We Got Power: An Interview With Legendary Los Angeles Punk Filmmaker David Markey

Talking punk rock and the year it broke with the man who knows best.

Aug 30 2012, 6:00pm

You may not know who David Markey is, but you definitely know his work.The Southern California-born self-taught musician and filmmaker is the man behind the acclaimed 90s documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (1984), The Slog Movie (1982), and most recently, Cut Shorts (2006) and a documentary about The Circle Jerks, My Career As A Jerk. During his younger years, he started a fanzine called We Got Power! with his best friend Jordan Schwatz to document the dynamic LA punk scene they were living. Now, that fanzine has inspired a new photography and essay memoir We Got Power!: Hardcore Punk From 1980s Southern California. Featuring essays by Keith Morris (Circle Jerks), Dez Cadena, Henry Rollins, Chuck Dewoski (all of Black Flag), Steve Human (Vandals), Tony Reflex (Adolescents) and photos from Jennifer Finch (L7), plus so many more, this collection is an oral and visual history of the inner workings of LA punk. In other words, this book makes me very sad that I was born in Canada in 1985.

Markey has worked with every important punk band from Black Flag to Circle Jerks to Ramones to X to Nirvana to Sonic Youth to Ramones to Mudhoney—it’s a laundry list of my record collection. Even when we were talking and his computer crashed, he blamed it on “The Spirit of Darby,” which he is totally allowed to say since he was friends with The Germs. Darby probably was haunting his computer. I’m surprised the spirit of Kurt didn’t revive his modem.

(Spoiler Alert: I nerd out about Courtney Love during this interview. Don’t act so surprised.)

You grew up in the Los Angeles punk scene. What was the first show you saw?
First punk I saw was X. From there, The Dickies, The Go-Go’s, then it was all about Black Flag. Black Flag with Dez, I should note. He was amazing in Black Flag as a vocalist.

What did you love most about his performance?
His voice and the fact that he has his hair tied up in sandwich bag twisties. Do you remember them? Little paper with wire fixed to it before they had figured out how to do the baggie seal. For me, as a 16-year-old, it was larger than life.

I read that you are self-taught and did your first film at 11 years old. Why films? Also, I recently discovered your 1984 short Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and I am obsessed with the dialogue.
[Filmmaking] is just what I did. I didn’t think much about it. I was just a kid and I was fascinated with filmmaking. As for Desperate [Teenage Lovedolls]… that was like purging all of the pop culture me and my friends were drowning in growing up in the 1970s: television, commercials, rock 'n’ roll. The “Have A Nice Day” culture of the 1970s. It was all ripe for parody.

Do you enjoy doing parody now as much as you did then? Are you still cynical?
I enjoy it as much now as I did then, but I don’t think I assimilate parody as much these days. I’ve had many years to reflect on the state of things and I have grown from the person I was as a kid, thankfully. I was a cynical kid, no doubt.

What do you think about music and pop culture today? Are you involved? Is anything new getting you excited?
I feel spoiled, in a way, from all the great bands and things I got to witness at an early age. Things really were at an all time high creatively then. But, then again, now we have the perspective that we didn't have back then. Yes, I still see bands, and yes, there is still great music. It's just harder to find in a way, even although everything is available one click away from your keypad. I don't know if there is any one "scene" these days. There are all kinds of music out there. Actually, LA at the turn of the 1980's was also a very eclectic and diverse scene.

As a musician, I hate the whole "easy access" thing as much as I rely on it for the survival of my own band. It’s great that we can book our own tours with social media and spread our music to places we can’t financially go.
I hear what you are saying, totally. But I use the Internet as much as anyone else and I’m not not going to use it. Yeah, things tend to age really fast these days. There is no real concept of building anything: a band, a film. It’s all about now and business is more rigid in this model. There is no time for anything to build organically. Look how long it took information to be dispensed back then—fanzines took many months to produce. Mainstream media would not touch the stuff.

Has the speed of today turned you off?
It’s just what it is. I’m well aware of it. One thing is for sure: we are not going backwards. Two-year-old kids have iPads and iPhones and the Internet. That’s just the way it is. There is no way to slow it down except stepping away from your computer and reading a book or something.

People should read your book to a two-year-old.
It makes a great bedtime story.

Who doesn’t want to read a Keith Morris essay to their child?
I would.

Me too. I just have to nerd out for a minute and ask you about your work with 1991: The Year Punk Broke, because I have watched that film about 800 times if only for the part when Babes in Toyland play and when Courtney Love stands up on a chair and demands attention…
I knew her years before the film. I met her in 1984. We were “punk extras” working on a movie. Pat Smear [of The Germs] introduced me to her. She said to me, “My name is Courtney Love and I’m going to be famous.”

That’s bold. When you were making that film, did you envision its impact?
Not at all. I had no idea of what was going to go down. I was asked to do the film by Thurston Moore. He was familiar with my work. He knew it all better than I did.

Were you into Sonic Youth?
Loved them.

What was the last time you watched TYPB in its entirety and what did you think?
I saw it last year with an audience at Don’t Knock The Rock in LA. I watched a lot of it as I was working on the DVD around the same time. If that film was a person it would be 21 years old now. It’s the last snap shot of innocence of an era for me that began in 1980. Clearly, it’s not a film that I would make now, but it was the best film I could make then.