The Adolescents are still
punking after all these years
By Naughty Mickie
From the core of the punk rock scene the Adolescents stood out and made their mark, influencing a myriad of bands in an amazing array of genres. The group has recently released "The Complete Demos: 1980-1986: Naughty Women in Black Sweaters" (Frontier Records) and is still taking on the scene. Their lineup includes vocalist Tony Reflex, guitarists Frank Agnew and Frank Agnew Jr., bassist Steve Soto and drummer Dereck O'Brien.
Reflex, who lives in Southern California, took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with me and proved a wonderful interview. He is intelligent, humorous, opinionated and puts his heart into everything he does. He made sure to let me know that the title of this new album was a thank you to the guitar player of Naughty Women, who named his record store Black Hole. The Black Sweaters were the Adolescents' female equivalent, the five girls hung out with the band during the early part of their career and the band wanted to honor them as well.
Reflex is also a member of ADZ.
"It's kind of the nature of the music that we do that we play in multiple bands, most of us," Reflex says.
I ask him why the Adolescents decided to reunite again.
"We were planning a show for the 20th anniversary." Reflex recalls, "We started rehearsing to do a show in Santa Ana and about two weeks before the show, my brother, Troy, shot himself to death. It was pretty heavy, we did the show.
"Steve, Frank and me always stayed in touch, we stayed close since high school." Reflex goes on, "When this happened, we had been tinkering with a melodies. I was writing a ton of stuff. We did the show and stayed in touch and worked on some song writing stuff together. Then my youngest brother, I have three brothers and a sister, my youngest brother was murdered. All this happened in a period of four months."
Reflex wanted to put some of his writings on tape and Agnew and Soto agreed to help him.
"I was really grateful to them because I was trying to iron out a lot of things and sort a lot of stuff out. I was grateful that they would help me put things in perspective," Reflex says, adding that the writing and recording proved cathartic.
"I came from a Navy family and my mother married my father when she was 15 years old. They got divorced when I was pretty young and my mother remarried in the early '70s to another sailor. And she was the daughter of a sailor," Reflex tells me about growing up.
His step-father retired from the military and started his own electronics business, working for OutTech, which was a leader in sound equipment at the time.
"He would bring home a lot of electronics, including an organ called an Octagon which took a disc and you put the disc in and it played a music loop," Reflex says. "I would sit there and play around with this thing."
The organ worked similar to a sampler and you could play the keyboard along with it.
His mother and step-father eventually divorced and when they parted, all the electronics were left behind.
"I started building things out of it, like I would take the speakers and connect them to this organ and I would create multi speakers," Reflex relates. "My record player had 18 speakers. It was really fun and I started getting into playing around with sound, not so much like making music, but playing with sound, figuring out how to make things louder, how to rewire things and tinkering.
"Right around the same time I started writing, I started journaling. I was about 12 or 13 years old." Reflex continues, "I started journaling because I found I had a really good outlet for a lot of the crisis that was going on in the house. I was a very disruptive child entering my teens. I wasn't really musically inclined, but I was a writer and I was a thinker, though at the time I didn't really consider myself one. The music grew out of that."
At 13, Reflex and his friends would try to create songs. Soon punk rock came along.
"There couldn't have been a more constructive and destructive interest at a better time for a 15-year-old from a very very very dysfunctional family to latch on to and boy, did I," Reflex says.
Growing up, Reflex moved a lot. He was born in San Francisco Bay area and lived in Azusa, Long Beach, Anaheim and Glendora and other areas of San Gabriel Valley and Orange County. When band broke up in 1981, he lived with his grandparents in Glendora. He was 18 and through school, found himself drawn to history and decided to major in it in college.
"Whenever there was an important transition in my life, my grandparents were there. They were wonderful people," Reflex sighs. "My mom did great, she did the best that she could. I was not an easy kid, I was way too smart for my own good."
He dropped out of high school at 16, took the equivalency test and started college. Reflex is currently a teacher of fourth and fifth grade in the San Gabriel Valley. He is married and has three children.
"I really do like my job. I really think that listening young people, finding out where they're coming from and what's going on in their world is important," Reflex says.
Reflex enjoys writing poetry, although "Music is my biggest hobby." His middle son doesn't really like music, but he's getting to like the Beatles. Reflex's other children like music. His daughter likes to paint. As a family, they build things, such as birdhouses. His wife's sister is an artist and spends time sharing her talents with their kids. The family draws, paints, writes, reads and goes to the movies.
"We go to the drive-in whenever that's right for us to see together and I tell them all about what the drive-ins used to be like. We do the whole thing and bring jammies, pillows; pizza. That's really fun," Reflex laughs.
They also go to places like Disneyland and the Long Beach Aquarium and really enjoy shopping.
Turning back to music, I ask Reflex how his writing has evolved.
"I try to keep the same focus. I try to tell stories and I try to make points with my words without being really really obvious about it." Reflex changes tact, "As I've matured, I've matured as a writer. My writer's voice has become a lot more clear, in as much as I know what I'm trying to say, but when I do it, I don't want my reader to be told what to think or how to even interpret what I'm saying. So I try to use a lot of imagery and I try to use a lot of double meaning. If somebody really wants to know to what I'm writing about or where I'm coming from, they have to really take a look at it.
"I try to play with words a lot too." Reflex goes on, "I try to use homonyms whenever possible to make an opposite point. I try to use words so people will see irony."
He tells me how "California Son," which is about his brother Troy, was written in about 13 minutes, while other songs take months to write. He has become much more precise in his writing.
I know that Reflex must be aware of the Adolescents' influence on other musicians.
"I'm really flattered by it. I can't think of a more deserving band, the guys I'm with really deserve the recognition that they get," Reflex responds, crediting his fellow musicians, especially Agnew and Soto, as well as others from various lineups, rather than himself for the group's success and influence.
"I think that, ultimately, the reason that so many bands cite us is that one, I think that the 'Blue Record' hit a chord that just about anybody," Reflex states. "It wasn't intentional. Some things were intentional, we intended to open the record with the word hate and close the record with the word hate, it was a punk rock record, there was a lot that we could not accept. We chose 13 songs on purpose because our feeling was that you couldn't get any more unlucky than we had been. We really felt like that was the right number. The EP that was added on to the record later on and made into a CD made it 16 songs, but it was actually a 13-song record. Everything else that came out of it was really the writing of two very disruptive families."
Reflex explains that in 1970, Fullerton and Anaheim were an "illusion of stability." He talks about how dysfunctional families would work against each other, such as a father of one family beating up the teens from another.
"The one thing we could do to fight back was go into a garage, create this very angry music and yell it and sit in a party in these people's houses and play it and yell it right at them. It was that open defiance that came later on that people embraced because they could relate to it in some way," Reflex says.
The message was that you are not alone and you can roll with it, as it will be better in five years.
"This experience of negativity that you're bombarded with, you can overcome it," Reflex adds.
His group of friends became their own family during that period in his life, as many of their home lives were intolerable.
I ask him to tell me more about the "Demo" album.
"That's been something I wanted to put out for 10 years. None of the rest of the band would really go for it. They did like sonically, the quality of it," Reflex replies.
All of the songs are very raw and were originally recorded on cassette tape.
"This was a piece of history that was frozen in time and by pure stroke of my having had a step-father who was an electronic idiot, who was a drunken alcoholic, abusive fool, who left the house and left me all this gear, because he left me a cassette player, I actually taped it on a cassette tape that my grandfather had bought at the swap meet. And the tape was literally falling apart when I transferred it. It's a combination of a stroke of luck and fate that it actually exists," Reflex says in one breath.
He convinced the guys in the band to allow the release of the songs for him.
"If you're not a fan, you'll hate it and that's all right," Reflex states.
This prods me to seek advice for others on the proper way to listen to the effort.
"To listen to this, they need to put it into context first. This a group of 15 year old children playing in a garage and making their very first artistic expressions to the world. To say, 'We're alive, listen to us, we have something to say to you.' That's really what it was," Reflex offers.
He tells me how the Adolescents' first shows were at a Catholic boys' high school and the YMCA and goes on to discuss how punk originated in Orange County and how its general feel could not be truly replicated in other areas. It was due to different experiences living in different areas, how kids in the OC didn't fit in and the overall attitude was hostile. Reflex attributes this hostility to his brother Troy getting beat up and never finding peace with himself, which eventually led to his suicide.
"In 1980 Orange County you either did what you were told or your were going to pay for it pound for pound with your flesh because the people around us weren't very nice," Reflex sums up.
Still, Reflex is able to leave me with a positive parting thought.
"I'm proud of my musical heritage here, I really am. Sometimes I listen to the lyrics and I go, 'Ooo, ouch,' but ultimately I'm proud that I got to be part of what happened in Southern California, that I got to be an active person. Live music is such a wonderful vehicle. In a digital age, as fun as it is to listen to sampling and play with those kinds of things, there's nothing that sounds to my ears as beautiful as an electric guitar. It still makes my blood move, it still gets me going, I still dig it," Reflex chuckles.
Get more history, more music and more shows from the Adolescents at www.theadolescents.net
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