Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland
Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett
University of Illinois Press
I told a friend I was reviewing a book called Punks in Peoria. Born in nearby Canton, Illinois, and affiliated with her own teen punk coterie, she replied, “there was a Peoria punk scene?” After reading the book I believe the answer is…mostly?
Punks in Peoria, the press release promises, covers “punk rock culture in a preeminently average town.” Average town alludes to the old showbiz question, “will it play in Peoria?”, referring to an antiquated idea of the town as a conservative burg that held no truck with entertainment extremes. As history and the authors show, Peoria was never so bland. Hometown to Richard Pryor, producer of oceans of whiskey and beer, and host to notorious old-time vice districts (Pryor’s grandmama ran a brothel), Peoria has seen plenty of scandal and antisocial behavior. But punk? The adjective feels forced.
The book does report on the city’s rock scene, from the 1970s to more recent days, with an ear for the loud, harsh, and raucous. Yes, punk rockers once roamed the Peorian earth, but so did other bands and genres. Punk then is used in the mushy sense of DIY spirit. Potentially a great story, showing the vicissitudes of putting on a show and sustaining a scene in the middle of a cornfield-rimmed nowhere. Punks in Peoria does that, albeit chaotically. It recalls the scene reports in Maximumrocknroll: very enthusiastic, densely packed, and damned sincere, but never really giving a sense how each city’s scene was any different from the others.
The authors clearly love their town and its bands, but neither provide much meat. For the way they treat it—and by that I mean covering it like larger and more influential city scenes: London; New York; Washington, DC; and even Chicago—the material is thin and not compelling on its own. By looking elsewhere, it feels like the authors missed a few things at home.
We meet local pivotal personalities—impresarios and performers like Bloody F. Mess and the Stepe brothers, the latter promethean figures who brought punk rock to Peoria by way of, uh, Willow Springs, Illinois—but never anyone seminal beyond the town’s borders. There’s no local Iggy, Johnny and Sid, or Kurt here, nor a single Ramone, bigger then the scene itself. The book is a big assortment of memories and side trips that don’t quite gel into a comprehensive history. Mostly, it’s a breathless recitation of bands, shows, venues, and hangout spots—shibboleths that don’t mean much outside Peoria music circles, or at least require more flesh for outsiders to grasp.
Which is not to say there aren’t rich parts. A few chapters could turn into individual books, with longer treatments of their subjects. Race and music in a small(er)-town scene, for example. We get a brief account of ’80s and ’90s Nazi wannabes and racist skinheads and the fights that broke out at shows when anti-racist skins from Chicago came to town to stomp Nazi punks. We also hear how Peorian punks often faced off against Word Church of the Creator “Pontifex Maximus” and current federal inmate Matt Hale from East Peoria whenever he opened his bigoted yap in public. But the accounts are too brief and fail to explain how punk made it possible. Another intriguing angle; the authors speak with local Christian hardcore groups. These bands did well enough on a circuit of church basement shows and the Christian-themed Cornerstone Music Festival an hour away in Bushnell, Illinois. But while Christ may have walked on water, we barely get our feet wet in the whys and wherefores of Christian hardcore touring.
Some bits give a sense of what life as a small-town punk felt and feels like. As everywhere, there was teenage alienation, leading to an outgrowth of freakish-feeling kids who didn’t fit into the usual slots. This led to an ’80s Peorian subculture known as the “Mutant Corn Chips” consisting of geeks who gravitated to punk, goth, and other genres. The Corn Chips—you’ll have to read the book to grasp the name—have their own Facebook page, which provides a raft of photos of mohawked and draped ’80s and ’90s teens, telling a story of youthful fun and semi-rebellion in a minor province. But in the book, we see little of the scene beyond the stages and backstages—a self-induced limitation of music journalism, second-hand stories of bands from bands, often in similar ways. You might not be surprised at how many fans and bands recall a show as “legendary” if a local numbskull broke a bone or got chased by the cops. The vulgar grace and beauty of bodily fluids arcing or spraying across the audience is a leitmotif. But you get little sense of what it was that made a show musically superb, or important.
Too often Punks in Peoria falls all over better-known performers that passed through but once. Fugazi, Naked Raygun, and other, tighter ensembles make appearances and wow the locals, though there was no Lesser Free Trade Hall gig that turns a handful of audience members into Joy Division, the Fall, and The Smiths. Instead we have an unnecessarily long account of GG Allin’s scat-slathered show as horrifying, vulgar, and unnecessary, but somehow important. Post-hardcore wendigo David Yow’s recitation of the motto emblazoned over the American Legion Hall’s stage where the Jesus Lizard performed—“This is ‘For God and Country.’” he intoned before every number—is treated as ingenious improvisation. But is it? Musical man-crushes pervade.
Punks in Peoria succeeds in its displays of how relatively small the town is, how much the normies hold sway, and the odd amalgamations—a death metal band might share a bill with an R&B act and a ska group—that allowed bands to survive. Punks in Peoria discusses the difficulty of finding, and more importantly holding onto, a venue in a smaller burg. For a town long connected with the theater, the book shows how few places there were or are to perform, and how often they’ve been shut down.
The book covers one fascinating phenomenon: the frequent union of punks and square, establishment institutions (social, fraternal, service, and veterans clubs) who made their party rooms and performance areas available for shows. In Peoria, however, this often led to bands and promoters being given the boot after concert-goers got rowdy or the golden-aged regulars tired of sharing their space with the young funny-hair crowd. Still, I picture a series mashing together Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 Series with those ubiquitous Arcadia Images of America books, highlighting images of small-town rock venues, from school gyms, to fraternal clubhouses, to abandoned urban ruins, and their histories. Punks in Peoria does this, but skips around, never lingering. Not that any space has ever lasted long there. Footloosian allusions abound, especially with the local record store/performance space Tiamat. As the chapter title suggests, Tiamat was Peoria’s CBGB. A fun, free, and politically aware institution that served as a second home for local bands, the building was eventually bought out by the owner of the sandwich shop next door (too many punks mooching and loitering about, one interviewee suggests). Tiamat’s owner was evicted and the building was torn down. A familiar story to anyone who is or was once young, weird, and in need of a non-adult hangout.
Mostly though Punks in Peoria keeps invoking band names. At times it’s like skimming the listings of a 1990s copy of Illinois Entertainer. Band after band appears but rings no bells. We’re only properly introduced to a few. Daed Kcis, Caustic Defiance, Dollface, and Planes Mistaken for Stars were quite something, it seems, and might have broken big during the “Who’s the next Nirvana/Seattle?” madness of the early ’90s, but didn’t. Which suggests that in Punks in Peoria, escape and bringing the purported Peoria sound to the world, is the ultimate goal. As a local musician put it, “Peoria was a great place to be from, but it wasn’t a great place to stay.”
Generally speaking, the book should’ve provided more consistent on-the-ground—or would that be an on-the-beaten-up-couch-in-the-basement-while-strumming-a-Strat-copy?—accounting of how a small-town scene both exists and doesn’t exist. Peoria’s punk or choose your own adjective scene has sputtered and flailed about, with eddies and whirls of musical excitement and mayhem. Nothing long-lasting or influential, but scrappy, resilient, and even admirable. And that’s kind of impressive. When Punks in Peoria stays off the stage and in the trenches, it works best.
If nothing else, Punks in Peoria’s biggest missed opportunity is a chapter exploring why, for a town presumably punk as eff-yoo-see-kay, Peoria’s biggest musical export was Dan Fogelberg.
Punks in Peoria is available at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.
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