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.

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