Who Stole the Punk Rock Picnic?

How OC's biggest backyard party went from mosh pit to money pit

Who Stole the Punk Rock Picnic?
Pat Kinsella

On paper, it seemed like a local punk's wet dream. OC's biggest backyard show for Mohawk-wearing beer swillers had just been taken up about 50 notches. According to the flier, the 2013 Punk Rock Picnic would be hosted in Long Beach near the Queen Mary. Doubling in size, it would expand to a two-day event featuring more than 60 bands, with a bill topped by headbanging demigods Danzig and GWAR. After five years, it seemed the Picnic's finest hour had finally arrived—controlled chaos at its finest.

At least, that's what Luis Marin and his band mates in Santa Ana punk outfit Foreign Bodies thought when they first heard about it last September and convinced themselves to get their band on the bill. Despite not having an enormous following, they'd prove their worthiness by selling tickets. The deal they made with the promoter seemed standard: Sell as many one- and two-day passes as they could and earn themselves a decent spot in a crazy festival alongside their immortal punk heroes.

But as he banged repeatedly on the rattling steel door in the back alley of the Hardcore Industries warehouse in Irvine to turn in his wad of ticket money to promoter Steve Smith, the doubts in the back of Marin's mind grew louder. It was just a few weeks before the festival, and things were looking shaky. Danzig and GWAR, the main reasons why the drummer even wanted to play in the first place, had inexplicably dropped off the bill months ago, replaced by new headliners—Houston legends DRI and U.K. punk stalwarts Anti-Nowhere League. It was a decent bill, but nowhere near as big a deal.

Burn, punkers, burn
Pat Kinsella
Burn, punkers, burn

Still, Marin figured an event that managed to survive and thrive for five straight years ought to be worth the hassle. He banged the door again. Still nothing. "I'd seen videos on YouTube, and it looked like there were a ton of people showing up every year, so we thought, 'Cool, a good way to get our name out there,'" Marin now says.

Three hours later, at 8 p.m., Marin was still waiting outside in his car for Smith to answer the door. After about a dozen texts and phone calls, Smith finally responded and said he'd just "dozed off." He emerged from the back sporting a black shirt and black beanie. The two barely spoke. Smith simply grabbed the money from Marin—$750 balled up in a clear sandwich baggy—gave him a half-assed "Thanks," turned around and shut the door.

The next morning, Marin got a text from his brother telling him to check Punk Rock Picnic's Facebook page. Marin hastily logged on to find out the event was "canceled until further notice." Less than 12 hours after he had forked over the money paid by fans traveling from as far as Massachusetts, he already had to start thinking about how he was going to get their money back. Suddenly, Marin remembers, he tensed up at his computer as a wave of anger and confusion crashed over him. He felt ripped-off—nay, royally fucked over.

"My first thought was 'What the hell?!,'" Marin recalls. "'How do you not know when I'm there late at night dropping off money that your event is canceled?'"

Sadly, Foreign Bodies weren't the only ones who found out in mid-March that someone or something had put the kibosh on the festival. Dozens of local bands, vendors and thousands of ticket holders (at least the ones who happened to look at the event's Facebook page) all saw the same message from Smith telling them the show was canceled because of a scheduling conflict and subsequent financial dispute with the city of Long Beach over the deposit he'd given to the Queen Mary. Meanwhile, tickets for the festival—ranging from $35 (one day) to $150 (backstage, all access for both days)—were still being sold on the festival website with no mention of the cancellation until several days after the announcement. Before long, the Internet was abuzz with angry punks holding onto worthless tickets for a festival that had just reached its landmark sixth year . . . or so they thought.

What they'd actually bought were tickets to the first annual Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival, an event created by Smith that was separate from the one most people knew. The latter had two different founders that Smith had worked with to throw the original Picnic for the previous three years. On paper, the two fests were almost indistinguishable. It's clear that many of the sponsors and bands seemed to align this event with past Punk Rock Picnics thrown at Irvine Lake, Hidden Valley Park and Oak Canyon Ranch. Only instead of bloody scrapes and bruises in a mosh pit, the new Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival was a money pit that would leave a huge chunk of OC's punk community licking their financial wounds for months to come.

*     *     *

Three months after losing almost $1,000 on his vendor slot at the mysteriously vanishing festival, Gregg White is sipping a foamy craft lager at an oak table inside Congregation Ale House in downtown Long Beach. The owner of mom-and-pop punk label Vacant Lot Entertainment sifts through a copy of his small-claims lawsuit against Smith. Also in his pile of papers are dozens of email and Facebook exchanges in which Smith promises to refund the money for his vendor booth, along with loose business invoices, blog articles on Punk Rock Picnic, and a letter from a producer from reality-TV court show Judge Judy.

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