I could ask a million different people how they found out about punk and what it meant to them when they did, and never get bored of hearing the variety of answers. It could be Ian McKaye’s story or my friend’s, but I put equal weight on those anecdotes because it’s not about who it happened to or how well-known they became. It’s about that transformational moment and how good it feels to discover something that makes everything new again. It’s like a fresh start in life that a lot of people never get to experience. New Orleans never produced a nationally famous punk band; but ideally, the concept of fame doesn’t matter to punk, does it? I like to think about how punk rock eventually creeped into every crevice of our country and made its mark, no matter how small the scene. Director Al Champagne, his production partner Pablo Romero-Estevez and cameraman Andrew Mayeux have been working on Almost Ready: The Story of Punk Rock in New Orleans for over two years, attempting to piece together a recent history of a scene that didn’t leave many artifacts behind. Most early New Orleans punk bands didn’t even get a chance to record or put out a record. Also a song by the Normals, the documentary title hints at the almost-but-not- quite nature of New Orleans punk: all of the bands that broke up too soon, the bands that tried to move to NYC to get big but missed the boat and the truly great bands who were underrated at the time but are finally enjoying a bit of attention in the last couple of years due to vinyl reissues. In this interview, Al Champagne speaks to the artistic variety, fearlessness and scene unity in late 1970s to mid-’80s New Orleans punk rock, new wave and hardcore.
Where are you at in the making of the film at this point?
Al Champagne: Well, we’ve been doing interviews for the past two years and we’ve got a few left to do locally. My production partner, Pablo Romero- Estevez, moved out to LA and he’ll be interviewing some subjects who have since moved out to LA. We’re almost finished shooting the project as a whole. The end of the month will mark the two year anniversary of our first shoot. We’ve done a few dozen interviews so far.
Is there a substantial number of old New Orleans punks living in LA?
You’d be surprised. A gentleman from the Skinnies by the name of Rick Polizzi… If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s one of the producers of the Simpsons. There are a lot of folks in LA.
Being from here, was this older stuff easy to find or did you feel like you had to discover it?
I found it pretty early, when I was around 11 or so. When I was in elementary school, they’d bring some guy in to speak to the kids. And I guess the story is he was some former drug addict or alcoholic, but he would go and warn the kids about all the evil music out there. And all he did was end up introducing a bunch of bored 11 and 12 year-old suburban kids to music they’d otherwise never heard of. He even ended up mentioning how he thought that Woodstock should never come back. So, basically from this guy, this entire generation of pre-teens was introduced to everything from Slayer to the Dead Kennedys when otherwise they probably would never have heard of them.
But what about the local stuff, specifically?
I hadn’t heard about this scene until probably over a decade ago. I was in a record store—I think one of the chain stores in Kenner—and I came across a CD by a band called the Normals, who I’d never heard of. So I picked up that CD. Pretty much all of the knowledge I had of the early days of New Orleans punk rock came from the liner notes of that CD. I’d actually had the idea to do a documentary about [early New Orleans punk] ever since. It turns out that there was so little written about it that I could find. I thought this was going to be only a small project with only a few people to interview, and here I am two years later and we’re still trying to finish it up.
What’s everyone like? Did a lot of people from those days remain artists and weirdos or did a lot of people proceed to lead more traditional lifestyles?
It’s kind of a mix. A lot of people performing today started off in this scene. John Thomas Griffith, the guitar player for Cowboy Mouth, started off in the band the Rat Finks, which later became the Red Rockers, which was the most successful band to come out of the old scene.
After working on this film for a while, why do you think that punk rock is kind of underrated in New Orleans, then and now? Do you think it’s the simple fact that we have more of a reputation for being a jazz town?
I think if you look back, even Louis Armstrong wasn’t appreciated when he was here. He very seldom came back to New Orleans after he was shunned by the city and its government. So it’s essentially the story of New Orleans music, from Louis Armstrong until today. Another thing is, New Orleans is a live music town rather than a recorded music town. And people characterize New Orleans as a jazz town, but what kind of music did Fats Domino play?
Early rock’n’roll. That’s a cool answer. When looking back on these punk histories, it’s really common for bands to cite that an already established band came through town on tour and inspired the creation of a rash of new bands, and therefore a scene. Was that true for New Orleans?
No, in New Orleans it was a radio show, New Wave Hour on WTUL with Jay Hollingsworth and John G. That’s what pretty much launched the scene—like the Ramones would come and all these local bands would open for them. It started off with the Normals in about 1978, ‘79; but then after that it was the Red Rockers who would open for bands around ‘81. The Cold were also popular in their own right. They were local celebrities at the time and would open for bands like Squeeze. I guess at the time, the term “new wave” became more synonymous with bands like Squeeze, but in ‘78 it was pretty much the same thing as punk.
Are you going to dive into ‘80s hardcore?
Oh, definitely because there are very important aspects of the early local hardcore scene, one being the notorious band the Sluts. The Sluts’ frontman, Dave Turgeon, actually auditioned to front Black Flag before the job ultimately went to Henry Rollins. So he actually performed one night with Black Flag in Philadelphia. But yeah, the Sluts were a pretty notorious band. They toured the country and they were punk rock in the sense of offending everybody and anyone, being really loud and really obnoxious and they really left their mark. As notorious as they were, I’m kind of shocked that they faded into obscurity. They had a lot of famous friends and a lot of famous non-friends, too. They existed to rile anybody and everybody up and they had a good three year run before they couldn’t take it anymore.
Are you talking to Ron from Disappointed Parents? I know they’re still trying to play shows.
Yeah, I talked to Ron. There was Disappointed Parents, the Goners and of course, there was Shell Shocked in the mid-80s, from when hardcore/ metal crossover started, and they were pretty much at the vanguard of that. That pretty much started the underground metal scene in New Orleans, which today is still going strong. Mike IX of Eyehategod was in a band called Teenage Waste at that point, but they were short-lived and no recordings exist of them. So, yeah… I cover everything from a band like the Cold to the Uptights and RZA, who were somewhere between punk and new wave. Their frontman, Lenny Zenith, was transgender at a time when that really wasn’t acceptable in the music industry.
It still isn’t entirely.
Well, it’s starting to today, but that’s why Lenny had a hard time branching out back then, and that’s a real shame because I think he’s a great songwriter in his own right, not just from the local scene, but I think in the whole era. Lenny Zenith is certainly a top notch writer and performer.
Favorite band of the era?
My favorite band would probably be Sex Dog. Sex Dog were really ahead of their time because when I listen to the recordings they made around 1981, the only thing I can think of that sounds anywhere close to it is the Replacements, but this is before the Replacements.
I wanted to ask if you talked to Larry Holmes since he was such a prolific figure back then with his bands, his label and the fanzine. Have you uncovered any copies of Final Solution?
Yeah, I talked to Larry. There were a few zines… There was a zine called Crispy Christ that I think Ron Christ [of Disappointed Parents] used to put out. Yeah, I tried to cover everything because when you look at a movie like American Hardcore, you see [the touring bands] end up in all these cities where there was very much a division between all these scenes. But everybody pretty much got along here.
There’s so much punk nostalgia right now and everything you’ve said about the scene back then paints a pretty harmonious picture, but was there an ugly or difficult side to things at all? Like for instance, did punks have to clash with the police a lot?
Problems with the police came later with the hardcore scene. There are two punk/police clash stories in New Orleans that get a lot of attention, the first being when the Sex Pistols played at the Kingfish in Baton Rouge in 1978. The other story is when the Misfits were arrested in St. Louis cemetery #2 after their show at Tupelo’s Tavern in 1982. The cops were pretty rough with a lot of the underage people who were there. Mike IX [of Eyehategod] was one of those kids arrested that night.
Have you heard stories about what it was like to look like a punk rocker and walk around the streets of New Orleans in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s?
People would grab their kids and say, “Stay away from those people!” It’s kind of funny now; you wouldn’t give a second thought to someone with green hair. But if you were a punk at that time, people definitely looked down on you.
What about racial stuff ? With a zine called Final Solution and the Toxin III logo [a hybrid swastika/ confederate flag] and things like that, was overt racism actually a part of the scene?
There was [racist] imagery, mainly used for shock value. I talked to the guys in Toxin III and they said that in 1980 Time magazine declared the confederate flag to be the American swastika, so the point of their album cover was to make it recognizable. But if you listen to the lyrics, you’ll see that they were a band with left-wing politics; so they weren’t a racist band. But I guess that people think, “Oh, a Southern band that had that album cover must be racist.” So, [in the documentary] I let them explain it their own way. I know that at least one of the “Punkette Pinups” for Larry Holmes’ Final Solution fanzine was Jewish, as was the original drummer for Red Rockers, who drummed on the EP released on Holmes’ Vinyl Solution label. Even the LGBT community found acceptance in the New Orleans punk scene whereas gay bashing was the norm in other cities’ scenes.
When do you think you’ll be done filming and how are you planning on showing the documentary? Will it be out on DVD? Are you going to tour with it?
We’re hoping for a release date sometime in 2014. We’re thinking we’ll maybe do the festival circuit, but we’ll see. Oh, there’s one more thing. There’s rumored to be footage of the Sluts out there somewhere, so I guess I can use this as an opportunity to appeal to readers. If there’s anyone out there with footage, please get in touch!