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.
In her short time in the Bay Area -- she moved there from Roanoke, Virginia, to be with McBride four months before he murdered her -- Dixie made a lot of friends. Consequently Fang's on-stage comeback at the Trocadero, a San Francisco club, in May 1997 did not pass unremarked upon. Death threats against McBride were phoned in to the nightclub before the show. Ditto at a Fang gig later in the year in Michigan. "Our first show a lot of people were there because of the controversy," McBride says, admitting that, in theory at least, Fang could engender a sort of freak-show phenomenon among audiences as a result of the murder. "There's certainly that possibility, although it hasn't really happened. If somebody does come with that as their only motivation, hopefully they will come away with something else. Just as there are people who won't come [to a Fang show] because they hate me or they hate what I've done, and that's totally valid. But I wish they would come too, because they might come away from it with something else as well."
While both Fang's San Francisco debut and its Michigan shows went off without serious incident, McBride recalls that at another gig, this one in the northern California town of Danville, east of Oakland, someone in the audience started to taunt him about his past, then spat at him. In true punk rock style, McBride spat back. When the guy wouldn't relent with his heckling, though, McBride appealed to a mutual friend in the audience, who calmed down the outraged party, and the show proceeded apace.
So far the band has performed mostly around the Bay Area -- plus in nearby San Jose, with jaunts to Chicago and Los Angeles -- playing a set that evenly mixes old and new stuff. "It's been so long since we've played," McBride points out, "that a lot of people really want to hear that old material. They were too young and never saw us perform it live, or that's all they know." From that dusty back catalogue, Fang has pulled out "Landshark," "Skinheads Smoke Dope," "An Invitation," and "Suck and Fuck," among others. And, apparently, the band can be obliging about requests. "If somebody comes up and says, 'Hey, will you play "Drunk & Crazy,"' we'll do it," McBride notes.
But given the presence of three new members, a peck of new material, and an association with a hideous crime, it seems odd to revive the Fang name. In such a situation a whole new identity would seem to be in order -- a complete reinvention. "That certainly was in essence the idea," McBride explains, recalling how he and Levine discussed various options when they began playing together in November 1996, eleven months after Sam was paroled. "But in thinking about it -- and over time when we talked about it and were trying to decide what to do -- it occurred to us that people want to hear the old Fang songs. I guess we could call it something else, but why?"
Which sort of raises a couple of questions. Why re-form Fang at all? And why, just shy of turning 33 years old, give yourself over to punk rock -- again? A wife, a kid, another kid on the way, a steady job. Why not forget the past? Why not just, you know, go gently into that good night? All that. While still in prison, McBride figured he wouldn't play in a band again: "I didn't expect to." Then after his parole he began to attend a few punk shows, most of them in San Francisco. Not much: a gig every few weeks in the months after his release. "I eased back into things," he remembers. "And I saw what punk rock had become. It had become the things that I didn't like, the things that made me a punk rocker in the first place. It had become a popularity contest, and it had become a case of who's more politically correct than whom. I wasn't impressed. I didn't see anything that lit me on fire, that made me think, 'Yeah, this was what I was missing while I was away.'
"Punk rock was supposed to be about being open-minded, about looking at things differently, thinking about them differently. And questioning. Not questioning authority as a whole -- everyone jumps on that bandwagon -- but do they question all authority. If somebody says, 'This is wrong' or 'This is right,' well, that's an authority too. As musicians, we need to push the idea that too many people use PC as an excuse to not really look and not really make up their own minds about things.
"And it's also about questioning yourself. About what you think and what you believe. And because of the checkered past of this band, we do force you to think -- whether you want to or not, and whether it pisses you off or not."
That accounts for the motivation. The catalyst for re-forming Fang came from an entirely different art form: film. In 1996 McBride played the role of a prison gang leader in an indie movie -- still unreleased -- called Down Time, written and directed by an ex-con friend of his, someone with whom he used to deal drugs. "He asked me if I wanted to write a song for the soundtrack," McBride recounts. "So I got some musicians together [including Levine and Babcock] and we wrote a song. We went in and recorded it, and Josh said, 'This is great. Why stop here? Let's keep playing.' And that made sense to me."
They attempted to recruit guitarist Flynn, who cofounded Fang in 1981 and wrote the music on its Eighties records, but he demurred, choosing instead to pursue his most recent project, noise band Star Pimp. "I'm too controversial. It would have been more than he wanted to deal with," McBride posits. "The musical direction he had taken since he left Fang is much more ..." he trails off, in search of the appropriate -- and, perhaps, respectful -- term. "Eclectic," he finally resumes. "Our musical tastes have definitely diverged."
McBride and Levine eventually corralled Burnett and Langston (McBride once played with the latter in the teeny-punk band Shut Up), and after the Trocadero date, the foursome cut several songs for the B-side for a 45 on the indie label Man's Ruin, using the previously recorded soundtrack number as the A-side. Next step: that full-length album due out in April.
Fang appears to be fully assembled, purring smoothly -- or as smoothly as an old-school punk band can purr. McBride, on the other hand, remains a work in progress. To date he has not spoken publicly about Dixie's murder. When prodded as to that possibility, he grows silent, answering monosyllabically at first. "No ... not ... no," he begins, fumbling for the words. "Who knows. I don't know. I don't have any desire to. If I thought it would serve the greater good, then I might."
Same goes for speaking -- for apologizing -- to Dixie's family. He never has. "That's because through other people I know they don't want to speak with me," he explains earnestly. "No matter what I feel, if that's their wish, I'm not going to violate that."
As for his heroin problem -- the scourge that drove him to murder, the source of the first Fang's demise -- McBride took a gradual course to getting straight. At the height of his heroin addiction in the late Eighties, McBride says, he was blowing $1000 a day on the drug, supporting his habit by dealing LSD ("my bread and butter"). It also didn't hurt that "my heroin dealer lost his house and moved in with me," he recalls, "so it was like, 'Free dope!' But heroin just consumes you. Your whole life consists of getting money to cop, copping, and getting high.
"I kicked heroin maybe a month before I got busted [for murder, February 1990]. So I wasn't strung out when I got arrested. But I used off and on up until 1993." Meaning, of course, that he used heroin in prison: "I was never involved in any program [there], even though there is NA, but I never subscribed to that. It was just a personal thing. I lost interest and there were other things I wanted to do.
"I was still smoking pot for a while, but when my wife got pregnant I looked at the long scope of things, that I was going to become a father, and I couldn't tell my kid that I didn't want him doing something that I was doing. Because that's hypocritical. And also I was gone for seven years -- and some people I didn't see for probably eight. Just like at Turner's wake. A lot of people are exactly the same as they were ten years ago. I think life, to me at least, needs to be about constant change. You strive to change yourself."
Fang performs with Buzzov*en, Load, and Grass Patch Friday, March 13, at 9:00 p.m. at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave; 757-1807. Tickets cost $7.
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