KILL THE MUSIC '90s Censorship, GWAR and More

A memoir rekindles interest
in the underground scene of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s – including GWAR’s notorious
1990 obscenity bust. Jesse Helms cameo optional.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Where were you 20 years ago? Nostalgia operating the way it
does, we tend to glance over our shoulders through amber-tinted glasses that
filter out everything but watershed moments – the obvious joys and tragedies
that made us who we are today, along with the myriad culture-bombs that left their
marks on everyone. “Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” is one generation’s
calling-card query; for another, it may very well be, “Where were you when you
got the news about John Lennon?”; for another, “… Kurt Cobain?”

 

But if you have a hard time answering the above question,
don’t feel dumb. By some measures, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot going on,
musically speaking, circa 1988-90. College rock was done, and there weren’t any
R.E.M.s on the horizon; likewise with hair metal, with even Guns N’ Roses
having settled into a pre-Use Your
Illusion
lull; and grunge, though on the horizon, was still a phenomenon
largely confined to the northwest. The proverbial Year That Punk Broke was still
about 16 months away, too. This was for all intents and purposes the
pre-Internet era, so while there was always activity in little pockets around
the country – at the time I was a contributor to a number of regional fanzines
in addition to working as the Music Editor of Charlotte, NC, newsweekly Creative Loafing, so I was lucky enough
to be tuned into a lot of little scenes all at once – the late ‘80s and early
‘90s seems in hindsight, by virtue of it being relatively underdocumented,
somewhat static. Yet folks with long memories, particularly those who were
active participants (musicians, deejays, writers, club owners, indie record
store clerks, etc.) within their individual scenes, may still recall it as an
exciting period during which the groundwork for the alternative era – and
beyond – was being laid.

 

It was also a time of a shifting cultural landscape:  the PMRC, Jessie Helms and the forces of
censorship waged war on the arts, including punk, metal and hip-hop, with the
likes of Judas Priest and 2 Live Crew squarely in their sights. Into those
crosshairs came Michael Plumides, who’d come up through the ranks of college
radio to operate Charlotte’s
controversial 4808 Club. In his memoir Kill
The Music
Plumides describes the highs and lows of running a venue, from
sleazy sexual liaisons with horny patrons and butting heads with overachieving alcohol
and vice agents, to backroom intrigue at the hands of a rival club owner, and
the outrageous musical personalities who walked (or staggered) through the
loading-dock doors of the club. Things came to a head in September, 1990, when
theatrical metal maestros GWAR were booked for a high-profile, all-ages show at
the 4808 – it was the opportunity local authorities had been waiting for.

 

That’s how Plumides sets the stage in the first chapter of his
recent memoir Kill The Music, which
bears the slightly wordy but wholly appropriate subtitle The Chronicle of a College Radio Idealist’s Rock and Roll Rebellion in
an Era of Intrusive Morality and Censorship
. He then backtracks from 1990 to
his stint in the mid ‘80s as a deejay at WUSC-FM in Columbia, SC,
a college radio station where, due to his fondness for Motorhead and Megadeth,
he was the odd man out among the station’s Robyn Hitchcock and Cure fans. (There’s
a hilarious scene in which he goes to a hotel room to interview Dave Mustaine,
who after asking a pair of groupies if they want to do some coke proceeds to demand of them ten bucks apiece for their lines.) Plumides, an unrepentant party
fiend and pussy hound, eventually graduates from college and moves back home to
Charlotte where the Plumides family name is
semi-notorious; his attorney father operated a local strip club back in the
days before strip clubs had been euphemistically rechristened “gentleman’s establishments”
and as a result frequently locked horns with the Charlotte powers-that-be. Following more or
less in the family tradition, soon enough Plumides is operating a bar  himself at the first of what will be several incarnations
of the 4808 Club (so named for its physical location at 4808 Central Avenue in
Charlotte).

 

I myself met Plumides roughly a third of the way into his
book, sometime in 1988, and when he started booking concerts I became both a
patron and, as a music writer, supporter of his club.  (Full disclosure: I, along with other local
journalists, appear in Kill The Music.) At the time the Queen City had no
shortage of great live music venues: there was legendary punk dive the
Milestone Club, as well as places like the Pterodactyl Club and the Park
Elevator (later the 13-13 Club) that hosted both dance music nights and the larger
college rock and alternative bands, nationally prominent blues club the Double
Door Inn, even a seedy strip joint, whose name escapes me, that booked fading
Spandex-and-Aquanet bands on weeknights (but still did strip shows on weekends,
which meant that off-duty dancers made it their hangout during the week, thus
making it a fairly lively attraction). Early on, Plumides took some chances
with his bookings – for example, bringing in Widespread Panic for their first
Charlotte show at a time when nobody else in town wanted to know a jam band
from Adam, and Chapel Hill’s Snatches Of Pink, who’d previously so pissed off other
local bookers with their booze-fueled brand of Stones/Replacements mayhem that
they were basically persona non grata in the city. He also gave more than lip service to the “support your locals”
ethos and the 4808 Club became known as a haven for Charlotte-area punks, metal
heads and misfits whose bands and friends couldn’t land a gig elsewhere in
town. That, plus the fact that Plumides began booking heavier, edgier national
fare than other local venues, bringing in the likes of Danzig, the Bad Brains,
Corrosion of Conformity, Social Distortion, Testament, L.A. Guns and the Sea
Hags, made it inevitable that Charlotte’s
so-called forces of decency and good taste would gradually turn their attention
to 4808 and its maverick owner.

 

In Kill The Music Plumides
traces his trajectory with the 4808, which is fraught, to say the least. He’s forced
to relocate several times; at the original location the landlord opted not to
renew the lease, citing the complaints of other tenants in the adjoining strip
mall, while the second 4808 was served notice of code and license violations.
And he also suffers at the hands of both a Barney Fife-like Alcohol Law
Enforcement detective, who always seems to materialize at precisely the most
inopportune moment, and a rival club owner who’s frequently trying to outbid
him for concerts while badmouthing him to regional promoters and to local
authorities.

 

(Plumides alludes to numerous behind-the-scenes stunts the
other guy allegedly pulls in his efforts to undermine the 4808; the club owner is
given a pseudonym, “Jim O’Leary,” no doubt to reduce the chances of a lawsuit
stemming from being portrayed in wholly unflattering terms. One typical entry:
“O’Leary [was an] Ohio
State carpetbagger [with]
a nasally voice, an irritating fake laugh, a fishy handshake [and] thin
villainous lips… Imagine Crispin Glover meets Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but
without the lips.” Readers with a familiarity with the Carolinas
club scene back in the day, however, will probably recognize the thinly-veiled
“O’Leary” as the same gentleman who operated, at various points, the Milestone,
the Pterodactyl and the 13-13 clubs. A number of other characters in the book
also get pseudonyms, although in some instances this appears to have been done more
out of courtesy – for example, as with Juliana Hatfield’s 2008 autobiography When I Grow Up, former paramours aren’t directly
identified. About a year ago when Plumides and I got back in touch after more
than a decade and he told me about his plans to write a memoir, I mentioned
that employing pseudonyms in places wouldn’t be unwise. I added that I wouldn’t
mind being referred to as “Biff Resolute, Ace Reporter.” Sadly, he opted to
stick me with the name Ma and Pa Mills saddled with me. But he depicted me in
straightforward terms, so I can live with it. Just the same, Mike, if you’re
reading this, I want to play myself in the movie.)

 

Kill The Music is
rife with jaw-droppingly funny anecdotes, like the run-in with the Bad Brains’ foul-mouthed,
posturing road manager; the surreal conversation with Soundgarden during which
the members speculate on whether or not Chris Cornell is latently gay (jury’s
still out); and the time the frontman for Charlotte punk kings Antiseen held
his wedding on the 4808 stage and the event was subsequently picked up by the
national media (including The National
Enquirer
). There are also colorful descriptions of psychotic law
enforcement types, dysfunctional nightclub employees and the customers they
abuse, and no shortage of punk rock nubiles who are willing and ready to par-tay.

 

Meanwhile, things march along to the inevitable climax, that
September ‘90 GWAR show, which as anyone familiar with GWAR knows, concludes
with the club being raided and singer Oderus Urungus, a/k/a Dave Brockie,
getting busted for obscenity. (Gee,
simulating sodomy, ejaculation and eating feces – ya think?
ALE agents had
apparently read a general description of what GWAR shows are like in Creative Loafing‘s preview of the
concert – one of them was later interviewed on camera by the local television
station quoting from the preview which, uh, was written by yours truly – and
had sent in a pair of undercover officers to view the performance. Plumides
further speculates in his book that “O’Leary,” obsessed with his competition,
tipped the authorities that the show might provide the raw materials with which
to finally rid the city of the 4808.)

 

The felony charge of disseminating obscenity is identified
by the Mecklenburg County Magistrate’s order as “depiction of anal intercourse,
masturbation and excretory functions” and confiscated as evidence is a 2 ½ foot
long, rubber fishlike apparatus – that, admittedly, does bear some resemblance
to a penis, and which Brockie had wielded frequently during the band’s
performance, including one scene where he buggered a “priest.”

 

The incident attracts nationwide attention from Billboard, Rolling Stone, Rock & Roll
Confidential
and MTV Music News and is widely viewed as a censorship matter.
Covering it for Creative Loafing, I’m
informed by a local ACLU attorney that “a quick and quiet dismissal” of the case
is the likely outcome because “[Brockie’s conduct] cannot possibly be
considered more obscene than 90% of the movies currently showing in Charlotte… It doesn’t
meet the three tests [for obscenity] laid down by the Supreme Court in Miller vs. California in 1973.”

 

However, the subsequent court appearance, presided over by
Judge Richard Boner, results in Brockie plea bargaining down from the felony
charges to receive a one-year suspended sentence and GWAR being banned from NC
for a year. (He’d apparently weighed the potential costs of a lengthy,
expensive trial as well as the possibility of being deported back to his native
Canada should an obscenity conviction be the result, thereby derailing GWAR for
good.) Brockie holds an impromptu news conference outside the courtroom in
which he calls it “a miscarriage of justice. You’ve got the justice system
telling artists what art is, and [that is] a problem. I feel sorry for the
people of this state.” As one last parting shot, Brockie adds that he was
“disappointed by Judge Dick Boner’s stiff
decision.
” A couple of years later, GWAR would revisit and, one presumes,
profit from, the Charlotte
bust with their Phallus In Wonderland feature-length music video.

 

For his part Plumides, also charged with disseminating
obscenity along with his club getting nailed for alcohol violations, winds up
pleading to a misdemeanor count of allowing a “Harmful Performance to Minors”
at the all-ages show. But by then the 4808 Club has had its alcohol permits
yanked and is already closed, and this ominous-for-the-times cautionary note is
essentially where Kill The Music ends.

 

In a story I filed that November (Plumides quotes from it in
the book) I tried to place the incident and its fallout in its proper context,
writing, “As we all know by now, metal, punk and rap music have all been
targeted by the FBI, the PMRC and police around the country as ‘dangerous.’
Whether or not Plumides got caught up in the national witch-hunt, I can’t say.
Maybe it was Plumides’ against-the-grain attitude. Maybe he didn’t grease the
right palms. In the end, [Charlotte’s]
small-town mentality has once again brought itself national ridicule, much like
Jesse Helms has brought ridicule to North
Carolina.”

 

I still feel that way, and anyone reading Kill The Music is likely to come away
feeling similarly. The southern city’s pinched-ass, Bible Belt mentality as
regards the arts, creative culture and personal freedoms was, in a very real
sense, a reflection of the prevailing national mood at the time, which
included, as noted above, a general distrust of anything arts-related that was
even mildly controversial. A year or so earlier, PMRC founder Tipper Gore had
come to Charlotte promoting her book Raising
PG Kids in an X-Rated Society
, speaking and signing books at a local
Christian bookstore; in the late ‘80s Charlotte had a right-wing mayor who
claimed her governance inspiration came directly from God; and the city also
had its own hillbilly version of Jerry Falwell, a Moral Majority firebrand who
regularly stirred up shit (like marshalling his congregation to protest and
picket the touring theatrical version of AIDS epic Angels in America). In 1990, too, Senator Jesse Helms was up for
reelection – this was the shameful race-baiting campaign that saw Helms beat
former Charlotte
mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American. So it’s safe to say that the general political
climate in N.C. during this period wasn’t particularly progressive, either.

 

Plumides clearly believes that with all these forces in
play, he became a target, although he also freely admits that he could be an
abrasive, arrogant bastard at times, unwilling to kiss City Hall’s ass. In that
sense, and given the time and place, he and the 4808 were probably doomed from
the get-go.

 

Yet give him and other club owners and bookers some credit:
it can’t be easy doing what they do, night after night, week after week.
Mistakes will be made, and only a miniscule percentage of venues manage to
survive in the long term. Look around your own city and list the live music
clubs that have been in existence for, say, five years or more (much less ten or
twenty). You can probably count ‘em on one hand. And it’s always a loss in some
manner of speaking whenever a popular club closes. When Mike Plumides opened up
the 4808 Club, the circus officially came to town in Charlotte, and when he was finally forced to
shut it down a few short years later, the circus pulled up stakes and left. If you
ask some of the locals who still live in Charlotte,
by some measures that circus has never come back.

 

***

 

Kill The Music is
Plumides’ first book, and even before it was completed he’d entered into
conversations with potential backers about a film treatment. Not only is the
book a lively read, brimming with memorable, true-life characters, it is also a
crucial snapshot of a place and time that, as I noted above, hasn’t really been
documented all that thoroughly. Nostalgia for the ‘90s is already nearing an
early peak, so a movie that accurately depicts some of the goings-on of the era
would be timely.

 

As Plumides put it in a recent conversation, “The era of censorship has been criminally ignored by
high-brow media such as NPR, in their continued Woodstock-era journalism,
due to the baby boomers’ stranglehold on programming, and them still
reliving their glory days. Move over, or move to Sun City, but
give someone else a shot for a change.”

 

He adds that a lot of the
bands depicted in Kill The Music are
ripe for rediscovery by a younger generation of music lovers, noting, “With the
inception of popular video games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero,
a whole new market of listeners to the very same music has developed, to the
tune of millions of gamers.” 

 

It’s worth pointing out that
Plumides tapped his punk/DIY roots when getting his book together; he worked with
Booksurge.com (which is affiliated with Amazon.com) to self-publish Kill The Music, something that just a
few years ago might not have been all that feasible. “Self-publishing” was
traditionally synonymous with “vanity press,” which is to say, the red-headed
stepchild of the book industry, a struggling writer’s last, desperate gasp in
the face of rejection after rejection by “respectable” publishing houses. So
all you aspiring authors out there with your own stories to tell, take heart
from Plumides’ experience.

 

“While some Indiebound.org
members [community of independent retailers] have supported Kill The Music and have happily stocked
it,” says Plumides, “others attempt to persuade the public to support
their local ‘indie’ bookstore and to avoid the big retailers while not
supporting the indie press at all. Therein lies the
hypocrisy. Partnering with Amazon/Booksurge gave me the opportunity to get
the material out there without marrying a publisher. I own the rights. And I
don’t know that I’ll sell them now. Anne Saunders, my editor, and I’ve done
this whole thing grassroots. No publicist, and certainly no Simon and Schuster
behind us. Yet with a little hard work, and some decent material, here we are.”  

 

Thus far the response to the
book has been encouraging, so much so that Plumides has just finished prepping second
printing that tidies up some typos and questionable passages contained in the
first edition and will also be made available as a download for Amazon’s Kindle
book reader. And you can keep your eyes peeled for the Winter ’09 issue of Blurt, due on newsstands in late
September, when we present an exclusive excerpt from Kill The Music. Consider the photo of GWAR, above, taken at the
actual 1990 Charlotte
concert, a teaser…

 

 

[Photo Credit: Kerry
McCaskill]

 

 

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