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February 14, 2017

Book Notes - David A. Ensminger "Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, IL, 1973-2005"

Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, IL, 1973-2005

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David A. Ensminger's Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, IL, 1973-2005 melds musical and personal history in this fascinating book.

Third Coast Review wrote of the book:

". . . .while his story may mostly take place in this distant exurb of Chicago, its communal tales and universal sound will resonate with everyone."

In his own words, here is David A. Ensminger's Book Notes music playlist for his book Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, IL, 1973-2005:

Writing Out of the Basement partly stemmed from my need to eulogize those I have lost on the punk path over the years -- the local kids in the black hole. Punk icons like Green Day bask in the limelight of crammed stadiums, but many people have been relegated to the dustbins. Also, I feel people in the Midwest have a different, all-encompassing relationship to music, likely due to prolonged, battering winters that sweep across the flatlands and sideswipe well-worn homes. When one has nothing but hours on end, playing LPs, making homemade cassettes, and smashing a drum kit are not just distracting pastimes, they are a lifeline – a coping mechanism and way of enduring the world.

I don't think a single day slips by me without some kind of soundtrack. Music remains so essential. Think about it. One's heart and circulatory system have rhythm, one's gait and manner of walking have rhythm, one's speech and modes of talking have rhythm, hopefully one's sexual adventures have rhythm (imagine sex without rhythm, how inconvenient and weird), and typing on this very keyboard has rhythm. Hence, when I sketched out the book in my mind, it flowed with music, right from the get-go, forming a hidden sonic territory that fit like a glove atop the narrative. Here are some samples below.

"1969" by the Stooges
When I first began to play music at home, I practiced a sense of "making do" with material on-hand -- now known more popularly as the backbone of Do-It-Yourself culture. I bought one cheap snare drum down the street from a wiry-haired, weed-inhaling, Dungeons and Dragons playing teenager, then rigged up pots and pans alongside it with some empty plastic gallon drums from the local potato chip factory. This was my … drum set. Eventually, my father drove me north to the verdant southern rim of Wisconsin where he took me to a farmhouse with a small wooden jazz kit from the 1940s sitting in an idle room. He bought it, and I returned home, brimming with confidence. First, I attempted "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly, but I soon felt more in sync with "1969" by the Stooges, which me sister routinely played. That wild-ass, distorted-beyond-belief, chanting and clattering psych-punk song became the first tune I could play beginning-to-end in front of my bewildered mother.

"He's a Whore" by Cheap Trick
When I was a boy, these boys were local heroes -- the band name was embossed on the back of black jackets everywhere, their music always blasting from jukeboxes blinking in otherwise damp basements. They released a million songs, it seemed like, that highlighted Bun E. Carlos as the human metronome – so firm and fierce on drums; Tom Petersson as the handsome, swashbuckling bassist; Robin Zander as the crystalline-voiced commodore; and Rick Nielsen as the chameleon. He wore myriad gauche sweaters, exulted in facial contortions beyond belief, and swooped his arms in a windmill, like Pete Townshend of the Who. Punks loved them aplenty, including the singers of Negative Approach, Adolescents, and more. Cheap Trick were the hidden link between power-pop's effusive musicality and bold punk gumption, as evidenced in this dark tune that Big Black lethally covered.

"Home of the Brave" by Naked Raygun
Naked Raygun were tribal elders from Chicago that finally garnered some belated attention in 2015 by opening for Foo Fighters at humongous Soldier's Field. They began as wonky, off-kilter, experimental punkers welcomed by the students at the Art Institute of Chicago, attended by my brother, but quickly morphed into a powder keg of tuneful, anthemic, chainsaw-guitar punk along the lines of the Buzzcocks, Chelsea, and Stiff Little Fingers, bands they deeply admired. I once traveled to see them in Dekalb, IL (separated from Rockford by fields where German POWs used to harvest produce for canneries during the summers of late World War II). Though 300 people teemed into the rented hall to see the band, I snuck behind one of the PA stacks, where I stood alone and watched the band demonstrate their uncanny, prolific knack for catchy, spirited music. Soon, in my vain attempt to look like the singer Jeff Pezzati, I began wearing sweaters and combat boots. Punker-than-thou kids from rougher neighborhoods threw soda cans at me in the high school halls. I learned punk is not one big happy family, yet soon I was in a cover band, drumming on Misfits cover songs with the same lads. "Home of the Brave" is a powerful, succinct tale of young people leaving for better places and time – the kind of choice I made when leaving Rockford to venture to New Mexico in 1993. Musically, it embodies their classic guitar chops, Pezzati's whooping yowls, and Eric Spicer's pummeling drums effortlessly syncopated in brief bursts. It still leaves me breathless.

"Takin' a Ride" by the Replacements
For anybody remotely Midwestern, the Replacements are one of the uber-punk bands of the 1980s. They stuck one foot in trammeled, garage rock detritus, the other in a kind of powerful roots music that would not fully raise its head until the middle of their botched "career." Their 1981 album Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash is a loud volley of brash teenage snot-smeared punk ("I'm A Customer" "I Hate Music" "Rattlesnake") mixed with indelibly earnest adult visions ("Johnny's Gonna Die" "Kick Your Door Down" ‘"Raised in the City") that act as mini-cinemas of life in the crowded solitudes of the north. I was not able to see them life until they played a vintage, ornate theatre in Rockford during the late 1980s, when their career had begun to plateau and energy wane. I desperately wanted to hear some of their freshman fare, so I kept yelling "Otto" to their puzzled bass player Tommy. Of course, they ignored my pleas. So, after a handful of exhausting minutes, I screamed "Alex Chilton." One song later, bassist Tommy winked at me, and they burst out with that tune, about a renegade rocker from Memphis. But this opening salvo from their first album still makes me feel déjà vu for the Midwest.

"Rock the Casbah" The Clash
I was a HUGE fan of the Clash, a young boy who stayed up beyond curfew to watch them on the Concert for Kampuchea and then wept slightly, because the fluid reggae of "Armagideon Time" was not the slice of punk rancor I expected. For years, I sat in my sister's pink bedroom, whose walls were adorned with posters of David Bowie and Rachel Sweet, with my headphones plugged into her stereo, belting out Psychedelic Furs, 999, Iggy Pop, and the Clash. Later, circa 1989/90, when the Clash had become, um, passé, I rediscovered the Combat Rock album's mystique when fleshing out this tune with my pals Erik and Weasel (who went on to form the free-jazz punk wonkers The Flying Luttenbachers), which we cut live to tape in my parent's basement while forging some of our own weird ska-punk ventures ala the Offs. This song seems timely as ever, even more potent, given repercussions of the Arab Spring. I still believe that rock'n'roll can be the backbone of revolution, and the shareef still won't like it.

"Name In Mind" by Soulside
The Washington D.C. scene, the likes of Government Issue, Dag Nasty, Kingface, Shudder to Think, and Soulside, all of whom gigged in Rockford, made a huge impact on sections of the underground music scene. A few of Rockford's most notable kids actually zoomed out to the East Coast to experience the Dischord Records phenomena first-hand, as if on a pilgrimage. Before the Soulside gig, the band landed at the house of my band's (Insight) singer, Chris Furney. We promptly let them take over the back garage, our practice space, where they churned through some new material destined to blossom on their Soon Come Happy album. I sat on the floor for almost an entire hour watching each of them tentatively tackle grooves until they grew restless and jumped over to the half pipe sitting in the adjacent neighbor's backyard for some skateboard kicks. Just last year, I sat on a panel with Soulside singer Bobby Sullivan at the Woody Guthrie Center; later that night, a coterie of us ended up a local dive bar, where a young punk DJ tossed this tune on his spinning record player. Though Sullivan had sequestered himself on the back patio, I excitedly grabbed him, and yanked him to the dance floor, where he lip-synced the whole song, never missing a portion, smiling like Buddha, just a block away from where the Sex Pistols played in 1978. It was a surreal and sublime moment.

"Power to the Amplifier" by Trenchmouth
The band would have remained terribly obscure had not their nimble, explosive drummer Fred Armisen gone on to become a millennial superstar whose exploits on Saturday Night Live! and on the hipster program Portlandia have become memes ("Put a bird on it!"). Plus, singer Damon Locks, a pioneer of black punk in the heartland, is also an infectiously talented artist who made the album art for Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In. Nothing really compares to the tumult unleashed by the crew—dollops of Third World rhythms, jazz slanted akimbo, punk ferocity, and tailor-made abstract poesy. They became part of the regular borderline circuit, gigging in the Rockford/Beloit area for years when not spreading themselves nationally. Like Fishbone and Mars Volta, they attracted diverse listeners, not just the usual craven and carved-up punks. Though I saw them in New Mexico and other locales, nothing can replace those moments caught freeze frame in time, when they shredded the Rockford night with their unique, tumultuous tunes that landed somewhere between the Contortions and Beefeater, forcing everyone to re-think the parameters of punk.

"Mannequin" by Wire
Wire had a profound impact on punk that criss-crosses the coasts: in D.C., Minor Threat and Dag Nasty vehemently covered "12XU" (a tune that that became a template for hardcore punk by accident) and Second Wind covered "Mr. Suit," while on the West Coast bands like the Minutemen re-purposed Wire's sense of urgency, no frills (no solos, no bullshit) truncated tunes, and added L.A. punk trauma, roots rock fervor, and jazzy spiels. In fIREHOSE, former Minuteman bass player Mike Watt paid homage by covering "Mannequin." I choose it here because I played in a band called Pink Flag (the name of Wire's debut LP in 1977), which did not survive long, but covered the entire album, tune by tune. Singing for the unit was Paul Kissick of PineWood Box, one of my idols. The first "audience" experience I ever played was a basement gig by the river, where I stepped behind the drumset to play "Nervous Breakdown" by Black Flag with some of the band. Even though I was no more than 14 or so, they welcomed me to the fray, and I have been on the path ever since. Kissick was brutally killed in a bizarre incident, but his kindness, humor, poetics, and gusto stay with me. I can still hear his faux British accent as he blurted out this tune when we opened up for a heavy metal band that stared at us as if we were foreign objects.

"Skate" by PineWood Box
Kissick led previous bands like the Zero-Types, Near Mrs., and Juicy Fiancé, but for me PineWood remains his crowning achievement. At the helm, he exuded intoxicating flair and became a legend because he rejected defeatism, avoided rock clichés (he was never a cranky asshole), and was always restless. Their early tunes combined Southern California-slanted surf punk with trembling first stage Cure as well as the shattering guitar tones of 1970's Dead Boys. Later, though, they channeled Bauhaus, 45 Grave, and Sisters of Mercy. However, the nervy, agitated "Skate" narrates the skateboard death-trip of Tommy by eventually unfurling Cramps-like rockabilly romp. Like bands soaking up the heady, mishmash, fluid years of 1974-1978, PineWood Box pulled from a variety of antecedents, bolted together different aesthetics and sounds, and squashed the borders of genres. They seemed to change their music whenever the mood, impetus, or desire felt right. This puts them in the vein of the Clash, Buzzcocks, Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and more. Plus, the band's modus operandi -- campy B movie, monster matinee movie aesthetics – was unforgettable, including publicity photos atop graves or flyers awash in images of menacing ghouls in top hats or cobwebbed nocturnal cityscapes. They were rogue rockers.

"Groupthink" by War on the Saints
By and large, War on the Saints were local heroes too that stepped aside from the usual punk performance templates and boxed-in categories. At first, they were known as We Hate Cake and led by the cantankerous street poet Chris "Buzzsaw" Gaffney (RIP), who was as much Charles Bukowski as he was a rock'n'roll form of decontrol shaped by the history of Detroit rock city. Then Vince Jumapao took over, and the band mutated from straight-ahead garage rockers to War on the Saints, well, ahead of its time and difficult to stamp. They mixed masterly drums, exotic guitars, tough bass, challenging tempos, and vocals reminiscent of Die Kreuzen and Kingface into a unique amalgam. Later on, people might have said, hmm, this doesn't seem far removed from Squirrel Bait or the first album by Soundgarden, but at the time it definitely felt powerful, evocative, and otherworldy. Even stranger, their first EP was released on Positive Force Records, known for its output of 7 Seconds, Verbal Assault, and Youth of Today material. Needless to say, the band continued to find appreciation in Germany and elsewhere, but locally had trouble staying afloat. Still, their resilience, spirit, and approach made a terrific impression on me, even today.

David A. Ensminger and Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, IL, 1973-2005 links:

Dagger Zine review
Razorcake review
Third Coast Review review

Indie Guides interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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