A History of Punk in NWA

ffw 0107 feature 2By Joe Katzbeck

It was the fall of 1984 and Rex Rootz had just lost their practice space. Tommy Bryant of Buccaneer Music had given up his lease on the Ice House at 347 N. West St. in Fayetteville. It was a perfect building for band rehearsal and Buccaneer Music rented out the huge backroom to five different groups: the Rex Rootz band; The Distraktions with Bill Fenex, Dave Miller and John Shively; the All You Can Eat band with Jerry Rogers, Bill Lonnon and Doug “The Thug;” Crazy John Lowe with his six stacks of Orange brand amplifiers; and Jimmy Smith and myself in The Victims.

The building, which is now a parking lot, was lined on all the walls with a 12-inch layer of industrial cork insulation and was originally used to store cut blocks of ice. The ice was river farmed in the freezing winter, of course, and stored year round. This was years before ammonia refrigeration. In 1984 it created the perfect insulation to be rented as a band practice hall and music store. Other than the music of Crazy John Lowe, nobody could hear the bands from the street.

Jimmy Smith and I had been renting one corner of the room for about $30 a month. In addition Buccaneer let me set up my fix-it shop, Circuit Rider Electronics, in exchange for in-store repairs. I was on familiar terms with all the musicians playing there. The Victims weren’t anywhere near good enough to go get jobs on the street, so I asked Rex Rootz if I could sit in with them at their next show.

Rex Rootz was a great little punk band consisting of Sam Karnatz on guitar, his brother “Nasty” Richard on vocals, Levi Williams on second guitar, Joe Whitlatch on bass and vocals, Keith Hollingshead on drums, and sisters Lisa and Laura Cooney on vocals and backup harmonies.

The night I sat in, Lisa asked everybody “Who’s the dead guy on the Farfisa organ?” because I played with my eyes closed to better hear what was going on. The organ proved to be a welcome addition when Lisa and Laura sang the Holly Beth Vincent tune, “Unoriginal Sin.” Both were raving all night about how this sound came out of nowhere and filled up the cracks. Spooky! After that I was most wanted in the band.

Rex Rootz had built up a large following playing gigs on Dickson Street at Al’s Bulls Eye Pub and the White Water which was originally the Swingin’ Door. Remember the two-story cowboy facade? The clubs could count on a crowd of 100 to 300 local punks and punkettes. That was the only reason Al let them play his Pub — the money.

Punk rock in town had been underground for the last three or four years since Larry Brandt had closed Col. Smucker’s. This was a notorious punk club at the UARK Theater, where Sidney’s Emporium and Dyeworks is now.

The Distraktions and Rex Rootz were the only bands to last out of that first mix of groups. The Malls, The Mutant Fish, and Private Nine didn’t make it to 1984. The Distraktions survived by playing out of town a lot and Rex Rootz survived because of the backyard party scene and a few performances at the Rock Against Racism summer shows put on in the parks by Johnny Zip aka John Adams, Eric Johnson, myself and several others.

Rex Rootz In The Living Room

Buccaneer Music gave up the lease on the Ice House building in December 1984. Tommy Bryant of Buccaneer Music wanted to pack it up and move to Austin, Texas, to go be a star. This forced me to move Circuit Rider Electronics back into my van and then I went and cribbed up with Keith Hollingshead. Sam Karnatz was writing a new batch of songs and Keith and I were writing a new project with my four-track Tascam tape recording deck, a project that would eventually become “Music For Rich People.”

Rex Rootz had shows lined up for the spring of ’85 which allowed us to keep fresh the material we already knew, but these new songs were more complex and not your elementary 12 bar blues — stuff that we just couldn’t spontaneously whip out on stage. We needed to practice so we wound up in people’s living rooms in the winter of ’85.

Well, the wives didn’t like this one bit. What was the band, eight pieces by now? Squeezed into a living room! No, this didn’t last very long without a lot of complaints, but we didn’t think we had anywhere else to go.

After Buccaneer Music gave up the lease nobody had pounced on the space so the Ice House stood empty through that winter. The place never had any heat, except for a wood burning barrel stove, so the water pipes froze, burst and buckled the 2-by-12 flooring, turning the place into one big ice slab. Cocktails anyone?

The winter looked bleak for everyone — Rex Rootz, Circuit Rider Electronics and the Ice House landlord who now really couldn’t rent the building. Rootz had gigs lined up at the White Water and Al’s Bulls Eye Pub so it didn’t kill the band. We just had to put the new tunes on hold and play our familiar, and popular, show.

We realized at a March rehearsal that things just had to change. We couldn’t just take over people’s living rooms with babies and toddlers all crawling underfoot.

Being originally from Chicago, where people did this all the time, I proposed the radical idea that we should re-lease the 347 West St. building and host rent parties. Hell, we had more than 300 fans at that point. We had shows lined up and money coming in. We could pay the $150 a month rent easily. Let’s go re-rent the practice space, throw some parties and make some money. Simple, no?

Well, no! Not quite. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. The wives won’t go for the added expense. And besides, $150 was way more than the $30 they had been paying before. Chicken, anyone? Or goose.

At that point in my life I had saved enough money so that $150 was not that big a gamble. Hell, I said, I’ll go rent the place and sign the lease. We’ll hold a rent party for May first, May Day, or thereabouts and then I’ll take my cost out of the proceeds. Great, it didn’t cost the band anything. The wives got their living rooms back and the band didn’t have to put their butts on the line for a lease, so it was a go.

Word got out and soon enough that the Rex Rootz practice hall, aka the Ice House, had become punk headquarters of Fayetteville.

Charging $1 at the door, the first of May party garnered more than $300. Rent was made, easily. Rex Rootz had a practice hall, finally, and I had a place to live and set up Circuit Rider Electronics again. It was spring, just warm enough to make the place barely comfortable enough to hang out in. It was really magic at the time.

June rent was pending so we got the word out about another rent party. The four-track tape project that Keith and I had started, along with Jon Willett, Bill Fenex and Louie Washousen had been put on hold because of the move to the Ice House, but the writing project that Sam and Richard Karnatz had begun, moved to a Dallas studio for two weeks.

When the Karnatz brothers returned they had tapes and tapes of new songs they wanted the Rootz to learn. So we had a lot to do — get the room ready for the next party, and learn a bunch of new tunes. These tasks were mutually exclusive because to hold a party for 200 to 300 people we had to pack up all the delicate equipment like the tape recorders and studio monitors, good guitars and recording microphones and my electronics shop. This also meant we had to put off learning Sam’s new songs till after we made June rent and this frustrated Sam to no end.

The second rent party was even more successful, netting more than $500 this time. I think we raised the admission price to $3 cause we were that good. We were. By then, we weren’t playing the clubs anymore. Rex Rootz had their own sandbox now.

The End Of Rex Rootz

The second week in June, with the rent made in spades, we got back to Sam’s new songs project. For some reason these new tunes didn’t come easily. Either that or Sam was being an ass about making them sound exactly like the tapes done in the studio. By the end of that week, with rehearsals every night, we all were tired and Sam was on his high horse. “In Dallas I can hire better players than you dopes,” he ranted, “You guys are a bunch of amateurs. I played with pros in the studio when I did these tapes.”

Well as you can imagine, that ended the band then and there. Sam and Richard walked out in a huff, taking their own equipment and their share of the PA with them. The rest of us stood there stunned. We looked at each other like we’d just been screwed without getting kissed, but we had no idea of what to do next.

The following day, word spread fast that Rex Rootz had broken up. Everyone in town was shocked and disappointed that the new scene and party house would come to a crashing halt, especially now that it had become so much fun. In the next days some members of the Rootz gathered strength and unity while other members quit and packed off their equipment, too. Those of us left held a small meeting and people were asking what are we going to do now. I still held the lease, so that was a big asset. It might have been Sam’s band but it was Joey’s practice hall now.

My answer was the same as before. We have to pay the rent, so we have to have the parties, so we have to have some bands. So, who wants to start a band?

Three bands were formed on the spot, The Urge, The End and Trash Band. I have forgotten who was playing with whom, but I remember the Cooney sisters, Eric Johnson and Keith Hollingshead forming The Urge, Helen Williamson (later with Wayward Debs, Scummbunnies and Jesus Lee Jones) drummed for The End and I joined up with John Shively and Mark Anthony to form Trash Band. We had most of the PA system leftover from the Rootz band, and half the players had their own equipment so Sam didn’t entirely wipe us out. We could amplify a show and now we had some bands.

The Ice House Is Formed

Earlier that year, the scene had gotten an influx of a lot of fresh blood. A number of punks and creative types, many of them University of Arkansas bound, moved up for the spring semester and had formed such party bands as Wayne Coomers and the Original Sin. There were quite a number of punk musicians available just waiting for a chance to play. Here was the big opportunity.

The Ice House, now a brand name, suddenly became the official punk rock party headquarters of Fayetteville. There were rehearsals in the afternoons. There was practice every night. The three bands nailed over a dozen songs each and got tight enough to draw crowds in off the street during rehearsals. Folks were dropping by all hours of the day and night and suddenly there was a tight sense of community. If we wanted to keep our sandbox, we knew we had to make the next rent party and make it really good.

We set the date for the end of June for the rent party. We kept the admission at $3, fair enough. The party got really huge and this time we grossed more than $700. People had a great time and the scene got even tighter. Before there was only one band, now there were many. Creativity exploded.

By mid-July, for personal reasons, I decided to turn the Ice House over to the bands and fans, and get myself out of town. I would have either turned into a nagging parent, or have gotten set up and busted. I told people to form a committee and elect a chairman to run things. The Cooney sisters, Keith Hollingshead, Eric Johnson, Mark Anthony and “Stately” Beth Hartman, Helen Williamson, Sandra Cox, Jon Willett, Luther Wilson and several others all committed to keep the scene together and continue to hold the rent parties. They elected Laura Cooney as chairman and leadership. I took Laura to the landlord and signed the lease over to her. Remember, this is still 150 bucks a month, electric and water included. Such a deal.

By mid-August and after our second highly successful Ice House rent party I had packed my tape recorders and electronic equipment and was ready to leave for Chicago, my hometown. It looked like the scene was in good hands and people shouldn’t have too much trouble making the rent so I left everyone in high spirits.

Back in Chicago I kept in touch by mail and the Ice House scene kept getting bigger and bigger. At that time the major national punk publication was Maximum Rock and Roll. Its classifieds were a who’s who of the national and international punk touring scene. Some smart people at the Ice House realized that with the money they were making at each party they could promise some of these touring bands a substantial guarantee. This put Fayetteville on the national punk scene map. At the height of it, the Ice House hosted such national and regional acts as My Sin, NOTA, Brown 25, Jubilee Dive, Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, Four Neat Guys, The Asexuals and Paperkid.

The number of local bands increased, flourished and thrived. They opened for the national acts and held down the rent parties on their own. The most notable and lasting of this second wave of local punk party bands were Jesus Lee Jones and Scummbunnies with Helen Williamson, Rhonda Dillard (now in Ultra Suede), Amy Coffman and Beth Hartman.

The City Shuts It Down

Nothing exists in a vacuum, of course, and the Ice House was no exception. Remember that when Rex Rootz first held their rent parties they gave up playing the local clubs. Well, this meant they also pulled their 300 or so fans out of those clubs. Not being mean or spiteful, Rex Rootz just had its own sandbox by then.

This didn’t make the Dickson Street club owners any too happy. Business was falling off because nobody wanted to go to their dreary old clubs and hear tired old rock ‘n’ roll anymore. There was the new stuff that the kids wanted to hear and the Ice House was serving it up. The shows were getting better and better so the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger.

This wild Ice House scene lasted through the winter. By March of ’86 the city had shutdown the show. They had to. Really, or folks could have easily gotten hurt, or worse. People had already fallen out the back door and onto the railroad tracks, a one-story drop. They were young and spunky, so they dusted themselves off, went back inside and partied down. The place had only one bathroom. It was kindly designated the women’s. The men, of course, lined up around the block.

There was no handicapped access, no exit signs that glowed in the dark, no outwardly exiting safety doors, nothing resembling anything up to code. This was punk rock. It was supposed to be dangerous. This was the Iroquois Theater fire waiting to happen again and it was only great luck that it didn’t. The city just had to shut it down for code violations. So they did.

The city was pretty good about it all. They let the bands keep their practice space. People could still come and go, rehearse and hang out, but the city clamped down on the public occupancy side of it. This essentially ended the rent parties but more importantly, it took Fayetteville off of the national punk touring map. Suddenly the scene looked dead.

The Dickson Street club owners were pissed at the Ice House, and punk rock in general, for stealing their business so they weren’t about to hire the local punk bands like they did with Rex Rootz. Then again, at that time none of the bands at the Ice House were in any position to go play shows at the punk clubs in Tulsa or Springfield either. When I came back from Chicago in ’86 the local scene was really down and people had almost given up. For all intents and purposes, after a glorious blaze of nine months, the Ice House was dead then and there.

The End Of The Ice House And The Beginning Of The Third Punk Wave

By May Day of 1986 I had come back to Fayetteville just in time for the last big punk party. The Ice House had been closed to business for a couple of months, but Glenn Wheeler (Blue Boy Orlis) had already booked Black Flag to come to town and do a show. He and some others, including Don Troop and Doug Mann, rented Smoose’s, which used to be the Landing Strip, which used to be Omar’s, which used to be Notchys and today is the Dickson Theater. The building had stood abandoned for several years since Smoose ran it, but the stage, bar, box office and dance floor were still intact. I don’t know who owned the property but they were willing to rent it for the one evening to do the show.

Yes, Virginia, Henry Rollins showed up with Black Flag, Painted Willie and a band called Gone. They played for more than 600 people. I knew I was back home in Fayetteville when I felt a tick bite my scrotum. Damn, I was in public and I wasn’t going to scratch it, so I suffered in silence. That was the last big Ice House party for a while.

The scene was in limbo but the Ice House committee still functioned, they just didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t either. We floundered for a month or so interviewing a number of law firms in town — your first meeting is usually free. Each lawyer had a specialty — the liquor lawyer, the building permit lawyer, the go-between with the city lawyer — and they all wanted to tell us what we had to do.

The liquor lawyer was the most surprised to see us. All the club owners had complained to him about the Ice House taking their business and they wanted him to shut us down, or at least advise them how that could be done. He had no clue who we were because we had never applied for a liquor license. Without a liquor license there was no leash around our necks so he didn’t know what to tell the club owners.

There were parking permits, and construction permits, and occupancy permits, and business licenses and liquor licenses that all had to be arranged and the lawyers were all happy to do this for us, for a small fee, of course. To make the Ice House a legitimate venue, estimated costs were in the tens of thousands of dollars. Oddly enough, in the six short months that the kids had run the show, they were rumored to have grossed close to maybe $15,000. Well, it would have taken all of that and more to refurbish and bring the place up to code.

Lily’s To The Rescue

The only bright spot that spring was the opening of the bar Lily’s named after the bar dog, Lily. This was hippie, dirt farm Fayetteville and everybody had a dog, and a pickup truck, with a gun rack, with a gun. Those days are long gone.

Karen Murdock and Vanna, two very popular waitresses from the Restaurant on the Corner, had teamed up with a silent partner and signed the lease on a defunct Dickson Street bar called The Dugout. Apparently, they also signed a lease on the adjacent space, the old Hob Knob Liquors, because when Lily’s opened they had busted out an arch in the common brick wall and set up the bar on The Dugout side and opened a stage and kitchen on the other side. Karen and Vanna’s popularity assured Lily’s of a client base, which was enough to start the bar.

Lily’s was punk friendly, hosting shows that spring such as Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, Camper Van Beethoven (who jammed at the Ice House until 5 a.m. after the Lily’s gig), Dinosaur Jr., Green on Red, Rhythm Pigs, STFU, Plan 9, Government Issue and more. Karen and Vanna were smart enough to see the future that the Ice House had already introduced. The crowds showed up. Lily’s wasn’t big enough to host Black Flag sized shows, but it was just right for the smaller regional punk acts. Fayetteville was not back on the national map yet, but there was still a toehold.

‘Meetingitis’ Stagnation, Other Trouble

In the 10 months that the Ice House was the “happinin’ scene” some things changed for the better and some for the worse. Keith Hollingshead and Jon Willett had gotten pretty good at running sound, especially after I gave Keith the book, “Modern Recording Techniques” by Robert Runstein for a Christmas present. They were starting to help run sound at Lily’s. They had been building their equipment list and were beginning to get work with John Anderson and J.T. Huff of Barking Dog Audio. These were some of the good things that were happening but other things were getting worse.

The Ice House committee had formed with a number of women in leadership, but by that spring a lot of their boyfriends had taken over those roles. Laura Cooney’s boyfriend, Don Troop, had become the de-facto chairman, mostly because he had a stronger personality and just assumed the role.

Too, the committee was getting infected with “meetingitis,” calling meetings every other day to rehash mundane details of our lawyer interviews. Worst of all there weren’t any local bands of any merit. Where the whole thing began with the Rex Roots, a strong enough band to command 300 fans, and progressed through such competent groups such as The Urge and Rhythm Method, by the summer of ’86 there weren’t any local groups that could go out and earn rent. Even worse, nobody seemed to care.

By August I was tired of the whining and moaning about how the “evil city” had shut down the scene. I was tired of the “meetingitis” of the committee and all the lawyer interviews that had just wasted our time. I was especially tired of the musicians who came and practiced every night but couldn’t or wouldn’t learn enough good and tight songs so they could play Lily’s and make the rent. I mean come on, it was still $150 a month. I wasn’t going to pay it all out of my pocket and nobody else wanted to pony up either.

I was pissed off and I knew there had to be some big changes. For me, this scene wasn’t any fun anymore. However, nobody else saw any problem at all — if the city would just let everybody have their sandbox back.

Joey Shuts it Down

Punk rock was many different things to many different people. To some it was the rebellion of youth, the Eff You to all that was phony and hypocritical. To others it was just an excuse to be snotty and juvenile, an Eff You to everybody, regardless. Rex Roots contained both of these contradictions. “Nasty Richard” Karnatz was not dubbed nasty for nothing and Sam, his older brother, would get band members pissed at each other before every show, just so the tension would make a more toothy, snarly performance. A real prince. Anger isn’t always the best motivator, but sometimes it’s what you have to work with. In the beginning, if it weren’t for the anger against Sam Karnatz, the Ice House would never have risen to earn its own rent. Something had to get stirred up.

It was a simple idea and it pissed everybody off: A lockout. In Chicago it’s done all the time. I went to the hardware store — Lewis Brothers on the square, now Bank of Fayetteville — and bought a new padlock. I had them cut six keys. I put one on my key ring, kept the other five handy, and waited. I didn’t have to wait long. Word spread fast that the Ice House was locked out. The freeloaders, moochers and band hangers-on couldn’t get into their favorite wasted space and piss away time. The more lame of the bands, the ones not chipping in for rent, couldn’t just drop by and borrow time on the equipment. Hell No! Rent was due in a couple of weeks, I wasn’t going to fund it anymore, the rent parties were over and there wasn’t a single band that could go play a club, be a hero and earn a buck and a half. Okay folks, what are you going to do now? Piss your time away?

The Ice House committee got two or three people to go hunt me down to find out what the Eff was going on. Quickly, that night I believe, the Ice House called a meeting for a big confrontation with Joey. I threw them the other five keys and I read them the riot act. I ran it down: No rent, no parties to make it, and no bands good enough to earn it.

Oh no, they didn’t want to hear that. They were the Ice House, the darling little children of the scene, the queens of the underground. The last thing I heard at my last Ice House meeting was, “Why don’t you go find someplace else to live cause you’re not welcome here anymore!”

In a week I found a rent house and moved out of the Ice House. I can only imagine what happened within the scene after that. The fairweather friends, the summer soldiers, probably flaked away, as they are wont to do. They always seem to hang out in other peoples’ living rooms. But amongst the hardy, the scene wasn’t about to die.

The Birth Of Third Wave

Doug Mann stepped up and realized that he could rent halls on a nightly basis and book the national touring acts, which he did. There were punk shows at the National Guard Armory; at the VFW Hall; at the old Brass Monkey of Bassett’s Mountain Inn fame (now a parking lot) where the Flaming Lips and Leaving Trains played; at peoples’ houses and back yards; Lily’s; and anywhere else Doug could put a band. I know it had to have taken a lot of work on his part to coordinate the venue, the players and the crew. I’m sure it’s much simpler to have your own club and control your own calendar. He did it, though, and kept the scene alive. The third punk wave in Fayetteville? Blame it on Doug Mann, don’t blame it on me. I had nothing to do with it.

The music had to tighten up too. Now, it wasn’t so simple to find a practice space. Musicians had to pay for it out of their own pockets again. It weeded out the posers, fakes and flakes.

Several good bands were around in the fall of ’86. The Slippery Dogs (Jack Martin, of Free Seed fame, Eric Johnson and Johnny Cole) did satirical versions of good pop covers and made them work. They got good enough to play The Library — Dickie Pool’s Library — Dickie Pool, one of the main proponents of closing down the Ice House.

Other good bands came along too, ones that were good enough to book work at Lily’s: Jesus Lee Jones and the Hillbilly Witchcraft Band with Sean Chapman, Helen Williamson, Chanah Foti and Eric Johnson, the Charred Barbies with James Cohea, Billy Callen, Sandra Cox, Eric Johnson and Chris Moody.

The Faith Healers with Brian Petty, Wade Ogle and Paul Boatwright and Declaration of Love with Ogle, Boatwright and Paula Frazier played Fayetteville and were also good enough to be tapped to open for Butthole Surfers and Flaming Lips in Dallas, Austin and Houston. Suddenly the scene didn’t look so bleak and people were having fun again.

Me? I accepted the fact that amongst the Ice House crowd I was persona non grata and so I stayed off Dickson Street for more than a couple of years. I let the rage boil out. Still many years after all that went down, people still think I was a real asshole. They couldn’t understand why I “sold them out.” Some still don’t get it. It kept the punk scene alive for another long stretch. At least until the Walton Arts Center was finished and, by then, so was anything alternative, hip and original. But that’s a whole other story with a whole other cast of characters.

Joe “Joey” Katzbeck is still playing and recording music. His latest, and fourth, CD “Chicago River” was released in 2009. For more about the Ice House, see facebook.com/home.php?#group.php?gid=36385812501, created by Catharine Dill.

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