I met Larry Livermore through Mike Berdan in Brooklyn right before I moved to the MRR HQ to be the distribution coordinator. It was one of those, “Oh, you have to meet Larry”-type meetings. He had some funny stories about what it was like living in the old MRR HQ with Tim Yo and was definitely a wealth of history for early Bay Area punk. Whatever your opinion of Larry is, from Lookout Records to his involvement with MRR and Punk Planet magazines, few of us can touch the volume that he has contributed to punk over the years. And after 30-plus years, he’s still at it. Here’s Larry Livermore…
Would you consider yourself infamous?
Is that better or worse than being famous? I don’t even know anymore. I think it depends on who you ask.
What were you doing before punk? I want to see those hippie pictures…
Well, I was always involved in some subculture or another. First I was a greaser and a teenage hooligan, and then, after narrowly escaping prison a couple of times, decided to become a peace-and-love hippie and take a lot of drugs, and then later a glam rocker. But at least in the early days of hippie, before the hairdos and the beards and the self-absorbed delusions got out of hand, there wasn’t as much difference as you’d think between us and the punks of a couple generations later. We were scruffy squatters getting by any way we could and trying to destroy society. Sound familiar?
Where’d the name Livermore come from?
From a mediocre — okay, bad — pulp novel I wrote in 1979 about a nuclear accident at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. People who’d read the manuscript (it was never published, so don’t bother looking) started calling me Lawrence de Livermore (my birth name is Lawrence) to make fun of me, and later, when I needed a pseudonym because so many people were mad at me about Lookout magazine, I turned it into Lawrence D. Livermore. Dropped the D after a while, and then at Gilman, Jesse Michaels and some of the other smart alecs started calling me Larry instead of Lawrence, thinking it would wind me up. Well, the joke was on them, because I’ve been Larry Livermore ever since.
You’ve done a lot in punk — why do you think you have accomplished so much and still continue to do so? Is it a DIY attitude? Perseverance? How have you stayed active for so long?
Done a lot? Maybe. Accomplished a lot? It’s probably too soon to tell. DIY? Well, it was never a religion or an ideology with me, just the way it was. My friends and I were weird enough that no one was going to do stuff for us, so basically if we didn’t do it ourselves it didn’t get done. And how have I stayed active? What else am I gonna do? There’s never anything good on TV.
Tell us about Lookout magazine.
Lookout magazine started as sort of a community newsletter when I lived in the mountains of Northern California. But it turned out that the community didn’t appreciate having a newsletter, especially since I wrote pretty openly about the marijuana cultivation that was at the heart of the local culture and economy. So after a group of angry hippies threatened to burn my house down if I didn’t stop writing about stuff like that, I switched my focus more to music and punk rock, which resulted in my finding a whole new audience in the Bay Area and other urban centers, especially among MRR readers. Learning how to make and distribute a xeroxed zine (I later switched into a newsprint format, thanks to some help and advice from Tim Yohannan) helped me learn the skills I would need when Lookout evolved into a record label.
What was zine culture like back then and print media? How was it used in punk?
As you can probably imagine, it was much, much bigger in those pre-internet days. It was the main way word got out about bands and records and shows and venues. Because of that, there was a huge variety of zines. Some, like MRR and Flipside, tried to cover the whole spectrum of punk-related activities, while others specialized in certain aspects of punk culture, and still others were strictly personal, focusing on the individual writer or writers’ experiences, feelings, and ideas. It was a rich and creative time for that sort of publishing, because for a brief time we had the advantages of new technology like cheap xeroxing and photo reproduction without the competition that would come a few years later from the internet.
What do you think of the shift from print media to internet culture?
I often joke about the MRR letters column being the internet message board of the ’80s and early ’90s because of all the arguments that would rage back and forth there. Lookout magazine’s letters column was much the same way. The difference was that while now you can post a snappy comeback in a matter of seconds, back then it would be a month or two between replies. That gave people more time to think about what they were saying, and also made it less likely that the argument would descend into the mindless hate-spewing that characterizes so many internet disputes.
That being said, I’m not at all anti-internet, even though it can be a bit mind-boggling how rapidly everything has changed since the mid-’90s. I think it must be a little bit like the transformation that happened 500 years earlier, when the printing press came into widespread use and made reading and publishing accessible to the masses instead of being confined to the elite. Then, just as now, people were soon complaining that printing lacked the soul and substance of hand-lettered books, and how it was now possible for any old schmuck to publish any old garbage. But on balance, I think most people would agree that printing turned out to be a good thing for people and civilization, and I believe history will render a similar verdict on the internet. As a person of a certain age, of course, I’ll always be a bit nostalgic about the era of the printed book and zine. But time moves on, and we have to, too, unless we want to get run over by it.
Tell us about Lookout Records. Why start a label?
My typical answer is that everything on the radio and on the commercial music scene was so awful that I realized if I ever wanted to have any decent records, I’d have to make them myself. That’s still basically true, but probably at least as important was the sense that something amazing was happening in the East Bay and at Gilman Street and that someone needed to document it. Having learned through Lookout magazine that it was possible for even a doofus like myself, using easily available and affordable technology, to reach thousands of people all over the country and the planet, it seemed like a logical next step to move from print into music.
What was it like getting sleeves made and pressing records back then in the Bay? Were you able to keep it local?
We had to get our records pressed at an outfit called Alberti, in Southern California. It was an independent, family-run company that the majority of the West Coast punks used in those days. The people who ran it were into the art and science of making quality vinyl; they weren’t just commercial hacks. Sadly, they’re no longer around. Our LP jackets — also following the lead of other local punk labels like Mordam and Alternative Tentacles — were printed by a company called Ross-Ellis, in Canada, who I believe are still in business today. When it came to 7” sleeves, those were mostly done at my favorite 24-hour copy shop just off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where I had a hook-up with the manager, and where I also ran off thousands of copies of Lookout magazine before it went newsprint. Most of our other printing — things like catalogs and LP inserts, lyric sheets, stuff like that, was done locally.
How do you think you contributed to that specific scene in the Bay? It’s pretty crazy that so many of those bands went on to become as big as they did.
That’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question. There’s no way Lookout would have become so successful without the incredibly vibrant and thriving culture that sprung up around Gilman, but I think it’s safe to say that we also, whether for better or worse, helped bring Gilman and the bands that came out of there, to the attention of a much wider audience.
There’s a book called Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America, by Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, which I’ve often cited as a partial explanation for what happened at Gilman. The book theorizes that for marginalized cultures to thrive and develop, people need a place where they can gather and work undisturbed and unobserved by the prying eyes and manipulating fingers of the dominant culture.
Gilman was just such a place: pretty much anyone could come there, start a band or an art project of some sort, and find, if not a receptive, at least a supportive audience. But for at least the first couple years, almost no one knew about it except for other punks, artists, and weirdos. Because we had that little mini-world to operate in, we could develop our own ideas and expression without giving much thought to what the outside world might think or not think about us.
You were involved with the early days of 924 Gilman?
Yes, pretty much from the start, though I’d have to point out that we never called it “924 Gilman.” It was the Gilman Street Project at first (I still have the original t-shirt), then “Gilman Street,” then ultimately just plain “Gilman.” The “924 Gilman” name came into use after Tim ended Maximum Rocknroll’s involvement with the club and a new group of people took it over.
How’d you get involved with MRR?
I’d been listening to MRR Radio since the late ’70s, and reading the magazine since it started publishing in 1982, and I’d submitted a couple things about my band and my zine. But I didn’t meet Tim until January of 1986, when Aaron Cometbus introduced me to him at a show at New Method in Emeryville (YOUTH OF TODAY and VIOLENT COERCION, in case you’re wondering). Tim and I hit it off pretty well, both of us being veterans of the 60s scene, and I did a couple more articles and interviews for the magazine (one memorable one with ISOCRACY, for example) before Tim asked me to do a regular column starting in the spring of 1987. The following year I moved into the MRR house on Clipper Street, but that only lasted a few months.
What did you cover in your column?
My MRR column was like a miniature version of Lookout magazine, which meant that I wrote about anything and everything. I was pretty big (and still am) on environmental causes, which Tim was not so keen on (“It’s just a bunch of yuppies who don’t want their views spoiled,” he once said), but I also wrote about mainstream and punk politics, gender and sexuality issues, the never-ending debate about what was or wasn’t “punk,” DIY vs. commercial ethics, violence at punk shows, basically whatever came to mind at any given moment.