Bored in Pittsburgh: The Obscure Film That Immortalized 1980s Punk
Pretend your mind is a dress.
Pretend your mind is a dress.
Pretend your mind is a dress
and change it.
You need a new outfit.
You need a new outfit.
You need a new outfit now.
—lyrics from “Mind Dress” by the Cardboards
Debt Begins at Twenty by Stephanie Beroes documents a defining moment of the punk music scene that flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Pittsburgh. Dating from 1980, the film is pitch-perfect and has aged incredibly well. It is unusual for any film to survive the culture of immediacy we live in, and as a look back at what was and who we were, this film offers many insights and much delight. Not that it was “ahead of its time,” as people like to say when surprised by something noteworthy from the past; rather, it captures that particular time so successfully, that we feel the crashing beat on the drum and the dingy grit of the scene as if in the present moment. For someone like me, who saw these bands perform live many times, Debt Begins at Twenty evokes the emotion and attitude of those days in lively and rich detail. The punk years in Pittsburgh remain a local history that should be venerated, but as it is with all influential art and social movements, it couldn’t last. When it’s over, it’s over. And as we learn again and again, as victims of time’s relentless advance, new generations build from embracing and rejecting the past—as punk did with rock.
The bands featured in the film—the Cardboards, Hans Brinker and the Dykes, and the Shakes—were part of a diverse local scene that included many larger-than-life personalities and stand-out talents. Stephanie has said they were the most interesting bands, and a distinguishing quality they shared was a certain anti-musical sarcastic stance that was more conceptual in nature than that of their contemporaries. They definitely generated the most dissonance and were the most successful in rejecting virtuosity. As Bill Bored says in the film, they wanted to “make as much noise as possible, all the time.”
The title Debt Begins at Twenty is a truism that is not expressed literally in the film but is an idea that hovers over the film’s narrative, raising interesting questions: Is it a debt to one’s parents but insisted on by society? Why does debt come due at twenty and not twenty-one or thirty? Is the obligation to join the mainstream to pay back the debt? How did punk rockers claim exemption?
The punk characters, hangers-on, and musicians in Stephanie’s film do seem free in a deep sense, displaying a personal style that can only be crafted so winningly by the young. Liberated from the bonds of their parents and rejecting the status quo, they invented themselves by embracing the societal discards and junk that were on hand in Pittsburgh, even though the scene was more than a bit squalid and, for most of the kids, quite temporary.
In 1978, as an art major fresh out of college, I returned to Pittsburgh to work as a film programmer, first at the Mattress Factory and then at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I got deeply involved in the scene, a motley array of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers. Stephanie had been the film programmer at Filmmakers (1972–76) and was known on the avant-garde film circuit for her film Valley Fever (1979). It’s important to note, especially in our current political climate, the incredible importance that Filmmakers held as an equipment-access cooperative and a hub for local filmmakers. It was also a gathering place for creative exchange and discussion. Stephanie took advantage of those resources to make her films, as did I and many others.
(Personal Aside #1: Anybody remember the Ramones concert at The Decade in 1979 or 1980? The regulars from The Decade were a different sort of crowd from the punks who frequented the Electric Banana up on Bigelow, and I don’t think the concert had a particularly good vibe, but the band was spectacular. I was forced up onto the stage at one point and the band just kept on playing, lunging forward with their guitars as was their style. One guy, I can’t remember who, fell in the mosh pit and broke his arm. Since I was one of the few people with a car, I took him to the emergency room.)
Debt Begins at Twenty opens with the drummer Bill Bored. He talks candidly about his band experience while going about his daily routine—listening to records, reading comic books, and making a trip to the record store. As a musician, this is his work and research, although he obviously is not punching anyone’s time clock. Bored’s droll, understated performance is a perfect vehicle for the boredom we felt in Pittsburgh at the time. Looking back, he is so young and seemingly naïve, but he takes a strong political stance about not having any musical skills. Without pretention, Bill and the others draw the viewer into the rich detail of thrift-store costumes, dyed hair jobs, and graffiti-covered walls.
Bill says dispassionately, “It’s just that I would say anything new is intrinsically better that something old simply because it’s new.”
As this is spoken, the words “punk philosophy” pop up on the screen. The filmmaker is sharing her irony and sense of humor with us, indicating how to “read through” the film’s multi-layered form. At a number of points in the film, in a nod to European art films of the 1960s, Stephanie uses these techniques to puncture the illusion of cinema and offer commentary on the action (in addition to compensating for marginal sound quality). She is telling us that not only are the music makers having fun “breaking the rules” but so, too, is the film.
The structure is a lively version of what is now common in contemporary storytelling: documentary/improvised or semi-staged scenes intercut with staged/acted ones. The ambiguous space between documentary and fiction calls into question the authenticity of the screen and generates good dramatic tension. It is also a reflection of the musicians who have reinvented themselves for the stage with cool personas and, in the Cardboards’ case, funny made-up names. The captions, asides, and “subtitles” add an extra voice to the conversation.
In the movie and in real life Bill lives at 4620 Forbes, then a well-known address for parties and shows (Black Flag!) above a gay bar called the Holiday, now defunct. He drums with the Cardboards and Hans Brinker and the Dykes, who perform several of their classic songs for the film. Another band, the Shakes, the most melodious of the featured bands, also give a strong performance. There are several TV-talk-show-type interviews done at the party with various scenesters and, in a flashback, a goofy romantic interlude between Bill and Sesame Spinelli.
(Personal Aside #2: In 1979 I lived in an amazing apartment [for $75/month] at the corner of Carson and 18th Streets, directly across the street from a burned-out building. For some reason we volunteered to host one of the regular Saturday-night rotating parties. Two hundred or so people showed up, a couple of bands played, and almost on cue, the police came at midnight and broke it up, sending everyone scattering into the night. I’m not sure what I had expected, but my party planning was quite pathetic—I had baked two apple cobblers to serve, which of course disappeared in a split second. Luckily other people brought beer to sustain themselves through the evening.)
The Cardboards are fantastic in their white shirts and skinny ties, as if they came to the show directly from their jobs at the bank. A band without guitar or bass, they used an array of synthesizers and a beat box, musically positioned somewhere between kraut rock and synth pop. Max Haste was the front man and wrote the lyrics and contributed his fiendish laughter, but the noisy mix of the synth, (human) drums, and sax created a hypnotic vibe through manic repetition.
Watching Stephanie shoot at one of the events, I noticed her unhurried style, with smooth camera moves and nice slow pans. Her cinematic control managed to stay calmly on track amid the angular dance moves and chaos in front of her. This is not a punk movie but a movie about punk. Many of us at the time were filming in Super 8 and making more gestural, body-oriented films using much smaller cameras; Stephanie, with her 16mm double-system setup, proved to be more of a grown-up.
(Personal Aside #3: I wonder who did that painting of Maya Deren at the top of the stairs at the old Pittsburgh Filmmakers venue on Oakland Avenue? It is taken from her 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon, a portrait of Deren gazing out a window with her hands gently placed on the glass, her image merging with the reflections of distant trees. It was the founding mother of American avant-garde cinema who greeted us as we trudged up the stairs to the screening room.)
I want to improve things for everyone.
I want Pittsburgh to be fun.
And if it doesn’t happen soon,
I might pull out a gun.
Because I’m bored, bored, bored.
—lyrics from “Bored” by Hans Brinker and the Dykes
Bored with what? Bored with the mainstream, rock and roll’s endgame, the mall culture in the zombie suburbs—The Dykes decided to do something about it, to go on the offensive with their life and style.
The punk scene was overflowing with talented women, fearless in their public performances and enjoying full expression through the music. Sesame Spinelli is spellbinding as the lead singer of Hans Brinker and the Dykes, singing off-key in a beautiful ear-splitting screech their original songs “Bored,” “Two Fingers Wide,” and “Hysterectomy.” She is so cute in her cheap plastic raincoat, sunglasses, and dog collar when she arrives for a romantic rendezvous with the affable Bill Bored.
The epicenter of the Pittsburgh scene was undoubtedly Reid Paley, lead singer and song writer for the Five. In an ironic twist of fate his band does not perform in the film, but Reid leaves his distinctive mark on us as interviewer and interviewee.
In a funny and self-deprecating exchange between Denise Dee, singer of the Dykes’ “Two Fingers Wide,” she plays the straight sidekick to Paley’s comedic and self-conscious mayhem:
DD: Who would you like to be?
DD: What is your favorite thing?
RP: (sneer) Myself.
DD: (giggles) What is the height of misery for you?
DD: What do you detest the most?
RP: (pause) Myself.
DD: How would you like to die?
RP: Probably leaping from the top of a tall building, drenched in gasoline and lighting a cigarette very calmly … and then just catching everybody down on the street watching me and thinking that I was a human torch on the way down … but with my luck I would probably be extinguished by the time I hit the ground.
DD: Do you have any tolerance for faults?
DD: (smile) What is your dream of happiness?
RP: Being myself.
DD: What would be your greatest misfortune?
RP: Not being myself.
nothing to get to.
you should come too.
Just waiting for the bus that never comes.
In a wind that burns and a cold that numbs.
—lyrics from “Downtown Nowhere” by the Shakes
Memories of my years in Pittsburgh are of course my own and I may be wrong about some of the details, but the images and sounds are tucked away in the back of my mind where with any luck they will remain. During those years, hopped-up on the experience of a perspective-enhancing and dystopian-driven art scene (often without the assistance of drugs), we lived with a delicate sheen of alternative-world fairy dust coating the boring work-a-day world of our elders. Our playground was the city, a place we owned. We reclaimed the stuff that seemed without value: the thrift stores, the diners, the late-night hot spots, and the streets. The music was the perfect expression of who we were.
Debt Begins at Twenty is currently on view in the Scaife Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art.