SpokAnarchy! Where Were you in ’82?
SpokAnarchy! chronicles the manic highs and desperate lows in the emergence of the alternative music scene in culturally barren Spokane, Washington. Before MTV, before the Internet and cell phones, Spokane seemed a long way from anywhere. A small group of bored teenagers banded together to make art and music and live a lifestyle that tested the social and moral boundaries of conservative America.
This coming-of-age story becomes a coming-of-middle-age story as the scene’s survivors take an unflinching look at their past, and how their lives were shaped by those years of music and mayhem. Aggressive and experimental music was the glue that brought them together, and 30 years on still resonates.
For some the results were devastating – drug and alcohol addiction, death, and a lifetime of alienation. Some went on to bigger and better things: bands like Stompbox, Motorcycle Boy, and TOOL, performers and artists like Zamora The Torture King, T.J. Wilcox, and even Keyboard Cat’s creator, Charlie Schmidt. But through it all they have carried with them the independent and creative DIY spirit that made SpokAnarchy! live up to its name. Told by an ensemble cast by those who made it happen along with archival footage and a decade’s worth of undiscovered music, SpokAnarchy! is “the last hurrah of the apocalyptic 80s from the world’s biggest hick town.”
SpokAnarchy! was nearly two years in production with some 60 people interviewed for over 100 hours of footage shot in New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Astoria, Seattle, and Spokane. HD interviews are intercut with archival footage in this feature-length documentary with a soundtrack that draws on on a decades’s worth of undiscovered music. By turns funny, sad, shocking, and inspirational, SpokAnarchy! is the real-life story of what it means to look back on a youth spent challenging the social and cultural norms of small-town America.
Idealism and Excess: When Punk Rock Hit Small-Town America
by A.J. Mell
Spokane, Washington is hardly the first city that springs to mind when you think “punk rock.” New York and London, definitely. Then maybe Detroit, Los Angeles, and Manchester, if you want to go a little deeper. But the modestly sized Eastern Washington city best known as the hometown of Bing Crosby does not exactly conjure up images of mean streets or cutting-edge anything.
All the more reason why SpokAnarchy!, a new documentary on the Spokane music and art scene of the early ‘80s, is so welcome. The major punk epicenters have been exhaustively documented in innumerable books, movies, magazine articles, and academic treatises. What no one has done, until now, is explore what happened when that same music and culture drifted out to the hinterlands, and took root in cities that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered hip.
I was there, dear reader, and have survived to tell thee. Not that I was an out-and-out punk, mind you—I was far too polite and middle class to pull that off—but I occasionally went so far as to wear a striped shirt festooned with Clash and Joe Jackson buttons. And as a rock ‘n’ roll fan with precocious tastes and leftish political leanings, I knew there had to be something better than the corporate pabulum and rancid ‘60s leftovers that defined popular culture at the time.
Happily, Spokane had a small community of like-minded souls who not only cursed the cultural darkness, but actually did something about it—whether by publishing Xeroxed fanzines, creating confrontational visual and performance art, or starting their own bands. Thirty years later, a small group of them—David Halsell, Theresa Halsell, Erica Schisler, Jon Swanstrom, Heather Swanstrom, and Cory Wees—decided to lay out the whole story, in all its soaring idealism and wretched squalor. “SpokAnarchy!” not only tells it like it was, straight from the mouths of the people who lived it, but shows why the whole movement had an air of inevitability.
Consider the time. By the mid-‘70s, when punk first reared its spiky head in New York and London, what was left of the ‘60s counterculture had ripened and rotted. Despite the gas shortages, rampant crime, and failing economy of the malaise-ridden Carter years, the pop culture landscape was one big smiley-face: The Captain and Tennille, Earth Shoes, macramé plant holders, CB radios, and mellow singer-songwriters with open shirts and Jesus beards. By almost any measure it was a ridiculous time to be alive, but as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, events took a more sinister turn. Faced with the incredible fact of Ronald Reagan in the White House and a revival of Cold War saber-rattling—not to mention jingoistic pop artifacts like Rambo and Top Gun—a new sense of urgency kicked in. We knew that if we wanted to have our say and create something new, we’d better get on it. There was no time to lose.
Consider the place. Spokane is a full 280 miles from Seattle, the closest major metropolitan center. It’s a conservative town, more akin to the nearby Idaho panhandle than its more glamorous sister to the West. Even though Spokane hosted a World’s Fair in 1974, and was the smallest city ever to do so, it remains an unknown quantity to most Americans. It isn’t known for anything in particular. Most people don’t even know how to pronounce it. (For the record, it’s Spo-CAN, like a can of soup.) In hindsight, there are plenty of worse places to grow up—but if you were young, arty, or weird in any way, Spokane could seem like a lonely and inhospitable outpost on the outer edge of Nowheresville. “It’s like the caboose on the train,” one interviewee in the film explains. “Everything gets here late, and by the time we’re doing it everybody else thinks it’s passé.”
Although “punk” may be identified in the public mind with leather jackets, ripped jeans, and multi-hued coiffures, the film shows that to be only one part of the story. In the beginning, things were not so rigidly defined. The music, fashions, and politics varied from city to city; most scenes had both highbrow and lowbrow factions; the music itself might embrace two-chord, back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll or the farthest reaches of skronky experimentalism. In a sense, punk was simply a convenient rallying point for a loose coalition of nonconformists and arty oddballs of all descriptions. Spokane’s colorful musical motley encompassed the jittery New Wave of Sweet Madness, the left-field pop of Cattle Prod, the reggae-influenced M’na M’na, and the loud-and-nasty hardcore of The Vampire Lezbos, among many others. Not all of it is punk with a capital P, but none of it would have been conceivable if punk hadn’t come along first and kicked a few doors down.
Like all youth movements, punk had its embarrassing excesses and, sadly, its share of casualties. Our little scene was no exception. Over time the creative energy curdled, predatory types moved in, and the drugs got harder. The filmmakers don’t soft-pedal any of it, nor do they make any grand claims about the larger importance of the Spokane scene. In fact, it produced very few commercial recordings, and was influential mostly on the people who participated in it directly—but in that respect, it was like countless other underground music and art communities in many other small towns throughout the country. In the do-it-yourself spirit that punk epitomized, I hope the veterans of those scenes all make their own movies, and that they’re all as truthful and entertaining as SpokAnarchy!
A.J. Mell is a freelance writer and arts critic whose work has appeared in Back Stage, American Theatre, Seattle Weekly and many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.