The best present I got for Christmas was from a punk.
A few days before New Year's, a hefty package arrived at The Pitch containing my official introduction to the local underground punk scene. Now, had it contained what I probably deserved for the work I've done so far covering DIY punk, it would have been full of rat pellets or fart powder. Instead, what I got was a quaint and delightful Whitman's sampler of local hardcore punk.
The package contained CDs from Kansas City bands Dark Ages and Der Todesking, plus a cassette demo from St. Louis' Kids on Fire. But the sweetest of the bunch were the three 7-inch singles on BBS Records, featuring songs by the awesomely named KC bands Anxiety Attack, Crap Corps and We're Fucked. Inside their screen-printed sleeves, the vinyl discs gleamed like candy in the traffic-light colors of red, amber and green.
Also in the package was a 7-inch from the St. Louis band Corbeta Corbata called Investing With Corbeta Corbata. On its cover, the three band members, dressed in business clothes, smoke cigarettes in an office stockroom setting, getting in one another's faces like characters from the show Mad Men.
There, in that picture, was my punk Santa.
A tall, lanky man in a hoodie and horn-rimmed glasses comes to the door. The house is in the neighborhood between Gillham and Troost south of 39th Street. Ben Smith is a 28-year-old software programmer who moved from St. Louis a year ago to finish school and be near his girlfriend.
In the Lou, Smith's band, which is now defunct, got lots of attention from the city's well-established punk scene. In Kansas City, which lacks even one punk venue, Smith works to keep the DIY scene alive.
Smith leads me into the house and back to a room loaded with recording equipment. In a few days, he'll be recording the local group Black Mark in his basement. In one corner of the bedroom's floor is a mattress shrouded in a makeshift canopy of blankets hanging from the ceiling. Other than that touch of collegiate slum, the house, which Smith shares with two roommates, is remarkably clean. We break into a 12-pack of Modelo Especial and Smith puts on a record.
A heavily distorted guitar rips out a let's-go riff. Toms rumble like shoeboxes tumbling out of a closet. A hoarse voice roars: I've reached my breakin' poiiiint! My breakin' poiiiint!
It's the first song on We're Fucked's 7-inch — the green disc from the package. Smith says the lead singer of the influential '90s Latino hardcore band Los Crudos gave the record a rave review in the punk zine Maximum Rock 'N Roll. That's a major honor for a local DIY group — especially one that can't even play in its hometown.
"It's hard, it's hard," Smith says over and over while discussing the punk scene's struggle to maintain an open venue in Kansas City.
In the past year, two pillar venues of the scene have closed: the Anchor and the Valhalla Gallery, both in the West Bottoms. El Torreon shut its doors to DIY punks before the venue shut its doors for good. And with the May 2007 death of artist and punk Mott-ly, who booked punk shows at his MoMO gallery, the scene lost a hero and benefactor. For the past six or more months, scant house shows in midtown have provided the only live noise.
"It's hard to build a real city reputation around somebody's house basement," he adds.
It takes a village to raise a punk. When a town has one or more working venues, bands from out of town come to play and hang with the local bands. Networks are built. Invitations are swapped for bands to play in one another's cities. Most important, shows are happening, and the punks have somewhere to go. But not in Nottingham — er, Kansas City.
"I'd be really happy if we just had regular shows," he says. "If I could book a band and be guaranteed that the venue would be open — that's been the hardest thing."
BBS Records owner Justin Betterton, age 30, has seen a lot of venues open and close since he moved here from Oklahoma City when he was 19.
"It just seems like the city — or at least the fire marshal and the cops — are no friend to any venue that gives kids anything positive to do with their time," Betterton says.
Perhaps the most revelatory thing for me in exploring the local punk scene was finding out that DIY punks — for all their snotty, anti-this-and-that messages — are not assholes.
"It's the one place where a lot of kids come to and feel welcome," Smith says. "It's really inviting. If you just start a band and you suck and you're terrible and you can only play three chords, but if you write songs that mean something to you — that's all we care about. That's all anyone sees — that you're being sincere."
Punk lyrics are sincere in feeling rather than in literal meaning. For example, in the hilarious "Landlord BBQ" on Anxiety Attack's BBS 7-inch (the red disc in the package), singer Laszlo Toth screeches: I called you nine times/But you didn't pick up the phone/But if I'm late for my rent/You won't leave me alone/The walls in my bedroom are decaying with mold/Broken-ass furnace is leaving me cold. And the closing threat: Going out to Johnson County/Gonna burn your house to the ground.
Punk is the perfect format for airing societal complaint. Or, to put it another way: If the punks don't say it, who will?
Mamas, don't you want your babies to grow up to be punks?
Anxiety Attack's record's liner notes, however, remind us of what's so important to any punk scene — and what our town lacks.
"Thanks," says Anxiety Attack, to "Jordan at Valhalla, Mott-Ly at the MoMO, Mean Caffeine, Jeff and Noah at the Haunted Kitchen, John at the Slaughterhouse (STL), Ricky at the Anchor, and all the other places that gave us a place to play."
Look at the picture on this page. Betterton took it in 2006, at El Torreon, when the all-women group Crap Corps had packed the joint and was raising holy, sexy hell. Look at that kid down front, with the jawline beard and the ridiculous but also perfect outfit of the velvety swim cap and goggles. Look at the bodacious punk-rock chick onstage, pointing her microphone at him. Look at Barack Obama Jr. over on the right, signaling his approval with a pointed finger and a Yeaauh on his lips. Or that girl to the side of the stage, frozen in the act of taking her own picture of the picture.
Don't you wish that could happen again here?
Maybe this year, Kansas City can give itself a present and let the punks have a fuckin' place to play.