“Maybe I’m waxing nostalgic,” admits Scott Scheinbaum, “but it was a lot of fun—it really was. I’m not sure it will ever happen in Knoxville again.”
But the fact that others of different ages remember this one moment as more lively than anything before or since seems to suggest something beyond nostalgia. Punk came first, but suddenly great crowds were paying to see live local jazz, live local rockabilly, live local reggae, even live local poetry.
Folk/blues veteran R. B. Morris was one of few original local musicians who had drawing power in UT-area bars in the pre-punk ’70s. A decade older than most of the new-music juggernauts, Morris was no punker—but was happily astonished at what was suddenly happening in his home town. "From ’81 to ’84, there was more, on more levels, than I'd seen before," he recalls. "The city was running on spirit alone."
In late 1981, Morris launched the beatnik-punk journal Hard Knoxville Review . Soon after, Morris reintroduced the definitive Beat idiom—the poetry reading—to Knoxville's alternative consciousness. By the mid ’80s, the stripped-down, open-throttle poetry reading was central to local punkology, and has been a hallmark ever since.
Maybe it was the home-bred interest in live, original music that seemed to convince somebody somewhere there was a market for traveling acts here. Maybe it was the fact that we finally had an alternative radio station—WUTK began transmitting in 1981, with a format that radiated new music (Bundulee’s celebrity Todd Steed was an early DJ). Whatever it was, beginning around 1981 major new-wave acts like the Bus Boys, the B-52’s and later even the Clash were appearing at UT’s alumni gym. (In ’81, Joan Jett materialized at a Fort Sanders party after her show there.)
Encouraged, local bookers and promoters were willing to stick their necks and wallets out—one mysterious character who called herself Hip Slit Sash at Bundulee’s, then Jeff Huggins at Hobo’s, then John Sewell and Camp Childers—to see what would happen. Whatever the impetus, new bands started showing up in Knoxville bars. The hardcore Red Rockers played the Place in 1981, followed by the Professionals (featuring two Sex Pistols veterans).
Suddenly people showed up at Mike Proctor's Last Record Store, in the rear basement of a building on 17th who had actually heard the new music Proctor displayed.
With bushy hair and a beard, Mike Proctor looked for all the world like a gentle ’70s hippie. He was too friendly to ever fool anybody into believing he was Punk—but he recognized interesting music when he heard it, and for years his store was the most dependable supplier for punkers. One evening in 1981, you might have seen him dashing madly up and down the sidewalk on the 1900 block of Cumberland, begging strangers to come into the Place to see a new group. He was embarrassed at what a tiny crowd—perhaps 20—had shown up to see the best band from Athens since the B-52's. "You've got to see these guys—they're great!" Frat boys eyed him suspiciously.
Today, as Rolling Stone’s critics' poll once again picks them as the Best Rock-and-Roll Band in the World, no one thinks of R.E.M. as Punk. But in Cumberland Avenue bars in 1981 and ’82, when the band was blasting "Radio Free Europe" at 180 beats a minute and Michael Stipe was twisting into a neurotic frenzy on stage, twitching like a badly shot bird, Knox punks didn't have any trouble slamming to it.
Hobo’s was a different sort of club, opened in a Cumberland slot once known as the Tunnel. It’s now a bank parking lot, but for not quite a year in 1982, 1835 1/2 Cumberland was a whole bar designed for new-music bands and crowds. It was much cleaner than Bundulee’s or the Place, with odd furniture: table-benches that were padded like gymnastic vaulting horses and fixed into the floor, as if the owners were anticipating some dangerous slamming. On nights they didn’t have bands, though, they were open as a sort of New Wave disco, but did very little business. Seasoned Bundulee’s punks were contemptuous of this polished, potentially trendy place—but mainstream UT wasn’t quite ready for it, either.
Hobo’s sudden strength was bringing in nationally famous progressive bands, New Wavers like the Romantics, neo-Rockabillies like the Stray Cats. The R.E.M. show at Hobo’s was packed, allaying some of the embarrassment of the sparse showing at the Place the year before. They still didn't have a real album out, but did have an EP—and UT students had actually heard cuts from it on WUTK. Before the show, teenagers ceremoniously smashed old Lynyrd Skynyrd albums on the dance floor. Peter Holsapple of the dB’s opened—compared to Stipe, he seemed positively laid back—and later played with REM as they covered some dB’s tunes.
The Punk Pavilion
Why then? Some credit the World’s Fair. Local bands like the STD’s advertised Bundulee’s as “The Punk Pavilion.” That line was funny because there was nothing Punk about the Fair, even the day in May when the B-52’s toured the grounds in full postmodern regalia, enjoying the stares; even the nights the STD’s played a punk party at the Australian Down Under Pub, as Fair employees dressed as punks drank huge cans of Fosters’ lager.
But the World's Fair was doggedly ’70s, with Ritchie Havens and Leon Redbone and Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker at the Tennessee Amphitheater, polka at the Strohaus and country-lite bands doing "Rocky Top" two or three times a night. At the Elm Tree Theater, near the Japanese Pavilion, they piped in Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits over the loudspeakers. Crowd controllers, anxious to prevent fights, said nothing kept tourists cool-headed like Steely Dan.
There was nothing Punk about the Fair, but for about a year, its startup, execution, and aftermath kept this college town flooded with carnies, high-school and college dropouts who, to look at them, could have been either 18 or 35, nomadic young people who traveled the broad earth looking for adventure. Some found their way into Cumberland’s nightclubs; when they were gone they were missed. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the months after the Fair, Cumberland’s three principal venues for Punk Rock closed: Bundulee’s, the venerable Place, and even the fresh, new Hobo’s.
Bundulee’s last show, appropriately, featured D.O.A., with our own Turbine 44 opening. Hobo's last show ever was that December—Iggy Pop, appearing with the guitarist from Blondie.
Iggy had been punk since the late ’60s era of Iggy and the Stooges, and was popularly known as the Godfather of Punk. As he arrived in town, he asked his guide, "What's the big radio station in town?"
"Rock 104," his guide answered.
"Do they play my music?" Iggy asked.
"No," was the best answer the Knoxvillian could come up with.
"Then, let us go to the station manager's house and kill his dog," Iggy answered.
His manager remarked that Iggy was unusually happy that night. He came out at the stroke of midnight. "Run like a villain, let the good times roll," he slurred, often smiling—and when he finished, he even said "Thank You," which was not a habit with Iggy. As his band whammed through a half-hour version of "Louie, Louie," Iggy jumped up and broke off chunks of the soundproof ceiling, pulled down the electrical wiring. Then he bent down one of the metal ceiling supports and hung by the twisted metal as the band kept playing. Nobody suggested it wasn't perfectly fitting for him to do so.
Iggy showed up on David Letterman a few nights later, wearing the same clothes. He later said he was especially fond of this place, and he wanted to play a full week in Knoxville. He never did, but many who saw it remember the show he did play as the best rock-and-roll show in Knox Punk History.
Skateboards and Skinheads
The local movement was scarcely three years old, but as the older art punks staged a wide-open “New Wave” show in Tyson Park, a younger generation was already forcing its own birthright to the punk mantle—and taking it more seriously, and scaring some of their predecessors. The “skateboard punks,” as they were known around Fort Sanders, weren’t whimsical, tongue-in-cheek art students. They weren’t rock-and-roll veterans grateful for this breath of fresh air. And they weren’t iconoclastic intellectuals. They were kids, and they were punk just because they were.
If Knox punk had an off-Cumberland home, it was the 1300 block of Laurel Avenue. The house at 1300 was long a home of musicians, who dubbed it "the Hippie House." Later, when everybody who lived there had short hair and a smartass attitude, the nickname sounded self-mocking. It became HQ for a number of bands in the '80s—including the STD's and Teenage Love. Koro and other bands even played shows there, using the front porch for a stage.
The French word poseur (pronounced “poser”) suddenly entered the language. These kids hated nothing more than posers—those who dressed punk on the weekend, but wore different costumes as conscientious students and employees during the week. Many thorough punks shaved their heads as if to demonstrate that I’m Like This All the Time. Several called themselves “Skinheads,” before the word was associated with big, dumb, lock-stepping racists (in those days, American Nazis were still trying to look like Hells Angels). They were just kids—there wasn’t some fuhrer in Atlanta telling them what to do, and they didn’t care about anything but skateboarding. And slamming.
One of the best known was the singer for the Squad, John Sewell—the legendary “Swifty.” No skinhead, but the most verbally daring of the punksters, Sewell came out of Doyle High after corrupting a generation there, even younger kids who called themselves PODs. The Punks of Doyle were blamed for all manner of South Knox disturbances.
"1982 was the hardcore year,” Sewell recalls. “That summer everybody shaved their heads. It didn’t have anything to do with racism—everybody was just trying to emulate the hardcore thing in California. It was the big thing at parties, everybody getting drunk and shaving their heads.”
Sewell still lives in town, still fronts a punk band (called “Torture Kitty”), but has cleaned up his act somewhat—he prefers to be identified as “the artist formerly known as Swifty.”
Some rock critics have remarked on the irony that punk's most brutal incarnation was centered in affluent, politically conservative communities in California. Knoxville’s not generally mentioned in the emergence of Hardcore, but maybe it should be—some Knoxville bands, made up mostly of teenagers, were advertising themselves as “hardcore” as early as 1980—which was about the same time it was showing up in Orange County, California. And through most of the ’80s, hardcore hit harder in Knoxville than it did in other places. The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers—in the early-to-mid ‘80s, the most influential hardcore bands were favorites in Knoxville bars before they achieved national legend status.
But it was clear by the end of ‘82 that this subculture wasn’t fated to remain one big happy dysfunctional family.