Looking around at the plenitude of punk in and around the city today, it's hard to believe that a mere 25 years ago, the music and the lifestyle were deep underground and viewed with the utmost fear and loathing by parents and police alike. Today, moms and dads think nothing of willingly driving their teenagers to alcohol-free suburban punk venues like Javajazz, where often the bands -- punk fashions or no -- are as Christian as cherry-cheeked, blow-dried youth pastors. Back in 1981, though, the clubs were always in tough parts of town, the kids in attendance and the bands were always as drunk or high as their minimal means would allow, and both bands and fans were often runaways and other such guttersnipes. Or, at the very least, total pariahs.
"Back then, it wasn't cool to have a Mohawk," says KPFT DJ, punk scene veteran and man-about-town Rad Rich. "It wasn't a fashion statement. It marked you as an outcast."
Andy Schuman, the guitarist in old-school Houston punk band Allied Aggression and later Verbal Abuse, was one of those outcasts. "Especially now in my old age, I would say that a lot of us were lost kids," he remembers. "We were looking for something to do, and there was no one really guiding us, and everybody was drifting for awhile, and people heard songs like our old Allied Aggression song 'No Future,' and they all kind of agreed with that. I know that's not real original, but people really did believe there was only now, and that we were all gonna be fuck-ups, or we already were. But the cool thing was we were like a little family, and we took care each other. Sure, we screwed each other over, but we also cared for each other like brothers and sisters."
"You went to punk shows in those days because that was the only place you were accepted, the only place you could find a bond," says Rad Rich.
That sense of mutuality is coming into play again. Spike Cassidy, a founding member of pioneering Houston thrash-punk/metal band D.R.I., is undergoing treatment for colon cancer and needs help. To help pay for his chemo and radiation therapy, his old punk buddies are coming out of the woodwork all over Texas for a string of benefits, including the Spikefest/Houston Punk Reunion at Fitzgerald's on December 29, with Gang Green, Allied Aggression, Los de Verdad, Hellstown Rebels, the Drunks, Contortion Session, U.Y.U.S., Poor Dumb Bastards, the Brownstars, the Dickins and Bark Hard. (Other bands are hopping on the bill all the time -- check out www.myspace.com/houstonpunkreunion for the latest lineup.)
The show hopes not just to raise some much-needed scratch for Cassidy but also to reunite old bands and friends and show today's crop of punks a thing or two about the way the original punks rolled. Schuman's tales today have the ring of legend: "We were going to [early Houston venues] the Island and the Omni and we were seeing the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and old Black Flag before Henry Rollins was even in the band. And these shows were dirt cheap -- like two dollars. If they were four dollars, people would complain. Plus everybody was sneaking in anyway."
One way they would sneak in, Schuman recalls, is by serving as roadies of a sort. "We saw the earliest, earliest shows of the Butthole Surfers," he recalls. "We used to get in their shows free by waiting for them to pull up and then carrying in their stuff. Sometimes they would hand me a cymbal and I'd be in the show. Sometimes these shows would have literally 25 people in them, but we'd be going crazy. As time went by, there would be 100, 150 people. But we considered all those people posers, because we were the originals. A lot of them had been new wave, but they transferred their look over to punk."
Schuman can't make it to this show as he already had a commitment in San Francisco when the gig was announced, but he thinks the bill is pretty solid, save for one omission. "I don't even know if they would do it, but it's too bad that Really Red isn't on this bill," he says. "They really were the most popular band in Houston. Around '83, they were really big. All the punk kids really respected them and would be at the shows. They had songs that were really anthemic, and when they broke up, all the kids that were at all their shows went and started bands. They really spurred it all on. They were a big influence on me and a lot of other people, just the way they showed me how fun and easy it all is."
The same could be said for most of the rest of the bands on the bill. Bark Hard, a.k.a. "The National Band of Texas," had a local profile that approached Really Red's, even if the influence of their beery skate-punk did not. And Cassidy's band, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, or D.R.I., as they have long been known, was one of the bands that picked up Really Red's mantle, and they became the first Houston punk band to win a lasting national following. (In time-honored H-Town fashion, they hit it big after moving away, in their case to San Francisco.)
The early-to-mid-1980s were a turbulent time for American punk -- the genre was splitting up into numerous splinter cells like skate-punk, thrash, hardcore and punk-metal, and D.R.I. was at the heart of that flux. Their aptly-titled 1987 album Crossover was among the first punk albums to ladle on metal by the dollop-full.
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"That was like, it, man," remembers Chuck Roast, former cohost of the Funhouse show on KPFT (which did so much to infect the suburbs with the punk virus) and now the owner of the northside record shop Vinal Edge. "It was like, 'Oh shit -- punk's goin' kinda metal.' That pissed a lot of us off at the time, 'cause it seemed like a sellout at the time. But in the end, what the fuck did it matter?"
Devin the Dude's Waitin' to Inhale is due out in March, and yours truly was treated to a sneak preview listening session at Rap-A-Lot last week. It will come as little surprise to longtime Devinheads to hear that the album is great -- it has his usual mix of samples you can't quite place, self-deprecating lyrics, unique turns of phrase and moments of "high" comedy. And yes, Devin still likes to rap about weed, women and bongs. Those of you who are fans of his drawling redneck persona are in for a treat -- that creation of his makes several appearances on the album, but I don't recall any visitations from Zeldar, the pot-smoking alien from Planet BeldarSaturday night, make sure you head to Rudyard's and party like it's 1999. Jug O'Lightnin', the other lil' ol' band from Texas that held down the Sunday night, wee hours, drink-and-die slot for a few turn-of-the-century years at the venerable British pub, returns for one of their now all-too-rare gigs. Since this gig's on a Saturday, you have no excuses to miss this one. ("I'm saving myself for New Year's Eve" is not acceptable.) Or if 1996 was more your bag, de Schmog is also on the bill. Or hell, maybe you live in the here and now. In that case, Bright Men of Learning is also on thereSpeaking of the here and now, if you haven't seen the Dancing Sisters shimmy-shimmy-coco-bop alongside James McMurtry as he unfurls the splendors of his Oklahoma speed freak anthem "Chocktaw Bingo," you just haven't lived. You can remedy that situation Friday night, when McMurtry swings through his early childhood hometown of Houston. And oh yeah, he has a few other songs, too -- "We Can't Make It Here" not least among them. Talk about the here and now, no song ever written has captured the mood and tone of a nation as well as that oneIf you've got a mind to travel this holiday season and don't want to go too far, head out to Bastrop this weekend. The picturesque little town in the pines on the outskirts of Austin is hosting "A New Orleans New Year." Downtown merchants will be offering special year-end sales, and Irma "The Soul Queen of New Orleans" Thomas and trumpeter-composer Hannibal Lokumbe will be performing an evening concert. Best of all, that afternoon the Trem Brass Band and the Black Men of Labor steppers will be leading a second-line parade around the streets of old town Bastrop in the afternoon. (The parade pays tribute to late Bastrop-born barrelhouse pianist The Grey Ghost.) And marching in a New Orleans-style second-line parade is another of those things you really should do before you shuffle off this mortal coil, and unlike those that take place in New Orleans, the chances of this one getting cut short by gunfire are pretty small.