Testify – David Ensminger
If local punk band reunions have shown anything, it’s that the genre that started as a culture and music of rebellious youth is no longer just a youth movement and, that despite its best efforts, the culture and the music has actually aged gracefully. One thing that happens with maturity is the ability to look back and contextualize what at the time seemed chaotic, anarchistic, and fleeting. Local scribe David Ensminger, has been doing just that for quite some time. His Ozone City Outrage blog has been a treasure trove of old and not so old Punk flyers and his Left of The Dial zine has proved an invaluable resource to me on various occasions. This week he is releasing a book, Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation (University Press of Mississippi), that examines Punk flyers and other visual works as urban folk art. I could go on about it but I think it’s better to step out of the way and let Ensinger do the talking…
FPH – First of all lets tell us about the book – what it is about, how did the book come together, and what inspired you to make it?
Ensminger – I started making and collecting flyers as a teenager for shows that took place in Rockford, IL, the home town of Cheap Trick. Friends of mine set up DIY shows at roller skating rinks, VHW halls, and sometimes bars. I grabbed flyers all the time, including early gigs I witnessed, like Capitol Punishment and Life Sentence in the mid-1980s. The Adolescents show was my first flyer, then I also constructed them for others, like Youth of Today, which ended up being cancelled. I played drummed in bands that opened for Kingface and 7 Seconds, I edited a ‘zine named after a Henry Rollins’ spoken word piece called No Deposit No Return, and I invited bands stay at my house, like Swiz, Government Issue, and Moral Crux.
My brother, who is ten years older than me, introduced me to punk rock when I was 10 years old. He was very adamant that I should make art and music and disconnect from corporate culture, which surrounded me as a kid, like Star Wars. So, in fifth grade a wrote a biography of Johnny Rotten for a school assignment, and I have never stopped. My book, which examines punk street art (flyers, graffiti, and stencils) and the subcultures of punk (Hispanic, gay and lesbian, and black punk), is simply an extension of those early efforts. The book is an ode to the diverse movement that empowered me.
FPH – A lot of these flyers were made before the days of Photoshop. What do you think we lost in that digital transition?
Ensminger – I miss one main thing: the human touch. I actually enjoy the mistakes, the crudeness, the off-kilter, the instant art, the naivety, and the imperfection of the early flyers, which amounted to a mass democratic movement in the arts. As my friend Welly from Artcore zine notes, punk posters de-gentrified gig posters in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, when posters had become limited edition, finely wrought objets d’art. Punk was more about splatters, splotches, ugliness, torn and ripped qualities, which fractured the visual terrain of modernity. This approach was more in tune with my sensibilities living in a cookie cutter suburb. I felt caged in by stadium rock blaring from ranch home windows and miles of boredom in every flat direction. Punk rock connected me to a vein of resistance. Posters and flyers used to be traded by mail, purchased, or used as letter heads. They represented a museum in the mailbox, made by and for the people.
FPH – Are there people who still keep that Xerox aesthetic alive these days?
Ensminger – I certainly do. All the posters I make for shows are made via copy machine, and others in town do so as well, like Born Liars, whose flyers have a direct link to the aesthetic. Though Hatetank Production designers don’t employ cut’n’paste methods so much, they still distribute tons of small handbills for shows, which I still collect. Houston doesn’t have the ongoing poster traditions that a town like Portland exudes, but in small pockets, like Montrose, the posters remain alive and well in small batches. Street art, however, continues to blaze across neighborhoods. This scene is a fascinating, and some say disturbing, epoch.
FPH – Give us some of your favorite flyers and why they speak to you?
Ensminger – Let me zero in on one as an example. The TSOL gig flyer represents many cultural facets. It was made in 1982 by Jaime Hernandez, a hugely important Hispanic artist who later penned the Love and Rockets comic. It offers the iconic logo for the band Agression, from Oxnard, who represented part of the core of skate punk, plus it demonstrates a sense of territoriality (Locals only, Dick!), which foreshadows the gang issue in punk as well. Plus, JFA was a diverse skate punk band too, including black bass player Michael Cornelius; meanwhile, Articles of Faith were on tour from Chicago, near where I grew up. I interviewed singer Vic Bondi for MaximumRocknRoll just a few months ago. Lastly, the gig took place at T-Bird Rollerdrome, a Hispanic-owned rundown roller derby track that looked entirely seedy. This highlights the marginal venues and locales of punk gigs, which were not welcome at fine clubs. Roller derby has a made a stunning comeback among women and feminists, which shows the cycle of sports and venues as well.
FPH – This is for an academic press. Is there a sudden academic interest in punk and hardcore as a social and cultural movement lately or has this been going on for a while? Also, how do you and others approach the narrative of the movement?
Ensminger – I am an academic that has taught English, composition, and folklore for fifteen years. Currently, I work for Lee College in Baytown, but I have also worked at universities in Oregon. As a community college teacher, I am usually shrugged off by elite academics. Academia is very biased and territorial, just like the punk scene. Two sections of this book — the section on black punk and queer punk — were featured in The Journal of Popular Music Studies and Postmodern Culture, both respected journals. The text concerning black punks is now being used in classrooms and has inspired researchers in both in Germany and Malaysia, where I am guiding some younger scholars. The first academic book with a huge impact was Dick Hebdige’s Subculture the Meaning of Style in 1979. We all work in that long heavy shadow. Yes, punk does percolate throughout academic research and publishing, but I argue it has scant attention compared to hip-hop, which has really seized the imagination of professors.On the other hand, punk has become a huge market for popular press books. I just reviewed both Spraypaint the Walls, about Black Flag, and the Illustrated History of DOA, which chronicles the visual history of the notorious Canadian punk band. Some authors, like Jon Savage and Simon Reynolds — nuanced writers and intellectuals — straddle both worlds.
FPH – You also have done a lot of photography. How long have you been doing this and why do you feel it’s important?
Ensminger – Recently, I realized that I recall very little from most shows I attend, unless significant moments occurred, like hearing damage in my left ear from Black Flag in 1986. When I snap photos, even though it does distance me from the action and rhythm of the show to a degree, it does document and preserve the moment, even more so than the flyer. I can relive the smell, the sweat, the pulse, and the rippling energy. I have always been at the mercy of low grade cameras, so my 1980’s photographs can’t compare with the work of local heroes like Ken Hoge and Ben DeSoto, who captured some defining moments of bands like the Dicks, Big Boys, Really Red and others.
Still, my work from the last ten years, featuring the likes of UK Subs, Adolescents, MDC and others, does mean much to me, even if the bands are not in their prime. This past week, I shot Peter Case, proto-punker from the Nerves and Plimsouls and singer-songwriter extraordinaire at row houses in Lightnin’ Hopkins’s old neighborhood. Case saw him years ago, as did members of Anarchitex, Really Red, and Party Owls, so to capture this moment was Zen-like to me. Photographs may not have the same folkloric meaning that flyers provide, but they offer another kind of wealth and insight.
FPH – You also ran Left of The Dial magazine if I am not mistaken. What happened to that zine and what do you feel you accomplished with that zine?
Ensminger – First, I need to thank all the local contributors, like Brando, Dixon, Jason, and many others, especially Russell Etchen, who now manages Domy Books, who made Left of the Dial possible. I had leftover material from my journalism at Thirsty Ear, out of New Mexico, so we said, “Let’s start a perfect bound fanzine featuring all interviews, no reviews, no filler, that crosses genres and style.” That’s what we did. Etchen focused like a machine, while the others made their aesthetic and writerly marks as well, and I tried my best to steer the venture, pay the bills, interview at length, and create momentum. We had distro all over the globe and respect from members in the community. Ian MacKaye, for instance, sent me a postcard exclaiming how much he enjoyed my interview with Tony Kinman of the Dils. Robert Earl Keen’s wife bought several subscriptions because we covered her husband, Peter Case, Jason and the Scorchers, and Tom Russell, not just punk, hardcore, and indie bands. In 2004, the zine also featured a 17 page version of what became my book, replete with photos and flyers. The best result: I owed no money when my distros — Tower Records and Desert Moon — bit the dust. We printed for five years, I switched on-line for five years, and now I focus on blogs dedicated to regional scenes like Washington DC, the Midwest, Florida, Austin, Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. My local one (www.houstonpunkart.wordpress.com) features over 900 graphics and is updated almost daily. I hope to build the largest on-line flyer library in the world — a museum without walls.
FPH – You are not just an observer but you also have played in various punk bands. Why don’t you go into that and tell us how that shapes how you approach the material?
Ensminger – Those times spent behind the drum set, and now the microphone, are part of the same DIY trend of my early life. As my friend and drum guru Bijan will tell you, I am not a “musician” who knows equipment and jargon. I play like a punk rock version of the Who’s madman, which means you either love or hate my style. I am unbound behind the set. To me, drumming is about physicality, like dancing, and it is intuitive, like taking a photograph. Playing drums for the Mydolls, Biscuit of the Big Boys, Peter Case, or singing back-up vocals with Bob Weber of Really Red and Anarchitex behind me on drums represents sublime moments — a full circle — in which the bands that introduced me to the lifestyle, movement, and culture become close friends. Punk rock was always about connecting to people, not connecting to product, unless you are an adamant collector with a fetish for objects. Punk rock was a human-scaled enterprise, not a corporate branding of the impersonal.
FPH – It seems that a lot of elders of the scene have returned into the spotlight now with the Mydolls and the Anarchitex. What do you think that says about punk rock as it has matured over the years.
Ensminger – Both bands, and please don’t neglect ever-present titans The Hates, represent the intelligence and continuum of content that really underscores punk. Their lyrics transcend time, place, and person. People like John Reen Davis and Trish Herrera are provocative poets linked to deeper conduits in history. I just saw Christian yesterday on his moped, with a T-shirt emblazoned with the word England (on July 4th!), mohawk stiff and ablaze in color, and I thought, this guy is a bedrock. Newer bands often lack that kind of longterm vitality and commitment. They are “here today, gone tomorrow.” The older ones push through the years, more dignified than ever.
FPH – How do you feel about how punk has been absorbed into the mainstream? Do you feel that Punk Rock has been narrowed in its focus now from what it once was?
Ensminger – I think punk has become an unstable term that borders on meaninglessness at times. It has become overly scattershot, fractured, and self-obsessed with narrower definitions of style. I can’t even keep up with the new terminology, from d-beat, discrust, and discore to all the other myriad newer variations. In the late 1970s, bands were lumped into punk, and no one really cared to categorize The Mutants, Weirdos, and X into subdivisions, which have become a folklore topic of their own (terminology, slang, and nomenclature). I prefer the big umbrella version of punk. In terms of punk being incorporated by international media conglomerates, that has always been true, since the Clash and Sex Pistols. Green Day are simply a corporate punk model, as was Bad Religion for awhile, and that doesn’t mean the meaning of the music lacks potency. True, the product is mediated on a whole other level, but a market is a market, whether or not its Facebook, Wal-Mart, or the ma and pa store. What concerns many older punks is the wholesale commodification of youth, the buying and selling of youth culture, as alternative spaces are squeezed during economic down times. Houston has anarchist book stores, Super Happy Funland, and indie record stores like Sound Exchange and Sig’s Lagoon. Many Americans lack those options, and on-line access is not the same. Physical space is important: would you buy your hot cup of coffee on-line?
FPH – OK here is a question that might show your (our age). Remember the Quincy Punk Rock episode? (with tongue-in-cheek) On a scale of 1 – 10, how awesome was that? But on a more serious note, do you miss punk rock being so completely misunderstood by mainstream society and do you think punk lost a lot by no longer being so misunderstood and outcast?
Ensminger – Well, not very awesome since it portrays punks as demented and destructive psychopaths, just like 21 Jump Street did too. I think punks are still misunderstood and miscast in this age in which ‘difference’ means having different APPs, not different ideas. Facebook updates are deemed more crucial than critical thinking. Punk rock still has much work to accomplish. I was telling Dianna of the Mydolls that punk rock failed in many aspects: it did not build an alternative society, though certainly many of us raised on punk rock feel that our ideology, food habits, and lifestyles have been indelibly shaped by punk lore and experience. I feel Europe succeeded on a different level than America, due to the network of squats and alternative spaces. I proposed to my wife from one in Milan, Italy when touring with punk posters, made possible by the band Retisonic and the French label Modern City in 2004. Some places do thrive, and bands like MDC have not abandoned any of their thrust, but when I see punks like Biscuit of the Big Boys die alone, broke, and without proper medical treatment, I know the community could have shaped a different outcome, possibly.
FPH – Lastly complete this sentence; “Punk rock still lives because…”
Ensminger - …a counter-balance to hegemony, mainstream culture, and corporate values will always thrive. Punk rock is the people’s music and cuts across races, economics, and regions.
Join David as he celebrates the publication of his book with three events:
Friday July 8 @ Rudyards Pub Featuring: The Kimonos, Biscuit Bombs, Jealous Creatures, Zipperneck