MDC. Memoir From a Damaged Civilization. Stories of Punk, Fear and Redemption by Dave Dictor (Ma nicD Press)
Did you ever see The Decline of Western Civilization documentary? The first one?
Pretty uneven, isn’t it? And by god, there’s a lot of indifferent stuff in there. The Germs are horrible, but rather wonderful. Fear are also quite nasty, and funny, and wonderful. The rest … well, it’s kind of interesting. But Decline (Mk I) is not a film I readily return to.
Even so, because it captures a scene in a scattergun style, it’s significant. By no means was that every significant band. By no means known to man, woman or beast.
But when it first came out here in Australia (1984, I think) it made and confirmed a huge impact. The wave of US hardcore and secondary punk was finally breaking into our homes (well, not if you listened to mainstream radio and watched TV, granted. I mean, us in the alternative scene.
You remember that…) and gentle young souls with spiky hair, the right jeans and Doc Martens and leather motorcycle jackets with UK punk band names and patches all over them? (I was always reminded of my school exercise books when I was about 13; I figured I’d done that already, I didn’t need a jacket that reminded me of school.) When, in 1983, we tried to explain to these gentle souls that, you know, it was the American punk bands which were amazing, they were aggressively dismissive.
Of course, I suppose the same gentle souls now have every Circle Jerks and Black Flag LP.
At a friend’s place, I listened to a lot of music. The American stuff, 35 years ago, included The Dicks. The Big Boys. Bad Brains. Really Red. Fear. Black Flag. Circle Jerks (who I still don’t like that much). Flipper. Meat Puppets.
The American scene was brilliant, amazingly diverse in the early ‘80s. People started buying Maximum Rock’n’Roll. We began to mimic slamming. The first gig I ever saw in Adelaide which actually had people slamming was Grong Grong at Flinders University in 1984. There was a lot of dust on the dancefloor and it turned to a slick of mud pretty quick. Everybody fell all over the place. Everybody helped each other up and got on with it.
But the first MDC LP… the front cover’s a bit ropey, and the back I don’t like that much. I was prepared to dismiss it. And the name of the band. Millions of Dead Cops. Cops clean up the trash. We need cops. What the fuck are they on about?
Then…the needle hit the vinyl and the band started and didn’t stop. An intense blizzard of coherent rage and hurt. It was a sensation unlike any I’d experienced; and by then I didn’t think I was going to be quite as affected by an lp again. Certainly not a fucking punk rock LP.
I don’t like punk rock, as a rule. Mostly, it’s FUCKING BORING, with its predictable trademarks, traintracks, tropes, rules, uniforms… it became routine pretty damn quickly. A sea of black leather jackets and spiky hair is as un-individual as a sea of denim jackets and hairy, genuflecting heads. Fuck, a punk rock gig can be like visiting a noisy bank hosted by over-enthusiastic rugby players. So much heavy metal used to be like that: now, the new heavy metal explosion world-wide has taken elements of every rock and music under the sun and we have a new way forward.
Not that the mainstream would ever notice, of course. And, can you imagine rolling through Texas towns and assorted small world USA burgs in a crappy van with “Millions of Dead Cops” spray-painted on the side? Talk about sticking your head in a fucking bear trap. “Memoir From a Damaged Civilization” is like MDC’s songs: fast, full of stuff and takes you by surprise.
Sorry, I was talking about me, wasn’t I? Yes. I was as demanding of musicians and artists then as I am now. Arrogant, I know. But I crave excellence and excess in my entertainment. Curiously, the first MDC LP was also in Kurt Cobain’s top 10 albums.
MDC had - and still do have - excellence and excess in fucking spades.
Dave and Ron Posner (from whose archives came the tour documentation and photos) first mentioned their desire to do a book to me on their Australian tour in 2014. I’m sure you remember how tight and hard they were onstage. It was more or less by accident that I met them. But we got on quite well, I thought. After the tour, they kept in touch, and Dave and I would occasionally correspond about the book. So that’s why my name’s at the back in the acknowledgements; I’m just one of many who encouraged Dave and Ron.
So, is “MDC. Memoir From a Damaged Civilization” any good?
Yeah, it is.
It’s not brilliant, but it’s a quick read and you’ll learn heaps, especially if you have an interest in the hardcore/ what-the-fuck-was-that-after-hardcore scenes in the USA. MDC were right in the thick of things, from the start - and some of Dave’s songs were written before punk existed. In fact, I’ll say that there’s a clear distinction between the Black Flags and C.Jerks of the world and the Really Reds and MDCs …
Essentially, it’s kind of like a memoir-cum-travelogue; we get glimpses of what’s going on behind the whirlwind rush of the band’s trajectory. It’s 192-pages long, well-illustrated and I read it with considerably more interest than the last Richard Hell volume (for example); the hardcore scene is, despite the many books by people who wish they had been there, very little understood. The many differing reasons why people were there; what the mix of freaks was on the ground. It all matters.
Also, despite the plethora of US cop drama and so forth on the goggle-box of an evening in Australia, we really don’t understand the place very well. “Memoir From a Damaged Civilization” is a good gap-filler.
One of the most impressive things is that we get “Good Dave” and “Bad Dave”, and Dave Dictor (he is, essentially, the push and shove behind MDC; he’s the only consistent common denominator) always gives credit where it’s due. He thanks Heather Phillips for saving his life (before essentially abandoning her to drugs - no, not heroin); he acknowledges a lot of people. Those who might feel they have a reason to disagree to the point of suing, he disguises. It’s all quite vivid and in your face.
Dave tells us about a few stage and performance highlights. No, not performing for the President (oddly) but of his Elvis stage, his Divine stage, of serenading cops and bribing Russian border police and preventing right-wing sieg-heiling riots as the very left-wing MDC perform.
Now here’s the thing, right. Before I met them, I was slightly apprehensive. I really dislike line-toeing lefties. They’re boring and thoughtless, and kneejerk politics tends to ignore the reality. And the reality is that people in most political parties, regardless of idiot belief, all seem to believe they’re doing the right thing (or, if not the right thing, then what’s right for them). Politics is a great way to gather us all together in a big cause thus splitting the people up into “idiots over there, decent folk over here”.
Dave, born in ’56 I think, was profoundly influenced by the hippy vs the machine period in American politics - just like the slightly older DEVO and Residents folk. In fact, despite the hardcore ethos and all these photos of Dave looking like a shaven-headed thug along with other shaven-headed thugs, what Dave’s done with MDC over the years has more to do with the activist and self-determination of hippy (their only good qualities; self-determination is linked to DIY, btw). The man believes in peace and love, but if attacked …er, is not very good at it.
Also, Dave Dictor is one of those lefty idealists who has a belief system which doesn’t run on rails laid down by books, set squares and a slide-rule economist, but by … well.
Between the lines, there’s drug abuse. Plenty. And people die. And there’s violence. Some of the stories are fucking hilarious, take them slow, don’t rush them. Dave doesn’t talk this stuff up, he’s not confessing, nor preaching. He comes across as straightforward on the page as he does in person. If anything, he gives us the bare bones of his despair. Read between the lines, folks … He also explains the Bad Brains bust-up, the Dead Kennedys connection…
Aha, time for a diversion!
No, ultimately Jello and the DK machine don’t come across that well. I dislike “professional” musicians who turn the support bands down so as to make themselves look good. It’s lame, and unfair, but most of all … it’s cowardly, gutless. I can name quite a few bands who do that: The DKs did it. Birdman will probably do it this tour. The Sex Pistols didn’t do it in 1997. Whenever you see a band do this, remember: they don’t think they’re as good as the support band.
I mean, I kind of get it if we’re talking about a fucking sports arena of ten thousand or somesuch because it’s such a huge difference: a band used to playing to a few hundred at best are going to have trouble adjusting to addressing the folk from a huge stage and sound (cue Kim Salmon and the Surrealists supporting U2 on a ginormous stage, all but using binoculars to work out where each other was).
Anyway, if you see that your favourite outfit is playing but the support bands are clearly turned down, it means that 1) the support bands deserve to be paid more attention, especially as they have to work twice as hard, and 2) the band you’ve paid good money to see probably aren’t as good as you think they are. In fact, now is the time to stick your finger down your throat and bring up all that piss you’ve sucked down, because you need to be sober enough to re-evaluate your idols.
All that said, MDC live are still a proposition to be reckoned with (the Dave Dictor I met now looks very little like the terrifying skinhead-like creature on the front cover surrounded by excited testosteroned young chaps); their attitude and politics remain committed, straightforward and determined.
Reading their tour itineraries is not for the faint-hearted. Day after day of punishing hardcore gigs, travel, gigs and travel. Fucking hell. I saw MDC sober - as I almost always am if I’m reviewing a gig - and no shit, they were fucking phenomenal. Far better, in my opinion, than Jello’s band who toured a bit later in the year … I mean, it was a great gig, a spectacle, but Jello’s panto is panto, and as far as I’m concerned, is aimed at the lowest common denominator, which means that he ends up preaching or talking down to the majority of the crowd; MDC are the flipside to this, filled with emotion and precision and hard, belting songs which - unlike Jello these days - make you stop and consider.
I’ll only say this: if you own at least one Big Black, Black Flag, DK or similar punker record - or by assorted industry ponies like Offspring or Green Day or those tedious Deftones, you need - as a fucking absolute - at least one MDC record. Start with the first. Ignore the cover. Plunk it on.
Then get everything you can lay your hands on.
I took a trawl on the Internet, maybe you can do better but this shop has a bunch of their CDs. Now, buy the damn book - the first edition’s already nearly gone, so get moving.
If you want it signed, contact the band and get them out here again. There’s a raft of bands (Perdition, Vicious Circle … who remembers Permanent Damage? Fuck they were good) who’d spew to support MDC, and properly marketed you’ll have a tour to remember. Hell, they’re a political band. Shove the Australian newspapers in front of them for a week and stick a mic under their noses.
Buy it here