By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
In February 1993, acclaimed New York City hardcore act Born Against arrived in Springfield, Missouri, to play at the Commercial Club Community Center. But the group, known for its left-wing lyrics and repudiation of all things racist, never had the chance.
The band pulled up in its van only to find the place empty — empty, that is, except for a group of hulking white-power skinheads, who apparently chased everyone out. "They were big and had lots of muscles," remembers lead singer Sam McPheeters. "I'm sure they had suspenders and boots, the whole deal."
McPheeters and guitarist Adam Nathanson emerged from the van looking conspicuous, particularly Nathanson, who wore a patch on his jacket of a swastika being crushed by a fist that read, "Smash Racism."
As the band members approached the community center's entrance, the skinheads smacked Nathanson in the face with the door and taunted, "Smash racism, motherfucker? I am racism!"
The pair didn't know if they were being targeted for their politics, or if the skinheads were simply looking for trouble. In any case, there was no time to think about it. They rushed to the van, told the driver to step on it, and headed to the house of a member of a local band called Uncle Fester, where the show was to resume. But the skinheads got there first and began beating the daylights out of fans who'd shown up.
"People who had been given a whooping were laid out on the grass when we got there," Nathanson recalls.
Meanwhile, a group of SHARPs — Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice — descended on the front yard and faced off against the skinheads. "I saw clubs, chains, weaponized vodka bottles, an actual meat cleaver and even a flashed gun, before cop sirens started blaring in our direction," recounts Springfield punk fan Michael Criger.
"Springfield struck us as being very scary and creepy, [like having] a David Lynch quality," McPheeters says. "The Ozarks
were just kind of this funny, scary dead zone for us."
Adds Nathanson: "I definitely enjoyed it in retrospect. It beat just playing another uneventful show."
Though the mountainous region that straddles the Missouri/Arkansas border is not widely known for its cultural offerings, the area gained fame for its hardcore punk scene and for developing homegrown talent, as well as for hosting influential bands from across the country.
Playing short songs at ultra-fast tempos and bellowing barely intelligible vocals, Ozarks bands embraced the ethically minded sensibilities pioneered by groups like Minor Threat over the more melodic and debauched music fashioned by the Ramones and Sex Pistols.
By the early '90s, ethical punk had fallen out of favor around the country, and pop-punk bands like Green Day would soon rule the radio and MTV. In the isolated Ozarks, though, a decade behind the curve, things were just getting started.
"It could never compare to London, Seattle, New York or Portland, where the underground scenes are enormous, but it was real and strong for what it was," says Criger. "The whole unconventional scene, the freaky punkers, the radical political overtones, the shows in the bad part of town, all completely captivated me."
In the late '90s, Dan Johnston was the lead singer of one of Joplin's most popular underground bands, U$MC. Now a 33-year-old married social worker, he and his family moved to Springfield in 2004. Several months ago, the barrel-chested Bob Odenkirk look-alike hosted a punk reunion of sorts at his Springfield house. Assembled were mop-topped Jason Kearbey, also a Springfield social worker, and the reed-thin Gabe Harper, a Springfield native who now lives in University City.
The three played in numerous bands over the years, including Gabe Harper and the Abortions, Fugue and the Richards. Harper documents the era on his blog, Ozark Punk Rock (ozarkpunkrock.blogspot.com), where visitors can download demo tapes, studio albums and even a low-budget documentary about the era called Ozark Babylon.
"You'd see scenes in other towns, and it just wasn't the same," says Harper, who still practices the straight-edge lifestyle and is the older brother of former RFT music editor Jordan Harper. "Not as cool."
Recalls Johnston: "In those days of the college-rock circuit, cities like Lawrence, Columbia, Tulsa and St. Louis had premade punk-rock scenes that went back to the Sex Pistols playing in Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, or Black Flag and Nirvana playing in Lawrence. These were consumer cultures. The cool thing about our town is that we had a vertical monopoly. We booked the shows; we played the music. It was a production culture."
But why the Ozarks? Because, proffers Johnston, the place had been so miserable for so long.
Johnston draws a line that leads from southwest Missouri's racial intolerance (an African American exodus followed lynchings in both Joplin and Springfield) to its penchant for outlaw behavior (the mass murderer Billy Cook, the James Gang, and Bonnie and Clyde all cut their teeth in or around Joplin), to its current white evangelist Christian homogeneity ("Republican-crazy-Christian-Protestant nutballs," as he refers to the locals).
Like punks across the country, many kids in the Ozarks embraced the music because they didn't fit in at school. Harper says he had no friends at all before joining the punk crowd during his freshman year at Drury College (now Drury University).