Who Stole the Punk Rock Picnic?

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

Days earlier, the show contacted him with the idea to bring Smith on camera to sue for damages, a shot at justice shuffled between Maury Povich and The Price Is Right. He respectfully declined. Not that it mattered anyway; he'd been trying to serve Smith with court papers for his own case for weeks with no luck. The promoter continued to be unresponsive to phone calls, emails and visits to his warehouse, which doubled as his business and his home.

"I can't believe how hard this guy has been to track down. Kind of funny considering he calls himself a promoter, and then runs and hides," White says. "But also it's frustrating because all I'm trying to do is get back what was taken from me."

Even as an owner of a record label, it's not in White's nature to sue anyone for damages—the whole process just felt so very un-punk. But after months of getting the run-around and hearing how many people were being ripped off along with him, he knew they had to do something.

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

"This guy is a real piece of work," White says. "I'd rather be running my business right now, but instead, me and a lot of other people are figuring out what to do about the money we lost. It may not seem like a lot, but together, it really adds up quick."

The Punk Rock Picnic, in its original form, was never designed to command big stages, big headliners or big headaches. It started in Scott Litwak's kitchen, just half-baked ideas sorting themselves out around a table cluttered with pizza boxes and beer cans as he and co-founder Jim Schwab tried to figure out how they were going to allocate funds from a less-than-monstrous $5,000 budget Schwab had socked away, dollar by dollar, all year. The goal was to throw a party that would basically consist of a bunch of friends, their bands and maybe a few stray, crusty punkers. It would be a rowdy, shirt-ripping good time with a few decent bands corralled by some chain-link fencing. Not that those were very effective at keeping people from getting in for free.

"I remember seeing video after the event during the early years of, like, these punks with big, ol' bellies climbing up some crummy fence in their creepers and suspenders and shit and hurling themselves over, almost breaking their necks to get in the show. It was crazy," Schwab says between bites of melty, charbroiled deliciousness at TK Burger in Costa Mesa. Sporting a blue ballcap over his shaved head, he sits with Litwak on the back patio of the local burger chain, the walls of which are covered with band stickers, as cars whiz by in the dark. FM pop is crackling over tiny outdoor speakers. Litwak, an OC native with tanned skin and close-cropped brown hair, points to the crudely drawn red, white and black OC Punk Rock Picnic logo on Schwab's shirt from 2008. "The real beginning starts precisely with this guy and that logo," he says.

Before Smith existed in either of their worlds, these longtime friends were figuring out the simple logistics of setting up stages, obtaining food permits, starting up a business bank account and becoming promoters. Schwab first got the idea to throw a full-day punk show after a friend of his had tried and failed. Yet, somehow, he and Litwak had managed to get enough of their friend's bands to sell $10 tickets to keep this gig afloat. Despite almost getting shut down by the OC Sheriff's Department the morning of the event, the first show at Irvine Lake drew about 800 people and began a pattern of sweaty punk revelry that made the Picnic unique.

Somehow, it melded tattoo-chested testosterone with suburban angst, family fun and an adrenalin-filled sense of togetherness. You felt electric as your Chucks skated across a sun-beaten lawn, surrounded by pop-up stages blasting white-knuckled aural aggression from all corners. By the second year, the Picnic had outgrown Irvine Lake and opted to move to Hidden Valley Park, a former amusement-park area. It stayed there for two years until the land was buried by a tract of sterile apartment homes.

In the fray of flailing punks and raucous bands was Smith, who had come for the first few years lugging gear as a roadie. A local punk rocker and a fan of what Litwak and Schwab were doing, Smith approached them in 2010, offering his services as a stage manager. He couldn't have done so at a better time: The drain of logistics; expensive motocross entertainment; complaints over a lack of organization; and false allegations that Finding a Way Foundation, their self-made brand promoting autism awareness, was a bogus charity. Add to that surly punk musicians skirting their contracts for ticket sales and set times, and it was too much for Litwak and Schwab to handle on their own.

Smith had a reputation as a ball buster—well-connected and experienced at throwing shows, he took no guff backstage from musicians who had a tendency to disappear for an hour. He was exactly the kind of guy they needed.

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