From Punk to Poetry and Back Again: Lawrence Welsh
It was 1979. Lawrence Welsh and a few of his buddies saw the punk band X play at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. They were so fired up after the show that they decided to start their own band. They called themselves The Alcoholics. 'I wrote about 60 percent of the songs and taught myself how to play the guitar,' Welsh recalled during a recent telephone conversation. 'The lead singer played guitar, too. He was much better than me.' Now 52 years old, Welsh lives in El Paso and is an award-winning poet. 'We were never huge, but we played with Fear, Social Distortion, The Weirdos, The Gears, Human Hands, and The Crowd. We played the Marina Del Rey Skate Park. We were in the scene.'
The Alcoholics recorded an extended-play disc at Black Flag's Media Art Studio in Hermosa Beach, overseen by the legendary one-name producer Spot. They were young, hardworking, and naive. They believed the promises made to them by their contacts in the music industry, but by 1982, both the band and the L.A. punk scene were on their way out. 'A lot of those promises didn't come true,' Welsh said. 'I went off to college, the other guys went off to college and began to change their lives. That time was unbelievably creative and raw, but it was also a time of darkness and destruction. A lot of people died of heroin overdoses. There was tragedy steeped in that whole scene. For years, I couldn't even think about it.'
Welsh grew up in South Central Los Angeles. His mother was an Irish immigrant; his father, a bus driver, was the grandson of Irish immigrants. Welsh was a child during the 1965 Watts riots, and his high-school years were fraught with gang violence, though his home life was happy and loving. After the band broke up, he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and got a job at the Torrance County, California, Daily Breeze, covering government and writing features. Within a year he became dissatisfied with newspaper work, so he took a position writing press releases for a prestigious public relations agency. 'I got frustrated with that, too. I was still single back then. There was nothing keeping me in L.A. I walked in one day and quit.' In 1989, he decided to hitchhike to New Orleans and Miami but ended up in El Paso and then Albuquerque. 'Without being too touchy-feely, I felt an unbelievable attraction to New Mexico. Something about it felt like I'd been there a thousand years ago, in another life.' He eventually settled in El Paso, and travels to New Mexico frequently. On Sunday, Nov. 20, he gives a reading at the Gerald Peters Gallery, joined by Santa Fe poet laureate Joan Logghe (What Makes a Woman Beautiful, Twenty Years in Bed With the Same Man), John Macker (Woman of the Disturbed Earth), and Bruce Holsapple (Vanishing Act).
Part of Welsh's ennui in reaction to journalism and PR work stemmed from his desire to focus his time and talent on poetry, which he became serious about in his late 20s. 'There were things I could do with poetry that I couldn't do with other types of writing,' he said. 'I could capture essences that lent themselves to poetry, which came to me naturally. I found myself kind of organically falling in love with it.' He earned a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso and teaches English composition and literature at El Paso Community College. He and his wife, Lisa McNiel, also a professor and poet, have two children. 'I don't teach creative writing,' he explained. 'I love helping students with writing that they can use in
their jobs in the real world. I want to keep the creative writing part pure for my own study.' He writes every day, a discipline he developed working under deadline at the newspaper, and earnestly embraces the writer's life of submission and rejection, with 1,200 rejection slips and about 300 acceptances to his credit. He has published seven collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Begging for Vultures: New and Selected Poems 1994-2009 (University of New Mexico Press). Welsh's imagery is almost always anchored to the natural world, and though his wordplay could draw comparisons to language poetry, he infuses his work with narrative meaning. 'I'm not a guru, but I do try to keep a daily meditation session, after which I write. I try to write fast. When I go on hikes in the desert, I take a notebook and write down titles and lines. Georgia O'Keeffe was right; in the Southwest, the landscape does most of the work.' His poems are stripped-down, long and skinny, influenced by such writers as William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Paul Celan. 'I've always been oriented toward imagist and objectivist poetry,' Welsh said. 'I try and get as much as I can out of as few words as I can. I want to create pictures. My aesthetic could go back to the punk days. In the punk scene, you tried to do a lot within very short, fast songs. I was a young man when I was exposed to all that, and it really changed my life.'
Over the years, The Alcoholics' EP has become a collector's item, hotly sought after and now selling for more than $200. A few years ago, Welsh contacted an independent label, Artifix Records in Los Angeles, that deals exclusively with old punk bands. 'I sent them an email, just a one-line note, and they wrote back. They knew all about us.' And so The Alcoholics, who had held onto other old recordings from live shows and rehearsals, regrouped. One of these days, when the funding falls into place and all the legal issues get straightened out, Artifix will release a retrospective of their songs, 'East of Sepulveda: 1979-1982.' Welsh isn't in a hurry. 'We had our tapes remastered about a year ago. It's a small label, like a small press. We've signed a contract. It's just taking time.'
This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 11/18/2011