Echo & The Bunnymen In Drag
I was leaving Portland’s premier venue, Louis La Bambas, when the saxophonist from local cabaret-rock act Danse Combo muttered some cheeky little remark to me. I dropped the nut on him, knocking his two front teeth out and leaving him unable to play his instrument, for which I am eternally ashamed (and was sued). I got 86’d from the club for that bit of drunken unmanageability, and the consequence was that I couldn’t enter the venue where all the best new bands performed. This was in the 80s, and I had just watched Bow Wow Wow there. I was seriously distressed at the time, and ruminated about what I would do in the future. Anyway, it had just been announced that Echo & the Bunnymen were playing, and having followed the development of Ian McCulloch’s writing talent, I was absolutely determined that come hell or high water, I would somehow be there. Brenda French, the lead singer from Anglo-American ska band the Dots, devised this harebrained scheme wherein I’d go dressed in drag. I’d use her fake ID (drinking age is 21 over there, and we were both kids) to gain entry. She spent the whole afternoon getting everything just right: The spiky wig, the makeup, and the mandatory suspenders. I felt a right twat and was beginning to think that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. Wasn’t I amazed then when I swanned straight through the door of La Bambas, and with Tony, the venue owner who had barred me, on the desk? There I was, talking out the side of my neck to Brenda on my left as we took in Echo & the Bunnymen. I felt the hairs on my neck stand up as I came to realise that Tony was standing on my right, and giving my androgynous self the once over.
Hardcore Kids And Black Bikers Unite
I was living in a part of Philly known as Fishtown. It was a white ghetto, under the shadow of the EL Train by the Girard Avenue stop. We lived in a tiny house on a grid of tiny houses, most no more than ten feet wide and one room deep. The houses were known locally as “father, son, and holy ghosts” on account of the fact that they were made up of three rooms piled on top of each other, connected by a steep half-wind of a staircase that was lethal when you were drunk. And most of the Fishtown residents were drunks. During this time I was a punk rocker, sporting bright pink hair. Because it was 1982 and American hardcore punk was in its formative state, and because none of the rock clubs in town would book anyone less established than the Dead Kennedys, we were forced to find a way to do things for ourselves. At the time there was a heavy regional game of hardcore brinkmanship going on. The reigning crews were pretty much the (Washington) DC punks SOA and Minor Threat and the Boston crew SSD (Society System Decontrol)—all of whom were straight-edge. As they spent no time drinking or fucking they seemed to have plenty of time for fighting. The New York City punks were a nefarious lot: They drank, took drugs, stole your equipment and your girlfriend, and never paid to get into shows. The DC punks and the Boston punks were all middle-class or working-class white boys. The Boston crew was heavily peppered with jocks, hooligans, and thugs. They wanted a fight and found it easier to beat up punks than other jocks. I remember Al Barile from SSD used to have his guitar covered in Bruins stickers and had biceps the size of tree trunks. By comparison, the Philly punks were a bunch of softies. SOA came to play at the Starlight Ballroom and we were only saved from getting our asses kicked by the visiting DC punks through the graces of the local Kensington thugs who came down with baseball bats. Inspired by the efforts of some California punks who were calling themselves the Better Youth Organisation and whose slogan was “Unite, Don’t Fight,” a bunch of us formed a Philly punk co-op to put on shows, the ultimate aim being to save enough money to permanently inhabit some kind of space for gigs, rehearsals, fanzines, skateboard ramps, etc. We rented halls from Elks Lodges, church groups, and whoever was broke enough to let a bunch of 20-year-olds put on a rock show. The idea of doing a show “uniting, not fighting” with bands from each of the main East Coast contingents came up. A couple of girls said they had a phone number for Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat. We ended up deciding on Minor Threat for DC, SSD for Boston, and Agnostic Front for New York, with Flag Of Democracy and Crib Death representing Philly. The girls with MacKaye’s phone number were put in charge of finding a venue. They came up with a place in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philly, and easy enough to get to on the PATCO trains. The venue was called Buff Hall, and was owned and operated by the local Firemen’s Legion. They booked the venue for November 20th. On the night of the show we turned up early to do the usual setting up and we realized that Camden was kind of like Fishtown, only black.
Minor Threat turned up first and unloaded. Not long after, the guys from SSD pulled up in their van outside and Ian MacKaye ran over to the curb to say hello to the guys. He leaned into the driver’s window to parley with his buddies, all of whom were caught unaware as a car came hurtling around the corner at top speed, swerved out of control, and broadsided the SSD van, sending it skidding sideways and MacKaye flying to land headfirst on the pavement. The car sped off without stopping.
MacKaye was bleeding everywhere and had to be taken to the hospital to have his head examined. The SSD guys had understandably taken an immediate dislike to the whole enterprise. Whether Minor Threat or SSD would play the show, or indeed whether MacKaye would even survive was all up for debate. Meanwhile, the Agnostic Front crew had arrived and had around 20 “roadies” helping them load in. The NYC crew were notorious for their scams to avoid paying on the door. “The roadie” was just one of them.
The local Camden kids had gotten wind of something strange going down in their hood. As the white kids from the suburbs got off the trains from Philly or Jersey they were being ambushed and mugged. Somehow the “unite, don’t fight” message had failed to reach the streets of Camden. Kids were turning up at the venue door with teary eyes if they were lucky (black eyes if they weren’t), begging for sanctuary. Meanwhile, the NYC kids were trying to lift beers and candy bars from the local liquor store and make it through the Buff Hall door by whatever means necessary, so long as it didn’t involve paying.
The venue quickly got packed. The kids working the door were being wimps and a bunch of NYC kids were sneaking in, so I took door duty for a while to tighten up our operation.
That’s when I heard this: “Errr, there are 12 large black guys who want to come in. They don’t want to pay. They say they are the Ghetto Riders and their clubhouse is next door. What should I do?”
I walked to the door, took one look at the Ghetto Riders, and knew I had no choice. I was too young and too dumb to have known the lessons of Altamont, so I let them in.
The Ghetto Riders were a black motorcycle club formed as an even-more-outlaw chapter of the already outlaw Wheels of Soul from Atlantic City, who themselves were too black and mean to consider forming a Hell’s Angels chapter. The Riders traded in two things: Drugs and violence. This was our straight-edge holocaust.
MacKaye returned from the hospital and decreed that the gig would go on, never mind the concussion or the egg-size lump on the back of his head. SSD followed Minor Threat’s lead and, miraculously, we had a gig again.
As it happens, the Ghetto Riders saved our skinny white suburban asses. As soon as they got inside and dug the party, the word hit Camden’s streets: Buff Hall is a RIDERS PARTY tonight. We had no more shit from the locals—no more kids getting beat up outside, at least. The Riders partied hard, joining the mosh pit, and making creative attempts at stage diving.
Agnostic Front and SSD played sets of arrogant swagger and controlled violence, respectively. AF’s John Watson guaranteed that the NYC boys made a sound showing in the pit, all smurf hats and low, menacing slow-motion circles.
By the time Minor Threat started playing the air was so thick with anticipation, testosterone, fear, and anger it seemed as if Buff Hall could explode. And indeed it did. Minor Threat played something more akin to a siege than a set. I’m convinced that the biggest reason they played was that they knew not playing was more dangerous than taking the stage.
But c’mon, give the Riders a break. They’ve wandered into their first hardcore gig. The joint is a wall-to-wall whirlpool of bodies, like one of those cartoon fights with a cloud of dust and like a few arms and legs poking out. Everyone appears to be beating the mortal fuck out of each other—appears to be, but isn’t.
Miraculously, Minor Threat survived the set, and, as far as I know, so did the rest of the bands and the crowd. I declined an invitation to carry the party on at the Riders’ clubhouse, a decision I don’t regret at all.
Agnostic Front were on tour and they were due to play in my town, whose name I’m not going to tell you because I’m scared of the guy that’s in this story. Apparently their guitarist Vinnie Stigma isn’t exactly a rocket scientist and he woke up in the van headed to the show freaking out. He thought he slept way too late. So he yelled at Steve Martin, who was driving at the time, “What fucking time is it? When is the show?” and Steve goes, “Relax Vinnie, we don’t go on until nine.” That’s when Vinnie totally loses it and screams, “IT’S 8:99 YOU FUCKING IDIOTS. IT’S 8:99!!!” The radio was on 89.9 FM. JIMBO JIMBERTON WINNER: HARDCORE KIDS AND BLACK BIKERS UNITE
I lived in Bogota until two months ago. Isn’t it hard to get a visa out? It is, but I studied dance in Colombia, so I was able to come here on a student visa. What are your thoughts on America? It’s very easy to find work, but I cannot be peaceful here. You Americans only think in terms of money and are all the time working. You don’t have any time left for you. I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to really miss my family, but I miss my friends in Colombia and the parties. What are Colombian parties like? We go to the bars with a bunch of friends. The bars here are really different. In Colombia you just take the drinks in with you and hang out. There is no cover charge or charge for drinks. Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. How do they stay open? When there’s a lot of people from one group they pool their money and rent it out for the night.