Willie Dunivan, the haggard, 35-year-old lead singer of Pure Rubbish, is plugging the band's upcoming show at Instant Karma, giving his voice a rest and his bandmates a moment to wipe the sweat from their brows. It's a muggy afternoon at the Zocalo Theater's first annual Rockfest, and only ten or 15 people are milling around in front of the stage. By the time the group launches into its next song, a faithful version of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," it's easily 90 degrees, and Willie is feeling the heat. The cover of Exile on Main Street, which embellishes the front of his soaked white T-shirt, is plastered to his chest, and he's laboring to reproduce the slurred, high-pitched delivery of lead Pistol Johnny Rotten. Drummer Evan Dunivan appears equally frazzled, his shoulder-length brown hair matted to his skull with a mixture of bottled water and sweat, and it looks as if his sticks may slip from his grasp at any moment. Guitarist Derek Dunivan, however, manages to look impeccable in black despite the stifling hothouse clime, his stretch pants, oversized Creepers, pinched scowl and sorry case of bed-head straight out of the punk rock yearbook circa 1978.
But there's a catch: The guitarist behind the wraparound shades and Johnny Ramone stance is only 13 years old, and his brother behind the drums -- he's 11. The band's bass player, Morgan Donor (her punker pseudonym, of course), is 15, which makes her the oldest member aside from Willie, who happens to be the Dunivan boys' father. The black stretch pants that Derek wears used to be Willie's. And as the band's set winds to a close, it becomes clear that the elder Dunivan has handed down more than just an old pair of pants to his son. Every song in the Pure Rubbish catalog -- only nine at this point -- has roots in Willie's extensive record collection, a large portion of which is devoted to the Pistols, the New York Dolls, the Clash, the Ramones and other leaders of punk rock's historic first wave.
"They've grown up on that stuff," says Willie after the show, resting in the shade with the rest of the Pure Rubbish clan. "And they're all multi-talented."
Kids are getting away with murder on the pop music playground these days, commanding unheard-of attention from a music industry still reeling from a post-Nirvana identity crisis. Silverchair's multi-platinum faux-grunge debut, Frogstomp, led the charge back in 1995. A year later, country music discovered its own teen sensation in LeAnn Rimes (though lately she's been downplaying her youth by dressing like a sultry 30-year-old). Most recently, the trio of Midwestern siblings in Hanson have pushed America's cuddle-cute button with the bubble-gum soul of "MMMBop."
Who's to say Pure Rubbish doesn't have what it takes to seize their own piece of the action? Certainly, weirder things have happened, and an endearing band of kiddie punkers would hardly qualify as a commercial long shot. Helping their cause, the brothers Rubbish are undeniably adorable -- though unlike the younger two-thirds of Hanson, not so much so that you might mistake them for little girls.
None of that is lost on the elder Dunivans. Father Willie and mother Tracy, an acting coach, have trained their sons well. The boys can actually play, and they're naturals on-stage. Even when they flub their parts, they conduct themselves like professionals. Actually, they ham it up like born entertainers. At the Zocalo show, Evan donned a latex mask of a Mohawked ghoul, wearing it while playing a cover of the Ramones' "Pinhead." Derek tried his hand at balancing a toy fireman's helmet on his head, until a tepid breeze sent it scooting across the stage. Meanwhile, Donor, with her spiky, purple-pink hair and black leather trousers, stoically held down the bottom line.
But youth's charms can be fleeting. Two years down the line, Silverchair's pubescent worldliness makes them sound jaded. And what of much-touted Dallas high schooler Ben Kweller? A few months back, Kweller's band, Radish, ignited a major-label bidding war. Now -- according to critics and consumers, both of whom have been notably cool to Radish's Restraining Bolt debut -- Kweller is little more than another bright kid who wishes he were Kurt Cobain, fronting a band that wishes it were Silverchair.
For its part, Pure Rubbish wants nothing to do with the Silverchairs of the world. They're not so keen on Nirvana either -- and the mention of Radish elicits only blank stares. Among the newer bands the Dunivan boys listen to, most of them -- D Generation, Rancid -- hark back to the tunes they uncovered at home.
The same is true of Donor, who sneers that "new stuff all sounds the same" and confesses to stealing records from her father, David Thompson, with whom she plays in the local reggae group Rub A Dub.
Like Donor's dad, the Dunivans are fully behind their kids' extracurricular aspirations. In fact, they enrolled Derek and Evan in the progressive Awty International School at an early age to encourage their artistic leanings. Almost immediately, the boys gravitated toward the school jazz band. And though the school has a strict dress code, it wasn't long before their unique tastes in music and clothes gained them the status of rebels among their classmates.
"I wore this D Generation shirt that has this girl holding a gun to a swimming party once, and everybody freaked out," Derek says. "They're the followers. I mean, they're all wearing Spice Girls shirts."
"Hey, I like the Spice Girls," Evan chimes in with a sly smirk.
"Okay, fine," Derek quips, "just so we don't talk about Hanson."
By the time Derek was born in 1984, what remained of punk had been manicured for the MTV generation into the form of Billy Idol; the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls had long since self-destructed, the Clash were playing stadiums and the Ramones were verging on self-parody. But in the Dunivan household, punk's glory days lived on. When their sons were infants, the Dunivans soothed them to sleep with the music of B.B. King and Merle Haggard, but as Derek and Evan grew older, they began poring through their father's vinyl to find different sounds.
"It was the record covers that first drew them to groups like AC/DC and Kiss," recalls mom Tracy. And it progressed from there -- with their parents' guidance. The boys observed in awe as their dad performed in a succession of garage bands, most recently Stinkerbell and Personality Crisis, and Willie has done his best to make sure the kids sample any bits of punk history still in circulation. A while back, the boys joined their father backstage at a Ramones concert, where they met their heroes. One of the two lessons Derek ever received on guitar came from ex-Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome, who once worked with Willie on a short-lived local project. New York punk traditionalists D Generation are among the few new acts that interest Derek and Evan. Not surprisingly, Willie and the boys have buddied up to them as well.
"They know them pretty well," says Willie. "We were out in Hollywood a while ago; they were playing at the Whiskey A Go Go and we hung out with them."
It wasn't Willie's intention to join his kids on-stage, but he's nonetheless Pure Rubbish's current lead vocalist -- though only, he says, by necessity. Apparently, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols have little clout in private school circles these days; thus far, the kids haven't been able to find a decent singer their own age.
"Either that, or my dad runs them off," says Derek.
The boys were lucky enough to find Donor, who happened to catch their performance at a local arts festival one weekend with Personality Crisis's Robin Geiger filling in on bass. One glimpse of Pure Rubbish, and Donor was pushing her way to the front of the crowd to get a better look. After the set, she offered her services. "They auditioned me on 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker,' " remembers Donor.
Soon after the tryout, the boys called Geiger to tell him he was fired (it's a harsh business, you know), and less than a year later, Pure Rubbish is officially a band in demand. So far, they've opened shows for Carolyn Wonderland, Poor Dumb Bastards and the Jinkies, among others. And once they scare up a few originals (Willie promises a self-released single within the next few months), anything's possible -- maybe even a record deal.
"Do you know somebody?" Evan inquires, dead serious.
And what if the day comes that Pure Rubbish is sitting in a studio, and some big-name producer tells them they're just too inexperienced to play their own instruments?
"I'd say, 'See ya,' " says Donor.
But drummer Evan isn't so sure. "It depends on how much money I'd make," he says, apparently the only business-minded member of Pure Rubbish under the age of 35. "We're not really worried about a multi-million-dollar contract -- maybe next week."
He is, after all, still a kid. And kids have the darndest imaginations.
Pure Rubbish performs with the Sundowners and Under the Sun at 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 27, at Instant Karma, 1617 Richmond Avenue. Cover is $5. For info, call 528-3545.