Initially called either “Past the Pavement Hall”, “The Barn”, or “The Cistern Chapel”, a small cinder-block building located in the middle of a cornfield on the outskirts of Lawrence, Kansas, would soon become known as The Outhouse, and more importantly, as a legendary stop on a hardcore punk underground trail first excavated by Black Flag (and others) in the early ’80s.
“Damn, this place really is an outhouse,” recalls Ice-T on leaving the gravel of North 1500 Road and approaching the small, isolated, shack-like building. He and many other musicians share their anecdotal experiences of playing this vaunted venue in The Outhouse, The Film: 1985-1997, a documentary made with the help of Kickstarter funds by ex-University of Kansas film student, Brad Norman, once a regular patron during the venue’s latter years. I was privileged to be amongst the packed house of locals at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, where the movie enjoyed its world premier on 14 October. How many other cinemas will screen this one-of-a-kind DIY doc. has yet to be determined.
Never was there a less likely—yet more perfect—venue than The Outhouse to host hardcore punk, a genre rivaled only by black metal in testing the tolerance of one’s eardrums. With few other places willing to host hardcore bands and even fewer willing to put up with the ubiquitous violence liable to break out at any time at their shows, The Outhouse served as a home for musical outcasts, as well as for the citizen outcasts drawn to them.
Located four miles out of town (three quarters of a mile “beyond the pavement”), the nearest neighbors were out of ear-shot and the nearest cops rarely ventured beyond city limits. With no security beyond the soundman and the guy collecting $5 at the door, The Outhouse ideally satisfied the self-sufficient ideals of the hardcore subculture. Little could owner Donnie Mellenbruch have known when he bought the gutted storage garage to store his motorbikes, that one day national magazines would cite The Outhouse alongside “home of William Burroughs” as the top hip tourist attraction of Lawrence.
Besides charting the venue’s storied history, The Outhouse, The Film calls attention to geographical determinants and brings an almost anthropological study to this local cultural phenomenon. Clearly intended as a tribute to the fans as well as the bands that went there, Norman captures the minutia in the experience of attending a show at The Outhouse. On screen, veteran punks, promoters, and band members share gleeful tales that animate (and romanticize) the tribal subculture they were proud to be part of. With a paucity of film footage from this pre-cell phone era, the movie compensates by letting the talking heads describe scenes of watching yet-to-be-famous punk bands playing within the claustrophobic space; of heading out to the cornfields to relieve oneself when the toilet broke down; of shivering in winter and sweating in summer; of sleeping overnight in the car due to drunkenness or getting stuck in the boggy parking lot; of myriad shenanigans that suggest that what happened at The Outhouse stayed (until now) at The Outhouse.
The fun, frolicking, and fears that come through the film’s various testimonies sometimes sound like those of a missionary returning from uncharted territory, captured in what Nick Spacek describes as “a National Geographic documentary that’s about punks instead of gazelles.”
The film enjoys its broadest appeal when focused on the detailed memories shared by the notable musicians that performed at The Outhouse. The star of the show is surely Ice-T, who lights up the screen with wide-eyed wonder when recollecting the night his band Body Count performed there in 1992. Already justifiably paranoid from the threats and reprimands coming his way in the wake of the release of “Cop Killer”, Ice-T narrates his band’s journey down the gravel road and through the cornfields as though it were a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Apparently, at that night’s show the hardcore rapper delivered his famous missive to the attending children of the corn as “Corn Killer”. He was clearly affected by his experience at The Outhouse, even 25 years later. Recently, Brad Norman explained how he secured this pivotal interview, when Ice-T’s manager told him, “Listen kid: the only reason you’re getting this interview is because I’ve heard this [god]damn Outhouse story 10,000 times. He won’t shut up about the place.”
Hardcore stalwarts Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins are equally enthusiastic when conveying their own encounters in this bizarre location. Each share an “I can’t believe that happened” amazement to their recollections, Rollins summarizing with contextual insight: “Could a venue like The Outhouse exist in Brooklyn, New York? No. Could it exist in Manhattan? Could it exist in downtown Washington D.C. or Boston, Massachusetts? No, no, and no!”
Small, cramped, and decrepit it may have been; lacking security, sanitation, and backstage services, too. Yet, many of the notable hardcore and alternative bands of the era graced its tiny stage, often traveling miles off their beaten touring tracks to witness the place word-of-mouth had characterized as one-of-a-kind. Nirvana played there to 20 people in October, 1989, second on the bill to 24/7 Spyz; Green Day played there for $250, booking their own show because they had no agent; the Offspring, Sonic Youth, White Zombie, and GWAR, bands that would go on to play stadiums and festivals, all made pit-stops at The Outhouse, too. Why? Because The Outhouse embodied the same subcultural spirit fostered by the hardcore punk insurgency. Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House, 2001) concurs, including The Outhouse in his hardcore history, calling it “definitely a top 10 underground scene in the ’80s.”
(Screengrab: The OutHouse: The Film official trailer)
By the close of the ’70s many of the formative punk bands had ascended from the underground and were no longer playing at places of The Outhouse ilk. The Clash, who once proclaimed themselves a garage band bored with the U.S.A. were, by then, playing stadiums across the US. Others, like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads, veneered the rough edges from their sound in order to be embraced by the New Wave, while those arty innovators adventurous enough to transcend punk’s three-chord template were tagged Post-Punk. In light of such developments, some sensed a softening—even emasculation—of punk, and they countered these trends by doubling down on proto-punk’s primary markers of primitivism, aggression, and machismo.
In the UK, this salvaging of the “real” spirit of punk was reflected in Oi acts like the 4-Skins and Cockney Rejects, East Londoners content to play the pubs and small clubs prior punks had vacated. A similar regressive progression played out in the US, too, where hardcore upstarts started playing a brand of punk faster, harder, and with even more vein-bursting intensity than their forerunners. Bands like Black Flag from L.A. and Minor Threat from Washington D.C. sucked any remaining vestiges of melody and vocal melisma out of punk, leaving their songs bare-boned and primal, driven by propulsive rhythms and vocal screams and chants.
These bands’ dogmatic determination to be as inaccessible and un-listenable to the mainstream as possible automatically made them personae non gratae at most venues. The resulting dilemma proved serendipitous, though, as hardcore bands were forced to carve out their own circuit. Leading the charge were Black Flag who, having outworn their welcome playing L.A. spots like The Masque, The Starwood, and The Fleetwood, created a hardcore underground of unlikely venues that spanned the nation; these became the only locations where aberrant noise-makers like themselves were permitted to perform. By the mid-’80s, The Outhouse would become one of the more distinct pit-stops on this rough-hewed trail.
As pragmatic as Black Flag’s trailblazing was, it was also an act of cultural subversion, leaving a legacy of self-reliance that would permeate all facets of the hardcore subculture. While the rock and pop yuppies of the Reagan era sought to sell their souls to the highest corporate bidder, hardcore bands merely opted out of this merry-go-round, dismissing it with disinterest. Joe Carducci observes that their descent underground constituted an implicit (if impotent) spit into the winds of prevailing rock trends: “In an age of big entertainment conglomerates/big management/big media, touring the lowest-rent rock clubs of America in an Econoline is the equivalent of fighting a ground war strategy in the age of strategic nuclear forces” (Michael Azerrad. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. Little, Brown & Co., 2001. p.3).
For Black Flag and other L.A. hardcore acts, this “ground” attack was as much from necessity as choice. By the early ’80s their local scene had become so rife with violence and police harassment that many venues were reluctant to book hardcore shows and prior patrons were too scared to attend them. As a result, Black Flag, along with the Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., and Minor Threat, assumed the responsibility of becoming what Azerrad characterizes as “the Lewis and Clarks of the punk touring circuit, blazing a trail across America that bands still follow today” (p.23). Among the “beachheads” they established in “literally every corner of the country” (p.14) were V.A. and union halls, youth clubs, community centers, ice rinks, and kids’ parents’ garages. A concrete shack in the middle of a cornfield in Lawrence, Kansas, would also become a staple stopping point on this offbeat underground.
Although unconventional and sometimes unforgiving, these marginal spaces rarely operated under the same rules and requirements as conventional concert halls, enabling bands to determine their own policies and play by their own ethical standards. “It was about touring, it was about taking control,” Minutemen’s Mike Watt attests, capturing the motivational foundations of the subculture (p.6). Ian MacKaye was adamant that his bands (Minor Threat and Fugazi) would only play all-ages shows and never charge more than $5. Such demands were possible so long as the bands didn’t mind traveling hundreds of miles to play in a cramped vegetarian restaurant or, as for Fugazi in Omaha once, an abandoned supermarket commandeered by local kids who—for the occasion—quickly constructed a makeshift stage out of plywood and milk crates (p.391).
The unique thrill of playing places like The Outhouse created a gossip network by which bands would swap anecdotes, drawing more in-bands into the in-crowd. As Ice-T recalls in Norman’s movie, The Outhouse also provided a refreshing break from the usual monotony and normalcy that come with the rigors of the road. Like missionaries, these bands spread the gospel of ’80s punk far and wide, breaking the coastal monopoly that had existed before. This ushered in other contributory participants, like college radio stations. Lawrence’s KJHK served as one of the few advertising outlets for promoting Outhouse shows, such that the venue would likely have not survived without the station’s involvement. Like hardcore, such stations sat proudly at the end of the dial, playing music the mainstream channels refused to touch.
Punk demographics, too, changed with hardcore, as suburban and small town kids mixed with punk poseurs and skinheads. As The Outhouse, The Film shows, this coalition of the alienated was not without occasional conflict, but it signified a more diverse fan base than either early hardcore or punk had attained. Despite these genres’ renown for a toxic masculinity unwelcoming to women, the movie even boasts of the regular presence of “Outhouse girls”. Sadly, few of those female attendees are represented on screen.
The story of The Outhouse reveals that geography can be as much a determinant of (sub)cultures as social and political factors. Even a building as uninviting as this one can serve as a focal point and catalyst for tribal identification. Out of sight, the bands and fans that went there were able to be out of the minds of institutional authority.
Free to scream and let off steam, like-minded kids are given room in spaces like The Outhouse to be self-determining and self-asserting, DIY values at the very core of hardcore. Such spatial independence of body, mind, and soul is inherent to the history of youth rebellion. We see it when Jim, Judy, and Plato escape to the abandoned mansion in Rebel Without a Cause, where they create their own alternative family dynamics. We see it in the back-to-nature commune shown in Easy Rider, where a band of hippies create an alternative lifestyle around their own cultural values. And we see it in The Outhouse, a dilapidated building that played host to myriad young outsiders in the ’80s and ’90s, a place that resonated with broader social meanings, providing for filmmaker Brad Norman what Nick Spacek calls “a narrative of shared experience”.