The Daily Northwestern

Culture Feature: Punk’s Not (Quite) Dead

Nick Teddy

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Punk is dead? In Chicago, that depends on who you ask. For anyone old enough to remember the storied original scene, lasting from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, the current one may pale by comparison. But for a generation that grew up in the age of President George W. Bush and Green Day, a punk-rock act that has made a living off of responding to Bush’s politics while making black nail polish popular, Chicago punk has never felt more relevant, diverse or pissed-off. And for adventurous civilians who want to explore the vestiges of the first scene or the heart of the current one, punk in the Windy City is often surprisingly accessible.

As John Kezdy, lead singer of The Effigies, explains, “A new scene is coming back.” He should know: Formed in 1980 and still performing, The Effigies were among Chicago’s first punk acts. Today, Kezdy plays as part of a scene that’s undergone many transformations since its heyday, cannibalized by tiresome hardcore bands and tribalized by a multitude of punk subgenres. Nonetheless, Chicago punk remains a community of “people who are smart and desperate and really have something to say.”

Perhaps because they’re underdogs. The Chicago punk scene never got the star treatment lavished on London, New York or Los Angeles. Punk in Chicago started in 1977 when The Clash and Sex Pistols records started playing at La Mere Vipere, a Lincoln Park gay bar. A group of dedicated, disaffected misfits would gather to hear punk singles at the weekly “Anarchy Night” and soon enough, La Mere became a full-time punk bar. The very first Chicago acts – Tutu & the Pirates, Naked Raygun, The Effigies – formed in response to La Mere’s new sound. When the club burned down the following year, the scene continued to grow in size and notoriety, eventually reaching mainstream venues like the Aragon Ballroom and the Metro.

Joe Losurdo, the former bassist for Life Sentence who directed the 2007 documentary, “You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984,” says the Chicago scene never had the cohesion found in the New York and L.A. scenes. “There wasn’t really a defining sound,” he says. “We were kind of media landlocked and geographically landlocked. Bands didn’t sound exactly like The Clash or the Sex Pistols or The Ramones.” In fact, most early bands didn’t sound like anyone; they didn’t even sound like each other. While acts like The Imports played Ian Curtis hooks over brawny pop-punk, Silver Abuse was singing “Jews Must Die” in tinfoil masks and Nazi gear.

The Chicago scene never had much attention either. Free from critical or commercial pressures, Chicago punk acts were often weirder and humbler than their coastal counterparts. “It was more genuine to a certain degree,” Losurdo says. “There was no chance of you ever making anything out of your band. You were doing it just for the sheer love of it.” Unlike New York or L.A., Chicago never produced a star.

When the movement crumbled around 1985, it was because the scene’s eccentricity had been smothered by an “extremist minority,” Kezdy says, referring to particularly hardcore acts. “It degenerated into people just spouting platitudes to extremely loud and fast thrash music,” he says. “It wasn’t interesting anymore.”

But after its hardcore doldrums during the 1990s, some see the variety that once defined Chicago punk finally returning. The Turbo Vamps formed in 2005 as a horror punk band in the vein of West Coast acts like The Misfits or Rancid. Guitarist Andrew Smith calls himself a big The Effigies fan. Lead singer Stephen Defalco says that the Chicago scene has more range than before. “With Chicago, it seems a lot more diverse example of what punk as a whole has to offer,” he says. “You have horror punk, hardcore punk, ’77 punk, psychobilly, everybody. When you drift out to the coast, you get more of a certain type.”

Chicago punk today doesn’t have the size or novelty of the original scene, but for intrepid newcomers, it may be astounding just how much the city offers from either era. In a Northwestern hoodie and flip-flops, though, your odds of getting into a punk venue won’t be very good.

So in a scene based largely around looking badass, where does a poseur begin?

The definitive answer is The Alley (3228 N. Clark St., www.thealley.com), a Belmont Street fixture that has sold counterculture clothes to a group of decreasingly counterculture patrons since 1976. “I get people that come in here and tell me that they came in 30 years ago,” says Braden Selsvack, a sales clerk at The Alley, before defining the current punk look: “Most of all it’s tight pants, whether that’s black, jeans or white. This leopard print look is coming back. It’s this 1980s punk look, the glam style. Really big hair, colored, fewer wristbands, but a lot more leather jackets studded with huge band names on them, and then t-shirts for certain bands. Your shoes can range: it’s either army boots, creepers or Converse.” Bullet belts are always a safe choice.

Unfortunately, the handful of bars that sheltered Chicago’s first punks have mostly closed their doors by now. As a replacement, many mainstream venues across the city offer punk music on occasion. “You can book wherever you want,” says Kezdy. “You don’t have to fight for your gigs.” For that reason, a number of punk establishments fill the communal void. For a glimpse of what the current scene has to offer, Reggie’s Rock Club (2105 S. State St., www.reggieslive.com), a young South Side venue, should be anybody’s first stop. The graffiti-soaked club has become the center of the scene, booking an impressive mixture of punk acts young and old, from British legends Anti-Nowhere League to up-and-coming South Side bands like Black Circus and Chicago veterans like The Effigies. Upstairs, the relocated Record Breakers (2105 S. State St., www.recordbreakers.net) music store sells hard-to-find punk CDs and vinyl.

If you can find The Mutiny (2428 N. Western Ave., www.themutinychicago.com), a Wicker Park hole-in-the-wall, you’ve stumbled on one of Chicago’s best punk dives. Grimy, friendly and cover-free, The Mutiny opened in 1990 and features punk acts almost every night. For a punk bar with a decent restroom, head to Delilah’s (2771 N. Lincoln Ave., www.delilahschicago.com) for Punk Rock Mondays, featuring DJs hailing from Ireland and New York. And for new bands, The Galaxie Arts Center (2603 W. Barry Ave, www.galaxiechicago.com) in Irving Park is a common launch-point for amateur punk acts.

For a bit of the old scene, bring real leather and a fake ID to Exit (1315 W North Ave, www.exitchicago.com), a 21-up punk club and the most famous survivor of the Chicago glory days. In the 1980s, Exit held infamous performances by The Effigies and Naked Raygun. It has changed locations since then, but with a décor of gas masks and lingerie as well as a caged dance floor upstairs, Exit still feels immersed in another world. DJs spin punk rock every Monday night. And if you like a little soft core with your hardcore, Thursday is “Bondage A-Go-Go,” Exit’s long-running fetish night.

For those rock-inclined Chicagoans tired of the self-awareness and buzzkill that surround so much indie music, the sincerity and variety of the punk scene will be a welcome surprise. But to find punk in the Windy City, you might always have to do some looking. “It’s always going to be an underground group of people and an underground genre,” says Defalco. “Then again, it’s always going to stand out on its own.”

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