Penelope Spheeris: ‘The Decline of Western Civilization.’ Interview by Andrew Cahill

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Have you heard of the Decline of Western Civilisation? Maybe you’ve already seen it. The film, and its subsequent two sequels, have long been whispered about amongst rock’n’roll fans through the ages. There was a time when if you wanted to see them for yourself, you’d have to a borrow a friend’s VHS copy, taped off of some satellite TV station at three in the morning. In recent years you might have been lucky enough to catch the entire thing on YouTube, or at least catch some of the more infamous clips from Part II: The Metal Years, the boys from Odin defiantly laying down their (never to be realised) mission statement of global domination, surrounded by rock’n’roll bikini babes in the hot tub, buds in hand, or W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes floating in his Hollywood Hills’ pool, eyes glazed over, sculling bottle after bottle of vodka, unashamedly detailing the extent of his self loathing.

It may be well over thirty years since the first film was released but the trilogy’s director, Penelope Spheeris, only recently set out to remaster and release the films, for the first time, on Blu-ray and DVD (in conjunction with a small scale cinematic re-release), an event that should not be taken for granted by anyone with a passing interest in the history of rock’n’roll. The films chart the course of three distinct movements in the L.A. music scene. With Part I focusing on punk bands such as the Germs, Black Flag, and X, Part II: The Metal Years documenting the almost comical goings on during L.A.’s hair metal explosion of the late ‘80s (featuring everyone from Motorhead’s Lemmy, to a charismatic and hilarious turn from Ozzy Osbourne, along with several insufferable members of KISS), and Part III, the never officially distributed culmination of the trilogy, in which Spheeris documents the predominantly homeless gutter punks in the late ‘90s.

Together, the three films stand as an incredible document of changing times and changing tastes. Although they also make a great argument for that dusty old maxim ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’. Spheeris spends a lot of the time in each film talking to some of the die-hard fans of these genres, all of them young, directionless and impressionable, and all of them on the lookout for a tribe, or a code, or a way to live their lives. With the passing of time, it has to be said, the films have taken on a greater emotional heft than one imagines they would have carried at the time of release. Spheeris is fond of asking band members and fans alike where they see themselves in five years time. It’s now close to 20 years since she most recently asked the question of the gutter punks in Part III. Where, one might ask, did the time go?

Spheeris was able to give Cyclic a few minutes of her time on the eve of the film’s run at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. She was bright and generous throughout, and while a few times, perhaps inevitably, the conversation veered into some melancholy territory she was always quick to laugh and laughed often. She was great company and Cyclic would have talked to her all day. She’s clearly proud of these films and their inhabitants. Loves them even.

Cyclic: So, you’ve spent the last little while remastering these three films and preparing them for re-release. I was wondering, was the exercise more of a nostalgia trip for you or do you still feel connected to the person you were when you were making them?

Penelope: Actually, to have revisited them it took really a long time and it was absolutely miserable. And the reason is, it’s sort of like having your life flash before you, you know. I mean, there was so many memories there. I think that’s one reason why I never had the nerve to put them out before, because I think I instinctively knew how torturous it was going to be.

Cyclic: Yeah, I can see that. Emotionally revisiting them you mean?

Penelope: Yeah! I mean, you know, you go “Okay, well I did that film 30 years ago, that film 25 years ago, that film 20 years ago,” and all that time is gone and is not coming back, and a lot of those people are gone and, I don’t know… it was depressing honestly.

Cyclic: Watching the films again, were there elements you were happier with than you were the first time around and elements that you had a harder time with now more so than you did initially?

Penelope: I’ll tell you the part that was surprising to me, and I’ve heard it from other people too, and that is, when you watch them all three together – and see that’s something I hadn’t really done before – and watching them all together, it sort of eases the pain of having gone through getting them out again, because it is kind of a cool historical document, you know?

Cyclic: Absolutely.

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Penelope: There weren’t a lot of people making movies like this back then and not everybody had an iPhone, and so the history’s sort of been preserved in those films and I think it’s valuable to present generations who think that, you know, a torn t-shirt, or a tattoo, or a nose ring came from, you know, yesterday. All that stuff is rooted in those times.

Cyclic: Yeah, well, I’d never actually seen them until the last week, and I’ve basically done the same thing, which is watch them all back-to-back, and it is certainly a pretty impressive historical document.

Penelope: You had not seen them before?

Cyclic: No, I’d heard of them over the years, but because they weren’t easily available I hadn’t been able to, you’d hear them talked about and they’d be played on TV at three in the morning or something.

Penelope: Right, right.

Cyclic: But I was wondering, do you prefer any of them to the others or do you see them all as the one piece at this point?

Penelope: Well, I do see them as a piece, mind you, but if I had to choose my favourite of the three films, for me, my favourite is Part III. It was really hard, impossible mind you, to get Part III into any kind of a release, I couldn’t get it seen by anyone when I made it, because the only offers I got for distribution on that film included my giving away the rights to the first two, which I wasn’t going to do. So the film was never really seen, and my big heartbreak was that the people that participated in the film were so excited about it when we did it and then nothing happened for 18 years. And I’m in touch with a lot of them. A lot of them have passed away, unfortunately, because of the lifestyle, you know. Like that kid – that heavy set kid – he called himself Hamburger in the film? He died from a heroin overdose about 10 years ago.

Cyclic: Oh that’s awful.

Penelope: Yeah, yeah, I mean a lot of them are not with us anymore. But that one for me, is…  Those kids are like my family. I mean, they’re not kids anymore. But like that kid Why-Me…

Cyclic: I was going to ask about him.

Penelope: Yeah! Why-Me’s a cool guy. Over the years we’ve been in touch and he moved away for a while and he called me about five years ago and said his girlfriend had hanged herself and he was really depressed and I gave him a ticket to come back to L.A. and see his friends, you know, because he was in New Orleans. And then I got an email about three months ago and somebody said he needed open heart surgery, and so I sent him 500 bucks to help with that. And my boyfriend! I met my boyfriend of 18 years on that film.

Cyclic: Yeah, wow!

Penelope: He was a homeless dude.

Cyclic: Is he in the film?

Penelope: Yeah, you’ll probably remember him. He didn’t speak very much, or he wasn’t in it that much, but he’s an Asian guy and he was standing by a fence and he had some – what do you call it? – dentures around his neck.

Cyclic: Okay, I’ll keep an eye out.

Penelope: Yeah, yeah, that guy and me, he’s in Florida right now, but we’ve been together for 18 years. We speak everyday. He was helping his family down there and his dad died, so he’s down in Florida right now. Listen to me, every time I open my mouth somebody dies. I’m sorry.

Cyclic: No, that’s okay. And see that’s the thing, with all three of the films, there are plenty of self destructive impulses flying around with these guys. What do you make of that? I mean, it’s kind of a big question to ask, but do you have any ideas, just from your own experiences, about where that comes from?

Penelope: Here’s the thing, I think a long time ago there was this stigma attached to music which is, and a lot of the arts actually – painting and maybe even filmmaking – “If you suffer, then that equals that you are creative.” And, well, that’s not necessarily true. You can be creative without suffering. But I think a lot of these guys self-impose pain – and, ultimately, abusive drug use is pain and causes depression and everything else – and I think it was just them trying to prove their creativity or somehow support it. And people think, “Oh, if I smoke a big joint I’m going to be creative.” And, well – not so much.

Cyclic: Yeah, it might be a huge generalisation, but it does seem really far removed from the music industry today and what’s expected of musicians. Even edgy musicians.

Penelope: You’ve got to be a better business person today, that’s for darn sure. And, I mean, as a woman filmmaker I could not use drugs and get arrested and wreck cars, and get tickets for reckless driving. I mean I couldn’t do any of that or I would never work again. I mean, I don’t know how we got on this subject. But with regard to today’s musicians I’ll say a big reason is the internet and the overabundance of available information and the fact that there’s basically no underground. And that’s what made my film. My film thrived because there was an underground to document. And there’s no underground now. I mean unless you wanna count those anarchists that wear that funny mask. And who can crack them, you know?

Cyclic: Yeah, it’s funny, I wonder if today you’d have had a harder time getting these films made because with reality TV culture, and all that kind of stuff, people are so much more aware of how they come across. There’s something really endearing about a lot of these guys. Just something really naive and innocent about it almost, in the way that they don’t consider the implications of the things they’re doing and saying. What the perception might be.

Penelope: Well see, people always ask me, “Oh, how in the world did you get those big huge names in Decline II, you know, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and Ozzy and the KISS guys. How did you ever get them in the movie?” Well, the fact of the matter is that there wasn’t anybody else asking them to do it. It wasn’t, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to do an interview with Penelope Spheeris.” They don’t give a shit who it is. Somebody’s asking them to do an interview, so they’ll do it. But now, everybody’s asking, you know, because they can. It was just a different time.

Cyclic: I’ve got to say, the stuff with Ozzy in Part II, he just seemed ready made to be on a reality TV show. He’s just so good on camera, you know. Just so himself.

Penelope: Well if you see a film that I did called We Sold Our Souls for Rock’n Roll, when I did that movie with Sharon and Ozzy, it was right after that that she came up with The Osbournes. Because she saw how he is (on camera) and he’s truly funny. And the rest of their family is too. That’s when she came up with the idea for The Osbournes was when she saw We Sold Our Souls for Rock’n Roll. And right after I did The Metal Years movie I knew that Ozzy was hilarious and so I tried to do a comedy with him, it was called ‘Shooting Stars’, and I couldn’t get it financed because all the people that had the money to make the movie said, “Are you crazy, Penelope, this guy bites the heads off of bats – he’s not funny.” And I said, “No. No. It was a dove. And he is funny.”

Cyclic: Yeah, I feel like with a lot of those guys in Part II, I mean, they must have seen Spinal Tap, right? Or clearly they hadn’t seen Spinal Tap more to the point. The stuff that they do and say is just amazing to me.

Penelope: Well it is amazing, you know, but back then, honestly, it was totally normal.

Cyclic: As in, within that scene?

Penelope: Yeah, yeah, in that scene. When I think about Randy ‘O’ in Odin with his butt-less chaps, you know, the chaps with no fabric on his butt? Okay, yeah, that was a little bit outrageous back then. But for the most part it was, like, just go for it, be as crazy as you can be. It was like Caligula back then.

Cyclic: Do you ever hear from Randy?

Penelope: No. No I don’t. He kind of lays low. I think it was hard for him, you know, to look at the film as the years passed by and he did not make it. That’s what I’ve heard. And one of the guys in Odin, Aaron Samson, did a panel with us at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art – can you believe it, they showed the films there? – but Aaron said that when he dies he’s pretty sure that it’s going to say on his tombstone ‘Odin! ‘Odin! ‘Odin!’ because he can’t get away from it.

Cyclic: Yeah, I can see that being a bit of a bummer.

Penelope: It’s a curse!

Cyclic: Are you all that engaged with music today? Do you still find yourself keeping your eye in, or have you checked out of the music scene these days?

Penelope: I’ll be honest with you, it seems so diffused, you know, there’s no focus to it. I am always attracted to something new and different and culturally earth-shaking, okay, and I haven’t heard that lately. There’s a guy I really like called Willis Earl Beal, who lives up in Portland now. Kind of a… actually he was on the American X Factor and he quit. That’s how cool he is. That guy’s awesome. But for me, really, I very seldom hear anything now where I go, “Okay, that’s different, I’ve never heard that before, I’ve never seen that before.” And it’s kind of sad, you know.

Cyclic: Yeah, that’s another thing I was thinking, the sub-cultures in these three films, with the ’80s punks, and the hair metal, and the gutter punk thing, they’re such singular styles and scenes, and it seems like the trend today is for everyone to be into a bit of everything.

Penelope: That’s right. It’s very homogenised and ultimately kind of boring because it’s not new, you know, and I don’t get engaged unfortunately any more. If I want to really hear some music I’ll listen to some Willis, or I’ll listen to some zen meditation music, because I don’t think contemporary music has anything that I’m interested in, you know.

Cyclic: Yeah, that’s a shame.

Penelope: It is a shame. And I keep looking too. It’s not like I gave up and I don’t look, I try to find it, but I don’t find it.

And at that, Spheeris had to head further on down the publicity trail. And while they may not be new, there is certainly nothing out there quite like the Decline of Western Civilisation trilogy. Do yourself a favour and go see them.

The Decline of Western Civilisation, The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years and The Decline of Western Civilisation: Part III are showing at ACMI from the 5th to the 13th of March.

You can find our review of the Trilogy from it’s recent release on Via Vision here.

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