Penelope Spheeris’ three The Decline of Western Civilization documentaries are Los Angeles-based stories, although Orange County plays a major role. It’s fitting then that Angeleno (Angelena?) Spheeris returns to the region she grew up in to present 2K restorations of her trilogy.
At the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana on Friday night, she introduces The Decline of Western Civilization, which was shot between December 1979 and May 1980 and features show footage and interviews with such bands as X, Black Flag, Fear, Germs and Alice Bag Band. Spheeris then takes audience questions before unveiling The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, which is about LA’s “gutter punks” or homeless teenagers who preferred anarchy to organized society in the late 1990s. Hardcore bands Final Conflict and Naked Aggression are featured.
She returns to the Frida on Saturday afternoon for the same routine, only the films are The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which covers the LA heavy-metal scene from 1986 to 1988 with the likes of KISS, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, and Spheeris’ 1987 “punk western” Dudes, which stars Jon Cryer and Daniel Roebuck and includes appearances by Flea and the Vandals.
That second day, she also sells autographed posters from all three Decline films for $10, donating everything she raises to the Orange County chapter of Stand Up for Kids, which is dedicated to ending the cycle of youth homelessness. The Frida is giving 10 percent of Saturday’s ticket proceeds to the same nonprofit. It’s a cause that is close to Spheeris’ heart. Her boyfriend of 20 years, SIN (for Satanic Intellectual Network), lived on the streets in LA for a dozen or so years before they met during the making of Part III, her favorite Decline film.
While Spheeris was never homeless, she experienced a modest upbringing in Orange County, growing up in trailers and lower-middle-class residences with her siblings and alcoholic mother, who brought home a string of boyfriends and stepfathers, some of whom were abusive to young Penelope. When her mother complained that her daughter would never amount to anything, Spheeris decided to prove her wrong, becoming a straight-A student active in extracurricular activities at Westminster High School. She next enrolled at UC Irvine, where she studied biology before learning she could go to school for filmmaking. She switched majors and campuses (UCLA).
Fresh out of school, her Rock ’N Reel production company became a pioneer in music videos. Casablanca Records figured it was cheaper to tape rock bands in performance and send the footage overseas to promote upcoming shows than it was to arrange in-person interviews and the inevitable trashing of hotel rooms. That was how Spheeris got the gear and contacts for the first Decline.
By that time, Spheeris had been in LA about a decade, witnessing the changing of the guard from the flower-power generation to the lost youth who saw no future. In what became known as the “slam pit” in front of punk-rock stages, another change happened as the audience of runaways, art students and pogoing nihilists were pushed aside by aggro infiltrators of the South Bay and Orange County coast. That violent action is what made Spheeris say, “Oh, man, we have to get this on film!”
As she recently told the Weekly, “I always had an affection for the beach kids [and] the surf and skate punks because I knew they were living the life I have lived in suburbia: Boring.”
The pit is where the strongest Orange County thread in her project originated. “Tony Alva and the people from Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach can be held responsible for the creation of stage-diving and slam-dancing,” Keith Morris, the vocalist for the South Bay-born Black Flag and Circle Jerks, told Tony Rettman of Vice’s music channel Noisey in 2015. “That’s what we brought to the table and the people of Hollywood were taken aback by this.”
In Decline, Michael X-Head, who was so-named because he had the letter X shaved into his black hair, represented those hardening the pit.
During a black-and-white section of the film known as the “light bulb interviews”—because its subjects were shot in close-up with a bulb dangling over them as if in a KGB interrogation room—X-Head reports with little emotion that he does not know who his real father is, that his stepfather acts as if he does not know his stepson and that “society sucks,” which he punctuates with a disaffected laugh.
“Michael X-Head was definitely one of the more violent people out of that new crowd,” said Lisa Fancher, the owner of Frontier Records, in the Noisey story, which also included this from X co-founder John Doe: “Now, that Mike X-Head guy was a fucking psychopath who was kicked out of the military. I remember him swinging a 10-foot dog chain over his head in the middle of a dance floor. He was a bona-fide sociopath, a very fucked-up kid.”
X-Head’s inclusion is one reason Doe has expressed mixed feelings about Decline, fearing the film may have leaned too far into glorifying violence.
Then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates had a similar assessment after Decline’s beer-bottle-smashing christening at midnight and 2 a.m. screenings at a Hollywood Boulevard theater. He wrote Spheeris a letter requesting her film never be shown in LA again. That made it even more of “a shocker” in 2016, when the Library of Congress National Film Registry announced the induction of Decline, the director tells the Weekly.
Time has also healed any lingering X-Head animosity, at least as far as Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox, who is charged with overseeing the Decline legacy, are concerned when it comes to Huntington Beach’s Mike Miller, who will sign autographs at local punk shows as X-Head.
“Anna and I both saw Michael a short while back when we were in Nashville,” Spheeris says. “He’s a suburban dad with a couple of boys who love motocross. Really sweet guy. Neither Anna nor I believe he had the X carved in his hair because of the band. We think it was just a coincidence. He still greatly supports the film.”
The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I + III—plus Penelope Spheeris in Person! at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $10. Also The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years + Dudes at the Frida. Sat., 2 p.m. $10.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.