Drug deals, stalkers, and urban decay are the makings of a great gangster movie. They also make good doo-wop and girl group songs.
For over 20 years, Gabriel Hart has been writing songs about the "nightmarish underbelly" of Southern California for punk bands The Starvations and Jail Weddings.
"The last time you had to fight to be a punk" was 1994, says Hart, who formed The Starvations in Laguna Beach at 16. Bad Religion and Green Day had just released the records that would put them on world tours. But Hart says he and his bandmates were on the Laguna Beach Police Department's gang file.
(The Starvations at 924 Gilman in Berkeley, 2001. Courtesy Gabriel Hart)
The "Orange Country Methamphetamine Renaissance" brought teens together in the 90s, according to Hart. The same kids Hart fought at school would get high at The Starvations' practice house. And not even the "nerds" or "dungeons and dragons crowd" were immune to the drug's popularity in the community.
Hart and Starvations' bassist Jean-Paul Garnier moved to L.A. in 1999, and over the next six years released three albums laden with songs about overdoses, funerals and home invasions. Hart says he's tried to let The Starvations' true stories "live under a rock." You can see excerpts of some of their shows on Youtube.
The Starvations' final show in 2005 sold out the El Cid restaurant in Silver Lake, but the band was forced to sweep the venue after the punks smashed hundreds of glasses on the floor to the beat of "Not Me This Time."
Hart reformed the band on different instruments as a short-lived outfit called Fortune's Flesh. Only a brief demo exists, but the band's dramatic, romantic ballads paved the way for Jail Weddings in 2007.
(Jail Weddings in New York City, 2014. Courtesy Gabriel Hart)
Jail Weddings began as a 10-piece "death doo-wop" pop ensemble. Hart had dreamed of starting such a band for years, and felt the time was ripe, as he noticed a "bearded cancer" of neo-psychedelic garage rock taking over Echo Park.
"A lot of these old pop songs are obsessive to a scary degree," says Hart, who found inspiration in The Shangri-La's, Gene Pitney, and Johnnie Ray. Jail Weddings pay tribute to the "psychosis" of vintage love songs, he says. When he hears Little Peggy March's 1963 ballad "I Will Follow Him," Hart says he thinks of a gang of girls running after him, with knives.
Hart still lives in Echo Park, and says that for all the changes the neighborhood has undergone in the last decade, the area is still dangerous, citing a fatal drive-by shooting in his driveway. But just as L.A. fosters gangsters, it fosters artists.
"I think L.A. — I've always viewed it as an escapist's cradle. It's paradise in a way... it was marketed that way since it first started. People have been coming here for decades to move to a place where they could be whoever they wanted to be, where previously they couldn't... It's always cradled the dispossessed." — Gabriel Hart