The Decline of Northern Civilization
NOTE: This is a piece by Josh Medsker, originally written for and published in the Anchorage Press in October of 2000. When I first found this, it inspired my “Back When Anchorage Was Cool” post. Unfortunately, at some point since then, a redesign of the Anchorage Press website took Josh’s article offline. Recently, he was kind enough to dig the article up, dust it off, and pass it on to me. With his permission, I’m re-posting it here.
The Decline of Northern Civilization, Part 1
By Josh Medsker
Originally published in the Anchorage Press, Vol. 9, Ed. 42, October 19-25, 2000
I was 11 years old when I saw my first punk rocker.
It was 1983, and I was huddled in my bedroom, watching music videos on my four-inch TV. Crazy music like the Clash and Eddy Grant’s pop-reggae number “Electric Avenue” came out of the lone speaker. Then a guy with a mohawk–a lime green mohawk, nonetheless–appeared on screen, wearing a ratty t-shirt that read “Bombshelter Videos.”
“You’re watching Catch-22,” he said.
Mr. Mohawk’s name was Frank Harlan, and though I didn’t know it at the time, he was the impresario of a thriving underground music scene. If I’d been old enough to go to shows then, I could have seen local legends like Skate Death, or the Psychedelic Skeletons, instead of building space ships out of Legos.
Watching Harlan that night, all I knew was that he represented something new, intense, and different. Something I wanted to be a part of.
There have been bar bands in Anchorage as long as there have been bands in Anchorage. My interest then–as now–was not in bar bands, but underground bands: Punk. Metal. Techno. Industrial. Rap. And the undefinables.
They all share this much: They and their fans are outsiders, and they know it.
This is their story so far.
THE PRIMORDIAL MIST: PRE-1980
Any history needs a beginning, and the history of the Anchorage Underground begins inside The Wherehouse, a two-story structure at 1515 Karluk Street in Fairview.
The Wherehouse was an actual warehouse built shortly after W.W.II. Anchorage artist Wendy Jones bought the place in the early ‘60s and encouraged local bohemians to rent it out.
In 1972, a group of young, radical activists moved in. They called themselves themselves “The Ad Hoc Organizing Committee For Young Democrats.” One of the first Ad Hoc actions was a protest of nuclear testing in the Aleutian Islands. The group also helped several of its members get elected to the State House (Ad Hoc alumni include Governor Tony Knowles). One of the group’s members, George Lichter, brought up national acts like Canned Heat and the touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to perform at Ad Hoc fundraisers.
Ex-New Yorker Greg Granquist, now 52, moved into the Wherehouse in 1974, just as the complex’s inhabitants were shifting from the Ad Hoc activists to a strange mix of militant vegetarians and pipeline workers.
“The winter of ‘75, ‘76, there were about 18 people that were living in this one warehouse that had, basically, about seven separate rooms,” says Granquist. “There were like, makeshift sleeping areas, bunk-beds, all kinds of stuff just thrown together.”
The Wherehouse crowd became famous for its wild Halloween parties, complete with elaborate invitations and themes. In 1979, the Wherehouse denizens dressed up as a fictitious street gang, the Karluk Warriors, and descended upon a competing Halloween party thrown by Anchorage Daily News editor Howard Weaver. The Karluk Warriors showed up in full gang regalia, demanded first place in the ensuing costume contest, and won.
Such exhibitions represented the do-it-yourself zeitgeist that would serve as the foundation for regional underground music scenes all over the country. In Anchorage, the Wherehouse was the spawning ground for that attitude.
THE GLORY YEARS: 1980-1987
“I was called ‘faggot’ more than I was ‘Frank’,” says Frank Harlan, the mastermind behind Warning fanzine, the DIY publication that brought punk rock to Anchorage’s young and culture-starved masses.
Harlan, now 41, moved to Alaska in 1975 with his parents, and graduated From North Pole High School, near Fairbanks, in 1977.
After working as a park ranger and a haircut model, Harlan (who used the pseudonym Bill Bored) moved to Anchorage. In October of 1982, he and his girlfriend, Polly Vinyl, published the first issue of Warning, while “Mr. Frank” worked as a clown at children’s parties.
A product of its time, Warning’s articles were pounded out on typewriters, and the underground publication’s design was literally cut-and-paste. Its look was suited for the scene it documented, however, and at its height, Warning clocked in at over 40 pages of reviews, interviews with bands, political rants, and photo coverage of punk shows at the National Guard Armory and Carpentier’s Hall, Anchorage’s two perennial underground music venues.
“We used to do 2500 issues, and send probably half of them to Seattle,” says Harlan. “I live in Seattle now, and there’s a lot of people who, when they realize you’re Bill Bored, or something like that, or that you lived in Alaska, they go, ‘Oh, did you do anything with Warning?’”
Through the Seattle connection, Warning got news from Alaska out to the rest of the country and vice-versa. In addition to local coverage, Warning printed scene reports from the Northwest and beyond, and a wealth of record reviews of independent releases by underground bands from around the country. This gave Anchorage underground music fans the emboldening sense they were part of a larger movement.
Warning also promoted concerts at the Armory, showcasing early Anchorage bands like the Angry Nuns and the Shocks, the latter featuring Rick Kinsey, who would go on to form numerous Anchorage bands in the ‘90s. Newer bands like Skate Death and the Clyng-Onz also began playing out.
At the same time he was producing Warning, Harlan was a late-night VJ for a local music video station called Catch-22. Starting in 1983, Harlan hosted his own program, “Bombshelter Videos,” featuring rarely-seen-on-MTV bands like Black Flag, P.I.L., Siouxsie and The Banshees, and Skate Death.
“I was only on Catch-22 for like, 10 months. Then they let me go because I was too weird,” says Harlan.
By then, though, “Bombshelter Videos” had become the favorite eye-candy of Anchorage punk rockers, so Harlan took the show to local access cable, and launched a new theme show, “The No Wave Hour.”
In 1984, Harlan helped bring up Southern California skate-punk legends Suicidal Tendencies, the first major punk band to play Anchorage.
That landmark event was bookended by some of the first releases by Anchorage underground bands–The Clyng-Onz put out their first tape, “Hide Your Eskimos,” in 1983, and, two years later, issued a split record with arty punk rockers the Psychedelic Skeletons. Then, in 1985, Skate Death put out the classic slab of Anchorage ‘80s punk, “You Break It, You Buy It,” which has become a pawn shop gem.
By the end of ‘84, the Wherehouse, which Greg Granquist re-named “The Eighth People’s Werehaus Republik,” had become a work of underground art in progress.
Each wall of the complex was adorned with a mural painted by each of the residents, from flaming skulls to graffiti and haphazard geometric patterns. The bathroom was painted to look like a cave full of bats. Found-object sculptures hung from the walls and lurked in the corners.
“The Wherehouse kind of evolved into the center of the alternative music and punk rock scene here in Anchorage,” says Granquist.
Skate Death, the Clyng-Onz, and the Psychedelic Skeletons played regularly at the Wherehouse, along with newer groups, like The Exhumed, who professed to be disciples of Aleister Crowley. Canadian punk legends D.O.A. came up to Anchorage in 1985; they crashed at the Werehaus for an entire weekend.
In 1986, though, the scene began to self-destruct. Frank Harlan published the last issue of Warning in the fall. The next year, he moved to Seattle. Wendy Jones sold the Wherehouse, the new owner tripled the rent, and an era ended.
“I wished I’d had a million dollars and could have just purchased the property,” says Granquist, who moved out in May of 1987. “[Now] I think it’s someone’s garage.’”
With two of its main arteries cut, Anchorage’s underground scene hemorrhaged until gradually, a new crop of bands staunched the flow: The Drunk Poets, A.B.D.K. (A Bunch of Dead Kids), The Subterraneans, The Guests, Hyperthermia, and an embryonic version of T.S. Scream (with original bassist J.D. Stuart, later of Grin and Broke).
Without the Wherehouse, though, Anchorage suffered from a dearth of quality venues. Shows were limited to house parties, the Fairview Rec Center, and the occasional warehouse concert.
In the winter of 1990, Dylan Buchholdt opened the first incarnation of the Underground Bar, below a steak house in Midtown. After about a year, the Underground moved to its classic location, at 3103 Spenard Road.
Another venue that opened in 1990 was the Ragin’ Cage, a dive across Spenard from the Fly-By-Night Club. The sound at the Ragin’ Cage was bad, and the decor was non-existent, except for the neon paint splattered on the black concrete floor, and dilapidated couches in the corners.
The Cage–home to regular shows by Hessian (featuring lead singer Brock Lindow) and Ted “Theo” Spitler of Heavy Season–quickly became infamous for its violent patrons. The owners eventually put a chain link fence up around the stage to protect bands from their audience.
Ragin’ Cage became a hang-out for skinheads. Vox Populli, a local underground publication, started out as a straight-up punk ‘zine before gradually turning into a platform for editor Mark Watson’s white-power views, and a rallying cry for Anchorage skinheads. “There have never been many SHARP skins (Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice) in this town,” said Jennifer Morris, who was host of “Amber Waves of Ska” on KRUA. “It’s mostly been nazis.”
In the winter of 1991, local promoter and musician Trey Wolf opened a new warehouse space called Spatula City on Orca Street in Fairview. Wolf had attempted throwing a few shows beneath the Sawmill Club before deciding he needed his space.
“My motivation was to completely get out from underneath anyone with a standard, normal idea of [having] a club,” says Wolf.
At the time, Wolf was in a noise band with Rex Ray, a small-business owner and musician, called FSUNJIBLEABLEJE.
One early FSUN show at Spatula City sticks out in Wolf’s mind. The band took an abandoned car off the street, and they and the audience members took turns wailing on it with saws and hammers.
Spatula City hosted a hopping roster of bands, including T.S. Scream, Wolf’s classic punk band Green Eggs And Spam, FSUN, the bizarre, pulsing metal of Thanx A Million, the jangly alternative-pop of The Disastronauts, and local punk-metal legends, Sonic Tractorhead. Overwhelming debt forced Spatula City to close its doors near the end of ‘92.
Nineteen-ninety-two was also the year the rave scene broke in Anchorage. DJ Fuzzy Wuzzy began spinning techno at Sharky’s on Fifth Avenue, and DJ Drewcifer was spinning grooves from Bauhaus, Ministry and Throbbing Gristle at the Mirage in Spenard.
It was also the year KRUA 88.1 came on the air. KRUA was born a few years earlier as KMPS, a campus-only radio station, but on Valentine’s Day KRUA went FM. KRUA was a strong supporter of the local scene from the station’s inception, and hosted “Local Edge Live” shows at the Underground Bar, and the UAA Pub. Other shows, like “The Metallion,” “The Fred Show” (‘80s music), and “Kirk’s Show From Hell” (your worst acid nightmare), had audiences rivaling those of the commercial stations.
In the fall of 1992, in a small art gallery next to Spatula City, several blocks away from the old Wherehouse, a group of artists and scenesters gathered, forming the core group that would dominate Anchorage for most of the coming decade. The B.A.U. (Business As Usual) Gallery was run by Brian MacMillan, a transplant from Boston known to most as just “BMac.” The gallery had been around in various locations for a year or so before, but reached its peak of creative usefulness during 1992, as a haven for alternative artists and entrepreneurs.
The B.A.U. was home to Dan LaPan’s shop Subterranea (which sold clothing, Doc Marten’s, and small dead animals in jars), Sinister Urge (a store run by two girls named Lisa and Leanne who sold used clothes), and Wrek Lard Clan, Rex’s small mail-order business that sold hair dye, punk t-shirts, and body piercing videos.
The B.A.U. Gallery also hosted free-speech nights, KRUA listening parties, and live music. The Gallery was short-lived, however. The Municipality shut it down for good in early ‘93, and the small clan of business-owners migrated to the Reed Building, next to the 4th Avenue Theater.
Around the same time the B.A.U. was closing, Trey Wolf of FSUN started a new warehouse, Industry 13, home to many legendary shows. At one show, Wolf suspended himself by halibut hooks through his hands to a cross made of old computer parts. With Wolf dangling above the crowd, the rest of the band created a violent soundscape behind him using electronics and found metal objects.
One night, T.S. Scream was playing at Industry 13, and the entire band was lit. Guitarist Scott Ferris called out to the audience to “bring him a six-pack.” Someone bought a couple six-packs of beer at a nearby liquor store, brought them back to the warehouse, and the audience passed them above their heads to the band. It was so hot and crowded inside the warehouse that night that someone opened the giant garage door in the front of the building. Everyone piled out into the street, with the band continuing on.
The lack of funds still plagued Wolf, and Industry 13 ground to a halt in the fall of 1993.
The next warehouse, P.S.I. (Pure Survival Instenkt) was run by both Wolf and Rex, and lasted only two weekends in the winter of ‘93, before skinheads smashed out a window in the shop next door, forcing Rex and Wolf to shut it down.
In February 1994, at the same military bunker in Kincaid Park where Suicidal Tendencies played 10 years earlier, a cluster of new bands, (Cucumber Lang, Phillipino Haircut, The Clap, Buttafuoco, Freedom 49, Kaos AK, and Tuesday Weld) debuted over the course of two weekends in a gigantic music fest called “Bigger Than Jehovah.” Among the stalwarts also playing were T.S. Scream (and their offshoot Superball), Green Eggs And Spam, Drt Wagon, and Swingset. Another set of Spenard-area bands sprung up around this time, featuring longtime Anchorage scenester Rick Kinsey, who had played in the Ambassadors and Trauma Groove in the early ‘90s; Mike Holtz, who had previously drummed for Grin, Dr. Zaius, and Hopscotch; and Zall Shedlock former guitarist in the ‘80s thrash-metal band, Hyperthermia.
In August of 1994, the last warehouse run by Trey Wolf or Rex, the Apokcalypse Lounge, came and went in the space of a month, closing due to noise complaints by neighbors and feeble turnouts. However, there were rumblings of things to come when Justin Dexter and Chris Beavers’ noise-band Buttafuoco lit themselves and their instruments on fire. About a year later, in a show at the UAA Pub, Buttafuoco lit a vacuum cleaner on fire, and drove it around the hardwood floor, damaging it, and were banned from the venue.
Around the same time Apokcalypse Lounge was shutting down, Dylan Buchholdt and partner Dave Kincaid were opening Mea Culpa, a cafe and live music venue on Fireweed Lane. Mea Culpa was very popular with music fans of all stripes and all ages, and shows by Swingset, the jazz group Sasparilla, The Phillipino Haircut, and Green Eggs and Spam were well-attended
Some bands had a few things to say about Mea Culpa, however. “It was kind of yuppie to us,” says singer Sam Calhoun. One night, at the end of a sweaty, rockin’ set, Calhoun and members of her band, Phillipino Haircut, purposely threw up on stage and in the bathroom. They were kicked out of Mea Culpa indefinitely. “We actually tried to projectile vomit on stage,” Calhoun recalls. “It was just [us] being young and being punk.” Many of the up-and-coming scenesters would go to Mea Culpa every day and just hang out, and drink coffee, and never missed a show on the weekends. Mea Culpa received numerous noise and violence complaints, however, and had shut down by the end of 1994, leaving the Java Joint on Spenard Road virtually the only remaining music venue.
The Underground Bar had shut down for good in the fall of 1993, after Duane Monsen from Broke was killed inside the bar. Monson had been involved in an altercation early in the evening with a couple of drunk and belligerent patrons, and was later stabbed. From all accounts, The Underground quickly lost its appeal, and its patrons.
Author’s Note: Stay tuned, as the history of Anchorage’s underground continues with the rise and fall of Gigs Music Theatre, kids doin’ it for themselves at UAA, and heathens and Christians square off.
The Decline of Northern Civilization, Part 2
By Josh Medsker
Originally published in the Anchorage Press, Vol. 9, Ed. 43, October 26-November 1, 2000
When Mea Culpa shut down at the end of 1994, the local music scene stagnated. There were a lot of bands fresh from the previous spring’s Kincaid Bunker festival, “Bigger Than Jehovah,” but they had virtually nowhere to play.
Basically two clubs were available: The Java Joint on Spenard and Benson, where bands like Dr. Zaius, Beefadelphia, and Bytet performed, and The Captain’s Club beneath the Beef and Sea Restaurant in Midtown. Heavy rockers 36 Crazyfists played their first shows at the Captain’s Club, as did T.C. Ottinger’s brand new roots-rock band, Hopscotch.
The drought of local music venues ended in March of 1995, when Gigs Music Theater opened.
THE GLORY YEARS REDUX: 1995-1997
Gigs was owned and run by Mike Sidon, Scott Emery, and later Mark Romick. Gigs, along with the Java Joint and the UAA Pub, were pillars in the local music scene for the next several years, though Gigs intended to be more mainstream than it turned out to be. “It kind of gravitated toward being a punk rock place,” says Emery.
Gigs thrived at first, with shows from the sloppy, classic punk band Phillipino Haircut, the hardcore Beefadelphia, Hopscotch, 36 Crazyfists, the ska/punk band McSpic, the unclassifiable, insanely loud Contour Chair, the rap-rockin’ Freedom ‘49, and the punk trio Liquid Bandade.
In the beginning of 1995, things seemed to be looking up, but during the summer, even with the heady new Gigs scene, longtime bands such as Kaos AK, Beefadelphia, and Tuesday Weld, began breaking up left and right. Some bands, like T.S. Scream and 36 Crazyfists, fled to the lower 48.
Renewed enforcement of a decades old curfew law–1 a.m. for those under 18–didn’t help any. It got to the point where cops were hanging around Denny’s looking to bust kids.
By the beginning of 1996, there was conflict between local punk rock bands and their hard-core fans, and younger kids who saw Gigs as more of a hangout than a legitimate venue. In retrospect, some say the punk bands were elitists and didn’t support anyone other than their friends and themselves. Others say they didn’t want to be hanging out with a bunch of 15-year-old kids who were just going to Gigs because it was ‘the thing to do,’ rather than see bands. Whatever the reason, the friction meant trouble for Gigs.
Gigs also had a skinhead problem in January 1996, when Subjugated Youth and G.F.Y. were pepper-sprayed by two skins at a 36 Crazyfists show. The entire top floor of the club filled with the spray, and clubgoers stampeded down the stairs, while the bands rushed to get their friends some water.
There was also a spike in heavy drug use in the local music scene. Heroin was the drug of choice. Several local bands, such as the Mainliners and Legitimate Edgar, had members who were messed up on heroin.
“Having the junkie look was almost fashionable,” says Sam Calhoun. “There was a lot of that stuff going on back then. A lot of potential and real musical talent went to shit because of smack.”
Although bands like Liquid Courage and Subjugated Youth continued to play constantly throughout ‘96 and ‘97, and were the two most popular bands for the bulk of the time Gigs was open, the heart of the local scene was either dead or dying.
After nearly two years of solid shows, Liquid Bandade called it quits at the end of ‘96, due to internal band struggles. A few new bands appeared at the beginning of 1997, such as Die Klout, Nowhere Fast, the Strokers, the Fred Savages, and the El Santos 3, all of whom played well-received shows at the UAA Pub, and short-lived Roosevelt Café next to ‘Koot’s.
D.I.Y., BABY: 1997-2000
By mid-1997, the local music scene lacked a cohesive center. Gigs was floundering, bands were splitting up, and no new warehouse had opened since 1994. Ben Roberts, from Nowhere Fast, felt that Gigs had become too mainstream. “What Gigs did, inadvertently, was destroy the warehouse scene. By having two shows a week, every week, there was no reason for anyone to rent a warehouse, and get a P.A., and throw a big show, because you could just go to Gigs.”
Enter the UAA Coffee Club: The Club had been inactive for several years, and the money allotted to fund the club’s activities was about to be reabsorbed by the University until it was discovered by Roberts. The Club threw its first show in March 1998.
Later that summer, another new club opened up in the back of south Anchorage’s New Directions Church. Holy Grounds catered to the growing number of Christian-oriented alt-rock and punk rock bands, such as Arsis, God Helping Alison, and *Subject To Change. But a rift developed between the punk and Christian bands, and neither group seemed to give the other any slack. Only a few groups, such as the Roman Candles, with both Christian and non-Christian members, were able to bridge the gap.
Gigs shut down in August of 1998. And while no one was looking, or cared anymore, the Java Joint (now The Firehouse Café) was torn down. (Like Mea Culpa before it, it’s now a pawn shop.)
By the end of 1997, more of Anchorage’s seminal underground bands had moved away. Trey Wolf left Anchorage in October of 1997 and eventually settled in New Orleans with his wife, Emily Harris, a member of Cucumber Lang. Rex shut down his shop and left the state about the same time. Freedom 49 left for Los Angeles. Craig from Liquid Bandade moved to Hollywood to work on his new stand-up comedy career, and from last reports is working several nights a week at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
Some faces from “back in the day” remain, such as T.C. Ottinger, who has a new band, the Tall Cool Ones, with Joey Fender. Ottinger feels that a lot of the current disinterest in the local scene is warranted because bands have become boring. “You gotta put on a fucking show,” says Ottinger. “I don’t care if you have to strip down to your skivvies to do it.” Also, after a two-year hiatus, nearly all the original members of T.S. Scream are back playing together. From 1995 to 1998, T.S. Scream played and lived in Portland, breaking up in 1998 when lead singer Steve Mashburn moved back to Alaska. Guitarist Scott Ferris returned to Anchorage in May 1996. Gil X followed suit soon after. With the addition of a new bass player, T.S. Scream made a triumphant return to the stage in August of this year. New bands have sprung up lately, such as Crypto Fascist Clowns, Billy DirtCult, Sinking Feeling, the Born Losers and Fats Tunamelt and Friendz (with ex-Phillipino Haircut and Green Eggs and Spam members). There have been a lot of good shows lately, by Mallaka, and Parallax, and Yolanda and The Starlites.
And, expatriates 36 Crazy Fists recently inked a deal with Roadrunner Records to record three albums, and tour. It seems some of the old excitement for local music has returned after a long hiatus. Whether it takes off again is anybody’s guess.
It’s hard to determine what exactly causes some scenes to thrive while others wither. Maybe it takes being connected to the rest of the country, or not having your creative energy drained by the long, dismal winters. Sometimes it takes just one person to put their ass on the line. That one person will inspire someone else to start the band they’d always wanted, or the ‘zine they’d always wanted, and something, somehow gets started. Lindow says 36 Crazy Fists will return to tour Alaska, after they tour Outside. “We’ll be from Alaska forever,” he says. It’s difficult to put into words what Anchorage does to people… I still haven’t come to any solid conclusion. I think it’s got some sort of shambling, unsophisticated beauty that people love. You know, frontier spirit and all that crap.
Dedicated to the memories of J.D. Stuart, Duane Monsen, Billy Rasey, Cody Hughes, and everyone who couldn’t be here to reminisce.