Local Spotlight

Now He's Ready: Hardcore Punk Singer John Anderson's Last Growls

The bark behind Doomsday Massacre, John Anderson, at Vinal Edge, 2012
The bark behind Doomsday Massacre, John Anderson, at Vinal Edge, 2012 Photo by David Ensminger

Punk in Houston was a curious Southern aberration, an explosion of personalities and styles that ran the gamut from carefully crafted renegade soundwaves to jittery art-core and manic rock’n’roll. Bands tumbled quickly through the zeitgeist – Legionaires Disease, the Hates, Really Red, Bevatron, Plastic Idols, Mydolls, and many more, each leaving a scorching footprint in ozone city.

Fans like John Anderson, first born in Oklahoma but a Texan by age 12, dove in face first, thrilled by the cacophony and chaos. But after undergoing rigorous treatment for failed kidneys and other complications, he is in an end of life facility where the quietness starkly contrasts his fervent personality.

“I have known John since he was a skateboard supernatural man. This was back in the Big Boys/Dicks era of Texas skate punks and the one and only Urban Animals [a Houston-based skate group],” recalls Bob Weber, agile-wristed drummer for bands like Really Red and Anarchitex.

“Sometimes you meet someone with minimal education, but they have grown with experience and broad exposure to humanity in an urban environment,” explains Weber. “They can strike you as odd, sometimes a bit peculiar, yet they can softly bellow deep human truths and odd voices of common knowledge.”

As a man that endured recovery for 30 years, battled illness, loved to be argumentative for the sake of it, to rile up others, Anderson could be daunting, larger than life, even intimidating to those outside his circle. Yet, “effortlessly cool too,” argues his daughter Sophie, who shares his affinity for curious tattoos (“Kong!”) and attends Washington University in St. Louis while her sister Addie works at the vintage River Oaks Theatre, an Art Deco holdout in the ever-morphing metropolis.

But currently their dad, who has an older son, John, as well, is in Houston Hospice, a mayor’s re-purposed mansion, surrounded by family, including his wife Lucy, who has been a lifelong educator.

She even forgave John when I held a Beto O’Rourke fundraiser rummage sale in her wet front lawn last fall, based on her husband’s interest. He, um, neglected to tell her, but after the money trickled in, and the neighbors excitedly debated politics, and her car was loaded with leftovers, she took them to a donation center without complaint.

All's well that ends well. Now she strokes his hand.

In the dim, serene light of the hospice, surrounded by lush trees, sitting above the rain-swollen bayou, and with his dog Biscuit panting nearby, John sometimes nudges the air slightly with his arm and might repeat a phrase or two, like “Every dog has its day.”

One might not guess here lies a man of passions, for he was a collector of myriad RC Cola cans and works by Texas outsider artist Daniel Johnston and stacks and stacks of artful, often hand-signed and screened gig posters for an array of concerts, including AC/DC, Cypress Hill, Mars Volta, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Melvins and others, which sit in file cabinets inside Lonestar Posters, his stacked-to-the-ceiling business warehouse.

click to enlarge John Anderson at Lonestar Posters, showing off his wares, 2016 - PHOTO BY DAVID ENSMINGER
John Anderson at Lonestar Posters, showing off his wares, 2016
Photo by David Ensminger

And he loved commissioning stickers from some of the quirkiest graphic artists around the design community.

“Dad went to Austin City Limits in 2006, and a friend of his snapped a photo of him riding a Segway,” Sophie begins one tale of origin. “This pic became a small meme in some poster forums, and he was edited into pictures and gifs of him as Pac-Man and emerging as Jesus from the tomb. Eventually Dad printed small pink stickers of him on the Segway that we send to people who buy our posters to spread John’s influence worldwide!”

Yet, his punk rock essence eluded her for years. “Once one of my dad’s friends asked me what it was like to be raised by a punk rocker, but I don’t think I knew he was a punk until I was maybe 16 or so,” she swears. He was just a normal dad. A dad who taught us to skateboard, took us to shows, had us help him dye his hair funky colors. Normal dad stuff.”

And when he wasn’t shipping orders or raising the girls, he liked to play a weekly card game with nearby friends. He even liked to brag a bit about his winning.

But Anderson's infamous personality that will stick in the annals of the music community was carved back in the mid-1980s when he discovered the thrill of a sweaty microphone.

After punk, the heavier hitting hardcore era erupted, full of brutalism and bellicosity, frenetic fury, Armageddon woes and anti-Reagan vitriol. Anderson found a new role: his gruff and defoliated roar of a voice, which could make a bayou bridge tremble like enduring an earthquake schism. That voice defined the mood and power of Doomsday Massacre.

The band was so legendary that decades after dying their EP was re-released and their weekend-long reunion in 2012 witnessed hundreds of fans crowding into a cramped store and a bare-boned club, ready to experience the charred intensity.

During their brief foray into the music scene, their nihilism rang hard as hell, they suckerpunched their way through song structures, and offered blistering tempos fueled by aggression and adrenalin. They seem to spit out a politics lined in viscera and bile: their urgency felt a like a battering ram.

They filled clubs, including: the Island alongside bands like MDC, DRI, MDK (from Germany), Jerry Falwell and the Vibrating Crosses, as well as Torry and the Tyrants and Fabrique National (in a Rock Against Racism gig supporting the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee); the Omni, opening for Code of Honor (San Francisco) and the Offenders (Austin) and being part of a delirious Halloween gig with The Needy, Beatless, and the Degenerates; and The Warehouse, where they unleashed their catapulting ferocity alongside Scream (Washington D.C.) and Anarchitex.

“My earliest memory of John was at the first annual Rock Against Reagan show,” recalls Chuck Roast, gig promoter, flyer maker, and radio host who has owned and operated Vinal Edge Records for decades. “It was outside at the Jack Pierce building. Doomsday Massacre was one of the local bands on the bill that included out of town heroes the Crucifucks from Michigan.”

click to enlarge Doomsday Massacre tearing up the Omni, 1983 - PHOTO BY ROSE MENDEZ
Doomsday Massacre tearing up the Omni, 1983
Photo by Rose Mendez

“While I love the Crucifucks, I was also real proud of our local ‘scene,’ admits Roast. “Their song "R-U-Ready,” with the lyric “R-U-Ready to stand up and fight," was a real anthem that seemed PERFECT for the moment. John's hands and arms were all wrapped in gray duct tape, and he looked legit punk rock, which I complemented him about after the set. I still consider the Doomsday Massacre EP to be a Texas hardcore classic.”

And when the band regrouped in 2012 for an Island reunion warm-up set the night prior to the big event at Walters, “I felt honored … when he and the band chose Vinal Edge Records to do a record release show for the re-issue Stick A Fork In It! LP, which included more tracks.”

To outsiders, the uninvited normals clinging to flaccid rock’n’roll radio, they likely sounded like a league of noise, chilling and reeking of contempt, a soundtrack for the impending blackout. In fact, their EP was titled “Wake Up Or Melt Down” (on CIA Records, home to Mydolls and Really Red) and featured pummeling, riot ready sing-alongs.

But to the people whose ears were pricked by the wily, splintering provocations of the Dead Kennedys, with whom they gigged at the Island too, they were blood brothers, partners in creative crime, truth-tellers unafraid of fracturing the false fairy tale of 1980’s life. They flexed and throbbed with alienation. In that vein, they penned barbed songs like “Annihilation” and “Last Day.”

And Anderson’s vocals were at the fiery forefront, an all-out galvanizing attack, a paradigm of loudness. Yet, his daughters did not get a chance to see him do this until 2012.

As Sophie described it to me in the hospice, her eyes grew wide, as if she was re-living the sheer surprise of dad, usually so quiet and chill, bizarrely reconfigured as an unruly singer with a grating bark.

click to enlarge The daughters of Anderson, Sophie, on left, and Addie, on right, on vigil near  their father - PHOTO BY DAVID ENSMINGER
The daughters of Anderson, Sophie, on left, and Addie, on right, on vigil near their father
Photo by David Ensminger

And then he suffered a stroke that affected his speech and gait.

“After John had a stroke in his early 50s, he struggled,” admits Weber. “Of course, that’s a big deal. He was scared of losing it all, especially of losing his relationship with his lovely wife Lucy and his beautiful daughters. So we started going out — two old farts searching for the grail.”

“We went to art shows, museums [which the local band Culturcide once decried as concentration camps], and performances from the spectacular to the obtuse. We have been ‘dating’ like this for several years. During that time, he regained his ability to walk and talk and play poker. Tuesday night was poker night. He claimed he made lots of money. Maybe it was true because I observed his generosity in person.”

But over the summer, not long after visiting his daughter Sophie in St. Louis and seeing a stupendous gig by the Violent Femmes and X, Anderson experienced some setbacks.

Soon, he spent weeks in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities. Granted, friends zoomed by occasionally, but as his home life became difficult, and his condition worsened as organs began to fail even more, and doctors ran out of effective and viable treatments, he landed at the hospice, where staff and family can keep him comfortable in his last days.

But his spirit, even during the ups and downs of the last few years, when Anderson could whir through history, art, music, and politics with social media ease and wit, even when he had trouble standing long or handling stairs, remained sharp and unremitting until recently.

“He gave me re-inspiration and the knowledge that when Calamity Jane knocks you down you just figure out how to deal with it,” Weber noted with metaphoric panache. “He also made me realize my calling. As a punk rocker, a believer in free speech and choice ... I became more outspoken and confident.”

To that end, Weber weighs in on the topics derailing America – gun policy, for one – and now regularly calls the governor and stands his ground on the Internet. And, at a fundraiser I organized to help the Anderson family with bills, like hospital co-pays, Weber helped steer Anarchitex to a reunion gig at Rudyard’s, so their brand of off-kilter, hypnotic, abrasive, and savvy post-hardcore could be experienced by a new generation.

And Weber doesn’t believe the inspiration will stop there. “John Anderson’s voice will come bellowing from beyond,” he assures me.

Anderson's voice, which once filled dented, dank clubs with a lion’s roar, now waits in the back of Weber's mind, and mine too, ready to deliver new messages, new protests, new fervor.

The body of Anderson may slip from us, but his legacy only intensifies.
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David Ensminger