By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
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By Nathan Smith
The Looney Bin doubled as a record store for the Kearbey brothers' still-active Wee Rock Records label. Bug was impressed with that, too: "There are people who talk of doing things, and then there are people who simply do things. They were certainly the latter."
Down the street was the Commercial Club, which was to have hosted the aborted Born Against show, as well as slam-dancing soirees inspired by groups like Springfield's Now or Never. Another of Harper's ventures, Harper's Bizarre, was housed in a destitute, squat edifice that played host to acts like the skinhead-influenced Violent Karma (which Harper later banned from the venue) and the Richards, an earlier incarnation of U$MC.
None of the clubs are in business any longer. The Commercial Club's building houses a police substation. The Pink House has brown siding. The Looney Bin has morphed into a store called Furniture & More, and National Rifle Association posters hang in its front window. And Harper's Bizarre is now a Christian coffeehouse/performance venue called Nu-Brew.
At Dan Johnston's house, the guys are watching a VHS tape of a 1999 U$MC concert, during which 100 rowdy kids slam into each other at an old skate park called Better Than Bemo's. Singing lead, a shirtless Johnston throws elbows until a rambunctious fan trips over the cord powering the instruments and briefly shuts down the show.
Taking its moniker from the old Marines tag "Uncle Sam's Misguided Children" (the dollar sign's thrown in for added irony), U$MC featured a blazing-fast pace, melodies draped in distortion and sociopolitical lyrics. Its songs had confrontational titles like "Bury My Heart at Jonestown" and "Die Heathen Die," and band members sometimes had difficulty staying on-message, such as when the bassist would jump onstage and say things like, "Which one of you bitches wants to suck my dick?" They were also infiltrated by a Nazi.
"When we started, I asked our first guitar player if he was still into Nazi shit," Johnston remembers. "He said no. So then the son of a bitch got a flaming swastika tattoo on his arm. It was huge! He tried to pull the, 'It's the Hindu sign of peace' shit. On fire and tilted at a 45-degree angle? That's a swastika; I'm not stupid.'"
The white-supremacist group Hammerskin Nation was particularly menacing in Springfield. Gabe Harper, who is also a political-science professor and regularly writes about extremist groups, says the Hammerskins came there en masse "to raise their families in an all-white environment" in the 1990s.
"The Hammerskins are a national skinhead organization, while most skinhead gangs are locally based," explains Harper. "They pride themselves on being more disciplined and organized than the local skinhead crews, and in my experience they are considerably more dangerous. The Hammerskins in Springfield looked down on the local skinheads and only grudgingly acknowledged them."
The skinheads and the Hammerskins attempted to wreck havoc, says Springfield punk enthusiast Michael Criger: "The core, committed group of jerks who started fights tried to destroy everything the rest of us were creating. They played a role in the scene's eventual downfall, but I'd hate to give them too much credit for that — we fought back!"
In any case, once U$MC had eliminated its white-supremacist element, it was ready to roll. Along with Joplin crust-punk act Initial Detonation, it became one of the only groups from the era to tour nationally and release professional-quality albums. Of course, "professional-quality" is a relative term. Johnston says that the band's CD The Rise and Fall of the Middle Class was recorded for $120 in Springfield, "which means it took an hour and fifteen minutes to do."
The band broke up not long after a 1999 tour when it ran out of food and money. Before that, it played plenty of memorable shows, many of which the police shut down. That's what happened at Better Than Bemo's, but as Johnston remembers, the owner took issue with the cops that night.
"They put him in a hold, face-down on the concrete," he says. "I thought they were going to break his arm." At that point the owner's brothers began screaming bloody murder, causing the cops to drag one of them to jail, too.
Johnston, meanwhile, was left to evacuate the club and pack up the band's equipment. He was also responsible for hosting a group of anarchists who had come up from Tulsa for the show and had nowhere to crash. "They stayed at my parents' house, where my girlfriend and I were living, and they stunk up the whole place. It was fucked up," he chortles. "But it was fun!"
Ozarks punk has fallen off dramatically in recent years. Many of its members have moved on, found jobs or married. Pop-punk and Christian-punk bands now rule the musical roost, and, says Johnston, they're far more concerned with getting famous than making music.
"Once the Internet got big, [new bands] found it easier to network and hit the ground running," Johnston says. "But the Internet does not change the fact that we are ignorant and backwoods out here. We would be a lot more successful if we just made art for art's sake. Then we could develop our own culture, and that might end up being unique."