Is punk dead? Who knows? Punk definitely had some kind of lasting impact or Kurt Cobain would probably be assistant-managing a record store and "glass boutique" in Pullman, Washington. Not all of the punks are dead, though, and some of them will be celebrating the birth and adolescence of the genre at the Detroit All-Star Garage Rock Punk Revue at the Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom on Saturday.
In Detroit, the punk scene drew its first clove cigarette breaths at a little drag club called Bookies, and a direct line can be drawn from those days to comparatively mainstream music, art, and culture now. The club — located just west of Woodward Avenue on Six Mile — drew culturally progressive, bored suburban youth like Mike Halloran, who went there to see the Damned in July, 1979.
"It was scary and thrilling at the same time," says Halloran, who went on to a more-than-30-year career as a radio DJ. He is still remembered in Detroit for Radios in Motion, a record sales and broadcasting-conventions-be-damned "alternative" music show that turned a generation of Vincent Furnier-cating Detroiters on to bands like the Undertones, Gang of Four, and even Beastie Boys as it bounced around the late night dial from WDET to WABX to WDTX. Halloran also was a member of the Plugs who played the small circuit of bars that booked punk bands in those days, including Nunzios (immortalized along with Bookies and gay dance club Menjo's in the Meatmen's "Tooling for Anus") and the east side's Red Carpet.
On that same circuit was the Boners, fronted by a lewd and obnoxious lounge caricature known as Jerry Vile, who would later trade in the gin-soaked microphone for the ink-stained presses of alternative entertainment mags Fun and Orbit. In fact, Vile's earliest foray into publishing covered the burgeoning punk scene he was a part of with his straight-from-mimeo rag White Noise.
Vile saw the Ramrods at Bookies and the 24 Karat Club on Telegraph before starting his own band. He's now better known for being Detroit's own Barnum of the Bawdy as promoter and curator of erotic art spectacle the Dirty Show, as well as municipal guerilla art installations like "The Crisco Fist," easily as punk as any onstage antics with the Boners.
Len Von Speedcult truly brings the "garage" to the party. His hilariously irreverent surfpunk outfit Snakeout, a sort of barely pubescent Cramps, burst on the scene from his Garageland Studios, a scene in itself that spawned notable names like Elvis Hitler and, unexpectedly, His Name is Alive.
"I saw the Necros in '80. Changed everything," says Elvis Hitler frontman Jim Leedy. "Dug what Negative Approach was doing. It all came together when I met Len." Now, Von Speedcult pumps out Dodge Dart logos instead of Dick Dale riffs as founder of his own eponymous plasma cutting and "Abusement Park" empire. He's the mad torch behind the "Roaster Coaster," the flame spewing thrill ride that graced the Theatre Bizarre grounds for a few Halloweens and lives on at the Speedcult compound in New Boston.
On Saturday, Halloran and Von Speedcult will perform with the Plugs and Snakeout, while Vile will join surviving members of the Boners (which is precariously close to being redundant) for some TV theme songs and other surprises, and Leedy brings the "Green Haze" with Elvis Hitler.
The gig is a collaboration between Sue Summers, the impresario behind the Static Network and Smitt E. Smitty, who was part of the early Detroit punk scene with the Blind before joining Figures on a Beach, a synthpop outfit that relocated from Detroit to Boston in search of glory during the heyday of MTV. After a successful incarnation of this show last year, they used crowdfunding to help bring some of the expat musicians back home from both coasts this year to perform tributes to such notable Detroit-associated acts as the cryptically aforementioned Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and Suzy Quatro.
Summers is particularly excited about seeing Inside Out, the female power trio of Cathy Carrell, Lynda Mandolyn, and Karen Neal, whose blistering combo of punk and hardcore didn't just fit in with the late '80s scene, in many cases it eclipsed what existing (all-male) bands were doing musically and in terms of international recognition.
"I saw their first ever show" says Summers, who in her lengthy career has seen enough bands to melt Paul Schaffer's keyboard. "They were so badass I had to tell them afterward. We became fast friends." The band was featured on one of the legendary British broadcaster John Peel's "Peel Sessions" in 1991 and was inducted to the Detroit Music Awards Hall of Fame in 1993.
Other seminal bands, like creepy horror rockers the 3-D Invisibles and Cinecyde, who released their first 45 in 1977 will also perform Saturday night. Well-represented in the all-star jam will be Coldcock, a band that was crucial to the formation of the Detroit punk scene. And here kids, is more than just music trivia: One member of Coldcock was a guy named Vince Bannon. His music promotion company, Ritual, was the company that originally brought punk and alternative music to St. Andrew's Hall, and if you are a fan of anything even slightly outside the mainstream, you must have seen a show at that storied venue.
So is punk dead? Probably not. Watered down by poppy, harmonizing, Southern California kids looking for Green Day paydays, but not dead. So here's your chance to see some acts that didn't give a fuck what people thought when it was still weird and dangerous, and don't really give a fuck what you think now. If they're a bit less angry, it's because they're happy to be alive no matter what happens to the genre.
Show starts at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 5 at the Tangent Gallery, 715 E. Milwaukee Ave., Detroit; 313-873-2955; tangentgallery.com; Tickets are $15.