“Your spit is greatly appreciated”
To a certain extent The Decline of Western Civilization Part III could have been titled The New Western Civilization. The first two films in Penelope Spheeris‘ trilogy showed us the music that was changing American youth culture as well as the people performing it and listening to it. This entry is different, though, as the music and bands take a backseat to the story of a disenfranchised and abused generation with nowhere to go. It’s no longer about the music being an outlet from the chaos because that chaos has become all these kids have. They are angry, depressed, and violent because they need to be in order to survive the streets. They’ve formed a new family with each other, one with a short, tragic shelf life.
Two of the four bands (Final Conflict and Litmus Green) shown in concert are barely mentioned besides on-stage footage going wild as mosh pits turn into a whirlpool of arms and legs. Naked Aggression is allowed room to showcase their heavily political lyrics and proficient musicianship, The Resistance garnering even more time as the only band consisting of actual gutter punks. The former’s members have day jobs and understand industry climate, reconciling what it is to be successful and toe the line separating credibility from sell-out disrespect. The latter squats in vacant homes or sleeps on the pavement, practicing when they can at a member’s hoarder mom’s house. Punk music has obviously gotten meaner and more politically charged, but it hasn’t changed as much as the audience.
Spheeris realizes they’re the real story—the homeless masses panhandling for alcohol money and scamming for club tickets. Her previous films never showed these unknown characters outside of a stripped-down room with one light bulb in frame. She instead followed the musicians to their homes, figuring out why they did what they did and how success had ruined or enhanced their art. Part III is almost two decades later with its subjects having been born around the year Part I released. These are the children of that generation, relegated to squats and alleys as society ignores them or worse. Spheeris captures these kids’ cynicism, pain, and fear—the latter not necessarily vocalized, but definitely on display via body language. Punk has surpassed escape to become life itself.
Music is just one form of the aesthetic: a culmination of the rage and abuse felt from way too young an age. The stories hit hard whether “Hamburger” explaining almost drowning in the toilet bowl the first time he got drunk because his father and uncle were pouring alcohol down his three-year old throat or Darius sharing the events leading to the car crash that left him paralyzed. These kids aren’t dressing up for shows, the piercings and tattoos and studded jackets have become a second skin never removed with months passing between showers. They admit stealing from stores and people, Spheeris films them comically harassing strangers for loose change, and we witness the squalor surrounding daily lives that begin and end with a swig of beer.
And they candidly tell their stories with a hardened ambivalence—some cherishing the life as a badge of honor. Others admit they’ll one day look for a job or take one if it finds them, but right now life is the struggle. They were beat-up at home, abused today by Neo-Nazis and SHARPs, and somehow find a way to dismiss the scars and bruises as the cost of existing. Watching them is seeing a city that’s given up with an LAPD officer talking about them as scum who want attention rather than lost children who’ve never felt safe. They’ve been left to fend for themselves and they do with many dying before thirty if they’re lucky. Two don’t even make it long enough to watch the finished film.
Keith Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks fame, Rick Wilder of The Mau-Maus, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers are given time to explain how 90s punks have it much rougher than they did. The world changed around them with over-population and social homogenization. These kids didn’t fall through the cracks; they were pushed out of windows and in some respects turned out pretty good as a result. Each one speaks warmly to Spheeris, some with hope and some humor. They’ve accepted who they are as well as their inevitable fates. They help each other, have fun when they can, and find reasons to smile through broken jaws and black eyes. The music created a people and those people built a community.