Mike Atta, guitarist for OC punk pioneers the Middle Class, died on Easter Sunday; he was 53. The Santa Ana native, who strummed some of the most chaotic chords known to man, ended a thrashing, four-year battle with bone cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Pam; 12 year-old son, Van; and a beloved boutique furniture store. To some, his greatest legacy is a small, explosive body of recorded music—barely more than 45 minutes—a catalog that ushered in the beginnings of hardcore music. At least, that's what people told him.
In a recently uncovered interview with Burger Records for its YouTube series Burger TV, Atta is perched behind the counter of his Fullerton store, Out of Vogue, talking about how he originally had aspirations to sound like U.K. post-punkers Wire.
“I was 16 years old and just started playing guitar and trying to play Aerosmith, and my older brother goes, 'Listen to this,'” he says. It was a bootleg copy of Wire's album Live At the Roxy. “I wanted to be like Wire, but we ended up being way faster.”
The Middle Class—Atta, his brothers Jeff (vocals) and Bruce (drums), and friend Mike Patton (bass)—formed in 1976. Most of the band's earliest songs were barely a minute long. They released a few records—their iconic 1978 debut EP, Out of Vogue; Scavenged Luxury in 1980; and their only full length, Homeland, in 1982—before breaking up that same year. Though they had a short run, their warp-speed brand of punk fueled by nervous energy and unorthodox chord progressions remains a point of origin for the hardcore scene decades later.
At the time when punk was starting to crumble under the weight of its own image, Atta was never scared to be himself. He and his band, a group of Santa Ana suburbanites, presented a blue-collar, casual vibe in the way they dressed and performed that eventually won acceptance from the jaded, Hollywood punk crowd. Atta was always the joking, upbeat extrovert—a quality he rarely lost, even in the face of his first cancer diagnosis in 2010.
“He was more courageous than I would've been under the circumstances,” says Matt Simon, longtime friend and replacement drummer for Atta's brother Bruce when the band reunited in 2010. “He was there for his family and involved with his son. . . . He was the force behind the reunion shows.”
After having a kidney and an adrenal gland removed in 2010, Atta and his family were hopeful he'd never have to deal with it again. But in late 2012, the disease returned and spread to his lungs. Doctors did what they could to fight the cancer with an aggressive treatment plan called Interleukin-2; he is the only person in medical history to have received 14 doses of it.
To help with the Atta family's skyrocketing medical bills, OC legends such as the Adolescents, White Flag and 45 Grave held a benefit at the Echoplex in January 2013. Atta also got onstage with his band in front of a packed house. The guitarist's sister Joanne Jimenez ran an online fund-raising campaign that garnered more than $25,000 toward Atta's treatment. A number of cash mobs flooded Atta's store as well as Otto, the now-shuttered boutique next door to Out of Vogue once operated by Atta and his wife. The reunion show was the best medicine for Atta, who found new life in his old band once they took the stage.
“While we were playing, he didn't have cancer; when we were onstage, he wasn't sick,” Patton says. “What better gift can you have than that?”
That reunion sparked a few more shows for the band, despite Atta's failing health. Older brother Jeff remembers a particular gig at Weber's Place in Reseda, when his brother was doing his best to conserve energy, laying in the back of his station wagon before the show.
“On the one hand, you don't want him to hurt himself or make himself any worse,” Jeff says. “But on the other hand, it was giving him a lot of pleasure to get up there.”
Whether he's remembered as a genius, underrated guitar player or the local sage behind a retail counter, Atta's contributions to his community and punk history are forever cemented. He epitomized what most of OC's old-school punk heroes should be—humble, genuine and accidentally influential. And there was one more important quality: the ability to smile and politely answer the occasional young punker who had no idea who he was.
“[Mike] would get people coming in there all the time, saying, 'Hey, do you know that your store is the same name of a song from a punk-rock band from the '70s?'” Jeff remembers with a chuckle and a sigh. “Mike would just kinda smirk and go, 'Yes, I do know that.'”