Words and Photos By Dying Scene resident journalist/anarchist Luke Rouda
Las Vegas, Nevada… sulfurous wasteland now molded into a stripper with big tits… twinkling neon shimmering over a lazy breeze from Yucca Mountain, a land where the snakes and scorpions can feel at home…
“I’m the only freak I know, but then when you come here and there’s a million beautiful freaks and everyone’s freakier than me!” – drunk woman from Denver
“Punk rock is a family.” – Fat Mike, NOFX
Most of the music festivals I’ve attended follow the same rough pattern: after struggling to print out several volumes of nonsensical codes and legal phrases alternately labeled as a “ticket”, you, the attendee, are squeezed through the event horizon to an overstuffed queue filled to the brim with fainting, exasperated Humanity In Survival Mode. Somewhere near the front, past the bodies of the ill prepared, a bewildered, overworked festival employee armed with a collared shirt and bar code reader scans your sweaty ream of paper. This leads to the final test, where you are probed and padded by some hulking police academy dropout for any illicit goods listed as current potential terrorist threats to national security. If you pass, you are permitted entrance to the inner core, where, after clearing the Gates of No Return, you are immediately assaulted by row upon row of merchants hawking their various wares. These overpriced goods are designed to satisfy basic and immediate dietary needs, frame future memories in a favorable light, or stylistically blend you into the background. Moving with the crowd, you are fed via channels of least resistance to ground zero, the boiling pot of rough sludge, the main floor, the place where all the magic happens. Get comfortable, because you’re not leaving until much later in the night, so find a shady spot and protect it with sword and fire.
In some ways, Punk Rock Bowling is not the typical festival experience. PRB attendees simply don’t have the patience to wait in hour-long lines for anything, even drugs and alcohol. PRB attendees will riot and burn any merchant that attempts to convert their philosophy. PRB attendees rejoice in the milieu of grime.
The basic structure, however, remains. Do not attend PRB with some kind of jingoistic, my-tribe-only mindset expecting the intimacy of a dive bar performance: even the ancillary club shows are bloated. At its heart, the event is still undoubtedly a festival. The fact is no secret: such categorization is boldly proclaimed on the banner. It could be argued that PRB is one of the only true-blue, dyed in the wool Punk Rock festivals available in the USA.
Too often, the punk aesthetic is used as a sideshow, a splash of anarchy across the strained veneer of metal or corporate rock. At PRB, it is The Thing, a circus with the freak show as the main attraction.
Surrounded by attendees diving deeply into fresh 24 packs of beer, I waited to get my room key in the air-conditioned lobby of the Golden Nugget, and then it hit me: that old feeling was back. Perhaps it was the drugs I had gobbled up earlier, but I came to realize that PRB is like some fucked up family reunion, one where being the drunken aunt or creepy uncle is simply the norm.
Yes indeed, here they were, just like last year and the year before that, ready to hand over their hard earned cash in exchange for the three day maelstrom mirage, the once-a-year event where punk town comes to Vegas. For them, there was Community amongst the middle-finger disdain, Freedom in the sloppy lines of coke, Meaning to be found amid the puke-pitted vistas. All around me, I noticed the same shit-eating grins; like a group of teenagers amazed that the fake ID had worked. Forget the money you’ve been saving all year. Rip open the liquor, cigarettes, and porno and let’s get this bitch started.
“Is there some kind of event going on?” – distraught Golden Nugget guest at check-in
“I feel like my spirit animal is the smurf,” Psycho Mordenson muttered over a can of beer as his mohawk took to the blue hair dye. Many moons ago, Mr. Mordenson was the very first missionary to bring me into the cult of punk rock, and PRB has become somewhat of an annual tradition for us; a time to celebrate old times and generally run amuck. Unfortunately, Mr. Mordenson had recently run into a spot of legal trouble, and the probability of jail time and loss of a good job hung over him ominously throughout the weekend. However, even the threat of incarceration and unemployment did not stop the party train for Psycho. There were plenty of punk shows back in his native Colorado, but nothing came close to the grandeur of PRB. For him, this was It, the do-or-die weekend, zero hour.
Once the effects of the hair dye and various libations had manifest, we left the room and hit the street with bearing towards the Fremont Country Club, anxious to see the Cro-Mags. Moving quickly past the broken glass, panhandlers, cross-eyed attendees, and tourists flying by zip line overhead, I realized that I had never actually walked Fremont Street sober. I only came here for PRB, and that meant near perpetual consumption once on site. My intoxicated brain attempted to understand the place from a sober frame of mind, but all that came back was chaos. The sights and sounds were specifically designed to overwhelm and confuse, forcing all mental faculties to devolve into the impulses of the id. It was working. Eat! Drink! Fuck! You too could be a winner.
Indeed. The next day, Mr. Mordenson and I slogged our way up to the roof of the Plaza where our first pool party awaited. The afternoon was cooler than usual, with an occasional cloud obscuring the unrelenting sun. The hallways of the Plaza were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with attendees finishing their “outside drinks” before heading out to the pool, chatting loudly about exploits from the previous evening.
A little sleight of hand past security and we were through, still possessing our drinks. It should be noted here that the effort necessary to circumvent arbitrary rules like “no outside drinks” (E) is inversely proportional to the apathy (A) of those assigned to enforce them, which itself is equal to the hassle they experience (H) divided by the pay they receive (P). Put simply:
E = 1/A
A = H/P
These formulae are applicable to any and all situations where arbitrary rules may be found. Feel free to jot them down in your notes.
Approximately 200 attendees occupied the Plaza roof in varying degrees of consciousness. Most had second round in hand, while nearly all proudly displayed some kind of permanent body modification. If ink is your thing, you’ll love a PRB pool party. A turn of the head is like flipping through a design gallery.
The sound output was a step up over last year, with a legitimate set of amps to power the free show and entertain the growing crowd. As The Potato Pirates set up, Dirty Kid Discount played a quick impromptu in front of the stage. DKD could be found on Fremont Street at various points throughout the weekend, laying down their unique brand of folk punk with an open guitar case ready and waiting for donations. The band consists of an odd assortment of instruments, including acoustic bass guitar, banjo, wood saw with violin bow that creates a sound reminiscent of a theremin… it’s so weird, it works.
When The Potato Pirates finally took the stage, the circle pit up front was clearly testing the engineering limits of the roof, as each revolution sent reverberations up and down the length of the crowd. A vision of sweaty, half-naked punkers, already knee-deep into their daytime drinking buzz, falling through the roof into the hotel room of some middle-aged insurance agent trying to jack-off to a $3.99 porn flick while his wife was out shopping, was too good not to hope for.
We learned that headliner The Queers had canceled, while Peter & The Test Tube Babies would replace them. Knowing we could catch P&TTTB at the main event, Mr. Mordenson and I left for some much needed sustenance and preparation for the Main Event.
After filling our orifices with drugs, alcohol, and supremely large portions of country-style breakfasts, we breached the main gates as The Generators finished their set, so I gave the merchandise tents a brief recon.
Selling shit to punks is not an easy task- either it’s DIY, or they seek it out themselves, minimal advertisement required. PRB gets around this like any good festival would: appeal to the aesthetic. You’ve already spent a few hundred, what’s another 20 bucks on a poster depicting a junkie shooting up with a needle of mass media? Luckily, the products appeared to be either local, handcrafted, grassroots, or specifically tailored to the discerning taste of highbrow/lowbrow. While overpriced, you could at least feel somewhat satisfied that you knew where the cash was flowing. Alongside the merchants were advocates for various social causes, and here I feel obligated to single out the Food Not Bombs Las Vegas tent. These fine individuals provided ice-cold water by donation, a service that undoubtedly saved multiple lives, including my own. It makes sense when considering the good work they regularly do. Please support these folks.
Less comforting than hydration and groups of people with a conscience was the appearance of a small white drone that periodically buzzed the crowd, presumably catching aerial shots of the stage and front row. No one in attendance seemed to like the idea of a robot hovering over them, and the subsequent middle fingers and empty beer cups that chased it were to be expected. By the second day, some particularly athletic attendee was able to launch high enough to capture the machine, prompting an announcement over the PA that the drone’s owner would like his toy back as it was quite expensive. This, of course, elicited a satisfied chuckle from the crowd.
Each day, as the temperature dropped with the sun, the open expanse of blacktop in front of the main stage filled, sometimes at a trickle, other times in a flood. The crowd was somewhat cosmopolitan, with many crossing international borders to attend.
One particular pair of big-hearted Canadians, self-identified as Raw Dog and Blaze, had taken great risks to be in Vegas for the weekend. “Raw Dog has a warrant, but he managed to make it across the border, it was greasy.” The charge? Large quantities of pot, but having experienced PRB in ‘13, the Canadians would not be denied. “I was sweating for sure, but having fun now!”
Characters abound at PRB, such as regular Danny Dew, who, fully equipped in studded leather and Mountain Dew branded regalia, seems to drift from crisis to crisis, either thrashing in the pit, scalping for tickets outside a sold-out club show, or desperately searching for a refill of his favorite sugared beverage. Or there’s Felony Melony, the stunning lead singer for The Objex, whose unabashed style and attitude could be used as a prime example of how to be more punk rock.
There were even several small kids, whose doting parents smiled as their offspring stared in wonderment at Leftöver Crack fans chanting lyrics about murdering police officers. Nearby, a raging drunk demanding uppers staggered towards the toilets in a vest that read, “Teach your children to worship Satan”. These are the formative experiences in store for any punk brood brought to PRB.
The cycle, it would seem, is repeating. Punk Rock Karaoke bristled with talent this year, and right after a man sporting bottomless onesie pajamas fell off the stage, a young, freshly-wed couple bounded up to take the mic and perform a lovely duet of Red Tape by the Circle Jerks.
Punk rock has always rejected senescence, so maybe that’s part of what PRB really is: a chance for the next generation to come up, a passing of the torch via aural tradition, an exhibition of the ritual that keeps us all safe and prosperous.
“I wanna adopt a village, this is my village.” – Psycho Mordenson
Maybe. If that’s really part of it, then never mind bands like Cock Sparrer, Descendents, and NOFX. Those bands have already survived the crucible. They are cornerstones to the pile of rubble that is punk rock, and it sure doesn’t look like they’ll be going away anytime soon. Like some frothy volcano spewing ash into the sky, more attention should be given to the stuff emerging at the top. Bands like Bad Cop/Bad Cop, Masked Intruder, and Cerebral Ballzy; these are groups that represent where we are now, where we are heading.
And there are certainly a few things to be done to help foster the new crop.
First, allow reentry. Yes, this will lead to more over-intoxicated, over-medicated, and over-drugged attendees, plus all the scam entrants, but who the hell cares? Why make it into a fucking endurance test to see who can stand the million-degree asphalt and $6 beers the longest? As Mr. Mordenson pointed out, reentry will actually encourage people to come earlier and see some of the new bands. Eight straight hours sitting in a sweat cocktail sounds more like a job than a festival, even if the music does kick ass.
Secondly, free drinking water for EVERYONE. If you’re gonna have a punk festival in the middle of the fucking desert on Memorial Day weekend, provide the ticket holders with the means to stay alive without dumping more cash. Imagine scraping together every last penny for a PRB ticket and hotel room, only to be forced to purchase $4 water bottles. We want folks jumping into the pit on a whim, not wondering if they’ll turn into a human prune if they move too vigorously.
Finally, I was going to complain about the ticket price, but then realized that I know next to nothing about making a product profitable (hence, working for Dying Scene). As far as I know, the hefty price tag makes possible all those PRB extras that we know and love. Without scores of punkers shelling out $110 for three day passes, there might not be the comedy show, the matinees, or even pool parties. And that would suck. All those extras are really awesome. They contribute heavily to the overall atmosphere of the weekend, and if you can’t afford a festival pass, buy a ticket to your favorite club show line up, go to all the free stuff, and try not to get arrested for hanging out around the festival grounds. Trust me, it’s loud enough to hear outside the gates.
But alas, this is merely the buzzing of the rabble against the bourgeoisie punk. PRB has the bands to back it, plus over a decade and a half of proven results.
We’ll all be back next year, and in larger numbers too, ready and willing to believe that, for three days at least, we are all masters of disorder.
Until next time,