One of the more surprising pleasures in the documentary Somewhere to Go: Victoria Punk comes when Dayglo Abortions frontman Murray "the Cretin" Acton is interviewed.
An outsider to the band might expect the Cretin—author of trenchant social commentaries like "Fuck My Shit Stinks"—to be, oh I dunno, crass, caustic, and confrontational, perhaps along the lines of legendary, feces-smeared shock rocker GG Allin. Yet as interviewed by B.C. documentarian Paulina Ortlieb, Acton presents as an articulate, soft-spoken, Zappa-worshipping thinker. It's enough so to provoke a bit of a guilty double take: Jeez, Murray, we hardly knew ye.
It's not the first time someone has commented on this to Ortlieb, it turns out.
"I've heard that really often, after people see the film: 'Wow, I'm surprised how smart Murray comes across as being,'" she says, laughing. But "you talk to Murray, and he exudes intelligence," she tells the Straight, on the phone from Vancouver Island.
"There's no trying to bring that out of him, he just exudes it. He was telling me how he worked for the Department of National Defense. He's like a computer wizard, he's very philosophical, and he knows about all sorts of social and political issues. He's extremely well informed, extremely articulate."
The Dayglos loom large enough in the film that Ortlieb chose the Roxy Theatre in Victoria for its premiere, back in March, since it was the site of an "infamous" 1987 Dayglo Abortons gig, where "things got really chaotic," she explains.
"Someone set off the fire extinguishers, apparently acting on Murray's suggestion, so there was foam everywhere, and cops were called in to shut down the show. Many people who were at the '87 show were also at the premiere, so it was a crazy flashback for them. Tim Crow, of Red Tide and Censored Chaos, said it felt like he'd snorted a bunch of deja vu that night!"
Impressive as he is, however, Acton is only one of a host of first-generation Victoria punks profiled in Somewhere to Go. The film also includes performance footage of, and interviews with, members of the Dishrags, Red Tide, the Neos, Mission of Christ, Infamous Scientists, Alcoholic White Trash, Show Business Giants, and, of course, recently retired Victoria legends Nomeansno, interviewed by Ortlieb before a 2012 gig in Tofino.
Nomeansno bassist-vocalist Rob Wright's stern, roaring stage presence has been known to scare off some interviewers. Was Ortlieb scared when he joined his brother for the interview?
"I get tongue-tied every time I'm around Rob," the director admits, "because Nomeansno are my favourite band of all time. I've had a longtime love affair with them, so meeting them, it was meeting my idols. So yeah, it was intimidating, but they knew how to do an interview, so I didn't have to say too much. And I may have had a couple of glasses of wine beforehand," she says, laughing. "I still kind of don't believe that they've retired—I feel like, 'Well, I'm going to see Nomeansno live again, I can't not!' I'm hoping that wasn't the last time I saw them. There's no show like it. They're top notch."
Other expected faces included in the film include Supreme Echo's Jason Flower, who, besides being a member of Mexican Power Authority and Third World Planet, co-authored the essential 2CD/ book document of Victoria independent music, All Your Ears Can Hear. There are also interviews with recording engineer-guitarist Scott Henderson, Rat's Nest proprietor Gary Brainless, and—maybe less expected—Black Mountain/Pink Mountaintops frontman Stephen McBean, who was a member of early 1980s island punk band Jerk Ward.
Ortlieb's film is well-done enough that you might be surprised to learn that she doesn't even count herself a member of the subculture she's documenting.
"I've never been an insider of the punk scene," she admits. "I enjoy it from the periphery, although I do have the attributes of a lot of punk rockers, maybe, in terms of having a DIY ethic and stuff like that." Her introduction to punk came through her big sister's boyfriend, she explains. "It was Tom Hooper, who is known for being in the Grapes of Wrath, but at the time he was in Gentlemen of Horror, and he had a punk zine in Kelowna," where Ortlieb, originally from Vancouver, then lived. "He would write about Victoria bands all the time. Through osmosis, I got to know a lot about punk music."
A musician, Ortlieb has also been in several bands connected to the Victoria scene, after she relocated there.
"My first band was with Mike Walker of the Resistance. It was a Celtic punk band called Big Whiskey. We recorded at the Rat's Nest, so I met Gary Brainless through him, and a bunch of other people on the punk scene. I also played in the Vinaigrettes, Carolyn Mark's band, replacing Scott Henderson, and through her and that band, I met Scott and more people involved in the punk scene: Tolan McNeil, Tom Holliston, Ford Pier, Joey Keithley... Then I also played in Budokan, with Craig Vishek of Pigment Vehicle, and Andrew Molloy, who plays in BUM, and John London, of Mission of Christ and Jerk Ward and some other punk bands from Victoria. So I was connected in a way. I knew a lot of punk rockers in Victoria before taking on the project."
The origins of the documentary date back some years, when Ortlieb was taking undergrad Russian Studies and Film Studies at UVic.
"I had made a few experimental films, and my brother in law was putting on a punk show, and he asked me if I would film it," she explains. "It was a memorial show for a punker who had passed on years earlier—a guy named Bubba, who was my friend, so of course I wanted to be at the show. Bubba was (current Dayglo's drummer) Blind Marc's half-brother, and he used to play in a band called Drunktank. Anyways, I went and filmed that show, and I was really struck by the diversity of ages and personalities of the people who were there. I started thinking about the longevity of the scene in Victoria, and how it continues to be vibrant after so many decades. I just happened to mention to the guy standing beside me, 'Wow, somebody really needs to make a documentary of punk in Victoria.' And that was years before I even started. Of course, I didn't think I would be the one taking on that project!"
Later, when Ortlieb was doing her Masters, also at UVIC, she "had to do a video profile on someone or something. I chose Gary Brainless. I filmed him doing everyday stuff, playing the drums, taking his dog to the park, making dinner. I made it into a short story, and showed it to the class, and they loved it. For my next project, I took some of that footage and made a mini-documentary on the punk scene in Victoria. I also interviewed Andy Kerr on Skype, and Scott Henderson, and Mike Walker. The class really liked it, and encouraged me to develop it into my thesis. Somewhere to Go was a component of my thesis, which was entitiled The Importance of Counter-Culture in Art and Life. So that's where it all began. The film wasn't really intended to be a definitive document of all the punk bands that existed, it was more using punk in Victoria to explore more universal themes of rebellion, self-expression, identity, art, culture, community, and the role music plays in all of those things."
Fair enough—though a couple of absences do stand out. Both Pink Steel and House of Commons, in particular, get namechecked and shown in stills, but there are no interviews or live footage of either band.
"I know, I know," the director says. "I would love to have more of Pink Steel, I would have loved to have more of House of Commons, I would have loved to have more of actually a lot of bands—Distortion, Nevar, Noise Generation, Twisted Minds... But I often lacked supporting material, or I got it too late, when I was already finished, or I couldn't get the contacts for the interviews. I tried for about five years to get footage of Mexican Power Authority, and then I finally got it, but I had already finished the film! And the same kind of thing happened with other bands, too. It wasn't for lack of trying, and it wasn't a conscious decision. 'I'm not going to focus on this band at all.' It was just kind of what ended up coming my way and what was available."
Wanting there to be "at least a reference" to bands of import, Ortlieb does include some audio, when no video was available. Attentive listeners will catch snatches of Pink Steel's "Here We Go Again" and House of Commons' "1999", for example ("I love that song," Ortlieb notes). And people who arrive early enough at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (April 14) for the film's Vancouver debut will be able to catch Pink Steel/Wardells frontman Pete Campbell, who will be working up some Pink Steel for a brief performance, alongside his current unit, Coach StrobCam. He will be joined by fellow Vancouver Island alum and 64 Funnycars/China Syndrome frontman Tim Chan. Their set begins at about 9:40.
As for the film, it sounds like there's a lot of potential for an extra-rich DVD, maybe including some of the footage that came too late, and some of the outtakes with Murray Acton (which are apparently plentiful and fascinating). But that's still in the future, Ortlieb explains.
"That'll be after the film festivals run their course. I'm hoping to get into the Calgary International Film Festival and a few others, so I'm going to see how that goes. But I would imagine this time next year there will be a DVD release!"
Somewhere to Go screens at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (April 14) with the director in attendance, and a live set from Coach StrobCam beginning at 9:40 p.m.