Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That… by Joe Carducci

Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That by Joe Carducci

I’d been meaning to read Carducci’s eulogy of Naomi Petersen for a while, and once I got my hands on a copy I stormed through it in no time. Right up my alley to say the least. Much has been written and reviewed about it so I’ll defer to others as, despite being a voracious reader, somehow I don’t have the same comfort in throwing out a book review as I do music. Go figure. Music is more visceral and immediate, and generally something hits me or it doesn’t, even if it can “only” grow on me I’ll generally know. Anyway, here’s what others have said, all credit goes to the associated authors, websites, etc.

This is stolen from the Blastitude blog (an outstanding site in it’s own right), and sums up my feelings accurately as I read through Enter Naomi:

I’ve now read Enter Naomi by Joe Carducci two or three times and I’m not sure if I’ve got what it takes to write about it yet, or ever. By now you might be familiar with the subject, Naomi Peterson, the truly gifted in-house band photographer during the glory years of SST Records. She passed away in 2003 at the age of 39 and her long-time friend and coworker Carducci wrote this book to not only eulogize her, beautifully and expansively, but to eulogize his entire experience at SST Records and how the label epitomized punk as “the nihilist phase of the hippie movement” (“what was left when Hippie found out it had been wrong”), all of which he does in a downright punk-Proustian fashion, fragmented, discursive, occasionally frustrating, and not everyone may want to hang, but there is so much insight here, especially regarding how Black Flag and SST developed, that I’ve been going over the pages again and again. For just one example, there’s the way the book deals with the city of Hermosa Beach as the petri dish where this culture incubated, laying out its history as a surf/beatnik/jazz/boho hamlet where misfits like Greg and Raymond Ginn, Chuck Dukowski, and Spot could really develop a sense of individuality, including such important details as a city highway and transportation system that made it somewhat inconvenient for tourists and daytrippers to ever end up there. The book even reproduces a two-page aerial photo of downtown Hermosa Beach, the Pacific Ocean sprawled out majestically right at the top, with all the key spots annotated. (The Church! The Würmhole! Media Arts! The vegetarian restaurant where Greg met Spot!) I’ve probably spent a full hour staring at this spread alone. Not to mention an extensive excerpt from Peterson’s portfolio, lovingly reproduced, along with lots of other photos, postcards, letters, invoices, and other ephemera that allows these fragments of memory to really take root and grow in the mind of the reader. One of many brief anecdotes that kind of sum everything up is the one about SST Records being in between office spaces and Chuck Dukowski temporarily running the label from a bank of pay phones on a sidewalk in L.A.’s Koreatown. Sez Dukowski, “Once I got started I just grooved and kinda enjoyed what was good about the situation: outside, stuff going on, ya know.” Sez Carducci, “Chuck’s and the others’ ability to roll with anything and enjoy it no matter how goofy, embarrassing, or dangerous was one of the fundamental building blocks of Black Flag and the SST approach.” Hell yeah, that ability is one of the fundamental building blocks of any kind of life with any guts, thanks again to Naomi, Joe, Chuck and everyone else for the examples.

James Parker (author of Turned On: A Biography f Henry Rollins) in the Boston Phoenix:

Joe Carducci (Naomi Petersen)

Naomi Petersen was not famous. Neither was she semi-famous, almost famous, post-famous, or notorious. Nonentity, indeed, seems to have been closer to the elements of her nature than celebrity. Success (conventionally measured) was of little interest to her; at times of stress she was a blackout drunk; and the love of her life was the no-hope clangor of the LA punk-rock underground. She died alone in a hotel room, in 2003, at the age of 38, and it would be years before some of her friends even knew she was gone.

And now there is a book about her: Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That . . . (Redoubt Press). Why? Because one of those friends was Joe Carducci, prose master and author of Rock & the Pop Narcotic. Carducci got to know Petersen at the start of the ’80s, when he was working for SST Records and she was a meek, damaged, but adventurous teenager, parlaying her skill with a camera and her intuitive relationship with the SST roster into an unofficial gig as the label’s house photographer. Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Saccharine Trust, Saint Vitus: the jutting, image-allergic strangeness of these bands entered the prism of her lens and came out somehow . . . viable, without being in the least palliated or diminished. Carducci watched Petersen grow as a photographer and as a woman, admired and pitied her for the shit she had to take in an uncompromisingly male, low-rent environment (“There was something of a toll that women or girls paid when they got next to Black Flag” ), and then — as the fires of punk rock shrank to the brooding embers of pre-Nirvana “alternative music” — lost touch. Hearing of her death two years after the fact, in 2005, he was horrified; in his subsequent attempt to rescue something from the oblivion that had overtaken their friendship can be found the germ of this remarkable book.

Carducci is crankily unapologetic in his conviction that the American musical rebellion of the early ’80s, particularly as manifested in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, was freakdom’s last stand. “Our closing frontier,” he writes in Enter Naomi, “was the sixties cultural revolution as it died out in the seventies and early eighties. In retrospect the Black Flag/SST story looks like a cultural analogue to the Manson-Weathermen-S.L.A.-Black Panther-Nixon White House-People’s Temple endgame — art just had more life in it than crime or politics or religion.”

Maybe all elegies are manifestos in a sense, and all manifestos elegies. At the heart of it all, of course, are Black Flag — a band, Carducci writes, “evolved to withstand failure on any scale.” Chaotic, imprisoned head music allied to huge discipline: the indeflectibility of Greg Ginn, Flag’s founder/guitar genius and SST boss, was as impressive as it was merciless, and it left plenty of people behind. Among other witnesses, Carducci is kind enough to cite, as fringe testimony, my own portion of the SST literature: an unauthorized biography of Henry Rollins that I wrote back in the Grunge Age. He needn’t have, but as a brief turner over of stones in that area I can vouch for his evocation of the SST world as a sort of Darwinian bohemia, where minds and bodies exposed themselves to constant hazard in pursuit of some quite unnamable satisfaction. These people lived under desks, with strips of floor carpeting for makeshift curtains, eating crackers and dogfood. And when they went out on the road, everybody wanted to beat them up! I exaggerate only slightly. They were, Carducci writes, “the best people money couldn’t buy,” in an age when involvement with good music “cost you something.”

Books that resist generic classification are condemned, by definition, to find their own audience: it takes as long as it takes. Enter Naomi, like Geoff Dyer’s non-biography of D.H. Lawrence Out of Sheer Rage, Joseph Mitchell’s tramp arcanum Joe Gould’s Secret, or J.R. Ackerley’s canine valentine My Dog Tulip, is a one-off, and its strangeness and formlessness more or less guarantee it an undetermined period of literary exile. But history will not, in the end, be able to resist it. The kids will be listening to Black Flag’s Damaged one day, or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and they’ll want to know: these nutters, how did they do it? What improbable victories were theirs? And at what cost? And Enter Naomi, as a document, a monument, a work of art, and — not least — a love letter, will come into the kingdom.

Steve Appleford in the LA Weekly:

Naomi Petersen (photo: Marco Mathieu)

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 TheAesthetics of Rock had been for another generation of disagreeable rock 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.

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.

Needless to say, this is truly an important book for its insights into the subjects touched upon above. You can get your own copy via Night Heron Books.

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About Marmon Hammer

The Standard of Impurity

Posted on April 29, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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