome or The Residents, nor even really that much about Tuxedomoon, despite their the latter’s named presence on the cover.

Rather, the book takes a throughline through important and forgotten bands and quasi-”movements” that really haven’t received much play as of yet, with the biggest chunks of the book reserved for the stories of Flipper (the undisputed arrow leading out of first-wave, punk-adjacent tomfoolery and negation, who then greatly influenced the trajectories of so many of the oddballs who made up the late 80s/early 90s San Francisco underground); Ricky Willams and all he wrought upon The Sleepers and Toiling Midgets; the ramshackle DIY roots and eventual worldwide stardom of Faith No More (about which more later); the Caroliner saga; and everything & anything related to Gregg Turkington, who was clearly author Will York’s entree into the weird San Francisco alternative universe of bands that either didn’t care about their audiences and/or that sought to provoke them in the most oblique manner possible.

There are so, so many places the book could have gone wrong and didn’t. It resisted every temptation to bemoan the post-whatever-this-scene-was dot-com era, and push a de rigeur whiny “it was so much better then” narrative. It strayed far away from the political groupthink that strangled so much of the SF/Berkeley underground for decades, and indeed, it wasted no opportunities that arose to find ways to gently mock Tim Yohannan and/or Jello Biafra. It did not place an undue emphasis on the supposed “bleakness” of 1980s San Francisco (except for the all-too-real hardcore drug scene), and in fact solicited commentary from musicians who made downer or bleak music about how they’d moved to San Francisco because it’s such a beautiful city. Nor did York ignore the post-Flipper, pre-1990s music scene there, a time generally thought to be a creative low point, a point which I myself have argued and which I lived through, and which I’m now not 100% convinced was actually the case.

Oh, and Who Cares Anyway? is an oral history, for the most part – which, to me, is the absolute best way to capture a scene or an era that one was not a part of, or really even one you were immersed in. York is a journalist whose SF heyday was spent writing for The Bay Guardian in the early 2000s; I remember his writing well from those days, as well as that of Mike McGuirk and Kimberly Chun. 

Lots to talk about here! Let me first get my own biases and connections out of the way; as I’ve blathered on about here and elsewhere, I have lived in San Francisco since 1989, and was going to club shows here starting in 1984 – so yes, I suppose I’m an interested party, and I was reveling in many of these local bands on the radio before that (l can absolutely remember my utter delight and amusement the first time I heard both “Ha Ha Ha” and “Brainwash” from Flipper on KFJC, but I wouldn’t see them live until 1990). Unbeknownst to me until I read the book, York quoted from my 1990s fanzine Superdope twice; from my Dynamite Hemorrhage fanzine once and even once from my long-dormant Detailed Twang blog. I’m happy that I had something to indirectly contribute to this thing in some way, as, truth be told, it’s a book I’d love to have written but would never have had the chops nor the patience to pull off.

York, like a handful of prominent rock writers, spends a lot of time on Ricky Williams, the erstwhile drug addict, drummer on Crime’s first 45, Sleepers singer and later Toiling Midgets singer (he even spent a very brief period fronting Flipper, and is the one who named the band). For years I’ve tried to understand the appeal of The Sleepers to so many whose taste I trust: I also find the Toiling Midgets’ 1982 Sea of Unrest mostly unlistenable, and it really all boils down to Williams. I can’t stand his vocals, and that’s that. While reading this book, I was so taken with these stories and the scene-setting that I did something I’ve probably done a dozen times already over the years; I listened to the complete Sleepers discography online to see if something would finally click, and it sort of did, just not when he was singing. Michael Belfer’s “raw prog” guitar playing is fantastic, however.

Taking this one step further, I learned a ton about the Toiling Midgets that I didn’t know from this book – most importantly, that their second album from 1985, Dead Beats, is phenomenal. I’d ignored it completely the past near-forty years, and checked it out last week, inspired by reading this book. It’s almost entirely instrumental, which is how the band started their life before Williams entered the picture – a dense, hard, totally enveloping wash of sound, only sullied by his vocals on two tracks. I saw them live, playing a short instrumental set in 1991, right when they first came back and just before their Matador Records album Son. All I really knew about them at the time was that they’d been “serious drug people”, and that I didn’t like Sea of Unrest, but even that short set let me know that there was something special there. I honestly just didn’t follow up on it until now. 

Who Cares Anyway? covers a ton of ground, deeply and authoritatively without overstaying on any one band or moment: Flipper, of course; but also Noh Mercy, Glorious Din, the Pop-O-Pies, Club Foot, Arkansas Man, Inflatable Boy Clams, Subterranean Records, Minimal Man, Factrix, Wiring Dept. magazine and much more. I would have wished for more stories of the Sound of Music club, but at least there’s this article here; I was too young for that place but I used to hear bands announced as playing there during KFJC’s nightly music listings. I’d also think that Frightwig would’ve been a good fit for this book, and am not entirely sure how they missed the cut.

Of course, my initial reaction to seeing Faith No More as part of this project was to blanch at the thought, but I also knew about their early sub-underground roots as a stranger sort of rock band (when they were Faith No Man and then Faith. No More). When York sort of puts their whole story in context, their ultimate global success offers a nice juxtaposition with the rest of the scene that barely left town. I recall Brandan Kearney (World of Pooh, Caroliner, Nuf Sed Records) telling me that those guys were longtime friends of his; clearly members of the band collaborated with Gregg Turkington in projects like Faxed Head; and even though I’ve deliberately never heard music by the related band “Mr. Bungle”, York makes the case for their self-sabotaging uniqueness, at any rate. If I’d been writing this book I think I can now see why Faith No More might merit inclusion as an anchor and/or a foil. 

As for all the bands I did get to see and experience in real time, well, I can’t believe someone wrote a book that actually calls out Beetleleg, Junglee, Archipelago Brewing Co, the Easy Goings, Job’s Daughters and even has multiple chapters on the Zip Code Rapists. There’s a picture from a World of Pooh show I attended and a description of the “Brandan bashes Barbara over the head with a fake beer bottle” show that I also attended. The Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 get much deserved play, and little did I know: they mostly got their start playing at the Maximum RocknRoll-affiliated Gilman Street Project in Berkeley. I’d completely forgotten that that club, in perhaps the lamest and most Soviet move ever, initially tried to prevent bands from flyering for their gigs there, in favor of a “We’re a community, just show up and pay to get in every night, and who knows what bands you might see?” approach. It didn’t last long. 

When it comes to the Amarillo Records bands and Turkington- and Kearney-related projects of the 1990s: I enjoy reading about them, I enjoy thinking about them, I truly enjoy reading others’ reactions to them, and mostly don’t enjoy listening to them all that much. Caroliner were a perfect case in point, though my antipathy to them runs deeper. “Grux”, the prime mover in this longtime conceptual project, was once introduced to a friend of mine, a “normie” and one of the nicest people I know. My friend proceeded to stick out his hand for a handshake, which was rejected with a sneer by “Grux”. Instant hate from me when I heard that story a day later. This book reveals that he was just as much of an asshole with everyone, even berating Turkington for being such a sell-out that he owned a car, while still asking Turkington to drive him places. I did not know the story of why Brandan Kearney ditched Caroliner and Grux, but good for him, and you’ll have to read Who Cares Anyway? to find out.

So excited to also read about the Zip Code Rapists’ phony “breakup” and the follow-up bands the Zip Code Revue and the Three Doctors Band. What an incredible piece of dada artistry that all was, and a terrific piece of minutia to cover in a book. York makes mention of a legendary piece in Portland’s Snipe Hunt newspaper in which the two members of the ‘Rapists are each allowed space to vent about their “acrimonious breakup”, a total knee-slapper (for real, I’m certain I slapped my knee while reading it) that I wished I’d saved. Apparently it was included in the Three Doctors Band’s Back To Basics – “Live” LP, a record that I’d heard was so godawful I never even thought to own one. 

I’ve certainly boared like an eabla enough over this book for you turkreys. Get your copy here if any of this sounds worth pursuing!

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