Monday, September 29, 2014

Assholes Unite: Hardcore, violence, and the Denver Skins. Part 1

Circa 1984.

“Assholes Unite” was considered the self-proclaimed consciousness of the Denver Skins. That very slogan adorned by a giant swastika on the back of a repurposed white dress shirt belonged to a member of the group. The shirt was significant at the time, not only for its’ offensive in-your-face shock value, but it made a statement about the impending divisions within the punk scene.

An old punk relics. Artist: Bob Rob Medina 
Who and what exactly were the Denver Skins? I remember someone making a comment during a show at Kennedy’s Warehouse, “Those skins aren’t even from Denver, they’re from Aurora!” In the beginning, the Denver Skins didn’t hold overt racist or political leanings. It was a tight group of friends, mainly suburban teens with a lot of steam to blow off. They were typical in the sense that they drank, occasionally dabbled in drugs and identified with fast and aggressive music. Hardcore was their soundtrack to skating half-pipes and riding BMX bikes. I would argue that the prevailing attitude of the Denver Skins in its’ infancy stage came about as a reaction to the rules and ethos that punk was trying to establish.

Aurora Punks. Photo from the collection of Stuart. Artist: Bob Rob Medina 
The original Skinheads were a British subculture in the 1960’s that more or less faded into the background until punk rock exploded in mid-late 70’s. The resurgence of the skins splintered into two distinct camps; while both embraced the working class ethic and attitude, one faction held National Front (NF) leanings that paved the path towards the rise of nationalism and racism. The band Skrewdriver was one of the many dime-a-dozen British punk groups from the first wave in 1976-77. The band’s frontman, Ian Stuart (Donaldson) would later reform and reinvent the band in 1982. The new line-up seized the opportunity to be the center of the blooming white power movement that would infiltrate punk scenes globally. Denver would become one of those cities.

For the most part, the skins in Denver were tolerated. They did live up to their title of being "assholes" on the dance floor. One of their favorite tactics was jumping on the backs of unsuspecting people in front of the stage watching bands. There was a great deal of moaning about them from people within the scene. When the fanzine Lick It Up attempted to bring the joke band White Pride from St. Louis, it sparked quite a controversy. The skins had clearly carved out their own space in the scene and fostered an “us versus them” atmosphere that would linger for many years to come. In response to the White Pride flier, a group of punks authored an eight-page letter about the current state of the scene and calling for a boycott of the show. Jon of Citizen X printed and passed out his two-page response to the Boycott White Pride letter. Two of Denver’s weekly papers: Westword and Up The Creek picked up the story. San Francisco’s Maximum RockNRoll (MRR) reprinted all 8-pages of the original letter along with a letter from one of the author's Eliane. It was certain that once the news reached MRR, Denver’s punk scene would gain a reputation for being infiltrated by Nazis skinheads, which was hardly the case at the time.  

The flier that spurred the controversy. Collection of the author. 
Page 1 of 8, An Open Letter to the Denver Punks, regarding White Pride and the state of the Denver scene. I was handed this one evening at Kennedy's Warehouse. Collection of the author.
An excerpt from page 2. Collection of the author.
Excerpt from Jon (Citizen X ) "An open reply to the person(s) who wrote the boycott the White Pride letter." Collection of the author.
Excerpt from Gil Asakawa's Westword Article "As you reich it" Note the band's song titles and statement. Collection of the author.
With the skins gaining momentum and the closing of Kennedy’s Warehouse, older punks had become disillusioned with the changes in the scene and started dropping out and moving away. This was in early 1984, when most of the first wave of Denver’s hardcore bands such as Child Abuse, USA, White Trash, Frantix had all broken-up and moved on to start post-hardcore projects.

Circa 1981-83

Many punks from that first wave of Denver’s hardcore scene cite the Black Flag and the Circle Jerks shows at the Rainbow Music Hall in 1983 as a transitional period, the beginning of the end of the scene. Almost overnight there was an influx of hundreds of suburbanites with mohawks, buzz cuts, combat boots and leather jackets. The so-called punk look was taking shape and becoming more defined, verging on the concept of a uniform thanks to album covers, fanzines, and the mass media. I can certainly state that I bought into those aesthetics.  
Punk rockers Jeff, Tracy of A.S.F., and Jim hanging out at Kennedy's Warehouse. Original Photograph by Kat Parker. Artist: Bob Rob Medina
Most agree that the influence of skinheads and Oi music (a blend of pub and punk rock with working class sensibilities) influence on American punk and hardcore is a direct import from across the pond. The fashion (boots, braces, Fred Perry’s, shaved heads, fins, painted leather jackets, spikes, Creepers, etc.) was easily digestible for American kids looking for a uniform that would easily classify them as punk rockers or skinheads. New York and later London were clearly responsible for creating and defining a punk look. Little shops popped up all across America selling punk clothes and accessories. Denver’s version was Fashion Disaster. Some Denverites even made the journey to Los Angeles, to go shopping at places like Nana’s and Poseurs to get their fashion consumerism on. There’s no denying that the punk look was essentially a commodity that my peers and I subscribed to. In contrast, taking a peek back to early 80’s American hardcore, the bands and people at shows were more or less ordinary looking teens and young adults decked out in t-shirts and jeans sporting buzz-cuts. Point in case, Black Flag didn’t look like the Exploited.  

The looming violence

During the early eighties, punk was a threat. It attracted kids that didn’t fit in, to kids who were looking to be different, and to those that liked the aggression and violent aspect of the music. Hardcore punk didn’t start out as let’s sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. The music begged for a hostile reaction such as running around in a circle slamming into others in the pit and on the sidelines. The dance floor might consist of a handful of kids at a local gig or hundreds at a Dead Kennedy’s show. Larger concerts attracted more attention, thus drawing-in the curious and new, several that had their own interpretation of what it meant to be and act punk. The chaos and violence would soon be inevitable.

In many ways, punks were only united by their outcast status and taste for angry, aggressive, and loud music. Most participants in the scene weren’t out to intentionally hurt others. When people fell in the “pit” while slam dancing, others lent a hand to pick them up. It may sound like a contradiction in a room full of people running into one another, but there was etiquette to the chaos.

The slam dancing pit at Kennedy's Warehouse. Original photo by Duane Davis. Artist: Bob Rob Medina
Even punk icons like Ian MacKay and Henry Rollins got caught-up in the energy and violence of the music in the early days after their first trip to California in 1981. In numerous interviews, Ian cites a Circle Jerks show he witnessed in San Francisco where followers of the band drove up from Los Angeles and wreaked havoc on the SF punks.  The band’s followers, HB (Huntington Beach) Punks had a real appetite for violence at shows and on the dance floor. The show made a strong impression on the pair. The fury and intensity was nothing like they ever experienced. They returned back home only to introduce those violent characteristics to the Washington D.C. scene.

Violence wasn’t new to punk, it has always existed in one form of another. Skinhead violence was an outgrowth of what has been happening all along. The best way to define groups like skinheads, is a clique with a pack mentality. Early Boston hardcore band DYS (Department of Youth Services) had the backing of the Boston Crew, a group of hardline straight edge kids with shaved heads known to instigate fights at shows, mainly with people who drank alcohol. The song Wolfpack best illustrates this temperament: “A mini-army of angry youth. Wolfpack! Don't give us any shit Wolfpack! Or you're gonna get hit.” My friend Analen, an L.A. punk in the early 80’s wrote to me that she her friends were afraid of the violence in her scene. L.A. had “punk gangs” like FFF (Fight For Freedom), LADS (Los Angles Death Squad), and the Suicidals (friends aka family of the band Suicidal Tendencies). The aggressive dancing that Ian and Henry witnessed in 81’ by the HB Punks was just a preview of what was to come in many punk scenes across America.

The punk rock agenda

The older scene was mainly made-up of people who embraced a live and let attitude. They didn’t get into your shit and try define punk, much less dictate how the scene should be. One might describe the attitude as complacent. Race, gender, political leanings, and religion were rendered irrelevant. It was more about the music, being different. People coexisted. This was the prevailing attitude in the days before bands adopted agendas and got preachy and overtly political. The onset of hardcore changed all of that.

Divisions were inherently created as bands and fanzines started defining what punk rock was and wasn’t. The genesis of punk was that there were no rules and definitions. A contingent of the scene embraced this ideology and found itself in conflict with those that espoused a punk agenda. There were moments going to shows in Denver where the tension was thick between those who identified themselves as peace punks and those who were anti-peace for the sake of reaction and antagonism. The birth of the Denver Skins was a knee-jerk response to those wishing to impose an across-the-board punk identity.

To be continued.
Next post: Punx Unite, Assholes Die

Special thanks to: Nate, Evan, Jill, Mike, and Shawn, for the conversations and insights over the years regarding this topic.

Thanks to Monica Zarasusa and Ana Medina for editing help.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parents of Punkers

It has been awhile since my last post in June. The idea was to spend the summer doing research, talking with friends, and collecting Denver punk artifacts. The fall would be devoted to wrapping-up the writing and art and have it delivered to the editor and designer by late December. This is still my goal.

As my wife Ana and I were preparing to return back to work in Ethiopia in late July, my father had a stroke and passed less than a week later. I’ve been struggling with the loss, which has affected my writing and art making. Typing out the first draft of the story below was like pulling teeth; I’ve been sitting on it for weeks. I woke up the other morning after a series of bad dreams and for some unknown reason the song “Parents” by the Descendents was on loop in my head. The song, the dreams, it all clicked. I scrapped the original draft and banged out a revision. The inks and the paints are out on the table; it’s time to get busy.

Parents, Why don’t they shut up? Parents, they’re so fucked up… The iconic song by the seminal SoCal punk band the Descendents was the soundtrack for many of my friends growing up in the early 80’s. The lyrics perfectly captured the growing pains and strained relationships between parent and child. I’m pretty certain that every person has battled and tested the will of their parents growing up. Some carried that struggle well into adulthood and perhaps straight to the grave. There is something innate about seeking approval from our parents; in short, we want them to love and praise us in everything we do. As to quote Bill Cosby, "I Started Out as a Child" and would like to include that I’ve been teaching in the classroom for almost 20 years, I feel confident in stating that all children just want to be loved.

The tender love between parent and child isn’t always a guarantee. The hardships of life are constant barriers that some adults have trouble putting aside. It takes a lot of love to unconditionally give to another person day in and day out in the lifelong contract of parenthood, though there is notion in America that the cord is cut on the eighteenth birthday. Healthy relationships seldom come naturally, it takes work to maintain them. It’s easy for an angst-ridden teen to point the finger at mom and dad. Some punk bands had their own way of verbalizing their discontent with parents. San Francisco’s Sick Pleasure had the tongue and cheek song, “I Want To Burn My Parents.” Orange County’s D.I. jokingly shouted No Moms, “What we need is no moms!  They don't understand me.” Denver’s hometown heroes, The Frantix unapologetically sang “My Dad's a Fuckin' Alcoholic” When asked whose father in the band was an alcoholic, the band nonchalantly responded, “isn’t everyone’s father an alcoholic?”

Ironically the bands that sang about parents back in early 80’s I know for a fact are parents themselves thirty plus years later. Currently the Descendents are playing a couple of Riot Fest shows with original bassist Tony Lombardo. The group is performing the entire Milo Goes To College album, which features the cut Parents and other coming of age songs like Suburban Home “I don't want no hippie pad, I want a house just like mom and dad.” That notion has pretty much has come full-circle, be it that the band had envision it or not. The band members have spouses, kids, pets, houses, and the whole enchilada. I wonder what the band’s take would be if their kids formed a band and wrote songs about their parenting skills? Perhaps they would encourage it. 


I had been in my fair share of bands since 1983. In 1987, my friend Toledo Pat and his girlfriend rode back to Denver with me from the east coast. They initially stayed at my parent’s house for a week. During that summer we tried to get a band going. We wanted to do something humorous, dumbed-down, and elementary to mock the current state of punk rock. Pat had mentioned that he had a joke band back in Ohio called the Lawn Honkies that played all MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) covers. The highlight of the group was actually opening for MDC. I thought that was brilliant way ridicule and take the air out of a heavily charged political band. We formed Mohican Youth (in reference influx of bands that incorporated Youth into their name). We had six songs that were more or less the same cord progression played at different octaves. Our song titles were: school sucks, works sucks, parents suck, and anything else that would be stereotypical or what we called Quincy punk (mainstream media’s demonization of punk) . We used the same lyrics, but just interchanged the noun.

Mohican Youth's first show was suppose to be opening for Dag Nasty, but Toledo Pat returned back to Ohio. Pat thought it would be funny to add ex-Necros underneath our name. He went to school with members of the Necros back in Toledo.
Pat and I scribbled down the lyrics on backs of fliers and left them lying on the floor of my bedroom. At the age of eighteen after graduating high school I was still occupying my childhood room coupled with all the perks such as mom doing my laundry. One afternoon I’m guessing sometime between classes at the community college and working at the donut shop was when my mom dropped off my clean underwear, shirts, and socks and discovered the flier with the words to parents suck. Unknown to her that Mohican Youth was purely a joke band, she took a pen and scribbled something to the effect of “we fucking love you son!” and left it on my pillow. Later that day when I discovered her note, I was beyond embarrassed, I felt horrible that I hurt the person who loved me the most. My mom immediately broke into tears when I found her to explain the joke band and lyrics. While she didn’t have the frame of reference to entirely understand the sarcasm and the mockery, but understood enough that it wasn’t a personal attack on her or my dad. It was a hard lesson in communication learned that day.

I wasn’t exactly the ideal child growing-up. I did my fair share of testing my parents. My dad in particular didn’t like that I got into punk rock, especially the aesthetics of it. He had clear rules and expectation and was always forthcoming in making sure I was aware of them. Mohawks, dyed hair, and torn clothing were out of the question. He especially hated the foul language bands used in their lyrics. Above all, he wanted to make sure punk wasn’t the gateway to drugs and crime. Other than that, he never denied or stood in the way of my interests unlike some of my friend’s parents who thought punk rock was the arrival of the antichrist.

This drawing was a birthday gift from my eldest brother Tom in 1983. I think he and my parents secretly wanted to send me to bootcamp. 
I would go as far to say that my parents encouraged my preoccupation with punk; they did take me to record stores and funded my record buying habit though chores like mowing the lawn and shoveling snow off the driveway and sidewalk. My dad drove me to shows, and when I wasn’t out of the venue by midnight, he’d come in and fetch me. There were a couple of occasions when he had to walk through the pit of slam-dancers to find me. My parents put up with the racket of my friends and I made in the garage learning to play our instruments. There was even a bass guitar under the Christmas tree one year. All the above was more or less a testament that they were ok with it all.

Like any other self-absorbed teenager, at the time, I focused on everything they wouldn’t let me do. I get it, most parents just want to protect and keep their investment alive. It’s the duty of a parent. Kids often forget their parents have a lot of shit on their plates as well. After a long day of work, it’s hard to muster up the energy or desire to drive a kid across town for a punk rock show. I understand and appreciate that now as an adult. Sometimes you need perspective, distance, and experience to truly understand. In retrospect both mom and dad were pretty great and I was very fortunate to have them. Even the Descendents had to grow up and now sing about juggling relationships, kids, and work: “Who knew the way things work in this world we’ve made for ourselves? Where I work myself to death, and you raise the kids…”

Special thanks to Ana Medina and Monica Zarazua for editing help and Chris Shary for being there and photos.