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Reliving the Radical ’80s

Interview by Adam Johnson Dec 16

Steven Wishnia is a writer, a musician and a man of many dimensions. In the summer of 1980 he helped to found the leftist punk band False Prophets, which went on to release two albums as parts of the counterculture lashed out against the right-wing resurgence in Reagan-era America. Since then, Wishnia, 58, has become a journalist specializing in housing, labor and drug issues, a longtime Indypendent writer and, yes — a late-middle-aged leftie hit hard by the Great Recession. 

In the fall of 2012 he published When the Drumming Stops (Manic D. Press), a fictional account of a punk band called the Gutter Astronomers, their navigation of the 1980s rock scene and their short reunion tour in the 2000s. Reminiscent of but far from identical to the real story of the False Prophets, the novel follows the band from their semi-glory days in the 1980s to the first decade of the 21st century — when they get hit hard by gentrification, cultural irrelevance, the economic fallout of the Great Recession and, most of all, the unavoidable passage of time. 

Adam Johnson: Prior to publishing When the Drumming Stops, you worked as a writer and editor for many publications. What motivated you to write a work of fiction? 

Steven Wishnia: Sometimes you can tell a deeper truth by making stuff up. In journalism and other nonfiction you can only go so far, because you can’t really get into the heads of those you are writing about. You can only go off what they tell you and in memoir you have to stick to reality. So, fiction was just the best vehicle for getting inside these characters’ heads and conveying things that are connected to reality but not restricted by it. 

Also, most music writing, either fiction or nonfiction, is basically celebrity journalism. I wanted to tell a story about people who were talented, but didn’t get big — and what happens when they get older and are still trying to hold on to their souls.

AJ: So, what connection does the fictional reunion of the Gutter Astronomers have to the actual reunion of your old band, the False Prophets, in 2006?

SW: I never stopped playing music, and the experiences I’ve had doing that colored the story. But I actually started writing the book a year before the False Prophets did the reunion gig at CBGB. So it was more like life imitating art than me writing about my experiences. Plus, the False Prophets reunion was a lot more acrimonious. 

AJ: You were active in cultural and political scenes through the Reagan and Bush Jr. administrations and draw parallels between the two in your book. What similarities did you find to be the most striking?

SW: Reagan really turned the country around for the worse. He tore up the New Deal social contract — the idea that working people had the right to make a decent living — and replaced it with this free-market fundamentalism. We’re still paying for that now.

The late 1970s were a little chaotic, the crime was high and it was pretty hard to find a job, but things were cheap. We thought $300 for rent was a ripoff! When Reagan came in, conditions got much harsher. You hardly ever saw homeless people in the street before 1981 and then all of a sudden they were all over. We in the hardcore punk scene were really pissed off about all that, but we weren’t really connected to any political organization back then. We just fucking screamed.

What’s happened in recent years is a more extreme version of what happened under Reagan, because you’ve had 30 years of erosion of people’s ability to make a decent living and have a little freedom to play. I don’t envy people in their twenties. 

AJ: How did this recession change your life?

SW: I got laid off just before it began and have been freelancing ever since. I’ve been working since I was 16, and this is the worst economy I’ve ever seen. I know people who lost their jobs even after being there for 25 years, who lost their savings, who are now broke. 

The early 1980s were bad, but back then I was a college graduate who couldn’t type and was mainly committed to playing in a punk band, so I wasn’t exactly great material. Now, I’m older, I’m experienced and I’ve got a lot of skills and credentials, and I’m still fucked. I don’t think I know anyone over 45 who’s lost their job and gotten back anything more than temp or part-time work or freelance gigs. And nobody in the political mainstream is remotely addressing that.

AJ: What was the research process for writing the book like? 

SW: A lot of it was from this combination of memory and fascination. The geographic details were from walking around the city. There is a scene when the character Tina is coming back from taking her kids to visit their aunt in Jackson Heights and there are Mexican boys in Nirvana T-shirts in the street — that’s just from walking around and observing. I’d go to DIY shows in Bushwick where I would be the only person over 35; I would just watch the band and the crowd and take notes. Some of the landlord names are Yiddish insults. Once I was on the subway and saw someone reading a book on Islam that said “jaharram” means “unclean,” and I thought, ‘That would be a great name for a Muslim death-metal band.’ So I e-mailed a friend, a former Indypendent photographer who had been in Afghanistan, and asked her what would be a good name for an Afghan lead singer. Stuff like that.

AJ: Looking back, what was most frustrating about the hardcore music scene?

SW: I had a lot of problems with the hardcore punk subculture. It turned into a very narrow scene emotionally and musically. Much of the crowd was this weird mix of extremely politically correct leftists and thuggish right-wing skinheads. And the music was a lot more formulaic than what came out of the broader punk scene. There wasn’t a single song that was as good as “Rockaway Beach.” I was really frustrated when the False Prophets got stuck in that box, because we never really fit into it, but we could never really get out of that category.

But in the early 1980s, it was the only subculture that was saying, “Fuck you, Ronald Reagan, and the horseshit you rode in on.” And there were some really good bands with a lot of energy and intensity. I’m proud of that.