Words: Danny Baraz
Photos: Taylor Wong
The word punk is one that is thrown around and has many different uses. It can be used as an adjective or a verb. There has been much discussion around it’s usage as an adjective to describe music and people. It has sparked passionate and sometimes violent debate. The spirit behind what the word actually means has existed since time itself and once the word became marketable and defined by a specific sound, the word changed from describing a frame of mind and into describing a genre… or… a product, if you will. And there are very few individuals or businessmen that handle the legacy of this product better than Mark and Shawn Stern at BYO Records, specifically through their record label and of course, the annual summit called Punk Rock Bowling.
Very few statements sound sillier than someone stating “That’s not punk”. Because once punk has been defined through a specific paradigm, it ceases to be the thing that it was when Iggy first bent over backwards or Darby first watched people move in a circle or Joey put on his first leather jacket. The cultural resistance that spawned the punk scene stops resisting once a group of people are able to tell you what it is or isn’t. Even the act of studding a jacket and the proclamation one makes in the act of adding your favorite band on the back of that jacket, in the most prominent position, becomes the antithesis of the spirit which created punk rock in the first place. If being punk is simply a recurring set of power chords, played at a specific speed with an audience who have studded jackets and glue in their hair, then Punk Rock Bowling 2015 is a sign that punk is not only, not “dead” but that it is a thriving and profitable endeavor. Profitable endeavors are not punk at all. When it comes to describing the individuality that spawned the expression of punk rock, the legions of people that get together at shows and festivals such as Punk Rock Bowling, who convene into a group that look like they are wearing a uniform, who say things such as “You’re not punk”, then that individuality died LONG ago- long before the second and third Hot Topic stores were opened. The spirit of punk rock exists now in a sort of nostalgic state which tries to recapture the essence of places like CBGB, The 9:30 Club, The Starlight Ballroom, The Marquee Club and the list goes on, ad infinitum. Rant over.
By definition of nostalgia, Punk Rock Bowling is the punkest fucking endeavor in the history of the medium. Everyone is represented- hardcore punks, Oi’s, Turbo Jugends, Gutter punks, two tones, UNITY, Nazi Skins. No one makes sure every group is represented quite like BYO and Punk Rock Bowling… except for Nazi’s of course. They just show up no matter how many times they are told to Fuck Off. In it’s 17th year, Punk Rock Bowling has gone from a small bowling tournament in one of the most ghetto ass Casino’s in Vegas, to being the premier event of one of the most resurgent and booming neighborhoods in America- Downtown Las Vegas. Blue hair, gray hair, no pubic hair, strung out skinny, middle aged fatty’s, no car having to lowered, tricked out Caddy’s; if you love punk music, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, you are welcome and loved at Punk Rock Bowling.
For it’s patrons, the buildup to Punk Rock Bowling is palpable and interactive. There is an “unofficial BYO Punk Rock Bowling” group on Facebook that is active year round but in the weeks building up to the festival, it really blows up with posts, posers, preachers, leachers, letches and a very real sense of community. You can find tickets to the festival and sold out club shows, rides to Vegas from fellow members and above all that, you can find community. In the circular discussion of what punk is and what punk isn’t, punk rock is a family and Punk Rock Bowling is it’s annual reunion.
The task of organizing and booking Punk Rock Bowling is massive. Just booking the festival alone is heavily scrutinized by the punk rock community- the fact is that Punk Rock Bowling is a complete takeover of Downtown Las Vegas and Fremont Street. The money, organization and patience it takes to secure all the bands, venues, pools, ballrooms, vendors, food trucks, bowling ally’s and transportation is not the mark of a downtrodden, disenfranchised sect of society. It is the sign of a prosperous, organized and respected community of people with good credit scores. Having a good credit score is not punk.
All of the numerous music venues are booked from Thursday- Monday and the epicenter is 601 Fremont- Backstage Bar and Billiards and The Fremont Country Club. Those connecting venues arguably feature the premier club shows of Punk Rock Bowling.
I arrived in Vegas on Friday and headed directly to the Punk Rock Bowling poker tournament at the Golden Nugget to meetup with friends. Yes, there is a poker tournament, as well. In the room adjacent to the tournament, there was a gallery set up for the opening of “Disturbing the Peace” photo exhibit which featured the works of a few of the most influential photographers in Punk Rock. After tooling around The Nugget for a couple hours, it was time for my first club show of the weekend- GBH and Infa Riot at The Fremont Country Club. There were 4 other club shows happening concurrently, all with incredible lineups and the club shows presented the biggest conflicts of the weekend for me. By the time GBH finished their set, I was drunk, tired and exhausted and technically, the festival hadn’t even started.
The rest of the weekend was a blur of comedy, aggression, camaraderie and of course, music. I was 19 years old when Rancid’s… And Out Come the Wolves was released. Violence was a big part of my life, at the time. I’ve always liked all kinds of music but I was definitely at my “punkest” at 19. I was a HUGE Op-Ivy fan. I didn’t like the fact that non punk personnel were listening to Rancid and a band mainstreaming always diminished their status in my eyes. But not even dumb ass, 19 year old, foolish philosophies could deny the anthemic nature of that album. Plus, those songs were EVERYWHERE- MTV, KROQ, The Box. It was basically the soundtrack to 1995. It was a landmark occasion on Saturday night at Punk Rock Bowling. 10k punks were able to agree on something for what seemed to be the first time because it seemed like EVERYONE standing in that parking lot knew every lyric off that iconic album. It was a pretty powerful moment that was followed by a club show at Fremont Country Club with The Weirdo’s and The Dickies.
A perfect day 1 of the festival which was packed with other bands like Anti Flag, TSOL, Sick of it All, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I didn’t know how each band would follow the last. It seemed like every act pushed the other to a seminal performance. I particularly felt bad for the Mighty Bosstones having to follow Sick of it All after they shredded that stage with a tight, angry and fine tuned performance but Ska bands are built to survive that type of onslaught with their party atmosphere. The Mighty Bosstones survived Sick of it All by the skin of their teeth. But that’s just one man’s opinion.
I have to say that Saturday night was my favorite night and it wouldn’t even have been close if Jello Biafra didn’t play Sunday. I like Turbonegro, MCD and Refused have been growing on me for the past couple years (I just don’t have a natural affinity for Scandinavian punk) but I was definitely singing along to more of the songs on Saturday, aside from Guantanamo School of Medicine’s set. Jello Biafra is one of my punk heroes, though and his set was the only one which got me into the pit for an extended amount of time. In that pit I witnessed a girl standing in the middle island, emit the longest, high velocity stream of vomit from her mouth that I’ve seen in quite some time. It just painted the blacktop concrete with pinkish brown chunks during Holiday in Cambodia. Miraculously, no one crossed the stream but the pool remained and that was my last time in the pit.
On Sunday, I was bummed to miss English Beat with The Mighty Bosstones as the “Secret Guests” at one of the club shows. I stopped by Backstage Bar to check out Burger Records’ young punks, No Parents. The addition of No Parents shows me that BYO is paying attention to something more than the history of traditional punk. There is a new wave of younger punks who are not quite as violent as we were but no less exuberant about their own, new wave of young punk bands. I just think their parents told them they loved them more than ours did. I don’t think most O.G.’s would even put most Burger bands into the punk category because most of them do NOT fit the mold but No Parents do and their shows are mayhem. Honestly, I don’t remember being at Backstage Bar at all but someone told me I was there. I do know I called it an early night because I was completely wrecked.
On Monday, I was stoked to see Agnostic Front and both Oi bands, The Business and Conflict. Dropkick Murphy’s were the headliners and they always had a bit of a similar effect on me as Rancid but much less beloved. The fact that there was always a sea of Boston Celtics shirts associated with all their imagery made them less attractive to me and also, they did gain some mainstream popularity which I was always kinda stupid about. I didn’t submit to them like I did to Rancid because they didn’t have the likes of a Tim Armstrong but I must say, every time I accidentally found myself at a Dropkick Murphy’s show, it was impossible to deny how good they are live. That’s it. Throw your tomatoes.
I wanted to give an honorable mention to A Wilhelm Scream who played the festival on Sunday. I’ll admit, I’ve never even heard those guys before but they are AMAZING musicians. Their arrangements are complex and their changes are impressive- proof that punks can exist at every level of musical prowess.
Whatever punk rock “is”, it’s resonated with so many generations and spawned so many different versions of itself, that it’s part of the very fabric of America. There is a new wave of punks being born right at this very moment. And of course, the previous generations will talk about how things just aren’t the same and how punk is dead and guess what, they’re right. The people and bands that created your scene have moved on and are either dead, in jail or figured out how to deal with all that angst and frustration that first drove them to find a group of people and art that resonated with the voices in their heads. There are new punks in town. Bands like FIDLAR, No Parents and METZ speak to their generation, like most of the artists that play Punk Rock Bowling spoke to ours. They are just as punk as we were but in a somewhat different and tweaked aesthetic. No one will ever be as punk as H.R., Keith Morris, Joe Strummer, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Darby Crash, Iggy Pop, The Denney Brothers or Joey and Ritchie Ramone. So what. Get over it. By my definition, the things that are most punk are Miles Davis, Galileo, Edward Snowden, Black Sabbath, Salvador Dali, Iggy Pop, Buzz Osborne Aleister Crowly, Death Grips, Mike Patton, Thomas Jefferson and all the names I mentioned above.
The spirit of punk is reborn and it’s sound redefined on a fairly regular basis. The early 2000’s were a rough time for any type of forward thinking or artistic inspiration in it’s purest sense. It was the last gap of the music industry but ever since it’s death, pure motives are resurrecting the garage band and right now, in Los Angeles, there are more local bands than I can EVER remember so, there is hope.