Everything Evanston: 1980s Evanston band inspires musical

Max Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

MAX LUBBERS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Max Lubbers, and this is Everything Evanston. Let’s take a minute to think back to what life was like during the 1980s. Maybe you’re imagining iconic trends like fluffy hair or neon. But beneath all of that, the punk music scene was ramping up.

CHRIS KEAN: There was a community that was built up of all these underage punks who would come from the city and the suburbs and even the outer suburbs to be a part of this little burgeoning scene. That was like a lifeline for a lot of us. It was just a great community of weirdos and outsiders and freaks and we found each other. And it was seminal in my development to be a part of such a great community of people who are like, you’re not that weird. You’re just like us. We’re weird too. And it’s a beautiful organic thing that developed and it’s still impacting my life.

MAX LUBBERS: That’s Chris Kean. He was raised in Evanston and started going to punk shows at 11 or 12 years old. He said there was something liberating about the punk scene. To him and three other then-kids in Evanston, music meant everything. It even inspired them to form a band of their own.

MAX LUBBERS: That’s Verböten playing in the early 80s. The band lasted for just over a year, but its story never quite died. It all began when Chris met some friends around the neighborhood.

[ZACK KANTOR: Hello, I’m Zack Kantor, I’m the drummer of Verböten]

MAX LUBBERS: Chris and Zack were neighbors in the same apartment complex. They’ve known each other since they were about 9 or 10 years old. A couple years later, they met their guitar player —

[JASON NARDUCY: Hello, I’m Jason Narducy]

MAX LUBBERS: — in their local school yard.

ZACK KANTOR: He came over and he had songs and he had kind of like direction. At that point, I think I had a snare drum, and literally like maybe a practice pad. I was literally like banging pots and pans, like, just stuff around. And my folks bought me for my birthday a drum set, and they didn’t know how to set it up. So Jason comes over, sets up the drums. He knows where everything goes. And literally every day after school, we’re, we’re playing. I mean, that was our refuge.

MAX LUBBERS: This went on for a while, but at that point, the band didn’t even have a name. That changed after Jason met a girl at his school and invited her over to see him and his friends play.

[TRACEY BRADFORD: Hi, I’m Tracey Bradford.]

MAX LUBBERS: At the time, Tracey was 14 or 15, a few years older than the rest of the band. She became their part-lead singer, part-band manager. Tracey had a lot of connections in the punk scene, from knowing local bands to being pen pals with East Bay Ray of Dead Kennedys.

TRACEY BRADFORD: I was seeing a lot of different bands play in Chicago, and had met other people in bands. And so at that point, I was kind of like, we could do this too. And the more we practiced and everything I was like, we’re as good as any of those other bands. And it just kind of kept sort of snowballing as the more I saw and did, the more I encouraged them to do.

MAX LUBBERS: After Tracey joined, Verböten finally got their name.

TRACEY BRADFORD: I was visiting my grandparents in Florida, and my grandfather’s German. I wanted a cool name. I remember asking him, you know, like, what are strong names or words, you know, like, what sounds tough in German. Tell me what stop means or yield, or you know, stuff like that. And he said, “you know Verböten means forbidden and I thought well, that’s cool.

MAX LUBBERS: If you look at the band name, they added an umlaut. That’s the two dots above the “o.” It was just for fun. The German word doesn’t actually include it. With their new name, Verböten quickly went from seeing shows to playing their own. You just heard them playing live in the early ‘80s, and I watched the video that goes along with that. In it, Chris plays a bass that’s almost as big as his body. After the camera zooms in on his face, he smiles and raises his eyebrows to someone in the audience.

CHRIS KEAN: It was really natural for us because all of our friends were in bands also, so we all had a built-in fan base, and we all felt like we were a part of each other’s bands. So it was not uncommon for people to jump up on stage and to sing other people’s words or to jump up on stage and then jump off stage and do a stage dive and have a whole bunch of people there to catch you.

MAX LUBBERS: Tracey said that she felt more safe and supported in the punk scene than anywhere else. She said they formed genuine friendships, and Verböten became its own little family.

TRACEY BRADFORD: Anything that we did, just felt like, how can you not love us? Which is, funny that, after all this time, people still are interested or enjoy it. We just got really lucky that things sort of fell into place. And I think people enjoyed it all because we were having fun. It wasn’t like a job. It wasn’t like work. It just felt like this is super fun and this is my time to do this.

MAX LUBBERS: And for a short period, they did just that. Verböten played gigs at local churches and venues in Chicago, including The Cubby Bear. Zack’s dad paid for studio time so Verböten could record a few songs, which they distributed themselves in the form of cassettes.

MAX LUBBERS: After some time, the members of Verböten said they felt they were going in different directions. The band broke up in the early ‘80s, but that didn’t stop their friendships, according to Jason.

JASON NARDUCY: I love those guys, and I think it’s really special not only that we had that little moment with the band but also that we’re still close. That’s really important to me.

MAX LUBBERS: For a long time, Verböten’s story was only known to the people in the band and their friends in the Chicagoland punk scene. Now, it’s a tale being told through a musical with a score written by Jason, who is a full-time musician.

JASON NARDUCY: I was very intimidated by this project. I was terrified to do it, because I didn’t feel like I was qualified to write a musical. But then, once I started to kind of get inside of it, one thing that helped me push through is I started with the punk rock songs. And I thought, oh, wait a minute, I can now write the punk rock songs that Verböten would have liked to have played, had the 11-year-old songwriter been a better songwriter.

MAX LUBBERS: Jason was first approached to participate in the project a few years ago. Brett Neveu, a senior lecturer for Northwestern’s School of Communication, wrote the script for the Verböten musical. He watched a documentary show on the Chicago punk scene in which Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters credited Verböten with inspiring him.

He says his go-to-guy is Jason Narducy. And I’m like, ‘Oh, that guy lives down the street.’ I was like, that would make a really good story to write about that band.

MAX LUBBERS: After interviewing the members of Verböten, Brett started writing. The musical, Verböten, started playing with The House Theatre of Chicago earlier this year, and its run was recently extended to March 29. Many of the original band members called the whole experience strange but cool, including Chris.

CHRIS KEAN: Being in that community, really, it kind of helped me grow up, but still retain some of these values and beliefs about that community. I still feel sometimes like I’m, you know, a 13-year-old punk rock kid. And then having this play kind of pull this back and kind of like, revisit it, it’s been fun, but it’s also been really powerful.

MAX LUBBERS: The musical has a run-time of about two hours. It allows the members of Verböten to see their musical career as it appeared from the outside: quick and dynamic, like the rhythms of a punk song. But even though it was over fast, many original band members said the impact of Verböten lasted far beyond their adolescence. They got to form a family. Thanks for listening.

This episode was reported and produced by me, Max Lubbers. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @maxlubbers

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