War Stories at the Swedish American Hall, by Patric Carver
War Stories (photo: Patric Carver)

They say that you care less about what other people think about you as you age.

Imagine what would happen if you didn’t give a shit in the first place.

We got to see the results of that theory in practice last Friday night at the Swedish American Hall during War Stories: Tales of 70’s & 80’s Punk Mayhem Told By The Perpetrators Themselves.

The scene was a little odd to walk into. Swedish American Hall, no matter how many concerts it hosts or how rich the musical history is there, will always look more like it is ready to host a board meeting of the local garden society. Upon walking in, the neatly arranged chairs faced a stage with images of young punk kids, many by the legendary Theresa Kereakes (Punk Turns 30, Lobotomy Magazine) who helped co-curate and present War Stories. Kereakes, the self-proclaimed designated driver of their shared youth, had been fortunate enough to have a Honda Civic gifted by her parents back then, as well as a valid registration and license. This allowed her to shuttle and therefore document the scene as it was blossoming. Personally, as a kid who pored over the West Coast zines in my childhood home of Tampa, Florida, I’d like to thank Ma and Pa Kereakes for their contribution to the cause. Without that Honda Civic, we would have lost a lot of photo documentation — both in Kereakes’ wonderful photographs and in the stories that she continues to tell. She provided some of the reality checks of living in the punk scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s in her stories, “The truth is sometimes we’d have seven people and 12 dollars,” she said, pointing out not necessarily the disparity, but the necessity for ingenuity embedded in the lifestyle they led.

There were times when moderator Michelle Villegas Threadgould seemed a little overwhelmed at points, but if she hadn’t been, this event might have been a failure. The semi-circle of punk veterans on stage were all very polite and cordial with each other, but there was no reining in the stories. Panelist and co-curator of the event Pleasant Gehman (the Ringling Sisters, the Screaming Sirens) made short work of stripping away any decorum — peeling back the barrier between the ordinary and the taboo like she was peeling a clementine.

Gehman started the night by thanking the various historians and photographers who had taken an interest in the history of punk rock but stressed the importance of events like War Stories. “I mean, that’s great that

[historians] are interested, but you weren’t fucking there,” she sneered before launching into one of many sordid stories of stolen cars. There was a mention of young punks eating dog food sandwiches that seemed to be a little much for some of the members of the crowd. Gehman retold with stunning, albeit sometimes painfully detailed, play-by-play. There were no euphemisms; no winks to the audience. Everything was told with blunt honesty.

A lot of the evening’s stories did center around crime. Gehman told stories of shoplifting, of car theft, and of drugs. Jeff Drake (the Joneses) recounted after some prompting a very matter-of-fact tale of the time he went to prison for bank robbery, and the audience never seemed to grow tired of it. When the moderator was going through questions submitted by the audience, she asked if they wanted to hear more about the beginnings of the punk music scene or more about crime.

“Haven’t we talked enough about crime?” said Gehman.

“I’m with you,” retorted the moderator before being drowned out by the audience asking for more crime stories.

It wasn’t all legally questionable conversation, though. Chip Kenman (The Dils) told some short stories of how exploratory it was to be a part of the scene. “We went to see the Nuns because we liked the name.” Tales of hopping from show to show ensued. Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Go’s, FroSTed) quipped about her former hard stance against “posers” and “sellouts,” particularly how she had applied the label to the Screamers. “I even wrote a song about it,” Wiedlin said, “before everyone everywhere called my band that.” She recited a little bit of the song before sighing, “What was I thinking? I was such a jerk.”

Peter Case (the Plimsouls, the Nerves) got some laughs when prompted to contribute by saying, “To be honest, I don’t really remember much.” Fortunately, he had brought a newspaper review from 1970 of his band titled, “Where Were the Chaperones?” The review described the horror of witnessing a “middle finger upended” and other gasp-worthy acts. The review was funny and charming, but also gave a real insight into the fact that not that long ago, all of this self-expression was considered dangerous by certain parties. It was a particularly direct reminder that the policing of young people’s self-expression has always been commonplace.

War Stories felt more like an exchange of fond memories between friends that recounts from the battlefield. The panelists talked about their scars as something they earned and took pride in, and we’re all better off for their service.