By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The demon inside Rikk Agnew is the kind punks pay to see. Screeching feedback jolts through his body, provoking a maniacal grin. His black eyes bulge as he stabs at his guitar strings, his jaw clenched, a thousand-yard stare. The crowd can't get enough.
It's Friday night at the Doll Hut, Anaheim's reclaimed punk-rock roadhouse, barely six months since the landmark venue reopened after its wayward period as a banda-pumping paisa bar. The club isn't the only thing looking restored tonight: Agnew, once slovenly and bloated, is onstage in a fitted, referee-style shirt to match his skintight black pants and thin locks of dyed, jet-black hair.
Three succinct stick clicks from the drummer signal the explosion of "Amoeba," with its catchy, shout-along chorus made famous by his old band, the Adolescents. The pristine candy-colored nails on his bony fingers grip his guitar pick with white-knuckled intensity. Fists rise up, as shouts hit the rafters. "Amoebaaaaa! Amoebaaaaa! Amoebaaaaaa! Amoebaaaa-aaaa!"
The noise becomes so loud that Agnew hoists his guitar off his shoulders and lets it hit the floor. He jumps into the crowd and storms out the open double doors leading to the back patio. The band continue to play. Concern and confusion ripple through the Hut. From the side of the stage, a drunk fan playfully squawks, "Wooo! That's classic Agnew right there!"
Yes, the 55-year-old legend has thrown his guitar and walked offstage more than once in his day. In the Punk Hall of Fame, Agnew's level of onstage tantrums, excess and antics are infamous. And despite his newly polished outer shell, in that moment, it appeared the old Agnew was back.
But hiding in a shadowy corner of the outdoor patio, the godfather of the OC punk sound is feeling triumphant. The walk-off routine is just a gag, Agnew says. His manager, Daniel Darko, played along by trying to block people from entering the patio, insisting Agnew "needed a little space." With his dark-haired fiancee, Gitane DeMone, sitting beside him, Agnew can't help but laugh at the little scene he'd created.
"Yeah, it was all show," he says. "I still love that part of it—I'm not gonna lie. There's just something about creating a stir that appeals to me. I don't really mean anything by it. Now, it's all just fun."
But for an old, out-of-control punker reformed by sobriety, good health, love and family, sometimes it's good to know that at least part of the demon inside him still exists. The name Rikk Agnew has always been synonymous with Fullerton punk and Goth-rock royalty. A list of his old bands reads like a who's-who of OC's mosh-pit forefathers: the Detours, the Adolescents, Social Distortion, D.I. and plenty more, including an early-'80s stint with LA Goth rockers Christian Death. "I've been in every band except the Beatles and the Osmonds," he jokes. The number of musicians influenced by Agnew's layered, melodic guitar tones and soloing ability is infinite.
"People were calling him the Brian Wilson of punk," says the Adolescents' bassist, Steve Soto. "And he was."
Unfortunately, Agnew and the famous Beach Boy shared some unhealthy similarities. Much of Agnew's career was marred by alcoholism, drug abuse and depression on top of morbid obesity. There's no way he'd be alive today had he continued down the path he was on.
That much, at least, became clear on the night before New Year's Eve 2010, when a spontaneous explosion inside his gut caused Agnew to retch and spit up blood on the steering wheel of his red Toyota pickup. Agnew weighed 350 pounds, a massive white beard covered his double chin, his toes were like sausages, and the only shoes he could fit in were house slippers. Up until a week earlier, his daily booze regimen consisted of a fifth of whiskey, an 18-pack of beer and any vodka that happened to be within guzzling distance. That was on top of copious amounts of recreational pot, speed, meth, whatever.
He'd quit everything cold turkey, in part because he couldn't get a buzz no matter how much he ingested of any particular drug, but now, in the driver's seat of his truck, his body was telling him it was too little too late. "I had cirrhosis of the liver, an enlarged spleen, edema, anemia, you name it if it starts with an A," he recalls. "I was a mess."
According to his doctors, that was a distinct understatement. In fact, they calculated, Agnew had just three months to live.
* * *
Before being a heavy hitter in the punk scene, Richard Francis Agnew Jr. had always been sensitive about his weight. Half Irish and half Mexican-American and raised in a blue-collar, Fullerton neighborhood, Agnew says he was always teased over it. Shy and full of a childlike vulnerability that followed him into adulthood, the outcast quickly gravitated toward music for comfort. He remembers coming home from school and strumming heavy, pissed-off chords on a family guitar. Naturally, his younger brothers Frank and Alfie were his first band mates. They often jammed on a flotsam of instruments the family had scattered around the house.