An exhibition of local vinyl records at the Nevada Museum of Art prompts questions about what qualifies as punk rock
It wouldn’t be punk rock without a little controversy. On Oct. 2, The Wrong Side of Reno: Three Decades of Punk and Hardcore Music in the Biggest Little City, an exhibition of music, vinyl records and record sleeves, opens at the Nevada Museum of Art. Before the show had even been officially announced, there was a lot excitement about the exhibition, tempered by some grumbling among local musicians and artists about the content—mostly centered on which bands and records were or were not included. Whenever anyone presents a historical overview of anything, something, by necessity, gets excluded. By saying what something is, you immediately imply what it’s not. In this case, it comes down to the ever fluctuating definition of “punk rock.”
The exhibition and an accompanying book were guest curated for the museum by two people with strong ties to the local underground music scene, Jeanne Jo and Mac Schopen. Jo, currently a doctoral candidate in media arts at the University of Southern California, was the singer of the band Arabella. Schopen was the guitarist in the band Crucial Attack and was co-owner and manager of the record store Sound & Fury. Schopen’s personal record collection makes up the bulk of the exhibition.
The earliest record featured in the book is, appropriately enough, Skins, Brains and Guts, a 1982 EP by legendary Reno band 7 Seconds. (Down the hill, they might try to claim 7 Seconds as a Sacramento act. This might be sort of true now, since frontman Kevin Seconds has lived there for a long time, but the band’s roots and earliest records are unquestionably Renoite.)
The book then zig-zags through Reno underground music of the last 30 years, touching on, to cite just a few examples, the pop punk of Zoinks!, the metallic hardcore of Fall Silent, the psychobilly of the Atomiks, the pirate rock of the Scurvy Bastards, the indie folk of My Flag is on Fire, and the power violence of Iron Lung. The album artwork ranges from straightforward black-and-white band photos to colorful, abstract illustrations, from devils to angels to astronauts. There are a lot of skulls.
The genesis of Wrong Side of Reno came a few years ago when Schopen visited the Nevada Historical Society and checked out an exhibition titled Nevada on Vinyl. Schopen says that there were only about a dozen, mostly older records.
“I was like, ‘I have at least 70 at home,’” says Schopen. “It occurred to me that I might have the largest collection of Reno records in the world.” After that, he made it his goal to collect every vinyl record ever released by a Reno band or musician, regardless of the genre—though the book and exhibition focus on punk and hardcore, his favorite music. There are 176 records featured in the book, though a few of those were borrowed from other collectors.
“Many of the records I bought as they came out or found in record stores,” says Schopen. “I filled in the gaps online.” Schopen is Reno born and bred, and 31 years old, so the timeline of the exhibition loosely corresponds to his lifespan.
Schopen told Jo about his experience at the historical society, and it was her idea to feature the collection as a gallery exhibition—though she’s quick to acknowledge that there were precedents, including a similar exhibition she saw at the Rhode Island School of Design while she was earning her Master of Fine Art degree there. She previously worked as a curatorial assistant at the NMA from 2003 to 2005, and thought it was an ideal location.
“We talked to the museum,” says Jo. “They were very supportive, very excited, very encouraging, because it was very much of regional interest and a way to get a different demographic of people into the museum.”
“We know that there’s all kinds of people in the community that have record collections,” says Ann Wolfe, curator of exhibitions and collections at the NMA, “but this one did seem to be really cohesive and just impressive in both the scope and the numbers. The museum wanted to get behind this particular collector and recognize this genre as something special and unique about the Reno community. … The museum is proud to be a part of presenting this work and this music and this genre to a larger audience.”[page]
Touch of punk
The first criteria for records included in the exhibition is that the band be based in Reno. It proved to be a tricky proposition to confirm, since, in many cases, especially on early releases, the contact information and biographies were spotty or nonexistent. Jo and Schopen also occasionally stretched the limits of this rule, most notably in a case explained in their preface: “Iron Lung currently lives and records in Seattle and San Francisco. However, its members were raised in Reno, the band formed in Reno, all of their early releases were recorded during their residence in Reno, and due to their immense contribution and continued presence in the Reno punk/hardcore scene, we felt that even their Seattle records merited inclusion.”
The second criteria for the exhibition was to include only music that has been released on vinyl. Albums that were released solely on CD or digital formats were immediately disqualified.
“Vinyl is kind of special to me,” says Schopen. “It’s the longest-lived recorded medium. … It has a more organic sound.”
Though vinyl records were the dominant music format in the era that begins the book, the decision to release vinyl records in the later eras dominated by CDs and digital downloads is an aesthetic choice.
“Recording a record on vinyl is a very permanent way to record music,” says Jo. “And it sort of means something that you’d invest the money and the effort making actual objects that contain your music when you could easily just do everything digitally.”
The third criteria for inclusion is perhaps the most controversial. “Well, as this book is called The Wrong Side of Reno: 30 Years of Punk and Hardcore Music in the Biggest Little City, we tried to remain true to the title and include bands that were in the punk and hardcore genre,” says Jo.
“Punk rock” is an expression that means different things to different people. The immediate image conjured in many peoples’ minds might be a skinny mohawked dude in a studded leather jacket, screaming into a microphone with a thick, probably phony, Cockney accent. This is a cliché rooted in truth, but not the whole story.
There’s also the image of the hairy- pitted peace punk, the vegan who writes zines and boycotts big corporations. This is also rooted in truth, but not the whole picture.
In the introduction to the book, Jo and Schopen describe hardcore as “a response to commercialized versions of punk being played on the radio.” So, in a way, hardcore is to punk what punk is to rock ’n’ roll. It’s difficult to draw firm lines separating the three genres since they exist on a continuum. It’s also worth noting that hardcore wasn’t the only further continuation of punk rock—British post-punk and New York No Wave, for example, took punk in artier directions.
“We’re not trying to define punk and hardcore,” says Jo. “It’s not an encyclopedia of punk rock, by any means. This is one man’s record collection. We attempted to be as comprehensive as possible, in terms of musical style, but there’s no way that we know everybody in Reno who’s made music in the last 30 years. It’s just not possible. This is a snapshot into a subculture that has been a big part of our lives.”
It’s impossible to define something as elusive as punk rock, but it’s better to attempt and fail than not to have tried at all, so here goes. There are three basic definitions of punk rock: The first is a time period, roughly 1975 to 1979, when, after years of pretension and commercialization, rock ’n’ roll music returned to its roots and got dirty and fun again. The second is a creative approach that values no-holds-barred authenticity and a do-it-yourself ethos. The third is a genre, casually described by Schopen as “guitar-bass-drums, fast, angry rock ’n’ roll.”
The third definition is the operative one for the curators of Wrong Side of Reno. For musicians and artists who favor the more inclusive, expansive second definition, this might be frustrating, but this distinction explains why some bands were included in the book and some were not—like rapper Rajbot, who released a record on local punk label Spacement Records, or outlaw country band Hellbound Glory.
“Raj makes hip hop records,” says Schopen. “In a way, it was like, who are we to claim that as ours, as punk? … We talked to him about it, and he understood. He said, ‘The only thing I’m bummed about is that it had cool art.’ … Hellbound Glory is country—good country—but country. None of these things were cut because they weren’t good, just because they weren’t the genre we were looking for.”
And just as there are some records that might seem like surprising omissions, there are others that seem like odd inclusions, like some of the records by the band Crushstory, whose later releases were indie rock-power pop, not punk in the least.
“As a musician and an artist, I’m super excited for the exhibit at the museum,” says Dan Ruby, associate director of the Fleischmann Planetarium & Science Center, an album cover designer and a former member of Crushstory. “I’m really appreciative of the inclusion of several of my recordings and record covers that I’ve done, and I was really pleasantly surprised to receive the press release from the museum that features my work prominently, because before that I was otherwise unaware that the show was coming up.”
Crushstory’s 2001 LP, A+ Electric, is featured in the museum’s promotional materials for the exhibition.
“I hadn’t been contacted beforehand, so, as a museum professional, I think there’s some interesting issues concerning the display of vinyl records as art pieces without the consent or notification of the original creators or copyright holders,” says Ruby. “I’m not sure that permission is technically required. … There may be complex copyright issues. There may not be. But ultimately, I think it would have been nice.”
“We talked to a least one person involved in at least 85 percent of the bands, all the ones that we could find,” says Jo. “We tried to talk to everybody. But we definitely did not contact every single person that was in every one of these bands.”
Ruby says that he later found out that Jo and Schopen had talked to other members of Crushstory, including Jim Bowers, who had even lent them records for the exhibition.
“If I’d had the opportunity, I would have expressed my discomfort with that record being featured, because I’m not proud of the layout,” says Ruby. “I think it’s an OK record, but by no means is it punk rock or hardcore, so it’s weird to me that that one is featured prominently in the marketing materials.”
Schopen says that the inclusion of Crushstory is justified on the basis of the band members’ connections to the scene—band member Zac Damon, for example, also played in Zoinks!—and the fact that the band’s self-titled debut 7-inch is unquestionably punk. Though they might have evolved away from punk, it’s where they began.[page]
Words, art and music
Alongside the album covers in the book are personal essays from people involved in the scene at different eras. For example, the ’80s section features Mike Ward of Discipline; the ’90s section features Levi Watson of Fall Silent and New Blood; and the ’00s features Chris Costalupes of Over-Vert. There are also guest comments from high-profile musicians from the national punk and hardcore scene, like Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and Henry Rollins of Black Flag.
“The biggest disappointment was that we couldn’t get ahold of Kevin Seconds,” says Schopen. “But that was made up for by getting to meet Bessie Oakley from The Wrecks.” The Wrecks was an all-female punk band that formed in Reno in 1980.
“She was the best thing about the whole experience,” says Schopen. “Who in Reno, in the punk scene today, even knows about The Wrecks? I just lucked out, and I happened to hear about them, ‘Oh yeah, this all-girl punk band from Reno.’ Knowing that band even existed, and knowing that they were totally pioneers of multiple avenues in this thing called punk. To actually meet her and talk to her and hear stories from her … she was super awesome. She was ultra helpful, super nice, and just all-around awesome.”
Oakley’s essay provides insight into a time when punk and hardcore didn’t have the sense of orthodoxy that sometimes mars the scene today. “What was wonderful in those early days is that roles were unwritten,” she writes. “We balked at the idea that you had to have spiked hair; ours was long.”
In addition to the images of the records and the essays, the book features photographs from all three decades by local photographer Chris Carnel and a cover by art duo Feeding, made up of Nic Schmidt and Jon Nelson-Kortland. Kortland is or has been a member of a number of bands featured in the book, including Gob and Iron Lung, and he founded Satan’s Pimp Records.
“Looking at the book, you can really see Jon Kortland’s influence in Reno,” says Jo. “He both put out a lot of albums by other bands and was very prolific in the albums that he himself contributed to musically, so we were very happy and honored to have his project Feeding … design our book cover for us.”
The book is available from Lulu.com, a print-to-order site, which is certainly punk rock, in the DIY sense.
“We’re showing how prolific Reno has been, and also terrific art,” says Jo. “It’s a show of record art. That what’s most important.”
Though the book is ostensibly about artwork, the textual content is all firsthand recollections of different bands, venues, shows and people.
“This is not a definitive guide to Reno music,” says Jo. “It is step one in the dialogue. I could easily see updated versions in two years, five years, or people making their own, talking about different scenes, talking about the hip-hop scene, which I know nothing about, or whatever else is going on.”
Wrong Side of Reno was itself inspired by what Jo and Schopen saw as deficiencies in the exhibition at the Nevada Historical Society.
“If I were to propose an alternative it would be for some of the writing to be about the aesthetics of punk rock and punk rock artwork,” says Omar Pierce, a visual artist who, along with fellow artist Nick Larsen, did the layout of the book and also designed the cover of Think in French/Words split 7-inch single included in the book. “There’s no context for that artwork. … It’s a small number of people’s personal accounts. There’s no context for what the bands even sound like.”
The book, for the most part, lacks scholarly writing—though there is an academic-sounding afterword by former Zoinks! drummer Bob Conrad—but much of the writing seems to build on a certain theme.
“The thing that means the most to me is that I’ve made some of the truest and deepest friendships imaginable; friendships that a 15-year-old friendless boy could never have imagined,” writes Schopen in his tone-setting essay early in the book.
“I realized that punk/hardcore was a culture with values, music, mores, that had been built from the ground up by interesting people around the country and world,” writes Oakley.
“I made some of my best and longest lasting friendships in these years,” writes Ward. “That’s what I miss. The camaraderie, the equality in our choice to be outcasts.”
Over and over, each contributing writer mentions the friends they’ve made and the unique people they’ve met.
“You see so many kids in this town with Reno tattoos,” says Schopen. “It’s almost an us-against-the-world kind of a thing. Especially back in the day, because you really had to struggle to even get bands to come here, because we’re not exactly a major stop … It was something you really had to work for, and you really had to build. The friendships you make building that are pretty important.”
In Reno at least, there’s a fourth definition for punk rock: a community.