In December, I received an unexpected call from Reed Bruemmer, former frontman of much-loved Denver thrash 'n roll band Speedwolf. Reed and I had met in Denver when I lived there in 2015 and 2016; to me, Speedwolf had always been the Denver metal band, the city’s true hometown heroes. But Reed was calling to tell me that he’d be seeing me shortly—in two weeks he was moving to New York.
My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, it would be great to have Reed in the city. On the other, how could the guy who wrote the speed metal anthem “Denver 666” leave his home for the Big Apple? I had to know what was up.
When I meet him at the Wahi Diner in Washington Heights, Reed is a different man than the brooding figure I’d met in Denver. Bright-eyed, sober, and focused, he’s genuinely excited to be in a new place with new opportunities.
“I want to adapt,” he says. “I don’t get intimidated much. I’m like, Motherfucker, I’ll figure it out! I’ll learn how to ride the subway! I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do. I brought a truck out here. I got an apartment in the uncool neighborhood. And I love it.”
When I ask Reed about leaving Denver, he isn’t bitter, but passionate. There are lots of reasons he left—a rough year with health and legal troubles didn’t help, and his girlfriend has some professional aspirations based in the city. But much of his reasoning stems from changes to the city’s culture—and those changes stem from one development in particular.
“While it’s cliché to talk about it now, legal weed was the nail in the coffin,” he says. “And fuck, I voted for it. But nobody knew it would triple the cost of living in Denver overnight.”
Denver’s story is that of many American cities—a small town’s homespun popularity bringing in industry and price hikes that drive out the local color. But what makes Denver unique is what fueled its cultural shift. Since the 2014 legalization of recreational marijuana sales, the landscape of Denver has changed drastically. Sketchy neighborhoods like Five Points are rebranding themselves as trendy arts districts, and rent has increased at rates higher than those of Portland or Austin.
But more than storefronts and property values, the populace of Denver is undergoing a transformation. Young entrepreneurs and hippies looking for retail work have flocked to the city, as have thousands of tourists excited by the concept of buying weed brownies tailored to their brain chemistry at clean glass-countered dispensaries. Meanwhile, many locals who were once dedicated to the city’s unorthodox sense of freedom and independence are happy to become the trendy urbanites they’d once rallied against.
When I moved to Denver in 2015, I was 100 percent part of the problem. I moved into a neighborhood that used to be reserved for artists, spent too much money at cute cafes with standard food, and, of course, bought legal weed with childlike glee. The ability to purchase cannabis products from a bubbly counterperson with a nametag rather than an angry dude in a mauve Subaru who shows up two hours late was the height of societal progress in my mind.
Like all newcomers to a changing city, I soon soured to the idea. As someone who gets high regularly, the novelty of buying weed at a store wore off quickly; if anything, the things Denver was doing with craft beer became far more interesting to me.. It wasn’t until I was walking home with an armful of groceries and was nearly bowled over by some dude screaming, “I JUST BOUGHT AN EIGHTH FOR THIRTEEN BUCKS!” in a heavy Long Island accent that I first felt contempt for marijuana.
Bruemmer feels the same way—like everyone else, he didn’t notice the problem until it nearly ran him over. “When I started meeting people who had traveled to Denver to smoke weed, I thought it was hysterical,” he says. “Weed is everywhere. And Colorado’s always been laid back, so if you want to do that, do that. Then I started seeing people in weed T-shirts, smoking on the sidewalk and making a spectacle of it, and I was like, This is fucking goofy. But during the years after legalization, I moved around three or four times, and it was just shocking how much the rent had changed from when I was a kid.”
When I first encountered Bruemmer, it was through his art. As a metalhead who’d just moved to Denver, I was spending lots of time at Trve Brewing, a metal-themed brewery on South Broadway, and saw Bruemmer’s off-kilter collage art during one of the brewery’s art shows. Intrigued, I commissioned a piece from him for a viewing of Satanic Panic talk show segments at a different metal-themed brewery (which shows you how much Denver values its metal).
Some months later, shortly after the death of Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, I decided to reach out to Bruemmer to see what he was up to. I expected our interview to be an endless drinking session with an aloof rocker atop a throne of records and nude Frazetta sylphs, telling me about Speedwolf’s secret return. Instead, I spent two hours talking to a thoughtful dude with a concerned look on his brow, who seemed contemptuous of the hedonistic window dressing surrounding Lemmy, heavy metal, and the Denver music scene.
“The people cramming their phones full of free music are the same ones complaining about paying five bucks to see a show,” he told me then, in an interview I later published with MetalSucks. “To be part of anything is a sacrifice. It’s not gonna be cheap, it’s not always going to be fun, and it’s definitely not going to be free.”
Bruemmer prides himself on paying his own way, having grown up in not one working class household but two. His parents were split between Colorado and Texas, instilling him with separate perspectives on both America’s heartland and cities that foster good rock 'n' roll. “My old man lived in Austin most of my life, so I had two pretty cool places for music growing up. The story of Denver [gentrifying] is the story of Austin, too—but Austin is drawing a lot more serious musicians and interesting people. Denver isn’t.”
His first band was DDC (“It stood for Death Destruction Chaos, though we told everyone it was Dicks Dipped in Chocolate), a “punk thrash whatever band” that put out a couple of acidic albums in 2004 and 2005. That, for him, was the Golden Age of Denver’s music scene, when the city still retained its grimy edge but the possibilities for musicians abounded. “Living in that town, it was cool to just think, Wow, you can really do whatever you want here. You, me, and two other friends could be like, 'Hey, let’s rent a warehouse and put on shows all summer.' You could do that for a thousand bucks, and then pay your rent for four months with the money.”
The hub: Colfax Avenue, a street once described by Playboy as “the longest, wickedest street in America.” Bruemmer found that grodiness welcoming and exciting and inviting. “Where do you go when you’re a rebellious kid? The place they tell you not to go. We’d see a local band headlining the Ogden, and then you’d walk around Colfax and it was a wild scene on every corner. Dudes doing coke, selling prostitutes out of shitty hotels. That was it for me.”
To this day, Colfax remains pretty grody, even if it now sports sleek breweries, arcade bars, and a Voodoo Doughnut shop. When I would walk there at night, I felt the edge of a hairy neighborhood, where minding your own business becomes a priority and you’d rather take the long way home than chance a shortcut through the alley. Even the nice places were deceptively rough—as a metalhead, I thought famed Deadhead haven Sancho’s Broken Arrow would be a den of laid-back hippies, but when I mentioned this to a local friend of mine, he said, “I’ve never been in that place when there hasn’t been a bloody fight.”
In my eyes, Denver still retained parts of its rough-and-tumble edge. So when did it change for the locals?
“I think about this all the time,” says Bruemmer. “The first change I noticed was when we hosted the DNC in 2008. People were taking shitty neighborhoods and painting them over for the weekend. ‘Look, it’s cool, it’s an art gallery!’ No, dude, that’s a fucking factory. They make sausage there.”
What most alienated Bruemmer from his hometown wasn’t the new storefronts or raised rents, but the way the people around him had changed. A lifer dedicated to making outlaw rock, he’d been lead to think that he was part of a stalwart counter-culture—until the marijuana industry brought money into his hometown.
“I had a lot of the friends who I thought I was arm-in-arm with,” he says. “And they were simply trying to profit off of the boom rather than care about what I thought we always care about. To have a bunch of people come in and put an oyster bar in the old ghetto neighborhood, and call it progress—that’s just ridiculous. It felt like a personal attack on the poor people that I grew up with.
“That’s the main reason I left, man—the divide. And not just between the people who lived there and the people who were coming there, because I think it’s ridiculous to say, No one has the right to move to my town! Some 22-year-old kid who lives in Nebraska wants to move to the big city, he has that right. But Denver was a blue-collar town. I grew up in a blue-collar family. Now all these hard-working people are getting pushed out of their homes, and may never get a chance to afford a home in their hometown again. I mean, my mom got priced out. She lives in California now.”
Meeting Bruemmer for lunch and seeing his enthusiasm dissolves the worries I had about him leaving Denver. He wants to know about shows, record stores, good places to eat. He wants to put together a Motörhead tribute event in honor of “Fast” Eddie Clark, the last member of the band’s original line-up, passing away. But I can’t help but wonder if he’s homesick, the way I was when I left New York for Denver. The transition was hard for me as an East Coast kid, no matter how much weed I could buy.
“I mean, I really miss my friends, and I miss the bands I was in,” he concedes. “But I’m here to try new things. I’m hanging out with different people, eating new food, doing new things. So it’s a good way to break ties. Denver’s like my old girlfriend—I’ll break up with her for a little while and move in with some Ukrainian chick who lives in a thirty-story-high building.”
The implication of this surprises me. Given Bruemmer’s disgust with Denver’s changing face, I assumed he was leaving it behind for good and burning every bridge along the way. But he believes that radical change is branded on Colorado’s soul, and that the weed explosion is another shift in the culture’s image that will come, and go.
“It might sound funny to draw this connection, but I do truly believe that that cowboy outlaw western culture is permeated within [Denver’s] people,” he says. “Because to this day, people come from the East or the West to try something new, and they get caught up in some crazy shit they never wanted to deal with. I saw it happen day to day. It’ll be gone in a few years. That town loves a boom and a bust. It has since the beginning of time.”
Chris Krovatin is riding with death on Twitter.