Interview by Buzz Osborne
Images by Melanie Nissen
“I meet about 100 or so like-minded ‘others.’
We all spontaneously realize that each and every one of us
is pretty great, and the world will soon be ours.
—Allan MacDonellSomewhere in there, LA punk is born.” — Allan MacDonell
A California native, Allan MacDonell is the author of Punk Elegies, a memoir which tackles the sex, drugs, irreverence and optimism of the Los Angeles punk movement in the late 70s. His previous nearly 20 year tenure as editor at Hustler magazine produced his first memoir, “Prisoner of X,” about his days at the top of Larry Flynt Publications. He was also a defining voice of the archetypal punk fanzine, Slash, which had an iconic run from 1977 to 1980. Buy “Prisoner of X” and “Punk Elegies.”
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Roger ‘Buzz’ Osborne was a founding member of the Melvins in the early 80s as the band’s guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. Often referred to as King Buzzo, he is also a founding member of Fantômas and Venomous Concept and his numerous collaborations include those with Cows and Tool.
A Los Angeles native and co-founder of the late 70s LA punk-rock touchstone Slash magazine, Melanie Nissen is foremost a photographer who captured the city’s burgeoning underground music culture in a now extensive body of iconic images. She has also headed several record company art departments, creating packaging for many legendary album covers. Website.
Prisoner of X
A memoir by Allan MacDonell, who ascended through the ranks at Hustler magazine to become the executive editor, and tells the bizarre story of climbing to the top of America’s porn magazine industry.
Allan’s a weird cat and an amazing story teller, and I’ve had the privilege of being his friend for over two decades. He always has an interesting opinion on everything, and I certainly don’t listen to many people, but I listen to Allan. Our wives have been best friends since before either of us were married, so we’ve ended up spending a lot of time together. I’ve heard bits and pieces of these “Punk Elegies” stories for years and they all seem to blend into one hilarious monologue. I’m glad he wrote this book. It’s a great, funny read and, in fact, I’m sending a copy to my mom. She loved his last book “Prisoner of X” and I can’t wait to see what she thinks of this one!
Buzz Osborne: You start “Punk Elegies” as a whiskey drinking preteen and end the book as a twenty-something druggie watching a bunch of bondage dudes getting fisted in a gay bathhouse in San Francisco. Any thoughts?
Allan MacDonell: Well, they say write what you know. In fairness to nine-year-old me, that kid was only sipping. He starts off the book as a common social drinker. But you know the story: recreational inebriation is a progressive endeavor. By 1977, it leads our “Punk Elegies” hero protagonist to a dank basement enclave under an alley off of a sleazy section of Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a place called the Masque. I meet about 100 or so like-minded “others.” We all spontaneously realize that each and every one of us is pretty great, and the world will soon be ours. Somewhere in there, LA punk is born. Not all our dreams work out. Things do go well enough that I observe myself lost in the maze of a pre-AIDS S&M flesh pit wearing only a towel around my waist.
BO: You still live in Hollywood where all of these things took place. Does it ever seem like returning to the scene of the crime as you travel these same streets more than 35 years later?
AM: I got lucky almost 20 years ago, and I bought a house up in the Hollywood Hills before my luck went away. But I visit that gentrification-defiant “Punk Elegies” grid along Hollywood Boulevard all the time. It’s like I’ve never left the scene of the crime. I’m continually conscious that I escaped a way of life that could have ended me. I’m also reminded that I miss the expectations of those days. A lot of the people were a lot of fun. We were looking forward to being fun forever.
BO: What ended up happening to these people in the book? You wrote it in such a way that I want to know THEIR stories too. I think that’s one of the triumphs of Punk Elegies.
AM: What ended up happening to a lot of these people is they ended up dying, hence one aspect of the title “Punk Elegies.” A batch of the survivors have maintained a punk rock identity for however many decades and are approaching their sixties as little old blue-haired ladies and gents. Another bunch succeeded in the wider world to varying degrees, with educations, careers, relationships, even kids. But I suspect that no one who was at home down there at the Masque has been fully absorbed into the mainstream.
BO: What do some of these people think now about those days you cover in your book?
AM: One impetus for starting “Punk Elegies” was a conversation I had with Masque-founder Brendan Mullen in around 2008. We both expressed a bittersweet nostalgia for a lost time. The hopes and possibilities had meant a lot to us. The disappointment was still fresh 30 years later. It was like brooding over some deep love affair that had gone sour. Talking to Brendan, I realized my feelings might not be aberrant. He gave me confidence to push through and try to excavate that world as it really had been for me.
“I miss the expectations of those days.
A lot of the people were a lot of fun.
We were looking forward to being fun forever.”
— Allan MacDonell
BO: You witnessed the very formation of the 70s Los Angeles punk scene. Do you still listen to any of these bands and if so, which ones? Does any of it seem important at this point?
AM: Some of the music I liked from 1977 still gives me a jolt. The first few singles from the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Damned’s first album, the Buzzcocks and Wire and the Saints. Particular songs from the initial LA scene work for me too: “Don’t Push Me Around” by the Zeros. “Life of Crime” by the Weirdos. “Forming,” by the Germs. “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” by the Alley Cats. Stuff like that.
On the level of subverting society and changing the world, our little basement incubator doesn’t seem to have been all that important. But it was a key formative experience for me, as I suspect in one way or another it was for almost everyone who participated.
Beyond the people I knew, several distinct generations of individualist kids have defined themselves in successive punk rock waves. This shared experience seems to be very important to the individuals who identify with it.
BO: I loved the part of “Punk Elegies” about having contempt for musicians even trying to start a band or doing anything productive. I understand that concept well. Attitudes like that make it easier to continue the downward spiral into darkness. Do you agree?
AM: Even out in the sunlight, there’s a strong case for making ambition the eighth deadly sin. But the would-be rock stars I was contemptuous of in “Punk Elegies” weren’t musicians who wanted to do something productive. They were lames who wanted to be noticed by the Go-Go’s.
BO: People don’t usually understand that getting loaded in times of desperation is the one thing that saves you even if it ends up almost killing you. Do you think that without that release you would have offed yourself?
AM: There seems to be some truth to what you say, but it’s sort of a moot point. No amount of getting loaded saved me from eventually trying to off myself.
BO: I also loved the part about finding God on the bathroom floor and then “not dying, THIS time.” Did episodes like that contribute to finally getting out of those hellholes?
AM: Not for everyone. The more times you wake up on the bathroom floor after a near death experience, the more comfortable you are being death-adjacent. In a sense, every near death experience inches you a little closer to the bull’s eye.
BO: You told me that stories like these are better if the author lives them, and I think that’s true. Can you elaborate?
A French novelist and physician, (1984-1961) known best for his style of writing that violated proper literary conventions of the time, especially his first “Journey to the end of the night.”
AM: That’s a little piece of encouragement I took from autobiographical French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He said, “You don’t do anything for free. You’ve got to pay. A story you make up, that isn’t worth anything. The only story that counts is the one you pay for. Otherwise it’s lousy.” I have paid, my friend.
BO: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory permeates every story in Punk Elegies. Were you aware at the time why this happened over and over again?
AM: Recurring defeat is still happening over and over again, and not just to me, and I do not know why it must be that way. I intuited at a very young age that life, even on the best of terms, is a losing proposition. Everybody is beat at the end. That awareness is what led me down to the Masque in the first place. Ultimately, you can’t win; so let’s all try to make the best of it.
“If I believed that psychiatry worked,
I’d say music is as important to me as psychiatry.”
— Allan MacDonell
BO: Have you ever envisioned your own death?
AM: Odd you should ask. One thing I did differently with “Punk Elegies” as opposed to my first book, “Prisoner of X,” is I determined that I would write a follow-up book and have it ready in time for “Punk Elegies” to be published, just in case the world wants more. So I have a draft of the third book ready to go. It’s a memoir of my life once I’m gone from it. In other words, it’s a book about me being dead. So yes. I do envision my own death.
BO: There’s a massive amount of detail in your writing. Were you keeping any kind of diary back then or do you simply have an incredible memory? I’d imagine that once you got the wheels rolling by writing all of these memories down that more and more things just poured out.
AM: I have a cinematic memory. For more than 30 years, whenever I’m driving a car or unable to sleep or talking to someone I’d prefer to avoid, these life episodes have been playing as intact film segments, complete with cuts and camera shifts. Somewhere around eight years ago, I started jotting the punk scenes into a notebook. I compiled almost 100 skeletal outlines. Then I went through and selected and sifted and shifted, and I ended up with the 30 or so interconnected scenes that were fleshed out and woven into the book.
BO: It might sound weird to some but I find every one of these stories hilariously funny. That’s why it works. Do you agree? To me if it’s not funny, it’s not good.
AM: One of my first friends to read the book in the galley proofs ripped through it in about 18 hours and sent me an email saying, “Oh, my God, I am blown away. This is just so fucking amazing and sad!” That sad part bummed me out. I was aiming for comedy. Comedy is where the money is. I’m hoping this book might land me a job writing for “Veep.”
BO: How do you think all of the things that happened in this book prepared you for your 20-year job at Hustler?
AM: When I took my desk at Larry Flynt Publications, it wasn’t all that easy to faze me with freaky material. Also I’d developed an informed anti-authority bias, and I understood the power of transgression and the judicious application of shock value. These traits developed into a highly effective skill set at Hustler.
BO: In the 23 years we’ve been friends, I’ve always been impressed with your knowledge of all kinds of music. How important is music in your life now?
AM: If I believed that psychiatry worked, I’d say music is as important to me as psychiatry. The older I get, the more I need and benefit from music, especially obtaining and playing records.
The 1969 novel by Leonard Gardner, and his only novel, which is now considered a classic of boxing fiction. In 1972, the neo-noir film adaptation Fat City was directed by John Huston, starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell.
BO: Punk Elegies has a “Fat City” vibe to it that I’m all for. Who are some of your favorite authors?
AM: I’ve never read “Fat City,” I’ve only seen the John Huston movie. I should track down that book to verify my sense that you’re giving me a huge compliment here. I love a lot of the popular masters: Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Roberto Bolaño, Henry Miller, Richard Yates, Flann O’Brien. There are literally dozens more. I admire anybody who writes well and truthfully, and I’ve aspired to be one of those people since I was a child reading Jack London and Charles Dickens.
BO: Describe a perfect Los Angeles day for you now and what would have been a perfect LA day back then?
AM: Let’s say some friends of mine who I like spending time with were to call me up and say, “Hey, Allan! We just found four or five cartons of old record albums out in the garage. They seem to have been well taken care of. Come over and pick them up!” So I would go over and scoop up the records. That would be as perfect in 2015 as it would have been in 1978. The difference is that today whoever makes that call and I will go out and have a nice lunch. So, somebody, anybody, please pick up your phone! I’m waiting for your call!