Thursday, November 13, 2014

Punx Unite Assholes Die: Hardcore, Violence, and the Denver Skins. Part 2

My previous post generated strong reactions, including a couple of people contacting me who I hadn’t talked with in decades. They were upset about what I wrote. Most of my audience is somehow connected to the Denver punk rock scene during the 1980’s. The loosely defined ethos of punk has been my life long commitment, I signed-up in 1982 and never looked back. I’m hardwired to its’ philosophy, which is at times contradictory and escapes definition. What the hell does punk rock mean? There are as many definitions as there are stories. My intentions aren’t to re-engage or relive the past, to hurt anyone, or to take sides. I’m a product of my father, a storyteller.  I write what is relevant and meaningful to me, the full spectrum of it. The purpose of this project is to document a time and place 30 years ago.

For some, those years were glorious, for others it is a painful period growing up. No matter what I post, there will always be two-sides. Many of us did fucked-up things, hurt people, broke the law, and engaged in other antisocial behaviors. Not everyone lived long enough, either by choice or by circumstance, to reflect on what happened all those years ago. Some former punks and skins became religious/spiritual, or got heavier into self-medicating. Others simply walked away.

There is the present: spouses, children, jobs, and everything that comes with adulthood. During our teenage years we go through the process of figuring out our shit through making series of choices. There is no doubt we made bad decisions during that time, perhaps some we’d like to take back or some we would make differently knowing what we know now. We’ll never know. I don’t want to author something that might cause someone to lose their job, the way I wouldn’t smash windows and slash the van tires of a band who’s politics I didn’t agree with. Life is tough, nowadays most of us are just trying to put food on the table. The less bullshit the better.  

Punx Unite, Assholes Die was a song on Happy World’s second album. It was a response to the increasing violence happening at the shows in Denver. The guitarist of the band and later promoter, like most people in the scene just wanted to go see shows, play music and have fun. Promoters didn’t want to lose their deposit because some kid kicked holes into bathroom walls or took a marker and tagged the place. Even Oxnard’s (and later Denver’s) Aggression in their song S.A.T.C. (Slamming At The Club) sing “then came something to fuck up our scene, assholes who throw bottles to prove that they’re mean, kicking holes in the wall don’t mean that you’re cool, when the place is close you’ll know you’re the fool.”
Happy World. Original Photograph: unknown Ink drawing: Bob Rob Medina 
As the violence at punk shows was deepening nation wide, Maximum RockNRoll ran an article in Issue 14 Breaking the Silence on Gang Violence. It featured interviews with members of BASH (Bay Area Skinheads) alongside other punks and skins. The gist of the various articles stated members in scenes across the country were being marginalized by bullies though acts of aggression. The fanzine’s publisher, Tim Yohannan, felt the values of punk were being compromised by a handful of people who were going to shows for the sole purpose of instigating violence. The issue invited participants and observers from different sides to share their opinions and thoughts on the subject. Although the interviews brought the topic out into the open, the violence not only continued but intensified.

“I thought Punk was my calling, I thought I was in it for life. Then I’m at a show and there is all this in-fighting, it was really fucked-up. I’m thinking we should be fighting against society, the system, or whatever but not each other. I thought the violence at shows was just the stupidest shit. That is when I realized I didn’t need to keep going to shows. Punk stopped evolving.” This sentiment was stated by a longtime member of the scene and is shared by many former Denver punks I have spoken with when approaching them about my project. Most are happy to tell endless stories about this and that, but in the same regard don’t want to go on record or use their names in interviews. I respect their decision and privacy.

In the mid-90’s when I first brought up the subject of writing a book about the Denver punk scene, most people were readily excited to contribute. In my initial research I observed that all the stories were funny, centered on bands that came through town. Someone always had a cute story about the Exploited or G.B.H, which have their own merit. However, the stories lacked a pulse on what it was like growing up punk in Denver. To arrive at this point, hard questions had to be asked with serious reflections.

Our selective memories have blacked out some of the darker moments in the scene. There were wild nights of heavy drinking, drugs, fistfights, pistol-whipping all to the soundtrack of fast and angry music. The more secluded the venue was, like the Packing House or somewhere down on Larimer St., the more potential for a volatile evening. The main culprit was the increase in the number of skinheads. By 1985, they adopted a more gang like mentality. They had power in numbers backed by an aggressive demeanor and controlled the temperament of most hardcore shows. The skins were a pack of sorts, bonded in unity and ready to pound someone at the slightest incitement. The dance floor grew more gruesome; it became like a slugfest. The skins had a reputation of taking cheap shots at audience members trying to watch and enjoy bands. One person I spoke with said, “Sometimes it was hard to get into watching a band, I was constantly looking over my shoulder.” A few bystanders tried to hold their ground but more often than not were met with flying fists and all signs of dissonance quashed immediately. 
Crowd at a show. Original Photograph: unknown Ink drawing: Bob Rob Medina  
The music shifted and became secondary to what was happening in the crowd. In my opinion, the music ceased to be original and adopted a more homogenized sound to serve the punks and skins decked out in their uniforms. This might explain the mass exodus of the original Denver punks. “Why would I want to go to shows anymore, what’s the point of seeing your friends get punched in the face for having fun.”

One might ask why did people give up their power and let acts of violence become a staple at shows? Why did people allow violence to continue when hardcore/skinhead bands like Agnostic Front sang about punks and skins being “united and strong” together against the system? Many felt the whole unity thing was a charade, words without meaning or substance. The irony was that bullies within the scene were keeping their own kind down. From what, the same type of power we were fighting against?
Dr. Know (Big Slug) Public Service Announcement #1. From the fanzine 60 Miles North. Artist: Jamie Hernandez 1983. Collection of author.  
Any type of group, skins, punks, or whatever has a hierarchy just like society. How did we ever think it would be any different? Those who possess power will impose it on the weakest members of a group. When the bottom rises to the top, the cycle repeats itself.

Many of the former Denver punks easily point the finger at the skinheads for “ruining” the scene. It would be just as easy to condemn those who stood idly by and passively let it happen. Annie, author of Archy-Type Morality stated in one of her issues regarding the CH3/Samhain show where promoter Tom Headbanger was severely beaten that Denver didn’t have a Nazi problem. The problem was rooted in uncontrolled drug use and testosterone. Her angle was Denver had a cool little scene, but it grew into a monster because it didn’t keep itself in check.  

Archy-Type Morality Issue 10 gig review. Collection of author. 
Everyone wants to be at the top. Young impressionable punks witnessed the power the older skins had. Within a period of a couple of years, the number of flight jackets and Doc Martins swelled. The Denver Skins made their own t-shirts adorned with a giant iron cross and printed business cards stating “the few, the proud, the Nazis. It was initially an inside joke. People called them Nazis. Jello Biafra popularized the term “Nazi Punks"; it was a slight on the mentality that punks should be one big happy family. When in fact the origins of punk are all about individuality, questioning everything, including the mighty Jello. No offense to him, he only spoke his mind and others followed. I can see why the original skins wanted to distance themselves from any textbook punk definition. One of the Denver skins stated, “Why did everyone have fit into one of Jello’s little punk category?” When the skins carved out their own identity, some members of the scene labeled them as Nazis, and they embraced it.
Willig Comic fanzine Dec. 1983. Collection of author. 
When Black Flag rolled through Denver in 1984, someone gave Henry Rollins one of the Denver Skins business cards. He read it to the audience between songs and proceeded to tear it in half. He then called them weak and challenged the group asking to take on the toughest one. The audience went into a frenzy chanting anti-skin slogans. Where Jello failed, perhaps Rollins would succeed. Rollins wearing nothing but gym shorts jumped off the stage while the rest of the band and roadies stood at the edge waiting. Rollins stood face to face with one of the skins backed by his posse. Nothing happened other than an exchange of words. The music resumed and the Denver punks were offered a temporary refrain from violence that evening.

I find it a bit ironic that it took a punk celebrity to address Denver’s internal bullying. Concert promoter Razer stated that the punks got what they deserved for not standing up for themselves at shows, “If you act like a victim, then I’ll fuck with you!”

Thanks to Monica Zarazua and Ana Medina for editing help. 

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