Confessions of a Kansas/Midwest Hardcore Punk
Interview by Jack Partain, Part 1
From afar, the history of punk rock can look like a fireworks display on a hot summer night. It is full of loud and violent explosions that streak through the night sky and detonate with an awesome, yet beautiful force before fading away into nothingness as drunk on-lookers and bleary eyed children cheer in the crowd below. It is dangerous for those who get too close - Sid Vicious, Darby Crash, Johnny Thunders, and countless others all individuals who lived their lives like missiles and hurled their bodies into the vast, wide open space before immolating themselves with a glorious bang. For those who do venture close to the danger, we are expected to, if not emulate or admire such self-sacrifices, we should at least revere and honor them as beautiful, poetic, and, for lack of a better term, true to the nihilistic spirit of the music we love.
But what about the people whose stories do not end with a bang? For every Darby and Sid there are a couple of dozen guys who lugged their gear around, struggled to make their band sound good behind a soundboard, replaced their microphones, or rented the venue for the show. Those are the guys with the real stories, the good stories. Hell, they're probably the ones who told Darby or Sid about all of the crazy shit they did the next day because Darby or Sid were too drunk or high to remember. They are the guys who set up the fireworks show. The ones who showed up early, dragged in all of the gear, arranged everything perfectly, and then lit the fuse for the big, chaotic, disaster of a display in the first place.
Bob Cutler is one of those guys. He has lived a life in punk rock since the late 1970's. He has worn many different hats in that time. He's been everything from a shithead punk kid begging for admission to shows to a show promoter himself. He has played in his own bands, and run a soundboard for almost every van full of dirty and starved mohawked lunatics that rolled through the lonely cornfields of Kansas looking for a place to play a show. He has toured the world with some of the most legendary punk rock bands. He even ran for sheriff once, and got some votes, but we might not have time to get into that.
PSF: When and how did you get into punk rock?
BC: Well, I always say I didn't discover punk rock, it discovered me. I've always been a weirdo, for all of the typical reasons. I had a lot of problems in school, could never keep up. In my fifth grade year my mother sent me off to see a shrink. Around here there was a real stigma attached to that and no one was supposed to know about it. The next day I go into school and, of course, all of the kids are calling me "Shrink" and "Couch." I don't know how they found out, but they did and once you get that label, that stigma just sticks so all the way through high school I was "Crazy Cutler." Luckily by then, punk rock had discovered me.
In March of 1978, I was standing in a convenience store in Topeka, KS. I had given myself this weird haircut across the front of my face because I didn't like my hair in my eyes. It looked like half a Ramones sort of thing and half a weird spike thing. And I had this big green officers trench coat on that had huge pockets, so it was great for shoplifting. I'm standing in this gas station, it was called Kwik Shop, playing pinball and this guy comes in and I forget what he said to me, but he made some sort of comment about me. And my gut reaction was to tell him to 'fuck off' right away. I thought we were gonna get into a fight but instead he started laughing. Then the guy says to me "I know what you are! You're one of those punker rockers." And I'm confused so he takes me over to the magazine rack and he pulls out the March 1978 Penthouse magazine and inside is a big story about punk rockers in New York City. And I was transfixed. I immediately shoplifted the magazine and read the article over and over again. And I was like 'yeah, I'm a punk, I agree with all of these anti-social, anti-establishment thing.' I was hooked.
The music I listened to at the time was heavier guitar sounds like Rush, Black Sabbath, stuff like that. And since I lived in Kansas, I had to listen to Kansas, there was no escaping it. I loved heavy distorted guitars and always wished the songs were faster. But by coincidence, some friends of mine had gotten a job at World Records, which was this small but really cool record store in Topeka. They got a job organizing records or something like that. And in Topeka, you couldn't get access to everything but World Records and another store called Mother Earth had some things. My friends would bring punk rock records home from work, and we'd listen to them but I couldn't afford my own copies or cassettes to record them on. So I would go to the local university library where they would have recorded lectures on tapes for students to check out. I would steal the tapes and go to my friends' houses and say 'Hey record Rocket to Russia or the new Stiff Little Fingers for me!' So I was probably responsible for a lot of really stupid college kids.
I had this completely different set of friends that were just kind of hillbilly drunk car guys. Kinda greaser redneck types. And they would go to Kansas City and buy records just for the covers. And they introduced me to the Dead Kennedys, the first Dead Boys record. Stuff like that. So I was getting turned on to punk rock by these two different sources that weren't typically punk rock.
PSF: So that's how it started. What was it like being a punk in the Midwest at that time?
BC: In those years 1978-85 it really was rough and dangerous to be into punk. I remember rednecks and jocks jumping out of cars, chasing me down the street screaming 'you punk rock faggot I'll yank that mohawk off your head! Also, anytime the cops saw me walking down the street, they would stop and hassle me, tell me I matched the description of a 'suspected burglar in the area', whatever excuse they could come up with. I got pushed around by the cops and sometimes they'd handcuff me and drag me downtown, only to let me go an hour later.
But a friend of mine met some older guys who were in a punk band in town called Abuse. I think they met through World Records. Abuse lived in a place called The Coffee House in a loft apartment downtown that they lived and practiced in. We would skip school and go down there and make them buy us beer and hang out. I started following those guys around. I don't know how annoyed they got with me, but they put up with me.
At the time, Topeka actually had a pretty decent punk scene and a good live music scene in general. There were several bars and other places to play and bands like Abuse, The Tunes, The Brats, The Iguanas would play at all of them. And people actually went to those shows. I would go down as a 14 or 15 year old kid and I would ask the band or the sound guys if I could carry their gear into the bar in exchange for free entry. And they would say 'fuck yeah!' you know, free labor. Eventually, everybody got so used to seeing me so they didn't question it.
I've always been interested in electronic stuff and loud sounding things. So I would watch the sound guys how they plugged everything together and how it worked, I asked a million questions and that's basically how I learned to do sound. A lot of the sound guys around town were just drunks. They'd start out the show fairly sober but sometimes by the end of the show, they'd be passed out on the board, drooling, with the faders pushed up. I'd have to run over, pull them off the board, get the feedback to stop and figure out how to run a mixing board. Eventually, I started to do sound for a living.
PSF: How about on a more personal level? How did you feel about growing up where you did and in the punk scene?
BC: I knew I was gay early on, probably in the second or third grade. I knew that I liked boys more than girls. But I also knew that most people around me felt that queers are sick and dirty perverts who deserve to be beaten. This was actively taught in school when they showed movies like Boys Beware, which portrayed all homosexual men as predators. My parents were pretty liberal, but they did drive confusion into me. Basically, I was taught that it was okay for other men to be gay but not me.
I hid being gay as best I could through junior high but I went through high school scared to death that people might find out. And there was plenty to be afraid of. Homophobia and violence towards gays were pervasive then. Guys who were just a little effeminate, not necessarily gay just a bit girly would be beaten in hallways. In junior high, I got to know a few other guys who seemed to enjoy other guys, and there was a loose collection of us. Some of us never even spoke to each other unless we were meeting up in our various hiding places around town.
In the punk rock scene back in the early days, it was weird. There were plenty of queers, lesbians, and gay men around and for the most part, it seemed like no one really cared. It even seemed a little hip to be fruity.The guys from Abuse certainly didn't care. They showed me this place downtown called The Lambda Lounge. it was a gay bar and it was an exotic and strange world in that dank bar. That place had no problem with a young kid like me being in there. And I wasn't the only high school aged kid in there. It seemed like they understood that there was a real need for the young guys to have a place to go, and it wasn't just to service the older men, though that did happen too.
I certainly wasn't the only gay kid in or around the Topeka punk scene. There were others, mostly deeply closeted. The queer punks had this informal sort of secret society and we'd hook up in secret around town. There didn't seem to be as much homophobia in those days. Then AIDS came along and put an end to a lot of the fun. For me, it was just as I was starting to figure out out. And then the punk rock scene itself changed and the older guys moved away to places like New York or Hollywood to pursue music careers. Or they died. And this younger group of "punks" started to come up that weren't nearly as cool. They were definitely more homophobic and racist. I didn't come out officially until much later and it was even worse then.
PSF: And it was around this time that you started your own band The Klusterfux.
BC: I played in a couple of other bands before that like The Radiators- we didn't know that name was already taken. Another one was The Blame, which was more of a theoretical band. We never played live. I was also in The Joe Matic Band with Brian Khan. Everyone had their little Matic name and eventually we had the whole family. Brian was Joe Matic and there was Trau Matic, Problem Matic That's where I got my nickname Otto Matic, which some people still call me today. We hung out at the Matic Mansion. I would pound out Black Flag style stuff about nuclear disasters and the Civil Defense Department, stuff like that.
The Klusterfux were formed in 1983 with me, Brian McGuire, and Bill Volmut. Eventually we brought my brother John, who is a very talented serious musician, in to play guitar. We invented the term "hard slop," we were the town's premier Hard Slop band because we weren't really hardcore, and we were pretty sloppy, so we called ourselves Hard Slop. Brian, who was a great guitarist, was more into Alice Cooper and The Who. I was into the Sex Pistols and The Clash and Mark was into all sorts of stuff. We would do weird, fucked-up covers and originals. We had a song about the Challenger space shuttle explosion. We played songs that poked fun of people and things.
In the early 1980's, it really was still a very club or bar based scene. The guys from Abuse and all of those early bands played at clubs, it was more bar oriented. We couldn't get a show to save our lives back then. And, of course, we sucked. But we told ourselves, 'that's the whole point of it!' Be a horrible band and fuck up every gig we get. But you can't bitch too loud that no one is giving you a gig when you're going out of your way to suck.
At the time, there were a couple of competing forces in the Topeka punk scene. There was a group of younger kds that came up after my group, and they had their own bands and their own places to play. They had a place called The Boneyard, which was an outdoor place north of the city where they had built a skate ramp, and they had bands play. I don't know why they called it The Boneyard. In a lot of ways, it was a pretty cool place. But a lot of them had the attitude that if you're not a skater, you're not cool. I was not a skater. I tried. I just didn't have the athletic ability. But I had a PA system that I had taken out a $2500 loan to buy, and they would hire me to do sound because I only charged fifty bucks. They wouldn't let my band play, of course, even though I would ask, but they would hire me to do sound and I'd say yes. And, of course, my money would disappear at the end of the night and I'd have to chase it between this guy and this other guy. Finally, I'd give up and go home. A week later, they would call me back.
Part of me was genuinely trying to support the scene, wanting the shows to happen, and things to develop, and wanting to be part of it. The money was really secondary.
The cops generally left everyone alone at The Boneyard. I don't have an immediate memory of the shows being broken up because it was outside of the city. So unless something stupid happened on the highway that it was near, the sheriff didn't bother us. But the shows we put on, where The Klusterfux played, were pretty much house parties inside the city, and the cops would always show up. Every time I would do a show, the cops would show up and fuck with me, beat me up, whatever. We'd have bands come over and play. I lived in a place called The Garf House, it was on Garfield Ave. The Iguanas played, The Socio-Pathetics played. The Klusterfux was a four piece at the time, and we played there or at Brian McGuire's house on Quincy.
Later our guitarist Brian McGuire killed the woman he was with. I'm not sure if they were actually legally married or not, but he was upset because she was moving out. In a way, I believe that he didn't mean to kill her. But he always said 'It's hard to convince a jury that you didn't mean to kill someone when you have a gun aimed at them and you pulled the trigger.' He was diagnosed with something along the lines of schizophrenia, I'm not sure what the actual diagnosis was. We were all like "Oh, holy fuck." We were really freaked out about it, but we continued as a three-piece.
Eventually, we brought Tom Kelly into the band in 1987 or 1988 and went back to a four piece. We're still together. We are too lazy to break-up.
PSF: So at this point you're playing in a band, doing sound at shows. You had a zine too, right?
BC: Yeah, it was called Sour Notes. It didn't come out that often. Usually, by the time I managed to get an issue out, it was six or eight months old so it wasn't really news. Back in the early '80's, I had a huge pen pal list. This was before the internet and cell phones. I got most of my address out of the back of Maximum Rock N Roll. I put my own ads in there as well.
It was mainly about trading cassette tapes. Mix tapes traded with someone you weren't trying to fuck? How weird! It's almost like it was about the music! And we traded fanzines. And that was half of the reason I started the Sour Notes fanzine. So you would have something to trade and to try to elevate our little scene into a higher level of awareness globally. I had pen pals all over the world. With some of them, we just wrote back and forth about our lives. "Dear diary" type stuff. Others sent artwork or submissions for the zine, and then cassette tapes of local bands.
PSF: You also started bringing bands into the city. Big bands like Black Flag and D.O.A. Tell me about that.
BC: I'd been a big Black Flag Fan for a while and would drive to Kansas City to see them at places like The Fool Killer or The VFW Hall.
PSF: VFW Halls seemed to be strangely important to the development of punk rock for some reason.
BC: Yeah, especially in Kansas City. Everywhere else too. Back then, especially in Kansas City, it was one of the only halls you could rent that would allow shows like that regularly. You really had to dig around to find a place that would let you do a show. The minute you would mention punk rock, the owner thought you were saying 'we're gonna come through and rape your sons and your daughters and kill your grandma, is that ok?' You'd have your grizzled old vets sitting in the club downstairs drinking every night and they could make a couple of hundred bucks renting the hall and the punks would come in and buy a whole bunch of liquor. There were a lot of people who promoted shows there. Both Misfits and Samhain played there about two or three years apart. There was one show, I think it was a Minor Threat show but I'm not sure, where someone broke into the display cabinets and took all of the Nazi memorabilia from the display. The show was shut down and further shows were cancelled. There was a major manhunt in the scene to find it. They finally found it. And the venue let them do more shows.
Kansas City was great back in the 1980's and early 1990's. There was a place called The Fool Killer and it was right behind the Grand Emporium. I would go to the Fool Killer to see a show and sneak in the back door of The Grand Emporium and see Screamin' Jay Hawkins or someone like that, just legendary stuff every night.
PSF: Ok, back to Black Flag in Topeka.
BC: The first sort of national band I brought in was in like 1984 and I think it was Angst, an old SST band. We did it in the basement of the old Domme Dance Theatre. We did a bunch of local shows. There were a bunch of shows that almost happened. We had Husker Du set up and ready to go but they broke up before the tour.
Topeka had a pretty decent punk rock scene back in the early 1980's and I wanted to try and build on that. I was running around with Jamie McCoy from the Iguanas and we were friends with promoters in Kansas City and they thought that booking shows in Topeka, which was only about one hundred miles away, would help strengthen their position for touring bands. So they encouraged us when I asked them how to do it and they hooked us up with phone numbers for booking agents. At the time for Black Flag it was Chuck Dukowski, I think but I could be wrong.
When we booked Black Flag, we booked the show and didn't have a venue, I left the venue as TBA on the contract. I searched for a few places that were really expensive and then I actually asked the VFW in Topeka. They were cool with me renting it but when I said I was going to have bands play they said 'Oh, what kind of band? Like Tommy Dorsey?'' And when I said 'Um, no, like rock bands,' they threw me out. I didn't even say punk rock.
When I talked to Dukowski about it he told me that in his experience it is best to just tell them straight up, up front what you want to do. I ended up renting a place called the PBG Hall, a Hispanic community center in East Topeka, which was in a neighborhood with a bad reputation. I was really just going down the Yellow Pages asking everyone. The owners were kinda difficult. But they gave it to me for $250 bucks a night. This was 1985. We set up the show for the day after the Kansas City show.
The show was actually pretty good. About 150-200 people showed up. There's never enough people at a show, you know, for the promoter. Black Flag was great. The lineup was Black Flag, Tom Troccoli's Dog, and SWA. You can see Topeka in some of the Joe Cole videos.
PSF: You brought them back the next year, right?
BC: Yeah, they called me back the next year. D.O.A. had come through a month after Black Flag and played at the PBG Hall and that show went really well and the owners of the venue tried to double the rent in the middle of the show so that bridge was burned. They thought I was making money hand over fist, which just wasn't reality. So for the next Black Flag show, I rented out the National Guard Armory building in town. They had had rock shows there before and it was a huge space the size of a basketball court. On that tour, Black Flag had booked shows everywhere in the Midwest. They had booked St Louis, Columbia, Missouri, Kansas City, Lawrence, Kansas, Topeka, Wichita, Omaha, Lincoln, pretty much every city with more than fifty people it seemed. I had a Friday night show and only about one hundred people showed. More people went to the show in Lawrence, Kansas, about twenty miles away, than the Topeka show.
But that wasn't the only drama. I printed up tickets for the show and some of the record stores around town were selling them for me. But I had been letting a few local bands practice in my basement and this girl ended up stealing a big stack of them and selling them around town. I found out about it. The legitimate tickets had serial numbers stamped on the back. When I found out about it the girl blamed it on her ex-boyfriend. On the night of the show the people that showed up at the show, with stolen tickets tended to be parents that were bringing their kids to the show.
That show didn't do so well. Like I said, it was in a huge cavernous place and there was only about one hundred people there. Black Flag brought their own PA system, which was huge and really, really loud. There was a side building in that complex that was an arsenal and held all of the guns and ammunition for the National Guard and the sound set off the alarms. All of a sudden cops come storming in, telling me that they are shutting the show down because the seismic alarms to the arsenal had been set off. I was like 'Well, go turn them off.' But they came up with the idea that I had set up this show so I could break into the building and steal weapons. It was so full of shit. The cops said they wanted to come into the show and look around and I made them buy tickets to get it, and they did. A few of the cops came back after they got off to check out the show.
To be continued...
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