Saturday, November 22, 2008
Shake It Records (Cincinnati, OH) and Southgate House (Newport KY).
I never lived in Cincinnati or Kentucky until the 21st Century. But even at 600 miles remove, in the mid-1980s I had heard tell of a legendary American Hardcore venue in Northern Kentucky where the moshing was rough and the neighborhood even rougher, in which skinheads and Mohawk-punks communed with Hell's Angels and hillbillies and lowlifes and speed-freaks in some kind of outcast coalition held together by its constituents' shared interest in tattoos, violence, anarchy, cheap Foster's Lager in big cans, and loud fast harsh sounds. My friend David Grubbs played the Jockey Club four times in 1985 as a member of the teenaged Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait, and never spoke of the experience without evincing at least a hint of amazement that he had managed to survive it. (The threat of violence inside and outside the Jockey Club was not the only hazard faced by out-of-town bands who played there. Culinary/gastronomical threats also abounded: Grubbs recalls that the White Castle that neighbored the Jockey Club "was a test market where on occasion you could order the Chick 'n' Cheese sandwich and the completely vile Castle Onion Stix.").
During its fabled existence from 1982 to 1988, the Jockey Club brought the cream of America's Most Hardcore to Newport, Kentucky, providing a storied venue for gigs by Black Flag, Minor Threat, H.R. (Bad Brains), The Minutemen, The Dead Kennedys, Descendents, DOA, Crucial Youth, The Dicks, The Dickies, Circle Jerks, The Meatmen, The Effigies, The Necros, Flipper, GG Allin, Big Black, Naked Raygun, The Ramones, Johnny Thunders, GBH, The Exploited, The Damned, The Fall, Scream, Samhain, Malignant Growth, The Gun Club, Husker Du, The Replacements, and may more (A near-complete accounting is online somewhere). (During the same years, I had the great fortune to see many of these bands play at the late lamented City Gardens in Trenton NJ, the east coast's closest analogue to the Jockey Club). Perhaps more importantly, the Jockey Club provided a supportive home to a number of local Cincy/Northern Kentucky punk bands possessed of surprising stylistic diversity. (In calling the scene "supportive," I am taking the liberty of construing as "support" the tendency of Jockey Club regulars to pelt their favorite local bands with literally hundreds of beer cans during a 30-minute set). This support enabled a highly original local music scene to survive and prosper throughout the 1980s despite the lack of even a scintilla of encouragement or interest from anyone (other than Jack Rabid) located outside Cincinnati's I-275 Beltway.
On November 22, 2008, the Aurore Press of Cincinnati published a 250-page book entitled "Stories for Shorty: A Collection of Recollections from the Jockey Club 1982-1988." Stories for Shorty is more of a scrapbook than a narrative history. It is basically a collection of everything submitted by anyone (employees, musicians, patrons) who felt moved to transcribe a recollection of the Club. The book contains some well-documented submissions by highly informed and literate scene participants (Hospital Records proprietor "Uncle Dave" Lewis is a particular standout), and some two-paragraph blurbs by people in possession of singular scraps of info (sometimes vital, sometimes not). Most of the major local scene participants are represented, if alive. Consistent with the outside world's near-universal disregard of the Cincy scene in the 1980s, Joey "Shithead" Keithley of the Vancouver, Canada combo DOA is the sole (inter-) national touring artist whose prose graces the volume, though others were also invited. (DOA played the Jockey Club ten times, the most of any out-of-town band).
To celebrate the publication of Stories for Shorty, release-day events were held at Shake-It Records in the afternoon, and at the Southgate House in the evening. The afternoon event, attended by about 60 fans, consisted mainly of extemporaneous speeches by original Jockey Club scene insiders. There, I learned that the Jockey Club had been owned by a hardboiled pair of pistol-packing septuagenarian brothers—"Shorty" and "Tiny" Mincey—who took turns tending bar and who virtually never left the club's premises. "Shorty" had previously worked as a laborer in a local brewery, alongside the father of "Billy Blank" Leist, a twentysomething Newport punk, ne'er do-well, and sometime volunteer DJ on community radio station WAIF-FM in Cincinnati. Blue-collar Newport being a small community, fate and social networks ensured that "Billy Blank" would soon be booking punk bands into the Jockey Club. The Club's prospects of obtaining national touring acts grew bright when "Billy Blank" enlisted his well-connected fellow WAIF DJs "Handsome Clem" Carpenter and Robert "Jughead" Sturdevant. Apparently, "Shorty" and "Billy Blank" bridged the generation gap after bonding over their shared ambition to have some fun and make some money. By all accounts their business partnership was congenial and respectful, though "Shorty" always insisted on handling all cash personally.
At the book party, we heard from all three of the Jockey Club's WAIF DJ founders, and also from Neil Aquino, the former "Hockey Punk" (now famed as the "Texas Liberal" blogger); Steve "Snare" Arnzen (of "Snare and the Idiots," whose fame never quite extended beyond the 45223 Zip Code despite releasing a well-regarded 7"EP); Jockey Club soundman "Jimmy D" Davidson (also of The Libertines); Hospital Records proprietor "Uncle Dave" Lewis; Aurore Press owner/publisher Chuck Byrd; and several other notables. The speeches were mostly extemporaneous, but they were filled with passion and politics and pride. (It turns out that many original Jockey Club scenesters and musicians have remained involved with left-politics in Cincinnati, which in several cases is the vehicle through which social contacts have been maintained and strengthened over the years). There was also a surprising amount of naked sentimentality. It's not every day that a boozy punk-rocker with a potty-mouth exhorts his audience to turn to the person next to him and shake his/her hand and thank him/her for being part of your scene, but I was there when it happened in Shake-It Records on Saturday Nov 22, and I'll be damned if I didn't shake hands with a grinning "Billy Blank" himself, who welcomed me as if I'd actually been there back in the day! (I was accompanied at this event by my pal Al, a well-known documenter of the scene who really was there back in the day).
The evening gig started earlier than I expected, so I arrived at Southgate House after The Thangs had already finished playing. My pal Al was already there, and was enough of a local celeb that The Thangs gave me some free 7"singles just for being Al's pal! Sweet! Next up (and first up to me) were The Libertines, now called "Libertines US" because some major-label English act stole their name during their years of inactivity. The Libertines (best known nowadays as Randy Cheek's pre-Ass Ponys combo) actually regrouped more than a year ago, when frontman/songwriter Walt Hodge decided to come out of musical retirement. Tall, thin, and well-groomed, Hodge looks a lot like Clint Conley, who similarly came back from two decades of retirement to reform Mission of Burma a few years ago. And like Mission of Burma, the revived Libertines picked up right where they left off, as if twenty years were erased from the calendar and 2007 was the year that followed 1986. Sounding like Southern Ohio's Human Switchboard (or maybe like Big Dipper or Dumptruck or The Wrens), the Libertines live hit that perfect Amerindie gtr-rock groove that sort-of characterized proto-indie rock in the mid-1980s. (Sadly, their recordings never came anywhere near capturing the punch or muscle of their live show). It is a testament to the stylistic catholicism of the Jockey Club scene that The Libertines were always well-loved there. The Libertines were not a hardcore band (and barely even a punk band) in a scene where loud fast ruled. But they were of the scene, by the scene, and for the scene, and the Jockey Club scene appreciated them—in the 1980s and again in 2008.
After the Libertines wrapped it, "Handsome Clem" Carpenter was proud to introduce the next band: "from the sewers of Newport, Kentucky, those lowlife swine: SS-20." SS-20--a political hardcore combo fronted by the fiftysomething Ted Kennedy/Howie Cunningham lookalike and antiwar political activist Robert "Jughead" Sturdevant—always worshipped the Dead Kennedys fairly openly. As close to a "house band" as the Jockey Club ever had, SS-20 have reuned many times since the mid-1980s. Their early material is fast and loud but poppy, like (of course) the Dead Kennedys and not unlike The Descendents or The Sex Pistols or Green Day. Their more recent material is more varied; the highlight of their set was a Clash-inspired anthem entitled "(I'm So Sick Of The) Capital Class," which was written before the present financial collapse but certainly anticipated it. SS-20 were the crowd-favorite of the evening: when they took the stage, it was truly 1982 all over again. As if from nowhere, there materialized mohawked punks a-skankin', and kids of all ages slamming, moshing, and careening. Between exhortations to smash the capitalist state, "Jughead" took a few potsmoking breaks on stage (courtesy of generous audience members). Magnanimous to a fault, he offered free CDs and T-Shirts to anyone who wanted them. Between songs, he told a number of good one-liners, e.g.: "This morning, my 89 year-old mother asked me what I want to be when I grow up. So I told her, "a teenager.'" (Ba-da-bing). Unable to resist using his bully pulpit for some retail politicking, "Jughead" noted angrily that in the USA, the working man works in the capitalist's store. And he went on record early in identifying "a little problem with Mr. Obama's foreign policy": ending the war in Iraq is good, but moving it to Afghanistan is not good. At sixtysomething, the decidedly non-straightedge Jughead also noted a little wistfully that growing up in the 1960s made him want to change the world, but then a few million beers got in the way. But of course he did change his own small corner of the word, which is why a few hundred old-timers were motivated tonight to come pay tribute. Mainly on the strength of Jughead's charisma and his palpable (and inspirational) passion, SS-20 played a great show.
BPA (the By-Products of America) played next. Often described as Southern Ohio's Pere Ubu, BPA were part of Cincy's avant-garde Hospital Records scene in the early 1980s, which coexisted at the Jockey Club with the more popular hardcore scene. Formed by identical twin brothers Tim and Nolan Benz in 1981, BPA released several records on Hospital from 1982-86, played gigs until 1992, and kept practicing regularly thereafter until gigging resumed in 2005. This was the third time I've seen BPA this year, and their set has become more stunning each time. Instrument-switching, multi-instrumentalism, band members coming and going from the stage throughout the set, different vocalists on each song: BPA scorch with an intense seriousness of purpose that recalls Mission of Burma and The Fall (though without any songs quite as memorable). Even at fortysomething, the Benz brothers look and dress (and buzz their hair) so identically with one another that it is impossible to tell which one is which. Their multi-instrumentalism and complete refusal to address the audience between songs only add to the puzzle and the fascination. BPA were by far the most contemporary-sounding of the evening's bands, if only because they were 25 years ahead of their time in the early 1980s.
Last up was "Billy Blank" Leist's own band, The Reduced. Never the most "musical" band (even by punk rock standards), The Reduced were a beloved but generic bar-band version of glam/punk bands like The Dictators and The New York Dolls, already somewhat anachronistic in their 1980s heyday, as retro as BPA are modern. (The Reduced's guitarist, William Weber, later went on to enjoy a dubious fifteen minutes of fame in GG Allin's final combo, "nem" Murder Junkies). This evening, "Billy Blank" wisely wore a full-body trenchcoat, to absorb the impact from the literally hundreds of beer cans that were hurled at him as he sang (just like back in the day). He also evoked memories of Brian Jones or Buddy Holocaust or The Monks (while at the same time cannily protecting his own skull from projectiles) by wearing a tall military officer's cap throughout the set. Bashing out New York Dolls and Creedence covers between originals that aped the style of those bands (if not quite the substance), The Reduced were so glad to be onstage that their joy was infectious. But they too were a little wistful: never more so than when a drunken "Billy Blank" quietly but defiantly proclaimed himself to be "your old Billy Bottom, still blanker than you'll ever be." Damn straight!
Overall, the Jockey Club reunion festivities were lovely and exciting and interesting: a time machine that opened a small window into the "secret history of punk rock," some of which was made in a Newport KY dive-bar in the 1980s. In 2008, a parking lot is all that remains on the Jockey Club's former site.