KNOX PUNX: Part Four

Skateboards, Skinheads, Vegetable Soup and Gorilla Art: punk diversifies

Local punkdom was scarcely three years old in 1982. But as the older art punks gave their blessing to a wide-open “New Wave” show in Tyson Park, a younger generation was forcing its own birthright to the punk mantle. By taking it more seriously, they scared some of their predecessors.

The “skateboard punks,” as they were known around Fort Sanders, weren’t whimsical students of postmodern art. 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, Turbine 44, and Teenage Love. Koro and other bands even played shows there, using the front porch for a stage.

Among the great innovations of this time was Turbine 44’s “Telephone tour”: they’d call people up, introduce themselves, and play a live five-minute set.

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.” 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’s still in town, still fronts a punk band, 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 conservative Knoxville than it did in other places. The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers—the most influential hardcore bands were favorites in Knoxville bars, often before they achieved national legend status.

Meanwhile, local punks were adding something of their own to the stew.

Deaths and Births

As 1982 ended, Knoxville's moment as a club venue for big mainstream new-music acts seemed over. Punk venues Bundulee’s and Hobo’s were shut down cold; the Place soon followed. Even the Last Record Store went out of business. But in ‘83, P.J.'s (Hobo's successor) and Vic & Bill's (at the former Place) kept the coals hot, at first by hosting local bands, and, soon, national hardcore acts.

Some veterans of the Pogo A-Gogo launched a new social project from a Laurel Avenue apartment, with something called Hard Times Soup. Rather than offering a keg of beer, this time the hosts served a vat of nutritious vegetable soup, free to all comers. Homeless old men, aging hippies, punk rockers and random schizophrenics crowded the walkup, sometimes 50 or 60 at a time, for the free meal—and for the floor show. There was always poetry and home-made movies and music. But the high point of each evening was a transvestite dancing with a feather boa, perfectly lip-synching records by torch songstress Yma Sumac.

It was at such a gathering that a Marine reservist with a severe flattop loped before a crowd to read some very angry poetry. Rus Harper later grew his hair long and fronted bands that carried the punk flame into the latter ’80s.

Horace Pittman’s “Gorilla Gala” at the Hang-Up on Market Square drew the attention of locals on the cultural edge. Pittman might have seemed an unlikely punk. A black Vietnam veteran then in his late ’30s, Pittman was a flamboyant painter known for his vivid, oversized, erotic pieces. Without meaning to, he became a central figure to the post-punk thing in the ’80s. (By ’85, Pittman would be singing with the proto-grunge band Beyond John, among others.)

In the summer of ’83, a quasi-performance art show opened in an abandoned warehouse at 200 East Jackson Avenue, the building now occupied by the Spaghetti Warehouse. (The Old City was hardly more than Big Don’s Junk, a mean grocery, a barber shop and one very quiet French restaurant.) It was, in effect, a large-scale version of Hard Times Soup. Though the gallery 200 East didn’t last long in that location (It kept its original address as its name, however, even after it moved to 123 West Jackson.) the show seemed to convinced many there was still something breathing in underground Knoxville.

That Pone Rock

Somehow, though, high-profile hardcore bands kept showing up at Vic & Bill's, as if they thought it was still the Place. Victor and Bill were a couple of sandwich makers with Greek accents, middle-aged expatriates from Sam & Andy's. They walled off the front of the old Place and made it a brightly lit steamed-sandwich deli. "Dark or light?" they asked all day. "Pickle or pepper?"

But in the dark, cavernous rear of the deli, Vic and Bill began hosting some major slamfests. The Circle Jerks appeared there in June of ’83 and performed a high-speed Carpenters medley: "Just-like-me, they-long-to-be, CLOSE TO YOU! CLOSE TO YOU!" By then, a whole new generation of punks, dozens of teenagers with shaved heads, wore T-shirts with empty-set symbols, loped into each other, banging heads. (Even the Anarchy "A" was too naive for these folks.)

They used to call poor Victor on the phone, just to ask him if he was hosting any punk rock that evening. "Sure," Victor would say. "Sure, we got the deli sandwiches, we got the draft beer, we got the punk rock." Except he sort of pronounced it “Pone Rock.” Rus Harper still calls local punk Pone Rock.

The punk thing spilled across the street and back, as Black Flag played the Library and later at Vic & Bill’s. When a TV news crew showed up, mustachioed sandwich maker Bill put his arm around hardcore pioneer Henry Rollins and spoke to the camera about beer and sandwiches. To the regret of many, this rare moment in Knoxville videotape history was never aired.

When one hardcore show at the Place allegedly vibrated liquor bottles off their shelves in a package store next door, police were summoned—and, some would say unfortunately, began making regular stops.

To be fair, the uninhibited spirit of punk did have a dark side. A drummer for the band Snakefinger had been shot and wounded in the arm during a show at the Place. An audience member offended by a Smokin’ Dave performance pulled a knife on singer Todd Steed in the middle of a set at Vic & Bill’s. Fights broke out on the floor, sometimes even drawing band members. On rare occasions, head-injured slammers fell to the floor, suffering seizures.

Unable to prevent the few incidents reported to them, in 1984 police indiscriminately closed down punk shows, sometimes detaining people for the way they were dressed—singer Brian Waldschlager was once picked up for the way he looked eating a deli sandwich at Vic & Bill’s. Punks frustrated by what they believed to be police harrassment came out in the daylight to parade on Main Avenue.

Still, Cumberland Avenue bars swelled with bands whose albums we’d seen at the Last Record Store, but had never even heard on Knoxville radio: The Dead Kennedys, TSOL, the Minutemen, MDC. These were the chief perpetrators of America’s scariest music, and here they were playing in Cumberland Avenue bars that had once featured bands like Alabama and Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers.

But while nobody was looking, some local bands were pricking up pierced ears nationwide. Koro, Knoxville’s first—and some say best—hardcore band, made only one single, “The 700 Club,” in 500 copies. But by the mid ‘80s, it had become a sensation in London; it’s now on an international list of the Top 50 Hardcore records most coveted by collectors. Jesus Chrysler, which had evolved from a Oak Ridge high school band and played some at the Place, got national attention with an album and a national tour. Beyond John’s 1984 album sold especially well on the West Coast (circumstantial evidence that Grunge had Knoxville roots?) The STD’s released an album, as did Smokin’ Dave, who was written up in Creem. And several Knox punks ended up in nationally prominent bands, like Muzza Chunka, Piss Factory, and even the band of the Godfather of Punk himself, Iggy Pop.

Alley Des Refuses

Hardcore alienated some of the original punksters, but few had reason to complain—punk had, in some ways, already done its job, freeing local music from the cover-band ditch it had been stuck in for years. As Punk became more popular, so did other styles of live local music that were outside of the mainstream. Genuine Rastafarian reggae began showing up in local bars, at benefits. A rockabilly revival ignited at the Yardarm in 1982.

In ’83, the Best Italian hosted, of all things, live bebop—free music, on weeknights, no less. Crowds unable to get in stood on the sidewalk just to listen. The restaurant/bar hosted occasional rockabilly, too. Though it probably never hosted a punk band, it developed a reputation as an alternative club, where whole tables of kids appeared, dressed in decadent thrift-store themes.

But in January, 1984, the Best Italian burned to the ground, along with a bookstore next door. The plywood outside became a punk-community bulletin board, with show posters and ads for musicians of the sort that had once appeared at the lamented Last Record Store. Even the graffiti there and on the dumpsters of Fort Sanders was more provocative than it had been in the ‘70s: “Your Libido is My Trampoline” read one near White Ave., still quoted by nearly everyone who saw it.

Nearby, in an alley alongside Rechenbach’s, a number of local artists discouraged by the reversals in Knoxville’s alternative fortunes, launched an experiment in the spirit of the impressionists’ Salon des Refuses—they called it the Alley des Refuses. Among them were some of the first art-school “punks,” beat-influenced artists associated with the Hard Knoxville Review—plus self-described Gorilla Artist Horace Pittman.

Literally hundreds of original Easter-Island-style portraits—gaunt, unlabeled faces crayoned on colored paper in a sort of proto-Cubist style—began appearing on telephone poles, on abandoned buildings, and especially on that wall. They made no statements; they only stared. They angered some uncomprehending passers-by, frat boys who tore them down furiously. Many others stole them, and hung them on apartment walls. Even Rechenbach’s, where the supplies for these pieces were bought, disapproved of these esthetically sinister goings-on in their own alley and repeatedly had them taken down. But the artists kept supplying the disposable work, happy some liked it well enough to steal it, happy even that those who didn't were reacting to it more actively than Americans do to most modern art. But in February, 1984, a scrawled warning appeared where whimsical art once did. “Horace—Don’t Do It. The Police Already Got Me.” It was unsigned.

Maybe they had enough of that pone rock, but by ’86, Vic & Bill's moved to a new, non-Punk deli on 15th. Somewhat rarer bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers began playing at Gabby's. Gutted, remodeled and unrecognizable except for its general shape, it was the old Bundulee’s/Pickle-U-Pub/Discount Records building, where the whole thing had started.

Children of Punk

With police calling the shots on Cumberland Avenue, the alley artists and other post-punkers moved inside—some into more lucrative work. From alternative art came alternative fashions, and Knoxville punk fashion designers—most prominent among them an Alley des Refusees veteran—were depicted in an article in Time magazine in 1985. Actually, the article was about those wacky new wave fashions showing up in the East Village—but two of the designers whose work was shown, including the inimitable Katpeacent, were Knoxvillians associated with the punk scene here. "Those aren't East Village fashions,” one quipped. “They’re East Tennessee fashions.”

Meanwhile, stapled Xerox rags like the Addict enhanced the new passion for Hardcore. This verbal option made punk a participation sport for everybody, even those who couldn’t play (not that everyone who did play could.)

It all bred the rowdy punk poetry reading, a descendent of R.B. Morris's Hard Knox projects, evolving here independently of the Poetry Slams just beginning to get attention in Chicago and elsewhere. By 1987, the Vatican Pizza on Forest, a notorious punk lair since the days when it was the Polish Pub and Geronimo’s, was hosting monthly readings which featured scenesters like Swifty and Rus, and drew standing-room-only crowds which were free to cheer the good, heckle the bad and throw beer cans at the ugly. That beery spirit still rears its head at Gryphon’s and elsewhere.

As for other influences, all you have to do is open the Calendar section. You don’t even have to like punk to appreciate what happened in the early ’80s. Bars started taking chances. Musicians started taking chances. The local, the pure, the spontaneous regained its place in Knoxville.

© 1995 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

Swanky writes:

I always thought Horace was a some drunk homeless guy off the street. He'd come to shows totally wasted and get mixed in with the mosh pit and be on the floor being trampled. He'd flop around the room and bumble his way on stage. Beyond John was a more mellow group and experimental so they let him shout and slur in the mic. It was not singing.

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