With Reagan in the White House and the economy in the toilet, early ’80s America was a warzone. Our culture reflected it: Tipper Gore and the PMRC held Congressional hearings in an attempt to get Twisted Sister, Judas Priest and W.A.S.P. to answer for their alleged sins against humanity. Satanic panic and heavy metal hysteria ruled the daytime talk shows, while “Are Your Kids Turning Punk?” campaigns warned parents about the myriad dangers of a music genre. In Los Angeles, the police were cracking skulls at punk shows, deploying riot troops and helicopters to battle the unbridled menace of mohawked teenagers slam-dancing to homegrown bands like Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and Fear.
But behind the hysterics, there lurked an actual threat that was rarely addressed. Los Angeles punk rock gangs with names like LADS, FFF, Suicidal, Circle One and LMP roamed the Southland looking for action. Frying on acid or rolling deep in smoke-filled caravans from the L.A. ’burbs, they descended upon punk venues in Hollywood, Santa Monica and Long Beach, or wherever punk bands were playing and fights could be had. Keith Morris, former singer of both Black Flag and the Circle Jerks (and currently of the band OFF!) remembers the violence vividly. “I knew a lot of guys from the punk rock gangs, but I did not condone any of that,” he says. “There was enough negativity in what we were singing about, with the music being as volatile as it was. With people jumping around, the occasional elbow flies, a fist comes down and someone gets hit. It could turn into a bloodbath.”
In the middle of that bloodbath was Frank The Shank. As a kid growing up the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada, Frank was routinely beaten by his alcoholic father—once even landing in the hospital, where nobody asked any questions. Dad worked at a truck yard in Vernon, where the boss was noted L.A. mobster Sam Sciortino. In 1979, Frank caught a hot brainload of Black Flag, the Sex Pistols and the Germs and eventually conned his older half-cousins into taking him to his first show—the band X at the Whisky A Go Go—at age 12.
Just a few months before watching some associates stab a man to death in Hollywood, Frank joined local punk gang La Mirada Punks, or LMP for short. Founded in ’79 by Frank’s older neighbor “Santino”—himself the scion of an established Latino gang figure known as “the Godfather”—LMP spent the next several years on a stomping and stabbing spree that left many a rival punk maimed or in the morgue.
Authors Heath Mattioli and David Spacone tell Frank’s story in the recently published book Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! Spanning the years 1979 to 1985, it’s an ultraviolent tale of beatdowns, shankings and drive-by shootings fueled by drugs, cheap booze and teenage testosterone. Named after some graffiti Frank spotted in “Motel Hell,” an abandoned fleabag off of Hollywood Boulevard where punks would go to party, the book shares its moniker with a song from Suicidal Tendencies’ classic 1990 punk/thrash crossover album Lights… Camera… Revolution. It follows Frank and his cronies—hulking bruisers and hardcore criminals with names like Mad Manny, Pissed Chris and Mongo—as they fight, fuck and kill their way through the L.A. punk landscape. Snapshots from the era help illuminate the boots n’ braces milieu: photos of young thugs and sneering skinheads in bomber jackets and Doc Martens; Frank and his cronies flashing gang signs and brandishing guns.
Along the way, teenage Frank snorts coke with Munsters actor Butch Patrick, slams chili dogs with funk legend Rick James at bygone Hollywood punk hangout Oki Dog and drives around L.A. in the chopped ’71 Lincoln from the 1977 Jimmy Brolin film The Car. Of course, names, dates and even streets have been changed to protect the guilty—mostly because there’s no statute of limitations on murder. “In Hollywood, we had a license to kill,” Frank says today. “We had a license to do anything. There were no cell phone cameras, no cameras at every intersection. You could commit almost any crime you wanted, get on the freeway and go home.”
It’s a weekday morning in January, and we’re sitting across from Frank in the back room of the HMS Bounty on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Mattioli and Spacone sit beside us. All three are understandably wary of this meeting. Though the authors have done several interviews to promote their book, this is the first time Frank has agreed to speak with the press. During our email exchange to set up the meeting, Mattioli and Spacone indicated they’d be bringing a lawyer along. At some point, they decided not to. Still, the implication is that certain questions just won’t be answered. When we ask Frank if he knows what became of any of his victims, he says, “No—a lot of times not,” before Mattioli cuts him off: “I wouldn’t get too much into that.”
As of this writing, the trio says they have not been contacted by law enforcement—at least not that they can confirm. “We’ve been getting questionable friend requests through our Facebook page, and the LAPD has been known to come at you this way,” Spacone says. “Photos of sexy women with very little profile, trying to chat us up. ‘Oh, we love Frank! Where’s Mad Manny?’ So there’s people sniffing around. But we’re not gonna fall for it.”
Today, Frank is 48 years old. At about 6’1” and roughly 220 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. Wearing a scally cap, a long black coat and a Native American-style necklace made by his old drive-by partner Mad Manny, he’s almost preternaturally soft-spoken. After getting arrested for attempted murder shortly after his 18th birthday in 1985, Frank walked out of jail and left gang life forever. Today he’s the father of two sons, ages 25 and 18, and he works at a private Christian university in Southern California. All of which raises the question: Why tell his story at all? Surely he has more to lose than gain by participating in a public recounting of his criminal past.
“It’s a lost chapter of L.A.’s history,” he replies. “And like anything else, you have the good history and the bad history. You can’t not include the bad history, even though it’s something that everyone would like to forget or write off. It just had to be told.”
In Frank’s view, you can separate the punk bands from the punk gangs but ultimately all the players occupy the same blood-stained corner of L.A.’s rich cultural tapestry. “No one’s told it from this side,” Mattioli ventures. “No one’s told it from the trenches. We felt it was just as important a presence as the music was.”
Mattioli and Spacone heard lurid tales of LMP’s exploits as suburban punks growing up in Cerritos, which borders La Mirada in the sprawling suburbs south of Los Angeles. They first ran into Frank in 1984 at a party in Lakewood hosted by mutual friend Mike McIntosh, a punk gangster and coke dealer who scored his weight from Compton gangbanger Eric Wright—who would later rise to prominence as Eazy-E of the groundbreaking rap squad N.W.A. “I first saw Frank at Mike’s, but I didn’t really meet him at that point,” Mattioli explains. “I’d heard the stories. I was scared shitless of LMP. We didn’t want anything to do with them.”
Mattioli says he didn’t officially meet Frank until ’91 or ’92—and then again with Spacone at McIntosh’s funeral in 1997. That’s where Frank started telling them some of the stories that would result in Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! “LMP had a very Mafia ethos in the way it set up its command and viewed itself,” Spacone says. “The fact that Frank and those guys knew us from back then, and that we had mutual friends, played an important part in the interview process for the book because Frank felt a sense of family.”
“There wasn’t really anybody else who I thought would take what I said into consideration and be able to run with it,” Frank adds. “And you’re not going to open up to just anybody.”
The interview process took over five years. One of the first stories Frank regaled the authors with concerned the killing of a man riding a Vespa through Hollywood. Here’s how Frank tells it in the book:
Running at full force, one of our comrades pulled out a long knife and stuck [the victim] deep in his ribcage. His wounded side stiffened up as he let out a grisly wail. The scooter wobbled nearly 50 feet before it collided with a wall and ejected the victim hard to the pavement…. From about ten feet away his condition looked grave. A pool of blood outlined his body… I watched his breathing become shallow. The veterans of my gang looked at death no differently than an ass beating…
At the beginning of the next chapter, Frank starts his freshman year of high school and buys his first switchblade. From there, his life snowballs into criminal chaos. A month into sophomore year, he stops going to school and does a stint at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, CA. By 1983, he and LMP are plotting to kill Mau Mau’s singer Rick Wilder for allegedly supplying a fatal dose of downers ingested by a female LMP associate. (The authors don’t name Wilder in the book, but they provide enough obvious hints for the reader to figure it out.) They commit perjury in open court to help an LMP member avoid an attempted murder charge after a gang fight leaves a rival with permanent brain damage. Later that year, Frank stabs a Mid City gang member who charges him outside a show at Florentine Gardens in Hollywood:
I spat in his face, catching him by surprise, then pulled my sure-to-be-trusted butterfly and, without nerve, stuck that motherfucker underneath his rib cage… He looked down and saw his own blood. His eyes lost all spirit, his body misplaced its fortitude. The Mid City Punk stumbled off, cursing for help… I was skyscraping from thrill, strength from achievement, top to toe.
When work on the book started, Frank’s attitude about the violence he’d seen and participated in was cavalier at best. “At the beginning everything seemed to be a bit funny,” Spacone offers. “I didn’t know a man could have so much laughter over so much bloodshed. And then, at the end of those five years, it wasn’t so funny to him anymore.”
“When I was going back over the stories, [I’d] have these moments of clarity,” Frank recalls. “It tormented me emotionally. I started thinking about the people, the victims, their families, and not being able to have closure with them. Waking up after some of those nights, it was a pretty haunting feeling.”
By age 18, Frank was doing drive-bys at the behest of local Latino gang CV3. At one point, he and a fellow LMP lit up three houses and an apartment building in a single afternoon. His career came to an abrupt end in the midst of a gang war at an outdoor punk show in Orange County when he stabbed a member of another gang in the chest and fled the scene. After spending a day hiding out from the cops, he turned himself in. Over the course of what must’ve been a particularly long night in jail, Frank found religion and decided to change his life. The next morning, the charges are mysteriously dropped and the reader is left with questions: Did Dad’s boss Sam Sciortino call in a favor to get Frank cut loose? Did God unlock the cell door?
Either way, Frank walked away from gang life forever in late 1985. “I had to,” he says now. “When I got saved, I found contentment in that and had to let go. When I started thinking about things deeper, about this person or that person, [I realized] you can’t make things right with a lot of these people anymore. The fact that I made everything right with God, I had to find comfort in that.”
Just in case, he stopped going to punk shows anyway. “There’s still gonna be bad blood,” he says. “It’s karma, too. One crew might go out and start shit with someone, and you might have to answer for their sins.”
Mattioli and Spacone realize that Frank’s born-again brand of self-absolution might not cut it for those seeking justice or revenge. “We knew and know a lot of people are upset that Frank is so okay with it,” Mattioli says. “Finding God—how convenient, you know? I felt the same way at first. But then you think, well, we’re all on our own path. You only have to answer to one person at the end, if you believe in that at all. Our job was to tell the story, not judge. But we know there’s a lot of judgments coming in.”
As it turns out, Frank’s eldest son is currently a member of a punk gang. “He met some girl who was into the book, so at least one of us is getting laid off it,” Frank says with a laugh. “I lecture him about drinking because he does drink and he does fight and he does party. I moved away from La Mirada hoping to avoid all that, but the apple don’t fall far from the tree, I guess.”
Frank’s other son is in his freshman year of college. “He’s a norm,” Frank offers. “He’s not into punk rock. He doesn’t really know what to make of the book.”
Frank’s post-gang life has been remarkably low-key. After getting out of jail, he started going to church. For a while, he went back to his job tinting car windows, working for a born-again ex-con named Indian who encouraged Frank’s transition to the straight-and-narrow civilian life. From there, he got married, had kids and worked in a retirement community for many years. “I had a whole new life, a whole new disposition,” he says. “I found a really good place and I stayed there.”
While being interviewed for the book, Frank was digging graves at a cemetery just outside of Los Angeles. There might’ve been a certain poetic penance in that job, but Frank seems to understand that tidy symbolism doesn’t matter in the long run.
“There’s a lot of things I regret, a lot of things I did wrong,” he says. “But it’s a double-edged sword. Without those things, I wouldn’t have become who I am. So you have to take the journey. That’s what I did.”