On that night 20 years ago, Detroit’s most notorious all-ages punk venue might never have opened. Al “Carp” Halversen, the guy with the keys, had walked into the Iron Coffins biker club down the street only to have a pistol jammed in his mouth and be held prisoner all day.
“That day I saw a guy warming up his van, so I walked over and told him I had seen somebody unloading insulation out of the back of their building the day before. He told me to come on inside and have a drink. Then, as soon as I got inside —” Halversen’s hands shoot out dramatically with double-finger pistols as he tells the story. “He thought I was a cop.”
Halversen spent the better part of the day drinking and getting high at gunpoint with the single-minded biker, who refused to believe that Halversen had opened up a punk club in the former Salvation Army on the corner. Who can blame him? The club, which opened Jan. 25, 1985, was open for only a few months, but quickly passed into local lore as the rawest space that ever hosted a punk show in Detroit — the Hungry Brain.
Halversen, now a millwright with Ford Motor Company, grows animated about the subject as he sits in the Bronx Bar on a cold night. He hasn’t spoken publicly about his role in the Brain since the place was shut down by cops in spring 1985.
Back then, punk rock not only hadn’t broke in Detroit, it hadn’t even gone legit. It was more like an underworld. In fact, the under-the-table scene from which the Brain grew was so informal that people often didn’t know each other’s names. Instead, it involved those who called themselves “Al Carp,” “Mohawk Dave” and “Joe Hardcore.” Of Hardcore, the partner he once promoted hardcore shows with, Halversen says, “I lived with Joe, I mean, I was his partner for two whole years and I never knew his real name.”
In 1984, Halversen was a 29-year-old Detroit punk who had been going to local clubs long enough to see the city had limited venues for all-ages shows, aside from rented spaces like Graystone Hall on Michigan Avenue or Dearborn’s Laura Hall. Most of the punk venues, such as Cobb’s Corner, the Asylum and the Freezer Theatre catered to an older crowd, not kids coming from the suburbs. Halversen saw an opportunity when Bob Madigan, singer for Detroit noise band Slaughterhouse, nudged him into looking for a space. In a shrinking city, deals were available. “It was ridiculously cheap. It was like $300 or $400 a month,” Halversen says.
The hulking space at the corner of Jefferson and Dearborn had been used as a flea market warehouse and was still loaded with odd items, such as firefighting suits, a huge Instamatic display camera and original cabinets left over from its days as a drugstore. The vast floor of cast-offs was the perfect setting for the scene of social misfits that would come.
“The closest thing I could compare it to would be a rave, but much more guerrilla,” Halversen says. “It was more all-inclusive too. We’d have poetry readings, hardcore, we were one of the first clubs to have speed metal.”
Over the years, a lot of clubs have called themselves underground, but the Brain literally was. Halversen and company set up in the building’s huge basement “for two reasons: One, you don’t hear the noise as much outside; two, it’s warmer in the basement in January.” The crew got its hands on a few 50,000-BTU torpedo-style heaters and built the stage — a riser, really — out of “stolen plywood and stolen milk crates.” Eventually they set up a portable toilet upstairs. On opening night, the Brain hosted “five bands for four bucks,” and then staged affordable shows once or twice a week. Bands such as Die Kruezen, Toxic Reasons and the Subhumans played in the dingy basement. Some would even crash there.
In 1985 Detroit was the murder capital of the United States, with almost twice the homicide rate of Dallas, the closest contender. It was a wide-open town where the law didn’t bother people much. Certainly a night at the Brain would have made today’s trendy mall punks shit blood for a week.
Driving into Delray from the suburbs meant motoring past the refineries, where the air would begin to stink. Past the cemetery the neighborhood got worse. A cruise down Dearborn Street meant rumbling under the darkness of the roaring elevated freeway and over the railroad tracks into a neighborhood of busted church steeples and “For Rent” signs slapped onto crumbling homes. At the end of the street, a turgid channel around Zug Island hosted a few rotting houses that backed on it. Across the street from the Brain was a rough dirt lot of questionable safety. If you didn’t see packs of feral dogs, you’d get out of your car in the darkness, the sting of sulfur baking your sinuses. You’d shiver in a cold basement listening to men in flannels screaming into microphones while an untrained band of musicians tried to pluck and thud out accompaniment. After a night of this, you’d go home and blow your nose to find jet black snot on the tissue.
Halversen laughs as he says, “Being right off Zug Island, where there are so many chemical factories, you could see the pollution. We’d get these young punk girls coming down, and I’d laugh when they’d look at the rings of color around the streetlights and say, ‘It’s so pretty!’ Yeah, it’s pretty, it’s chemicals. Some nights the streetlights would be ringed with greenish colors, some nights with yellowish colors. I always told people, ‘Don’t drink the water. Don’t even wash with it!’”
In a forbidding, toxic atmosphere like this, punks didn’t need a dozen labret piercings or leather outfits to look the part. And most kids at Brain shows looked weird in a pre-1991 kind of way — Goodwill trench coats, tattered T-shirts, jackets that stank of sweat and scuffed Georgia boots. Punk was neither monolithic nor doctrinaire. It couldn’t afford to be. In the Reagan days, just having a stubby mohawk would be enough to prompt a van full of jocks to screech to a stop, jump out and stomp your ass on the street.
And though shows at the Brain were generally peaceful, there were often volatile mixes that would explode into conflict: Pistol-toting bikers with nothing to lose, suburban skinheads with itchy fists, and rebellious testosterone-fueled teens. The violence sometimes left bloodied patrons wandering out the door. Sex would often come just as suddenly, with aroused couples stealing down the stinking banks of the Zug Island channel to work off hormonal overloads. Such trysts left more than one punk rock girl crying on the club’s doorstep.
But despite the blood, tears and other bodily fluids, a misfit solidarity reigned over all at the Brain. For some, it was a life-changing experience.
As Halversen puts it, “We wanted to make a place where everybody felt welcome. I’ve had people come up to me over the years and say, ‘You know, growing up, in school, I never felt like I belonged. I just felt like a misfit. Then I went to the Brain and I found this amazing place where everybody was nice to me.’”
Ironically, Halversen’s desire to help the Iron Coffins gang spelled disaster for his club; the cops cracked down on the Brain hard when he signed a petition supporting the bikers’ clubhouse.
Halversen knew the place couldn’t last much longer — it was drawing too much attention to itself. “Well, maybe the cops would have let us go on for a few more nights if I hadn’t signed that petition, but that’s all. But, at the time, somebody said to me, ‘Why did you sign the petition? You wouldn’t have to deal with the cops shutting down your place.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but if I didn’t sign the petition, I wouldn’t want to deal with those guys.’ And some of the Coffins were right there, and they laughed at that.”Michael Jackman is a copy editor and writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org