The Endurant Perspective of a Punk Rock Education
Formative Years at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago.
I don’t believe in the sanctity of punk rock. If anything, by its very definition punk is beautiful in its ambiguity. I do believe in the evangelical power of its gospel. And whatever your definition of punk, it changed my life.
Lost between Generation X and the Millennials is something called Cuspers, largely classified as anymore born in the 3 lost years between 1979 and 1982. Defined more by juxtaposition than identity, Cuspers watched the collapse of Generation X and the colonial rise of the Millennial age. If you were like me, while everything changed, you were learning how to change everything, you were Generation DIY.
In 1996 I was 14 years old. Minimalism was a uniform, Fugazi was a religion and the Fireside Bowl in Chicago was a sanctuary. The then abandoned lanes at 2646 W Fullerton Ave proved fertile training ground, raising a generation of DIY disciples. The marginalized parishioners stood, shoulder-to-shoulder — every night of the week — against the homogenization of alternative music. Together, between hollowed walls I watched some of the most impactful, diverse shows of my life. And the music was only a part of it.
A lot of nostalgic afternoons have been wasted dreaming of CBGB’s in New York City or Gilman Street in Berkeley. I’ve never been to either of those epicenters of punk ethos. Jello Biafra was called a sellout and beaten on Gilman St. If Gilman Street was Altamont to CBGB’s Woodstock-esqu artistic community, The Fireside Bowl was a geographical, and idealogical middle ground. In the mid-nineties boom of post-hardcore, emo-core, and every other hyphen-core genre, a fiercely diverse and absolutely independent collective or artists stood up and took their place in punk history.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the word punk but the connection was immediate. Soon after, I made a friend who had an overwhelming record collection and I borrowed my first stack of cd’s, Fugazi In On The Kill Taker, Sonic Youth Daydream Nation, Dinosaur Jr. Without a Sound, Sunny Day Real Estate Diary and The Way of The Vaselines. The validity and punk cred of any of those titles are certainly relative, but like Nirvana, they were a gateway, the next step into a world of ideas. In a matter of months I was catching rides up to Atomic Records in Milwaukee and hoarding copies of Milk Magazine.
The midwestern punk scene circa the mid-late 90’s was a celebration of blue-collar ethics in stark contrast to the bloated feeding frenzy on post-Nirvana revenue. I was hooked. You could be in a band, play all ages shows, make and sell your own records and do it all on your own terms. Kurt Cobain said, “Punk is musical freedom.” Even at 13, I knew Kurt didn’t look free. But bands like Fugazi were untouchable. They were free and their freedom could’t be manipulated. They lived by strict ethos, fiscal, lifestyle, everything matched their ethic — they embodied everything that was appealing about Generation X without any of the irony.
I wasn’t straight edge, but I was immediately intrigued at the prospect of tattooed sages floor-punching their way to enlightenment. Even though I found the militantism alienating, the ethos of uniform organization and mobilization was inspiring. Like all spiritual quests, straight edge walked the line between a personal journey of embetterment and an ass-slapping team sport, in both instances it was massively effective.
From the Do-it-yourself ethos, to straight edge, gutter punks, crust-punks, emo-kids, indi-rockers, art-rock, math-core, shoe-gaze, hardcore, post-hardcore, metal-core, grind-core, etc., it was all right there, on the same bill, night after night at the Fireside Bowl.
Before social media, internet communication was about to start but at least for a time, concerts were social media. It was a safe place to learn, hear new music, get hip to new styles, get zines and pick up a pamphlet on veganism, McDonald’s contribution to the destruction of the rain forests and Anti Racist Action. And after every show there’d be a new show bill, with the next month’s gigs that you could scour, building the anticipation for the next time.
For a 14 year old kid, meeting your favorite band at a $5 show and buying the 7" from the first opened box of records before the lead singer even made it to the merch table — was what it was all about. Nothing beats watching a band you can become friends with on a stage you can stand on.
Experiencing that level of self-sufficiency during your formative years changes the way you process everything after. One band at a time, you are acclimated to a boss-less economy driven by a collective-consciousness. You learn to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. Tangibly, free-forming groups of socially-alienated kids gather in an Emma Goldman-ian vision of ideological independence.
Its a matter of exposure. For midwestern teenagers, these all ages venues facilitated exposure to new ideas, new art, new questions and ultimately new options for independent careers and lifestyles.
The Fireside Bowl, and venues like it, became launch pads, converting the centripetal force of the 1980’s underground movement into the entrepreneurial explosion of the digital era. Empowered with new tools for communication and connection, these D.I.Y. punk ethics would continue to change music and ultimately global business over the coming decade. One of the training grounds was a defunct bowling alley, with rotten floors, disintegrating ceiling tiles and bathroom stalls with no lock or doors.
If punk is subversive. If punk is independence. If punk is freedom. This is it.
The Fireside Bowl is where midwestern kids like me got their education, learning a mobile and highly adaptive business model that unlocked creative careers for a new generation of freelancers and entrepreneurs alike. We learned how to do it ourself, decisively with resolve and clarity. You had to be looking for it, but if you were, the blueprint was available for the taking.
“Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying and receiving undefiled.” -Blueprint by Fugazi
It is always just a room. Just a stage. Just a pile of speakers and just a few instruments. The secret is always that there is no secret. CBGB’s, Gilman Street, Fireside Bowl, Safari Club, they were all just places, no more special than the last. Every time punk died, and the scene was blown out, another one emerged, because the subversive gospel of punk theology will always resonate with weirdo teenagers who don’t like what they’re being told and sold.
The Fireside Bowl was just a place where music was played. Alive because of the hearts and souls who bled on its stage and sweated on its floor. Like every other iconic punk mecca, it isn’t the ritualized wardrobe or the address that sticks with you, it is a perspective and a way of approaching life. A spirit that says, “Fuck off, I can decide what I like for myself.”
For me, that spirit was ignited in a depleted bowling alley as the twentieth century came to a roaring end and a new age of digitally driven community took over. Do it yourself would take on new meanings as the fractionalized definitions of punk continued to evolve, becoming as synonymous with a philosophy as an aesthetic or sound.
The space wasn’t the magic part of the equation. People were. Punk is, and will always be defined by the people as much as by the music. The people who drove in from the county, caught rides from the city, turned off their televisions, supported independent art and decided that wherever they say is the place to be, is the place to be.
On November 22, 1999, Hot Water Music played the Fireside Bowl. After breaking my collar bone skateboarding a few weeks earlier (no I wasn’t doing a great trick), I was in no condition to endure the audience. The band let me stand on stage for their set. Recently I found a video of that show, that’s me, next to the speaker column in a black hoodie and a sling. In the years since, I’ve stood on the side of countless stages watching many of my musical heroes, everyone from Buddy Guy to Lucero and X, but this night is one I’ll always remember. It is the night that defines my formative years at the Fireside Bowl.