Echoes and Reverberations: Mad Chops and Culture Jamming on Fry Street
Sly Stone was born there. Roy Orbison and Don Henley went to school there. Pat Boone and Dr. Phil even made the scene.
But enough about all that: Let's talk about skronk monkeys trippin' balls at Fry Street Fair. Let's remember the graffiti artists getting sick with the acrylic... and smelly jazz doods rippin' minor scales for eight hours straight in an effort to land a spot in the UNT One O'Clock Lab Band.
"OK, you can play. Now play me something I dig." - Miles Davis
Denton, Texas: Where creative artists have been coming for decades to master music theory and wreak havoc on our ear drums and eyeballs. With two big music festivals happening there in the next week, let's belly up to the plank and ask three generations of culture jammers to flip through the psychedelic scrap book...
Ron English (Popaganda founder and creator): "I went to school at North Texas from '80 to '83--something like that. I had this old house called 'Slum Manor' across the street from the campus, and we had this party where we painted the front porch like the inside of a subway car. Next thing you know, everyone had done up the whole place top to bottom. We had a pig that we wrestled in the back yard, and we were hanging headless mannequins upside down from the trees. I would wake up the next morning to go eat breakfast and people would be out front taking pictures of the house. It was wild."
Jeff Robinson (visual artist): "I was in school at NTSU from '81 to '85, and lived in an old two-story hippie house on Elm. It was steeped with history from the previous generations of eccentric students and dropouts; it was considered haunted. I was a punk artist. There was a giant junk sculpture in the front yard that had been there for years. It sucked. I immediately tore it down and upset the old regime. Ron English had these notorious parties at his Slum Manor. He would have a graffiti party and hand out spray paint for all the guests to paint the inner and outer walls of the house. He also had a mud wrestling pit."
Ron English: "There were tons of bands at Slum Manor. I had 11 bands--literally--that practiced there on a regular basis. There would be a band jamming while I was throwing paint on canvases spread out all over the floor. I didn't even own a stereo. There was always a band playing up in there. The Bud delivery guy would pull up and would sell us kegs straight off the back of the truck. The police would just be waiting at all the surrounding street corners."
Jeff Robinson: "Fry Street Fairs were a blurry blast. The Sammy's were the 'anti-frat', frat house. Artist Matt Miller was part owner in a bar around the corner. I remember seeing Bobby Soxx play, singing his anthem 'Learn To Hate in the '80's' there. Greg Contestibile (aka spray can artist Ozone) and I sacked bread from midnight to 4 a.m. at a bakery on the square. David Williams had a band that played at some dive bar on Fry Street. Their drummer wasn't very good, so he'd play as fast as he could, then kick the drums over and walk off exhausted--end of show. Matt and I headed to Deep Ellum in '84, living at First and Parry (Expo Park). College years are always a coming-of-age time, and being in Denton was a crazy environment to experiment with who you are. There was the obvious academic influence, but also a real hippie vibe that had been lingering there for decades. Lots of pot and acid... lots of art, music and philosophy."
David Williams (The Frenetics): "For original music, there was Brave Combo, and... us. Carl Finch has always been a huge supporter for me, and what they were doing was certainly original. I didn't hang out with other musicians--I was much more into the girls in the Art Building. I was also a Philosophy major, so don't assume every musician from Denton is in the Music School. I never considered the Frenetics a punk band. Punk had died for me well before 1980, when hardcore got started. The Frenetics played the first and second Fry St. Fair. They were a blast."
Glen Reynolds (Chomsky): "I lived less than a mile from Fry Street growing up, so every spring I knew when the Fair was--it was as loud as an airport at my house! Starting back in '86, I would see the bands playing from behind the stage. In the old days, the stage backed up to Oak Street. It was pretty psychedelic--lots of tie-died shirts and granola folks. I was transfixed by the coolness of the bands."
Richard Ross (Brutal Juice/visual artist): "I lived for one summer in Denton. I was living in a house with 14 other people. I spent most of my time off drunk and got into a lot of trouble. That's why I left Brutal Juice. I got out of control while living there and needed to restore some stability to my life. It was at this time that I decided to focus on visual art, too. So, as brief as my life in Denton was, it affected me greatly."
Brandon Smith (Billygoat/Last Rites): "Dookie (Dan Connelly, now deceased) from The Daylights was the Sammies/Fry Street connection in Denton. I was there '87 to '90, with Mike Dillon, Earl Harvin, Dave Monsey, and so many other great freaks. I was playing with Last Rites at the time. Bruce Hall cafeteria was a kind of Petri dish for the scene--there was always some character eating Cap'n Crunch in there. The Library hosted some fucking incredible Ten Hands gigs. The school has an amazing listening library (the real one, not the club) that we all checked out pretty extensively, I think. That's one of the things I miss most about being a student at that place that tome of stuff."
Ben Burt (Brutal Juice): "I arrived there in the spring of '89. It was maybe a couple of weeks before I saw my first show there. It was a Thursday night, the big night of the week in Denton back in those days. It was Ten Hands at the Gravity Room. The room was packed and the music was quirky. Being a drummer, I was drawn to the two drumming freaks on stage. To this day, the duo of Earl Harvin and Mike Dillon on drums and percussion is my favorite. That night, that band, that crowd... I wanted to be a part of that!"
You gotta have discipline and determination to make all the way through music school at UNT. Graduating drummers tend to pack up their sticks and split right away, often landing badass gigs within months of relocating. Former New Bohemians drummer Matt Chamberlin had a brief stint in Pearl Jam and now plays with Tori Amos. Earl Harvin has since relocated to Berlin, Germany; while in Denton, Harvin played with Ten Hands, BIllygoat, MC 900 Ft Jesus, Rubber Bullet and Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet. These days Earl plays with Air, The The, and Psychedelic Furs. Mitch Marine lives in LA and currently plays with Smashmouth and Dwight Yoakam.
Scrote (scr011): "Living in Denton and attending UNT was a great time. By day, I'd attend classes with great professors like Larry Austin, Jack Peterson and Kevin Korsyn, followed up by hitting the live music scene at night. Toss in the random improv sessions throughout and it was music 24/7."
Chris Merlick (Charred/Lithium X-Mas): "I lived in Denton from '85 to '90. When I first arrived, the music scene was concentrated around the Library and the Enterprise. The Library was the music student spot, and the Enterprise was the art crowd's hangout. All the clubs were in the Fry Street area. As an art student, I spent a lot of time at the Enterprise. Bands that I remember playing there were Angry Jasmine, Snake Farm, Bliss, Monster Island Plus, The Whirlygigs, Elvis from Hell, the Hydrolators, and Boston Butt Roast. The Library booked bands like Ten Hands and Andy Timmons. After the Enterprise closed, a burger restaurant named the Char-Hut opened its doors to the freaks from Bruce Hall. The format was wide open and on any given night you could see any genre of music. The owner paid bands with a free dinner (usually a hamburger and curly fries)."
Glen Reynolds: "I began to take lessons that fall after my first Fry Streret Fair ('86) and my instructor, Thad Boduris, was an old-school UNT alum. He quickly got me up to speed on theory, etc. I would sneak into clubs with Ryan Short (of Mushroom Groovy) to watch Andy Timmons play. It was a real eye-opener how good he was. I loved shows at Dr. Smiths. The door guys would always look the other way when we youngsters came in. However, what really blew me away was hearing "Sins of The Fathers" by Course of Empire on the new station, 94.5 KDGE-FM in 1990. I knew at that point I wanted to be in a band."
Bucks Burnett: "In 1987, I managed the Denton location of Forever Young Records. The store lasted exactly one year. Fortunately, the owner sold the business to me, so, in 1988, I started Fourteen Records, located on Fry Street across from the Zebra head shop, which is still there, and then relocated down a block across the street from the Language building. I would usually have my store open on the day of the Fair and usually did quite well on that day, so my memories of the Fair are of selling $25 LPs to people who were probably going to lose or break them by the end of the day."
Darius Holbert (darius,tx): "I moved to Denton after I came back from school in London, and it always seemed like a homecoming. I played in a bunch of bands with all of the rest of the music school jerks, and eventually started my own thing, on the second track of the Denton white folks funk band train, with other luminaries like Mingo, Mushroom Groovy, and Beef Jerky. The band was called Dr. Teeth and we played everywhere we could, from Kharma Cafe with the awful sound, to the Italian joint that took over Jim's with the awful sound, to right on our own porch at the yellow house on Fry... it didn't matter. We took up the mantle of the long line of junky dirtbags by living in that house, and it was a toilet, but the rent was cheap and we were right there in the action. Unbelievably, somebody just told me that hole is a restaurant now. Gross."
Richard Ross: "I remember looking into the sea of faces behind a chain link fence separating the crowd from the stage, and the dude in front of me was chewing on the fence and growling like a mad animal. The next year, I wasn't playing music anymore, but went with a guy who thought he was the re-incarnation of some Native American chief. We got separated from each other when I went to see Brutal Juice perform. Craig had a giant red cross painted on his head, and lifted the skirt he was wearing to show his penis tucked between his legs while putting cigarettes out on himself. The last I ever saw of the great chief dude, he was standing in the center of a drum-off, shaking a rattle."
"The Fraternity of Noise"... "Hell's Lobby"... "Strawberry Fields"... "The Delta Lodge"... "One Ton Records"... "Good/Bad Art Collective"... "Two Ohm Hop" ... The creative people from Denton have always been able to come up with interesting conceptual themes and ideas. Inspiration and ingenuity delivered at maximum volume.
Glen Reynolds: "After about 1992, Denton began to really show a unified noise-rock explosion. Baboon and Brutal Juice became the live show to see, and I'll never forget how fired up I was to catch Baboon at Fry Street. (I never could figure out the schedule while drinking that much!) Other bands like Record Player and the Factory Press gave Denton a more indie feel, and it was cool to see Funland play at the Kharma Cafe."
Mike Rudnicki (Baboon): "My fondest memories of Denton involve its DIY spirit and the collaboration between artists and musicians. When Brutal Juice, Caulk, and Baboon started playing around town a lot, we usually played a club that we had to commandeer at times (set the bill, run the door, etc.). Around that time, my friend Lynn Lane starting booking national independent bands such as Beat Happening, Jawbox, and Nation of Ulysses with local bands as openers. I think this bringing in of national acts help set the precedent for The Argo and, later, Rubber Gloves."
Ben Burt: "The next spring, I took in my first and last Fry Street Fair as a spectator. It was the first one to take place not on the street. I was blown away that day. Yeah, the acid had a bit to do with it, but seeing all those bands: Loco Gringos, Ten Hands, Billy Goat, Last Rites, etc. What a day! Again, I said to myself, 'I want to be a part of that!' It was the next year that my little band Brutal Juice was invited to play. Funny thing. Until the very night before that fair, we couldn't even pay our friends to come see us. That all changed after that show. 'Holy Shit! I'm a part of this!'--that's what I was thinking a year later as we took the stage at the fairgrounds at dusk on the main stage."
Glen Reynolds: "I always loved the free-wheeling nature of the Fry Street shows. There were always copious amounts of alcohol backstage and people selling crazy stuff on the block. You'd usually see some beer-monster sleeping on a warm hillock or an occasional fight, but for the most part, Fry Street Fair was when Dentonites got together to hang out and celebrate a culture that arguably once rivaled Austin's eccentric nature."
Bucks Burnett: "Living in Denton for four years was one of the greatest parts of my life. I relocated the store to Dallas in 1991 and closed it in 1995. Nothing can quite compare to the experience of living in Denton. Twenty years ago, it was a twisted micro-Austin. I filmed a lot of the locals before I left town for my first short film, Local Velvet, and thank god I did, because so many of the people then were behaving as fictional characters. The actor Hans Conried once recorded a spoken album for the Chamber Of Commerce, called 'Denton Talks'. It is a cult masterpiece, worth seeking out; I need a copy, actually..."
Bucks was right at home on the square. DenTex has always had an assload of gifted dweebs and dorks. Dooms UK, Q and the Black Martin, Corn Mo, Lil' Jack Melody, Brave Combo and Josho Misho were all hard reppin' the twerp set.
A head full of acid usually provides a great deal of clarity and understanding. Some of these musical arrangements were really off on some twisted House of Leaves shit. The old "odd time signature = Art" equation.
Mike Rudnicki: "The Good/Bad Art Collective was Ground Zero for musician/artist collaboration. Bands would do benefits to help it pay its bills so it could have art openings, and the collective would return the favor by helping out the bands in various capacities. For example, they once rented a large screen television (quite the luxury back then) for the premiere of Baboon's Walker, Texas Ranger appearance. Todd Ramsell, one of Good/Bad's founders, made some great flyers for us, as well as a couple of T-shirt designs for Brutal Juice. Also, he was nice enough to let us use his painting and its title Secret Robot Control for the cover and title of our second full-length CD."
Ben Burt: "What a great time and place to get involved in a music scene. That stretch of time was life changing. To this day, when people ask me what my influences are, I cite those bands, those people who gave me inspiration. How cool is that when you could run into your new drum hero at Jim's Diner on Monday morning? What a place. Long story short: The music, the people... changed my life forever, for the better."
Glen Reynolds: "Chomsky drummer Matt Kellum and I were introduced backstage at Fry Street. I ended up joining the band in May; my first show we were supporting Centro-matic at Dan's Bar. Dallas was great to Chomsky, but one of our best memories was Fry Street Fair in 2000. We had just sold out of the first pressing of our first record and were considered a real buzz band. The weather was perfect, 75 degrees with a strong breeze blowing toward the stage. We got off that day and had one of our greatest shows ever."
Denton expat keyboardists are doing OK for themselves, too: Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet and MC 900 Ft Jesus band member Dave Palmer now lives in LA, plays with Fiona Apple and Air, and recently helped with the post-production work on Carter Albrecht's solo album. Former Billygoat /Whitey/Cottonmouth, Texas keyboardist Zac Baird now plays with Korn and Everlast. And don't sleep on '75 One O'Clocker Lyle Mays, the pianist for Pat Metheny's jazz band. Virtuoso players all.
The path of a musician studying and playing in Denton inevitably takes one of two different trajectories: either master the skill set and look for a steady gig as a touring sideman, or start your own band, stay in North Texas and go look for a day job. It costs a lot of dough to study music at UNT, so the "hired gun" gigs represent a safer and more immediate ROI for all the salad outlay and time spent deep in the shed. Again with the "Art vs. Commerce" thing.
Scrote: "When I arrived in L.A., I was pleasantly surprised to find an unbelievable amount of old Denton friends like Harvin, Mitch Marine, Palmer, Zac Baird, Jon Button, and Blair Sinta. I rarely play a session or show here without someone from Denton being involved. Earl and I recently started an electronic duet called scr011. I've also been back in Denton working with Bubba Hernandez on his new release, 'Scratch'. It's amazing to see that tradition of excellence continue there today."
The new millenium brought about a serious gut check for Denton: The music business cratered and 9/11 crippled the economy, and the creative community seemed fatigued by the blatant gentrification of the city.
The Fry Street people struggled to maintain the vibe as real estate developers moved in and tore shit down. Fair organizers lost their ass by moving to the Fair to Deep Ellum a few years back, and they finally eventually threw in the towel for good back in 2006. It's taken awhile for a new generation of artists and musicians to resurrect the freak spectacle.
Now, we're back to 1981 with the radical house parties and aesthetic theme nights at nightclubs and tiny pizza joints. And that's a good/bad thing.
Defensive Listening (We Shot JR): "I don't look back on the years of 2000 to 2005 in Denton with any particular amount of fondness, due mostly to the tastes of the day more than anything else. Even when there were positive attempts being made by the community, with DIY ventures like The People's House, Green Means Go, etc. they were culturally choked off by screamo, metal core, and emo bands, and didn't really cater to a wide variety outside of those extremely defined genres."
Ken Shimamoto (FW Weekly/Texas Music): "I worked at a record store in Fort Worth with one girl that dated Brent Best from Slobberbone and another that dated Eric Hermeyer from Mazinga Phaser, and I was always impressed by the creative energy of the place. Back in the heyday of Leon Breeden, who ran the jazz program at NTSU (now UNT) from 1959 to 1981, the One O'Clock Lab Band became known as the gold standard of college jazz bands, and North Texas became known as a breeding ground for Maynard Ferguson-esque scream trumpeters. Since then, UNT jazz has incubated a lot of great players like Earl Harvin, but more importantly for rock and experimental types, the presence of the university created a community of forward-thinking people that attracted musos from around the area who might or might not have been affiliated with the school and wound up forming bands like Comet, Mazinga Phaser, MK Ultra, and Sivad."
Defensive Listening: "Dallas and Fort Worth were much more competitive. I would have preferred shows at Moon Tunes or 1919 Hemphill to most things in Denton during this time. I hear people talk about the booking at Mable Peabody's back then more than any of the dogmatic punk activity. I think of those years as a confusing and confused era, with the music community trying to figure itself out during a bad '90s hangover. I think that the booking at actual liquor-licensed clubs was better and less emo-centric during those dark days, with Rubber Gloves hosting a lot of great shows. You could also see Nature and DJ Rerog playing hip-hop and obscure dub records, which you of course wouldn't have had at an emo house venue. Having a DJ play a house show today is not a big deal; in those years it probably would have been considered punk blasphemy or something. "
Stonedranger (We Shot JR): "I'll go ahead and say it since no one else seems willing to--for the past couple of years, Denton has had a better underground music scene than Austin. No contest. To me, the success or failure of any local music scene depends on the strength of the infastructure in place to support it; Denton's network of artists, musicians, DIY venues, clubs, practice spaces and various supportive local businesses has helped foster an atmosphere in which truly innovative and relevant music can thrive in a mid-sized college town. DIY spots like 715 Panhandle, House of Tinnitus, Time Bandits, Muscle Beach and Bunker Hill, as well as mostly solid venues like Rubber Gloves, Hailey's and Mable Peabody's have all fostered a culture in which local music is respected and celebrated, and as a result, thriving."
This weekend brings two different three-day-long gatherings in Denton: NX35 will host shows at Hailey's, Rubber Gloves, J&J's Pizza, Dan's Silverleaf, The Boiler Room, Andy's Bar and the Denton Civic Center. House by House Fest, meanwhile, will feature a number of different groups at DIY venues scattered around the campus.
Revered visual artist Harvey Pekar will also speak at an NX35-sponsored discussion and Q&A session. It's actually kind of astonishing that you never see this kind of thing in Dallas. Has it really been a year since the Melodica Festival? Damn, time flies when you're wondering just what to do next.
Stonedranger: "The upcoming House by House Fest (March 14-17) will take place at several DIY venues and feature highly relevant and nationally respected acts performing at small, friendly places for little money; this is a true indicator of the level of success the DIY movement has achieved. Denton-based artists such as Wax Museums, Fight Bite, Ghosthustler, Koji Kondo, Sarah Jaffe, and Undoing of David Wright have attracted national attention and made incredible music along the way. They were able to do this thanks to the solid DIY scene and a town that generally embraces a culture of musical innovation and creativity; thanks in no small part to the presence of the UNT music school. The unique meeting of a fertile talent pool and a highly effective and organized scene has allowed Denton to innovate in everything from the Avant Garde, to house DJ sets. For my money, Denton is the best place in Texas to experience truly important and relevant underground musical culture... in a setting that is about as friendly as you could ever hope for."
Friendly is good. If nothing else, let's see if we can hold on to that, you know?