JERSEY BEAT #56
'The Rise & Fall (& Rise Again) Of NYC's Only All-Ages
Non-Racist, Non-Sexist, Non-Homophobic Punk Scene'
by Jim Testa
Ironically--or perhaps, inevitably--this is all Mike
I first started thinking about doing an issue devoted to the then & now of ABC No Rio when Mike sent me a copy of the new GO! record, a collection of the band's EPs and compilation tracks. That record, and its attendant photos, brought back a lot of memories. Was it six years ago already that Mike started booking ABC No Rio's Saturday hardcore shows? Six years since the days when Animal Crackers and Puzzlehead, Citizen's Arrest and Born Against, Bugout Society and Rorshach--along with writers and photographers and artists and fans--helped forge a funny, exciting, creative new punk scene in New York?
For those us us who lived through it, those years will remain a bright spot in our memories, a time when all the possibilities of punk--music and creativity, working together, friendship, and having fun--came together like never before (or since). For those of you who missed those days, here's a chance to hear some stories and savor a little of the magic for yourself.
FROM THE BEGINNING
What is an ABC No Rio? ABC No Rio is a four-storied abandoned tenement--a "squat"--at 156 Rivington Street, in a decaying, largely Hispanic neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Legend has it that back in 1980, one of the first squatters to occupy the building looked across the street and saw a tattered sign that originally read Abogado Con Notario--"lawyer and notary public" in Spanish. But the sign was badly worn and many of the letters had fallen off; all that remained was "Ab C No rio." The empty, abandoned building at 156 Rivington Street had a name.
The ABC No Rio Collective legally took over the building, paying the default landlord--the City of New York--modest rent for use of the space. The group formed an arts collective and started using the living room-like first floor for art shows, spoken word performances, and the occasional live music performance. Bill Florio of Bugout Society was one of the first punk-rockers to discover the availability of the building. "It wasn't me, it was my band, Bugout Society," Florio recalls. The Dwarves were supposed to play there and they cancelled, so someone from ABC No Rio called the Lismar Lounge and asked if they knew any bands that could play at a moment's notice. We used to play anywhere in those days so they got our name and we played that show." Afterwards, Florio told Mike Bullshit about the availability of the building, and the ABC No Rio Saturday hardcore matinees were born.
For most of the 1980s, New York's punk and hardcore scene revolved around CBGB's infamous Sunday hardcore shows. These weekly moshathons were hugely popular but plagued by violence--skinheads beating up suburban kids, straightedgers bashing drinkers, as well as the usual mayhem, fistfights, bloody lips, and black eyes that resulted as an inevitable consequence of NYC slamming. When the violence escalated to the point where people started showing up with guns, CBGB pulled the plug. The era of the Sunday Hardcore Matinees ended in November, 1989.
THE EARLY YEARS, 1990-1992
The ABC No Rio matinees started a month later, in December, 1989. In the beginning, the bands played in the larger upstairs area. There was no stage, no lighting. Volunteers would haul in the p.a. every Saturday, then take it apart and haul it back when the show was over. Later, the basement was converted into a small "rock club," complete with a permanent sound system, some rudimentary lighting, and a small stage, but in the beginning it was a mess, the floor covered with gritty rubble and boulders from the decaying foundation.
It wasn't much, but it was a place for bands to play. The bands that started playing ABC No Rio's matinees were a wonder in themselves; New York hadn't seen so much talent, potential, and energy in one place at one time since the heyday of the original Punk Rock scene in 1977. There was Sam McPheeters, the brilliant, driven force behind Born Against, who also published his own fanzines and started his own record label, Vermiform Records. Charles Maggio, the lead singer of Rorschach, was in the midst of battling cancer during ABC No Rio's heyday; his passion and courage added the kind of inspiration that few scenes ever enjoy. Mike Bullshit, the man who quietly put together the volunteer collective that ran the shows, set up before them, and cleaned up afterwards, was something of a renaissance man himself. The editor of the one-sheet zine Bullshit Monthly, Mike had been chronicling the NY/HC scene through most of the eighties. As the lead singer of Go!, he was a constant presence in the local music scene; and when he decided to "out" himself and reveal his homosexuality, he became the first outwardly gay punk in a scene that had been infamous for its homophobia and machismo. Yuppicide added a dash of Lower East Side sleaze, and Bugout Society was always good for a laugh (and a food fight when they'd throw White Castles at the crowd), while Product 19 helped coin the term "twinkie hardcore" with their 7 Seconds-styled pop-core.
Changing the ugly, sneering face of NY Hardcore was at the forefront of ABC No Rio's mission. From the beginning, the club's booking policy proclaimed, "No racist, no sexist, no homophobic bands." The self-destructive punk-on-punk violence that had ravaged the CBGB hardcore scene disappeared; there were never any fights at ABC No Rio.
Rule #1 at ABC No Rio is that every person there has a great, great time! This is made possible through the extensive use of goofiness, light-heartedness, and an overdose of silliness. There is no hard edge at ABC No Rio, only geek edge. Most of us are geeky dweebs who dance about as hard as your grandma. Leave your attitude at home. If you have no sense of humor or your favorite past-time is to manslaughter people in the pit, go to the Ritz or wait for the next CBGB show. Please keep your macho-ness to yourself. Also, no goshed-darn fighting! We're all very fragile hardcore people who cry at the sight of blood so if you're in the mood for a good show, crazy pit antics, and a show unlike any you've never seen before, come on down to ABC No Rio.
--Jon Reed, Inward Monitor Zine #3, Spring 1990
On December 29, 1989, Jersey Beat interviewed Mike Bullshit about the new ABC No Rio shows. Here's an excerpt from that interview.
Q: Did you start the shows in response to CBGB cancelling its matinees?
MIKE: I'm sort of happy that CBs stopped doing them. 'Cos CBs actually gave you a scene and said, Here is your scene, and enjoy it but just don't do this, this, this, or this. And after a while everyone just took it for granted. No one is going to work for the scene, nothing's going to happen, and basically it all turned into shit. So we're trying to make it not shit. Not just make it, but work with people to make it better, to have a decent scene. We're at the point now where there are New York bands who will not play New York because there's so much violence. That's silly, it's ridiculous.
For the first few shows, Mike Bullshit did everything--booked the bands, worked the door, swept the floor. The shows were even billed as "Bullshit Monthly Presents." But quickly other people got involved. Tim Singer (of No Escape, and more recently, Deadguy) set up a regular record and tape table, where bands could sell merchandise. That developed into a long-standing policy of different vendors working the shows so that you could find cheap, DIY and indie label punk records every time you went to a show at ABC.
"One of the best things I remember is that, having gone to CBGBs matinees for years, there was such a completely different vibe at ABC No Rio," recalls Ted Leo, now in Chisel but who made his band debut at ABC in the funny-punk group Animal Crackers. "Especially before they fixed up the basement, when the place was just junk everywhere and the walls were falling down. It was like going to your best friend's basement and just hanging out. It was such a non-threatening situation."
"I guess the best thing about those days was the ability to just cut loose, to be a complete idiot without fear of harassment or getting beat up," Leo recalls. "It was truly an incredible thing, actually. Every Saturday you could go down there and all your friends would be there and know you would have a good time."
Once the local bands established the Saturday afternoon matinees, the touring bands started to follow: MDC, Jawbreaker, the Offspring, Econochrist, Filth, All You Can Eat, and bands from all over the country started making ABC No Rio a regualr part of their tour itinerary.
Joe Martin, who played in Citizens Arrest during ABC No Rio's early days, remembers the space as offering a second chance. "For me, I had made the promise to myself that I would stop going to hardcore shows the day I got beat up. And then it happened to me, at one of the hardcore matinees they had--Judge, Born Against, and Affirmative Action. Some skinhead picked a fight with me and maybe I didn't get beat up, but I did get punched. So I said, that was it, no more, because I knew everytime I would go to a show from then on, I'd see this guy and panic and run away. But then ABC started, and right then and there, that feeling stopped. Every week I'd go there, I didn't care who was playing--I'd go support any band, and I guess for a while a lot of other people did too. There'd be a solid 50 people for every show."
"I remember when the Sons of Ishmael from Canada played ABC. They had been a band for, what, 10 or 12 years at that point. But the first time they came down to ABC, they were like, 'Oh my God, this is incredible!' They got paid more money than they'd ever gotten paid, they played to almost more people than they'd ever played to. That's just what it was like, every week."
"It wasn't just the bands either," recalls John Woods, who attended the ABC shows as a fan. "People would go to the shows and start fanzines. Record labels came out of it. You could go every week and not be in a band, and still felt like you were part of what was going on. It was pretty unparalleled just in terms of creativity. Everybody was doing something, whether sweeping the floor or a fanzine or starting a band."
So what went wrong?
"Well, Mike Bullshit left, and Freddy Alva and Neil (Robinson) took over the bookings, and I think that's when the problems really started," recalls Martin. "You have to remember that in the beginning of ABC No Rio there was a boycott by the Squat or Rot people. Mike had a falling out with the squatter types and those bands because, well, Mike always used to say that he didn't like punks. He didn't get along with those people who lived in squats and looked that way. So when Neil took over, he started booking a lot of the crustier Lower East Side bands, and that turned a lot of people off. A lot of people just started turning up just to get drunk, and a lot of the squatter kids would show up and just hang outside. And then Freddy dropped out, he couldn't handle it anymore. And it just became solely Neil, whether it's valid or not, who said they didn't want to go anymore because Neil was booking the bands."
"I always use this analogy, if you've ever seen the movie Massacre at Central High," Martin explains. "In the movie, the nerds at this high school wind up fighting back, and they kill off all the jocks and the popular kids, and take over. And it turns out that they're actually much worse than the jocks ever were, so they end up ruining everything. And I think that's what happened at ABC. Because there'd be kids who'd come and be interested in what ABC's about, but they'd be wearing a Judge shirt or whatever and wind up getting ridiculed by the people at the door. And by that point, it had just gotten ridiculous"
"The last time I went to show was to see Drop Dead, in the summer of '93," recalls Woods. "I wasn't going every week at that point and in fact hadn't been going in quite a while. And I didn't know anybody in there, so I just sat there by myself waiting for this band to go on. And I realized it was the same thing I used to do at CBGBs...just sit at the bar, drink Coke, and wait until Outburst went on."
ABC NO RIO--TODAY
Reports of ABC No Rio's death have been greatly exaggerated. "Every time we send out a mailing or post something on the internet about the shows here, the same thing happens--all these people come back to us and say they thought we weren't here anymore," says Esneider, a long-time ABC No Rio volunteer, perhaps best known as the lead singer in Huasipungo. Esneider and David Powell currently book the Saturday hardcore shows, which Esneider says are back on track.
"As far as anything that happened with Neil goes, our attitude is that he hasn't been involved here in over a year and that we're doing what we're doing," Esneider says. "Our attitude is that any band that wants to play here and can deal with our conditions is welcome. They have to leave a tape, they can't be racist, sexist, or homophobic lyrics, and they have to want to play here. We're not going to chase after bands."
Esneider thinks that the rap on Neil destroying the ABC No Rio scene by refusing to book local bands isn't entirely deserved. "I guess there were some things that happened, but you have to remember, most of the original ABC No Rios just stopped existing. Rorschach broke up. Citizens Arrest broke up. Mike moved away and Go! wasn't around any more. Sam (McPheeters) moved away and then Born Against broke up. Hell No wanted to become a real band and started playing clubs. A lot of people moved away or just stopped coming to the shows. We couldn't book a lot of local bands because there weren't any local bands left to play here."
That's changing, though, Esneider says, with a whole new group of New York bands who enjoy playing ABC No Rio and who are bringing back something of a scene.
It's a far cry from the goofy, cleancut suburban kids who started the whole thing. "The bands who are popular today are The Pist, The Casualties, Dysfunctional Youth, bands like that," Esneider says. "There's a new political scene with links to the squatters who are playing here a lot, bands like Ricanstruction who put on a lot of political benefits."
The popular bands at ABC No Rio play 70s punk and evoke a style that's part Clash and part Road Warrior--tattoos, piercings, mohawks, leather jackets, and scabby unwashed faces.
These bands, and the popularity of Rancid, are actually bringing in one new scene that we don't really want here," Esneider adds. "Kids, and I mean little kids, 12 years old some of them, show up and they want to be punks. These little kids are totally out of control. They take drugs, they have sex anyplace they can do it, they drink like you wouldn't believe. They get really, really wasted. They're really self-destructive."
Still, Esneider says, things are better now than they have been in years. "We're trying to get the word out again. Bands are making flyers. We post things on the Internet about the shows. We still do the mailings. I'm very happy to still be here doing this."
But even as ABC's Saturday afternoon shows are starting to show signs of life again, no one knows how long it will last. The building's landlord--New York City--has been trying to evict the ABC No Rio people from the building for years now, all the while treating the building's tenants with the sort of contempt and broken promises you'd expect from the city's sleaziest slumlords.
"It's been going on for years," says Amanda Trevens, one of ABC No Rio's board of directors and a long-time volunteer at the punk shows. "First the boiler broke down and we didn't have heat. Then that winter, with no heat, the pipes froze up and burst, and we didn't have running water in the building for two years."
Eventually, the city's neglect of the building--and its refusal to make promised repairs--led the tenants there to stop paying rent. Eventually a compromise was reached, the building was made liveable again, and the ABC No Rio collective started paying rent again. But the city only stepped up its effort to oust the collective.
"One of the things they tried to do was to get another group to take over the building," Trevens reports. Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) a community rights group, was trying to buy a building from the city in Soho. The administration told them that they could have the building they wanted but only if they also took over 156 Rivington Street and converted it to low-cost housing. "We negotiated with AAFE for a while, thinking maybe if they got the building we could just rent it with them, but they wanted way too much rent," Trevens said. "But eventually they realized what was going on here, and they don't want any part of destroying a 15-year community services organization that had only been helping the community."
When the AAFE manuever failed, the city simply tried to evict the ABC No Rio people outright--and would have done so, if not for an almost comic epidemic of bureacratic bungling. "Every time they've served an eviction notice, they've done it illegally, so we just go to court and get ti thrown out on a technicality," says Trevens. "Then they try to serve us again and it starts all over."
As this story was being written, ABC No Rio had no idea if it would be allowed to stay in the building beyond the end of March, 1996. "The last thing that happened is that the whole matter was reviewed by a judge, who said she wanted to take all the papers home and think about it for a while," Trevens says. "That was four weeks ago and she hasn't made a decision yet. Which we think is good for us. The longer the judge thinks about it, the more likely she'll realize that the city has been in the wrong all along and that we should be allowed to stay here."
"There's actually more activity here now than there's ever been," Amanda notes. "There's the poetry and open mike nights. We have the hardcore shows almost every Saturday, and people are booking the space for benefit shows on other nights too. We hold women's self-defense classes. There's Spanish classes. Food Not Bombs is here feeding people at least one night a week. There is a lot going on. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that we get to stay here."
The question is, why would New York City be so deadset on evicting a group of people who voluntarily provide such a range of services, in a neighborhood that's been criminally neglected and badly in need of whatever help it can find? "It came out in the last round of negotiations that this is in retaliation to what happened on 13th Street," says Amanda, referring to the near-riot that ensued when the city moved to evict a group of squatters from a 13th Street tenement. "Nobody from ABC was arrested or had any part in what happened at 13th Street, but we've had benefits here for the 13th Street people and I guess the city knows that the people here support them. But that's just an excuse. The city was making noises about getting us out of here years ago, before 13th Street ever happened."
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