Remembering The Island: Where R.E.M. Played, but XTC Wouldn't
The Dead Kennedys at the Island
Photos courtesy of Ben DeSoto
Despite the dust of time that usually befalls venues and lore from punk's rambunctious past, The Island has remained a steady icon of Houston's underground movement that swept to the surface as classic arena rock and cosmic country choked the FM airwaves.
"The Island was ground zero, where my idea for a punk band came to its fruition," outlines Christian Arnheiter of The Hates, Houston's longest continuously running punk band.
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"While other musicians still used the blueprint of the 12-bar blues, I was thinking outside the box," he adds. I feel sometimes I have to pinch myself on how fortunate I was to have the youth and energy of drummer Glen Sorvisto and the intelligent creativity of bassist Robert Kainer for my vision."
In this light, the Island (also known at various points as Rock Island and Paradise Island) was a subcultural meeting ground where outside rules could be bent and new visions sustained.
"It really did fall that easily into place for me," asserts Arnheiter. "It was exciting to see the transformation of the fans and a scene that didn't copy somewhere else. We were definitely under the radar and that was the beauty. It was a special time that so many people from different backgrounds came together and created something unique."
At Rock Island, the future really did seem unwritten, which the bands attribute in large part to the owner.
"Phil Hicks was on another planet," asserts Bob Weber of Really Red and Anarchitex. "He was perfect man for the job and concentrated on keeping the club going - that was his mantra. I don't recollect his reaction regarding the bands or the fashion or the hysteria or lack there of.
"By the late '70s, Ziggy and Elton John had numbed us to glam-rock, so rock fashion or anti-fashion was not shocking," he adds. What I really enjoyed about the indie scene at the Island was all of the black humor
"Jerry Anomie of Legionnaire's Disease hopping around on one leg with a stump sticking out the other side," continues Weber. "Legionnaire's roadie, a big ex-con biker dude named Frankie, added some tension too.
"The Big Boys came in from Austin," he adds. "They were skateboarders that did some hilarious stuff, especially with Biscuit [singer Randy Turner], a large man out front dressed as a Christmas tree one time with lights that lit up!"
More Island alumni: Austin/San Antonio's Butthole Surfers
"From my first visit in 1978 to the last few days in 1983, I went to shows from Superman's Girlfriend, R.E.M., The Judy's and The Huns to MDC, Minor Threat, Misfits, Dicks, and Big Boys," lists J.R. Delgado, member of seminal hardcore punk band Doomsday Massacre and future operator of the Axiom.
"From 12 in attendance to sold-out shows, and as factions and music style evolved, it was still the same," he says. "I was there for the energy and spirit of the scene, and for what it represented."
Although scene veteran Don Price headed to New Jersey, seeking music fame to no avail, he returned in 1982 and formed The Deadliners as the Island shared the scene with clubs like Joe Star's Omni.
"We started to have pretensions to punk with a little ska thrown in. Robert Dibrell was in that band," he says. "By that time the Dead Kennedys had played the Island and Echo and the Bunnymen, while XTC came, saw, and declined to play."
The old venue had been transformed.
"The Island had been gutted at some point in 1982 or '83, and all the pretensions to and tropical paradise had been removed," recalls Price. "Someone had pissed in the dressing room backstage, so the rank aura was complete by that point."
Price's other bands -- The Broadcasters and Solid Waste Division -- played the club too, but the original vibe was gone.
Violence did lurk at times throughout the years as well. One veteran recalls a late-night scuffle between staff and a stranger that included a pistol-whipping; Dianna Ray from the MyDolls suffered two teeth knocked out on the dance floor.
Plus, "the HPD found out about the Island and the collection of punks and gays and misfits that hung out there," Weber testifies. "It wasn't unusual for there to be a skirmish outside at one point in the evening. The police interference was blatant harassment."
Despite those incidents, the club, renamed The Island in mid-1980 and thoroughly facelifted -- and, some would argue, resurrected -- during promoter Richard Tomcala's tenure, attracted premier bands including Lords of the New Church and X, among many others.
But that story remains to be told in words of Tomcala, Daniel Jircik, Nancy McGalliard, and others that reshaped the ramshackle venue into a buzzing, vital and storied new era.
Vinyl Edge Records will be hosting an exhibit of Island-related flyers and photography by Ben DeSoto throughout November. The opening night, November 9, will feature a record-release party by Doomsday Massacre and door prizes.
The Island reunion show featuring Mydolls, Anarchitex, the Hates, Doomsday Massacre, AK-47, the Degenerates
the Introverts, Bevatron, Gary Yokie and Vex is Saturday, November 10 at Walters, 1120 Naylor.