It Played in Peoria

Recently, I stumbled upon the Peoria Shows Page. Unless you came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Peoria, Illinois, this means nothing to you. Yet, this lovingly curated and long abandoned Angelfire subdirectory made me reflect on the local music scene of my youth and the heaviness of the culture in which it incubated. In that liminal, late 20th century moment between analog and digital, the Peoria Shows Page was our local music scene’s totem.

The fact that the site itself is still hosted by Angelfire and indexed by Google is nothing short of incredible. Though Angelfire was purchased by Lycos in 1998, and has since entered the HTML5 era, this site retains all of the elements of classic early web page design, complete with bright blue hyperlinks and two-columned flames filling out the background. Buzzfeed recently compiled a dazzling collection of Angelfire pages for those who wish take a trip down memory lane. Contextualized within the history of the World Wide Web, the Peoria Shows Page is a mere museum piece, and an excellent example of how not to design a webpage.

However, contextualizing the webpage within the cultural and economic history of Peoria offers a glimpse at how a generation of kids were trying their damnedest to process the economic and social realities of their crumbling Midwestern city.

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has 64 captures of the website going back to July 6th, 2000.Though the list of bands expands and contracts over time, and the number of show updates steadily declines, the tell-tale band names speak to a distressed state of affairs:

The Negative Approach. The Crash Harder. Negative Optimism. Working Class Threat. Fighting Apathy. The Retaliation Project. The River City Radicals. The Victims. They’re Like a Union. Screaming With Knives. Going Nowhere. Led to Slaughter. The Deadbeats. No Security. No Solution.

One could probably surmise that most of these bands would be categorized somewhere on the spectrum from heavy metal to punk to hardcore. More importantly, each of these bands formed under the long-cast shadow of Peoria’s largest employer: Caterpillar.

As Robert Walser points out in Running with Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, heavy metal is a music striving towards power, often from those individuals living among industrial decline and socioeconomic inequality. By way of example, Tony Iommi severs his fingers working in the industrial decay of Birmingham, starts hanging out with Ozzy Osbourne, and Black Sabbath is born.

Of course, each locale breeds a unique feeling of powerlessness. Throughout the 1990s, Peoria experienced one of the most bitter and protracted labor disputes between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Caterpillar. In 1991, the UAW would strike for five months and again in 1994 for 17 months to secure cost-of-living increases and retirement benefits. During this period, Caterpillar replaced the nearly 9,000 striking UAW workers with temporary employees. Violence erupted at the entrance to Caterpillar plants across the Peoria area as strikers and replacement workers intersected. The Illinois Legislature was eventually forced to enact legislation to prosecute the possession of a jackrock, a ball of nails used by strikers to puncture the tires of temporary workers and management crossing the picket lines. The strikes ended with few resolutions between Caterpillar and the UAW. The lasting imprint was a depressed local economy and simmering tensions between the UAW, management, and replacement workers who found themselves unemployed. Children from all three segments of the workforce shared classrooms across the city, creating an uneasiness in local schools. Schoolyard fights and arguments had more to do with class politics than we could ever articulate in our adolescent brains or fists. The economic ripple would eventually force my own father into unemployment from the salvage yard, his only option left at the age of 64 was to join the crippled Caterpillar workforce.

Of course, powerlessness can be experienced both economically and socially. In 1996, just as the UAW strike was ending, Matthew Hale founded the World Church of the Creator in his parents’ East Peoria basement, a religious group based on the tenets of white supremacy. Exploiting open public library policy, Matthew Hale and his followers would hold rallies in libraries across the state. In 2001, a riot broke out in the basement of the Peoria Public Library, the same library where I completed my 5th grade report on the state of Oklahoma.

In 1999, one of Matthew Hale’s followers, Benjamin Smith, would go on a shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana, targeting minorities before committing suicide. It is widely believed that Smith was acting in retaliation after Matthew Hale’s application to practice law in the state of Illinois was rejected. A young Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden’s publisher, would represent Matthew Hale in his appeal. Today, Matthew Hale is serving a 40-year prison term for attempting to kill US district court judge Joan Lefkow.

The singers, drummers, bassists, and guitarists in Peoria’s hardcore bands grew up in this environment, overhearing their parents hushed conversations about money and the hate breeding in the streets. Whether you were a child of a Caterpillar worker or not, no one could avoid the headlines splashed across the Peoria Journal Star or the police cars creating a barrier around the public library. Roiling inside many of us was an unarticulated and contradictory mix of pride, sadness, anger, shame, and powerlessness. Some of us found solace in sports, gleaning a sense of self from the absoluteness of wins and losses. Others pushed themselves academically and awaited liberation in the form of acceptance letters to better places. And some of us found release through music, attempting to abolish strife through a cathartic relief of noise and sound.

Unbeknownst to the creators of the Peoria Shows Page: Lycos, the owner of Angelfire, derived its namesake from the scientific classification for wolf spider (Lycosidae).

The creators designed a beta version of the search engine to crawl and hunt the Internet for web pages. In the Midwest, wolf spiders reside in deep burrows, like basements — lurking in the shadows away from outside dangers. As America’s economy transitioned from industry to automation, the youth of a rusted city used the Peoria Shows Page to gather in American Legion Halls and church basements to insulate themselves and recapture, even for a brief moment, power in a powerless city.

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