Punk Manifesto

Ben Terrall

Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull, May) may not have gotten much attention when it came out earlier this year, but that’s a shame.

This collection of material from the low-budget zines Scam and Turd-Filled Donut covers Lyle’s life as a grassroots musician and activist from the late 90s to the early aughts. And it deals with issues still important today – such as gentrification, homelessness and political dissent.

Lyle was a teenager in South Florida when he read about protests in Northern California to save the redwoods. In 1992, after his best friend returned from San Francisco’s anti-Columbus Day protests in support of indigenous rights, young Lyle, using the moniker Iggy Scam, made his way northwest to investigate dissident rumblings on the Left Coast.”

Lyle train-hopped far and wide, posting dispatches from New Orleans, Chattanooga, Tenn., and other cities. But his focus remained mainly on street-level homeless advocacy and guerrilla rock n’ roll in San Francisco.

When I worked in an office above the city’s 16th and Mission BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, I witnessed several of the generator shows” that Lyle details in On the Lower Frequencies>. These events featured impromptu, permit-less concerts. The generator was portable, and powered amplifiers that could be packed and unpacked quickly.

It was never clear why the San Francisco police allowed them to go on without interference, although some speculated that the cops must have appreciated that the shows disrupted the open-air heroin market that was normally the distinguishing feature of the intersection. Whatever the reason, the up-from-the-gutter concerts were a kick, and not just for dropout punk kids. The neighborhood’s majority Latino population was also well represented in the audience, and many were clearly entertained.

Lyle’s sense of civic responsibility extends beyond helping fellow noisemakers challenge the musical sensibilities of pedestrians and stray junkies, however. In the book, he includes an interview with Paul Boden, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness. Boden tells Lyle that in starting the newspaper Street Sheet – given free to homeless, who sell them for a dollar – the coalition helped put several million bucks into homeless people’s pockets. Boden exults, I don’t know too many nonprofits that can make that claim!”

Lyle and his friends also achieved a victory – albeit a short-lived one – by putting together a café that fed hundreds of people without charge and encouraged the creation of political art. Unfortunately, the café, like many of the spaces lovingly described in the book, was in a squatted building that suddenly became valuable during San Francisco’s gentrification in the late 90s.

As for Lyle’s Turd-Filled Donut (TFD), unsalaried editors distributed the zine via commandeered newspaper boxes. The zine existed partly to challenge the pro-growth, pro-development politics of its mainstream rival, the San Francisco Examiner.

Lyle describes a meeting at Examiner offices where TFD staffers confronted their button-downed counterparts, asking for evidence supporting the paper’s claim that crime had increased in the neighborhood. When Examiner employees failed to do so, Lyle’s crew presented internal San Francisco police memos – received through a Freedom of Information Act request – that showed no increase in crime had occurred.

A two-page entry called Scam Punks vs. Starbucks” describes printing thousands of fake coupons for free cups of Starbucks coffee, then distributing them in San Francisco’s financial district with some friends. At the end of the day, a hysterical Starbucks representative unsuccessfully attempts to make a citizen’s arrest of one of Lyle’s pals.

On the Lower Frequencies also includes a moving section on how powerless Lyle felt after worldwide actions failed to stop the Bush regime from invading Iraq. 

Though he and his comrades are dispirited, they try to keep dissent alive in the age of the so-called war on terror.

This book is as sprawling and packed with digressions as a novel you can’t put down. It’s fitting that author Hubert Selby Jr. – perhaps best known for Requiem for a Dream – is name-checked, as Lyle shares Selby’s empathy for society’s outcasts, not excluding its criminal elements. 

As the housing market continues its collapse and ecological crises loom, Lyle’s sensibilities seem prescient. Just as importantly, compassion and commitment to society’s least fortunate – whose empires are the first to crumble – is also necessary if we are to maintain any shred of decency. 

Lyle’s book does an apt job of pointing us in that direction. 

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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