Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Duane Davis of Wax Trax

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In the late 80’s Duane offered my friend Matt and I part-time seasonal work at Wax Trax. After a couple of weeks, it was obvious that my music knowledge didn’t quite cut the mustard. Duane suggested it would be a better idea for me to focus on completing community college.

For those 2-3 weeks, there was some sort of prestige working behind the store’s glass counter, ringing up purchases, finding albums for people, and of course getting that 10% discount to help payoff my brown paper bag. The paper bag was my generation’s (analog) version of today’s virtual shopping cart; meaning if you were in good standing, the clerks would let you keep a bag of records you intended to buy but couldn’t afford at the moment. The process was habit forming and operated like this: you’d come in and figure out what you could chip away at followed by browsing the bins for new discs to refill the bag. Nowadays, you just pay with a credit card for instant gratification and instant debt.

In almost every interview I've conducted and post I've written, Wax Trax comes up time and time again; it’s a testament to how fundamental the store was to the development of Denver’s punk and underground music scene. The shop was command central providing: music, band shirts, stickers, buttons, fanzines, a meeting place, information about shows, an in-house records label, publishing a paper, and providing a space to foster a community. You can blame owner’s Duane and David’s efforts for getting the music into the store and into the hands of impressionable kids who in turn started their own bands…it spread like an infectious disease.

I have known Duane and others who have been associated with the store for over 30 years. I usually stop by to see him within the first 24-hours of arriving in Denver. Our conversation usually starts with one of his biting smart-ass remarks. Also important to note, tucked away in the back of the store is Dave Wilkins-perhaps the Dr. Evil of the entire operation-making phone calls to distributors to flood the bins with music to corrupt lives.

Duane was one of the first supporters of this project in mid-90’s handing me early issues of Local Anesthetic, record covers, and other items of interests. Hocking music to the public is a tricky business with continual changes in fads and tastes. Music is a soundtrack hallmarking passing moments and defining the present day.  Duane shares his thoughts about the store, music, and ideas about running a record store. ¡Viva Wax Trax!
Duane in the summer of 2014 at the store. Original photograph by the author. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina). 
In an interview with Yellow Rake fanzine you mentioned that you and Dave Stidman took over Wax Trax in late 1978 after leaving your collective jobs as caseworkers for social services. Your new mission was to corrupt adolescents rather than save them. With you at the helm of being Denver’s main punk rock music pusher, I have an image of you being similar the old man barbershop character in Spike Lee’s movie Clockers. The guy recruits young boys to sell drugs for him. But in you case you had young kids pushing punk records? What was your and Dave’s vision in taking over the record store?

Our vision for the store actually had a lot less to do with young kids than it did with the music. In 1978 Dave and I were in our early 30s, we were both married (Dave had a couple of kids), had what passed for 'real' jobs as caseworkers in Adolescents In Crisis Units with Jefferson County Social Services, house mortgages, and car payments.

At this point not a lot of punk rock had seeped into Denver: a handful of pissed-off and generally maladjusted adolescents were trying on spiked hair, Elvis-style sneers and safety pins. They jumped up and down in the middle of the floor at house parties with bands like The Violators and Defex grinding out loud, fast music. They were all getting their own electric guitars and learning the requisite two chords and wide-legged Johnny Ramone stance. And they were all coming into Wax Trax to buy the singles and LPs of the new punk rock, which it bears noting, was never as monolithic or narrow as the genre petrification that set in by the early Eighties.

It was obvious then and it is even more obvious now that punk rock owed a lot to Iggy and The Stooges, the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Bowie and, importantly, going even further back, countless rockabilly, garage and, yes, even psychedelic, bands and performers from the Fifties to the Seventies. Punk rock was not just the Sex Pistols and Clash: it was also Elvis Costello, the Jam, Joe Jackson and Ian Dury; it was Buzzcocks, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Throbbing Gristle and Ultravox.

Dave and I had grown up (and through) a lot of that older music. For us, the music we loved, from Gene Vincent to the 13th Floor Elevators, from Elvis to Patti Smith, from Johnny Burnett to The Shadows of Knight, from James Brown to the Who, was of a piece with punk, a straight-out continuation of music and attitude that was formed and shaped by the pressures of daily life for each succeeding generation.

The wonderful thing about Wax Trax was that we were immediately in a situation where we could not only try to share what we knew about music but we were learning, every day, every hour, from the people who came into the shop. We would say, 'Here, listen to this...' and put on Joy Division, Killing Joke, Magazine, Echo & The Bunnymen, Pere Ubu and the next thing we knew the person on the other side of the counter was telling us about something else, something they had heard and liked and wanted us to know about, something that spoke to them and they wanted to know if it would speak to us: this is the shared experience, the momentary community that springs up when you and someone else hears a piece of music and it ropes you into not just a closer contact with your own feelings but the feelings of the other as well.

"The Wax Trax Crash Party was the 1-year anniversary of a car crashing into the Wax Trax store on the corner of 13th and Washington on February 7, 1979, pinning worker Steve Bruner under the car. This was the Gluons first gig and the DefeX final gig." Flier and caption courtesy of
You did have a lot of people who played in bands working behind the counter, was that a conscious decision to field with store with staff that were knowledgeable on what was relevant and current?

Well, 'conscious' in the sense that we, of course, wanted people working behind the counter who loved and knew music, though not necessarily just the music we liked. Again, the people who have worked at Wax Trax for the last three and half decades have unfailingly taught me a lot about music. Our first employee, Steve Knutson, talked me into driving up to Boulder in February, 1979 to see Pere Ubu at the Blue Note. The show absolutely blew me away, one of the best shows I've ever seen and keep in mind I saw Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Byrds in 1966!

About employees: I never thought that having a record store meant being a boss- more like it meant collecting around us a core of like-minded people who loved music and who were ferocious in that devotion, who liked to argue and stake out outrageous claims for their taste: who would go toe-to-toe with you about what music counted and what music didn't: who could give as good they got: who didn't back down when someone said something they liked was crap, but just laughed and turned the volume up.

What I always liked about your business practices was that when touring bands would pull through town, you’d support them by buying some of their merchandise to help give them gas money? Was that a common practice?

I imagine it was fairly common for independent record stores.

Local Anesthetic newspaper/fanzine
I had penpals I’d trade records with during my mid-teens and they always asked about Wax Trax, did you feel that the store was a destination for music lovers, bands, etc. visiting Denver? Wax Trax served as a hub of information about shows. Would people show up looking for fliers or call the store? How was the store central in that?

Right from the start we thought of Wax Trax as a hub for people interested in the kind of music we ourselves were interested in. This was all pre-internet and information was distributed primarily by print. Because so much of the punk and post-punk music was coming out of the UK, we read the Brit papers like they were the bible: New Musical Express, Sounds, and Melody Maker were the big three. What we read there had a lot to do with what we would order from the small number of distributors we were getting import records from in the late 70’s to the early 80’s.

Finding out about, obtaining, listening to and then judging the music: and then getting people to hear the music. That was the process: while we were educating ourselves, we hoped to share that knowledge with the people who came into the shop, eager to hear something new and exciting.

A natural corollary to this was getting the word out about the local music scene. The kids who worked at Wax Trax had bands and so did a lot of the kids who shopped with us. We went to their shows and wanted to make sure others did as well so we did what we could to get the word out. Flyers, fanzines and word-of-mouth were about all anyone could afford at that time.

Mercury Cafe was right around on the corner, how important was the relationship with Marilyn who ran it? Did one hand feed the other?   

Marilyn Megenity is the Mother Teresa of punk rock in Denver. While the Mercury Cafe was around the corner from Wax Trax, Marilyn put on shows from Black Flag, X, the Gun Club, TSOL, the Misfits, the Birthday Party, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Husker Du, Dream Syndicate, Green On Red, Rain Parade, the Church, Jonathan Richman, Nico, Glenn Branca and the list goes on and on. And don't even get me started on local bands: everyone played there!

Marilyn didn't just put on shows: she cared about the bands (even when she didn't care for the music) and she cared for the people who came to the shows. The Mercury Cafe was as essential to the Denver scene as Wax Trax-if not more so!

At some point the store decided to start the zine Local Anesthetic and later a label under the same title. Running a record shop was hard enough, why start a label?

It seems to me that you couldn't have a record store in the Eighties and not have a fanzine and a label. We all did it. Today you have a blog and an audio file on the internet; in 1979 you had a copy shop and 7" single.

Did you intentionally want to document the unfolding scene at the time? Did you feel that post-punk and hardcore was on the cusp of something big?

'Big' didn't matter. What mattered was intensity, depth, ferocity, Us/Them. So, yes, I wanted some marks made that would indicate the passing of these moments, snapshots of chaos, confusion, uncontrollable energy and the different ways people tried to make sense of being alive.

What was the first record Local Anesthetic released? How did it feel when the boxes arrived? At some point the store stopped pursuing the label, what was the decision behind that? If you had a time machine would have saved a couple more boxes of the Bum Kon and Frantix EPs?

The first official release was Your Funeral, I Want To Be You. The first record I actually put out through Wax Trax was The Gluons w/Allen Ginsberg, Bird Brain. The former was on Local Anesthetic; the latter was on Alekos (a name provided by Mike Chapelle of the Gluons). Getting the records in the store and out on the shelf was always exciting and fun.

The label stopped when it stopped being fun.

Local Anesthetic Records was determinedly DIY. We were cheap, fast, and disposable. Squirrelling away records against the possibility of their being worth something in the future would have been against the spirit of the times.

Speaking of the Frantix, they still seem to be getting a lot of mileage out of those two EPs reissued in Australia and most recently Alternative Tentacles. I only saw then a few times and each time blew me away. How did you feel about their sound and vibe?

Thirty plus years later, the Frantix still seem to me one of the best things I was ever involved with. Those four guys tore it up. I could not be happier that Alternative Tentacles recently re-issued as much of the Frantix material as they could get their hands on. To this day, I believe My Dad's A Fuckin' Alcoholic stands up with the best punk rock ever made. To have been part of the process that got that song out to the world on record is something I am absurdly proud of.

Local Anesthetic ad for th' Frantix EP.  My Degeneration fanzine 1982.  
In releasing records was there any sort of criteria you were looking for and how did you approach bands?  

No criteria really other than being something that in one way or another appealed to me. The 'approach' was usually made after a number of beers at a show. Either I or someone in the band would throw an arm around the other and shout, 'Fuck an A, man, we should put out a record!' And then, sometimes, we would.

You have been around awhile, you have seen music fads come and go. Did you think the whole punk thing was different? Did you think it would still be relevant in 2015?

Hmmm... 'Was it different?' A trick(y) question. Every revolution is different and at the same time that it is different, it draws on, feeds on, a core set of problematics: identity, resistance, celebration, rejection of the old and creation of the new. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll. Punk was dead almost as soon as it was born; Punk was, arguably, dead before the first Frantix record. But it has a very lively corpse, even now in 2015.

On a personal level you seemed invested in the hardcore scene as it was emerging, what propelled that interest? Did you ever consider yourself a part of the scene?  

Hardcore was only one splinter of the music I was interested in: post-punk, industrial, and paisley underground all meant, and still means a lot to me. A kid who worked at Wax Trax for a few years in the early 80’s once confided to me very earnestly that he would never listen to anything but Crass-they made the music that mattered. A few weeks later, he was listening to a bunch of Motown, soaking it up, letting it into his DNA, changing him, making him touch the world in different ways and places.

Despite seeing a lot of hardcore bands over the years, I wouldn't say I was ever part of the scene: more of an interested bystander.
Duane in front of the women's restroom at Kennedy's Warehouse. Original photograph collection of Duane Davis. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina). 
You have quite a photo collection from going to shows, why did you want to intentionally document the bands and people?

Mostly I wanted to take pictures at the gigs because these kids were so fucking wild! Every show was an anthropologist's dream: tribal markings, secret rites, ritual dances, ceremonies of inclusion and exclusion, spectacular courting displays and buckings up and down the pecking order.

There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for punk, reissues and such, was it the same in the 70’s and 80’s where people were itching for Greaser and Flower Power songs?

Nostalgia has always been big business. Count on it: someone will always be looking to turn a buck on re-packaging your past.

Speaking of reissues, there are a lot of punk documentaries and books coming out. The market seems almost flooded by them…sort of like craft breweries. I was talking with a brewer at Great Divide in Denver recently and asked him what he thought the future of beer was? What was the landscape going to look like once the dust settled? He was under the impression that brew pubs will serve small communities. I guess I sort of feel that way with Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks. I don’t envision selling a lot of copies; it’s more of a yearbook of Denver’s outcasts. What do you think about the whole ‘revamping the past’ trend that seems to be rage?  

Just as there are micro-breweries there are micro-musics: communities of enthusiasts who gather together in celebration of shared likes and dislikes.

Is it true that Dave Wilkins…
...used to wear highwater flares? Yes!

You were in the ensemble, Small Appliance Orchestra. What was the concept behind that? Any other musical ambitions?

The Small Appliance Orchestra was a one-off goof: just me and three or four others folks who worked at Wax Trax (or, who hung around so much they might as well have). We put it together for the Festival of Pain, an event that was staged at an art gallery down on Santa Fe in, what?, the mid-1980s or so. I can't recall exactly the line-up and 'instruments' but we had a vacuum cleaner, some ice-cube trays, a pile of old, busted turntables tied by worn-out extension cords to someone who pulled them around the room, Suzanne Lewis had a big bucket of empty baby food jars that she crashed up and down on the concrete floor until there were glass shards flying everywhere. Music & Risk, my favorite combo.

As is probably apparent from the above description: No, no musical ambitions...

Going back to underage punk kids running the register, did the city ever slap a fine on the store for hiring kids?

No. In fact, the city often offered to pay me to keep those kids off the street and in my store.

The store would sometimes receive altered currency. Collection of Duane Davis.  
How is the relationship of the store now with the so-called underground community? What has changed in your opinion?

Honestly-I've gotten older and more tired. I still have people working at the store who are vitally involved in 'underground' music. I listen to them talk about it, hear the music when I can, encourage them when appropriate. How it may have changed is unclear to me. After so much music over so many years, it is sometimes hard to hear that something is new or fresh. Too much ends up reminding me of something else, which isn't bad unless it is reminding you of something else that is better.

What were some of the local punk bands you enjoyed watching?

Ahhh... Your Funeral, Frantix, Young Weasels, White Trash, Violators, Defex, Zebra One Two Three, Jonny III, Gluons/Still Life, Bum Kon, Fluid, Acid Ranch, Peace Core, Corpses As Bedmates, Aviators, Crankcall Love Affair, Butt Corx, Dog Meat, Big If, Thinking Plague, Hail, Chelsea Girls, Pagan Cowboys, ASF, and everything Jeri Rossi was ever involved in... and dozens of others my poor ol' brain has lost track of.

The soda pop machine at Wax Trax, it was a haven for local and touring band stickers. Collection of the author.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Denver's Rok Tots: A conversation with Jif Jiper

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They Are Them and We Are Us couldn’t be a more aptly title for the Rok Tots self-release cassette. Regarded as outsiders in Denver’s underground music scene, the band was a self-contained unit that didn’t always play nice with others. They had an agenda and an uncompromising vision and stuck to it, doing things their way, despite criticism. They were the real deal and embodied the hard work ethic of a true rock-n-roll band.

The Rok Tots typically found themselves in the middle of several controversies stretching from the Secret Service and City of Denver investigating the band’s concert promoting methods, to vocalist, Jif Jiper (Jeff Reifsteck) jumping off stage and clubbing hecklers at shows, and of course there is the intimidating Jimi West (Jimmy) in his signature black leather jacket and blue jeans. The band’s reputation precedes them and I believe they embraced and espoused that sort of confrontational and menacing down and dirty rock-n-roll vibe. Their attitude and aesthetic built an impossible to penetrate barrier resulting in isolation.  

Musically, you hear The Who mixed with early punk rock in both brazenness and sound. I never caught the band in their heyday with Jiper on vocals, Jimi driving the sound on guitar backed up by Toby Rat Tit on drums and Ronnie Rok Tot on bass. Hearing a few of Matt Bischoff’s and Nate Butler’s firsthand accounts of the original line-up, paints a hectic and unnerving setting of a band blazing through songs stacked Ramones style shadowed by a heavy chunky guitar and vocals that ripped into you. The Frantix unapologetically credit much of their ambition for starting a band to the Tots.

I played in a band in the late 80’s at one of Bob Rupp’s Rock Fest with the Rok Tots headlining. Every other band used backline equipment, but when the Rok Tots hit the stage, they wheeled on Jimmy’s Marshall amps and changed the drum set. It was indicative of who really ran the show. Needless to say, even without Jif fronting the group, they still stole the show enlightening and disenfranchising audience members. The group’s big sound had a natural knack to weed out such spectators.

I consider the Rok Tots to be on the tail end of Denver’s first wave of punk of the late 70’s/early 80’s. They helped pave the path for the emerging punk/hardcore bands: Frantix, Bum Kon and Child Abuse. While the Tots co-existed in that context, they tended to shy away form being a part of the developing hardcore community. Tom Headbanger forged a working relationship with Jimmy hiring him to do sound for his shows at Kennedy’s and the Packinghouse, that was the extent of Jimmy’s connection during that time period.

In 83, Jiper left the band to become a father and West was without a functioning and preforming band until he called Jif’s great grandma to get his phone number. Meanwhile, West assumed all but drum duties and self-released a Rok Tots 7” single: Suicide Weekend B/W Situation Kid in early 84.  After some convincing, Jiper was back in the fold and in late 84 the band reemerged with a new bassist, Kristi Wilson and drummer, Martin Day-a former high school classmate of mine. The band resumed booking shows on their own terms.

One of the misconceptions of the band Jif states, “Jimi's hard-ass demeanor shouldn't be misread, there aren't a whole lotta folks I know on this planet with bigger hearts, dedicated to helping people out than Jimi-just stay outta his way and don't fuck with his agenda.” There were always rumors surrounding Jimi from packing heat to stories of him pulling knives of people who fucked with him. Jif’s account was that Jimi grew up fast and hard and knew how to deal with bullshit early on. The first time I saw Jimi in action I learned early on, you didn’t want to be on his shit list. Anytime I saw someone in the audience get into it with him or a band complaining about the sound of his PA system, I moved off into the distance because it was going to end bad and didn’t want any part of that collateral damage. Everyone I spoke with has a story about Jimi and with that mostly comes with admiration. His demeanor demanded that respect not because he was imposing his agenda, but because logically, he was often in the right.

Think what you will about the Rok Tots, but don’t discount their influence on Denver’s early hardcore scene. The band embraced and lived the do-it-yourself ethic whole-heartedly. Other than Black Flag, there weren’t many other bands during that period that built and carried their PA system and booked their own shows. They didn’t sit around waiting to be discovered, they did their own dirty work. From the start, they took the hard path and with mixed results the Rok Tots ended on their terms.

One of the founding members of the Rok Tots, Jeff “Jif” Reifsteck candidly speaks about growing-up and his time in the band. 

Rok Tots circa 1980 at Malfunction Junction. Original photo by Joe Hughes. Brush and Ink drawing by: Bob Rob Medina

Where in Colorado did you grow-up?

In Walden, it’s halfway between Fort Collins and Laramie, Wyoming. It was a small town and everyone knew each other. I had to leave rather quickly when I was 17.


I was working at a gas station and a 67 Impala pulls in with tourists. I hated tourists. I filled-up their tank, washed the windows, checked the oil and all that happy crap. The guy pops open the trunk and I noticed a case of Jack Daniels sitting in there. We started talking, they were headed out to Delaney Buttes. This is June, so there wasn’t a lot of pot around and we hadn't had any for two weeks. It was hard to get good drugs. The closest college town for that sort of stuff was Fort Collins, which was ok, or Laramie, which is, “I don't think so.” Anyways, this case of Jack Daniels is looking pretty appealing to me. I get with my friends after work and said, "Why don't we drive out to the buttes because I got a little plan and I want to talk to you guys about it." We headed out there at about nine at night and I'm telling them as we drive, "I think all we need is a crowbar-we should be able to pop that trunk right open, steal that case of whiskey and have ourselves a wild party.” We find where they’re camped. They had a camper and the Impala. We're sitting up on the road above the campground, maybe 50 yards away. I go, "Why don't you guys drive down there, turn around and wait for me 100 yards up the road. My friends were, "What are you going to do?" I said, "Just watch." You know, famous redneck’s last words. They dropped me off near the camper, about 25 yards out and I give it a dead run jumping up on top of the hood of the camper. I run across the top and jump off the end flying through the air. I hear the door slam open as I landed and turned around. The guy yells, "You goddam hippy, you come through here again and I'll shoot your ass!" I go, “Really?” I pulled down my pants and waved my dick at him and told him to "Shoot this!" I pulled my pants back up and sprint for the car. Of course my compatriots are laughing their asses off.

Later that night we head back out to steal the liquor. We sitting in the same spot right above the camper, it's dark. We're watching and their light is still on. The light finally goes out. We waited like a half an hour. We see the door open in the camper and the next thing we hear is, pop pop pop. These son-of-a-bitches come out of the camper and start shooting at the car. The car's running thank God. We floor it and go back into town. We pulled in to town heading down Main Street. We happened to see the town Marshall and wave him over and say, "Man, check this out, we have two bullet holes in the car were some people were shooting at us out in Delaney Buttes. We’re all acting innocent and shit. He goes, "Damn, we have to sort that out. I'll tell you what’s weird about that, Irv (the county Sheriff) he's on his way out there right now!" He continues, "Here's the deal, Irv should be back here in about 45-minutes to an hour, why don't you guys meet us out at the courthouse when he gets back and we'll sort all this out." My friends go home and I tell them I'll seem them back at the courthouse. They were like, "Yeah, fuck you." Even though I'm a rebel, I'm still a pretty good kid. I'm thinking, he told me I had to meet him at the courthouse so I'm going to meet him there. About an hour later I stroll up to the courthouse and I see Irv is back because his car is there. That Impala is also sitting out there. I walk down into the Sherriff’s office in the basement where the jail is. As soon as I walked in all of these people from the campground are sitting in there with him. They go, "That's him!" Irv goes, "That's the one who exposed himself?" (Laughter) These people shot at us and I'm the one in trouble for running on top of their camper and waving my wennie at them. And they knew nothing about my little plot to steal their whiskey.

In the next half-hour my great grandma is called out of bed. It's one in the morning and she's down there and this is the second time she's been down at the police station for me. She was, "God, I don't know what it is with you blah blah blah, so anyways they didn't issue me a summons or anything like that because it was the weekend. Monday morning I walk into the District Attorney’s office because I know the guy and I need to talk with him, besides he lives across the street from me. They all have known me since I was a baby; literally the Sheriff wiped my nose.... Andy Griffith shit. I walk into his office, he looks up totally impassive, tells me that we need to talk about this because he doesn't know what needs to be done about the incident. I never dealt with anything like that before. Basically I asked, "What are we going to do?" He looks across his desk and says waving his finger at me, "This time I'm going to get you." I go home and tell my great grandma this, she said, "If that’s what he told you, you have to leave.” He was probably going to put me in jail for this. She called my grandfather up in Canada and I moved up there for a while. When I returned, I moved to Denver. That's how I left Walden. I had a lot of help to clean all this shit up so I could get into more trouble.

How did the Rok Tot's form?

There was a Top 40 band called, Oscar in 1978/79 and Jimmy West played in it. When I joined they were looking for a rhythm guitar player, which we found later. They were already together and I was looking for a high-energy band. There were only a few clubs in Denver where we could play our type of music. There was a lot of bullshit to the professional side of it. We were 22 years-old and had been playing music for several years so we knew what we wanted to do. Denver was so slow to catch on to anything; Disco died a slow laborious death here. When Oscar came out, there were only three 3.2 bars in town to play: Sam's on Lookout Mountain, House of Draft on 13th Ave. and Billy Jacks out on Yosemite and 11th near Aurora. That was the circuit. A lot of the players in that first wave of punk and new wave came out of that. That's why they were so pissed off. Bands like the Johnny 3 played new wave songs and long before this was considered a joke, I shit you not; they played behind chicken wire because people threw shit at them. That’s how we started.

Jimmy and I developed an affinity because I went in there and these other two guys were looking at me and I'm doing shoulder stands, big Jagger leaps and Iggy Pop twists, twirling a mic like Roger Daltrey. I'm pulling out all the fucking stops because I'm auditioning. I could tell these guys were thinking, "This guy is way to much for us." Jimmy is like, "I think this guy might work." These guys split-up because, get this, we're playing Top 40 music in 3.2 bars and they think there's artistic differences. Are you fucking kidding me, artistic differences are splitting up a podunk band from a podunk town? We were good, but come on; we're not playing any out of town gigs, homecomings, proms or any shit like that. They split. Jimmy and I had to start from square one.

Jimmy and I put a band together we wanted. We wanted to play Clash and Sex Pistols covers. We auditioned and this will sound like an exaggeration, but it is not, every rock and roll bass player and drummer in this town. I shit you not. Jimmy and I both had a notebook full of names and numbers. Our ad ran for 6-7 months. None of these guys...the guys we wanted were catching on to the same shit we were catching on to, which were basically Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash. They didn't want to join our band, they wanted to make their own. We ended up with a bassist-drum team: Ronnie Rok Tot was the bass player and Mike Juddish the drummer. We fired Mike because he got a new telescope and we practiced five nights a week. He called three nights in a row and tells us he's still grooving on his telescope. Jimmy tells him, "Well, you can keeping grooving on your telescope and you can come and get your fucking drums.” We’re back to the ads and hitting every music store in town looking at their boards. It was a lot of foot and phone work. Finally this pretty boy comes over and he's a towering six foot-four and shows up with this total anti-punk clear red drum kit. It turned out he was fucking good. That was Toby Rat Tit. At the time he was working for Gulf Oil as Director of Regulatory Compliance. This guy is maybe 7 years older than us and had Robert Plant premed hair, drove a Firebird-his slummy car. He also had a Corvette. Toby was the moneyman behind the Rok Tots. He was so generous and we did so much equipment wise because of him. He really gave us a boost. That was the original band.

When that line-up was settled, did you start moving away from covers to playing originals?

It happened pretty quickly. Jimmy had a couple of originals we played in Oscar. Jimmy and I, just the two of us would work on stuff and by the time Ron came on board we had half a dozen others. Jimmy and I would work on the songs, get it down, the breaks, chorus, all this and we'd give it to the other guys and iron out the kinks. Jimmy would tell everybody what to do. Toby would take these detailed notes and have legal pads of all of these hash marks of every beat and time measure to play. Ronnie was a natural and just went with it. We were stressing to Ron and Toby, "We don't think playing bars is where it's at. If we have to move to a better market, we're prepared to do that."

A new bar named Walabi's opened up-it was a pretty cool place. They didn't have a stage, but had a decent size room. It wasn't sleazy like we were used to. By the time we got into Walabi's we pretty much had a dozen originals. We played our first gig, February of 79, it was a four set a night up at a little bar in Brighton.

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I have this theory that you were at the end of that first wave of punk and new wave and you were the link between punk and what was later to become hardcore. When the Frantix saw the Rok Tots it made such a huge impression on them that they wanted to “destroy the universe” like you guys did. What was it like seeing bands develop after you guys?

I could go with the punk thing. I was talking with Jill Razer about this. It was like the depression era. You make-do with what you got. You excel at doing with what you have. You know the Rok Tots PA system? Jimmy built that fucking thing form scratch, the board, and every speaker cabinet. The only thing he didn't build was the huge theatre woofers. These things were like six feet tall and three feet wide. That's what I thought of as punk. We didn't play punk rock music; we played really hard rock-n-roll. Did we have an edge? "Yeah," but is it meant to be punk? "Fuck I don't know." To me, Paint it Black is a punk song. I don't see a lot of difference. Are you pissed? Do you have a lot of energy? Did you get spit on a lot? Did people come up to you and call you faggot? People try to pick fights with you? Did neo-Nazis come to your gig and have to be beaten down? I guess that’s punk. We worked hard on being a really good band. My music heroes are The Who and The Stooges-to an extent because they were sloppy. The Rok Tots were not a sloppy band. When the Ramones came out we thought they could use a singer, but the band was fucking good. (Laughter)

The Rok Tots were an arrogant outfit anyway. Jimmy not so much, he was shy. The rest of us knew we were the kings and could eat your lunch any day of the week so stay back from us. Young Weasels and bands like that, we thought they were wennies. Really, you call this rock-n-roll? You’re shitting me. People flock to this thing and they’re getting a fucking Sweet Tart instead of a jolt of heroin. What's the point? There were an awful lot of band like that. The Johnny 3 we liked. Leroy X and the X-Citations, good fucking band. There were some good ones around. The Fluid, fuck yeah. On a good night if you got the Fluid and the Rok Tots you got your money's worth and more. The other bands, I wasn't paying that much attention. Number one: we had a bunch of shit going on. Number two: we worked really hard to stay out of the scene. When I talked with Jimmy recently we were talking about the scene and he said, "Fuck the scene, you make your own scene." You know, all the great bands in history all stayed apart a little bit. That might seem a little exclusive and it's a ploy and in our case it was self-defense. I didn't go out to see many local bands because we were busy and when I did get out it, it was to see bigger bands like the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Bad Brains, somebody that was better than us or that was different. Back in those days a concert dollar was considered an education dollar. I wanted to go see somebody that was going to teach me something. I know that sounds, “oh sure” but that was the way I looked at it. I'm not going to go see Auggy Rocks and the Lipstick Gun Fighters; they're only going to teach me what not to do. Now I can see the linage a little bit. Everything in Denver back in the early 80's was done from the stand point of things weren't going to get a whole lot better so lets just have a fucking good time right now.

I think the Rok Tots were largely looked over and had a reputation for being outsiders. Hypothetically, if the Rok Tots were more involved in the scene and played more shows out you might have had a larger following and more support? Maybe if you were in that circle you could have got on larger bills with bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, and the like? I don't see evidence of you guys playing large shows other than the local ones you put on.

Let me put some perspective on that. We opened for one main act and that was Joan Jett and the Blackhearts down in Colorado Springs. We swore after that gig we’d never open for anybody again. We were already spoiled from doing everything ourselves. When we put on shows we only had two major expenses: Rent the venue and hire security. The rest was logistics like rent a truck from U-Haul to get the PA there. In those days you didn't have to worry about the insurance and all that crap because nobody was doing that. The Joan Jett thing left us with such a bad taste in our mouth we were like, "Fuck this." These assholes came and used our PA. When the deli tray was sent over The Blackhearts attacked it. Toby goes over to them and asks, "Do you guys mind if we have some food?" They were, "No, this is for us." Later on in the night I’m getting ready to go on and I just stand getting my shit together, meditate if you will. Joan Jett was right beside me, she never said one fucking word to me and she was around me for hours. Maybe I was suppose to bow down to her. Later on that night, it was summer, we come off stage all hot and sweaty. Now we can get high, we had a rule in the band where you couldn’t get high or drunk before or during the show. Now it's time to go burn one. We go out to the parking lot and Joan Jett is lying across the hood of Toby's Corvette on her back with her legs spread. Toby walks up and stands in front of her and says, "Get your fat ass off my fucking car!" After the gig we're putting the shit away, doing our inventory and we're missing three mic stands. Well, they fucking stole them from us. That was the clincher. They're a big band touring with record company money and they steal mic stands form a working band that let them use their PA so they could have nice equipment. Fuck you. We stopped; from then on we rented halls, theaters, and never accepted anything less than top of the bill.

We had people fuck with us constantly. Westword hated our guts. They would call us and try to get in show for free. The guy at the Ricky Mountain News didn't try that. Who in the fuck did they think they were? We slit our own throats in a lot of ways. It was because we were tired of taking shit. 

There was no mosh pit when we played, but there would be a semi-circle in front of the open space where very few people would venture unless they were dancing. That's because usually at the very beginning of the gig some asshole would come into that space and fuck with me. I would throw down the microphone to the fucking floor and jump off stage and get a few teeth out of him.

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I heard a story from Nate Butler about when the Rok Tots played the Pirate Gallery. Some guy in the audience was fucking with you guys and you got off stage, clobbered the dude, then went back and finished the song.

That's right, and that son-of-a-bitch came back to me about 15 minutes later with his mouth dripping blood, he looks at me and says, "I still think you're a faggot." Give me a fucking break. Those Pirate Art shows were awesome though. Phil Bender and his crew knew how to throw a party. They had a stock tank on the floor. Do you know what that is?

The big metal tub for livestock?

Yeah, to water the cattle in. It looks like a huge washtub you can swim in.

Filled with beer right?

Filled with ice and beer. Usually Schafer or some other high quality beer. (Laughter)

Do you think your music brought out the audience’s rowdiness? Where you the soundtrack for people who were looking to throw down?

Kind of. Your crowd is going to project on the entertainers. That’s always going to happen.

Did you like that?

I studied psychology, particular Jungian and Freudian and some of the modern people just to figure out how to incite that, how to create that, how to work that mass illusion. Once you do that you have a responsibility to control it. That’s what most entertainers that are sexual do. Like Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Elvis, Jagger, and Iggy you have to bring that out in people and our music is going to do that, the attraction to outsiders and bad people.

There was this kid that would come and get up stage left and open his bible and start reading it to me while I'm preforming. He's like exorcising some demon or something like that. I'm like, "I hope you get your fucking dick wet tonight because you pick the hard way to go, you're never going to save my ass." You work on that stuff primarily so you can be popular. You also figure out how to center this down and it’s best not to always use fisticuffs. You have to get into that aspect of it as well. If you go to a show with a good front man, you know what they do. They’re almost like a magician, they bring people up and get just right there and go, “That's far enough.” Jimmy and I worked on that a lot. Jimmy is just as good as a front me as I am.

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The perception of the Rok Tots?

We were badass rock-n-rollers. People considered us a dangerous band. Not always dangerous, just assholes. But they always thought, "What are they going to do next?" We kept everybody off balanced because that is a form of control. We had to control people. I don't know if you've spoken with Razer, she has big fucking balls. She’s 5' 2" and standing looking straight up into the air at some six foot two neo-Nazi dude telling him, "You’re not getting in here motherfucker!" Obviously we courted that thing to live up to that image. I don't know who the Beatles would have been in this town, but we were the Rolling Stones. We were the guys that didn't give a shit and pissed in your yard. It’s lucky no body got killed because we had nasty turns of luck through that period.

We played the Federal Theater and KBDI came down to film it. It was us, the Fluid and another band. KBDI had their studio van out back and they got the cameras all set and everything goes black. Somebody took an axe and chopped through the cable that went to the mobile unit. The cable was at least an inch and you could image the power that was going through it. They cut through it just to sabotage us.

You had enemies?

Oh fuck yeah, are you kidding me. Later I found out that Feyline like to do shit like that. I think Jimmy knows who did it, but I'm not sure. He said that son-of-a-bitch was lucky that he wasn’t a pile of ashes out there. These hippies from KBDI went back out and spliced it all together and hooked it straight into the transformer on the power pole. The show went on.

What was the controversy surrounding the Assassination Ball?

Assassination Ball was much ado about nothing. 1980 being an election year, Jimmy took that as a theme. We were pretty tight with The Broadcasters and when we did shows with them, their manager Kelsey helped us out with promotion. Jimmy and Kelsey designed a flyer with a picture of Reagan looking as if his head was being blown apart. I think there were others with Carter-equal opportunity. A couple of Secret Service agents made an appointment with Jimmy and Kelsey to ascertain the threat potential and they left satisfied that there wasn't any. The one that stung us was having Gaylord Events Center cancel our rental a week before a show forcing us to stand outside of the venue the night of and explain to folks showing up that there wasn't any show that night. That was due to a flyer with knives, guns, pictures of ribeyes, t-bones and Charlie Manson with a text balloon saying, “It was just a little game between Tex & me.”  Kirby McMillan (Mojo Nixon) used to try to get mileage out of the Assassination Ball story, but he had nothing to do with it other than being on the bill, In retrospect one of the worst things about that era is that Hinkley should have used a larger caliber weapon.

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Why didn't the band play out frequently?

The last line-up I was in with the Rok Tots was Marty, Kristi, Jimmy and I. We're looking at late 84. Our bank went down and we didn't have money to rent venues and we started playing bars to pull in money and get our band fund healthy. At this point I'm a fucked-up alcoholic of the worst sort you can imagine. I'm hating myself for being a drunk fuck-up, wanting to quit drinking ever Monday morning and taking up drinking every Monday night. We just got into a bad spot. Another thing that gave us a bad name with some of the people we used to rent the venues from, the German House were done with punk rock. Some of the images on our poster caused problems. The city was on us for putting up the posters. When things are going good, these things are like flies on your ass. When things are down, it drags you down further. We got into a cycle where we couldn't bust out.

I quit and Jimmy and Kristi were working on putting together another tour. Why are we going to get excited about this one when the last one we did we slept on filthy floors and lived like bums.

How many tours did you do?

We did one in October of 85 and that was enough. We went in one big circle: down to Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma city, Kanas City, We had a 67' Pontiac Chieftain pulling a U-Haul trailer, two dogs, and we started off with Kristi's Mustang II and it died in the desert between El Paso and San Antonio. We left it there. We all piled into Jimmy's car. On the way home we had no money. The minimum we got paid for a gig was $75. There was no ATM in those days, it was scrounging and putting all the money together for gas. Marty is panhandling. On our way home we stopped at a rest area in Kansas to bed down. I slept in the backseat of the car and the other guys took their sleeping bags and went off to sleep under picnic tables or something. A couple of hours after falling asleep I’m awakened by a maglight pounding on the window. I open my eyes and now the maglight is shining in my eyes. It’s a Kansas state trooper yelling at me to get out of the car. He tells us we can't sleep her. It’s a fucking rest area! I don't know if it was a bullshit story, but he told us we can't be out here because a couple of people got murdered the other night. We're hoping he doesn’t go looking in the trailer where the shotgun is or under Jimmy’s pillow where his .357 Magnum is. We're back on the road at 2 am and drive a few more miles and pull over again to get some more sleep. That was plenty to cure me for wanting to do that shit again.

Mid-period Rok Tots. Original photograph unknown. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob Medina. 

How much longer did you last in the band?

Not that much longer. I quit in 86. I was literally just flushing myself down the drain with alcohol. Jimmy could also see how fucked-up I was. I think that is why he took it pretty easy on me. At that point in our lives, Jimmy and I were pretty much best friends. The band was at the point where we were playing the same set for a year and a half; we needed to get some new material going. I was also in a new relationship and she thought she was going to marry a rock star and boy was she wrong.

We also had a lot of Spinal Tap crap going on too. Jimmy and I saw Spinal Tap and it was hard for us to understand why it was a comedy. Why was this shit funny to people? It wasn't funny when we went through it.

Jimmy did the sound for shows I went to at Kennedy’s and the Packinghouse. He was a pretty intense dude. I'd see him get into arguments with people and I knew just to walk over to the other side of the club. He had quite a reputation. His guns and knife stories were well known in my circle of friends and I didn’t know how much of that was true or hearsay and I wasn't interested in finding out.

Jimmy did have anger management issues. I think he took a fire axe to a club before. One thing people don't know about him was that he grew up on Larimer Street when it was skid row. You're talking 50 years ago; Jimmy was a little kid living on goddamn Denver skid row. He learned at an early age that if you don't get your bluff in you're shot to hell. Then after you learned that you still put your bluff in and get your ass kicked...naw, it ain't going to happen anymore. You kick my ass, I'm really going to fuck you up. I will shoot you, I with stab you, I will club punch you...all that shit. We gravitated to that stuff to defend ourselves. I grew up in a small town and dirt poor. Jimmy and I had very similar situations. We didn't have anyone to really protect us other than out moms or great grandma in my situation. Jimmy is highly intelligent; he knows it's smarter to negotiate than to instantly push the red button.

 Was there camaraderie with any of the younger bands?

There was some, we had parties and a lot of us ran in the same circles. We'd put on shows. I would be surprised if the younger bands thought they were competing with us. We were assholes? Yes, but one-on-one we were curious to what was going on. We all had a semiotic thing going. We didn’t walk around with the attitude that "We're in the Rok Tots.” There wasn’t any idol worshipping going on. We had some enemy bands; The Young Weasels were the worst because we never got that shit. Basically, they were sponsored by Wax Trax. We love Wax Trax. How come we couldn’t get sponsored by them? We were fucking jealous. We weren't above being petty along with all that other shit.

Here's a little story regarding the Frantix. We played a show in Boulder at the Glen Miller Ballroom for a Rocky Flats initiative. It was a benefit. The Frantix were on the bill and I don't know if you knew Danny.

I heard plenty of Danny stories from Frantix Davey.

Well, Danny kept of flying by the stage right in front of me. I didn't know what exactly was happening because the lights were in my eyes. The kid is flying up on stage at my feet and this wasn't working for me. After about the fourth or fifth time this happens, I kicked him in the mouth. Of course that stopped, What I found out later is that his buds were picking him up and throwing him on stage just to see if it would piss me off. Well it did and Danny suffered for it. Danny and Ricky were like best friend, which I didn't know at that time. He eventually got me back. When the Frantix played I'm sitting at the lip of the stage and Danny is running around in a circle. When came running by me he’d start swinging his fists. That wasn't going to work for me either. So I'm thinking the next time he runs by I'm going to reach out and grab his fist. That was wishful thinking because he swung so hard and had so much behind that when I reached out his fist struck me dead in the fucking palm of my hand. He hit me so hard that he snapped my silver ring in half and grounded it into my finger. Afterwards Danny and Rick have Jimmy cornered in the back and whining, "We're cool, we're from Aurora too." (Laughter)

Our whole thing was to play for the kids. We would flier every high school in Denver. We didn't care if you drank, we didn't have booze at our shows. That’s why you have a car; you go drinking out there in the parking lot.

Why didn't you play Kennedy's or the Packinghouse?

We weren’t playing then. We got a call one night at Walabi's right when we were starting to get some traction. The guy wanted to speak with the leader of the Rok Tots and we're wondering why they're calling us at the club. We took it as joke, but in retrospect was it? The guy said he was for Feyline and wanted to sign us up. Jimmy is looking at us and puts his hand over the receiver and tells us and we're thinking, "Yeah, right-tell him to go fuck himself." Toby goes, “No, don't tell him that Jimmy, listen to what he’s got to say.” Jimmy talked with him maybe 10 or 15 minutes. The guy did tell Jimmy some things that were expected to do and we were like, “Naw, that's not us, we're not going to do that.” We were thinking of moving to L.A, but their set-up there is that we had to have $500 to play and you better have the draw.

Pay to play. 

Yeah you can't walk into a club and book a gig. They rent you the room and you better have the draw because if you don't you have to pay the difference. The Rok Tots said fuck the clubs, we'll figure out some other way to make money. You go out into the private world and make your money there. The clubs just looks at bands as a paycheck. Our band shouldn't have to pay the soundman, the guy running the door when we're doing all the work. That's the sort of thing that makes Jimmy reach for the fire axe.

Jimmy West. Original photograph Unknown. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob Medina.