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).
"If it wasn't for punk rock," says Johnston, "I'd be a suicide statistic, and that's a fucking fact. Punk rock replaced religion for me. All those Christians telling us we were going to go to Hell really made the scene."
Springfield and Joplin served as the primary nexus for punk. Those relatively populous cities harbored the region's most popular bands and, despite their remote locales, national touring acts considered them a perfect stopping point while driving from, say, Chicago to Dallas. One such band was the Queers, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, group that still tours frequently.
"Back in the '90s, Springfield and Joplin had really good punk scenes," says lead singer Joe Queer. "It was a big surprise — we always heard they were off in the boonies."
His group had a memorable show at a Joplin joint called Culture Shock in 1995. Some 150 kids showed up, and quite a few bought the band's merch. "It was a good, lucrative show," Queer says. "It's weird that I remember it as well as I do because we used to drink a lot. But I remember that one vividly."
In the Ozarks no one was making any money — and that was the point. The anti-commercial mentality stressed art above commerce. Joplin musician Arik Gilbert remembers playing with his band Big Bad Chubba at a now-bulldozed Joplin locale called the Wherehouse. "We charged $2 a head," he remembers. "We thought we couldn't go over two [dollars] because it would look like we were being greedy. In fact, people didn't come to the MU330 show we hosted because it was five bucks, and they thought that was too much."
Harper adds: "It was all promises and handshakes, never any contract deals. I'd pay bands that came in from Joplin $25 or $30, tops, for gas. If they were an out-of-town touring band, I'd offer them a guarantee of $50. They'd sleep on your floor — or another punk person's place in town — and I'd hopefully get them food for the night and enough gas to get to the next town. I usually said bands from Springfield didn't get paid anything because they didn't have to drive anywhere.
"You're not really a punk band if you're expecting to get paid for a local show."
Since his days in the Springfield experimental band Boring Dog Cheese Guard, Mitch Potts has changed his name, become a female and run for Congress twice. Now known as Midge, Potts unsuccessfully challenged outgoing Republican whip Roy Blunt for his U.S. House seat this year as a write-in candidate.
The 39-year-old Potts, a Gulf War Navy veteran who was injured during service and now lives off disability benefits, was involved in some of the scene's most memorable shows. In 1994, she helped organize the largest punk event ever held in the Ozarks: Midwest Music Fest, which took place on a piece of rural property just north of Springfield owned by Potts' mother.
More than 500 people watched two dozen bands play before police arrived. "People were cutting themselves with razor blades and stuff," Potts recalls. "A band called Cocknoose threw a deer head filled with black powder, and it exploded out on the land. Then after the flames went down, Joe Morton of [Springfield band] Grout grabbed a power saw and commenced to cutting up the deer head."
Potts also hosted shows on the front porch of her pastel-color shack on West Walnut Street, known as the Pink House. Concertgoers would sometimes slip away and sneak past the industrial gas supplier's unlocked gates across the street, where they would steal tanks of nitrous oxide from the loading docks.
"I witnessed this once," says Harper. "They inhaled an industrial-sized tank of the gas in about an hour. God knows how many brain cells they killed."
Other favorite Springfield punk spots included downtown the 423 Club, which was run by Jason Kearbey and his brother Justin. Its owner refused to spring for heat, and the pipes froze. For a year, anyone who wanted to use the bathroom had to go to a nearby brewpub. Eventually, the Kearbeys stopped paying rent altogether and were forced to leave when the city realized they didn't have the necessary permits.
"[Before] our last show, the power got cut off to the building, so we had to go into the basement and run a 100-foot extension cord from a light socket to the main level," says Jason Kearbey. "The whole show was powered from that!"
The Looney Bin was located next to a redneck nudie bar in the north part of town. "A guy got murdered behind the joint," says Harper, a Looney Bin co-proprietor. "I never had the balls to go in there."
Despite the dodgy locale, Ded Bugs member Matt Bug recalls being impressed upon playing there in 1997. "At that point we'd only released one album, and it was just a small show, but what I remember most is the enthusiasm of the kids we met," says the vocalist and guitarist for the DeSoto pop-punk mainstays. "Bright kids with easy smiles. I was surprised, and probably a bit taken aback, that we were received so well and that anyone even knew our music."
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."
Still, some of the old punkers have stuck around and are still making moves. Jason Kearbey plays drums in garage-influenced band Thee Fine Lines — a successful touring act that frequently plays St. Louis and has European and American album distribution — and Initial Detonation guitarist Roger Hannifan and Johnston still conspire at times to bring punk rock to the faithful.
In fact, on an October night in Joplin, the Hannifan-owned Blackthorn Pizza & Pub is hosting Johnston's new outfit, the Itch. Shortly before midnight, the group blasts through a quick set of surf and garage-influenced punk songs. Though Johnston has added drumming to his repertoire, his singing style hasn't changed; he's still screaming at the top of his lungs.
For Johnston, the shows are mostly an exercise in "anger management" and creative release. "It's all about controlling our own band," he says. "It's a vent for me. I get to go out about once a month on a road trip and have fun and escape and be free. And I don't have to answer to anyone. I don't need to play cover songs. I don't need to cater to supply and demand. I can just enjoy a fucking show.
"Let's say I could be in a Green Day — I wouldn't have that. My kid would have some kind of perverted idea of the world if his daddy was a celebrity. And that's wrong. I tell Patrick all the time, Daddy's band sucks. No one likes Daddy's band."
And yet, if his eight-year-old son wants to join a hardcore group someday, Johnston says he'd be all for it. Sure, there might be skinheads and police raids, but Johnston suspects Patrick might find what he found — a supportive artistic community.