The do-it-yourself tour, from Montana to Manhattan: Sputniks members,from left Richie Rowe, Grady Gadbow, Chad Dundas, roadie Lef Fredrickson, and Zach Dundas.
ONWARD AND UPWARD WITH THE ARTS
How many layers of irony can a punk band endure?
GRADY GADBOW was drawing rocket ships on scrap paper. "When we're as big as the DKs, kids will be drawing these on their lockers at school," he said. By "the DKs" he meant the Dead Kennedys, an early punk band from California whose logo was, according to Grady, "carved into every skateboard in the country for about ten years." By "we" he meant the Sputniks, a present-day punk band from Missoula, Montana, who were at that moment setting off on their 1998 tour-grinding up toward the Continental Divide on a fine late-summer afternoon in a frumpy Ford Econoline van that Richie Rowe, one of the band's guitarists, had just bought from his grandmother. I guessed that Grady's fantasy of massive stardom was a goof-few things are more suspect in the punk underground than commercial success, and deadpan put-ons are, moreover, one of the Sputniks' specialties but, as was often the case, I couldn't be sure. Grady did seem serious when he announced a plan to get a Sputniks rocket ship tattooed on his upper arm, perhaps above a strand of barbed wire, when the band got to New York City.
"I just have to see if these places Chicago, New York-really exist," said Richie.
"They don't," Chad Dundas, the drummer, said firmly.
One reason the byplay among the band members could be hard to read (besides the fact that they are all between the ages of twenty and twenty-three) was that, except for Richie, they are all blood relatives. Zach Dundas, the bassist, is Chad's brother, and Grady is their first cousin. So the concentric circles of intimacy and in-jokes tumbling eastward in the van were exceptionally dense. What they made of a graying guy from New York who barely knew Rancid from Fugazi (two major present- day punk bands), and yet had invited himself on their tour, they were kind enough not to mention. Grady always introduced me, when he had to introduce me, as "the media."
I had not come to Montana because the Sputniks were famous, or were even on the verge of fame. I had come because I knew, vaguely, that there is a world of American kids who love rock and roll but scorn Rolling Stone and Spin and, above all, MTV-kids who get their musical news from Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Punk Planet, and, in Montana, an antic, densely written zine called Shat Upon. Before leaving Missoula, I had tried to assess the Sputniks' place among the thirty-odd local bands-Missoula is a college town (University of Montana), with a busy rock-and-roll scene-but I hadn't learned much. Although rock and roll can be a fractious subculture, full of genres (rockabilly), subgenres (psychobilly), and endless verbal sectarian warfare, all the rock musicians I talked to in Missoula were weirdly polite and uninformative about their colleagues. "The scene's too small," Grady explained. "You can't afford to be too critical." The owner of the town's hippest record shop--a storefront specializing in independent garage and rockabilly labels on vinyl-did say of the Sputniks, "Their music is good, and people here like them, but they don't really do anything to set themselves apart-smash things up, blow fire, play naked." These standard career moves were too obvious, I thought, for a group as irony-sensitive as the Sputniks. But now the band was taking an equally traditional route to greater recognition: D.I.Y. touring.
D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself, just as at Home Depot) is a founding ethic and battle cry of punk, applied to everything from music to magazines and on to clothes and politics and the dark arts of advertising. This democratizing, anti-corporate impulse is the lifeblood of the punk underground, and a major reason that punk survives as a movement more than twenty years after it burst onto-and then faded from-the pop-cultural scene. (It has since reappeared and disappeared several times, in various musical forms.) Punk-spawned D.I.Y. ideology is also the original source of the profusion of small, independent American record labels that emerged in the late nineteen-seventies and continue to thrive. Before punk, rock clubs rarely booked bands that didn't have contracts with one of the big record companies. Today, even unsigned bands, like the Sputniks, can tour and have a fair hope of finding small, like-minded audiences in many parts of the country. Tastes change, both regionally and nationally and I had my doubts about whether the Sputniks' vintage, highly political brand of hardcore punk would travel well beyond Montana-but punk has clearly helped nourish a modern American rite of post-adolescent passage: form a band, get a van, hit the road, play rock and roll for kids you don't necessarily know, sell homemade T-shirts and stickers and self-produced seven-inch records, and hope to make enough to cover expenses. Beneath this sort of modest, scruffy project, great passions and ambitions and cultural currents can, of course, seethe.
But organizing even a modest tour the Sputniks were looking at ten or twelve shows in less than three weeks actually takes some doing. Grady, using contacts gathered from record jackets, bands that had passed through town, and a hundred other tendrils of the punk-rock grapevine, had come up with a rough schedule. Zach had used E-mail to try to nail down more gigs. Meanwhile, the band members all moved out of the house they had been sharing, and three quit their day jobs-Grady as a line cook in a vaguely Asian restaurant in a mall, Chad as the night manager of a gyro shop in the mall, and Richie as a "civil process server," or repo man. Zach, who wanted to hold on to his job, as a reporter on a weekly paper, took a leave of absence. (All four were toiling intermittently toward U.M. degrees, but only Zach's was in sight.) Leif Fredrickson, a Sputnik pal home for the summer from Vassar, decided to come along as the tour's roadie. Thus was the mission launched.
From my banana seat on the floor of the van, I asked about the band's name. The most audible response was from Chad: he said, "This is rocket science," nodding at the stack of amps, guitars, and drums that filled the van.
We sailed through high green hayfields, following the Blackfoot River. At Lincoln, a small town near the Divide, we turned up a dirt road to see where Theodore Kaczynski had lived. Richie suggested that the band play some benefits to help restore the Unabomber's property to its original state-get his cabin back from California, or wherever the F.B.I. took it, turn the place into a historic site. When nobody responded, he told me, "We're always playing benefits for women's clinics and shit."
With Japanese punk storming on the tape deck ("Kung Fu Ramone Culmination Tactic!"), we crossed the Divide and slipped down the east front of the Rockies, arriving in Great Falls at dusk The tour's first gig was in a community theatre near the courthouse. Downtown Great Falls was deserted except for a parking lot next to the theatre, which was full of loitering kids-skaters, punks, blandly dressed girls with sweet, scared faces, all waiting for the show. Richie backed the van up to a door, and the Sputniks started hauling their equipment inside. Zach reported, with relief, that the stage was clear. "We've played here before," he said. "Once they had the set for an Agatha Christie play up, and we had to be careful not to knock over any bookshelves or lamps."
THE Sputniks ripped through "20 Minutes to the Year 2000," a frenzied tune on which Zach appeared determined to destroy his vocal cords:
Dig it, baby, there's a red star rising / Launch a rocket on diesel power / The workers' state will be built in space / From parts we stole down in Mexico
All the band members seemed to mutate when they played, each suddenly acquiring a whole new personality, but none more so than Zach. Offstage, he is wry, gentle, self-mocking, precise. Onstage, he turns into a shrieking, bouncing, furious sprite. He even switches back and forth in the intervals between songs. 'More spurious left-wing politics," I heard him mutter after they crashed out the last power chord of "20 Minutes" (a song he wrote) in Great Falls. "20 Minutes" takes less than two minutes to play, as does almost every Sputnik song. A hostile music critic for the Missoula daily paper once accused the band of trying to "set the land speed record for white noise," but their ultra-fast play is a point of pride. Their songs are nearly all basic three-chord rock, with conventional structures and timing, but their raw energy is meant to electrify listeners like a shot of epinephrine. And the formula seemed to be working in Great Falls, where forty or fifty kids moshed and waved their fists in front of the stage.
I've seen the warning signs of a great big freeze-up coming
And I'm looking forward to it all the time
Don't fuck with the syndicate!
Don't fuck with the syndicate!
"Don't Fuck with the Syndicate" seemed to be known to the crowd, some of whom shouted along with the refrain. It is one of many angry, apocalyptic songs written by Grady and played by the Sputniks. Grady takes personally the rapid, ugly, unplanned growth of his home town-Missoula and its hinterland have become a popular destination for retirees and refugees from the cities-and he does not hesitate to generalize from there. In a song called "Takeover" he roars,
It's one big fucking strip mall
From Sacramento to Pocatello
And half the American workforce
Is wearing paper hats.
(This song used to be called "Fuck You, California," until Chad changed it. "Chad's like the Security Council," Zach explained. "He has a veto.") Grady has the lanky, sharp-featured, long-side-burned charisma of a traditional leading man, and the studded leather belt he wears is about as close as any of the Sputniks get to an old-style rock-star fashion gesture.
Richie, who trades off on lead guitar with Grady, has the band's calmest stage persona-oddly, since he is something of a rowdy pop-off in real life. Although he does play fast and loud, Richie has been known to dissent from the hardcore orthodoxy, enforced among the Sputniks largely by Grady, which says that all songs must be vehement and harsh. He even comes up with songs inspired by his love life, and sometimes manages to get them onto the band's set list. As the tour began, he and Grady were, collaborating on a work in progress, "You'll Get Yours," about "various total pricks we've met." The first verse was about a Missoula police officer who had beaten up Richie's little brother. The second was about a jock type who had recently coldcocked Grady for a smart remark.
Chad, who anchors the band on drums, briskly clicking his sticks to start a song, rivals his big brother, ' Zach (who is half his size), for the onstage-transformation award. Shy and sardonic in conversation, he explodes with emotion when he plays. Chad's big, round face, normally impassive, suddenly becomes an endlessly malleable mask, twisting into ungodly, anguished shapes-expressions I found almost too private to look at-as he flails away, laying down a surprisingly clean, bright, solid rail of a beat for the rest of the band to travel on. Between songs, he, too, reverts to his usual sell; offering gentle banter that feels wildly at odds with the raging musical assaults it intersperses. I winced in Great Falls when Chad, panting, casually plugged, between songs, the Sputniks T-shirts and seven-inch records "on sale from the attractive blond kid near the door" (Leif, who had set up a card table), and even tossed into his spiel an "I might add," which inspired some lout to bellow from the shadows, "You talk too much, fat boy!" Chad seemed unfazed.
Contentious interaction with the audience is a punk-rock tradition. Chad once told me, with a measure of pride, that he had been spit on by Green Day in a club in Missoula before they got famous. (Green Day, a classically obnoxious California "pop punk" band, hit the big time in 1994.) "Mike Dirnt even hit me on the head with his bass," Chad said. "But I think that was an accident." Punk bands have been spitting on audiences, and vice versa, since the seventies, but much of the contention between crowds and performers is so layered with irony and insiderism that it can be incomprehensible to outsiders. For instance, audiences often call out for songs that they don't actually want to hear. "Free Bird," a cornball rock
anthem by Lynyrd Skynyrd, is a favorite gag call-out at punk shows.
The Sputniks closed their set with a number called "Inhibitions," which had kids climbing halfway onto the stage, screaming the refrain, "Fade away! Fade away!" Afterward, I talked to a tall, striking-looking girl in thrift store clothes who said she was a snowboarder and high-school senior and had driven four hours from Billings, where she lived, and which had no musical scene worth mentioning, just to hear the Sputniks, who were one of her favorite bands. "Inhibitions," she said, was their best-known song, and she, for her part, planned to move to Missoula the minute she graduated from high school.
Kids clustered around the van while the band, sweaty and yet extremely cool, reloaded equipment. It had been a fair night at the gate. Leif had sold ninety dollars' worth of gear, and the Sputniks' cut of the door (two other bands were on the bill) had come to eighty. There was a grueling drive ahead-Grady had booked them into a bar in Moorhead, Minnesota, seven hundred and fifty miles away, the next night-but everyone was energized by the set just played. The parking lot cleared as the crowd streamed back inside the theatre to hear the evening's headliners, a grizzled four-piece anarchist outfit from Portland called Detestation. We stood around waiting for Chad to get back from a nearby Hardee's with Cokes. And the sheer strange tenderness of this project, the vulnerability and audacity of these small-town boys taking their do-it-yourself show on the road, into the urban far corners of a huge, indifferent country, suddenly made me shiver in the warm summer night.
"I I SEE these kids, who are so passionate about their music, and have this nationwide word-of-mouth underground, as a classic avant-garde," said Daryl Gadbow, Grady's father, who is a reporter for the Missoula daily paper. "And they're all in the classic bind. They all want to make it-except, if they make it, then they'll have sold out, they'll no longer be cool."
Grady himself said, "A good way to be cool is to be the first one to hate a band. Like I hated Offspring in 1995, and that was early. I loved 'em in '91, but by '95 they were already cheesy, and I knew it." The success/cheesiness problem is all but inescapable, in Grady's view, but turning against a beloved band is actually no joke-it's painful. Rancid, which came out of the same fertile late-eighties East Bay (California) punk scene as Green Day did, once played music that "just rocked," said Grady, and there was no higher praise in his lexicon. "Then they got all big and slick and totally changed. They got into this cheesy thing, just trying to sell more records. Now I hate 'em. They really hurt my feelings."
Some kids take such feelings to extremes. An all-ages club in Berkeley called 924 Gilman Street has been the center of the East Bay punk scene for more than a decade. A few years ago, when Jello Biafra, the charismatic front man for the Dead Kennedys in their heyday, dropped by Gilman Street, he was set upon and savagely beaten by a group of young punks who decided he must have "sold out."
Grady has a theory about why commercially successful bands get cheesy. "I think it's just the easy, decadent life they end up leading," he says. "They have nothing to do all day but sit around and play music." To the uninitiated, that might sound like a formula for improving one's music. But musicianship has never been an untrammelled value in rock and roll, and certainly not in hardcore punk. Rawness, anger, excitement these cherished assets can be obscured by refined technique. I was struck by the emphasis on catharsis even at a practice session of the Sputniks I watched in Missoula. The session was held in a tiny basement space, where the roar was genuinely deafening and individual performances seemed, at least to me, utterly lost. The starts and stops were crisp, but the point, overwhelmingly, was the group effort, the ferocious scrum, and at the end of each song there were guilty little contented laughs and murmurs.
"Yeah, brought some stuff up on that one."
In Grady's view, the problem for a punk band when it's leading the easy, rock-star life is that the band soon has nothing to say. "Because they don't have to scramble to survive, they lose their hard edge, which is usually what made them good in the first place." Many punks, Grady said, believe in "a major label conspiracy-that these big music companies will get hold of a good band and convince them to play stupid bland shit to sell records." The truth, he suggests, is that successful bands simply lose their street cred.
There was another way to go, Grady insisted. It was possible for a band to build a following by D.I.Y. touring and word of mouth, then sign with a small independent label and make enough money so that band members could quit their day jobs, but without going commercial and
selling out. We were sitting in a Missoula bar listening to a band from Tucson called the Weird Lovemakers while Grady sketched this career path for me. The Weird Lovemakers themselves might be examples of longevity with integrity through modest success, he thought- they all looked to be around thirty.
While Grady was speaking, a steady stream of young women found their way to him and demanded his attention for a hug. This was obviously another attraction of the business. As Chad later put it, "You'll know you're a rock star when your second album is full of songs about how
you're tired of all these groupie hos."
ONE Missoula band, the Skoidats, hit the jackpot not long ago and signed with a New York label. To hear the Sputniks tell it, there had rarely been a more sickening development. The Skoi-
dats were hardly even a real band. What happened was that two Rude Boys- these are guys who wear porkpie hats and narrow neckties and generally seek to emulate a mid-sixties Jamaican subculture of the same name-came down from Helena. Like all Rude Boys, they were into ska-a pre-reggae Jamaican feel-good music that has had several revivals. "Helena is the ska capital of Montana," Zach explained, then added, "which is kind of like being the tallest guy in the dwarf circus." The Rude Boys were looking for a horn section-all ska bands must have a horn section-and they recruited two guys from the U.M. band, plus a hippie kid named Gardner for the drums, and they started dressing the three of them in little suits and teaching them to play ska. All ska bands sound the same, basically, but, as ska bands go, the Skoidats were pretty good. Then ska got hot, and A. & R. scouts started scouring the countryside for ska bands, and, the next thing anybody knew, the Skoidats were signed up and moving to New Jersey and booked on a national tour.
Even more worrisome, in its way, was a recent explosion in the popularity of punk. The Vans Warped Tour, a coast-to-coast, corporate-sponsored summer extravaganza starring, among other bands, Rancid, is just the latest example of what hardcore punks regard as the rampant commodification of punk's once subversive message. Of course, most of the big-name bands are not hardcore but pop punk"bands with no guts," as Grady explained. "Bands like NOFX, who slow things down, maybe throw in a little ska breakdown, something that sounds like polka, some showoff guitar solos, a little this, a little that, none of it for any reason, just to be catchy, just to sell records. Their playing isn't solid." He shrugged, disgusted.
Actually, the Sputniks are not of one mind about these (or many other) matters. Grady is the purist about hardcore, always trying to sharpen and define the band's "sound." He has occasionally purged from the Sputniks' repertoire any compositions deemed unduly "emo": this was the name given to a brief musical reaction to early punk's non-stop biliousness, and the term survives as a synonym for "sentimental" or "arty." Richie thought the song-list purge had been a mistake. "Because some of those songs were good, and we'll never get them back, because they're not written down anywhere," he told me. Grady seemed more concerned about how the crowds on tour would perceive their sound. "The emo guys will hate us," he said. "And some people will hate us because they'll think we're pop punk. That's because of the wackachicka-the strumming pattern we use." He demonstrated the wackachicka. I asked what made the Sputniks not pop punk. "We're not too slick and cheesy," Grady said testily. "And we don't fail to rock"
Then there are the band's politics. Though many of the Sputniks' songs advocate revolution and anarchy and "class war," it's not always easy to tell what percentage of that is tongue-incheek. They sometimes play up the Soviet connection to their name: in a photograph on the sleeve of one of their records, the band is holding up a U.S.S.R. flag, and the address on the sleeve says "Republic of Montana." But Zach, who once studied Russian, has visited some of the former Soviet republics and harbors no illusions about the region's regimes, past or present.
And while some of Grady's lyrics may look forward, somewhat didactically, as in "Don't Fuck with the Syndicate," to "the inevitability of a class struggle," these aren't necessarily band-wide sentiments. Richie, for instance, "has no politics whatsoever," according to Grady. "His dad offered him forty bucks to vote for Bob Dole, and he did it." Richie didn't deny the story, except to add, 'But he never paid me!"
If the Sputniks were looking at their 1998 tour as more than a chance to expand their horizons and let some new people hear their music-looking at it, perhaps, as a chance to be discovered by some big-city A. & R. scout-they definitely weren't telling me about it. Other kids were less discreet. The snowboarder girl from Billings who came to see them in Great Falls, after hearing that I was "the media," dropped her cool-chick reserve and gushed, "They're one of the best bands coming out of Montana right now. I really hope they get signed, I do."
FROM Great Falls, we drove all night on two-lane roads, going east through moonlit grasslands, past farflung ranches, through one-horse towns called Moccasin and Mosby and Jordan and Circle, across the Musselshell River. Orange lightning glowed and fired off to the south. Zach, who was driving, kept himself awake by telling me about his travels in Estonia and Russia. He mentioned that there were a lot of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Missoula, and some consequent "Russophobia." Every time a car was stolen, certain locals blamed the new immigrants another reason for the band to ally itself with that Cold War bogey Sputnik.
Dawn broke as we ghosted through a canyon of badlands into Glendive. We all tripped into a truck stop for breakfast. Those who had slept were groggy. Those who had not were giddy. Zach was bouncing in his chair, weirdly ebullient, laughing at everything.
North Dakota got steadily less funny, though, as we drove the great, bright, flat length of it. We were now on Interstate 94. At a pit stop near Jamestown, we stumbled into a convenience store, where Richie took offense at the grinning enthusiasm of the guys behind the counter. "What the hell are they smiling about?" he asked me. "This is spooky. I know a lot of people who have to do this shit, but I've never seen anybody happy about being in this line of work before."
In his glowering disgust I thought I detected the germ of a Sputniks song.
And the next morning, listening to a hideous extended blast of feedback at the end of a Fugazi song, "By You," off an album called "Red Medicine," while sitting outside a row of cheap new condos in the ganglionic sprawl south of Fargo, North Dakota, I thought I heard something else. The feedback suited my mood precisely. I found I was actually enjoying its harsh, inhuman complaint. The question was why. The Sputniks had made it in time to the gig in Moorhead, Minnesota-which is across the state line from Fargo-and they had played well, despite their exhaustion. The show had been in a bar, with a very drunk, moderately hip crowd, and Grady had smoothly teased the crowd with Montana shtick about the Unabomber and militia camps. He had introduced a ferocious, gun-happy rant called "Firepower"-which he had once described to me as "a poem about my arsenal"-by saying, This is a good old Montana song. My dad used to sing this to me when I was a little kid." The set kicked, and the band's cut of the door was, by its standards, grand--a hundred and ten dollars. After the bar closed, there had been a round of parties (it was Saturday night)-a carousal from which I checked out early, in favor of sleep.
The Sputniks had finally crashed on the floor of a condo belonging to the mother of the drummer in a Missoula punk band called Fireballs of Freedom, whose members came originally from Fargo. That was how we came to be in the endless strip mall south of the city. The anonymous, new construction bleakness of the area was epic. It was a sweltering, car-dotted plain of randomly arranged office parks, drive-in banks, a Country Furniture Clearance Center, blocks of condos, billboards, and brand new Lutheran churches that looked like discarded rocket parts. "This was all farmland five years ago," said Gator, one of the Fireballs. "Now it's just more fucking 'Brady Bunch' suburbia." Gator and the other Fireballs had come back to Fargo temporarily to make money, they said. Wages were shitty here, but not as shitty as in Missoula, and rents were lower.
So this was the physical setting-and it wasn't all that different from the stripmall sprawl south and west of Missoula that so incensed Grady-in which angry, prolonged feedback suddenly became pleasing music in my ears. It mattered that I had been hanging around with the Sputniks, all of whom had worked at minimum-wage jobs in strip mall land for years. In any case, at that moment the nihilist fury of punk made complete intuitive sense to me. Fuck all this shit, I thought-just vaguely aware that this incoherent obscenity was a common punk trope.
Cultural historians sometimes talk about a "punk moment," by which they usually mean the emergence in Britain around 1976 of bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash. But punk is a complex, durable, and transnational response to the pains of post-industrial adolescence, and its moment never quite seems to pass. There was actually a wave of New York punk, led by bands like the Ramones and Blondie and Patti Smith, before the British explosion, and it, too, had plenty of precursors, such as the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, and, in England, the early Stones and T Rex. There have been many waves and wavelets and variations since, with punk providing essential inspiration for numerous other rock genres, including grunge, thrash, and speed metal. In the end, though, punk's interest is probably less musical than cultural. Its original base in Britain was a potent mixture of impoverished working-class rage and middle-class art-student alienation. In this country, it flourished first in the urban avant-garde and then slowly found a devoted following among pissed-off white kids in suburbs and small towns. Vague (and not so vague) generational grievance, self-loathing, acute confusion, a sense of millennial dispossession-all these remain essential to punk's appeal.
For aspiring punk rockers, as for gangsta rappers, a lousy childhood-or, at least, the rumor of one-is de rigueur. The official biographies of the East Bay punk bands who have recently hit it big all emphasize single mothers, juvenile delinquency, youthful alcoholism, and members who formerly lived in illegal squats or on the streets. Once Zach and I were talking about a band called the Makers, who are admired by the Sputniks. "They're from Spokane," he said. "It's such a shitty, white-trash city, and they're from the shittiest part of it-this neighborhood people call Felony Flats." These humble beginnings obviously hadn't hurt the Makers' viability as tribunes of the disenfranchised. The Sputniks had no comparable credentials-indeed, Chad once described the band to me as "pathetically middle class"-and yet their musical hearts were in the right (hardcore) place. They might sound at first-they did sound at first-like a thousand other loud, unintelligible punk bands. But I was growing fond of some of their songs. I was even beginning to share, I decided there in Fargo, some of the low-grade, florid depression that helped it all make sense.
As a cost-cutting measure, the Sputniks were now eating mustard sandwiches. We were heading into Minneapolis. "You know who the stupidest band of all time was?" Grady asked me. He answered his own question: "The Doors." I was startled. When I was fifteen, the Doors were my favorite band. "Their songs meant absolutely nothing," Grady declared. How
strange, I thought. To me and my friends, "When the Music's Over" had meant absolutely everything. "And you know who the second-stupidest band of all time was?" Grady asked. I dreaded to know. "The Grateful Dead." The Dead had been my favorite band in college.
I once asked Zach if there were any good punk love songs.
"There's one I like," he said. "It's by Jawbreaker, called 'Chesterfield King.' It's about sharing a cigarette at the beginning of a relationship. It's really beautiful." He paused. "Of course, then there are a couple of other songs, like sequels, about the relationship going to hell."
We rolled into downtown Minneapolis. It was a Sunday afternoon. The Sputniks' gig was at an all-ages club behind a coffeehouse in a refurbished loft district. The band was first on the evening's bill, expected to start playing at the absurdly early hour of 6 RM. There was almost no one around.
The Sputniks seemed nervous as they began to play. A few kids had drifted into the big, bare room behind the coffeehouse. Some were clean-cut, others heavily pierced and punked out. They all looked as if they spent a lot of time here. "We're the Sputniks. We're from Missoula, Montana," Grady said. Nobody gave any sign of having heard of Missoula. The band played a couple of crashingly fast, tight songs. The crowd response was muted, but a few more kids drifted in. Grady tried some Montana patter, which got no laughs. The, next couple of songs got a few people dancing, including a pretty girl in satin shorts and a leg cast. Panting between songs, Zach said, "We need a place to stay tonight." Grady added, "So take us home, and we'll tell you all the weird and wonderful things we know." A bunch of boys in aloha shirts and thrift-store hats-members of the band that would headline that evening-started amusing themselves in the back with exaggerated dance steps. They called out for songs that no punk band would play: " 'Sweet Home Alabama!'" "'Feel Like Makin' Love!"
Richie introduced a tune called "Dishpit Warrior" by asking, "Anybody here wash dishes for a living?" No hands went up. Richie was incredulous. 1 don't fucking believe it," he muttered. All the Sputniks (and Leif, too) had washed dishes for a living. ("Ask that in Missoula," Richie told me wonderingly after the show, "and three-fourths of the crowd raise their hands.") In Minneapolis restaurants, apparently, it was Mexicans and Ethiopians who washed the dishes, not middle-class white kids. The refrain of "Dishpit Warrior" goes, "Dishpit warrior! Class war!" It's monotonal and harsh but catchy. The band then decided to play "Inhibitions," even though Grady had told me that they'd played it in Great Falls only because the crowd there insisted, and certainly the song didn't fit with the sound they were after now. The Minneapolis crowd didn't know the song, of course, and they didn't shout along with the refrain, "Fade away! Fade away!" But the band did a fine, rousing version, I thought, with all three guitarists turning to face Chad as he took up the vocal, singing, "Is there anybody out there? Everybody's too scared to move!"
By the end of the set, the boys' nervousness had passed. They were sweaty, cocky, bright-eyed. The girl in the satin shorts and leg cast whooped and clapped. Most of the crowd joined in. And a kid named Dave, from a band called the Misfires, who were set to play next, invited us to sleep at his house.
I HAD changed my mind. The Sputniks did need to stoop to theatrics to set themselves apart from all the other bands out there. Smashing things up, blowing fire, playing naked-O.K., they were old hat. What about bottle rockets? The band actually had a history with these wicked little fireworks. Grady had been thrown out of their last house in Missoula after an indoor bottle-rocket fight, and Richie had once burned himself after an unsuccessful attempt to fire a bottle rocket "out of his butt." This trick involved wedging the stick on which a bottle rocket is mounted between some drunken daredevil's buttocks; it had enjoyed a brief vogue among Missoula's punk rockers. Could the Sputniks perhaps fire bottle rockets out of their butts onstage? The band considered this notion silently. We were riding in the van through muggy green Wisconsin dairyland. Nobody seemed much excited. Could the bottle-rocket butt trick, I asked, be performed sober?
"That's pretty much out of the question," Grady said.
We had stayed a second night in Minneapolis, and the band had managed to get itself onto the bill at the coffeehouse again, opening for 88 Fingers Louie, a well-known punk band from Chicago. But the take had been terrible--twenty-five dollars the first night, ten dollars the second, and negligible record and T-shirt sales. Zach, who was in charge of tour finances, recording income and expenses, declared, in the middle of a desultory political discussion, "We're just petit-bourgeois capitalists ourselves." After a beat, he added, "On this trip, so far, tres petit." The band was now eating almost nothing but mustard sandwiches. When we stopped for gas near a Sam Goody's, I suggested they try to sell a few records to the store they had sold records to several music stores in Minneapolis. "Sam Goody's doesn't sell anything without a bar code," Chad said. (Not so, I later learned.)
But wasn't "music," in fact, almost beside the point? Watching the Sputniks as they toured, seeing them get up and perform their swift, disciplined blasts of brutal sound in town after town, I had at times been put in mind of a travelling martial-arts troupe. Much as I had come to like some of their songs, I found in them none of the tenderness, playfulness, or soulfulness that people usually look for in "music." Their sets were super-aggressive pieces of male display. Local females were meant to appreciate them-hence a rising tide of groupie jokes in the van. As we moved now into bigger cities, the band's performances also had another, more tentative aspect-a question, I thought, about whether they were in fact doing this punk-rock thing right or whether they might not be mired in some provincial, passé version of it.
This cultural question had seemed to get a reassuring answer in Minneapolis. After we went home with Dave, of the Misfires, he and the Sputniks talked into the night-about bands they liked, about a vintage Vespa scooter parked in Dave's kitchen, about Dave's awesome collection of Japanese Godzilla videos. The house was strewn with grubby, high quality thrift-store kitsch. Dave clearly had the same refined appreciation of no-brow culture that had caused Chad to become addicted to watching pro wrestling on cable. And the next night a band called Cadillac Blindside had taken the Sputniks home, and in the morning Grady and one of the Blindsides began trading imitations of Detestation's singer's scratchy -roar, back and forth, each roaring into the other's face like young lions mock-fighting----until they decided they had it right, and quit with little head-shaking laughs. These guys were on the same wavelength.
And it wasn't necessarily the antisocial, self-destructive wavelength often associated with punk. Their music might be rough and hypermasculine, but plenty of punkers are obviously gentle, ironic souls. Outrageous dress, outrageous haircuts, drug abuse, violence-these standard features of the punk caricature are less important than outsiders assume. At the same time, the Sputniks seemed always aware that they were not being the bad boys they might be. The band had a great chance to misbehave in Madison, Wisconsin. A gig in Milwaukee, arranged by a skinhead identified only as Jis, had fallen through, giving them a night off, so we spent it in Madison, at the home of the parents of a friend of mine. It was a spacious, tasteful suburban house, and our hosts had left for work by the time we got up. My friend's mother had carefully laid out breakfast for six, and had even left us cards to say how much she had enjoyed having us-one card for me, one for "The Anarchists." Inside the card for the boys, it became clear from her gracious note that she thought the band's name was the Anarchists. The band studied the card worriedly. Zach was deputized to write a reply. With pen in hand, he said, "If we were a real punk band, I'd write, 'Sod off! We're the Sputniks!" Instead, he wrote a gushing, self-deprecating thank-you note.
THE Sputniks had been looking forward to playing the Fireside Bowl, a fabled venue in a working-class Latino neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. The place was an old bowling alley and bar, cool and dim and vast on a hot afternoon. The stage occupied one end of a long, narrow space that ran perpendicular to the lanes, which appeared to be out of service. The Sputniks were set to play third on a five-band bill. The headliners, a ska band called Siren Six, would go last. As the sun set, kids began to arrive-most of them white, dressed in extra-baggy jeans or khakis, and doing their best to look streetwise.
The crowd grew to sixty, then eighty, while the band before the Sputniks played-a lacklustre brat-punk trio called the Perps. Most of the audience drifted away from the stage area during the Perps' set, onto big old curved plastic benches behind the bowling lanes. By the time the Sputniks were ready to play, there was nobody within a tennis serve of the stage. The band bravely launched into its set, playing "Takeover" and "20 Minutes to the Year 2000," and a handful of kids approached the stage. Grady glowered at the masses hanging back on their benches, and between songs he thanked "you and you and you," pointing to each of the people who had come over to listen. "The rest of you, I don't know," he said. Even Zach grew irritated. He asked the crowd what they were afraid of. The Sputniks played a few more songs. Nobody moved from the benches. Chad remarked that he hadn't realized they sold "balcony seats" at punk shows. He offered a "nice shiny dollar" to the best dancer during the next tune, and one of the Perps came up with a quick, spastic shuffle to claim the prize. Still, the crowd hung back
Chad's high-hat cymbal fell apart, causing a delay. Grady asked the crowd if anybody had an anvil. "That's what we do in Montana," he said. 'Anything goes wrong, we just forge a new part. These guitars we play are all solid steel. Made 'em ourselves." Nobody laughed, or gave any sign that they knew what an anvil was. Grady wondered aloud if they were alive. Zach said something about "fun," then asked if kids in Chicago were familiar with the concept. The sneering teen-agers on the bowling benches now turned their backs on the band. The Sputniks grew apologetic, promising to play just two more songs and then get the hell out of town. Strangely, I thought they were playing exceedingly well.
After this gruesome set ended, I invited the band across the street for a Mexican dinner. Grady grimly declined, saying that after such an experience he felt obligated to stick around and "show some support" for the other bands.
Those of us who went to eat got back just in time to see Siren Six, the headliners, play. It was a completely changed scene. The entire crowd was now massed in front of the stage, dancing in furious unison. These kids, it seemed, were some kind of ska cult. They had just been waiting to leap into the stylish solo dance high-elbowed, stage-oriented, rhythmic running in place-that ska inspires and that they had obviously been practicing for many long hours in front of mirrors at home. Siren Six was a loud, slick, androgynous sextet, originally from Minneapolis and now living in Hollywood, who were all dressed in black They had a pompadoured, love-daddy lead singer with a good voice, a female trombonist, a keyboard player. They were churning out lush, catchy, brass-heavy love songs, and their saxophone player's patter between tunes was smooth and fey. "I really think things are getting better," he said silkily. It wasn't clear whether he was referring to a general, non-punk idea of the world or to the bad smell the Sputniks had left behind. Then he said, "Yes, it's starting to get a whole lot sexier in here."
When the Siren Six finally quit, they eased the pain for their fans by promising to return in a couple of months, during a four-month fall-winter tour they had booked, and to rock the old Fireside yet again. It was one of their favorite venues, they assured the crowd, which was lining up ten deep to buy their CDs. I couldn't look at Grady, who was silently manning the Sputniks' unvisited merchandise table. Chad, who was sprawled on a bowling bench, looked philosophical. So I asked him, "What's Plan B?" "You're looking at it," he said. "Plan A was college, and I'm going back to that plan as soon as we get home."
THAT night, we stayed in a "punk house," where the promoter of the next night's show-the Sputniks had two gigs booked in Chicago-had said we would be welcome. It was on the South Side of town, in another working-class Latino neighborhood. We got there at about midnight, not all of us in the best of moods, and picked our way through a dark, evil-smelling yard. Before we reached the house, we were accosted by a shirtless, dreadlocked kid named Jason, who was reeling drunk "Sputniks!" He had been expecting us. He led us inside. The house was under some kind of D.I.Y. renovation, with buckets and sawhorses stacked everywhere and plywood walls painted primer gray. The ceilings were very low-I couldn't stand up straight anywhere. Jason led us into a kitchen of sorts, where half a dozen very drunk people were shouting blearily. There seemed to be an extraordinary number of tattoos in the room. Clouds of flies swarmed under the lights. The smell was atrocious. Feral dogs crept underfoot. A filthy young junkie was saying that he hadn't slept in eight days. I persuaded Jason to show me some place where I could roll out a sleeping bag.
He took me up two pitch-black flights of stairs to an attic. The attic was crammed with band equipment-amps, drums, dark crates, and consoles. Left alone, I poked around and found a closet-like room with no door but with a mattress jammed under the eaves. I lay down there and tried to sleep. There was an intermittent party roar from downstairs, and it began to increase in volume. Every few minutes, a dog would bark in the yard, and an instant later a raw young female voice would scream, in a wounded childish tone, "Fuck you!" At one point, Richie came upstairs and burst into my closet. I could see, in the yellow street light seeping through a window, that he was bare-chested. He said that I was missing all the (that "these are the coolest people I've met on this tour so far!" Seeing that I was unmoved, Richie returned to the fray. Fleas started biting my shins.
The coolest people he had met so far: I kept trying to get my mind around this notion. Cooler than 88 Fingers Louie? Cooler than sweet, poker-faced Dave, with his Vespa and his Japanese videos? If the punk underground contains a broad spectrum of sensibility, this household seemed to stand at one end-the ravaged, malefic, criminal end. Was its brand of lowlife part of the attraction of punk for nice kids from Montana? Did our hosts possess some Rabelaisian charm that I was just too tired and cranky to appreciate?
Some of the Sputniks finally decided to call it a night. I heard Grady trying to find floor space among the stacks of amps out in the main part of the attic. Chad, I gathered, had gone to sleep in the van, as a security precaution. The riot downstairs got louder. People stormed out into the yard, bellowing oaths. Glass shattered. I kept expecting neighbors to call the police-though neighborhoods with many undocumented immigrants don't call the police lightly. Perhaps the neighbors were waiting for gunfire, which began to seem not unlikely. The shouting and wailing and roaring became ominous, almost hysterical.
Then I heard somebody come crashing up the stairs. There was scuffling just outside my closet, an oath-the intruder had awakened Grady. An unfamiliar, very drunk voice demanded, "Are you the journalist guy?" Grady said he wasn't. His inquisitor didn't believe him. They argued, incoherently, for a while, the intruder demanding to know, if Grady wasn't "the journalist guy," where he was. Grady fended him off, carefully keeping his voice good-natured. Finally, my would-be assailant-or maybe he just wanted to be interviewed-got bored and crashed back down the stairs. Grady, to whom I now felt deeply indebted, seemed to manage to get back to sleep quickly. I lay and waited for dawn, feeling old. Eventually, the revelry downstairs lost its violent edge, then sputtered and went silent as the birds began to sing.
I FLEW home from Chicago that morning, and I next saw the Sputniks when they passed through New York They seemed to be in good spirits. They had found somewhere else to stay, they said, after their second Chicago show; the foul punk house had been, they agreed, a bit much. They had played a show in Detroit in a not very exciting bar. In New York, where they had a gig at an East Village club called the Continental, they had a few days to kill. They would be staying with Grady's sister Ali, who had a studio in Chelsea.
I went to the show at the Continental, which is a long, narrow, dim bar on Third Avenue. The Sputniks were last on the evening's bill, and I arrived shortly before their set. The earlier bands, Grady told me, had been just terrible. "Almost like Top Forty bubblegum stiff;" he said, grimacing. The bar had been crowded. Now it was nearly cleared of patrons. Only Au and a few of her friends, a couple of musicians, and two guys Leif knew from Vassar were still on hand.
While the Sputniks set up their equipment, I lamely asked how they liked New York Richie raved about riding the Cyclone at Coney Island. Zach raved about McSorley's Old Ale House. Grady, I noticed, had not got a rocket ship tattooed on his arm. Chad just looked at me and laughed. Then he clicked his drumsticks and they began to play: "Takeover," "You'll Get Yours," "Don't Fuck with the Syndicate." All and a girl friend danced enthusiastically. Richie introduced one of his songs by saying that he didn't care if people thought it was emo. An art rocker standing next to me asked, "What's emo?" Zach broke a string on his bass, causing a lengthy delay. "Sorry, we're having even more mental problems and technical breakdowns than usual," he told the audience. A minute later, he said, "We're probably the most apologetic punk band ever to play in New York City." They played a strange, lovely, warpspeed cover of the reggae standard "No Woman, No Cry." My favorite moment in the Continental show came, though, when the band played "Inhibitions" and all three guitarists turned to face Chad while he sang, "Is there anybody out there? Everybody's too scared to move!"