Remembering the Jockey Club

Dec 2, 2008 at 3:01 pm

A couple of weeks ago, local indie publishing house Aurore Press released a book featuring memories and essays by people involved with the seminal local Punk club The Jockey Club. Stories for Shorty was feted with an in-store party at Shake It Records and a "Jockey Club Reunion" at the Southgate House, with reunited sets by The Thangs, The Reduced and SS-20 (who are still playing shows but were reportedly joined by original guitarist Pete Sturdevant). Check out some pics from the event here and be sure to pick up a book (while they last) to get a great impression of what Punk Rock was like in the Cincinnati area in the 1980s. 

I missed my chance to put a submission in for the book, but I still wanted to write a few words about a club (and musical style) that meant a lot to my musical upbringing. —-

I don’t remember exactly when I started becoming curious about Punk Rock, but I can remember pivotal moments. This was music that wasn’t played on radio and, while there apparently was news coverage of the phenomenon in the formative year of 1977, I was 8 and obviously wasn’t paying much attention to the nightly news.

I think I was still jamming on the local Top 40 station’s hit list, run down each night as a contest. If you called in and could rattle off that night’s Top 10, you’d win, like, a record or whatever else the station had laying around.

So I was listening to Pat Benetar, Billy Joel, Styx, Donna Summer. The closest I’d come to hearing Punk was Blondie, which, at that point, wasn’t really Punk at all. This created confusion for me. If Blondie was Punk, then … well, what the fuck exactly is “Punk.” I had the same experience with The Clash’s London Calling a couple of years later. Expecting to hear this earth-shattering cacophony, I was dazed to hear Rockabilly, Jazz, Pop and Blues. The singer sounded like a pirate, though. And pirates are definitely punk.

All of this is to say that Punk, the phrase, didn’t really have much meaning to me, especially when I started to hear the different forms it took as a musical “movement.” But as I gradually started to hear The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Black Flag for the first time, I began to understand that Punk was really about freedom and expression. Some “tribes” can get a little rigid and didactic (when did straight-edge kids start beating the fuck out of people?), but Punk showed me music in a whole new light. I instantly sought out music that was direct, honest, not watered down for mass consumption. A direct line from the creators’ brains to their instruments, talent be damned.

I’ve been almost debilitating shy my entire life, so Punk — like alcohol! — also appealed to my “outsider” instincts. Not cool, mysterious outsider — more like whisper-quiet, invisible-to-the-world outsider. Discovering Punk Rock was like the first time I stepped foot in Manhattan. It wasn’t that I felt “welcomed” necessarily. It was more that I felt surrounded by people who just didn’t give a fuck what other people did. Green hair? Sure, whatever. Oozing acne? Who cares? You don’t want to talk to me? Welll, fuck you, I don’t want to talk to you either.

So by appealing to my anti-social side, Punk also tugged at my craving for a communal support system. Not literally, but spiritually. Music became my support system and Punk’s evolution and innovation made that experience completely fascinating.

In high school, I was heavily into bands like The Police and The Specials. Gradually, I started to become curious about Punk. Ska and The Police weren’t Punk, per se, but they certainly shared fans for a while and ran in the same circles, so I had read about these other bands more than I’d actually heard them.

When I first went to the library at my high school, a while before my freshman year, I noticed an older kid looking at a vintage Time magazine that had a big feature on the Sex Pistols and Punk. It was presented as a freakshow, essentially. And, let’s be frank – it certainly lent itself to that kind of judgment. I waited until he finished reading it and returned it to the librarian. Then, I asked to see it and spent the next hour reading the article and looking at the pictures. It seemed scary. And kind of perfect.

The summer before my freshman year, I did an exchange-student program that sent me to France (just outside of Paris). My new French “brother” traded in his original brother for me when he noticed my musical tastes. Likewise, I was also drawn to the fact that he liked AC/DC, The Beat and this band The Sex Pistols that I had started reading more about.

I bought the Great Rock and Roll Swindle album in Paris and became hooked (funnily, I didn’t even hear Never Mind the Bollocks in full for at least another five years). Now this sounded like what I thought Punk might sound like: snotty, grimy, dirty, juvenile, balls-out, fuck-it-all. Perfect for a 13-year-old.

As I went through high school, I admired from afar the Punk kids. They disliked the jocks, smoked cigarettes and had parties where their bands played to 20 or so friends. I got my first dose of live Punk this way, sneaking into a basement party and watching the cool black guy with the shaved head (well before that was “cool”), army coat and combat boots from school screaming his head off about the cheap highway restaurant Stuckey’s. (Oh, I should mention that the goofy absurdity of a lot of Punk Rock was also a great magnet for me.)

A few of the Punk kids recognized a kindred spirit in me and would chat me up during class, asking if I’d heard this or that record. A tall guy with a Mohawk named Ed lent me Black Flag’s Everything Went Black, a weird compilation album featuring the Flag’s many different singers singing mostly the same songs. I fell in love with American Punk Rock that day.

American Punk brought things a lot closer home for me (literally and figuratively). While the story goes that the Pistols inspired kids to start bands everywhere they went, I never honestly thought I’d have the balls to go that far — cutting myself up, sticking safety pins in my nose, dying my hair the brightest shades of the rainbow or wearing some of those sillier outfits the early British scene was known for.

My discovery of Black Flag (and later X, Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Seven Seconds and the like) made starting or being in a Punk band seem instantly obtainable. It did seem like the music was the most important thing. These bands didn’t wear “fancy” clothes, but more basic thrift-store gear. They actually looked pretty much like I did. And I wasn’t trying very hard. At all.

Listening to the music was also like nothing I’d experienced before. Those old Police and Specials and Pistols albums were actually pretty glossy in hindsight. Black Flag’s music was rawer than raw, cheaply recorded and buzzing with mistakes and miscues. They seemed human. And they seemed to be doing something that I could do, too.

By my junior year in high school, I had gotten pretty good at my bass guitar playing, even performing in a pit band for our class’ big school play (we did R.E.M. and U2 tunes, as well as an embarrassing rendition of “Money for Nothing,” the cool new song at the time).

I found an old electric guitar and taught myself some basic chords. A few months after my crash course in guitar, a friend I knew who was in a band said they were looking for a second guitarist.

I immediately offered my services, though the extent of my guitar playing was limited to about three or four songs that I’d learned. Poorly. My friend brought his bandmates over to my parents’ house to “audition” me. I blew them away with my remedial version of The Clash’s “Brand New Cadillac.” I knew at that moment, this was the band for me.

We began rehearsing in the guitarist's parents’ basement. I recognized the Black Flag elements of the band’s sound — and was instantly drawn by the goofy songs, like “Washing Machine,” which announced our wild singer’s new “dance” of the same name. My new bandmates soon became my best friends and they began to turn me on to all kinds of music, old and new. What we ended up sounding like was a mix of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, with the Blacks — Big Black, Black Flag and Black Sabbath.

We explored the evolving Rap music world and threw it into our mix because … well, we could. We didn’t see any point in trying to sound like some of the other bands we had heard around town or on our vinyl records. We’d created something that would go on to offend and delight, disgust and thrill. We were loved and hated (though probably more hated) and that seemed very Punk Rock at the time.

We needed a place to do shows though. Being underage, we knew our options were limited. But my bandmates had begun to take me to a new club in Newport, Ky., which would ultimately be the main place we played (besides, strangely enough, Bogart’s, which hosted regular all-ages matinee Punk shows).

I don’t remember the first time I went to the Jockey Club, mostly because the nights there often went the same way. Hold your breath and hope that it wasn’t the one rare night where the door guy or bartender would check your ID. Drink six or seven Foster’s oil cans. Watch and cheer and/or heckle the bands. Drive home. Pass out. Repeat.

I became enamored with the bands I saw at the Jockey. I made very few of the “legendary” Jockey shows, by Black Flag, The Cramps and The Ramones, etc., probably because of the cost (I’m sure it was an outrageous $6 or something). We tended to go see Cincinnati bands like SS-20, Human Zoo and The Reduced, as well as road-dogs like The Rhythm Pigs and Toxic Reasons. We were just thrilled to be able to see live music by people who were just like us.

Our crazy singer was a bit of a charmer, so he got to the Jockey’s booking people and asked about getting a show.

“Yeah, sure,” was the response.

No demo tape. No hounding on the phone. I think they figured if we had the balls to ask (as a new, unknown band), they’d give us a shot.

My band was by no means “big” or “popular” or, come to think of it, “good,” but we had found a home at the Jockey. We were treated well by the bookers. All of the other bands (often older than us) were always supportive. And, back then, it seemed like the people in the audience actually listened to the music. I’m sure the Jockey had a lot of the “social event” elements that prevail today in most local music scenes. But we always felt appreciated, even if we felt too nerdy to hang out with the cool kids.

The Jockey taught me how to “act” as a band member. Basically, don’t be a jerk. We’re all in this together. It was fertile ground for art to sprout.

Playing the kind of music we did in the late 80s, you didn’t really harbor Rock Star dreams. Sure, you’d think, “Wow, it’d be cool to not work and just tour,” or, “If we could just reach Big Black’s status, that would be the ultimate.” But this was pre-Nirvana-breakthrough. I doubt many Punk musicians thought they’d have a major label nibble, let alone a Top 10 album or "fame."

My band was completely content with playing the Jockey Club and making a few heads bob or a few fists fly. Hell, we’d have been happy if we got one beer can thrown at us (unlike The Reduced, who were well ahead of us in that department, usually playing under a shower of beer cans).

Nostalgia can play tricks on the memory. Was the Jockey Club really a Punk Rock Palace? Well, no. It was a shit hole. But the people and the music made it what it was — an outsider community that celebrated freedom and expression. What better way to learn about music? Today, kids go to seminars, they build MySpace pages and spend tons of money on studio time in the hopes that they will become the next Fall Out Boy. They network and socialize, but do they have a local support system and local encouragement? It seems that many of the successful bands in Cincinnati these days have to make it out of town before they can make it in town.

There’s no real equivalent to the Jockey anymore, outside of experimental haven the Art Damage Lodge or the various “house party” shows that still go on beneath the radar. Punk Rock still survives, not in the music of today’s expensive-haircut Pop Rock bands, but in the music of groups like Fucked Up and This Moment in Black History. And the do-what-you-want spirit lives on in all sorts of musical styles, from Electronica to Death Metal, with artists ignoring any established rulebooks in an effort to discover and innovate.

My memories may be fuzzy but I am pretty sure that my life and life views wouldn’t be the same without the Jockey Club. Being an outsider where the outsiders hang out turned out to have not been such a bad thing after all.

YouTube has a couple of old Jockey clips available. Here's Suicidal Tendencies getting introduced by local Punk legend Handsome Clem Carpenter.

Here are local faves The Edge at the Jockey.

And here is Black Flag at the club back in 1984.