Once upon a time in Berkeley
Lookout Records’ co-founder documents his punk-rock past in new book
If you were paying attention to the periphery of the mainstream rock world in the 1990s, you likely heard about Lookout Records. The Berkeley punk label was perhaps most famous for being the original home of recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Green Day, but its roster also included such seminal bands as Screeching Weasel, Operation Ivy and Neurosis.
The stranger-than-fiction story behind Lookout and its co-founder Larry Livermore, however, is a story that hasn’t yet been told in full. Livermore’s new book, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label, documents his wild ride, from escaping his native Detroit to founding Lookout Records from an off-the-grid cabin in remote Mendocino County to eventually walking away from the label as it morphed into a well-greased cog in the music-industry machine.
“My purpose in writing this wasn’t to create some sort of encyclopedic or definitive history,” Livermore said in a recent email interview. “It was to recount my own personal journey through a world I—at least for most of my life—would never have imagined visiting, let alone becoming a significant part of.”
For his part, Livermore is modest about Lookout’s role in music history—“I routinely run into major music fans, and reasonably sophisticated ones at that, who know little or nothing about Lookout and the scene it came out of,” he said, brushing aside the notion that Lookout was well-known outside of its corner of the music world. But what can’t be disputed is the role that the East Bay punk scene—cultivated and disseminated in large part by Lookout—had on challenging the status quo of punk rock. Along with 924 Gilman St., the long-running Berkeley punk venue that served as the de facto nexus of the East Bay scene, Lookout helped expand the scope of punk rock beyond its reactionary, in-your-face origins.
“As Einstein liked to point out, it’s all relative. But I’d say that the Lookout/East Bay/Gilman scene was more constructive, creative and, yes, intelligent than punk had been during its earlier, more nihilistic days,” Livermore said. “I think the single most salient factor separating the East Bay scene from punk scenes that had come before it was the desire to build something of lasting value. While Lookout itself turned out not to stand the test of time, dozens of other labels at least partially inspired by it are still thriving.”
The book is more than a collective back-slap, however. Livermore pulls no punches in describing his often contentious relationship with others in the music scene and within his own label. He concedes that some of his opinions may differ from others involved.
“I’m not here to argue or to tell anyone else’s story,” he said. “This book is all about what it was like for me.”
Taking a page from his past, Livermore is currently on tour promoting How to Ru(i)n a Record Label in bookstores (including an appearance at The Bookstore in Chico Feb. 23). Although this will be Livermore’s first time stepping foot within the city limits, he’s no stranger to Chico, thanks to his time in the mountains during Lookout’s early days.
“When I lived in the wilderness, the lay of the land meant that the only TV signal we could pick up was from Chico,” remembered Livermore. “I tried to keep up with the news, all of which came by way of Chico. After a few years, I felt so familiar with the place that I felt like an honorary resident.”