TCR Talks with Patrick O’Neil
By Rob Bowman
Patrick O’Neil spent the golden age of American punk rock touring as a roadie and road manager with now-legendary bands Dead Kennedys, Flipper, T.S.O.L., Subhumans, and others. That time—the misadventures on the road, the grime and needs of addiction, and the violence of the punk stage—fills the pages of O’Neil’s new memoir, Anarchy at the Circle K: On the Road with Dead Kennedys, TSOL, Flipper, Subhumans and . . . Heroin. This book not only is a jarring and rousing work but also a companion to his previous memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon, which details the depths of his addiction and how it led to his doing time for bank robbery.
O’Neil now teaches creative writing in multiple programs, including one for prison populations, and has written the craft books The Sentences that Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison and Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives, which he co-authored with James Brown. O’Neil spoke with TCR from his home in Los Angeles about the differences between punk in different regions and scenes before discussing his new memoir in more general terms.
[This has been edited for clarity and length.]
The Coachella Review: It’s interesting you are in Los Angeles these days but came up in the San Francisco punk scene. I came up with an East Coast and Detroit kind of bias in the punk I was listening to. So reading about the West Coast scene was interesting. What was it like being in that particular area, and how did that influence what was going on?
Patrick O’Neil: There was a heavy rivalry between L.A. and San Francisco, especially when hardcore reared its ugly head. L.A. decided they were more hardcore than San Francisco. But San Francisco and New York, we gelled pretty good. You know, I never really thought about the scenes when I was traveling. But in one part of my book, I talked about how the Miami scene was really weird because it was really weird. It was like some weird conglomeration of punk and new wave all together in one place. I could never figure out what the theme was in Detroit. It was like, you know, it was either hardcore or just sort of, you know, rock and roll. It was weird.
TCR: How did you fall into this traveling sideshow sort of life?
PO: I had a bunch of bands myself. At one point, there were eight or nine clubs in San Francisco, and there was a show every night, all these bands. I was a student at the Art Institute where a bunch of bands came from, like the Avengers and others, like the Mutants came out of there. So there was kind of a hotbed of that happening. And I had a couple of really shitty bands that weren’t going anywhere. They weren’t very good, but it afforded me the chance to get in and be part of the scene and be in the clubs and be friends with people. And it just evolved into my scene. And because there was a show every fucking night, I was out every night, and there was so much happening. You know, when you’re in your twenties you can do that; you can go hang out and drink every night and get hammered and be up the next day and go to work and so forth. And so I just sort of got involved. Then I became involved with a couple of major clubs like The Mabuhay and started working at them because my schedule didn’t really work for a day job. I started working with them and then just fell in with the people who were the sound people or the stage people. Those guys were the people that the bad bands picked to go on tour with them.
TCR: It seems in the book that there’s a lack of technical training in what’s going on. It’s carry the shit and plug it in versus what is seen at the end of the book with Lollapalooza and shows on that scale. So what was the learning curve like for you when you started on all this stuff?
PO: It was just go and do it. Go set those mics. Go do that. Go do this. You know, tune that guitar. It was on-the-job training, pushing up to a punk show, and the stage was just mayhem. Then they just throw you out there, saying the gig is to go out there and clear the stage, make sure the band doesn’t get fucked up. And so the first couple of gigs were sketchy. But I got really good at handling emergencies, really good when things were breaking down and fixing things and being on my feet. I knew nothing about being a sound person. I could drive and I could set up some gear. Funniest thing was, when I took up with the Kennedys, nobody knew how to set the drums, because they weren’t drummers. I had to get D. H. [Darren Henley, the drummer for Dead Kennedys] to come show me one time. I just had no idea, and then he showed me how he liked it set up. Because everybody has their own thing.
TCR: I know drummers tend to be kind of specific and almost fussy about how they want their kit set up. But in the book, it’s clear you’re having to reset the kit, as it is smashed into by invading fans repeatedly.
PO: Yeah. I would set the drum kit up, and then the guys would come in and then the sound guy would come change it. I’d say, “He’s just gonna move it. They’re gonna move it.” And every fucking time he comes over and changes it. The gear really took a beating. I mean, it really took a beating. Like Klaus, the bass player for Dead Kennedys, would throw his bass in the air at the end of the show. It was a 1959 Fender Jazzman and was beautiful. It’s thrown in the air and then would hit the ground and then vibrate feedback and that’d be the end of the show. A couple of times, I caught it because I didn’t want it to hit the ground. And he got pissed at me. Said, “That’s our signature.” I ended up buying tuning pegs by the case, because I’d have to replace them all the fucking time. Things like that were indicative of the nihilistic approach of everything anyway. It was that nothing mattered. It was all chaos and anarchy.
TCR: The other skill set that it’s clear you had to develop during all this is how to fight. How did that come about? I gotta think that’s a painful and steep learning curve.
PO: Well, you better be quick about it. I grew up in Boston, and it was a tough environment. I was in fights, but I was not a tough guy. Not a guy that went out and picked a fight. I was also not a guy that avoided fights. I could hold my own. But the sheer number of people coming at you on the stage! I document a lot of this in the book. You see the first night in Seattle when I got my leather jacket stolen. The next day was Salt Lake City, and I got punched out. The third day, I was in Denver, and I got attacked by racist skinheads. And at that point, Mike Vraney, who was the manager of T.S.O.L., is looking at me, thinking, This guy’s a liability. And I knew that could never happen to me again. I better be on my toes, and I better throw the first punch, and I better be just quick enough and fast enough.
TCR: In the book, you make clear you’re the smaller guy on stage. Were you maybe the more obvious target for people who want to make things happen? Guys thinking, I could take the skinny dude over there.
PO: Right? I’m like 5’10” and a drug addict that weighed about 140 pounds, and I’m the guy to go after if you want to access the stage, absolutely.
TCR: But then, as it says in the book, you’re improvising with the gear, having used the mic stand like a club to beat people away. Having to protect your own physical well-being.
PO: Exactly. There was a level of violence every night. It became commonplace, and it was starting to creep into how I dealt with people. There’s a scene in New York with the guy who had our truck towed, and we were literally gonna beat the shit out of him. It becomes that kind of thing where you become a product of your environment, your bracket, what happens around you, and that was kind of shocking. It just sort of creeped into my psyche.
TCR: It was interesting to see what happens to your psyche throughout the book. There seems to be not a coldness exactly but an understanding of the hard facts, of what is, and a pragmatic locomotion toward the next day. What do I need to get to the next day? There’s not a ton of introspection in the book, but what is there really does portray that mode of essential motivational thinking.
PO: Yeah, which has a lot to do with being a drug addict, too. Because essentially your motivation is just to make it to the next day, to get the next fix, the next thing, so on and so forth. It all came down to just being in the moment. That makes it sound almost zen! Which it wasn’t.
TCR: It seems like a particularly hard lifestyle to be leading while supporting a habit. You’re constantly having to make new connections, and you can’t trust any of your connections.
PO: I talked with a friend of mine about this the other day. The sheer willpower to just say, I’m gonna go out there strung out; I’m gonna be able to find drugs, right? You know, that’s insane. I don’t think I could be that confident these days.
TCR: A demonstration of confidence and willpower.
PO: It’s amazing. I mean, if you think about it, in the original days, we were going out there expecting a show, and instead, it would be some kid with a VFW hall and a PA, but it all kind of clicked together. So it was kind of happening like that. It was a really interesting time in music. I don’t think anybody had really done it in a way so DIY, you know? Just the idea that the five of us would pile into a van with gear and just go across the country. Who does that?
TCR: There’s a kind of divergence that’s happening in music then, it seems. Early in the book, you write about seeing hair metal guys and that scene is just beginning to take off in a kind of mainstream way. And it’s so glossy, relative to the kind of grungy ethos of what y’all were doing. It must have been a strange thing to watch.
PO: It was! But then it was crossing over, too. We had a show in Chicago. It was Halloween and we did the late show. The early show was a huge band called Mercyful Fate. Half the kids came to see Mercyful Fate, and then half of them had tickets to the Dead Kennedys. That doesn’t make sense at all. So later it started to change. Bad Brains started out as a metal band, but then, you know. You talked about the scenes here in L.A. You know, the big hair bands out on Sunset were not punk rock at all. They did not want anything to do with the punk rock scene.
TCR: It is interesting because race comes up a couple times in the book. Talking about Bad Brains and talking about experiences with the Dead Kennedys with their leftist politics. But then there is the presence of skinheads at these shows. There’s anti-racist punk and there’s racist punk. And they’re sharply divided things. But the styles are similar in terms of dress, and having to pick them out is through pretty subtle cues for someone who’s not in the scene. Did you all have outright conflicts with that stuff on the road?
PO: Oh, yeah. All the time, all the time. I mean, for one, there was the more subtle racism of driving to the South. And Darren was black, and we would go into restaurants and feel like that scene from Easy Rider. “You’re not gonna make the state line,” that kind of thing. And then there were the straight up skinheads at the shows and things like that. One thing with the Dead Kennedys is that they would pick the bands that would open up for them. So it wasn’t a problem with the musicians there. It was always common to see it in the audience. But with bands like Flipper, the opening band was just the opening band. The club would arrange them, and it would be an avowed skinhead band, which I don’t understand why anybody would fucking do that. Then you’d have backstage problems [pause] And face it, it was mainly a white male-oriented scene, and especially so with hardcore. It really didn’t change for a lot of years. I mean, I would see bands that were more advanced in San Francisco, but I didn’t see a lot of that on the road. Sometimes you’d hear of a female musician in a band, but not an all-women’s band or anything like that. It was very sexist. It was very, very white. Very racist. And you know, I mean racist by the fact that that’s just who the main body of people are.
TCR: It was at least homogenous even if not philosophically racist. It’s an isolated group of people.
PO: And with the Kennedys, people came out to hate them. Because [lead singer Jello] Biafra preached all the time. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was changing minds when he brought a lot of stuff up. But, look, we pulled up on towns and did stuff like that. There was a group of people that couldn’t wait to get us, to fuck with us. That happened a lot.
TCR: When the band’s in that kind of provocateur mode, was there something of an electricity? Knowing today’s going to be particularly ugly or that things might go off the rails?
PO: Yeah. You roll into some town; there’s already people outside protesting. Especially in the early days. Some cities were tougher, like Philly, because it’s got a huge Irish population. When I was with the Kennedys, they played Boston once. And that’s it. Never again. Because it was really bad. There was a chaos of people hating them. Certain towns are just going to be tough. And then certain towns that are supposedly tough, like Detroit, are the best. I always really geared up for shows in New York and L.A., in Chicago—kind of big cities that had really big audiences, and you know that a good portion are going to come down and try and get on stage and fuck with shit.
TCR: Your recall of all this is so precise, and in the book, it is so specific. I’m wondering how, years later, with the extraordinary amount of experiences you had since then and with the drinking and the drugs—how did you manage to access and organize these memories for composing the book? What was that process for you?
PO: Well, thankfully I have a really good memory. I don’t rely on other people for it. Other people will tell me details that are different, but we were remembering the same incident. But who knows? I wrote a disclaimer in my book that this is how I remember this. So I have vivid memories because it was a pretty intense time. It took me a long time to write this book. You know, just this book. Gun, Needle, Spoon came out June 5, 2015. And I started working on [Anarchy at the Circle K] then. I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t find the voice. I couldn’t find how I wanted to do it. It was the structure. And then I wrote a novel and came back to it. I would work on it and then throw it all away about once a year. And then I got it. I clicked onto it. And you know, memory is like a wormhole. You remember one thing and then another thing comes up that’s maybe not even related. So I just wrote all the pieces I had together. And so I wrote them in sections. I wrote them as tours. I wrote a Dead Kennedys tour from one year, then I wrote this Subhumans tour. If I was writing the Dead Kennedys tour, I’d remember some of the Subhumans tour, take a break over to that manuscript and write that. So just constantly working on it. And I realized that in this work, it would come together, would be chronological and I’d put it together. There’s another eighty pages I took out because the way I write is that I write too much. Which is actually preferable, because I had more to take from back then. There was a bunch of stuff from other tours with The Dickies and a bunch of work with Goldenvoice in L.A., where I worked with the Ramones and things like that. But that took away from national tour, roadie stuff. And there was a bunch of other stuff that was just not pertaining to it, either. So I just really narrowed it down to that, and the writing was about really fine tuning just to move the story along.
TCR: While climbing into that wormhole, did you find yourself going through tour records? Denver was before Omaha, or something like that. Did you draw from other materials to help organize it?
PO: Dead Kennedys are well-documented, so I did that more in checking my memory. There’s a website that lists all their shows chronologically. So I was able to go back and look at that a couple times and caught a mistake here and there. Like, I had St. Louis before Denver, or something like that, and that’s understandable. Flipper is just straight out of memory. I was on tour with them for three months solid. It was grueling, and I will never forget it. It was hardcore. And then I really had to tone down on Subhumans because that was my first tour as road manager and it really meant a lot to me. Plus, I was in charge of four people, or five. With cars and a roadie. I never had that responsibility before. So really, I remember the tours, totally, you know, and the only parts that were tougher to put together, I would use a timeline, what month it was, where we were, that kind of thing.
TCR: There are a couple of striking stylistic choices. The most apparent one being writing it all in present tense. When in the process did that happen? What was the logic behind that decision?
PO: This is part of what I was talking about before. I couldn’t find the voice. When I first started writing it, it was all past tense with some jumps into future tense. But that felt too complicated. I’d be wondering, Where am I? What is happening here? I wanted to portray an immediacy in the writing; I wanted to portray the immediacy of what was going on there. If I did it in present tense, it was like you were there and were along for the ride. That was the decision I made. I wanted it to be immediate. It may sound egotistical, but I wanted someone to experience it like I was. I didn’t want it to be something historical, some old guy telling you stories. I wanted it to be like, This is the van. Get in and let’s go—that kind of feeling, and that’s why I decided on that structure.
TCR: But you do leave that structure to solve problems that do come up. Notably by having those jumps into the future in italicized sections where it feels like okay, let me tell you what happened later. Almost as a way to keep hindsight intact.
PO: Yup. I wanted those because I wasn’t going to wrap it up. There wasn’t going to be a wrap up. And you know, one of the things I got from my first book was people would ask me what happened to that person? And I would go, “That’s not part of this story.” And for the first book, that kind of information would have taken you out of the story. But for this book, I kind of wanted to do that because it’s kind of historical, in a weird way. It’s a documentation of a time. So I want readers to know what happened to people, especially people that died or people that are around for some reason or whatever and to wrap those things up without being tidy at the end. This is one of the problems I had with the first version of the book. I had a thing at the end that said what happened to everybody. And it felt like one of those Where are they now? things, and it felt really weird. This book was really hard to structure in a lot of ways. I also had the eighty pages I took out, which was a lot of meandering and getting off subject. It might have been interesting to me or it might have been interesting just to a select few of the people who want to know about punk rock, but I also want the book to reach people that weren’t into punk rock. I just sort of wanted to read a story of it, and here’s the other thing that was a real problem with the book: I pitched it to my then press and my agent, and they all went, “Oh, yeah, we want to hear the dirt about Biafra or some other dirt.” And I said, “That’s not the book! Go get somebody else to write that book.” This is somebody on tour, working the tours. It’s the people behind the scenes working and making it happen. And they were like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound very exciting.” Ha ha!
TCR: Writing a “spill the dirt,” tell-all kind of book would almost feel like a betrayal of some kind of the experience.
PO: Yeah! It would. I hope it’s going to describe people as who they were without going, This guy’s a dick. I don’t need to do that. But I can say, Here’s the behavior. It’s show, not tell. I think the book is all show, not tell, really. I totally trust the reader to get it, and that’s what I want. I don’t need to be spoon-fed shit. I’m not somebody that needs the backstory or something. I just want to tell the story, and this is what was happening. Like with Keith Richards’s Life book. The first one hundred pages is him growing up, but I don’t give a fuck what Keith was doing when he was growing up. And then there’s a scene where he meets Mick Jagger, and I’m like, Okay. This is when the book starts. Because this is the only thing I give a fuck about. I want to jump to there from the beginning and stay there and keep you interested without meandering around. And here’s the other structural problem with the book: you can only write about so many shows because it becomes repetitious. Because it was repetitious. It was load in, do a show, drive, load out, sound check, go to a shitty restaurant on the side of the road with a bad meal, go to a bad motel, blah, blah, blah, blah, over and over and over. Yes, right. I did cut all that kind of stuff and really just kept examples and then the really poignant parts that kind of meant something, I think, and just sort of told my stories. The rest of it was framing the stories and the people who were in them.
TCR: That trust in the reader means that there is not a lot of interiority in the book, no let me tell you how I’m feeling kind of thing. Instead, the reader gets the shock when [fellow roadie and friend] Chris’s death is revealed at the deal, or seeing how things ended with Brenda, [friend and lover during this period] for example. They’re gutting moments, and they’re surprising in a way that, I think, emulates the experience of going through those things. There’s the shock because there’s no build to it.
PO: Right, right. You don’t see it coming. And then—bam—there it is. It might sound shitty, but I want a little shock value in the writing. I want to affect people. I want people to remember it.
TCR: There’s something tragic about how we see them in these very vibrant moments, and then we find out about their demise in such a blunt fashion. Something particularly harrowing about that.
PO: Did you read The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien? One thing I really loved was that book wasn’t in chronological order. You’d read somebody’s horrific death and then in the next chapter, there he is again. And so you have privileged information. It adds to the vitality of it, because you’re still watching this person evolve and grow up.
TCR: It builds a kind of dread because we know where they’re going. It also adds kind of a preciousness to the extra time we get with them.
PO: Exactly, man. That’s it.
TCR: It’s a curious thing in your book at the end, with the acknowledgments. There’s the list of names and then the RIP’s that are running throughout after what feels like half the names.
PO: Yeah, a lot of people, a lot of people. I mean, it really was a live fast, die young culture and also drugs and people using hardcore heroin, and it really was like no future. There was no sense that we were gonna grow old and retire. There wasn’t some roadies Hall of Fame. It’s just like going on tour. Make this happen and make the next day, which was really all we really thought about.
TCR: The structure allows something interesting regarding hindsight. Being in the present tense makes it not hindsight, makes it vital in the moment. And you can avoid revealing knowledge of where things have gone since. When reading about Goldenvoice, I couldn’t help thinking that now they put on Coachella, the biggest music festival in the country. Or looking at how the industry has changed, how some of these people have become commodities. One can buy Dead Kennedys shirts at Hot Topic. How does one process this stuff?
PO: Punk rock was a reaction to what was going on musically at the time—these big, bloated arena shows. Bands like Yes. It was horrible. Not horrible. But I mean. Ugh. I always dog on Yes. It was arena rock. I remember going to see Judas Priest, and it was the biggest show I’ve ever been to in my life. It was massive. Huge. Crazy. It was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco[/Daly City]. It was a giant, huge show, and I wasn’t anywhere near the band. So you can just see these little, tiny figures on a stage, and it was super loud, and the sound was horrible. And that’s sort of what the concert experience was in those days [whereas punk was] just four guys on a tiny stage making the most incredible noise known to mankind. High energy, fucking crazy. Intense. Now we’ve gone full circle and we’re back at arenas. Everybody’s playing giant arenas, and Coachella is like that. And it’s soulless and the music industry just sort of fell apart. And bands go on tour and make more money on their merchandise than they do on touring. I don’t want to be an old man shaking his fist, standing on my lawn. But it’s lost a lot that it used to have. Bands like blink-182 or Green Day are punk in name, but they’re really just arena rock when it comes down to it. I don’t condemn anybody making a living, you know? That’s fine. But it’s not punk rock.
TCR: It’s strange aging and being the old man on the lawn but also feeling some kind of punk in there. I wore my Bikini Kill shirt to Costco because that’s where I am in my life. No one knew what it was. I was like, Yeah, I guess this is where I am now. This is who I am these days—going to Costco and getting dirty looks.
PO: Ha ha! Exactly right. I think we’ve all had to do that. We all had to realize that we’re going to Costco. We’re doing that because punk sort of died in a way. Granted, there’s friends of mine who are still playing in shitty bands in shitty clubs, and there are starving musicians, and that’s fucking fine. But everybody I know who was punk rock became a teacher, became an artist, started writing goddamn books. It’s not going mainstream but definitely fitting into society. I know people who are hardcore punks and are fucking social workers now.
TCR: In its way, it’s still fulfilling the punk ethos of trying to make change happen. It’s just the technique has changed.
PO: I know. I wouldn’t have seen it coming, man. I’m a certified drug and alcohol counselor. And I work in a rehab, and it’s making a change from within society and doing the best you can do. Helping people out. But I would have never seen it coming.
TCR: I’m wondering what from your time on the road has transferred into what you’re doing now.
PO: I can cut through the bullshit. I can see things for what they really are. You don’t have to put up fronts and niceties and things like that. And I feel that a lot of times, with learning and with writing and with teaching writing, you gotta dispense with all the bullshit. Just get in there and get to the meat of it. I’m guilty of this, too. I can dillydally around in my writing. So something I need is somebody to just look at and see the bullshitting. To go, Hey, look, this is your story. And when I got my first book, my editor said, “The story starts on page sixty.” They were right. And I like to do that, too, to cut down to what really matters.
TCR: To get to what is really essential.
PO: Exactly. The rest is just bullshit.
Rob Bowman lives, writes, and teaches in Southern California. He holds an MFA from UCR, Palm Desert. His fiction has appeared in Palm Springs Noir (Akashic Press), The Coachella Review, and The Donnybrook Writing Academy, among others. His nonfiction credits include Modern in Denver, Book and Film Globe, The Desert Sun, and others. Follow him on Twitter @UmRobBowman.