A Veteran’s Debut

“I was writing screenplays and I wanted to see if I could do it out in LA,” says Joe Carducci. “I couldn’t.” But though the Naperville native quit the University of Denver 22 years ago to try to make movies, he ended up making his mark in American punk rock. This weekend his career comes full circle when Carducci attends the premiere of his self-produced first feature, the Spinal Tap-esque Rock & Roll Punk, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

After about a year in LA, Carducci realized he wasn’t ready for prime time and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked as a clerk and then a buyer in an import-only record store called Renaissance. He persuaded the owner to get into record distribution, and by 1979, when the shop closed and the business (which changed its name to Systematic) moved to Berkeley, Carducci was running the first major system for disseminating punk rock in America. For Systematic he tracked down obscure early punk records and released new music by acts like the Dead Kennedys and Negativland, but around the same time he also started his own Thermidor label, which would eventually put out records by Toiling Midgets, the Minutemen, and Chicago’s Ono and Sport of Kings. It also licensed overseas recordings by seminal industrialists SPK and Nick Cave’s early band the Birthday Party.

By the middle of 1981, Carducci’s goals for Systematic had outstripped his employer’s, and he was thinking of moving back to either LA or Chicago. Visiting his family in Naperville that July, he caught a gig by LA hardcore avatars Black Flag at the old Lakeview club Tuts. The band members ran their own label, SST, but operations suffered when they went on tour. So Carducci talked guitarist and co-owner Greg Ginn into letting him take care of the business while they were out, and in September he returned to LA with renewed idealism.

“I didn’t know anybody in LA,” Carducci says. “I was cadging pennies and nickels, buying the cheapest loaves of bread I could find…and then I’d have to open the last can of tomato juice.” In his best Clint Eastwood voice, he adds, “I hate tomato juice.” But he lumped it in LA because he believed in the music, and his days at SST were the label’s salad days, when it put out records by the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Husker Du, among others. He never drew a regular salary, working instead for equity, and when he left in 1986 the company was better than just solvent. “I saw SST as an interesting opportunity to learn something about what it takes to sell art,” he says. “But I was always calibrating when the time was to leave.”

Carducci came back to Chicago with enough money to buy a house in pre-yuppie Wicker Park, which he spent a year renovating. In 1988 he began writing the book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, a thoughtful if didactic treatise on what makes rock music rock. He printed up 2,400 copies of it himself in 1991, and in 1995 a revised version was published by Henry Rollins’s small press, 2.13.61. By then Carducci had moved temporarily to his parents’ vacation home in Minocqua, Wisconsin, living off rental income from the Wicker Park property and starting screenplays for what would become Rock & Roll Punk and an as yet unmade western set in Wyoming. He wanted the latter to be convincing, so in 1996 he sold the Wicker Park house–for four times what he had paid–and used some of the profits to buy a building in Laramie.

Also with money from the sale, Carducci started a film and video distribution company, Provisional, which combines his interest in pictures with his connections in rock: his catalog includes Rachel Amodeo’s What About Me, which stars Richard Edson, Richard Hell, Dee Dee Ramone, and Johnny Thunders; several works by LA artist Raymond Pettibon, who drew most of Black Flag’s album covers; and the movies of Chicago underground film vet Jim Sikora, whose 1997 feature, Bullet on a Wire (cowritten by Carducci), starred Jesus Lizard front man David Yow. Sikora also directed Rock & Roll Punk.

Carducci says he never really intended for his first movie to be a rock movie, but “it occurred to me that if I was going to throw money into a film production it would be nice to have some cross-promotional advantage with the music press.” Having noted over the years that few actors can play musicians convincingly, he and Sikora cast mostly real musicians in Rock & Roll Punk, including Yow, Steve Albini, guitarist John Haggerty (Naked Raygun, Pegboy), bassist Karl Alvarez (Descendents, All), drummer Bob Rising (Repulse Kava, Poster Children), and bassist Greg Norton (Husker Du). This solution wasn’t without its own problems, but “I found that they had something else to bring to the table–they didn’t have a cynical or callous view of acting,” Sikora says diplomatically. Shot on digital video in and around Chicago over 21 days in July 1996, the movie chronicles the misadventures of a fictional Elgin band called the Out-Patients. While some of the acting is wooden and the narrative occasionally lacks finesse, the laughs are frequently dead-on.

“Musicians can’t really talk about music,” says Carducci. “It’s evanescent and they’re on a vibe outside of a normal demonstrable reality, and it makes life very hard for them. But it’s easy to make fun of.”

Rock & Roll Punk shows Saturday at 7:15 PM at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are $6; call 773-327-5252 to charge by phone or 773-866-8660 for recorded information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Carducci, Jim Sikora photo by Brad Miller.