Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place

Sam McBride takes the telephone receiver from his wife Suzy and grunts a quizzical "Hello." Slightly out of breath, he's just walked in the door of the couple's East Bay duplex, and he explains somewhat apologetically that things have been hectic in the past 24 hours, what with the recent death of Turner Babcock, guitarist for the Bay Area punk band Special Forces and a long-time chum of McBride: from their days together in the late-Seventies teeny-punk band Reign of Terror right up through Babcock's playing on the A-side of a 1997 single by McBride's band Fang. Heart attack. Only 33. McBride had attended Babcock's wake the previous evening.

"We'd stayed in touch over the years," McBride notes. "Used to see each other all the time, and he wrote to me a lot when I was in prison. [The heart attack] was unexpected, because unlike a lot of my peers' lifestyles, he was fairly tame compared to the rest of us."

Punk rock and death. The two abiding monoliths in Sam McBride's adult life. On the cusp of 33 himself, McBride has achieved a certain notoriety within the querulous San Francisco/Oakland punk rock scene: in part as a member of Fang, which raged over four albums and countless national tours between 1981 and 1989, finally splintering and disintegrating ("Fang fell apart because I was too fucked up on heroin," McBride confesses now), taking an eight-year hiatus, and then resurfacing almost a year ago, with singer-lyricist McBride as its only original member; in part as the guy who in August 1989, out of his skull on heroin, strangled to death his 24-year-old girlfriend Dixie Lee Carney and was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter -- he copped a plea -- serving six years in a series of California prisons. (McBride's crime saga -- murder, heroin addiction, dealing drugs -- is engagingly told by writer Johnny Whiteside in a December 1997 cover story in LA Weekly.)

"I hate my past," McBride says resolutely. "And Fang as a band is in no way trying to support the horrors that have happened. On the contrary, we're trying to say, 'Don't make horrible mistakes. But if you do, strive to come out the other side of it.'"

In effect he has done just that. Married old friend Suzy Brennan in 1993 while doing time at Solano. Father of a two-and-a-half-year-old son Max -- conceived, McBride points out with a glimmer of a smile in his voice, during one of Suzy's conjugal visits. Another child due in August. Working "in the trades," as he terms it, as an electrician. Drug-free. And leader of a rejuvenated Fang -- vocalist McBride, bassist Josh Levine, guitarist Billy Burnett, drummer Greg Langston -- which has a sixteen-song album of new material scheduled for release in April on Levine's Wingnut label. McBride wrote the lyrics, with all four band members collaborating on the music.

To hear McBride describe them, the new songs -- which he suggests hark back "to early punk rock" in terms of sound -- speak of sin and retribution, much like his own life. "There are a lot of songs that deal with prison, stories that deal with prisoners," he explains. "'Electric Chair' is about a clerk who gets killed in a liquor store robbery." The robber-murderer gets caught, convicted, and sentenced to death. "The song is actually taking place as he's being led to the chair and is then executed," McBride continues, "but it's also about what he is remembering. A lot of convicts in the CDC [California Department of Corrections] have the biker/outlaw lifestyle, and the person in this story, his father was a biker who was killed in a shootout with the cops, and his brothers are all in prison. The song, in the end, is about his realization that by buying into this sort of myth that his father and family have put forward, he really lost out. As he's getting the juice, he realizes that he'll never have a family [of his own], that he really fucked up and hurt a lot of people."

McBride wrote "Electric Chair" while at Solano, where he put together a punk band as part of an arts program conducted by the prison. The group performed once in the prison's yard, and, according to McBride, during "Electric Chair" all hell broke loose among the inmate listeners. A small-scale riot. As a result he spent five months in solitary confinement.

Then there's "Burn It Down," about "a pyromaniac who gets paroled from prison and he's still consumed with setting fires," McBride relates. "And at the end of the song he winds up getting caught in one of those fires and burning to death." And then there's "City of Pain": "It's about prison. About how you're not a human being any more. You're just a number. And about the isolation and the fear and the hatred."

All far cries from just about everything on Fang's 1983 eight-song debut Landshark and its 1984 ten-song followup Where the Wild Things Are, both of which brim with punker juvenilia such as "Drunk & Crazy," "Skinheads Smoke Dope," "Suck and Fuck," "Everybody Makes Me Barf," and "Berkeley Heathen Scum." Of course, back then McBride and his bandmates -- guitarist/co-writer Tom Flynn, bassist Chris Wilson, and drummers Joel Fox and Tim Stiletto -- were mere teenage wild boys fueled by booze and reefer and the promise of an easy lay and and the seemingly limitless potential of punk's primal blare. And yet on "An Invitation," from Landshark, McBride barks, "In the corner I see you there/Wired to an electric chair/I run over and jump in your lap/They throw the switch and everything turns black" -- evidence that prison and payback were on his mind six and a half years before Carney's death.

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