Dont Come Back Dead

Photo by Stoopid JohnnyThis is not Orange County.

This is a band, crammed into a boxing ring, lit by one dim, red bulb. This is wild-eyed kids in fraying sweaters hanging from the rafters, toppling keister-over-cabesa over the ropes, and shouting at the top of their lungs. This is us, smashed up against goofy outfits and bad haircuts, scrambling to stay upright while somebody swings a very hefty mic stand over our heads and then somersaults over the turnbuckle into a tangle of grinning lunatics. This is our road trip to see what happens when our locals meet yokels out in the godforsaken alfalfa-strewn wastes of Kern County. "Punk's not dead," says somebody, ducking as the mic stand sweeps past again. "It just lives in Bakersfield."

For two and a half lonely years, a handful of Bakersfield kids have been using Paul Munoz's boxing gym to set up completely insane punk and hardcore shows for the 45 or so lost souls who want something more out of life than driving around in pickup trucks listening to local boys Korn and Merle Haggard. On this Friday night in January, they've brought in some out-of-town reinforcements: Long Beach's Le Shok and De Facto (who never actually showed up, but we're sure they had a good excuse), OC's Colostomy Bag, and tour mates Beautiful Skin and the Locust. We'd never been to Bakersfield before—who has?—and we were delighted to find the citizenry had made a bold leap into the mid-1970s and discovered punk rock. We left OC with a quarter tank of gas and directions smeared on our hand: "DON'T COME BACK DEAD."

"Bakersfield's pretty crappy," we're told by Drew, the guy behind the flying mic stand who, with band mate Ronald Munoz, has been slowly pulverizing the structural integrity of Grandpa Paul's gym show after stubborn show. "Not too many people around here are into our style of music."

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And that style? Well, in Bakersfield, they might call it "other"—or they might even call it blasphemy. Drew's band is named the Kill—on purpose. Their regular bass player had to bow out—a family emergency—and the new guy, a small-town punk incarnate with a cowboy hat sporting a crude skull and crossbones, is doing his best to keep up. Not that it matters—any coherent songs had their necks snapped on the way in. Instead, it's freaked-out yelling, hyperspeed drums and keyboards, and—hey! Look out for that mic stand! A nice introduction to the local culture, and, of course, it makes the cops show up—some drunk punk was out in the street giving the finger to passing police cars. "Fuck it! We were done anyway!" yells somebody in the Kill. We start looking around for exits, as does everybody in the room who has an outstanding warrant, and then inexplicably—at least to us Orange Countians—the police calmly depart. Perhaps they had more urgent livestock-fondling calls to attend to.

Time to celebrate! Out come the foam cups filled with hot chocolate and peppermint Schnapps and out comes Colostomy Bag. "Get in the ring," they smile, luring a bunch of kids over the ropes. Then lights out—and it's like a bomb goes off. Eardrum-rupturing noise! Yells and screams! Bodies everywhere! Somewhere in the rubble are actual songs—that nutso metal-edged hardcore that the kids love—but they're being trampled to death like everything else. And then, eerie silence as they politely pack up, leaving the casualties to stagger into the street moaning, "That was fuggin' awesome!"

Poor Beautiful Skin, with their intricately crafted pop songs, clinging to quaint conventions like "melody" and "intelligible lyrics," are scared—"You people don't want to hear a slow song, do you?" their drummer asks hopefully —but they have guts and play anyway. We take a break to check out the other attractions Bakersfield has to offer: chiefly, an excellent burrito joint, some stray cats, and a car full of scary people who try to abduct us. "Get in the car!" they growl. "You have to!"

"We're busy!" we say and politely run really fast back to the show, where Le Shok is clambering onstage.

Reading this will take more time than Le Shok's whole set, but you'll probably get smacked in the head a lot less. "You rock pretty good for a hick city," sneers Hot Rod Todd, squinting under a videocam spotlight. Minutes later, he snakes the mic cord around the cameraman's neck, sending the spotlight ricocheting off the back wall and making for one of Bakersfield's funniest home videos. They've switched keyboard player Shaan over to guitar and got some redhead to replace him, but they still sound as spastic and snotty as ever—it's new wave trash-thrash, sort of, and if we have to mention the Germs and the Screamers, so be it. They don't break out windows like they used to, but they're still a riot.

The Locust would be, too, except they're concentrating on actually playing their songs—do people really do that anymore? In the stultifying world of dizzyingly fast scream-your-head-off hardcore, the Locust have managed to eke out a niche all to themselves. It's a scary niche, granted, littered with custom belt buckles, coke mirrors and warped Henry Mancini-style organ lines, but it's definitely intriguing—particularly if you'd ever hoped Herb Alpert could hash out a collaboration with Cannibal Corpse. But we duck out as the Locust pound the final nails into their set, anxious to get home before we're too far gone for even trucker speed to keep us up.

It's a long and boring drive home. Goodbye, mullets and mohawks. Goodbye, feral cats. Goodbye, carload of abductors and drunk punk in the street giving cops the finger. And goodbye, weather-beaten, one-room gym cracking at the corners with crazy, shrieking, bored-to-bursting kids. We wave wistfully as we drive away—not dead, not arrested, and, for a few hours, not bored. Small-town punk: it's a hell of a place to visit.

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