Can't Knock Me Down: Vex Singer Returns for One Last Howl

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In a time before Houston was overly infested with sprawl, when portions of downtown were dripping with decay, mechanical bull-riding mesmerized crowds at Gilley's, and police violence regularly marred neighborhoods, bands like Vex, peppered with heavy duty politics, the "plague" of punk, and bruising live sets, set themselves far apart from wafer-thin New Wave and moronic glam-metal that held sway in the 1980s.

They sided with a slightly older set of witty, spirited outcasts like Really Red, Orgasm, Mydolls, Anarchitex and the Hates, whose music -- rank with disaffection and disarray -- served as a countercultural beacon in the Reagan era.

Singer Mike May (who also later joined Keelhaul and Crust), now suffering from Stage-4 melanoma, was the band's center of gravity.

"Back in the early 1980s, Mike jumped right into the trenches of the punk rock scene, the whole DIY ethos," J.R. Delgado of Screech of Death, Party Owls and Derailers recalls fondly. "He started a band, made flyers, put on shows, he even had a warehouse called Vex World where they practiced and threw parties."

"Vex World was a trashed-out bungalow, one block off I-45 on the opposite side from University of Houston," Bob Weber, drummer for Really Red and Culturcide, says. "Behind the house there was a garage that was converted into a band space. It also served as a party space, a political action center and a place where mentally frayed kids got advice and treatment from Dr. John Peters. It's long since gone, demolished to make space for the Metro park-and-ride center."

"The Party Owls played there once," Delgado adds. "It was crazy fun. He was also very politically active, like helping with the Rock Against Reagan shows and a few other political events."

Mike May was a lightning rod for issues focused along a left-wing trajectory and offered a hoarse howl that desired to bulldoze through the public's indifference.

"I believe it is a people-power movement, what any one person does is not the issue; it's what we as human beings can accomplish together," he admits to Rocks Off.

The mid-1980s represented a landscape of bitter dividedness. On one side, the neo-cons ruled with iron-hearted, warmonger zeal as Hollywood avatar Ronald Reagan smiled in faux innocence, like a salesman regurgitating the American dream by rote.

On the other side were legions of feral youth, children of dysfunctional homes, broken-hope high schools, a fervid underground press, and class war stimulation that espoused a kind of adrenalized anarchy -- or Henry David Thoreau with distorted-guitar sense of righteousness -- in songs serving as truncated rampages against a stifling late-Cold-War order. Above all, these people felt a sense of community, a bond thicker and more electrifying than Boy Scouts.

"Vex was from the second wave of Houston punk bands, and you can hear influences of Really Red and Culturcide," Ed Rudy of Hot Box Review intones. "They were all friends and played shows together. Vex still brought something different and honest to the table while being fueled by their predecessors, environment and friends."

The respect, though, remains bilateral.

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"I don't think I know anyone who is more actively committed to his social and economic beliefs," Bob Weber contends. "Mike knows how the political and judicial systems work, so he gets out and takes part in protests when something just isn't right.

"Of course, that was one source of the power behind Vex. It's raw, of course," Weber says with a hint of dry sarcasm, "Basic three-chord punk more in the vein of early punk rock before the advent of the crazy-fast DRI hardcore shit and not as slow as "Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley."

Other elder members of the Houston punk tribe recall Vex's powerful aesthetic as well.

"They had a tightly wound sound," says Christian Kidd (Arnheiter) of the Hates, who gave Vex their first gig slot at Paradise Island/The Island. "Their rush of adrenaline from being onstage for the first time made their songs come out faster than they ever had sounded at sound check.

"Staying in tune or on time with each other didn't seem much of a concern because of the fun they and the audience were having," Kidd adds. "The melodies of the songs were a blur as they burned through the stage time slotted to them."

"The drums sounded like a hornets nest complimenting the percussion of the bass guitar," he goes on. "The crowd warmed up to them especially after the singer's stage banter hit on asking them, 'What are you fed up about in this world?' People in the middle of the crowd started to jump around. After their set, the stage went dark and even though they weren't allowed an encore, they exited to a hail of cheers."

Rudy, though, acted as the guiding force behind a pointed effort to conserve this savage and savvy music by making sure Vex did not simply remain a footnote in local agitprop lore: he pressed a colored-vinyl 7-inch EP of "New Words For An Old Revolution," thus reintroducing the band to a new generation of fans, just as he would with the Dicks and Plastic Idols.

As local poet, guitarist, and singer Torry Mercer (Beatless, Anarchitex) penned in the liner notes to the release, tunes like "Lash Out With Your Voice" and "No One Is Safe" fully "speak to the futility and insecurity of being trapped in a surreal capitalist nightmare, yet still not capitulating one iota. This disk you embark upon is plastered with enough disgruntled, dystopian, discordant and disaffected verbal discharge to have you stockpiling ammo and forming collectives for the seemingly immanent societal breakdown."

"What can you say about a bunch of great guys and a chance to work with them for such a worthy 7-inch project?" Rudy wholeheartedly admits. "Perhaps the smoothest and most humble band I have had the pleasure to work for a release on the label."

Mike May will zoom to Houston from New York City to join his band one last time at Vinal Edge, itself a longtime punk emporium, alongside cutting-edge local heroes Screech of Death, Pond Water and Deconstruction Crew. 6:30 p.m. Friday at Vinal Edge Records, 239 W. 19th St. Free.


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