Lit

Review: Out of the Basement Describes the Birth of the Punk Scene in Rockford

out of the basement

Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, Illinois, 1973-2005 is an autobiographical look at how the punk music scene started in David Ensminger’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois. It’s published by Microcosm Publishing, a Portland based co-operative press.

In the 1980s, Reaganomics ruled America. Taxes were raised 11 times during Reagan’s administration, and a chasm divided the wealthy and working class. Suburban families nestled comfortably on the outskirts of ‘dangerous’ cities, hoping to shield their children from the perils of crack cocaine and rampant violence. The political and cultural divide helped to bring punk rock, one of the most passionate and powerful genres of music, to the front of millions of conflicted teens’ minds and mouths. In Out of the Basement, author David A. Ensminger takes readers to the Illinois town of Rockford (home of the quintessential rock band Cheap Trick) and captures how important punk can be for those who are lost, awkward and pissed off.

Rockford, Illinois, is not a small town. Home to more than 150,000 people, and less than 100 miles west of Chicago, Rockford was designed to be an industrial hub and boasted huge economic development. However, as employment and production in the Rust Belt declined, the unemployment rate for blue collar workers in Rockford skyrocketed to nearly 26% in the 1980s. Segregation in the town prompted additional discord between residents. Those who made money and considered themselves above the working class attempted to keep their family on the “rich” side of town. Ensminger paints a portrait of the ‘80s in Rockford from his teen years playing punk music there: “Rockford was not just another bummed out Midwest town; it became one of the worst, replete with a withering economy and a moral austerity as well.”

For bored and disillusioned adolescents confronted by the sharp and sudden dilapidation of their city, a fierce rebellion arose in Rockford. Dozens of small punk bands formed and played wherever they could. On any given weekend, teens could go to the skating rink, 4H club, or almost any open garage and find a group of sweaty, awkward kids playing three chords with every ounce of energy they had. As punk became the blood that pumped through his veins, Ensminger spent nearly every waking moment devoted to music and his first band, Vital Signs.

Ensminger doesn’t assume his readers are punk philistines. He references some of the genre’s key members (Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Plasmatics) without sitting the reader down and explaining who these bands are. A bit of punk knowledge is required for this book, but for the local (often unsuccessful) Rockford bands, he interviews musicians and friends and accompanies these stories with old photos and concert flyers. Consider looking these bands up and listening to their music while reading, because these stories are only further amplified with song.

Not just a love note to punk music, Ensminger’s book is also an autobiography of how growing up in a dying town shaped his future. He discusses the conundrum of living in a town that’s close to two of the midwest’s biggest cities: Milwaukee and Chicago. Punks who stayed in Rockford either resent those for leaving or were jealous because they couldn’t find the resources to leave themselves. Because of this, the noise coming out of Rockford became louder and more aggressive, pushing against the mainstream bands of the ’80s ( Journey, Foreigner and Duran Duran). But with this uprising came a blend of genres. Punk became rock, rock became metal, metal became punk.

“This meant crowds became more inclusive, democratic, and youthful, less geared towards booze-fueled tirades and more fueled towards slam dancing and skate-til-death/skate-and-destroy mentalities. Soon, gigs were attracting hundreds of kids zooming in from every direction. The punk nucleus widened considerably.”

Without Ensminger’s collective narrative, it’s safe to say many of these stories of garage bands and punk-rock debauchery would never have reached an audience wider than Rockford itself. The book covers four decades of music and politics, yet the core of the punk movement remains firmly in the 1980s. After Ensminger left Rockford to see what the world had to offer him, he found other cities to call his home. He never tries to dig up those Rust Belt roots, and his age reflects the pride he finally feels in his town. “I left, went West in 1993…Still, I always know that others lived just as boldly, just as creatively, purposefully, and witty, back in Rockford…” And, while his story may mostly take place in this distant exurb of Chicago, its communal tales and universal sound will resonate with everyone.

Buy Out of the Basement here for $8. 

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