RECENT TRANSPLANTS to the City of Roses would hardly recognize the Portland that spawned Poison Idea back in 1980. Jerry Lang—better known as Jerry A., frontman for the band—recalls drinking and skating in the Pearl District when it was nothing more than abandoned houses and train yards. "That was our playground," says the lone remaining founding member of Poison Idea. "We used to stomp around and cause trouble."
This included promoting the band, Black Flag-style, with a can of spray paint, tagging a 50-foot billboard. "One kid spray-painted a car, and another kid got the shit beat out of him for it because he was wearing our logo on his jacket," he says. Such violence was just the cost of admission to early hardcore. "That's the price you pay for wearing colors."
"It's like Portlandia now," Lang says. "Where the fuck are these people coming from? The city sucks, but I don't mind it."
Portland isn't the only thing that's changed. Initially known for Germs-esque blasts of pure hardcore rage, Poison Idea, by the late '80s, had cultivated a metallic polish, resembling a rougher, street-level version of Motörhead.
Moreover, punk itself has changed since the initial exuberance of the late '70s and early '80s. "There are rules now," Lang says, a distinct note of irritation in his voice. "It's all just bands Xeroxing each other." Perhaps summing up the ethos that drove Poison Idea, he adds, "Breaking rules is fun, especially when it comes to music. Our motto has always been 'confuse and conquer.' We want to blow minds."
Poison Idea sought to irritate not just the squares walking the streets of Portland, but also the spiked-and-buzzed legions within their own audience. One night, the band took a field trip to see Danish metal legends Mercyful Fate, fueled by Herculean amounts of LSD. Vocalist King Diamond made his entrance by coming out of a chapel with a nun on a cross above it.
"We thought it was great!" Lang remembers. "We thought, 'What can we do?'" They put a Honey Bucket filled with smoke on stage, a makeshift chapel befitting a band known for open appeals to the dregs of the city.
The passing of Tom "Pig Champion" Roberts in January 2006 from undetermined causes closed one of the longest chapters in the band's history. "It took a lot of fun out of it," says Lang. "We wrote great songs together." A longtime friend of Lang's, Roberts was the band's other icon, a guitar player so obese that he couldn't play standing up. Lang concedes, however, that the band is a lot more manageable without Roberts.
"He had lots of demands," he explains, "like, we had to stay on the first floor of any hotel." At a show in Ohio, the band drove for hours, only to have Roberts refuse to play after the promoter tried to charge him two dollars for a can of Coors Light. "He just said, 'Fuck this, let's go find a bar,'" Lang remembers, adding with a laugh, "I thought it was funny, but the promoter was pissed."
Like Portland, punk in general is a lot safer now. "In the '80s there was a lot of violence. Read Get in the Van and [Henry] Rollins will tell you all about getting burnt with cigarettes and having beer bottles thrown at him." More than just the violence, crazy behavior was de rigueur during hardcore punk's salad days. Jerry recalls a fan, high on mushrooms, refusing to yield the stage. After warning the interloper twice, "I just blasted him in the face with piss. It was coming out his nose and shit." In Germany, two fat leathermen took the stage and started screwing right on stage to "their song."
Poison Idea have always been an ugly band for ugly people. But ultimately that's what punk is supposed to be. In an era when anyone can dye their hair and buy a wallet chain, Poison Idea hearken back to the days when punk was still vital, raw, and dangerous. It's one of the reasons the band continues—this week, they headline Friday night at the four-day Northwestern Black Circle Festival. "It would be such a waste to just fizzle out after 30 years," Lang says. "Poison Idea has always come first for me."
Perhaps it's his commitment to excellence, which recently included throwing out months worth of recordings that just weren't up to snuff, that's helped Poison Idea transcend their anti-social image, catapulting them into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. The band is alongside such disparate bedfellows as Quarterflash, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Greg Sage.
"We never said anything good about Portland," says Lang. "Maybe they think that if they give us this, we'll finally break up."