The organizers of the Punk Rock Picnic Music Festival knew that if they wanted a chance to get back into the public's good graces, it was going to cost them–big-time. In 2013, the festival was being promoted and run by local punk rocker Steve Smith, who turned it into one of the biggest boneheaded debacles in recent memory.
If you read our cover story about it a couple of years ago, you know that it was supposed to transform that year from a one-day backyard-style OC punk show into a hulking two-day event headlined by GWAR and Danzig aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. But that's not how things turned out. Not only did Smith fail to secure the headliners (which were later changed to Anti-Nowhere League and DRI), but a planning conflict with an annual drag race and a financial dispute over the nonrefundable deposit with the onetime cruise ship resulted in him not even having a venue. The show was canceled the day before it was supposed to start. Ticket holders, vendors and bands were left wondering what the hell had happened to the money they'd paid. With no refund in sight, it looked as if the Punk Rock Picnic had been stolen from them.
"My ego got the best of me," Smith says now. On this rainy day, he's scooping up forkfuls of rice, steak and black beans at a local Wahoo's Fish Taco. His eyes frequently cast down to his plate; his jet-black hair, gauged ear plugs and neck tattoo frame a face worn with contrition. "I thought I was hot shit, and I bit off more than I could chew and tried to do more than I could do as one guy. Regardless of whether or not the Queen Mary took our money, I'm the one who [handled] the [Punk Rock Picnic], and I'm the one [who] was responsible for it. I'm sorry for that, and I apologize to the fans, but I'm a man of my word, and if I say I'm gonna do something, I'm gonna do it."
The "something" Smith is referring to is his attempt to bring back the Punk Rock Picnic and pay back everyone he burned. There's no way he was ever going to be able to do that by himself, so he's getting help–and financial backing–from friend Rick Bottrell, who stepped in last year to salvage the event. The two began the process of finding a new location, wrangling headliners (Cockney Rejects, Discharge, Agent Orange), getting firm contracts signed with the bands, and, most important, paying back as many fans and vendors as possible. When Smith reached out for help in 2013, Bottrell–a licensed contractor and a former stage manager for the show–was probably the most ideal candidate. While he would never call himself a professional promoter, he's had ties to the festival for years as one of the many honorary staff members who operated the lights and sound board and worked for beer.
"That was back in the do-it-yourself days," says Bottrell, who resembles a laid-back, bleached-blond doppelganger of Guy Fieri. "The main difference in hiring is that we need people who are there to work, who don't give a crap about the bands that are playing. They're not there for free tickets or whatever." In the past, the Punk Rock Picnic was a pretty loose affair, with people easily hopping fences or finding other ways to sneak in. This year, the easiest way to get in for free is to have bought a ticket for the 2013 fest. Bottrell and Smith say those who have proof of their old ticket purchases will be given VIP and backstage access at this year's show–as well as an endless free supply of hot dogs and nachos, according to Smith.
They expect 3,000 punks to show up at Marina Green in Long Beach, with a list of free guests that will number into the hundreds. Despite the heavy financial blow of allowing so many people in for free, both organizers say it's a small price to pay to regain some of the good faith that was lost in 2013.
"If I don't have my word or my integrity, what do I have?" Smith asks. "I don't want to be bothered by what people think about me, but I really care what people think about me. But you can't please everyone."
For what it's worth, they're definitely trying to. This year's Punk Rock Picnic will set up six stages, including the main stage, the Clown Stage (featuring the Yeastie Boys, who've played the event just about every year), a BMX/skate stage featuring a half-pipe and Rick Thorne announcing, and the Nardcore Stage, featuring such Norcal faves as Ill Repute and the White Kaps. Bottrell says well more than 100 bands from previous years are willing to return as well. They've also planned a twin festival for the headlining acts in Spokane, Washington.
If you'll remember, the Punk Rock Picnic was originally founded by Scott Litwak and his friend Jim Schwab. The two ran the event for several years before it was taken over by Smith in a dubious fashion. Despite his bitterness over no longer being involved with it, Litwak says he's also glad to be rid of the headache. "The feeling is like if someone stole my girlfriend, well then how does my dick taste? He took my [festival], but whatever–[Jim and I] were both losing money and time," Litwak says. "Everyone who knows the politics of the picnic is still gonna play that show. Because it's a place for them to make some new fans and play music in front of new people, which they don't get to do a lot."
Gregg White, the head of Vacant Lot Entertainment who went as far as trying to sue Smith in small-claims court to receive his vendor refund (nearly $1,000), was one of the people whom Smith finally paid back. Though he's still shaking his head over the fact it took so long to get the money, he's willing to call it a lesson learned. "It took two years for this to come full circle, but I'm not in the business of making folks out to be bad people–he did his part," White says. "I just won't do any business with him again."
Even with the firmly signed contracts, solid financial backing and a well-curated linuep, Smith and Bottrell know they have a lot of work ahead of them to reinstate trust in Punk Rock Picnic and let people know they're serious. "Punk Rock Picnic is my reason to live," Smith says. "It gives me something to focus on and be passionate about. I don't have a lot of goals or things that I want in life, but the picnic motivates me to get up every day, and we want to continue trying to make the best festival we can."
Hopefully, he's right about that. After all, even punks love a good comeback story.
"At the end of all this, we're gonna look back on 2013 failing and say it was the best thing that could've ever happened," Bottrell says. "For Steve Smith and the Punk Rock Picnic."
Punk Rock Picnic Music and Skate Festival featuring Cockney Rejects, Agent Orange, Discharge, the Meatmen and more, at Marina Green Park, 386 E. Shoreline Dr., Long Beach, (562) 983-5818; www.punkrockpicnicmusicfestival.com. June 27, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. $45-$160; children 5-12, $25; kids younger than 5, free.