Local punk didn’t die, it went underground - to house gigs, desert shows, and the streets - where it’s been embraced by a new generation
Thu, Aug 21, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
It's close to dusk, and the roar of an Air Force F-15 screams through the air. East Side Joe covers his ears slightly. His place, which everyone calls East Side Joe’s, looks like the sort of place that might be the last spot you’re seen alive. Two decrepit houses sit on the eight-acre property; rotted-out refrigerators, shattered concrete foundations and destroyed air-conditioning units litter the ground. Signs warning that “Trespassers will be Shot” discourage the homeless and meth-using squatters from coming too close. Nails dot the dirt like gravel, and spray-painted logos, including one that confusingly says “Fuck Mars,” decorate the flat surfaces.
Inside the main house, a hand-built skate ramp fills the living room, which is decorated with layers of spray-painted skulls and other tags. Thanks to a broken air-conditioner, the house stays at a balmy 95 degrees. Joe’s pit bull mix barks from a locked-up room. If there was a home-design channel celebrating squalor, this place would have its own show.
In other words, it’s the perfect place to serve as mainstay of the Valley’s stubbornly persistent, surprisingly lively, under-the-radar, DIY punk scene. At least once a month the faithful gather here for another show. It’s hard to get an accurate nose count of Vegas punks—regulars in the scene will tell you they always see new faces—but most estimates are in the vicinity of 200 or so, mostly young. They gather for shows mostly in houses or desert locales, occasionally in coffee shops that will have them.
In a way, East Side Joe’s is a symbol of a community in flux: venues have closed, fights have broken out, and people have grown up. So the scene’s identity is in question. Yet it remains strong enough that some might even call it a punk renaissance. Question is, how long can it last?
Punk has a history in Las Vegas. Since this mongrel breed of rock ’n’ roll burst upon the country in the late ’70s, punk has left a definitive mark on the local music scene. Bands such as Self Abuse, Subterfuge, M.I.A. and others defined the 1980s punk community, a community that existed in the living rooms, garages, warehouses and deserts of Southern Nevada. Now, nearly 30 years later, the faces and band names have changed, but many of the circumstances are the same. House shows, garage gigs and shows in the desert are still commonplace—a series of mountainous caves west of the city, which hosted gigs in the early ’80s, still do. But there is something new to this incarnation of the scene. Punks have a larger city, they have larger personalities and ultimately a larger amount of things—including the fate of their own scene—left in their own hands.
For a wiry dude wearing an oversized shirt, baggy shorts and a ball cap over his shaved head, East Side Joe can be intimidating at first. His face is scarred from fights and skateboarding wrecks, and he isn’t afraid to talk about his Glock .40. If you saw him on the streets, you’d think he was a thug looking to sell your kids dope. But Joe’s actually a shy guy wrapped in brutal honesty. He says he’s served time in jail for assault in the past, but now the 28-year-old’s a partner in a telecommunications firm that supposedly takes in millions in profits.
A minute after he’s told you about his company, he explains that the toilet inside his small, tattered shack in North Las Vegas doesn’t work and that water hasn’t been running in his house for nearly a year. And that in this same house, four or five people were brutally killed back in the ’50s.
Since moving into the house nearly two years ago from a posh Sunrise Mountain-area home, Joe’s hosted more than 20 concerts in the place and doesn’t plan to stop soon. Internationally known bands such as the U.K.’s Citizen Fish have played the venue, as have touring groups such as The Prosthetics, along with local outfits such as The Happy Campers.
“I just like to host shows,” Joe says. “It’s honestly the perfect place to do them. Kids come out here and have a good time.”
Unlike at the city’s major venues—House of Blues, the Joint, the Pearl—at Joe’s you can trash shit. In Joe’s you can do whatever you want—as long as you don’t go too far. No fighting. No hardcore drugs.
“People know who’s in charge here,” Joe says. To this day, he’s only had to kick one kid off his property and only had to deal with one fight.
“I took them into the house, put boxing gloves on them and said, ‘If you want to fight, you have to do it like this, or I’ll kick you out,’” Joe says. The two fought, and their beef was over.
Something about all this junk, the broken water pipes and the busted AC represents, to Joe, a hope in a punk scene like the one he grew up in, a scene that Joe misses. “You know, we had … the Huntridge Theatre, and there were lots of great shows there,” Joe laments. “But now there’s nothing … That’s why I want to do shows here … and I will as long as I’m on the land.”
For a second, close to the turn of the millennium, punk seemed to be at its pinnacle in the city. The explosion of pop-punk bands such as Blink-182, Green Day, Lagwagon, MxPx and others propelled the music into a major scene nationally. The Huntridge Theatre and Sanctuary concert venues rang alive with the sounds of this second wave of Vegas punk, even if it was a watered-down version of the anarchistic and political sound that came more than 10 years earlier. It was around that time that Mel Howard, a 30-year-old onetime punk-rock kid from California who moved to Vegas to handle tigers for Siegfried & Roy, decided to open his alternative clothing boutique, Cash 4 Chaos.
“It’s a pretty big one,” Joe says, refusing to divulge the company’s name. “You’d know its name if I said it.”
Since then, Howard, now 40, and his store have had an irrevocable influence on the scene he’s watched grow.
“Things in the city have grown, mostly. Those first two years we opened, we struggled,” sometimes getting perhaps three customers a day, Howard says as he reclines in his cramped office. “Now we get around 40 to 50 people a day in here. Honestly, I thought it would be over by now.”
For a boutique like Cash 4 Chaos, which sells primarily band T-shirts, bondage pants, leather combat boots, records, wallets, chains and everything else not typically seen in most fashion trends, that’s huge. “It seemed like there were only around 30 kids [in the scene] back then,” Howard says. “But it definitely seemed cooler back then also.”
While the city’s growth was beginning to hit record pace, Howard says the unity of the small punk community in town—defined by such bands as the west side’s United and the east side’s Splatter Punx—was at its pinnacle. It was easier to know who was who, and where to see shows at places other than bars. But lack of size meant lack of shows. That’s not such a problem now. Even without an all-ages venue, bands can often pull in around 200 kids to a show.
“Things have just gotten so huge now, you can bring big bands to town [and have more than 10 kids show up],” Howard says. “It’s self-perpetuating, but [enthusiasm] in the scene really comes month to month. Our job is to stay as cutting-edge as possible.”
But with visibility comes criticism. Some in the scene complain that Howard’s store commercializes something that shouldn’t be commercial. That the tried-and-true ethos behind punk, the do-it-yourself mentality, dies with places like Cash 4 Chaos. So Howard walks a fine line between alienating potential customers and almost fighting with them when they come into the store talking trash.
“We still do good, because we don’t talk shit,” Howard says bluntly. “I remember faces, though, so these kids shouldn’t think, when they come in, that I don’t remember when they were in this store with their parents asking them to buy stuff.”
The body of a 130-pound kid flies onto the hood of a 1990s coupe. The hood crumples under his weight, barely audible over the sounds of bottles shattering, chains clanging and profanity erupting everywhere. It’s total, vicious hand-to-hand combat in the parking lot of local coffee haunt Rejavanate during a muggy, dingy Saturday night in July, and it seems that nothing’s going to stop this brawl. Local punk-show promoter Mike Williams runs out of the lounge, where he has been helping move his band’s stuff so LA punk group Naked Aggression can get ready to play. “Stop the goddamn fighting!” Williams screams as he runs into the crowd. He hops onto a light-post column and yells for attention, but the fight continues. Pissed off and hearing the wail of sirens, Williams calls off the show, bumming out the leftover, nonfighting crowd.
Chaos and all, it’s nothing new for the 18-year-old Williams.
“That was my first fight at a show,” he says. “But it wasn’t the first fight I’ve seen at a show.”
Williams got his first taste of punk in Vegas at age 14, when he heard legendary California punk forefathers Bad Religion. He began putting together shows shortly after. “At first I was booking shows at this Mexican restaurant in North Las Vegas,” Williams says. “But I was never really super-consistent with it. I just like to bring good bands to town.”
Williams is pretty busy for your average punk. Playing in two bands—crust group IN//TERROR and thrash outfit Blatant—while working for the electrical workers union and volunteering for former punk and hardcore record store Community of Friends, Williams is a young and dedicated force in Vegas punk.
It’s not all music and rowdy fun. Sometimes being the guy who puts together the show—and therefore takes the cash—can make you the bad guy in the eyes of fellow punk rockers. Williams often finds himself turning away people who refuse to pay, people who are his friends and who just don’t want to spend money to get into a show. Because that’s the punk ethos. It’s an eternal struggle: Pay the bands or help out friends. More often than not, Williams will get friends to pony up the cash, but that’s gotten him flack from many members of the scene, who criticize him and other concert venues for losing punk’s DIY and from-the-street mentality.
“It’s tough to try to be cool sometimes,” Williams says. Example: It can be hard getting people not to drink in the parking lots during shows, a major issue that can get your show shut down.
“You can’t stop people from drinking [at shows], but you have to be cool,” Williams says. “Even though I’m a punk, and I want to listen to your story, I have a touring band to help out.” Williams takes no cash from his shows, using all money collected to pay the venue and the bands.
“A lot of people do it for the money,” Williams says. “But I just want to help the scene out.”
It’s nearing sundown as Broads guitarist Michelle “Shelly” Urban, 20, helps unpack drummer Cuca Escobar’s car and load her drums into the living room of Urban’s parents’ house. Compared to the usual haunts they perform in, including desert caves and slum houses, this west-side home is luxury. A swamp cooler blows cool air through an 8-by-11-inch hole in the wall while Escobar, 17, carefully maneuvers her cymbals and toms around Urban’s tan, thickly upholstered couch. Two older organs sit wedged against the wall while the girls crack about using them in one of their songs. Not long after, the Broads crank out their patented gynocentric rage, no doubt to the chagrin of the neighborhood. It’s a suburban nightmare, being stuck next door to a practicing punk band, but for the group of girls, this isn’t about looking cool or caring if you piss off the neighbors. If you’re going to be a punk in Las Vegas, the Broads say, you have to have respect.
But, in a growing scene full of kids barely passing puberty, respect is hard to define. “People don’t respect their elders in this scene, absolutely not,” Broads singer Malley Rosen, 18, says. “There’s people who are old-school and they don’t even dress it anymore, but some kids think you have to wear the tight pants and have a ’hawk to be punk. You don’t.”
Without the elders’ advice or influence, fights happen and fractiousness in the scene, particularly among punks themselves, grows at an alarming rate, Rosen says.
“But there’s guys … who know and have knowledge [of the scene] and shit. But some kids think that because they have boots on, they’re cool, but it shouldn’t be that way.”
As a member of the first generation of Vegas punk, Dirk Vermin has seen it all, and he’s putting it into a book: Boredom Was the Reason, an account of the scene in its heyday, set to be released in 2009.
Ask Vermin about today’s underground punk community, and he’ll admit that he has no idea about it. “I’m too old,” Vermin says with a hint of sarcasm. “But what do I care about what a 15-year-old kid thinks of me?”
Vermin’s sentiments are not uncommon in the older punk community—the scene is divided along generational lines: the over-21 crowd (typified by Vermin) and the underagers (Williams). The older ones have hubs such as the Double Down and Squiggy’s; the younger punks find themselves with few places to perform or hang out. This explains the recent spate of guerrilla house and desert shows. But for the most part, the scene is hobbled by brawls, noise complaints, underage drinking in parking lots and the inherent destructive nature of punk kids. Nearly every venue that’s hosted shows for the all-ages punk crowd has shut down. Simply put: Adults who don’t have to be around punk kids acting stupid won’t, says Howard. But the lack of interaction from the elder generation ends up creating a cycle of apathy, according to Rosen, which threatens the very fiber of the punk community in Las Vegas.
“Because of the lifestyle it is, you’re loud, you’re obnoxious, and people think you have to be that way all the time to be cool,” she says. “You don’t … and … there’s no respect. Kids don’t give a fuck, they just want to ‘be cool.’”
Vermin, though, scoffs at the idea of being some kid’s role model. He’s got enough on his plate, from his own kids to his tattoo shop and his band. Life is packed for the 42-year-old. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the good times he had when he was younger.
“When you’re in the middle of [the scene], you don’t think about being 20 or 25 … you’re in the moment … and it’s great,” Vermin says. “Preserving that time is an obsession to me.”
If you push punk’s in-your-face, DIY ethos past the music and politically charged mind-set and into the realm of total lifestyle, you arrive at the sort of punk fundamentalism practiced by homeless kids Biggs, Amber, Tim and Braley. On this day, the quartet lounges in front of a local Starbucks, looking scary with their messy hair and general dishevelment. A businesswoman scrambles past, clutching her cup.
“Do you got a dollar?” Tim asks her. She doesn’t answer, but shoots Tim an evil stare. “Man! That was rude!” Tim yells. “If I was a girl, I might have to beat you up.”
It seems childish, begging for food and living on the street, especially when they don’t have to. But they say it’s the most fun they’ve had in their lives. It’s something that most kids don’t do, abandoning all their possessions for a life on the streets, but Biggs & Co. find their street lives to be closer to the true tenets of punk living.
“We’re all a giant community,” Braley says. “You can drop me in a city anywhere, and I’ll know where to go, and I’ll find people.”
It’s that community and the abandoning of all social norms that defines Biggs and his friends’ version of punk, a version much different from that held by those more interested in the music. That’s not surprising; definitions of punk vary depending on whom you talk to.
“When punk broke out in 1977 and 1978, it was a reaction against how boring, stupid and commoditized music, especially rock, had become once the major labels got a stranglehold on it,” says former Dead Kennedys lead singer and punk forefather Jello Biafra. “All of a sudden we were being fed soft rock, the Eagles, disco crap and Saturday Night Fever as role models, and things like that. So originally, punk just meant anything anti-’70s and anti-boredom and brought the true spirit of rock and roll and made rock rock again, so to speak.” It was, he says, the feeling of doing something that scared the hell out of people that made punk grow into what it is.
But today the fangs of punk rock are a little duller.
“I kind of miss how dangerous it was when we first started,” Biafra says. “I chopped off my hippie hair in ’77 and got the same feeling I did when I grew it out in the first place at age 11. All of a sudden I was this outlaw that freaked people out by walking down the street. I thought that was cool. So in a way, I’m disappointed that there still hasn’t been something else that’s scared the shit out of me like punk scared the shit out of ’70s people.”
Still, resonance matters. Thirty years after the fact, bands such as the Dead Kennedys, with their tirades against authority and challenges to the status quo, are still appealing. Biafra says punk’s inability to enter the commercial mainstream until the late ’90s could be one of the reasons why punk kids still sport back patches and buy CDs of his former band.
“Punk and new wave were interchangeable terms for a year or two before the majors decided that new wave was okay … and punk was bad. The good side of that is that the American punk underground grew more and more extreme. It never became massively popular until a decade or more ago. So it had almost 20 years in its underground form first.”
Howard thinks the reason punk is still alive is because punks of the ’70s and ’80s are passing down their musical passion to their kids.
“There’s something cool about that,” he says. “Parents can shock their kids by showing them how ‘cool’ they used to be.”
Biafra is of two minds on the subject.
“On one hand, it’s a real honor that people of any age still are interested in anything I say or do. On the other hand, to still see the logos for bands back in the day, including my own, on the back of a jacket as a symbol of rebellion of all things almost 30 years later, you wonder what they’re really rebelling against.”
To those at the front of the underground scene, the music and lifestyle resonate for reasons of aggression and acceptance for those feeling alienated from their more popular, prettier and more well-to-do peers.
“The music is still aggressive,” says Broads bassist Ryan Ackerman, 16. That aggression, as a result of the pressures of social awkwardness and alienation, says Ackerman, brings kids to the scene. There may be too few venues and too many fights; the cops may shut down house shows and sniff around East Side Joe’s; the older punks might ignore the scene; but there will always be plenty of kids who don’t fit in and who need music and friends loud and aggressive enough to express their angst. And so, going on 30 years, punk’s not dead in Vegas, and odds are it never will be.