Writer Joe Carducci relays the story of iconic L.A. punk label SST Records through the eyes of its photographer, Naomi Peterson
By Steve Appleford
The secret history of punk sneaks up at unexpected moments. It’s well after midnight on the Loyola Marymount campus, and the place is deserted, except in the little fourth-floor studio of KXLU, where a couple of punk-rock vets and impresarios are the guests on Stray Pop, a weekly radio show. One is a punk-rock intellectual, the other is not. Joe Carducci smiles beneath the fluorescent tubes but looks damn serious with his graying beard and Jack Nicholson hairline. He’s here with a bag of CDs and ancient LPs to share some choice cuts of noise and dysfunction, of sounds ingenious and unlistenable, and songs of brilliant melody and attack. There is punk and original-recipe hardcore, some avant-garde, even a bit of Wyoming bluegrass.
And the dude sitting next to him is called Mugger.
They once shared ownership of the mighty SST Records with founder Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, back when the label was a center of the secret rock & roll underground, home to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, the Meat Puppets and other musical malcontents. Back then, Mugger “loved trouble and laughs,” Carducci remembers, and you can still see some of it in this fit, surf-city joker with his on-air raunchiness. But he’s also the father of an 11-year-old son in Long Beach who goes to Catholic school on the weekend, and whose name is definitely not “Little Mugger.”
Carducci hands an album to host Stella Voce, a champion of outsider rock and indie sounds since she first took the FM microphone, in 1980. It’s called Chunks, a DIY, punk-era Nuggets-style punk compilation from 1981, and on the back cover is the familiar, cryptic handwriting of artist Raymond Pettibon: “Guns don’t kill people, songs do.”
Soon, we hear Mugger’s voice on the vinyl, a track from a quarter-century past by his old band, the Nig-Heist. His snarling “Fuck!” is blown right over the early morning airwaves. Carducci looks up. “Oops.”
This stuff is dangerous, and that was part of its charm, before punk became a fashion statement and major-label marketing plan, instead of what it first represented: a venue for unpredictable aggression and the avant-garde. SST in Hermosa Beach was about something else. And in 1990, Carducci wrote his own history lesson and 300-page manifesto, fueled by a desire for a return to the carnality of pure rock & roll, and fearing that the whole movement would be forgotten otherwise. His Rock and the Pop Narcotic was as startling and obsessive a statement on rock and its impostors as Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock had been for another generation of disagreeable rockroll thinkers.
Carducci’s now done the same for Naomi Petersen, the house photographer for SST, who died in 2003. His memoir, Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That, takes a hard look back at his time in L.A., at the music and contradictions of that scene, and what it meant to be a woman in the uncompromising world of Black Flag. He’s talking about this on the air with Voce, as the clock edges toward 3 a.m. and the next DJ is anxiously setting up. Mugger has a flashback to another time in local punk-rock cuisine as he leans into the mike: “So, are we going to Oki-Dog’s tonight?”
It was art, not politics, that fueled the SST revolution, that sent no-frills van tours by Black Flag and others rocketing across the country, planting seeds even they were unaware of. “If you were after money, you just weren’t in our scene,” Carducci says now. He arrived at SST in September 1981, right before Black Flag’s Damaged hit the street, selling a quick 60,000 units locally but facing ambivalence from East Coast distributors. “They couldn’t imagine punk rock coming out of L.A.,” he says. “It’s hard to believe, but it was conventional wisdom.”
Money was tight. Ginn and his partners lived at the office, sleeping under their desks, on couches, sleeping bags, with no money and no regrets in their strange commune. If they were hungry, they might walk over to the nearby home of Ginn’s parents for a sandwich.
One night in ’82 at SST, Naomi Petersen, then just 17, hooked up with Mugger in his van. He immediately retreated under his desk, leaving her to drive back to Simi Valley at least a little drunk. When she got home at 2 or 3 a.m., her father locked her out of the house. Then the phone rang at SST. Dukowski answered. It was Petersen, calling from a phone booth, her wrists slashed, “throwing herself again on Black Flag’s mercy,” writes Carducci. She was told to come back, and she slept there. No one could tell if she’d been serious, but friends could still see the scars a decade later.
Carducci heard she had a Nikon camera, so the next morning, she was hired as a photographer. Her first assignments were Saccharine Trust and St. Vitus. And Carducci was thrilled to have photos to send to the fanzines and college papers hungry for SST news, even if the mainstream media were generally oblivious. Petersen became a key figure there, a rare female peer in the Black Flag orbit and something more than another momentary conquest. By 1985, she had her own rep on the national indie scene, while keeping her day job as hostess at the Black Angus restaurant in Northridge, where she worked with her friend Duff McKagan, bassist from a new band called Guns N’ Roses.
“There was something of a toll that women or girls paid when they got next to Black Flag,” Carducci writes. He spoke also with Black Flag singer Henry Rollins. “He said if you were a girl around Black Flag, you were going to get fucked. Not raped, but fucked,” says Carducci. “The girls who came up to them, some were troubled or drunk, some were extremely intelligent and were operating on the same level we were: art and action.”
The label was home to a full roster of sonic revolutionaries, bands that were freeform and unique and shared a true DIY ethic. The Minutemen were “fucking corn dogs” from Pedro led by the great singer-guitarist d. boon, and the Meat Puppets “were a mix of heady and redneck,” writes Carducci, and the only band everyone at SST could agree on.
I got to be a tourist in that world for a time, as a student journalist as obsessed with the SST roster as any miscreant or college boy looking for raw kicks on the fractured punk-rock scene. There were other bright spots smoldering within the underground during those years just before punk (and Nirvana) broke, but SST was the only brand that mattered, a real stamp of approval for an alternative state of mind. So there were far-flung shows and interviews with Sonic Youth, the Puppets and Minutemen, and then my pilgrimage to the Ginn family home in Hermosa to interview Rollins himself.
We would talk in the backyard, where a large pair of plaid pants hung from a clothesline, and then step for a moment into the Shed, Rollins’ elevator-sized hovel on the Ginn property that was crammed with cassette tapes and a cot, all beneath the burning gaze of a menacing Charles Manson poster. But on the way in, as we passed through the living room, he introduced me to Pettibon, who is Ginn’s brother and the unpaid SST artist and inventor of the ominous Black Flag logo, still one of the most distinctive trademarks in rock: four black vertical bars in the abstract shape of a flag rippling in the breeze, a design that also suggests pistons at work. Pettibon’s art didn’t come out of punk rock, but it was a crucial venue for him, with an audience of freethinkers and misfits hungry for dangerous images. He sat in an easy chair. But he didn’t look up when Rollins and I passed by. He just glared into space.
Soon after, I was at the SST offices to interview Ginn, a bong at his feet, his hair long and tangled, barely a year before Black Flag disbanded. And before leaving, I briefly met Naomi Petersen, whose name I knew and envied from the series of publicity photos she created. Those raw black-and-white images were a crucial document of an otherwise unknown scene, whose lasting impact would not be fully appreciated until the ’90s, when it was all gone. Petersen’s pictures could be grim or silly, depending on the mood of the band and the moment, created during low-rent photo sessions at a time when major labels typically spent thousands on an artist’s photographs.
Carducci left SST back in 1986, amid growing tension at the label. He wanted to get back to writing. He kept in touch with Petersen for another decade by mail after returning to his former home of Chicago, then moving to Wyoming. She contributed some photographs to his Rock and the Pop Narcotic. But he lost touch with her until hearing of her death, after years of fading health and heavy drinking.
Carducci wrote Enter Naomi not simply because Petersen had died, but because it took two years for him to even hear about it. “It really was like a gut punch,” says Carducci, now 52. “And it goes back to that night when she was bleeding on the floor from her wrists. I was afraid of this in some way.”
Enter Naomi is lovingly researched and bluntly told in rich detail, sometimes lifting from Petersen’s journal entries (“Fucked day — someone shot my car”). It’s also an impressionistic view, at times requiring some awareness of the SST scene and certain events to fully grasp. But Carducci takes it deeper, as only one who knew the players could.
Petersen never made the leap to solvent rock photographer. Some of her earliest work was lost in a shipment to Zurich in the early ’80s, and she was evicted from an apartment in D.C. several years later, her possessions dumped on the street. Petersen and Rollins had talked of doing a book of her pictures in the mid-’90s, but it never happened.
A day after his KXLU visit, Carducci is at Book Soup preparing to read from Enter Naomi. In the crowd is Petersen’s older brother, Chris Petersen, who has a small collection of her pictures in his hands. The book was difficult for him to read, and impossible for their parents, but he and Carducci hope to see a collection of her photos published soon.
“I know it’s important,” says her brother, a real estate investor who, with some partners, recently bought the old Club Lingerie on Sunset, where Petersen once spent so much time. “It would be a shame to hide it.”
Voce has brought her teenage son. And in the front row is Saccharine Trust singer Jack Brewer in a leather blazer, a graying high school dropout who still can’t understand why “all these intelligent people would throw themselves into this thing.” Carducci understands, but there remain a few unanswerable questions from that time, about that scene, about Petersen.
“The music scene is full of pretend nihilists,” Carducci says from behind the podium. “And maybe we didn’t catch the real thing in our midst, because she was such a bright spot.”
LA Weekly, July 4-10, 2008.