Too Mentally Ill To Stand Trial
I get asked by journalists, filmmakers, TV producers, academics, authors, radio hosts and other media figures about my old life in the music business a lot. I always like to help out as best I can but, to be honest, I usually try to get them to agree to let me plug current progressive politics in return for spending sometimes hours being interviewed. It's kind of gratuitous but I feel like it's important.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. During the 2016 and 2020 primary seasons, I pretty much refused to do any music-related interviews unless I could be guaranteed that I could include something about Bernie's campaign. One writer refused but offered to make a contribution to his campaign instead, so I agreed and that was the one exception I made.
This month A&E sent a new over to film me for their series on the origins of hip hop and they were more interested in talking with me about politics than anything else. So that worked out well. I think you'll be able to watch next year. I'll let you know.
This one, the long-awaited We Were There To Be There, was made last year and just came out today. It's about the legendary Cramps and Mutants show at Napa State in 1978 and I really didn't talk much about politics-- but the directors, Mike Plante and Jason Willis, sure put the concert in the political context its always been part of, a context that has been mostly overlooked in the decades since the concert. Plante and Willis introduce the film by noting that "Taking place as cuts to crucial social services loom under Ronald Reagan, two legendary punk bands come together to perform a show for patients and staff at a psychiatric facility. Captured on tape by seminal video art collective Target Video, We Were There To Be There threads moments from the Napa State Hospital set with commentary from band members and those who witnessed it firsthand, providing a crucial backstory for the recording of one of the most iconic shows in the history of music, at a critical moment in the future of mental health care in the U.S."
Mike Plante told me that he and Jason "knew what Reagan did in general, of course-- we were both in high school in the 80s-- but to learn about what the system was before him was even more eye opening, what it could be. Obviously it wasn't free of problems, but it sure looks perfect today in comparison. Hopefully what existed before him can be a simple blueprint for change-- and we only realized this because two kickass bands played an incredible show for some nice citizens and staff of Napa State!"
After ruining them and sabotaging them, California Governor Ronald Reagan had decreed that all of California's public mental hospitals be shut down by 1977. Mendocino and Agnews hospitals closed in '72 and Napa and Camarillo were next on the chopping block, making this 1978 concert a complete fluke in a system the Republican Party killed, the death of which is still haunting California almost 4 decades later with an out-of-control homelessness problem for thousands of untreated mentally ill men and women wandering our streets and sleeping under blue tarps. By 1973 there were already 6,000 totally disabled people roaming around San Francisco without treatment and the following year Reagan cut $2 million from San Francisco's community programs, where the patients were all supposed to seek help. He vetoed a $17 million plan for mental health from the state legislature. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that San Francisco alone had 30,000 mental patients getting treatment in the city community programs, including kids and the elderly, addiction clinics and even job placement programs.
I don't know many candidates for office who feel as passionately as Shervin Aazami does about solving California's homeless problem. I sent him the clip of the film this morning and this is what he said after watching it:
It’s not every day we see such a powerful political message shared through the lens of music. But as someone who grew up listening to punk rock-- from Subhumans to Charged GBH, Circle Jerks, The Addicts, and many others-- the punk rock scene always had an advocacy edge. Similar to when Johnny Cash played at San Quentin, when The Mutants and Cramps played at the former Napa State Hospital it was an act of defiance, and a statement of solidarity with a group of people who have always faced stigma, oppression, and neglect in society.
Many people famously remember that it was Reagan who decimated the nationwide system of public hospitals for people living with mental illness. Meanwhile, two of Reagan’s predecessors-- namely JFK and Carter-- had a vision of establishing fully-funded and federally operated community mental health centers all across the country that provided comprehensive care. Reagan, on the other hand, wanted control of mental health facilities to remain at the state level and he wanted privatization. And our society is still experiencing the consequences of Reagan’s fateful decision to completely destroy, divest, and privatize our safety net for people living with mental illness.
His decision left tens of thousands of Americans without care, and thus much more vulnerable to homelessness. Today, our unhoused neighbors are disproportionately impacted by mental illness, substance use disorders, and police brutality. Over one-third of LAPD use of excessive force are against unhoused Angelenos. Instead of care, services, and housing, by destroying community-based mental health resources politicians have only worsened the stigmatization and “othering” of people living with mental illness. Enough is enough. We need single-payer Medicare for All that provides comprehensive mental health care coverage for all Americans-- documented or undocumented. We need vast federal investment in permanent supportive housing, because housing is a human right. And we need federal protections for our unhoused neighbors as a protected class.