The Year of Living Murderously, 1985

Photo: Photo-John.

Greg Owen Is Not Going Where the Rich Are Going.

He let the cancer take him before he became a too old punk rocker, his music too loud and his joy too diabolical.

When I got to college in California in 1985, I came with a thick mustache and white trousers, a failed start at college in Delhi and Marxism buzzing through my head. I was a casualty – I admit – of politics and of hallucinations, unable to focus in a Delhi which was marked for me by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 when over 3,000 Sikhs were massacred. Southern California was not so far from Delhi; Los Angeles sprawled into Claremont, where I had arrived by bus from the outer reaches of San Francisco, and this sprawl was filled with the harsh edges of class struggle in a way that defined the sprawl of Delhi. It did not take long to sense the deep fissures of race and class that etched themselves on the landscape, deepened by the 1984 Olympics around which came the brutalities of evictions and police violence. It was all terribly familiar, the sound of Steel Pulse’s Ku Klux Klan (1978) in the air, things can’t remain the same yah.

I was walking through Wig dormitory, the stench of Reaganism setting the dial to conformism, when I heard raucous music coming from a ground floor room. Walking into the room, I saw a boy with silver hair that fled across his face, sitting on his bed, entranced by the noisiest music I had ever heard, his body emitting bliss, the lyrics violently anti-capitalist. This was Greg Owen, Gogo, dressed in the black and chains of a punk rocker, looking up at me in my white shoes and my Qaddafi-like hair and my regulation Indian black rimmed spectacles.

We became friends in that instant, both of us seeing each other for what we were, which is people who felt alien to the world in which they existed and yet who wanted so deeply to build a world of love and community. I suppose when people think of punk rockers they think of nihilism, the Sex Pistols with Johnny Rotten singing “I want to destroy the passerby.” It was all a façade, a way for Rotten – now a Trump fan – to get attention. Greg had no fealty to this kind of dross. His punk rock was serious, a clash with the system, anger at the vomit-inducing conservatism of Reaganism, the unity of Money, Military, and Moralism. Greg came from Seattle, whose emblematic band was The Fartz, and whose classic EP (released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label) was called Because This Fucking World Stinks. And doesn’t it; and it really does, and you really want to do something about it if you want to become a human being.

I never followed Greg into leather and chains or anything like that; I didn’t have the money for it, so I stayed with my white trousers and hand-me-down shirts, but I did follow him into the West Coast punk world. At our second meeting, Greg said to me, “let’s go become DJs,” and so we did, going to KSPC – one of the best college radio stations in California, directed by Julie Frick, whom we all adored – and were signed on as the DJs for the midnight to 6am show. I don’t remember the name of our show, which ran for a year from 1985-86; and I don’t remember how we managed it, our classes and our lives, and this all-night show, with Lisa (now a college professor), Arabella (now an actress), Wade (now a lawyer), coming to visit us in the studio at odd hours, but it remains so very fundamental to who I am now.

My only contribution to our line-up in the early shows were The Clash and The UK Subs, whose songs ran to a maximum of two minutes which was not easy to manage for such a long show with Greg and I running about with albums all around the studio and setting up songs on the turntable frenetically as the damn punk songs often ended as soon as they began (the tunes for the toilet break were Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gada Da Vida – 17 minutes long – and the A-side of the MC5’s live album Kick Out the Jams – 20 minutes long). Greg brought in that entire seam of West Coast punk that ran from The Fartz to the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag to Circle Jerks, and then of course Bad Brains whose 1982 self-titled album was the only one we played off a cassette.

What was a young Marxist to do in California, saturated with conservatism and quietism, then get sucked into Greg’s world of punk rock and the brave political world of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)? It’s often forgotten that the album that The Clash did after Sandanista (1980) was Combat Rock (1982), which bore the catalogue number of FMLN2 which was an homage to El Salvador’s national liberation FMLN. “Straight to Hell,” one of the best anti-war songs, go straight to hell boys, rattles inside my head almost everyday. Greg was not one to come to demonstrations, but he did come with me to a few organized by CISPES – introduced to me by our college comrade Noel Rodriquez, now a union organizer; I can’t forget how the death squads kidnapped Yanira Corea in July 1987 in Los Angeles, tortured her, told her that they would kill her young child, and then released her to tell others, “we are here.” These were the terrorists fully backed by Reaganism, whose Dirty Wars in Central America would drive any sensitive person into the full-throated scream of punk rock.

Every weekend I’d be at a demonstration and then in the evening Greg and I – often with the photographer John Shafer who took this lovely picture of Greg – would find our way to one of the LA clubs, The Roxy mainly, where we had free passes to see Nina Hagen and the Jello Biafra, Black Flag and Neil Young – anything really. Jello Biafra belting out that classic from Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980),

Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light
Jobless millions whisked away, at last we have more room to play
All systems go to kill the poor tonight.

A true story of deindustralization, evictions, police violence, bulldozers of capitalism against humanity, all of it catalogued a decade later by Mike Davis in his teeth-hurting City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990); Davis’ previous book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), about the assassination of the U.S. working class was dedicated to the FMLN of El Salvador. In City of Quartz, Mike writes of walking into Llano del Rio, the old Socialist City, where he finds two building laborers from El Salvador camped out in the ruins of an old dairy. When Mike told them of the history of this part of ruined Los Angeles, they asked him if “rich people had come with planes and bombed them out,” basically like the U.S.-backed forces that had made their lives impossible in El Salvador.

After the show, many of the musicians would come with us to the wretched Denny’s (which used to be on Sunset) to eat fried zucchini, or to Oki-Dog (on Willoughby and Fairfax) to eat a hotdog wrapped in a tortilla and dripping with chili; we’d chat with them and record little excerpts on our tape recorder for the show. I wish I had kept those tapes, infusions of hazy political wisdom combined with raw hatred for Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian, and a lot of discussion about drugs. We are the World, sang the Top 40 sanctimonious singers on Quincy Jones’ syrupy song from 1985, but these punks said, no you jerks, you are not the world, the world is out there getting bombed by your planes and being evicted from their homes, and struggling to find a way to be dignified in this moral desert of a planet.

This is why The Clash always made sense, as in “Remote Control” from 1977:

Big business, it don’t like you
It don’t like the things you do
You got no money
So you got no power
They think you’re useless
An’ so you are – puuuuuunnnnnnk!

This was the essence, something understood then in the alleyways behind the clubs and in the working-class districts where Salvadoreans woke early in the morning to clean the clubs and to wonder about the fate of their country being destroyed by the bastards in the White House.

In the old Honnold Library – named after William Honnold who made his money through the replusive mines of the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa – I discovered Alexander Cockburn, founder of this website, whose columns in The Nation and the Wall Street Journal introduced me to the mendacity of U.S. imperialism. The U.S., Alex wrote in 1985, are executing a brutal war in El Salvador, and the “supervisory criminals are ensconsed in the Defence Department and the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration.” I would read these columns on the radio between breaking the rules from under the gun (Black Flag) and I hate banks, I just can’t stand ‘em (Mojo Nixon); truck drivers and old drunks would call up to agree with the sentiments from Alex about Reagan’s “therapeutic nihilism” and the “jackboot liberals.” Greg would laugh along both to the columns, which struck us as funny for being so honest, and the callers, who could not imagine that such things could be said on the radio. Would the FCC care if we said “fuck” at 3am?

Greg spent most of his life blowing glass in Seattle. We met a few times, always warm and friendly, always a joke about our murderous times. When the cancer came for him, we spoke in sadness but always with an eye backwards to driving exhausted in a borrowed car, weaving our way through the San Gabriel valley as the dawn light drifted to us from somewhere magical like Joshua Tree.

I don’t want to hear what the rich are doing
I don’t want to go to where the rich are going.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).