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Southern Culture Hits the Skids

Rednecks, White Panties, and Blue Ribbon Beer at Sleazefest ‘99

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jack Black's Dave Quick
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Banana-pudding-slicked Sleazefesters
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Helldorado sends a message to the gathered throng.

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/18/1999

It’s testimony to what Sleazefest ’99 is all about that by its third and final day, the business with the piñata full of cigarettes and the quarter-stick of dynamite comes off as a bit of an anticlimax.

It is, to be sure, a good spectacle. The piñata, shaped like a clown, is dangling over the stage, where a band called the Cowslingers is about to finish its set. The dynamite is snuggled up against the piñata, its fuse sizzling, while the Cowslingers, dressed in matching brown-and-black Western-style shirts, cower behind their equipment. Then, with a rib-thumping crack, the piñata is gone—gone utterly, leaving nothing but colored-paper fluff and one lone cigarette, slightly bent, on the stage. The rest of the cigarettes, two packs’ worth, have been annihilated. The band takes its bows and starts gathering up its equipment.

But context is everything. The Cowslingers have just played something like the 40th set of this weekend-long music festival mounted Aug. 6-8 in Chapel Hill, N.C. By this point, there has already been nudity, apparent bloodshed, fire-breathing, and pudding-wrestling. A huge coil of homemade bologna has been sliced up with a chain saw. This has gone on against a background of almost nonstop live music and entirely nonstop drinking for 11 hours at a stretch, from 4 each afternoon till around 3 each morning. Unavoidably, and necessarily, numbness sets in.

Hence the dynamite. The Cowslingers have set off explosives in the past, bass player Kevin Miller says, but only firecrackers. They got the idea of using the quarter-stick on the Wednesday before the festival. “We figured, well, it’s Sleazefest,” Miller says, “so we’d better get a much, much bigger charge.”

Miller is explaining this out on the narrow, alleylike walkway that connects the back door of the main stage in one bar with the back door of the second stage in an adjoining bar, and which constitutes pretty much the entire festival grounds. This is where bands load and unload their equipment, and where they get free beer. There are blue tarpaulins for shade, and an assortment of chairs and stools. By Sunday afternoon, a thick and sour smell hangs over the place, a concentrated blend of smoke, spilled beer, and sweat, with suggestions of urine and vomit. There has been just enough rain to keep it all fragrantly moist.

The Sleazefest crowd is not in it for the amenities. What they are in it for is live music and recreation, both in inhuman amounts. The festival, now in its fifth year, draws musicians and fans who favor a particular, atavistic strain of American rock music: garage rock, surf rock, roots rock, rockabilly, psychobilly.

Whatever their genre may be, most of the musicians have two things in common. The first is that they tend to wear sleeveless undershirts, tattoos, and wallets with chains attached. The second, according to Sleazefest organizers, is that, save for the headliners, each band would draw an audience of about 15 people if it played Chapel Hill on its own.

úo the festival’s founders—Rick Miller, of the band Southern Culture on the Skids, and Dave Robertson, proprietor of the Chapel Hill rock club Local 506—set out to multiply the drawing power of the bands they liked. The result is a sort of trade show for the chain-wallet set; more than a third of the Sleazefest ’99 crowd is made up of Sleazefest ’99 musicians. There are maybe 150 of them in all, representing, after cancellations and recombinations, about 30 bands.

This makes for a suffocating abundance of bands. Each band, naturally enough, wants to stand out from the rest, and to enjoy itself. It’s where these two goals converge that the nudity and explosives—the spirit of Sleazefest—come in.

If that means flames and mayhem inside Local 506, so be it. Robertson is a sturdy, cheerful guy with a face flushed to the color of a bad sunburn. He wears an old military helmet for the duration of the festival and uses the word “fuck” about as often as most people blink. “We’re indestructible, goddamn it,” he crows. “In-de-fuckin’-structible.”

 

A short ways up the back sidewalk from the Cowslingers, the lead singer of Baltimore’s Twin Six is trying to deal with the challenge of keeping his clothes on. His name is Jeff—he prefers, for the occasion, to keep his last name out of print—and he is a big, glaring, Vikinglike guy, with stubbly hair on his head and a florid moustache. Yesterday afternoon, Saturday, he stripped down to a G-string to finish Twin Six’s first set of the weekend. Later that night, he jumped onstage with some other Baltimoreans during a set by Jimmy & the Teasers and ditched his clothes again, dancing around the stage while cobbling together a sort of codpiece from a plastic cup and a roll of strapping tape.

That latter bit of ecdysis happened in the Sleaze Lounge, the second stage, which is usually the North Carolina Sports Bar. The North Carolina Sports Bar and Local 506 are next-door neighbors on West Franklin Street, in a short row of pleasant-looking storefronts with pitched roofs and brickwork. Local 506 has managed, through diligent work, to look grim and clublike on the inside, with black walls, cement floor, and exposed ductwork. One wall has a rounded cage on it, for go-go dancers. Even with all that, the Carolina sunshine still creeps in by day, glimmering on green leaves through the opening of the exhaust fan.

ýhe Sleaze Lounge can’t even muster that much menace. For starters, unlike Local 506, it’s air-conditioned. It has carpeting and wooden booths and clear-varnished wooden barstools and, of course, banners and pennants for a multitude of sports teams. On üne wall is a big chunk of a wrecked stock car, blue and white, number 34; it was supplied by Mike McLaughlin, an up-and-comer on the Busch racing circuit. This is explained to me by Don Eason, the bar’s owner, who also fills me in on his clients’ tastes in NASCAR. “We’re definitely a Dale/Dale bar,” he says—meaning the racing fans here favor Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt.

One does not, as a rule, run around getting naked in a Dale/Dale bar. Jeff has been duly warned off trying it again. Now, Twin Six’s guitarists, Kevin Hoffman and Chris Iseli, have been scouting out the speaker stacks to see if they’re suitable for jumping up on—anything for that little extra bit of showmanship. The venue demands it; for all its lack of grit, the Sleaze Lounge has hosted some of the weekend’s most talked-about shows. Besides the now-notorious Jimmy & the Teasers set, there have been powerful outings from Helldorado and the 440’s.

Above all, there was the unscheduled midnight performance on Friday by Jack Black, a three-piece that just moved to North Carolina from New York. Maybe because I missed it (leaning on a post in Local 506, weak with fatigue, waiting for the Fleshtones to set up), the Jack Black show has assumed mythic proportions: It was Iwo Jima with electric guitar, a country-punk Krakatau, Comet Levy-Shoemaker slamming into Jupiter. Some heavy shit went down in that room.

Nobody is trying to outdo that one. They’re just trying to live up to it. When Jeff stripped on Saturday, he wore a Jack Black souvenir G-string.

 

Even glutted on music, a body still requires real sustenance. Food is available at the back of the Sleaze Lounge, where there’s a grill, the Sleazy Spoon. It serves burgers and sandwiches and, for $6, the Sleaze Plate: shredded pork barbecue, collards, black-eyed peas, and a square of corn bread. One Sleaze Plate, consumed around 10 or 11 p.m., can usually carry you through to closing time.

Working the grill is a small, bright-eyed man in an orange safety cap. Rumor has it that this is Ed Crawford, better known as ed fROMOHIO—who famously rounded up the surviving members of the legendary punk group the Minutemen after the death of its guitarist, D. Boon, and got them to join him in the band fIREHOSE. Is he really ed fROMOHIO? “I used to be,” he says. “I’m Ed from the grill now.”

Thanks to the vagaries of North Carolina licensing laws, the Sleaze Lounge serves beer only while Local 506 serves beer and liquor. Dave Robertson’s business partner, Monica Swisher, a wiry, purple-haired woman, spends most of the festival behind the bar at 506. “Bourbon and Coke,” she says, listing the weekend’s most popular drinks, “bourbon and ginger, bourbon straight up. Pretty much whiskey.”

For the record, by Sunday the festival has run out of at least two items: corn dogs and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

 

ûhere is some question hovering over Sleazefest about whether you can make yourself sleazy by trying to be sleazy. Sleaze is not really a Horatio Alger sort of thing. Among the fare on the Sleaze Lounge’s many sports-bar TVs this weekend, along with Dolemite, Blue Velvet, and the trailer for The Blob, is Pink Flamingos. As any good Baltimorean knows, one of the central themes of Pink Flamingos is that Connie and Raymond Marble, who wish to rival Divine and her kin for the title of Filthiest People in the World, are exposed as mere pretenders to filth, whose filthy deeds (kidnapping, drug dealing, toe sucking) amount to bourgeois social climbing.

Which brings up Saturday night’s headliner, Nashville Pussy, which has parlayed outrageousness into major music-business success. Everyone is looking forward to Nashville Pussy: The band sings flagrantly raunchy songs, performs appalling deeds onstage, and its bass player is a 6-foot 2-inch woman who breathes fire.

And the band sucks. Sucks. Maybe it’s because Nashville Pussy’s been touring in big arenas, opening for Marilyn Manson, but its stage act is all gestures, overblown and lifeless. The lead guitarist, in a push-up leopard-print bra, thrashes her hair and heaves her bosom. The singer, who looks like a Klingon, thrashes what’s left of his hair and sweats. The bassist, Corey Parks—kid sister of effete ex-Duke basketball star Cherokee Parks—is like a hood ornament. The songs are formless bashing.

Only the fire-breathing is worth a damn. Parks grabs a flaming torch in one hand, takes a big swig of some sort of fuel, and then spits through the flame. The resulting fireballs seem to fill up the whole ceiling and light the room. She does four or five, and the crowd loves it. Then she puts away the torch.

Once no more fire is forthcoming, the crowd starts clearing out. At the end of the set, I witness a thing I believe I’ve never seen before. The members of Nashville Pussy put down their instruments and walk offstage without unplugging anything, in clear preparation for a scheduled encore. The festival emcee—a legendary figure in his own right, a live-music devotee from St. Louis who wears a Beatle haircut and is called Beatle Bob—urges what’s left of the crowd to cheer for an encore. And the crowd refuses. It applauds just enough to be polite, then heads for the door.

 

Apathy is not a problem for Jack Black’s second set, on Saturday evening, scheduled this time and on the main stage. Based on the word of mouth from Friday’s impromptu set, people don’t just want to see Jack Black, they want to be Jack Black. The crowd is packed with musicians, especially lead singers, pressing forward for a better look. Jack Black’s singer, Dave Quick, spies Jeff from Twin Six in the audience. “What you doin’ with my underwear on?” he yells.

Quick is wiry and narrow-faced, with bleached-blond hair and dark roots. He plays his guitar left-handed. His band lives up to its reputation, blasting its way through a punk-accelerated set of music so fast that Beatle Bob, doing his usual earnest bent-elbow ’60s-style dancing, can’t keep up, and bassist Johnny Katonah snaps a string. Jack Black sings about cars, guitars, and girls. Surf-guitar licks and little plaintive bits of country melody boil up in the rush of sound; the crowd erupts, and settles, and erupts again.

About halfway through the set, Quick announces that he intends to make things sleazier. Two young women, one honey blond and one brunet, appear onstage, in exaggerated schoolgirl costumes: short skirts, white stockings, blouses. “The Jack Black Dancers,” Quick says, and launches into a song called “Teen Sleaze.”

The women wriggle and grind as Quick sneers lyrics about jailbait and incest. The darker-haired one peels off her shirt to show a black bra, and the lighter-haired one follows suit. Then the blond one—Quick’s fiancée Charity Rogers, it turns out—takes her bra off and faces the audience. Something like a wheeze, a mass stupefaction, shudders through the room. She keeps dancing, bare-breasted, till the song ends, then she and her friend scoop up their clothes and prance off. And Jack Black, in a supreme act of self-assurance, blasts into the next song as if nothing just happened.

 

The other thing that went on in North Carolina this weekend, out at the western end of the state in the town of Flat Rock, was the inaugural meeting of the Southern Party. The Southern Party is a new political organization, dedicated to reviving the Confederacy and seceding from the United States. I bring this up because there is another, unavoidable element to the Sleazefest atmosphere: It is Southern, and it is white Southern.

Over the whole weekend, I see fewer than a half-dozen nonwhite musicians, and two of those are in one surf band from Connecticut. The audience is of pretty much the same composition. If you set about turning back the clock in the South, after all, you pretty quickly end up in the pre-civil-rights era. Many of the performers, in their late-50s-style sport shirts, slicked-back hair, and sideburns, look disturbingly like the segregationists in old photographs.

This isn’t simply a matter of Yankee suspiciousness. The Confederate battle flag is just about everywhere at Sleazefest: on T-shirts, on hats, draped behind some bands as a stage decoration. As part of the logo on a tommy hillbilly T-shirt, it comes off as a harmless (and pretty funny) joke. But other uses of the flag come off as deliberate nastiness. Dave Quick wanders around on Saturday in a loud print shirt, with a repeating pattern of rebel flags and cameos of Confederate heroes. Underneath it, he wears a sleeveless T-shirt that reads honkyi “I’m a fucking redneck,” he explains. “We’re trying to bring drunken redneck white trash into style.”

ýhe cultural politics of all this is problematic. It becomes more than problematic a short while later, when Antiseen takes the stage. Antiseen hails from South Carolina. It is one of the few entirely nonretro bands on the bill, a first-rate, roaringly powerful hardcore outfit. It is also blatantly racist. The singer’s bulky torso is covered by a big Confederate-flag vest. The band logo, plastered on stickers on its equipment, is a modified Nazi eagle, with a Confederate flag replacing the usual swastika in the wreath at its feet. “We’re coming at you straight from the state that’s being boycotted by the NAACP,” the singer yells, in case anyone has missed the point.

The use of offensive symbols is nothing new to punk rock; some first-generation punk bands used to wear swastikas onstage. But then, those punks were deliberately doing something completely unacceptable, trying to provoke the audience into hating them. Waving the rebel flag in a room full of people wearing rebel-flag gear is another thing entirely.

It may be that bringing the whole offensive subtext up front is better than ignoring it. For that matter, the whole Antiseen show may be some ironic commentary on Southern whiteness. The fat, hairy singer, glaring and bellowing, hardly looks like he represents any master race—especially when, during a trio of songs about pro wrestling, he somehow gets gouts of blood (whether real or fake is hard to tell) to run down his face. But I’m not going to run that theory by him.

There is one African-American member of the audience for the Antiseen set, an early-middle-aged man with gray in his hair and a furled umbrella on his shoulder. He wanders in and out as the show goes on. When the last song ends, he’s standing there, with no expression. Then he opens his mouth. “Whoo-hoo!” he yells.

 

The Southernness of Sleazefest is, to a considerable extent, a pose. Chapel Hill is a liberal college town, with multiculti murals, not Civil War monuments, along its downtown streets. And the bands come from all over. Helldorado is from New York; the 44ô’s are from Philadelphia; the theremin-wielding Billy Joe Winghead hails from Oklahoma. The two most outright retro rockabilly bands, the Blue Moon Boys and the Frantic Flattops, hail from Zanesville, Ind., and Rochester, N.Y., respectively.

The musicians do tend to talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd and big dumb Southern rock, but a lot of them seem to be doing it the same way alternarock bands talk about loving Kiss and Black Sabbath—as a way of dissimulating their actual tastes and lineage. One of the few who’s up front about his influences is the singer of Helldorado, Glen Berlhettrick, who goes by the stage name Tex Hooker. “I love Devo,” he says. “I love the Cars. I love Blondie. I love Iggy Pop. I love Jim Morrison. I love Mike Ness.”

It is probably not a coincidence that Helldorado also has the most instantaneous stage appeal of all the bands in the Sleazefest lineup. The band owes its distinctiveness to an obvious but clever personnel move: Besides the drummer, the band consists of three petite women and the towering male singer. The women act like macho rockers, smirking and snarling, blazing away on guitar and bass, while the pale Hooker, eyes made up and lower lip pendulous, looms androgynously above them. It’s a pleasing effect.

At any rate, it beats the hell of Southern Culture on the Skids’ stage show. SCOTS, as it’s called, may be the host of the event, but the band comes across as being too self-consciously wacky for Sleazefest. They shoot streamers of toilet paper into the crowd with what looks like a modified leaf blower, they bounce an inflatable woman out into the audience, and they pour 50 pounds of banana pudding into the bottom of the go-go cage for people to roll around in.

The interesting thing about getting hit in the head with flying banana pudding is how completely uninteresting it is, especially at 2:30 in the morning. This is especially true when it turns out that the lead pudding thrower is some tool in a grand moff tarkin T-shirt who’s grabbing handfuls of the stuff from outside the cage rather than stripping down and getting inside.

The inflatable woman is definitive. It just keeps bouncing around in the audience, song after song, till it’s two-thirds limp. Almost everyone is sick of it, but there’s always one handy idiot in range to keep batting the damn thing aloft. It won’t go away.

 

It’s the middle of Twin Six’s final set, and they aren’t messing around with any dumb-ass props. What they’re doing is rocking, churning through a cover of “Mississippi Queen,” with Jeff stalking the stage, his pants firmly on, and Kevin teetering atop the right-hand speaker stack. Chris hunches over his guitar, flexing like a question mark.

The band is loud, tight, and perfectly confident. When the song ends, Kevin jumps up, grabs a ceiling beam, and swings out over the audience and back, landing on his wobbly perch again. The woman taking tickets at the door watches, fearfully. For the next song, Chris clambers up the left-hand speaker stack.

They close with a cover of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” Tex Hooker and someone else clamber up to join in the singing. People collide with each other. The heat from the crowd is stifling, even with the air conditioning.

“The champions of Sleazefest!” cries Beatle Bob. “The all-time champions of Sleazefest! The goddamn ugliest band you’ll ever want to see in the world!” Kevin jumps on Beatle Bob and tries to tackle him.

 

Late Sunday night, Dave Robertson is gives his closing remarks. “God bless a president who gets his dick sucked,” he says. He’s working his way, ramblingly, toward crowning the king and queen of Sleazefest ’99. When he gets to the point, he gets there almost too quickly for the audience to catch it, “Hey, Jeff . . .,” he says.

The royal couple is Jeff and his fiancée, Mandy, who’d stripped to thong underwear Saturday evening and wandered around that way all night. Jeff quickly shucks his clothes and begins wandering around the stage with his genitals cupped in his hand. Mandy, at the crowd’s behest, flashes her breasts.

What, Dave wants to know, does Mandy want to do as Queen of Sleazefest?

“Fucking!” she says. “Lots of fuckiiiiing!!” She stoops over and appears to perform an act mentioned in the Starr Report on the King’s bare nethers. Then the happy couple kisses.

“Victory is sweet,” Jeff says after the ceremony. “We owe it to Jimmy & the Teasers.” Mandy offers her victorious quote: “I just like to fuck,” she says happily.

 

Like any big party, Sleazefest ’99 has a despairing butt end. The final headliner, rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, turns out to have been stranded in New York. “Do not fly Air Tran,” Dave announces blearily, glaring at what looks to be an itinerary. He crumples the paper and throws it away. Gordon’s backup musicians, at least, have made it, and they play a few songs with guest vocalists from the other bands. But in short order, the guest singers are hard to come by, and the crowd is thinned-out and inattentive.

Outside Local 506, a drizzle is falling. Ben Edwards, the drummer for the surf band the Balboas, is looking to buy a marked-down festival poster—one with his band’s name visible on it, along with the legend pussy—cock—rock & bbq. By this point music ought to be the last thing on anyone’s mind, but the 21-year-old Edwards is still ready to hold forth on stuff recorded long before he was born: rockabilly, Western swing, the 1940s roots of surf music.

Edwards is from Akron, Ohio. His bandmates are from all over: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Florida. They keep in touch via four-track tape, then meet up in the summers to tour.

“It’s amazing,” he says, “what people do for rock ’n’ roll.” n

Disclosure: One of bands featured in this article, the Twin Six, includes two former members of
the
City Paper family: Chris Iseli is a former CP intern, and his brother and bandmate Curt worked in the production department.

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