It’s the people one encounters along the way that turns any trip into a journey.
On Wednesday, December 16, the iconic drummer John Densmore joined me for an A Cappella Books exclusive Zoom chat discussing his latest memoir, The Seekers: Meetings With Remarkable Musicians (and Other Artists).
Densmore is the former drummer for the late great Los Angeles psychedelic rock group the Doors. With The Seekers, he reflects on a lifetime spent crossing paths with greatness. From artists such as Elvin Jones to Joseph Campbell, Patti Smith, the Dalai Lama, Willie Nelson, and John Coltrane, his own mother, and more, The Seekers is a rumination on the knowledge that Densmore has gained through various remarkable encounters, and an exploration of his own relationship with art, music, and humankind.
Bob Glassley was a man out of time. He was a hardcore sleeper cell who reawakened in 2016 with the uncompromising spirit and forgotten insights of Los Angeles’ early ‘80s punk snarl…in Atlanta. And he arrived like a thief in the night.
James Joyce called me that summer to ask if I remembered or knew anything about an old punk band from California called the Cheifs. He explained to me that he had been tapped to play drums with a new version of the group and wanted to know if I was interested in doing a piece on them for Creative Loafing. It wasn’t long after that we were all gathered around a table at Manuel’s Tavern discussing the legend of the band, and listening to Bob’s stories about his involvement in the early West Coast hardcore punk scene. Absorbing so much Cheifs history and lore was like discovering another great band that had been there all along, albeit buried by the sands of time, now uncovered and brought into full view.
At the end of 1982 in a set of circumstances singular to Bob’s life, he stepped away from punk and playing music altogether. He traded his bass for a computer and never looked back. As a result, his knowledge and familiarity with punk was a perfectly preserved time capsule. It also fostered a beautiful state of arrested development; he knew West Coast punk circa 1978-1982, but nothing beyond that. However, he understood the art of the outsider, the art of being an individual driven by righteousness, and the self-reliance of punk before fashion and hairstyles eclipsed the lifestyle, and before mainstream attention introduced the elements of violence and intolerance that ultimately pulled the scene apart.
Bob’s return to music was a reaction to right-wing influences gaining a stranglehold on America. He took a no-bullshit political stance –– he was outspoken with his opinions, and punk gave him direction and purpose in the shadow of the Trump presidency. But Bob also projected a raw, down-to-earth wisdom, and a forgotten knowledge and etiquette that affected everyone with whom he crossed paths, from his bandmates to the faces in the crowd. While loading out after playing shows at The Earl and 529 in East Atlanta, he connected with homeless people who were asking for spare change. He treated everyone with dignity and respect.
With the new Cheifs lineup in place, the group gigged hard in Atlanta and eventually the Los Angeles area. Bob seemed to know, maybe subconsciously, that he didn’t have much time left on earth. Not wasting any time, the group played and recorded as quickly and as often as possible. Whenever Bob took the stage wearing a “We the People” T-shirt (brandishing an image of the Constitution of the United States), he embraced the audience, reveling in the moment and screaming defiantly into the void of mortality.
On Tuesday, October 17, 2017, Bob unexpectedly died of complications related to liver cancer. He had been diagnosed with the disease a mere two weeks prior. He was 58. The following Saturday the Cheifs were set to play a sold-out show at the Masquerade supporting the Descendents, a big coup for the new lineup. Just four nights after his death, the Descendents opened the show by unleashing the most powerfully cathartic blast of “Everything Sux” the group had ever performed.
During the encore, James, Brad, and Scott joined Milo and Karl on stage for one last send-off, playing four final Cheifs songs as a dedication to Bob, and to all that the new lineup had worked to create.
The four songs captured here are bookends to the Cheifs legacy. Both “1988” and “Heart In Chains” were originally written and performed by Bob’s pre-Cheifs band, Portland, Oregon’s Rubbers. On the B-side, “Alienated” is a new jam that Bob penned. Loosely based on a forgotten early Cheifs song, “Mechanical Man” was partially reconstructed from memory, and hammered into a new form by the current lineup.
The 7” single you now hold in your hands stamps in time the one-year period of intense creativity and rediscovery that Bob and the reignited Cheifs unleashed. The distillation of ’80s punk songwriting and hardcore’s graceful, physical melodies, filtered through a lens of contemporary production, is filled with a new fire and spirit, channeled into a lifetime of fierce, empowering, and truly timeless songs. Fuck cancer. Cheif Out! — Chad Radford
Savage Republic was born amid the Los Angeles punk scene of the early 1980s, when former UCLA students guitarist Bruce Licher and drummer Mark Erskine formed the band Afrika Corps. Before releasing their 1982 debut LP Tragic Figures, the group’s name changed and a menacing post-industrial clatter took shape around Middle Eastern imagery and surf rock ambiance. Savage Republic’s sound was contemptuous, noisy and politically-charged, settling in with song titles such as “Kill the Fascists!,” “Mobilization,” and “Attempted Coup: Madagascar.” They shared the stage with groups such as Sonic Youth, Public Image Ltd., Swans, Fugazi, and more.
Amid lineup changes, songwriter and guitarist Thom Fuhrmann joined Savage Republic in 1983, and first appeared playing keyboards on the song “Trek” from the group’s 1985 EP, titled Trudge (Play It Again Sam Records).
Over the decades, Fuhrmann has assumed a leadership role in Savage Republic. In 2019, he fronts the group, standing alongside drummer Alan Waddington, bass player Kerry Dowling, and long-standing guitarist and percussionist Ethan Port.
In 2014, the group released a full-length LP, titled Aegean, with songs such as “Arab Spring,” “Victory,” “27 Days,” and “Peloponesia” placing Savage Republic’s original aesthetic into a modern context. A 2018 7-inch single featuring the songs “God & Guns” and “Tranquilo” further sharpen the group’s stance against right-wing influences gaining a stranglehold on modern America.
After wrapping up a late summer Midwestern tour en route to record new material with Steve Albini at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, Fuhrmann made his way to Atlanta where we caught up over breakfast.
For this second part of my breakfast conversation with Savage Republic’s guitarist and frontman Thom Fuhrmann, we talk about the origins, evolutions, and tragic circumstances surrounding the work he’s recorded under the name Autumnfair, and more about what the future holds in store for Savage Republic.
Between December 1979 and May 1980, director Penelope Spheeris shot The Decline of Western Civilization, documenting the exploits of Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Circle Jerks, and the denizens of L.A.’s early punk scene. The film spawned two sequels, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and 1998’s The Decline of Western Civilization III—each offering a look into the lives of musicians in various states of desperation. Spheeris’ Decline trilogy changed the world’s perceptions of punk and metal forever. Although she achieved mainstream success directing later films such as Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals, it is her work with Decline that defines her career.
Spheeris took a few minutes to talk about the pain of reliving the past, reconnecting with her daughter, and the noble cause of helping other people.
The mark of a truly timeless work of art is that you can revisit it 35 years later and find new meaning and relevance, maybe in wholly different ways than what you originally intended. How has the meaning of The Decline of Western Civilization changed for you?
Having done the films so long ago—I really shied away from watching them for so many years. I asked my daughter if she would come to work for me. She said she would but only if I released the Decline movies first. I thought, ‘Oh God, what a nightmare.’ But what has been very gratifying is to experience other people watching them 20 and 30 years later. That, for me, is astounding. When I look at them, I don’t think that I did something profound, but that is what other people say. I was just making movies about subjects I was interested in. They kind of turned out, all these decades later, to be interesting to other people. It’s been a real weird trip, I’ll tell you that.
I get the impression that you feel some anxiety over these films. Why do you say it was a nightmare to revisit them?
Anxiety … That’s an understatement. I have a lot of anxiety over these films. If you think about it, as a filmmaker or as any kind of creative person, you want to have the product of your creativity seen by other people, and hopefully appreciated. For me, so many of the movies I’ve done—certainly Decline I and III, not so much with II—were not really ever seen on a legitimate platform. Decline I was bootlegged to death. People passed it around like underground contraband for decades because it wasn’t in distribution. It was extremely painful for me to go back and deal with these movies because, on a subconscious level, they brought up a lot of pain. That pain was that people couldn’t see my work; people who seemingly were interested in it.
That happened with a film I did with Sharon and Ozzy, We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll. Nobody got to see it. It happened with Dudes, which I did with Jon Cryer and Flea. It happened with The Boys Next Door that I did with Charlie Sheen. I had a long history of making movies that didn’t get seen. On the other hand, when I would do a comedy, it would definitely be seen. Especially Wayne’s World.
The thing to be said is that it’s hard to hide truly brilliant work. Even without distribution, I found a bootleg of Decline I in Omaha, Neb., in the early ’90s. That film put a face on punk rock for me and many others. It also made my relationship with the music more complicated—I had to put my life’s situation into context. I learned more about myself from Decline than I did from Wayne’s World—even though Wayne’s World is a fun movie.
Yeah, and the anxiety that comes along with putting out a box set is that, like you, I personally identify a lot more with the Decline movies than I do with the studio comedies. So I wanted it to be done right. When I am dead and gone, I want the right piece of physical items there to represent what they are. Once you do it, it’s done. It’s not like I can redo that. So that’s why there was so much trepidation involved with doing it. Now it’s like okay, you did it. Now you can die.
That has to be sort of rewarding.
What’s rewarding is that it’s no longer bearing down on me like a big dark cloud. For that, I really have to thank my daughter. Without her, I would have just died without doing it. I swear to God. It was just painful. Just watching the movies brought up so many memories, and she kept coming up with more pieces for the extras, which included a lot of interviews with me and with people I know from way back in the day. It was just hard to look at it. It’s like having your life flash before you. I just like to keep moving forward. I don’t like to look back. That’s why they never got put out before.
When you look back over the films—all three of them—are there subjects that stand out for you, or that you walked away from with some insight?
For Decline I, when I look at that movie I think, jeez, it’s pretty amazing that so many elements of today’s young people’s lives originated way back then. Now everybody has their tattoos and tight jeans and they have their haircuts, and it all started back then. So many social trends and philosophical ways of thinking started back then. So, for those reasons, I’m glad I was able to document all of that.
I don’t think there’s a profound lesson to be learned in Decline II except for trying to make it for the wrong reasons is stupid. That’s a pretty easy one.
For me, Decline III is the most important film of my entire career. It made me realize that I don’t want to be working in Hollywood anymore. There are more important things in life, and I should go help homeless kids, which is what I have done. If you go see it, bring a Kleenex, because it’s a heartbreaker. It was so hard to get it released because it is extremely sad. It reveals some really terrible domestic situations that happen with young kids that make them leave their homes and go live in the streets. Those are my buddies. Those are my family — the Decline III kids. Those are the people I’m close to.
There’s a kid named Eugene in that first film. I don’t have the same kind of anger in me, but I found him to be such a compelling character. How did you find him, and do you ever cross paths with him? Do you know how his life turned out?
He was friends with the HB kids—Huntington Beach, surfer punks. I saw Eugene up on the Slash office’s roof and I asked if he would be interviewed for the film. He kept saying no, but finally I talked him into it. He was 14 years old at that time. And he is very compelling. That’s why he starts the movie out. Today he lives in Berlin. I just sent him his 50 year-old birthday present. He’s a very good friend. He’s a folk singer. He’s known now as Euge From the Coast. He’s very happy in Berlin, and we email each other about once a week.
How have these films played a role in your relationship with your daughter Anna?
We sure do know each other a lot better after spending four years in the same room together!
Were the two of you estranged before this project?
In a way. When she was Four years old, her father died from a heroin overdose. So I raised her as a single parent. I think it wasn’t until it hit me in the face that addiction is extremely genetic. Five years ago, she had a drug problem that could have ended very tragically. We were fortunate enough that it didn’t. She wrecked a car with a kid in it. But she did a really good job with rehab and I said, “You have to come to work for me.” I wanted to keep an eye on her and make sure she didn’t relapse. She said she would do it, but we had to do Decline. You never know if something is bad or good until some time has passed. It was the most horrible thing in my life to deal with my daughter having that problem. But from out of that mess came this thing that people appreciate quite a bit—this box set for the DVDs.
She had been in touch with so many of the people who’ve been in the movies. She’s quite in touch with the people from Decline I and II. Whereas I’m the Decline III woman here. Those are my friends.
Honestly, Anna deserves 90% of the credit for the movies being seen again. I did the movies way back, but they would have never been seen in this form by so many people if she hadn’t virtually put a gun to my head and said you have got to do this. It was daunting and horrible. I would avoid it at all costs. She was down there with three editors at one time, sorting things out. She would have to drag me down to the editing room because I didn’t want to deal with it. For that, I am extremely grateful that she made me do it. She was so smart about so many things. She uncovered a lot and was like an archaeologist. A lot of the old tapes and old formats wouldn’t even play. She had to go and borrow chunks of equipment from friends—a DAT player—because nothing else would play them. She just kept going and going and going.
I could definitely see the evolution with the punks between Decline I and III. In Decline III, each individual was so much more tolerant, and kind, and not mean to the people that might be different from them. So there was some sort of evolution going on there. Flea is in Decline III and describes the original L.A. punk scene as being like an experimental art scene. Whereas in Decline III, even though everybody looks the same, physically, it’s not an art scene anymore. It’s pure and dire survival, and there ain’t no room for art in that world.
I think about those scenes from the first film and how all of the Black Flag guys lived in that church. That seemed dire…
It was fun dire. They were embracing their homelessness. They just had a different take on it. It wasn’t hurtful for them. It was fun. For the kids in Decline III, it’s painful.
What I learned from Decline III in getting to know those kids and their background: We don’t have any more noble assignment in life than helping our children and doing the right thing for them. These kids come from alcoholic and drug-addicted families that fought all the time and threw them out in the street.
It doesn’t make me feel good to sit down and have lunch with some major studio executive. Who gives a shit? It’s so vapid. What makes me feel good is being a foster parent. Staying in touch with my Decline III buddies, and going to these various cities and selling posters and donating the money to homeless shelters for kids. That, to me, is what makes life good. The rest of that jerk off stuff is so unnecessary. It’s funny to me that people get into such a frenzy to come to Hollywood and say “I have to make it in Hollywood!” Are you kidding me? No, you don’t! I guess I can say that because I kinda sorta made it, but not really. It doesn’t have any meaning next to helping people.
— Chad Radford
A version of this interview previously appeared in Creative Loafing.