Anarchy in the Ozarks: Who'd have guessed there used to be a hardcore punk scene in the backwaters of Missouri?

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."

Dan Johnston in front of the onetime home of the 423 Club.
Jennifer Silverberg
Dan Johnston in front of the onetime home of the 423 Club.

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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).

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22 comments
Billy Smith
Billy Smith

I was there from 90-95 in Springfield. I played in Slugworth and Dirtnap. I had a blast playing and promoting shows there. Highlights Fugazi, Dazzling Killmen, Trenchmouth (Fred Armisen of SNL on drums) and so many more kick ass punk bands. Even though I had a gun pulled on me at a show, by a Skinhead, I thought Rising Son were pretty kick ass. And I totally remember the Pink House and Mitch. Glad to see people still doing what they love. Cheers

Crazy Joe McVeigh
Crazy Joe McVeigh

Truly a hilarious article...is this supposed to be factual?....Please Lord, save us from the skinheads...lol....you need to do better research next time, instead of relying on your obviously misguided and self serving memories....the scene was alive and kicking well before your sensationalist diatribe...maybe you should research S.L.A.S.H. from up there...I remember better shows that were booked here in the late 80's when the scene up there had already dried up and blew away....HARDCORE LIVES.....

MsBush
MsBush

To completely set the record straight you must first understand that Brian McDonald was not the first time I did everything he said and more. Brian came up with the name with me. He's no liar. Let's give him that. I was a major disrupter to the whole scene like he said, through my affairs with him and other prominent nobodies. I only wish they had all been a little more interesting. Ev

Brian McDonald
Brian McDonald

I was the original guitarist for USMC and would like to clear up an incorrect statement made by Dan Johnston. I had been a nazi skinhead when I first met dan through our bassist. I got out it shortly there after and moved away from Joplin for a bit. At this point I hadn't been in USMC yet. Dan was in the phuckers at this point and I already had my swastika tattoo (I nver really claimed it was a hindu peace symbol, we did make a few jokes about it being a buddhist symbol though). Here is the actual reason I was kicked out of USMC (a band name which was my suggestion by the way) I had an affair with the wife of one of Dan's friends which caused quite an uproar in the scene and about that time dan met the guy who ended up replacing me (one of his college professors) so I was ousted because Dan simply wanted me out and him in. Happens all the time. It's just sad that after 14 yrs he still can't admit it. Oh well.

MARV
MARV

You leave out alot of good fuckin info. some of the best HC bands from Spfld. were skinhead bands. Rising Sun/Juxtaposition come to mind. Gabe could have allied himself with other skinhead factions in town for protection but was to busy showing porn to underage girls and hiding behind a skirt. Fuck mitch did it to a certain degree though no faction would have condoned his lifestyle had he made it public. lol.Skinheads were a driving force that ramped up HC in spfld aswell as lead to its demise. so goes it.

I was there, man.
I was there, man.

I thought the Undergrowth was more a promotional tool for Walking On Einstein, the Missionaries, and the Websters. I could be wrong, but it seemed to have a lot of Kitchen Pass bands featured in there and folded after 12 issues. Don't forget that this article is just a slice of the hallowed Ozark Punk Rawk Scene in the 90s... not a definitive tell-all "Hammer Of The Gods" style expose of each and every band that played Culture Shock, The Warehouse, Studio B, the Grind, ATA Hall, ETC. ETC. so don't blame Ben Westoff for not mentioning your favorite band. Springfield and Joplin weren't the only places pumping out music. Most importantly, don't let the metal heads jump on here and start bitchin' about Public Assassin and Decibellum not being mentioned....

Michael Hoerman
Michael Hoerman

From 1994 to 1997 I was a staff writer for The Undergrowth, a free monthly tabloid distributed in the Ozarks. I personally reviewed and interviewed about three-dozen local and touring bands in a section called The Regional Scene. Other writers covered another couple dozen. Anybody who wants some insight on the Joplin/Springfield/Fayetteville, aka Ozark music scenes needs to get their hands on all 20 back issues for a treasure trove of interviews, reviews, band directories, and club listings. I was involved in the Ozark scene before I began to cover it as far back as 1985 when I lived in Springfield. Community values I encountered there like individuality, creativity, cultural empowerment, inclusiveness, and an anti-drug message in an area to this day battered by addiction were liberating to me. Later, when I had a chance to write about the scene, I honored its roots. Many of The Undergrowth writers thought the same way and, as a result, our magazine directly contributed to a diversified production culture that extended well beyond the usual scope of DIY fanzines or cloistered scenes around narrow aesthetic concerns. In addition to music, we covered alternative points of view and scrapped with local demagogues like the American Family Association, which picketed us for our progressive views. As a journalist, my favorite issues were three, four, and five. Three I reviewed Houston hardcore band Spunk and The Queers, both at Culture Shock, and wrote an expos�n a landfill. The following issue included a letter to me from the same 150 kids who made The Queers show at Culture Shock so �lucrative� blasting me for daring to ask The Queers questions about the band�s then seemingly imminent commercial success. In five I interviewed Fayetteville band Dali Automatic, while a misprint credited me with Springfield hardcore band Brine�s interview, which I didn�t do; but I did write an article called �Ralph Reed: Talk Radio, Militant Extremists, the Christian Coalition and the Angry White Male� and another about emerging internet porn culture. The Undergrowth covered a range of issues even while regionally focused music reporting remained the heart of the publication. In my experience, some of the bands profiled here did the most backbiting back then and seem to have the least interest in a variegated reporting now. Finally, an article that pays token attention to the early days in the Ozarks and glosses over many of its best bands and the small clubs and publications that supported them, an aesthetic faction gets the credit for everything even when their efforts came after the popularization of Ozark hardcore in its sixth or seventh iteration well past the zenith. This might truly be a case where the last ones to arrive are the last ones standing so they get to write the history.

Midge Potts
Midge Potts

I am glad this article got written at all... thanks Ben, and thank you Gabe for the Ozarks Punk Scene blogspot!

Obviously, the details published here about punk in the Ozarks are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg... of course there is so much more to flesh out about the evolution of punk scenes in southwest Missouri, but whose going to write the book? I would be willing to help, but I'm working on a novel and an autobiography already, so I ckind of have my hands full.

By the way, I have a new music project with Queen Roi called Dis-/Un-/Anti-Check us out on MySpace:http://www.myspace.com/disunan...

~ MP

P.S. I don't know why the nitrous thing even got published because that was ONE person who went and stole some tanks ONE time... I guess you needed to sensationalize the story a bit, huh Ben? You should get you facts straight before you write untrue statements such as the nitrous theft being anything else but a single isolated incident.

Tim Brouk
Tim Brouk

Great article. It's been almost 10 years since I left Springfield and nothing can compare to the times I had there playing music with Jason and Justin Kearbey and sharing stages with Dan and U$MC and Gabe and his various bands. All bands should start out like we did, playing for 8 people at a coffee shop that would charge the bands 50 cents for a glass of water. And playing music way, way too loud for said coffee shop. Every punk rock scene has its grass roots, DIY part but in Springfield not only did you have to book your own shows but worry about the local skins and crazy crap like that. I am so thankful the Kearbey boys, Dan and Gabe are still making Southwest Missouri still worth visiting.Good old Sprungfeld...-Tim Brouk (Fugue bassist, Loony Bin co-conspirator)

nokilli
nokilli

This article takes me back and reminds me that things haven't changed much for the expressive, re: money, press, or general malaise about punk rock in the Ozarks.

It would be nice to see an article about the punk rock "scene" that exists in the Ozarks now. During the Bushy administration, some pretty good stuff was said, sung, and proudly proclaimed, sans homeland security intervention. The female punk rockers of Springfield are pretty hot too. Plus there are some great bands saying just what they want to say without censoring even themselves.

See: The Results, Unteen, The Adrenals, The Itch, The Cesspool (venue in Joplin), The Reacharounds, and so many more. There is still a vibrant collective here that could use another article.

PS: My four character validation code was PUKE :)

Ben W
Ben W

Thanks for everyone's comments. A couple quick points: 1. The article says Midwest Music Fest was the biggest punk event ever held in the Ozarks, not the biggest music festival there period. 2. Hannifan's Joplin establishment is indeed called the Blackthorn Pizza & Pub, not to be confused with the St. Louis bar/restaurant.

Joe
Joe

Great article, brings back a lot of memories and fun times.

I miss those days, but I remain forever grateful that they were around at all and that I was able to be part of them.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Very good article. I do think he's trying to ignore the present for the sake of making the past look that much better, although 100 kids at a punk show is something I'm not sure I've seen in springfield. But, Springfield still has a good tight nit, and more importantly an open and accepting punk scene. The house show scene in Springfield is really amazing. And I wish Midge Potts would do another big show like that.

PS The Itch kick ass, and other MO punk bands like Brutally Frank, Old Defiance, New Madrid, The Reacharounds, and numerous others shouldn't be forgotten.

A Fine Line
A Fine Line

Of course there are talented, educated, non-backwards people in Springfield/Joplin! That is one of the points of this article! Having lived here since 1995, there is no doubt that SW MO lives up to its stereotype most of the time. But this article is proof that DESPITE THIS, there was and still is to some extent, interesting stuff going on here.

This article is nowhere near extensive. How could it be with only four short pages? So much had to be left out that it really deserves its own book!

Targeting Mr. Johnston seems excessive to me.

Parker
Parker

It's the Black Thorn Pub. Congrats on coming back from the dead, Ben, and still not knowing what the hell you're talking about.

Dan Johnston
Dan Johnston

Dear Local Yokel,

You seem to be confused. My frustratiosn were with growing up in Joplin in the early 90's, not with Springfield. Springfield was my first haven and get away from my home town as early as 1992. I love Springfield otherwise I would not have moved my family here. The comments of "miserable", "isolated", "ignorant and backwoods" (etc) were all comments that are reserved for Joplin 15 years ago. This is not communicated well in this article. I can appreciate your regional loyalties as I share them as well. However, should you want to discuss this further I would rather do it in a medium other then the internet. Since we both live in the same town, maybe we can meet for a drink.

Dan

Dan Johnston
Dan Johnston

Dear Local Yocal,

The frustrations I voiced were for Joplin in the early 90's, not Springfield then or now. Why else would I move here if I was still unhappy? I guess that did not come out in the article. Also, just for the record, I don't have a problem "growing up". I love my family and my job. There are no regrets.

kopper
kopper

Punk existed in Joplin earlier than that. I wrote briefly for a 'zine based there called "Lifestyles of the Poor & Ugly" in '86 or so. The guy that did the zine lives in Kansas City these days. By the way, we're discussing this article now on the TIRC-KC email list... feel free to jump in:

http://groups.google.com/group...

Great piece, though! Thanks.

Local Yokel
Local Yokel

Whatever Johnston's frustrations are � perhaps the pressures of once being punk rock, now having to play grown-up? � Springfield does not deserve the abuse he gives it in this article. It point of the piece, rather, seems to be to illustrate the perhaps surprising strength of the 90's punk music scene in Springfield. Why, then, must the same city be accused of being "miserable," "isolated," "ignorant and backwoods" and "Republican-crazy-Christian-Protestant nutballs"?Springfield may not be as ready-made cool as New York or London or University City, but we're not all a bunch of inbred Bible-thumping racists here either. We have great musicians and artists and no shortage of cultural opportunities, both hi- and low-brow. Punk rock, among other "scenes," is alive and well and has been since before Johnston decided to come to school here.If anything, the rapidly-fading element of rural homogeneity Johnston found here in 1993 made those of us who grew up here more creative, rebellious and apt to embrace a counter-culture, simply because, before the Internet, there wasn't anything else to do. I think picking up your own guitar was and is a hell of a lot more punk rock than expecting someone else to entertain you.

Bringle
Bringle

It's really interesting that there is no mention of two equally "artful" entities that influenced all the mentioned artists from Joplin. Not one word about Vaginal Discharge or Mike Horman. As i recall V.D. opened for every act in town and Mike Horman (a poet no less!) opened for Big Bad Chubba one night as well as made his poetry known throughout the Ozarks by winning Slams and organizing more poetry nights than you could shake a stick at.

Also, I personally never saw any racial stuff go down. The Culture Shock was the center for everything back then and I don't ever remember there being any "skins" there. That was a Springfield problem.

The coolest thing about the "Scene" in Joplin was that it wasn't a "Scene". I just remember a lot of kids with nothing to do and a lot of parents to piss off. No better way to stay busy and rebel than get your nose pierced, hang out all night and play guitar REALLY REALLY horribly!!!!

Anybody remember when I got my truck stolen at the Culture Shock?

Jason Bringle

P.S. BTW, I'd like to get a pat on the back for hosting the sound system every night at Culture Shock. That was my Peavey board!

 
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