Coloring Outside the Lines: a punk rock memoir
Aimee Cooper, 132pp, published by Rowdy’s Press
Back in January or February, author Aimee Cooper sent me an email, asking if I’d like to review her self-published book, Coloring Outside the Lines, apparently in response to a dual review of Please Kill Me and American Hardcore I’d posted under the title “I’m so bored with punk history”. I concluded that blog entry with the bon mot, “Next time you see me picking up a copy of ‘Midwest Punk Rock Archaeology Review’, please kill me.” I was understandably reluctant, then, to take a look at Ms. Cooper’s book.
I needn’t have worried. Ms. Cooper’s book is a non-fiction memoir of her days working as the first receptionist for Slash records and as the accidental house-holder for a tribe of punk kids circa 1979-1981 in Los Angeles. These kids were seen onscreen in a fairly fictionalized presentation, Penelope Spheeris’ second film, Suburbia.
Despite the obvious romanticization of the people and lifestyle seen in the film, for many years, Suburbia was the best fictional American film about punks. It may still be, but the film’s flaws grated on me even then, and I have long wondered about both the real kids in the film and the story of how it came to be.
Ms. Cooper’s book provides part of the answer to these questions, as the kids in the film were both played by and based on her peers. The kids referred to themselves as The Connected, or TC, in an early echo of what would come to be the gang-like ethos of certain later LA punk bands and fans. Reflecting the differences in the development of punk in America during the 1980’s, the majority of the kids in TC were teenagers with home and discipline problems.
They tended to be younger and less experienced and educated than the older LA punks, again, a pattern seen in New York and elsewhere. When I was a kid, it was a distinction drawn between the “artpunks” and the “fuzzies,” so named after the first super-short haircut many younger punks would get as they sought entry into the scene.
As an adult, I think it’s also somewhat reflective of class distinctions: the fuzzies, who later became the basis of the hardcore period in American punk, tended to be from both more working-class and more mainstream family backgrounds. Instead of artist or academic parents, their families worked blue-collar jobs, or if their parents were well off, the adults in the family were professionals, doctors and lawyers.
Ms. Cooper reflects the transitional period, in that she was older than her peers in TC, having graduated from UC Santa Cruz before moving to LA. This helped her to convince the Slash people to invent the job she took, but as she recounts, she was to remain an outsider at the record company.
Over time, she found herself becoming friends with a number of younger punk kids, who eventually moved in with her and her roommate, founding a communal living space that is clearly recognizable as the classic “punkhouse,” where all is in common, even the giant resulting mess.
As the unstable living situation produces various escalating misadventures, Cooper’s narrative is focused ever more closely on her relationship with a young woman named Maggie, who appeared in an illustration on the cover of LA Weekly in 1980. That source may have helped to inspire Jaime Hernandez and his character of the same name. I was not able to confirm this, however.
As the story moves along, Maggie and the young Cooper have a falling out that leads Cooper to withdraw, disillusioned, from the whole punk lifestyle and scene. According to her, she was unaware of the next few years’ development of the national punk scene, as she was traveling in Europe, and really only learned about it on beginning the publishing process for the book itself.
I found this book to be very enjoyable and quite well written. A memoir, it’s loosely structured, but the simple narrative thread that underlies it, the hoary device of a coming-of-age-tale, served it well. When the plot focused on the development and loss of the bond between Cooper and her friend, I literally thought to myself, “This would make a great movie.”
Ms. Cooper confirmed to me in an email that the subject’s come up. I had hoped to place this review in a publication more appropriate than the blog, but having heard nothing in response to some queries, I felt I should simply go with it. Ms. Cooper expressed interest in another interview, and I may do that here as well.
This book was the opposite of Blush’s American Hardcore; it has only a minimal interest in scene politics and the name-dropping that unfortunately accompanies any creatively-based cultural endeavor. For me, that made the book intrinsically worthwhile. That’s not to say that Ms. Cooper does not provide anecdotes of some luminaries of the LA punk scene. There are several stories set in the Slash offices featuring Slash honcho Bob Biggs, his wife Penelope Spheeris, X leaders Exene Cervenka and John Doe, and a dinner hosted for the band Black Flag by Ms. Cooper and her roommate.
Johnny Thunders brackets the book, as well. He inspires Cooper’s interest in punk, and she meets him again as his junkie slip had gathered fatal momentum.
However, her attitude to these stories is detached and disillusioned: she kills her idols, indeed. The only thing more punk rock is self-publishing your own book about it, and I’m happy to recommend it to your attention. Any punk or person interested in the history of the subculture should find the book interesting; however, if your interest in punk is primarily and specifically musical, well, fuck off.
Coloring Outside the Lines website
P.O. Box 847
Elgin, Texas 78621
Here’s a couple more links about it: an interview with the author by No Front Teeth, a UK zine; a review by loserjames.
I saw a couple copies on the shelf at the new Confounded Books location on Pike.