The canonical punk scenes—in New York, London, and Los Angeles—were doubtless pretty dangerous places to be. But three decades later they’re the subject of a tall stack of books, and the stories that came out of them—Iggy trading his Raw Power jacket for drugs, Patti Smith doing a face-plant from a stage in Tampa, Black Flag fans brawling en masse with police on the Sunset Strip—have been softened by time and repetition into the objects of an often perverse nostalgia. (“Man, remember when the cops would kick the shit out of us for trying to go to a show?”) Those tales, tall and otherwise, are now as much a part of the rock establishment as the Beatles’ sojourn with the maharishi or Led Zeppelin’s escapades with the mythical mud shark—fairy stories for kids to tell each other while they wait for the ‘shrooms to kick in.
The Chicago scene’s absence from the established history of punk is usually framed as a glaring omission, since Chicagoans are by and large the only people who bother to point it out. But I think we should be grateful that midwestern punk hasn’t been buffed smooth and bled dry by generations of well-meaning hagiographers. It’s especially easy for me to take that perspective now that I’ve seen the new documentary You Weren’t There, which tells the story of Chicago punk and hardcore from ’77 to ’84. Lots of fabulous shit was happening in our city back then, and I’m glad it’s still so unfamiliar that it can hit me with such startling power all these years later.
Husband and wife Joe Losurdo and Chris Tillman, aka Regressive Films, use vintage concert footage and recent interviews with a busload of Chicago punk veterans to sketch the outlines of an outrageous scene that was indebted to the pioneers on the coasts but often outplayed and usually outweirded them. It’s hard to generalize about any punk community, and there’s not much you can safely say about Chicago’s except that the musicians were more likely to be unpretentious, working-class people—and like their LA cousins, Chicago scenesters had a less intellectualized idea of what it meant to be punk, rolling with a free-form, anything-goes party style.
The punk-rock creation myths attached to New York, LA, and London begin with a handful of bands coming out of nowhere with a nasty, stripped-down, transgressive version of rock ‘n’ roll. Chicago’s scene started with those bands’ records—the Clash gets name-checked particularly often in You Weren’t There—and with a few DJs who took over a regular night at a Lincoln Park gay bar called La Mere Vipere. At the time most small venues in the city booked only cover bands, so the debauched dance parties at La Mere quickly turned into an oasis of strangeness for anybody who felt alienated from the mainstream—wannabe Sex Pistols, art students, drag queens. When the club burned down in ’78, the scene migrated to places like O’Banion’s and Oz.
When punks started actually forming their own bands, they discovered that the freaky La Mere vibe wasn’t welcome outside that protective bubble. Tutu & the Pirates, arguably Chicago’s first punk band, got kicked out of practically every club in town. “Basically, all of those early shows ended in fights,” says Losurdo. “Like that scene in The Blues Brothers where there are people whipping bottles at them.” Bands made do with illegal spaces and house parties for a while, and the impressive crowds at those shows convinced club owners to wean themselves from the cover-band teat. The punk scene had proved that original music could draw, and soon Chicago venues were booking all sorts of bands—even the occasional punk band.
Still, Chicago at large wasn’t ready for punk, and scenesters got so used to harassment and ass kickings from cops and jocks that they learned to simply take their beatings rather than resist and end up arrested. (“Today,” Losurdo says, “the guys who would’ve called you ‘faggot’ are into punk.”)
To be fair, at the time Chicago punk was pretty fucked up—certainly more so than anywhere else in the States—and it would’ve been hard for any outsider to be ready for it. In the late 70s just a few bands made up the scene, but among them were Silver Abuse, who wore tinfoil and played aggressively dissonant guitar skree, and the Mentally Ill, who sent John Wayne Gacy a copy of their single “Gacy’s Place” in prison, earning a priceless testimonial—he replied that he thought it was “sick.” And End Result, who played their first show in 1980, were a bizarre drumless group that used horns and nonstandard guitar tunings, sounding more like a Glenn Branca experiment than a punk band.
In You Weren’t There, Steve Albini points out that punk never got cool in Chicago like it did in New York and LA, where an occasional band could develop enough commercial potential to snag a major-label contract. “On the coasts you have your media centers, New York and LA,” Losurdo says. “So those scenes got to be pretty huge. They got played on real radio stations—even local punk bands got played. They got national press. Whereas in Chicago, even the Reader barely covered it. I think you were able to do more and experiment more.”
The first wave of Chicago bands didn’t attract much notice elsewhere, and the few that had fans outside the city—Naked Raygun, the Effigies—earned it a reputation for muscular guitar rock that didn’t fit the actual scene. “They talk about a ‘Chicago sound,'” Losurdo says, “but I think that’s a misnomer. There’s no real Chicago sound.” Naked Raygun, for instance, didn’t sound anything like Da, a female-fronted band that played angular art-pop, and that neither sounded like Strike Under, whose unhinged, high-speed punk presaged the wave of hardcore (Articles of Faith, Rights of the Accused, Negative Element) that would dominate the scene in the early 80s. But all those bands did shows together.
The consensus among the people interviewed for the film seems to be that the scene fell off around 1985, after being overrun by teenage hardcore bands and then by newcomers looking for the brainless violence promised by lurid TV news stories on the punk menace. Somebody even calls out the “punk” episodes of Quincy and CHiPS, both of which aired in ’82, as the beginning of the end. “Some guys will say 1983. Some people say ’82,” Losurdo says, laughing. “The name of the film, You Weren’t There, was like a joke that me and my friends used to say about the old punks who said, ‘You weren’t there, man.’ It was all like, ‘If you weren’t there when we were there, then you weren’t there.’ It kinda took on another meaning because it was kind of like Chicago was a scene that sometimes you have to explain why it was good.”
Losurdo’s primary goal in making a movie about Chicago punk was simply to “show that it happened at all.” There’s a chance You Weren’t There will create a new audience for the deranged music it documents, or even provoke some long-overdue reissues. “Silver Abuse, I have some demos that they did in like ’82 that sound completely relevant today,” Losurdo says. “It’s a little more no wave, and they have girl vocals and really off-kilter rhythms and sax.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether he and Tillman can get anyone outside the city interested even now. Losurdo knows how hard that can be. He remembers an instructive incident from a mid-80s tour he did as the bassist for the hardcore band Life Sentence: “We played in Arizona, and the flyer—I still have the flyer—the guys who put on the show put ‘From New York: Life Sentence.’ And we’re like, ‘We’re not from New York.’ But they were like, ‘Yeah, but we thought it would draw more people.'”
You Weren’t There premieres Saturday at the Portage Theater; an afterparty at the Beat Kitchen features several bands that appear in the film, some playing their first shows in more than two decades. v
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