Punk Rock Still Rules (My Heart), And Corporate Rock Still Sucks
Whenever I need a sure shot of inspiration, I can always count on the music of my formative years, the punk rock of the 80s. There are several reasons why this particular genre and era of music speak to me so intensely. First and foremost, the music resonated with the anger that was my constant state of emotion in my adolescence, and continues to resonate with the frustration I feel about society today. Punk also upended the notion that one had to be a competent musician to make music. The bands I listened to in those days had varying degrees of talent, but they all tapped into a kind of primal feeling that as a teen I was rarely able to articulate but knew when I felt it. It was akin to that heady rush one gets after a few beers where you feel the percolating prospect of something momentous happening, but you’re never quite sure what it is. Most times that feeling fails to materialize into anything, but that never stopped me from chasing it, because that feeling was potential at a time in my life when there seemed to be anything but. Seeing and listening to this music convinced me that any time I wanted, I could pick up an instrument and start playing. (That didn’t happen in actuality until much later, and by then it wasn’t realistic to become a real touring musician.) Ultimately, the bands that were making incredible music and giving my life purpose were made up of people just like me. We were kindred spirits through our perceived “outsider” status, and while my favorite bands were actually living the rock and roll dream, I was content (mostly) to experience their way of life and the music that came from it vicariously. It’s astonishing how great new music brings that feeling instantly back, and it has been rekindled anew by reading the super fun oral history of notorious Trenton, NJ music club City Gardens in the book City Gardens: No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes.
The tale of City Gardens is told chronologically, show-by-show, by the club staff, regulars and bands who performed there. The sum of all this testimony makes it sound like quite a place. As an actual place, It was a nondescript warehouse structure (capacity 1,200) in the middle of the worst section of Trenton on Calhoun Street. Worse than that, the property was on the divide between two municipalities, Trenton and Ewing township. They rarely got help from the cops because each police department would invariably pass it off on the other jurisdiction. These reasons alone would prevent most venues from becoming a mecca for hardcore punk and new wave bands and their fans, but City Gardens was successful in no small measure through the sheer love of this new music that existed far outside the mainstream of American radio. This was the nascent stages of a music scene that did ultimately become commercially viable by the early 90s with Nirvana and the “alternative” music gold rush, but before then it was a matter of like minded freaks finding each other, sometimes at risk to their personal safety, in the unlikeliest of places. Fans and musicians alike might have feared for their lives (and equipment) getting to City Gardens, but once inside they found a home where their particular brand of musical weirdness was warmly accepted. It’s a classic “if you build it they will come” story. (Fun fact: future “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart worked there as a bartender.)
The book opens, appropriately enough, with a recounting of one of the most notorious bands and shows ever to have played at the venue. The band was the Butthole Surfers, who are truly one of the most unique and terrifying bands in punk history. America has a propensity for freaks who, unable to fit into conventional lives, roam the land and wreak their special style of havoc on their fans and the mere curious. The Butthole Surfers were such a band (in the rich tradition of Kerouac, Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Captain Beefheart, Ween, The Melvins, etc.). They basically lived out of their van, did copious amounts of drugs and played whatever venues that would have them with a production that included stripper go-go dancers, horrific films depicting auto accidents and surgeries played in the background, strobe lights and lighter fluid poured on cymbals that shot flames up to the ceiling whenever they were hit. This was the groovy light show from the 60s turned into a non-stop bad trip (“How’s this for peace and love, you damn hippies!”). Their City Gardens gig ended with the club staff worrying the place was going to burn to the ground and the band refusing to leave until they got paid. Though fortunately not all performances were as harrowing, the Butthole Surfers episode sets the stage for the development of a music scene that attracted misfits who were oftentimes wont to make mischief. A few bottles might have been broken, tires slashed and fights started, but isn’t it preferable for these kids to take out their frustrations on each other instead of unsuspecting suburbanites and middle class Americans?
We have always had our fair share of freaks in America, but the question has always been where and how do they find each other? In reading the accounts of some of the better known bands from this era, the way they built their own networks of fans and performance venues sounds like a precursor to Facebook and our social media outlets. The band that blazed this trail and practically built the non-mainstream club circuit that exists today is Black Flag, who in turn modeled their approach on fellow Canadian punkers D.O.A. Black Flag’s touring philosophy was simple: “Get in the van.” It didn’t matter what the weather was, how much sleep you had, how much food you had to eat, or even if it was 5 or 500 people who turned out to see you play, you showed up without fail, played the gig to the best of your ability and without complaint, and moved on to the next city.
Black Flag hailed from Hermosa Beach, CA, but they had an uncanny ability to find those hole in the wall places throughout the United States that would allow bands like them to play. When playing these venues, they would cross paths with other bands, resulting in an exchange of information about their respective home turfs, as well as both celebratory and cautionary tales from the road. Their first shows always attracted a curious few, but then those folks would tell others and their audience grew accordingly. They made friends who would give them places to stay, feed them and refer them to friends in other cities who would do the same. Friend by friend, club by club, city by city, Black Flag established their network and built themselves into a relentless touring machine. They left behind in their wake kids inspired enough by their performances and their fuck you attitude to start their own bands that would tour the same circuits. Other kids would start fanzines or work in independent record stores (remember those?) that got the word out about this music even more. Now, of course, it’s so much easier to get the word out through social media and the internet, but it’s instructive to hearken back to a time when those platforms did not exist. It just goes to show that, yesterday or today, the kids will find a way and, like modern day hobos, flash signs through various channels to spread their message: Weird and different are celebrated here.
The same holds true for a venue like City Gardens as well. In actuality, a venue is just a building with four walls and a roof. It might have a decent interior, superior lighting and sound system, the cheapest drinks and best-looking waitresses and bartenders, but none of these things make a damn bit of difference in terms of the club’s longevity. It’s all about the people. City Gardens started when Randy Now, a fanatic record collector and local DJ, asked to spin records at the venue for supplemental income (by day he was a postal carrier) and an outlet for his passions. Like a beacon detected only by ears attuned to strange, exotic sounds, punk and new wave fans in Trenton, NJ and environs started to flock to this space where they could hear music they enjoyed and hang out with like minded fans. Because many of these people felt like outcasts in their everyday lives, City Gardens gave them a haven where they could let their freak flags fly, and the bands who played there were a reflection of the audience. As a scene is building, its venue feels like a secret hideout among an eclectic group of friends, but then word spreads, pouring more people with different tastes and affinities in to the mix. This inevitably leads to factions developing within the same group, such as skinhead punks splintering off into a more racist, white-power, Nazi type of skinhead, and these factions would sometimes result in clashes. If a group of punks took exception to a certain band or the philosophy they represented, they would be known to stand at the front of the stage and hock loogies on the singer for their entire set. There were times City Gardens was as much of a battlefield inside as it was out in this infamously bad part of town.
The rise in violence (and subsequent lawsuits) as the club grew in popularity resulted in the “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes” policy. Once “the man” steps in with his rules that cramp the style of the patrons, it usually spells the end of an era. This is illustrated in the story recounted in the book when the veteran patrons of City Gardens held a reunion gathering many years later at the club now operating under different owners and a different name. The regulars of the new establishment did not take kindly to these old fogies coming in and reminiscing about their spiked bracelets and colored hair, and the reunion ended up being a disappointment. No, you really can’t go home again, nor can you recreate the exact circumstances that bring disparate people together from all walks of life. Like life itself, it’s a matter of random chemistry, and the scene disintegrates just as inexplicably as it starts.
The closest thing to City Gardens in my own experience was a club in Savannah that my friends and I used to frequent called the Night Flight. It did not have near the notoriety as City Gardens, probably due to the fact that Savannah did not have near the punk scene that Trenton did (those hip to punk and new wave typically drove four hours to Athens or Atlanta for their fix), plus the musical mainstay of the club owners was blues and folk. Still, the rising tide of bands cropping up in Georgia and the South looking for a place – any place – to play could not be denied, and the occasional booking of these bands at the Night Flight happened to coincide with my wing-stretching high school years and falling in with a group of fellow outsiders who greatly inflamed my musical tastes and drinking habits, both of which the Night Flight was able to accommodate quite nicely. The older sister of a friend and regular patron of the club helped us get in at 15 or 16 by convincing management to look the other way. It’s an embarrassment that the first drinks I ordered in those days were daiquiris, which is not only a telltale sign of being underage but a sure way to piss off bartenders who are loath to making frou-frou drinks like that. Not rock and roll at all, but it didn’t take me long to learn how to conduct myself and start ordering drinks like a quasi-grownup (and tipping accordingly to keep the bartenders and waitresses happy).
A few of the bands who played the Night Flight went on to national acclaim and followings, such as R.E.M. (who I somehow missed when they stopped through), 10,000 Maniacs and Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. Most of the bands that we saw (The Brains, The Swimming Pool Q’s, Love Tractor) never were able to break beyond their regional success, even when they managed to get signed by mainstream record labels. In hindsight, it was a good rule of thumb that if the band played the Night Flight with any frequency, say once a quarter, they weren’t touring far enough afield to go anywhere. Again, that didn’t make any difference to us because their appearances, no matter how frequent, were events to me and my friends, and were helping us to realize not only the rich and abundant musical possibilities that existed outside Savannah, but that there was also a way to connect with these bands in ways other than staring at their photos on album covers. I mean, you could actually hang out and talk to these guys (that is, if they weren’t holed up in the office upstairs doing blow)! By the time I enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in ’83, I was ready to immerse myself in its vibrant music scene as much as time, studies and available cash would allow, and this was where I caught up on such punk/new wave luminaries as R.E.M. (finally!), The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Black Flag, the Minutemen, Redd Kross, Sonic Youth and more than I’ll ever be able to remember. For this reason, I credit the Night Flight as the start of my musical coming of age.
There’s no way to adequately describe the feeling when witnessing a soul-stirring live music event in a familiar room, especially when the music played is something new and interesting from what was being played on mainstream radio. Savannah at the time didn’t have any alternative radio stations, and the only time you might be able to hear tracks from punk or new wave bands was if the weather permitted you to pick up a station from Jacksonville (which was the way I heard The Pretenders’ “Message of Love” for the first time and thought, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!”). All other music that was worth a damn we had to get through recommendations of friends at record stores, magazines (mainly Rolling Stone, since fanzines didn’t exist where we were) or by sheer chance. Seeing great music live rendered the bands who made the music real and relatable, and seeing the bands at the Night Flight meant we no longer had to wait long stretches to settle for live rock and roll in the form of shitty bands like Foreigner playing at the civic center. The Night Flight’s listening room was fairly small and probably couldn’t have held many more than 150 people, if that, but bands that were able to pack that room and rouse the crowd made it seem as though a thousand were in attendance. On the beat or not, hitting the right note or not, none of that mattered as long as the band delivered a ravenous energy and passion in their playing that mirrored your own, and the pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming beauty of it was that you were standing less than ten feet away from the people making this transformational music on the stage. Those were times when the band’s impact made the audience somehow seem larger-than-life, creating enough of a legend around certain performances that more people claimed to be there than actually were.
For those of us who dug the new sounds of punk and truly appreciated its in-your-face style of confronting status quo, it was fun to see how the local audience reacted to this music. One notable example was Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. It was apparent when we arrived at the club for their show that the band’s use of the word “Nashville” in the name had attracted some folks who were expecting a conventional country band. From the moment they hit the stage and ripped into the first bars of raucous country punk (or cow punk as it was later dubbed), the Scorchers proved beyond a shadow of doubt they were anything but conventional. It was a thrill in itself to hear a genre of music we generally reviled turned on its ear, but it was a revelation to see the band blur the wall between band and audience. Lead singer Jason Ringenberg would contort himself crossing back and forth on that tiny stage until he had become completely entangled in his mic cord, guitarist Warner E. Hodges created a thunderous wall of sound and liked to sling the guitar behind his back, drummer Perry Baggs slammed his kit like a madman and platinum-blonde, spike-haired bassist Jeff Johnson stoically held down the backbeat. The band may have worn the customary country music attire – Nudie shirts, cowboy hats and bolo ties – but their subversion of country (which truly was done out of love for the genre) was enough to drive those disgusted audience members from the room. For outcasts like us, that was a victory. Yeah, that’s right, get the hell out of here, this is OUR music, and we’re taking over this station! Or at least that’s how it felt while we bounced around in that cramped, overheated space to this country music on crystal meth. (Between the release of their independent ep, Fervor, and their major label-produced debut album, the record label made the band drop “Nasvhille” from their name, no doubt to avoid alienating any more true country music fans like this again. The band was never the same – or as good.)
As a devoted fan to this music, I was slowly coming to the realization that it was one thing to see it but quite another to be it. I was feeling a stronger and stronger temptation to cross the line, but I had no idea how that might happen or what it might look like. I had returned to Savannah during the summer of ’84 after a miserable first year at Chapel Hill, where going to see bands by myself was the only saving grace of my freshman year. I got a job at the Night Flight that summer as doorman and outside keg bartender, which was the worst thing I could have possibly done, because it meant I was invariably working when my friends were there partying. I now realize that this was a period of intense isolation for me, and I was looking for an escape, both from my current mental state and from the prospect of returning to Chapel Hill’s large and impersonal campus in the fall. That escape presented itself in the form of one of the few, if not only, hardcore bands to have played at the Night Flight.
Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades hailed from Jacksonville, FL, and the Night Flight was their very first stop on a nationwide tour that was going to give them their ticket out of Jacksonville and catapult them to international stardom. Or so was their dream. They had left Jacksonville like a house on fire, taking time to grab only their most prized possessions, along with a 25 pound bag of rice to eat with kimchee on the road as their only sustenance. The drummer had brought along with him every pair of sneakers he owned (he had quite a collection) and all of his vinyl albums, including Twisted Sister’s just released Stay Hungry album that he couldn’t stop raving about. Because I was an employee of the club, I was able to introduce myself and spend time with them, and as we got to talking I offered my services in showing them around during their stay. This included taking their lily-white punk asses to the beach at Tybee Island, which was a hilarious incongruity. I also took the bass player to the same tattoo parlor where I got one of my tattoos.
We bonded very quickly, and on the eve of departing Savannah for the next stop on their tour, they asked if I would come along as their roadie. The band may very well have been messing with me or hoping to get free labor from a gullible sucker, but all I could think was, “This is my ticket out! I may never be an actual musician, but this is my chance – perhaps my only chance – to be on the delivering end of this music that I love.” I went back to where I was staying that night and proceeded to work up my courage beer-by-beer. At some ungodly hour in the morning, I drunk-called my mother to tell her what I planned to do. I should have known that I was doing this subconsciously as a way to stop myself, because my mother predictably talked me out of taking such a drastic step with more calm than I probably deserved after proposing to throw away my college career and future by following a stupid punk band – and being drunk off my ass. The next morning, I met the band at their van and sheepishly told them that I wasn’t going with them. Ever since, I’ve never been able to get rid of that “what if?” itch, but it’s probably best I didn’t go. I still have that cheap cassette they were selling on the tour, but I never saw the band or Stevie again. Recently I came across this article that recounts Stiletto’s ignominious end, back on his home turf of Jacksonville. If it’s true you can never go home again, it may also be true that some never manage to leave home either.
Punk is, first and foremost, a state of mind, and minds change and grow – and grow up. This is the reason City Garden’s glory days documented in the book can’t last forever. That’s why the Night Flight now exists only as a Facebook page where people submit photos and memories of their time there. I do miss the way 80s punk gave me a loud fuck you and a finger to poke in the eye of the Powers That Be at a time when Reagan and his conservative ilk began their wrecking of the economy on behalf of wealthy benefactors with their trickle-down and supply-side bullshit. Punk’s D.I.Y. ethos demanded that if society rejected what you had to offer, then you kicked against the pricks and did it anyway, if only out of spite.
Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a form of pop music to spark a true social movement. Just as music’s envelope-pushing in the 60s failed to raise the consciousness of the hippie generation, punk’s legacy seems to be providing an outlet for emotional and physical frustrations, and that’s it. They’re called punks for a reason, I guess. The corporate takeover of our policy and lives that punk protested then (summed up by record label SST’s famous “Corporate rock sucks” bumpersticker), continues to run rampant today (echoed by Kurt Cobain in the 90s with a t-shirt on which he sharpie-scrawled “Corporate rock still sucks”), with attention on real issues such as income inequality, the destruction of the middle class and the safety net for our most needy deflected to shopping (“Hey, kids, check out this bitchin’ new record by the band Kochs Heart Punks!”). Where are the punk bands of today to call bullshit on this? It seems kids come out of the womb these days knowing how to write songs and play an instrument, what with all the technology available at their fingertips, but they lack the piss and vinegar that makes their music stand for something, that expresses a vision of society where everyone is respected and valued, no matter if – hell, especially if – they’re considered different or strange. Either that or I must acknowledge that I’m too long in the tooth to recognize a youth movement if it bit me on the ass.
Politics aside, I’ve been content to mine strains of the punk sound and vibe in a world of extreme music that I continue to explore today (a subject for another blog post). Instead of protesting a society and political structure that doesn’t accept them, bands playing extreme metal (satanic/death/black/grind/etc., where punks ended up when they learned how to play their instruments) attempt to completely remove themselves from society by cloaking themselves in taboos, such as death, satanism, apocalypse, horror, gore and so on, in addition to adorning themselves with corpse paint and other scary accouterments. Instead of “us against the world,” it’s “fuck/burn/destroy the world.” While I will always hold out hope for a societal movement seeking collective change and speaking truth to power through confrontational music, the youth revolution of unruly music today has moved further underground than I am able to follow, or perhaps resides in some City Gardens or Night Flight that has yet to be created. Listen carefully and don’t be alarmed by what you hear. It’s just the kids getting their kicks and making noise as they kick conventional wisdom and authority’s ass in the mosh pit by way of figuring out how to make a life crafted by their rules, not yours.
While I was able to find this extensive Spotify playlist (nearly 260 songs clocking in at over 14 hours of music) of the bands that played at City City Gardens, I wanted to create a Spotify playlist of the punk/new wave bands from the Night Flight days. That was a bit harder to do because, sadly, the music is not as readily available, or perhaps on streaming platforms other than Spotify. At any rate, I managed to scrounge together a few tracks that can be played below (with a Spotify account, that is), and readers who think of others can give them a shout-out in the comments section.
Annotations are as follows:
- The Swimming Pool Q’s – This Atlanta band was a guaranteed good time the many times they played the Night Flight. They had two lead singers, eccentrically-dressed dweeb Jeff Calder and the deep-voiced Anne Richmond Boston, who despite her own nerdish appearance was the crush of every red-blooded male in the room. The band’s secret weapon was guitarist Bob Elsey, who was (and still is) an absolute badass, though you would never know it by the understated way he conducted himself on stage and his everpresent jeans jacket and Chuck Taylors. They built enough of a following in Savannah to pack Night Flight’s listening room to the rafters, from which Jeff Calder often hung and swung when doing a marathon workout of the song “Make Be Bigger Than the USA.” They’re still active, I guess because Jeff Calder still believes he can make it big (bigger than the USA?).
- Glenn Phillips – I have to admit, I was never a huge fan of this Atlanta guitarist who played predominantly instrumental and avant-garde music. My friends and I would laugh at the way this dude with the bald dome and stringy side hair would skronk on the guitar while constantly twiddling the knobs on his effects board. I’ve included him on this playlist because he played the Night Flight a lot, and he was Bob Elsey’s guitar teacher, who my friends and I worshipped.
- Jason and the Nashville Scorchers – I don’t have much more to add about these guys than what I’ve written above. This was a cut off their first e.p., Fervor, when they still had “Nashville” in their name, and this song gives you a taste of what that scorch felt like. As far as I can tell, they’re still active, having released their most recent album, Halcyon Days, in 2010. It ain’t bad!
- R.E.M. – The band that needs no introduction and went on to dwarf them all. While a lot of the Night Flight bands came from Atlanta, Athens proved to be the real springhead of new and adventurous music, and R.E.M. was the band that led the pack, all the way up to their retirement in 2011. R.I.P. R.E.M. I hate that I missed them at Night Flight.
- 10,000 Maniacs – Here’s another band that I really couldn’t stand, although I’ve since become a fan of singer Natalie Merchant’s solo music. These guys might have traveled the furthest – all the way from New York – to play Night Flight, and this is probably due to exchanging notes with Merchant’s close friend, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. They played a style of jangly guitar pop that few bands other than R.E.M. were able to pull off without sounding twee, and Merchant had a pretentious way of starting her performance all shy and demure in glasses and a cardigan sweater, which she systematically shed until by the end of their set she was a whirling dervish caught up in the spirit of rock and roll. Except it wasn’t rock and roll. Not by a long shot. Don’t get me started.
- Love Tractor – Another band I didn’t much care for because, as far as I was concerned, they were yet another Athens band riding R.E.M.’s coattails. They also played predominantly instrumental music, which bored the hell out of me. Just not my cup of tea, but worthy of inclusion due to the many times they played the club.
- Stevie Stiletto (R.I.P.) – I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this guy, for the reasons articulated above. I was amazed to be able to find any of his music at all on Spotify. I have no idea when this particular track was recorded, but it was the closest I could come to the cheap cassette made in 1983 with folded lyric sheet inside that I still have in my possession.