Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization is one of those seminal music documentaries with a great reputation despite being rarely seen. Ditto its two sequels. Never available on DVD or Blu-ray, The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy is finally being released by Shout Factory at the end of the month. In addition, the first two films of Spheeris’ Decline trilogy will screen at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago on Saturday, June 27th, with Spheeris in attendance. (For more information about the Music Box screening, click here.)
Even though I’ve only seen the first Decline, I’m excited for the trilogy’s release in general. Maybe the lack of availability has increased the potency of the material and my desire to see it. (Absence makes the heart of the LA scene grow dismaler.) In the first Decline, Spheeris hung around LA punk bands like Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, X, and The Germs and included live concert footage; she caught the daily grind of music mag Slash; she interviewed kids at punk shows. In the process, her documentary captures the spirit of the scene as a whole: an aggressive sneer looking out over the ugly void of the 80s, the logical conclusion after the disillusionment of the 70s and the dashed hopes of the 60s.
Titling the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization seems cheeky, but it’s fitting since the story of the movie is the quintessential American tale of the California bummer.
Think about it. Before westward expansion was over, the possibilities must have seemed limitless. Land, far as the eye can see, untouched, unspoiled, and with a little genocide, eventually ours. When gold was discovered, the west had riches untold, though only for a few; the rest were ripped off or died trying to eventually get ripped off. With the motion pictures there was the promise of fame rarely achieved, and during the Depression there were jobs that weren’t worth the trek. For the generation of love, places like San Francisco seemed utopian, but the promise of the 60s was dashed by political assassinations capped by hippie bloodshed (i.e., the Manson murders, Altamont) that revealed a naive kind of hippie bullshit.
Early in The Decline of Western Civilization, the owner of a punk club stands atop a hill with the LA skyline muggy with haze. Cars on the freeways beneath churn out more and more smog. To paraphrase him, everyone went west expecting paradise, but when they got there, the air sucked.
To put it another way: In Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the summation of the counterculture’s failure was the refrain “We blew it”; the equivalent in The Decline of Western Civilization is a disaffected teenager staring at the camera and sighing “Fuck.”
While the punk scene seems like it ought to be about community, the film seems to chronicle a form of punk cannibalization. From interviews with punk show kids, they talk about an aggressive and violent streak. In one particular interview, Pat Smear–then of The Germs and later of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame–admits to beating up girls just because; in the concert footage, pits open up and swirl, full of punk kids and punchy suburban bros and spit. Adding to the vibe of society’s lawless decline, the security at the shows are decked out in leather jackets, like the lawmen from the original Mad Max.
It’s not just punk-on-punk cannibalization, but in some cases self-cannibalization. Darby Crash of The Germs embodies the latter. He harms himself at shows, scratching his skin and drawing blood. Spheeris catches him on camera zonked out of his gourd. There’s permanent marker smeared all over his face and body like he’s part poster-child for disaffected youth and part punk-parody in the form of horse hair pottery. Crash slurs out all of the lyrics in a daze while beneath him are subtitles with the proper lyrics. It’s funny and sad all at once, though maybe sadder than funny given Crash’s eventual suicide from a heroin overdose.
From the clips I’ve seen, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is less like the first Decline and more like This Is Spinal Tap or the cult short film Heavy Metal Parking Lot. (Spheeris declined to direct This Is Spinal Tap.) The excesses of the second film are about rock star cliches, which might seem like the high-life or a dream fulfilled, but it seems like a steeper fall given the vapid nature of the rock and roll dream. Maybe the focus of The Metal Years was anticipated by the emptiness delineated in X’s “Sex and Dying in High Society.” 1998’s Decline Part III (never released on home video), is all about the homeless gutterpunks of LA and their daily struggles to get by. It’s a continued drop headed into the 21st century, because one of the constants of America is the California bummer.
Though not part of the LA punk scene, Johnny Rotten may have succinctly summed the trajectory of the decline of western civilization back in 1977: “No future.” The rudderless world continues into the void of the 21st century. West isn’t an option anymore, and the only direction left is down. It’s fitting that Spheeris would end The Decline of Western Civilization with footage of the band Fear.