ONE OF THE OFT-REPEATED sentiments concerning Portland's rapid expansion is the very real concern about the city's history fading further and further into the distance, as developers and newcomers sprint toward the future. This goes double for our cultural history, as fresh faces reveal no ties to the musical movements of the past, and not much interest in learning about them.
That's why a book like Mark Sten's All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock 1977-1981 is such a vital document. The large coffee table book is a deep dive into the world of local punk and new wave, written by an insider who played in bands (like the Bop Zombies and King Bee), booked shows, and worked to organize and concentrate the efforts of the various strains of the underground music scene.
Simply flipping through the pages of this weighty opus is illuminating. The book is illustrated with a wealth of photos from the era featuring acts both well known (the Wipers, Poison Idea, Fred and Toody Cole) and obscure (Ice-9, the Cleavers), and scans of vintage concert posters and press clippings.
The text of All Ages reveals even more. Aided somewhat by interviews with fellow musicians and bookers, Sten has incredible recall, and gives a highly detailed account of how these bands found an audience while struggling to find supportive spaces for live performance. He also covers how their attempts to legitimize the scene by creating the Alternative Arts Association devolved into infighting and frustration.
What the book lacks, however, is any voice other than Sten's. In spite of naming the folks he apparently tapped for information, a list that includes Ju Suk Reet Meate from Smegma and Jerry A of Poison Idea, he never lets them speak up. Perhaps Jerry A will get a chance at Sten's upcoming panel discussion at Powell's, (which will also feature Pat Baum of Neo Boys, Tammy Cates, Fred "Noize" Seegmuller, and Mike Lastra of Smegma). But in the book, it's Sten's acidic, sometimes snarky point of view that holds sway throughout. That allows him to editorialize, but also makes some sections feel less like nonfiction and more like a Maximum RocknRoll column.
That tone shouldn't dissuade you from checking out All Ages. The book is flush with information and history about the many incredible bands from that era (and until Greg Sage comes out of seclusion and sits down with a biographer, this is the best telling of the Wipers' story you're likely to get). Hopefully, Sten's tome will generate some necessary conversations about preserving these sounds and artists before they're permanently brushed aside.