Life Upside Down in “Hallucinations From Hell” – Chicago Review of Books


I discovered the seminal punk band Angry Samoans when I was 14, thanks to the lurid cover of their second and best-known album “Back From Samoa.” The songs were idiotic, with titles like “Tuna Taco” and “My Old Man’s a Fatso,” but they winked knowingly at the listener. There is wisdom in madness, they seemed to say, like a spiky-haired Marx Brothers. I was instantly hooked. 

The band was helmed by Gregg Turner, a writer for legendary rock magazine Creem and, much later, a math professor. His collection Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan features stories that are much like his songs: short, sharp and obsessed with the decay of American culture. 

I was privileged to chat with this punk rock pioneer about the horror of everyday life and the role of satire in making it somewhat more bearable. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

Patrick Brennan 

I was surprised opening this bookI was expecting more of a memoir or a first person history of the L.A. punk scene. Instead you really focus on sort of mundane moments like waking up with a hangover, students skipping class, setting a friend up on a bad date, just to name a couple. Why did you choose to zoom in on these moments? 

Gregg Turner

Well, that was really the intent of the whole book to begin with. The conceit of the title was mainly because anything you put with old school punk rock sells these days. It seemed it was opportunistic but worthwhile to take advantage of that. Plus there’s a few stories in the book that relate to the music scene and the band the Angry Samoans. But generally it was meant to be anecdotes that I’d been telling all my friends for too long and making a nuisance of myself. 

Patrick Brennan 

Let’s talk about your time at Creem magazine. You worked with Richard Meltzer, I assume you knew Lester Bangs, and it seems like all of these writers have a shared goal of bringing highbrow ideas into a lowbrow form. 

Gregg Turner

That’s a kind way of putting it. I never met Lester; he was a little before me and then he died, of course, but the culture of what he was about and the editors that I worked with were very in line with that. It was meant to be irreverent! Rolling Stone was too encyclopedic and constipated and full of itself; we felt at Creem that the medium was meant to poke fun at and have fun with it. I got to go off and make fun of anybody that I hated! For a Ted Nugent LP review I wrote a “Dear Ted” letter where I recommended that he buy a Gibson Melody Maker because those were easy guitars to learn how to play. Things like that, you just couldn’t resist doing, it was just too much fun. 

The nature of the stories in this book were meant to be like little punk rock songs: funny, entertaining and well-written, but if they were entertaining the right way you’d want to come back and read them again. Nothing too seriously intellectual, but on the other hand I wanted the writing to be as strong and captivating as it could be. So I don’t think there was a huge skip from this to when I wrote for Creem or the band that I was in; I wanted it to have the same energy and the same fun impact that people used to respond to. 

Patrick Brennan 

That energy definitely comes through. Besides Lester Bangs, then, who would you say were some of your influences in developing this super irreverent style? 

Gregg Turner

Meltzer for sure, I dedicated the book to him and he was in the band VOM with me — he’s my hero. I used to grow up as a kid reading his stuff, and then the books The Aesthetics of Rock and, later on, L.A. is the Capital of Kansas and his compendium of all his reviews. Those were just amazing! Not just irreverent — it was funny, it was witty, it was pretty intense, and I always made a note that if I was ever in the position of writing stories or a book or reviews, this is what I’d want to be like. All the others at Creem—Bill Holdship, Billy Altman, Dave DiMartino, and of course John Kordosh—influenced me as well. They were great and it was really a privilege and I was psyched to be a part of that. 

Patrick Brennan 

It’s interesting how Meltzer was a much earlier rock figure and then he still circled around and was hanging out with the hardcore boys in the ‘80s. 

Gregg Turner

Very talented guy. I mean he’s so underestimated and underappreciated. Nowadays it’s been a while since he’s had a stake in the sweepstakes of writing. But he’s just underappreciated. He was fluid, he was intelligent, he was funny, he was crazy. He was the essence of what rock ‘n’ roll writing should be and should have been. That to me was not just attractive but magnetic in terms of what I thought should be the case. He was the blueprint for me. I don’t think these stories would have come about had I not lived through my adolescence reading Richard. 

Patrick Brennan 

What about the next generation? I can see a kind of thread from irreverent rock journalism, through punk rock and zines and, now, more in the mainstream. Where do you see that influence being carried on? 

Gregg Turner

Kids these days, whatever range of age “kids” means, just don’t seem to be very gonzo as far as their interests, musically or, artistically or whatever. Maybe I’m just too old now and everything’s under my radar, but in terms of the culture of music, it’s just so static and benign. But it always regenerates in terms of fanzines and cliques and circles of people that carry forward with that attitude and energy. Whether it gets to another extreme in terms of music writing as far as Creem, I don’t know. There just may not be a medium or a culture of music right now for that kind of fanaticism to cultivate. 

Patrick Brennan 

In your book, at first I felt like you were just going for max gross-out factor, leading with the maggot story. But a little later on I realized that the reader is in on the joke, and you just aren’t letting your facade down to acknowledge that.  

Gregg Turner

Ninety percent of the stories in the book are true events. This is stuff that I was there for and I saw around me. I’m pretty much a voyeur when it comes to observing and I make copious notes in my head. There might be a little exaggeration or hyperbole, but they really happened. I was a little bit reluctant to make this book be thought of as repulsive, repugnant stories since some of them turned out that way, like “The Tapeworm Story” and one called “A Cup of Pus”—that one was a true story too, although I didn’t observe that one firsthand. I wanted them to have a flavor of…existence taking a nosedive into hell. That was the theme: life turned upside down. 

Patrick Brennan 

Well, here we are in 2021. Probably a lot of people do think that existence is taking “a nosedive into hell.” What was that a metaphor for when you were writing some of the older versions of these stories? 

Gregg Turner

The songs and lyrics I wrote for the Angry Samoans were sort of similar to the book. I wanted them to be ironic and funny and not just Black Flag-ish like [their song] “Nervous Breakdown” (although I like Black Flag). Like, we had a song called “Lights Out” about poking your eyes out. Nihilism was a big deal back in hardcore, in terms of people taking beating each other up really seriously, and we just thought it was so patently stupid and funny, why not write a song about people poking their eyes out? If you listen to the lyrics it’s obviously silly, but we played a show in ‘83 in Boston and when we did “Lights Out” there were about 50 kids with plastic forks gesturing like they were poking out their eyes. I almost passed out—I thought, one of them is gonna slip, the parents are gonna be personal injury attorneys, it’s gonna be all over, that’s the end. What a way to end a lifetime. 

Anyway, to answer your question, with the Samoans it was mainly trying to be funny, trying to be ironic, trying to be sour, and trying to be captivating at the same time. And that’s what I was after in this book as well. 

Patrick Brennan 

Do you think that type of deliberate offensiveness still has a place in today’s culture, or have times just changed too much? 

Gregg Turner

I hope there is a place for it. We’re going through such dark times, and it’s not that you should neglect trying to focus and stare those down, but you need some perspective and humor just to get by each day. Between the ecocide that’s going on and the plague and all, it’s very depressing. I have two teenage kids and they’re saying, We’re just gonna have to wear masks for the rest of our lives, even if the COVID pandemic is over, because of the fires burning down the West. It’s not what you want to hear your kids tell you! I think it’s incumbent upon writers and upon people growing up now to focus in and harness that negativity and try to turn it into something positive, something that contributes some sense of integrity to art.

FICTION/Nonfiction
Hallucinations From Hell: Confessions of an Angry Samoan
By Gregg H. Turner
Rare Bird Books
Published August 10, 2021



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