Who Stole the Punk Rock Picnic?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
Smith was so full of charisma and passion that Litwack and Schwab not only gave him the stage-manager gig, but they also made him the event's treasurer, in charge of signing and receiving checks, as well as working with all of the vendors and contract companies, many of whom were close friends of Schwab and Litwak.
Though the two had just met Smith, they were happy to accept help from a well-known member of the local punk community who seemed eager to help out. Besides, the Picnic never made any money for them to worry about anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
* * *
April Singleton and her husband, Barney, woke up in their Queen Mary hotel room on April 13, grabbed some coffee and gathered up aluminum racks of clothes from their rockabilly retro store, A PinUps Closet—corsets, vintage purses, polka dot dresses, tight black swimsuits à la Betty Page. Around 10 a.m., April looked out at the area near the ship called Queens Park, where the festival was scheduled to take place, and noticed that nothing had been set up. The park seemed empty. She flipped open her laptop, clicked onto the Punk Rock Picnic's Facebook page and saw the now-infamous note from Smith saying the event had not only been canceled, but sabotaged by Long Beach city officials, as well.
"The city of Long Beach booked a drift race the same weekend that I was holding the Punk Rock Picnic," Smith wrote. "It was going to be so loud that we wouldn't be able to hear the bands play, there was no overflow parking at the Pike, and they were going to charge me another $8,000 to advertise so that people didn't confuse the car race with the Punk Rock Picnic. I totally got screwed."
"It was a shock, to say the least," Singleton now says, perched on the plush red couch in the back of her Westminster store, surrounded by ruffled, satiny lingerie and swimsuits. "We were prepared for a few things to go wrong that day; it's a festival, after all. But c'mon—seriously?"
In his meandering message, Smith claimed the Queen Mary held onto his $5,500 deposit and that one of the bands he booked was refusing to return $2,000 he'd paid them in advance. Smith says he had no choice but to cancel the Picnic because it would have been drowned out by noise from the annual drift race, and that when he made his deposit with the city six months earlier, he was told no other events would conflict with his event. But claiming a street race would have a negative effect on one of the loudest, rudest genres of music is debatable. "We were at the Queen Mary that day during the drift racing, and it totally wouldn't have conflicted as far as sound," Singleton says. "It's not like he was throwing a freaking jazz concert out there."
Representatives for the docked luxury liner say it was Smith's choice to cancel the event after an agreement had been reached to use the venue, though they declined to comment further. According to city records, Smith apparently had a contract with the Queen Mary, which applied for a permit through the city (normal process for events in this location) on Feb. 14. On March 5, after a meeting with the parties involved, the promoter told the Queen Mary he was canceling his event, and Smith's festival-permit application was rescinded. A week later, he announced the cancellation of the Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival via Facebook, though tickets were still on sale days afterward on the event's website through a link to ticket broker Purple Pass.
A representative from Purple Pass later confirmed the money that had been made on the event through their site was funneled directly to Smith; all refunds would have to be processed through him. Despite willfully allowing Smith to hold onto the funds himself (typically ticket processors are required to withhold ticket funds from the promoter until after the event has taken place), a Purple Pass rep says the company is also considering legal action against Smith, "since this whole fiasco has caused a tremendous amount of problems for us as well, not to mention all the bad press simply for being associated with this."
But when it comes to getting refunds to vendors and ticket holders, most of whom were small businesses, Singleton and her husband say Smith's claims of being broke and unable to pay anyone just don't add up. "If my booth alone was $450, even if he had all the vendors who paid him, that would've covered the cost to at least start giving ticket-holder refunds," Singleton complains. "He had enough money that even if he lost $7,000 on the deposit and one of the bands, he still had money somewhere."
"All the fans and bands are mad at me because they think I just stole their money," Smith responded in an email statement to the Weekly. "I don't know what to do. I have built this Picnic up the past three years to make it what it is, and now, because of the city of Long Beach and the Queen Mary, not only will we not get to do the Punk Rock Picnic, but [also] the fans are out the ticket money they spent and the bands are angry. . . . The bands and the fans don't realize that I am one man putting on a $100,000 show by myself with no help and raising all the money to do so. I don't know what else I can say."
But Smith never had legal ownership of the Punk Rock Picnic as most people know it. The festival he was advertising online was the Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival, which had all but stolen the identity of the festival he'd worked on in years prior. A cursory glance at the event's website shows photos from past years of the original Punk Rock Picnic—artwork, vendor forms and logos that were all used by Litwak and Schwab, his former partners, on their festival's website, which they've since taken down.
The cache of the old fest, along with the allure of GWAR and Danzig, followed by DRI and Anti-Nowhere League, is what got most ticket holders, bands and vendors to sign on in the first place. A call to both GWAR and Danzig's management confirmed that although initial talks were conducted, it was clear early on that Smith would not be able to afford the deposits either band required to hit the stage, which reaches upwards of tens of thousands of dollars—and explains, in part, why they were billed on the flier, then they weren't.
But the faulty business practices that led to the cancellation started with Smith, Litwak and Schwab's arguments over how Smith handled the contracts and monies the Punk Rock Picnic had earned or, in this case, lost in the years he worked on the festival, from 2010 to 2012. Despite bringing on such bands as the Supersuckers, Youth Brigade, Fear and others, Schwab and Litwak say, Smith had failed to pay most of their contractual obligations to the staging and sound companies, a few of the lesser-known bands, and the Sheriff's Department; the Punk Rock Picnic still owes $7,000 for providing security during 2012's event. Even if they'd wanted to and had the funds, there's no way Smith or the festival's original founders would have been allowed to throw the event because of the outstanding debt to law enforcement.
Naturally, Long Beach would be the next best option for Smith to host his own fest. And even though the original Picnic's business account was controlled by Smith, which Litwak and Schwab say they no longer have access to, Schwab was the one who signed the agreement with the Sheriff's Department to pay for security in 2012, making him liable for the cost. More than a year later, he's still getting calls every couple of weeks and letters every couple of months asking him to pay the department.
"The Sheriff's Department already knows that [Smith] should be in jail for grand theft, grand theft larceny, identity theft, fraud, attempt to defraud a business," Schwab says. "When he used the Finding a Way Foundation, he signed the bill for Stage Tech [the festival's staging company] and billed the money to Finding a Way Foundation, something that has nothing to do with him. He's dropping it on me like he thought he was gonna get away with it."
In the months following the nonevent, as fans, bands and vendors continue to wait for any sign of a refund, sentiment against Smith and the Long Beach festival has grown pretty impatient and, in some cases, hostile. Various bands and concertgoers interviewed for this story cite Smith's mismanagement of the festival's organization and finances as the reason it has been canceled. There's even a Facebook group dedicated to boycotting the event; its page is riddled with harsh comments from bands and fans who say they've been ripped off by Smith.
When bands are still cultivating a fan base, events such as this, leaving current or potential fans with worthless tickets to a show that never existed, can be harmful to their reputation. "You don't wanna be known as that band that flakes out on promises or doesn't come through," says Marin of Foreign Bodies.
Likewise, the owners of A PinUps Closet say they would've had to recoup customers out of their own pocket had they agreed to sell tickets for the doomed Picnic in their store.
Despite the obvious debacle, certain bands higher in punk rock's social pecking order who managed to be unscathed in their dealings with Smith aren't exactly ready to tar and feather him based on their experiences. "I got nothing bad to say about the guy," says Jeff "Boz" Milucky, guitarist for local legends the Crowd. "He's done what he said he was going to do on the two occasions I've worked with him. He knew I would be very unhappy if he didn't."
Mike Magrann of old-school punkers CH3, scheduled to play as a sub-headliner at the festival, says the band's dealings with Smith in person were fine, though he seemed to be a nice guy who was in way over his head. "We've become accustomed to showing up at these festivals and given a dressing room and Vitamin Waters," Magrann says. "Maybe we've forgotten about all the chaos and the dreamers, all those canceled gigs and fucked-over paydays of the past. But it's nice to have a reminder!"
Maximum Maxie, the lead singer of masked "power pop punk rock" outfit the Maxies, believes bands who agree to "pay to play" are violating punk-rock ethics. "If all of these bands collectively said, 'No, we're not doing your job for you, and we refuse to sell tickets,' then these kinds of scams would stop," says Maxie. "It's gotta be up to the bands to bust their asses and play the smaller shows and work their way up to be asked to play an event like this, instead of buying their way in."
* * *
Despite being out of the festival game this year, Punk Rock Picnic founders Litwak and Schwab are still fighting to get the bills paid for last year's fest. That includes settling some of their own debts with certain companies, in addition to the Sheriff's Department. Stage Tech, a concert-staging company based in Santa Fe Springs, was forced to take Smith to small claims court last year on delinquent staging costs; it won the suit.
For those who are actively seeking to recoup lost funds, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Though it took almost three months for process servers to locate Smith and hand him the court order to appear before a judge in small claims court, White believes he's finally on the road to recovering his losses; more important, he says, he's showing Smith that his actions won't be tolerated.
"I've gotten together a group of ticket holders, bands and vendors who are at least willing to be there for the hearing for support, just so Smith can look into the faces of people who've been wronged by this whole event," he says with a grin. "Should make him at least a little uncomfortable, no?"
It's not Judge Judy, but a roomful of surly punks in a Laguna Hills courtroom promises to be entertaining; the hearing is scheduled for June 17.
With the ashes of the Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival still smoldering, many wonder whether the biggest backyard punk show in OC will ever be able to come back from the destruction caused by its ill-fated clone. Schwab and Litwak say it depends. Can they afford to pay for a new venue—assuming anyone will work with them after this year's debacle—and do they have the will to even try?
"If we could've read a crystal ball, we would've averted this totally," remarks Schwab. "There would actually be a Punk Rock Picnic No. 6. It would've already happened. But it got screwed up by one dude."
In recent months, Smith has reached out to Schwab and Litwak via text, apologizing for breaking up the partnership between them, blaming a series of things, including a former girlfriend who, he says, encouraged his ambition to take the Punk Rock Picnic on his own terms.
"I'm sorry, Jim," Smith writes in one message, which Schwab shared with the Weekly. "I was wrong for what happened; I should've never let a woman cut me off from two people I had a really good relationship with. We were a team, and we were partners. It doesn't work without the entire engine intact; I blew it."
Various attempts to reach Smith have been fruitless, aside from one very long email response explaining his side of his dealings with the city of Long Beach and one very short, expletive-filled phone call that didn't tell us much—though he sounds pretty fucking miserable.
Was the Picnic ever perfectly run? No. Were mistakes made since day one? You bet your ass. It was a dirty, grassroots event built from the ground up by people who enjoy their fair share of mischief and mayhem. But at least the damn thing had some heart and soul behind it. And though ticket holders might've incurred bumps and bruises and occasionally been knocked down along the way, the small lumps you take at Punk Rock Picnic were the kind most punks prefer, the kind from which you pop back up, spit some blood on the grass, gnash your teeth and keep on moving.
"People ask me, 'Do you even get to enjoy the festival when you're working it?'" Schwab says. "And I say no, I love it. If I'm helping someone out who already dislocated their shoulder and it's popping out again because they're goofing around that day, I grab a trash bag and make him a splint so he can go on with the day. For that eight or nine hours, we're all there together. These people are our family. So we have to take care of one another. Plain and simple."
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