Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Drunken Sex Still Sucks: A chat with Bob McDonald of Bum Kon


My love of Bum Kon is rooted in moments fixed into my memory. To clarify, my sentiments about the band are centered surrounding a time and place. Their music was the pretext, a portal for me into the Denver punk culture and all the growing pains associated with it. Perhaps I’ll be able to articulate my sentiments below.

I saw more than my fair share of times of Bum Kon up on stage blazing through their fiery set of songs. They were like a loose nerve ending anxiously flinging from one side to the other. Their energy sent your heart racing almost to the point hyperventilation. I don’t know how they did it, but they moved from one song to the next without the tempo falling apart. In retrospect, I feel sorry for people who only heard their Drunken Sex Sux 7” EP and the two following LPs: Bum Kon and Ground Round. The perpetual problem with the recordings of early to mid-80’s punk and hardcore bands was they didn’t fully capture the synergy between band, audience, and venue.

My first encounter with Bum Kon was in the summer of 83’ when they opened for Kraut and GBH at the Aztlan Theatre. The Aztlan was right around the corner from mis tios, tias y primas/os. It was in the heart of the barrio, not the ideal place to hang out after sundown. The sight of punks wandering around in that part of Denver generated strong reactions from the homies rolling down Santa Fe Avenue where the venue was situated. I overheard a couple of kids that evening talk about the “Mexican neighborhood.” It felt personal in a way since I belonged to both groups. Admittedly, it was funny seeing mostly suburban white kids rocking out in the hood. It felt odd being there. In many respects I was like everyone else inside, yet there was a strong personal connection to the venue. The Aztlan was a space where my family members saw movies back in the day. Traditionally the building served the Mexican-American community. Witnessing a punk show in that setting was my first bi-cultural experience. Walking in to see the bands, I felt neither here nor there.  

Flier courtesy of Trash is Truth
As a relative newbie to the scene, I mostly kept to myself that evening, snapping pictures of the bands and crowd with my Kodak 110 camera. Many of the punks dressed for the occasion in their band shirts and leather jackets, but the majority were sweating it out in shorts and t-shirts. Bob, the singer for Bum Kon wore his iconic smiley face t-shirt, an obvious hangover from the 70’s. The shirt struck me as ironic in many ways; it was a joke on punk fashion and a statement at the same time. The shirt made many more appearances, and the face was also included on their first recording; something I always associated the band with.

Another Bum Kon moment was the final night at Kennedy’s. Although the band didn’t play, I bought their 7” from one of the members. It was on the mind of everyone in the crowd that Denver was losing its only dedicated all-ages makeshift punk club. During the middle of one band’s set, there was a burst of spontaneous outrage with beer cans being smashed on the cement floor. The punks went ballistic kicking holes in the walls and smashing sinks and toilets. With water rapidly spilling onto the floors, Nancy, the owner of the club was hysterical and rushed around rounding everybody up and pushing people out the door. It was a sad moment for the scene and I somehow sensed it was the end of an era. The flier for that show depicted tombstones and perhaps foreshadowed the inevitable outcome of that evening.

Bum Kon at Kennedy's Warehouse. Original photograph by Valerie Harris. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina). 
My dad was due to pick me up at midnight. Since the show closed down hours earlier, I stood outside the venue in the dark and cold trying to hide myself in the doorway. During that era, downtown Denver was desolate and roaming with vagrants and Kennedy’s was adjacent to the Denver Rescue Mission. I had the record tucked into my jacket and I think the only thing that saved me that evening was my size. I had just turned 15 and obsessed over the possibility of what might happen to me. I never told my dad what really went down that night, other than the show ended early. I knew the consequences of full disclosure. It was a quiet drive back home.

By the mid-90’s I had sold off most of my rare punk records, including a couple that came out of Denver to collectors from all over the world. I needed the money at the time and had little emotional attachment to the material world. One guy in LA offered me $100 for my Bum Kon 7”. I entertained the idea, but in the end I couldn’t do it. It still sits in my box of 7”s. It will always symbolize the end of Kennedy’s with the duality of being a lucky charm of sorts. 

Bum Kon was a powerhouse on stage; they rolled through their set of songs like a passing train. The band evolved from hardcore/thrash beginnings to more of a technical metal sound never sheading their roots. The members: Bob McDonald: vocals, Erik Oberhausen: bass, Mark Thorpe: drums, Larry Denning (R.I.P.): guitar, and later Kelly Cowan: Keyboards, were all down to earth guys, always friendly and approachable. It was a shame they were barely known outside of Denver. And just in case you’re wondering, the meaning of the band’s name is: Go Crazy! as metaphorically stated by the band’s guitarist Larry during an Interview in Something Better Change fanzine. Never mind that it was Woo Bum-Kon, a Korean police officer who went on a murderous spree and ended the rampage by blowing himself up (and hostages) with two grenades in 1982. Thanks for the memories Bob, Erik, Mark and Larry.

Bob McDonald was kind enough to share his stories and insights about Bum Kon below.

In the summer of 1981, when my friend returned from visiting his relatives in LA, his cousin had given him a handful of cassette tapes with bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Clash, etc. I was never really into rock music and actually preferred the soundtrack to Star Wars and my parent’s 8-track tape collection consisting of stuff like Charlie Pride and Mexican Rancheros. I was totally blown away when he played the tapes; it felt like music that was made especially for me. What was your first encounter with punk music? Did you automatically connected with it? Your first show experience? 

I had become bored and disillusioned with the type of rock music I had been listening to and that my friends were into; no longer feeling a connection to it. I began drifting away from my core group of friends the summer between junior high and high school, no longer interested in smoking weed, etc. Hearing Rush for the first time was probably the final straw, I had to find something else. I began listening to some more pre-70s/pre-psychedelic rock, and though I really enjoyed it, it just wasn't what I was looking for. I started hanging out with an Irish guy, a co-worker from Round The Corner Restaurant in Cherry Creek. He had records by English punk and new wave bands, along with Ramones and underground New York/Cleveland bands. I was hooked immediately. The two of us went to my first punk show together, which was the Ramones and Dictators at the Rainbow -I think it was 1979 (Handsome Dick Manitoba insisted that was the year when I met him several years ago). I also was listening to punk with my cousin John, who was visiting that summer from Lawrence, Kansas. He went on to form the Mortal Micronotz. 

Some might refer to your generation as the second wave of Denver punk, I usually call it the first generation of Denver hardcore and more aptly titled: thrash. You and others were a part of the group of kids that went to East High School that started bands. How did that scene unfold? Going to shows and listening to records, when did everyone decide: “hey, we should be doing this”?

During my first year at East there really wasn't much of a punk scene. Dan Dhonau (he was a junior), myself, two seniors (who didn't hang out with us) Lorraine Kennedy and Valerie Harris, plus some people at Manuel HS (Jenny Thero number 1). Dan and I started a band with a couple of other guys called Problem Youth and mainly played covers. We never left the basement. When my junior year started, some of my friends from jr. high had gotten into punk: Erik Oberhausen and Andy Monley, and Geoff Paxton (a friend from elementary school who had moved back to the area). There was a new group of sophomores, Johnny Meggitt, Tom Kennedy, Jason Smith, Chris Steele, Mike Serviola, Pete (can't think of his last name,) Jimi Griff, and probably others I’m forgetting. We all started hanging out at Tom Kennedy's house after school especially on days when Child Abuse practiced; the best punk band Denver had or will ever know. We all listened to Black Flag, Germs, DKs, etc. and goofed around. Being a small group in a rather hostile environment (toward punks), we stayed tight and together. I was no longer playing in Problem Youth as the band morphed to become Peace Core. Child Abuse, Peace Core, Frantix, White Trash, all these bands were infectious and everyone wanted to be doing something. As for me, every show and every record I heard made me want to be more and more involved. 

Early Bum Kon. Original photograph by Nancy Kennedy. Oil painting by Bob Rob (Medina).
How did Bum Kon form and what was the first show?

Bum Kon formed at the Husker Du matinee show at the Mercury Cafe. After they finished playing they asked if anyone wanted to come up and play. Erik Oberhausen and I jumped up, along with Mark Thorpe and Larry Denning. I remember playing "Louie Louie" Black Flag style. Afterwards, we all kind of looked at each other and were on the same page to start a band. I don't recall what our first show was, but woe to whoever played after us...

Bum Kon set list from an early Fort Collins show. Courtesy of Jeff Ross
There was always a close relationship between Bum Kon and the Frantix. You had the song: “Questions” they had, “New Questions” in addition to Bum Kon /Frantix beer cans references on your respective 7” eps. How intentional was that? How would you describe that relationship and the influence you had on each other?

Bum Kon and Frantix were all good friends and loved to play shows together. I don't think there was any connection between the two songs. The beer can thing was just a fun inside joke. It started with Rick's idea for a brand called "Crazy Beer," with the advertising slogan: Crazy Beer, it'll fuck you up!

Drunken Sex Sucks 7" ep insert.  
In reading early interviews, was there a competition between you guys and the Frantix on who could outdo each other in obnoxiousness to answering questions?

I don't recall a competition regarding who could be more obnoxious, but I think the whole scene in general pushed each other to outdo the next person in that regard. It was just a part of who we all were: a bunch of fucking punks. 

I have some photos I took of Bum Kon at the GBH/Kraut show at the Aztlan and you wore a smiley face shirt. I have seen you on stage wearing that shirt more than a couple of times. Was it your rabbit’s foot for preforming?

I bought the smiley face shirt at a thrift store and just really liked it. It was such a lame expression of that whole time, all the smiley face stuff that was everywhere set against the Reagan era, which was anything but happy. It became kind of an unofficial band logo (we used it on the label of the 7-inch). It was also light and comfortable and nice for playing sweaty shows. I recalling that being a horrible show by the way.

There are a few of what I think are some of the best photos of Bum Kon floating around taken by Nancy Kennedy. The particular show I’m referring to was in someone’s living room. What were some of the more unusual places the band played?

Nancy always got great photos. Her Misfits/Necros at the hospital are priceless-you had to have been there. I'm not sure about that living room (I know the photo), but would guess maybe at Nancy and Tom's. By normal show venue criteria we did play some unusual places, though at the time they seemed pretty normal to me. Among the more memorable:

The Packing House: A warehouse at a former slaughterhouse in north Denver.
Christians: Skid row, an alley off of Larimer St.
Larimore Dump: exquisite. 
The Dust Bowl: The basement of an art gallery off of Santa Fe, the floor was dirt, and when the punks danced, hence the name. My mom came to see us there once, but only lasted about two minutes, if even that. 
The Outhouse in Lawrence, Kansas: A concrete shack/building out in the middle of Kansas farmland. 
There were some gyms, a couple of awesome 3.2 gay bars…(3.2 is basically watered down beer, 3.2% ABV hence the name that was available in Colorado to 18 year-olds. ed.)

Flier by Headbanger and courtesy of Trash is Truth

Flier courtesy of Trash is Truth.
Is there one show/night for whatever reason that has been a permanent fixture in your memory? 

Opening for Motorhead at the rainbow on their 10th anniversary tour. We were treated like shit by the venue, had terrible sound, generally sucked, but got to meet and chat with Lemmy and of course see the show. Any night at Kennedy's.

Flier courtesy of Jeff Ross.

Nancy always reminded me as the soccer mom of punk. In what ways did she nurture bands and the scene?

She definitely was and was a huge influence on myself and I would imagine all of us. She let us hang out at her house, play music in the basement, stay there if there was trouble at home (or in a case or two, nowhere to go). She let touring bands stay there, most notably Black Flag and Minutemen. She fed people and joined in with whatever we were doing. She acted as occasional guardian so someone could get into a 21 and over show. She threw wicked elbows on the dance floor, but gave it her all so that we could continue to play music and have a safe place to hang out. This included sinking every bit of her money and energy into opening an all-ages venue for the scene with no thought for turning a profit or her own comfort (she lived there). Without Nancy and her contributions to the Denver punk scene it would never have existed as it did. There should be a statue of her, except she would just vandalize it all the time if there was. 

When all of the first wave of HC bands broke up, switched team members and went on to become something else, Bun Kon not only stuck it out, but also evolved. What was the secret to the longevity?

I guess we just liked each other. Also, there wasn't much to do in Denver. For me the shows seemed the same, though I would imagine later on the sets were longer and we may have taken a moment between songs, possibly not. I have very little remembrance of any show I have ever done in any band. 

How would you compare the band’s early shows to the Ground Round era? In your opinion how had the scene change and what do you think the band did to remain relevant?  

As the scene grew it changed a lot for me. I didn't care for the circle-style pit, seemed stupid and organized, compared to the atoms randomly smashing in to each other type of slam dancing before, so I no longer joined in. The scene had a lot of violence within itself, was factionalized and there seemed to be little community or care for others within it. I would not call a majority of what was going on in the mid-80’s punk rock. That said, there were also a ton of amazing people involved and there were still moments where great amounts of energy were expelled, and for lack of a better word, positivity.

I don't think we did anything to be relevant, we just played the kind of music that we enjoyed playing. In hindsight, I think we were actually trying to turn people off.

How did Duane approach the band about doing your first ep for Local Anesthetic?

He asked if we wanted to do it and of course we said yes! 

Bum Kon t-shirt. Courtesy of Jeff Ross
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Bum Kon, you guys played out quite a bit, maybe that’s why you got so tight. I think right before the first LP came out, is when you started to hit your stride. At any time during the band’s career was there ever a serious attempt to tour other than one-off shows out of state?

Nope. There was Lawrence, Kansas. We played a disastrous show in Las Vegas; it could be a whole interview in itself. Nothing went right and we were miserable most of the time. The experience did strengthen the bond between us all greatly and introduced a character to the band; a mechanic named Zippy. Zippy was a favorite inside joke and many great impersonations from Larry. We also did shows in Fort Collins (The Grange!), Colorado Springs where one of the shows led to a local news story on punk rock. We also played a show at Colorado Mountain College in Carbondale on the western slope between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. There was Boulder as well.

If you didn’t move to San Francisco how much longer do you think Bum Kon would have continued? Did the band end at the right time?

For me the band ended at the right time. I don't think had I stayed I would have continued on much longer. Erik, Larry and Mark (and Kelly by that time), were really into super technical riffing and a more metal hybrid, and though I love that stuff, I was not really interested in playing it. Then again, with nothing else to do in Denver, it might be still going to this day. 

Twenty-five years after the fact, Smooch/MRR releases the full recording of the Drunken Sex Sucks sessions. How did that come about? 

Andrew Murphy who runs Smooch is a big fan of the Denver/Boulder music from the era and was a former Wax Trax employee. He worked with Duane and Big Bad Bob to release the Local Anesthetic compilation. Through doing that, they came across the tapes Big Bad Bob recorded for the 7-inches. I'm not quite certain exactly how MRR got involved, but I think it was some in-house maneuvering at Revolver USA where Andrew, Johnny Meggit, and a couple of MRR people were all working at the time. Andrew asked about releasing the material and Erik and I were into it. Erik did the great front cover art and I did the Woo Bum-Kon portrait on the back. 

Drunken Sex Sucks complete session, Smooch/MRR records 2008 Artwork by Robert McDonald


Shifting gears a little bit, why didn’t Denver see more of Bad Circus? What was the catalyst for that band?

Though I wasn't in Bad Circus (a common misconception, they were from Italy living in Denver, exchange students I believe). Denver saw more of them than it deserved as they were truly onto something much greater than the city could handle. The one show at Kennedy's should have been the only one, a great riot and a lot of fun to witness. I recall the second one where they backed up Jesus Christ, wasn't nearly as good.  

I was told the bad was formed by three non-musical band vocalists who were fed up with musicians calling the shots about what their bands back in Italy should sound like. They also felt it was important to school the American punks about how their own federal government operates, along with a few other basic civics lessons that didn't appear to have ever been learned by the substandard American school system of the time. I lost touch with them after they returned to Italy, but one of the members supposedly went into politics and was convicted of accepting bribes in the late '90s.

The news of Larry passing was a surprise and maybe even a logical outcome by his lifestyle choices. He was an amazing guitarist and you could hear his potential on the band’s early material. What were your thoughts when your first heard the news?

I was very saddened by Larry's death and my thoughts on the matter are my own. He was a great guitarist and a wonderful friend.
Early Bum Kon propaganda. Go Crazy!
Mark also left Denver and I heard some of his songs he’s been working on. Another friend ran into Eric at a supermarket in Denver. How often do you keep in contact with those two?
I am in occasional touch with Erik and saw him the last couple of times I was in Denver, but I don't get back there often.

Is there a place you feel sentimental about back in Denver?

If I’m sentimental about anyplace in Denver it is Nancy and Tom Kennedy's house. Aside from the core group of friends from East, there were also a lot of other people that hung out with us. There were girls, guys, some in school some not, and many from other schools (St. Mary's baby!). Nothing tops the times we had there and I remain thankful to them both for their unlimited and unwavering generosity, goodwill and support.

Bum Kon discography:
Drunken Sex Sucks 7" EP, Local Anesthetic Records 1983
S/T LP, Local Anesthetic Records 1984
Ground Round LP Sun Baked Records 1986
Drunken Sex Sucks complete session, Smooch/MRR records 2008

Special thanks to Monica Zarazua and Ana Medina for editing help. 

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