It's an oasis of sweaty, fragrant humanity in a neighborhood typically devoid of life after dark. Almost everyone's under eighteen -- and they aren't assembling futons. They're watching Sister Mary Rotten Crotch kick up dust while pacing a filthy floor, the band's aggressive sounds shaking and threatening the trembling walls.
About three songs into the set, a few light-headed fans stumble outside and start panting, but most of the spectators seem to enjoy the conflict between the stifling heat and the uncompromising music. After Sister Mary finishes, the warehouse empties completely, and the flushed teenagers wring out their shirts. Eventually, a disembodied voice from inside announces that the next group, Lower Class Brats, is ready to go. Everyone files back in, and the cycle repeats.
A few blocks past that is the sporadically open art gallery called the Next Space. Occasionally, the warehouse-basic inside of this single-floor storefront becomes an unofficial live-music venue -- and the most popular spot on 18th Street, jazz district included. Teens socialize on the sidewalk before and after shows, while inside could lurk anything from hip-hop to grinding metal to puppet productions. Notably absent are adults -- and authority figures such as doormen.
About 7 miles farther east, nestled between used-car lots and fast-food stops, there's a modest medical facility that specializes in instant drug testing. A sign says "Please do not loiter in the lobby," but it says nothing about punk bands. So presumably, the vocalist in the next room -- who's screaming into a microphone suspended from the ceiling -- isn't breaking any rules.
In the past year, all of these locations have been unorthodox concert halls, housing off-the-radar bands and the club-averse audiences that support them. This phantom scene, invisible to the uninitiated, operates completely independently of the music-industry model. It's alcohol-free and largely self-policing. And for now, it might be the only remaining option for punk-rock kids.
Bands and music fans younger than age 21 have always been nomads in Kansas City's nightlife. For young punks, the '80s do-it-yourself movement, spearheaded by groups such as Black Flag and Minor Threat, made for glory years. Back then, anti-establishment musicians -- who had no qualms about playing shows in private homes or VFW halls -- worked with audiences whose members would do almost anything to bring them to town. Sometimes, the resulting shows could be life-changing. No-frills midtown venues such as the Downliner, Foolkiller and Music Box made every show feel like a house party for their underage patrons, and even when club shows fell through, a strong national network made spontaneous substitute shows possible.
In the late '80s, punks made the pilgrimage to a Lawrence cornfield, where Outhouse promoters Jeff Fortier and Brian Saunders booked bands such as Nirvana, GWAR and Hole. There were only two rules at this renegade stop: Pay at the gate and no alcohol inside. In the anything-goes buffer zone between the gate and the barn door, people would drink -- and occasionally fight -- before shows and between sets. Inside the Outhouse, overpopulation was common; more than 1,000 people somehow squeezed in to see Bad Brains. An unusually sympathetic police force winked at the punk paradise.
"The cops would come by, check out the crowd and say, 'Who's playing?'" Saunders recalls. "Then they'd say, 'Cool, we'll be back in an hour.' And they'd show up -- with beer."
Though less outrageous, Kansas City's Rhumba Box (a venue at 10th Street and McGee that lasted from summer 1993 to spring 1994) had its moments, particularly a Beck concert at the height of his "Loser" fame that had desperate teenage fans literally hanging from rafters for a view. The Rhumba Box also presented Schoolly D and Girls Against Boys and hosted numerous high school start-up bands on all-local bills.
From May 1995 to September 1996, the Daily Grind at 39th Street and Main, a tiny coffeehouse that funneled its frequent overflow crowds into a brick patio behind the stage, hosted concerts. It boosted the city's then-thriving ska scene (the Gadjits gigged there often) and drew big-time acts like Everclear and No Doubt. It also booked almost any unproven area act that asked. The Grind eventually succumbed to police attention (following an overcrowded Descendents show and a fiery incident involving the band Arson) and sniping from neighboring business owners (the Grand Emporium's Roger Naber, among others, said the Grind created parking and loitering problems).
When that mainstay ground to a halt, the all-ages scene stopped dead in its tracks. A few teens and musicians made the trek to Johnson County's Gee Coffee, an all-ages option that had adopted a gloomy warehouse in Olathe as its third home. (Block and Co., which had managed the Four Colonies Shopping Center at 79th Street and Quivira Road in Lenexa, booted original Gee owner Cal Morris from that space in 1995 because of complaints from people who lived in nearby subdivisions. Morris' response resounded with disenfranchised young music fans. "They don't want teenagers hanging out anywhere," he told The Kansas City Star.) The drive to Olathe, though, was daunting.
Lazlo Toth, now 22, attended his first punk show at the Daily Grind in 1995. A high school sophomore who lived north of the river, he eschewed the Gee commute but typically didn't hear about many other happenings. When he did come across an intriguing concert, though, he'd go -- regardless of unusual circumstances. One Christmas, a flier directed Toth to the long-empty Silo electronics store at 36th Street and Main, where he then followed a trail of three-chord riffs down a dark alley to find the Sex Offenders braving the subzero windchill.
Tyler Galloway, now 30, moved from Springfield, Missouri, to Kansas City in 1995 and played at the Daily Grind with his hardcore outfit Brine later that year. He recalls houses near the Kansas City Art Institute (where he'd later teach) that became surrogate clubs, hosting manic acts such as Coalesce and Turmoil.
Then, in 1999, Abe Haddad, of the Haddad Restaurant Group, helped move punk rock out of living rooms and back onto a stage at what would become El Torreon. He bought the old Cowtown Ballroom, on 31st Street and Gillham Road, for storage. Inside the cavernous building, it felt like a dank garage in some passages and a ruined castle in others. A part-time musician (he plays bass with the Shotgun Idols), Haddad then learned of the building's history, which included Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa concerts. He decided to start welcoming bands back into its storied rooms. One of his first steps was to rent out practice spaces; the recently formed Sister Mary Rotten Crotch snatched one up immediately.
Saunders, the onetime Outhouse booker, stopped by the space one day to visit his wife, Sister Mary guitarist Alison Saunders. There, Saunders met Haddad as the owner was clearing junk out of what would become the venue's main performance space. Saunders started helping with the renovation process, and he soon agreed to begin booking bands. He hauled in the Outhouse's sound equipment, which would serve as El Torreon's sonic foundation. In November 1999, Sister Mary Rotten Crotch, mi6, Steadfast and Revolvers filled out the first-ever El Torreon bill.
Toth was among the sixty or so in attendance. Soon, Toth joined Saunders in booking shows at El Torreon. On June 28, 2000, Toth pieced together a Faint, Rapture and Bright Eyes bill that would likely pack a much larger venue today. With sounds ranging from new wave to spastic metal to sensitive songwriter material, it was the type of multigenre show that few other promoters would have tried at the time.
The next night, Galloway's band Syndicate played on a roster that also included Short Bus Kids, a fun-loving outfit that brought its own jumping box, on which fans could practice aerial maneuvers. At any club with bouncers, such a stunt would be impossible -- the box would likely be confiscated. But at El Torreon, when it came to creative choreography, anything went. The venue's rules were modified only slightly from the Outhouse's: Pay at the door and no alcohol inside. Here, however, there was no wiggle room: No drinking in the parking lot and no stepping out between sets.
These shows fared well, but many of Toth's other productions couldn't recoup their costs. Toth concentrated solely on booking groups he wanted to see -- often politically minded punk groups on minuscule labels without the slightest trace of mainstream buzz. To pay its bills, El Torreon required a $7 cover charge, but people balked at taking a chance on unheard-of acts.
Unlike Toth, Saunders would take a chance on almost any artist, regardless of personal preference. He booked the Insane Clown Posse offshoot Twiztid and was shocked to see its face-painted fans lining up outside at 10 a.m. on a bone-chilling day. He opened his doors to boastful local rappers who struggled to draw a dozen fans; to singer-songwriters who bitched about the distant yet distinct sounds of punk acts practicing elsewhere in the building; to emo acts that bored him; and to Anal Cunt, which appalled him.
Yet he wasn't the typical obsequious promoter, a smooth talker who would tell an awful group that it's great if it might create an opportunity down the line. A physically imposing figure with a gentle voice and a quick sense of humor, Saunders might be a big teddy bear, but he's a brutally honest one. When bands he disliked offered him T-shirts or CDs, he'd tell them, "It's not my thing. Keep them, sell them on the road and make money." He didn't hesitate to snap at kids who snuck in beer or started fights, putting the venue he'd worked so hard for in danger of being shut down.
Most of the rule breakers didn't appreciate his candor. Spurned spectators started spreading rumors about Saunders' leadership.
"I have no hair because I'm bald, but people will say, 'Don't play there -- it's run by skinheads,'" Saunders explains. "Or they'll say I banned them, when it's 'No, I didn't ban you. I asked you to pay to get in.' People complain that there's too much structure, but then they'll complain about some show where people are being assholes. Well, that's what I'm good for. I'm a big, old punk rocker who won't put up with that crap."
But purists also began arguing that El Torreon was too big to be a real punk venue -- it had a stage. (The complaint was ideological: a stage places musicians on a rock-star pedestal, but punk is about interacting on equal footing with fans.) And its staff told kids what to do and cracked down on drinking in the parking lot.
"Kids want to be anarchists," Saunders says. "They want to be rebellious. They say, 'It's punk to drink beer outside.' I know all the tricks."
Regardless, tenuous parallel scenes started forming.
The first surprising thing about do-it-yourself shows is how polite punks can be. At a Next Space show on May 20, about 100 fans listened attentively to an utterly unknown singer from out of town give a rambling prologue about the next screamed song with indecipherable lyrics. They remained largely silent when the music started, except to say "excuse me" for stepping on a stray foot or jostling someone while pogoing. They gathered as close to the musicians as possible, surrounding them in the stageless setup but never disturbing the performance. Audiences in classical concert halls have been known to exercise less decorum.
Gigs at the medical complex seem to inspire the silliest antics, perhaps because they're the most removed from the normal concert environment and from adult eyes. Before a June 4 show at the space, concertgoers and musicians alike relaxed by playing Wiffle ball and vigorously performing inaudible mental soundtracks on air instruments. A few even started lifting their friends into the air, pretending to strum them like guitars. Despite the absence of grown-ups, the goofy scene was more Lord of the Dance than Lord of the Flies.
"I've been in the workforce for eight years, so I have lots of 'normal' friends," Galloway says. "One misperception that a lot of them have is that there's slam-dancing going on, people being really violent and moshing like crazy."
When Soophie Nun Squad, an Arkansas-based act with Kansas City Art Institute connections, plays any of these venues, moshing is discouraged -- but dancing is mandatory. Group members point at the holdouts, trying to nudge them into motion with funky grooves and eager facial expressions. For the most part, it works. The Squad -- a turbo-disco, performance-art troupe -- wears full-body costumes and fuses fun, funk and punk.
The Soophie headlining show May 20 at the Next Space was the 200th gig of the band's career. To celebrate, the musicians counted to 200 while virtually everyone in the venue gamely counted along. Fans then sat still for a puppet show before springing back into action when the music resumed. Band members donned dragon costumes and other furry outfits, looking like a collection of minor-league mascots. Nothing separated fan from band. Spectators bumped into Squad members as they played, and the musicians welcomed and returned the contact.
Missing was the smirking self-importance that mars the indie-rock scene. This crowd -- and band -- seemed much more concerned with having a good time than with looking cool. It was creatively charged, innocent, drug- and violence-free. For all its permissiveness, El Torreon can't match the locked-in-the-candy-store-overnight giddiness of a free-form frolic in a no-adults-allowed clubhouse.
"I've been to some of those metalcore shows at El Torreon, and there's something distinctly different about them," Galloway says. "I can't see any of those bands being interested in playing the Next Space or a house show. They're operating on a higher level, with a label to promote them and a guarantee at the door. They're apolitical, and they're emulating the industry. That's exactly why I'm not interested. Punk isn't about fashion or a musical style. It's about being independent from mainstream culture, and when it loses that independence, it ceases to be anything of value."
The local DIY scene's signature act might be Ad Astra Per Aspera, a virtuosic Lawrence quintet that welds minimalist keyboards to furious thrashes. Ad Astra practiced for a year before it played its first gig -- a stark contrast to the old learn-a-chord, gig-the-same-week blueprint that long made punk a forum for enthusiastic amateurs.
The emergence of such challenging acts suggests that punk has come full circle since the days when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols penned rudimentary anthems protesting pretentious prog rock. Now that a generation of Warped Tour ticket buyers considers punk to mean short, catchy tunes, a song with a challenging structure feels like musical mutiny.
"People feel the freedom to express what they want, because they know they won't get laughed out of the building," Galloway says.
Groups such as Soophie Nun Squad and Ad Astra make most venues uncomfortable. The combination of melodically obtuse songs and attempts at audience interaction might intimidate the unprepared or annoy the barstool regulars.
El Torreon's doors are open to these acts, but many of their fans won't step inside. They prefer an unadvertised show in an industrial medical center. Most of them wouldn't drink or cause trouble at El Torreon, but there's a principle involved: They don't want anything infringing on this invigorating sense of freedom.
It doesn't hurt that these shows are all but free. Toth and other independent promoters don't charge admission at the door, though they do occasionally request donations to help touring acts cover transportation costs. Usually, when these basic funds are secured, the solicitation stops. It's essentially a risk-free endeavor financially: If no one shows, nothing is lost, plus you get to see one of your favorite groups play a private show.
"That's the spirit in which the shows are undertaken," Galloway says. "At El Torreon, there's problems because there's the money hurdle to get your foot in the door. You've got to pay for all that stuff somehow. At a house show, you know everyone who had a hand in putting it together. There's no budget, no employees, no stratification."
Toth empathizes with Saunders; he's faced some of the same problems. When he started arranging house gigs, the gatherings were basically respectful. Occasionally, though, underage visitors would drink openly on porches and in front yards. Vandals would scribble graffiti on the host's walls. At one Next Space show, a concertgoer mooned the police, leading to a chain of events that stopped the show before out-of-town headliner Tragedy could play.
"That's punk" was an all-purpose excuse for irresponsible behavior.
Without any staff on hand, Toth attempted to enforce a few house rules so the bands he'd brought to town could play instead of having their shows stopped by police. A laid-back, bespectacled guy with a soft voice, Toth couldn't strike fear into showgoers with his physical presence. He also lacked formal authority, so he appealed to common sense -- with mixed results. For the most part, the kids would acquiesce and throw their drinks in the trash. Others turned on him, alleging that Toth, who doesn't drink or take drugs, was forcing his beliefs on them.
"They can do that stuff at home," Toth says of his critics. "Just stay the fuck away from the show."
Despite all its perks, the alternate all-ages scene could never be the utopia its organizers envisioned.
Saunders stands a few feet away from El Torreon's front entrance, paying Sixer for its July 4 performance. Saunders booked more than 500 shows at El Torreon; this is his last. As he flips bills, he notices kids toting large letters under their arms -- pieces of El Torreon's ransom-letter-style sign -- that, until a few minutes ago, had hung behind the stage. Saunders, who built the sign, sighs but doesn't stop the souvenir thieves.
Every few minutes, someone taps him on the shoulder and thanks him. These shows of appreciation touch and befuddle him. "I just wanted to see these bands," he says.
A new landscape surrounds El Torreon. An upscale liquor store has just opened across the street at 31st Street and Gillham Road, and the nearby Velvet Dog and Empire Room attract a steady stream of suburbanites. Even Ed's Dainty Corsages, once a defunct business where visiting bands would pose for campy photos, has arisen from its dirt nap. Three years ago, Saunders and his staff pleaded with local panhandlers not to harass the club's patrons; now they patrol the parking lot to make sure martini sippers aren't hogging their spots.
In the beginning, the rough neighborhood might have enhanced El Torreon's credibility, but Saunders' management was what made it a legitimate punk establishment. On countless occasions, he paid bands out of his own pocket when shows bombed. He invited fading legends like U.K. Subs, the Vibrators, Vice Squad -- knowing that they wouldn't meet their guarantee and that he'd have to chip in -- just so local punks would have the chance to see these icons. And when a show was canceled, often through no fault of his own, he'd contact the groups and offer them gas money and dinner.
Throughout its history, El Torreon struggled with eccentric crowds, but in the past six months, Saunders says, no show lost money.
In June, though, Saunders says Haddad informed him that nightly rent would soon spike from $200 to $500. Saunders usually set aside $225 from the door draw, then gave the bands 80 percent of the remainder (often supplying some of the balance himself).
Before pulling out permanently, Saunders says, he made Haddad a counteroffer to rent the space on a monthly basis.
"We came in low, because that's what you do," he says. "I know exactly what's being made down there. Well, I thought I knew. It must have been more, because it came back to me that we lowballed him and insulted him. Then I didn't hear anything for weeks, and it was really frustrating. I won't fix a sink in the house for years, but when it comes to music and punk rock, I want to do things right away." Haddad was unavailable for comment.
For Saunders, there had been other disappointments. During one of his first visits to El Torreon, back when Alison was practicing with Sister Mary, he noticed that the second floor, with its arched ceilings, could boast amazing acoustics. It was cluttered with scooters, jukeboxes, chairs and cars, but Haddad told him he had big plans for the space. In 2000, Saunders told the Pitch that Haddad planned to restore the ballroom so that bands such as Metallica or AC/DC -- groups "who want that big ballroom sound," he said -- could make stage recordings there. This never materialized, nor did a later proposal to construct an indoor skate park. The second floor remains a junk heap.
"I felt like Sisyphus pushing sound equipment up a hill," Saunders quips.
The first floor, for that matter, is at best lovably ugly. Columns impair views in both the main room (where Fugazi once played to a full house) and the regular room, site of the July 4 show. Though grittier punks enjoyed its greasy, garagelike ambience, many visitors never warmed to its uninviting layout. And most drinkers didn't appreciate the quarantined bar, which offered an obscured view of the stage through a chain-link fence.
Saunders makes no apologies for the alcohol segregation. "It's an all-ages club, not a bar," he says. "Ninety-five percent of the time, it's kids at the show. Finish your beer and then go have fun."
Saunders made the same sort of sacrifice. During sets he would have loved to watch, he was behind the bar. When the Dropkick Murphys played, El Torreon patrons chugged $2,800 of liquor in four hours, and Saunders' fingers bled from popping tabs. The converted coffee urn that served as his tip jar read "Don't be a cheap fuck; tip your bartender." The urn now sits on a kitchen shelf at his house; its contents usually went to pay the bands.
Missing performances to open cans wasn't the only downside of Saunders' tenure at El Torreon. Although he loved dealing with local acts -- watching Tanka Ray mature, seeing Descension become an unlikely fixture, tapping Big Iron to be Fugazi's opener -- he had less-pleasant exchanges with booking agents. One advantage of the DIY world is that the musicians are just thankful to play. They'll gig with busted equipment or missing members -- anything to get their songs out -- and they'll gratefully accept any form of compensation. Label-backed bands have greater expectations.
"You've got to smooth-talk these bands, caress them, then yell at them to leave," Saunders explains. "You've got these booking agents that tell me, 'This band is huge. They'll pack the place.' I tell them, 'We'll get sixty kids.' I know. They'll ask for barricades, and I'll just laugh at them. This is a punk club.
"Some of the groups won't allow you to have local openers, either," he continues. "Like Alkaline Trio. And the Donnas won't let you put another girl band on the bill. It's ridiculous. Don't these bands remember how they got started? The saddest thing is when these local kids request to play with some certain group, thinking they're going to impress their idols, [but] 99 times out of 100 [the headliner will] just be hanging out in the van when the kids are playing."
Also, the bigger the band, the more complaints about the sound, which could be noisy and bass-heavy. In recent months, the spoiled rock stars might have had a point. Arguments about the soundman led to other clashes between Haddad and Saunders -- eventually bringing about the climactic conversation about raising the rent.
El Torreon remains open under Haddad's guidance, but its calendar, which listed three to four shows a week as recently as June, now offers only a handful each month. The biggest draws, Descension on August 9 and Moire on September 27, are metal groups. A number of punk outfits, from local stalwarts such as Tanka Ray to touring acts like Sixer, have vowed to avoid the venue now that Saunders is no longer involved.
For years, punks mourned the Daily Grind and campaigned for a replacement. When El Torreon, one of the longest-running all-ages venues in the city's history, didn't meet all their expectations, some of them abandoned it.
Now, as the search for a new space begins again, the scene hovers dangerously close to 1996 levels.
Within the past month, the medical center and furniture shed have ceased to exist as music venues. Both spaces had originally become available because someone had family connections, but one of the families moved, and the other's members became increasingly concerned about the risks involved in hosting unchaperoned events. Even if hard-line punks wanted to fall back on El Torreon in the interim, until some family connection frees up another lobby or warehouse, there's not much left on the schedule.
"How long is the dry spell going to last? The first person to get sick of it will be the first person to make something happen," Galloway speculates. "It's just a matter of time."
Saunders has his eye on a wild West Bottoms location. He envisions opening the place in September. To ensure that he meets that deadline, he's already booked a band, Blind Society, for September 1. He says he can't be too specific for fear of jinxing it, but he describes the new space as "El Torreon with air-conditioning and no columns, plus an espresso machine and a Y.J.'s-style snack bar." It's also much more intimate than the behemoth ballroom, and it should be acoustically superior, especially with the new sound system Saunders is assembling. A CD store is on the drawing board as well; its inventory dominates Saunders' living room.
In the next few months, he will work on acquiring the permits required to kick-start a new club. He's witnessed the archaic nature of such requirements firsthand, when El Torreon, lacking a dance-hall permit, was forced for several months in 2000 to discourage those who attended its rock shows with "No dancing" signs that cited the city ordinance.
After seeing Haddad secure an entire wall of permits, Saunders is optimistic about his ability to navigate the bureaucracy. "Their big concerns are no gangsta rap and no raves," he says of City Hall staffers. "They'll know this is something real." Still, he confesses some fear about putting together this project. "It's going to be scary," he says, "and it's not going to be cheap."
However it fares, the new space's fate rests on his shoulders, a responsibility Saunders welcomes. "If it fails, it's my problem," he says. "Everyone who owns a space or runs a space is nuts, and I'm going to join their ranks."
Toth's optimism feels more weathered and weary. He expects new alternative venues to surface, but he's not searching for them -- or even booking shows, except in rare circumstances. These days, he helps younger punks take their first stabs at promotion.
"Punk rock is cool," he says, "but it's not going to change the world."