Category Archives: Punk Rock

The Art of Doing It Yourself

This is a mini-doc from KQED about my book release party. I wrote a book that was designed to “save” the Chez Poulet (my old warehouse needed $200K to satisfy a loan)  from the predatory mortgage I signed on to (I had no choice). The 13 minute video is super well done, watch it!


So my dear friend Kate wanted to do an interview with me. For her podcast, or something. I said yes, of course. Happy to help. I thought she was going to talk to me about Bernie or Libertarian stuff, because it was September and the election was coming up. We started the interview, and she started asking questions about my books and about the magic of show and I have to admit: I was rusty! Years of toil and diapers and infrastructure, I haven’t spent much time on the intellectual side of town… I did the best I could.

But I finally asked her, what is it that she is looking for? Context! Turns out she is doing a podcast on toxic masculinity and since I’m a paradox (I’m a manly man welder/fabricator who can survive the apocalypse with 16” of twine but also a Buddist-adjacent pacifist prankster who is into elves), and wants to know how much macho bullshit was there in the punk scene in the 80’s. Now we have something I can help with… as I was explaining to her the ethos that we made up as we went along which spilled onto a world stage, she was perplexed. “What do you mean by that?” she said. “Do I know about this ethos you are talking about?” It’s funny that so much time has gone by that people don’t connect the DIY movement with punk. But they are one and the same…

When people on the outside look into our community, they see something we don’t: they see DIY. It’s just our normal. We eat roadkill, keep chickens, repair our cars, build our houses, defend ourselves in court, homeschool our kids and make our cars run on wood. We make our own booze, hats, shoes, clothes, jewelry and grow some kind bud. All this is normal to us. We are makers. Doers. We do it ourselves. DIY. Not all DIY is punk, but the entire punk movement was DIY. And put DIY on the map. The punks had their own venues, their own zines, their own labels and their own bookstores. The DIY movement and the punk movement are kind of inseparable. No matter what kind of music you like. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s not some corporate bubblegum crap: it’s punk rock. Moldy Peaches? Punk Rock. Johnny Cash? Punk Rock. Joey Bada$$? Punk Rock. Tom Lehrer? Punk Fucking Rock (look him up!). 

I explained to Kate that I was proud of the DIY thing. That it wasn’t just a phase. That we are here, still doing it ourselves. All of it. Any of it. As much of it as we can. The artist Swoon, myself and 40 others collaborated on the Swimming Cities project: DIY boats handmade from trash, a floating stage for a confusing show. The boats ended up in a museum show. And somehow this quote ended up on a plaque in that museum:

I admit it: getting published by a reputable publisher was attractive to me. That I could say that Simon and Schuster published my book would give me a certain “I made it” credit. Of course, I haven’t made it. I know I haven’t made it. But I admit that there was a gravity to that. That they would send me on a book tour, and I’d be part of their catalogue and my book would be in every bookstore in the country… that’s appealing. And that they would pay me. They give a big advance, right? $100,000 or something? 

Wrong-o. If you are a new writer you can’t get published by a big name publisher unless you have an agent. And if you send your stuff to an agent, guess what they say? “Well, there is some good stuff in here. You’re going to have to edit it for a wider appeal to get a deal. I can help you do that, but you’d have to pay me for consulting…” it’s a pay-to-play real estate scam. The real estate, in this case, is the space your book takes up in the bookstores and the catalog of the “legit” publisher. You pay the agent, hoping to get published but you never do. And if by some miracle you do, they only give tiny advances. Like $5,000. And you sign away basically everything. So like after you sell 10,000 copies of a book, the publisher breaks even, then you get $.30 cents a book. 35,000 books sold is a “best seller,” so you can make a whopping $7,500. Along with your $5,000 advance, you just made $12,500 for your life’s work IF it becomes a best seller. This is what happens when “they have the ball.”

I self-published my book. I made 2,500 copies. They cost like $8 each to print, incurring all costs (printing, proofreading, layout, design, photographers, slip cases, taxes, etc…). I had 72 artists do a hand-made slip case adorned with art (painted, metal fab, collage, etc…) that I sold, with a book, for $250 each.

Swoon made me 400 slip cases with art on them signed and numbered, sold those for $250 each.

I put a coupon in each book at the back, good for one Anything.

Sold those for $100.

Sold just the book with the coupon ripped out for $40. 

So it was $18,000 for the fancy covers, $35,000 for the Swoon ones, $45,000 for the $100 ones, $48,000 for the $40 ones… total: $140,000.

I still have like 50 of those books left, PayPal Chickenjohn@chickenjohn.com $40 if you want one.

That money floated the Chez from being a place where people lived, to a venue where people just made art and did shows. And until I got a better loan, that made sense. When I did get a better loan, the Chez had seven amazing years of thousands of shows from weddings to drawing nights to porn shoots, dinners, movie screenings and everything else. I sold the building in 2018 after the city denied me the permits I would need to operate legally (and get insurance). But without that book money I would have been forced to sell in 2011, at the bottom of the market. And we would have missed those seven years and over 1,800 shows… 

If you watch the video at the top of this post, you will see what the filmmakers saw when they looked in to where we are: they see the DIY. The title for the mini-doc wasn’t determined ahead of time. It was coined after they made the film. Because that’s what they see. That we do it all ourselves. It’s what Kate sees when she looks into our world. She sees the tools and the mess and how effective we are. The dark side is that usually when you deal with professional services, they lord over any information or skills they have. The DIY people are opposite of that. They are giving free workshops and making YouTube videos of how to hack your cars computer to get it to burn vegetable oil instead of diesel or how to make a composting toilet or winning the X prize. This is kinda important. Not getting caught in the “lording over the information” trap is imperative if you want to replicate and make other people into makers. It’s kind of an unspoken moral code of our secret club that isn’t a secret. Anymore.

So when you are doing something yourself, whatever it is, you aren’t alone. You are part of a group of persons who are shirking their duty as slaves of consumer culture. Free thinkers who subvert the dominant paradigm by doing things outside of commerce and solving problems using time and “gumption” instead of money. I say it is an art. Or at least an opportunity to weave art into all that we do… 

“Finally, if you’re as exasperated as I am by the parts problem and have some money to invest, you can take up the really fascinating hobby of machining your own parts. […] With the welding equipment you can build up worn surfaces with better than original metal and then machine it back to tolerance with carbide tools. […] If you can’t do the job directly you can always make something that will do it. The work of machining a part is very slow, and some parts, such as ball bearings, you’re never going to machine, but you’d be amazed at how you can modify parts designs so that you can make them with your equipment, and the work isn’t nearly a slow or frustrating as a wait for some smirking parts man to send away to the factory. And the work is gumption building, not gumption destroying. To run a cycle with parts in it you’ve made yourself gives you a special feeling you can’t possibly get from strictly store-bought parts.” 

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Did you know I was in a New Wave band that played punk rock called Sissy?

Well, I have put the songs on Bandcamp for you to enjoy for free (or purchase, if you are so inclined). I wrote a little thing here to give you some context:

It was the 80’s. There was a lot of cocaine, sure. There was a lot of hairspray. Yes. Chuck had played in like hundreds of bands as a hired gun. He was way better than 100% of the other people he played with. He thought that would matter. But he wanted to play. And his definition of success changed over time. I had been telling him for years that if we put something together and tour it for a few years something would happen. But if we waited for someone else’s something to happen, we would wait forever. I had been using his studio for years to record songs just for fun and put a demo together for a band I called Nerve. This would be 1989 or so. I made 20 tapes. A guy from Atlantic who repped three bands that owed me money for moving equipment for them promised to listen to it. He called me and said he wanted to meet the band. So me and Chuck went to meet him. He asked where the singer was, we were dumbfounded. He thought the singer was a girl. Told us to change the name of the band to Sissy. 

We were entrenched in the New York music scene. Chuck owned two studios. I owned a cartage (moving) company. A year went by. Then another. We worked like dogs. Pushing huge piles of money around, never being able to keep any of it. In 1992 I booked a summer tour with Letch Patrol. Halfway through the tour Chuck woke up one day and told me to cut his hair. This would mean that he would never again get hired by a metal band to play drums. And that was kinda that day that we knew that after that tour we would leave NYC. All totally unspoken. A scissor. A look. A resolve. 

We wrote songs instantly. As if picking up laundry. Or walking a dog. We never thought about the content or the skill required to implement the content. The weakest part of the band was my voice, but three female singers made it all work. We wrote me out of a few songs, even. But never recorded them. The content on Ridin’ The Old Wave is pieced together from demos, and some of it is re-recorded and it’s disappointing that it’s not better, but I feel lucky any of it is here, it was gone so fast. 

We packed up our things and sold our businesses in a relatively short time. A few months. Moved to San Francisco. I started booking the first Sissy tour. We found a rehearsal space and I would play there, alone, late into the night working on my singing. There would be another guy there playing drums until 2 or 3 in the morning. Boz. One night I walked around and found his studio and asked him to join Sissy, without ever meeting him or seeing what he looked like. Just talking to him through the door. “Hey! Are you in a band? I have a tape, open the door!” He couldn’t hear me. I would later find out that Boz is the kid brother of one of Chuck’s childhood friends. How is that possible? 

Chuck died of a drug overdose a few weeks after we settled in SF. I never really recovered from that. The pall that came that day never really went away. I never really played music again, although I tried. I have lost the ability to write songs, which is alarming. Weird thing, that. I still can’t believe he is gone. That it’s been 27 years. That he has been gone as long as he was alive. 

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I play these songs on acoustic guitars around fires on camping trips. Maybe you’ve heard one. King of the Highway is Alice’s favorite. Listen to that song and imagine driving a 26’ truck in the rain overnight. Stay awake! Fall asleep… hit the jersey barrier… refrain, chorus, end… True song!

Well, I hope you enjoy the music.

Photos/videos of Sissy can be found on my Flickr page.

Bandcamp Link