This interview is part of a long form history project on the local hard rock / metal / punk scene of Rockford Illinois 1984 to 1996.
I was trying to remember where and when it was that I first met Dave Ensminger and it was probably at a few poetry readings he and my father were part of back in the 80’s, give or take, in or around Rockford, maybe somewhere in the Northern Illinois area.
I recall going to Appletree Records with my father shortly before I left Illinois in the spring of ’92 to browse their amazing record inventory in what would be my final time doing so.
They had a staggering collection of underground / import punk and metal that kept me coming back for six years and several hundred bucks worth of tapes, records, zines and concert t-shirts later.
Appletree was a mecca for music fans and bands alike. In fact, Black Flag and Gone did an autograph signing there before their infamous Rockford gig June 16th, 1986 at The Channel. This time though, it felt different. This visit had a feeling of finality to it. I was leaving the area and knew I wasn’t coming back.
Dave was working there at the time so he and my dad struck up a conversation while I got lost in the stacks of wax. I walked out with a Killdozer tape, a Venom CD (“Black Metal”) and a Celtic Frost t-shirt. I think I spoke to Dave briefly, via my father, and then we left. Dave would leave about a year later.
I knew of him as a poet back in the day but not as the punk historian he’s become now. Musician, author, folklorist, the man has seen and done it which made him the perfect person to contact when I decided to undertake this project. His grasp of punk history then and now is astounding to say the least.
You were certainly an integral part of the Rockford punk scene back in the 80’s. Can you give us a quick run down of how you were involved?
To be fair, I always thought I was the kid who was close to the kids that were more integral – that is, in terms of my age group: the teenagers of the mid-1980s. My sister knew the older subset, like Dan from Pinewood Box, since both attended Harlem High School together.
I had a pick-up band with her friends that would play shows at house parties, so I learned to play tunes like “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag when I was around thirteen. I was linked to the folks at Rotation Station because I went to school with Rory, whose mother owned the place, and I both played and attended shows all the time there (from Capitol Punishment and the Adolescents to Swiz and Verbal Assault and Life Sentence).
Then I linked up with teens like Tad Keyes, Chris Furney, and Jeremy Kunz, partially because my fanzine No Deposit No Return was in full force, plus I was one of the few drummers that could play a blend of vintage punk, frenetic hardcore, and fluid emo, so I could play with metal heads, straight-edge kids, and older guys who were into what later became the sound of Touch and Go Records, Amphetamine Reptile, and the like. Later, I ended up working at Appletree Records with people from Beloit College, so I quickly latched on to that scene as well.
Do you remember what year you got into punk rock, just listening to it? Who were the bands you were into?
I always give credit to my brother and sister. Starting in winter 1980/81, Michael would bring home a variety of LPs, 7”s, and fanzines that completely re-shaped my world.
The first three I recall vividly were Siouxsie and the Banshees, PIL, and Cockney Rejects, but quickly he would give me everything from Joy Division to Butthole Surfers; in the meantime, my sister was a devotee of Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Lene Lovich, Psychedelic Furs, Gun Club, but also blues like Howlin’ Wolf.
So, I was warped from the beginning, it seems. One day my world was Cheap Trick, the Kings, and Buggles, but by fifth grade I was writing reports about Johnny Rotten/Lydon!
What was your first punk show and where was it? Were you hooked after that?
My sister’s boyfriend took me to see local power pop unit The Flex in Dekalb at some joint near the university, where one could smoke opium and not even blink or worry. We listened to X’s second record, on tape, there and back. My next gig was Black Flag, and my hearing loss suffered next to that P.A. still affects me!
How would you characterize Rockford’s punk scene back in the 80’s looking back on it now? Was it as good or bad as you remember it? What stands out in your mind?
For a while, I rarely went to gigs in Madison or Chicago because so many shows occurred within the Rockford area. In fact, I became rather choosy, opting not to see Scream (too long haired, too rock) or Uniform Choice (too long haired, too rock) by the late 1980s, and in some ways I regret those decisions, but I was a fairly doctrinaire punk and felt they betrayed their earlier roots.
Punk rock has always been very personal to me, an extension of one’s ethos, value systems, worldviews, etc., so I lived a code. The other thing I regret: not taking nearly enough photos, which leaves great gaps in my memories. Now, I shoot most of the pics for my own articles and books, to retain the DIY sense, but also because I don’t want moments to blur, gray out, overlap, or diffuse.
If we’re documenting punk history in Rockford, what bands do we need to mention / talk about?
Record stores, from Appletree Records to Toad Hall to Denzil’s Record Emporium in Beloit and more. They were epicenters – for local DIY product, conversations galore, a variety of promotional music items that are now lost to history, some gigs (like Gone!), to rubbing elbows with people like Cheap Trick.
What about local zines and record labels?
I have PDFs of all my zines, if you want them too. Other Rockford zines were few are far between. I know kids made them: I just don’t have any copies, minus some lit journals.
Do you remember Rockford’s scene being cohesive or was it kind of scattered?
Well, the scene was cohesive to a degree due to the paucity of clubs; for a awhile, most shows happened at Rotation Station and Dartbee’s, or bars like Endless Nights, Tinkers Lounge, and the basement of Cherry Lounge, or places like Polish Falcons Club and VFW halls. So, yes, some of those places are a half hour apart.
There was no central district or strip like I experienced in Albuquerque. Plus, the all-ages kids like me had to fend for ourselves: build ramps and stages, rent equipment, and run Xerox flyers, maybe host a radio show in Beloit, like I did, starting in the summer of 1989. But we all felt more or less in the same ship.
The older guys eventually accepted us as well, as we aged and joined more “mature” bands, like Becky’s Birthday, who opened for Fugazi. They sounded like a cross between late-period Die Kreuzen and The Cult. Then, of course, were bands like War on the Saints, who were like prog punk, really adept musicians. They sounded in the late-1990s Dischord vein (Scream, Kingface), where Bludgeoned Nun could really play too but were almost precursors to grindcore and screamo.
We had Fugazi, Verbal Abuse, Operation Ivy, etc. perform at shows in Rockford but it’s the Black Flag show that everyone remembers and talks about. Why is that and do you think that show in particular helped move the scene forward, bring more attention to it?
Not really. All kinds of gigs pre-dated that, like Eugene Chadbourne, the Replacements, Naked Raygun, and more, but that show did earn press coverage. I think I still have the clipping from the Rockford Register Star, and it also witnessed an outsized police presence.
I remember the cops lining the streets afterwards, telling me, “Get your ass home boy,” or something just like that. Ironically, the riot days of Black Flag were well behind them: in fact, they were like a mock-rock band that barely played any of their old material, minus a half-winking, sartorial version of “Gimme Gimme Gimme.”
For me, the next important shows were the Adolescents, because I made my first flyer for it, and Capitol Punishment because I played their drum kit, received sincere, generous feedback, and knew that I was never gonna shed my punk skin. But that’s just a few – incredible SNFU shows, Youth of Today shows, Swiz shows, all happened. And more.
What bands were you involved in back in the 80’s in Rockford’s punk scene?
I cut a three-song demo with my straight-edge band Vital Signs, maybe in the 9th grade, and we even lacked a bass player, but it didn’t stop us, though the Christian studio made us censor the word shit.
Then I drummed with Honeycomb Hideout, who opened for Kingface (Dischord Records), which later morphed into Insight, who opened for 7 Seconds in Madison and cut a demo reviewed in Maximum RocknRoll. Later, I joined Geraldo, then Toe, in Beloit. Flyers and photos for all those bands can be seen on my Midwest punk blog.
You wound up writing for a lot of heavy duty mags, Maximum Rock N Roll being one of them. What article did you do for them and how did you get it published, was it an open submission to them? What year was that?
I did not actually publish for MRR until the mid-2000s, when I submitted an article about Biscuit of the Big Boys. Before he died, I drummed for him and edited his work in my magazine for about five years.
From there, I started publishing interviews with band like Articles of Faith, the Fix, Beefeater, and more, and to this day I still contribute. This Fall, my interviews with Frightwig and Raw Power were published.
Did you ever do any scene reports or articles about Rockford’s punk scene in any zines / mags you wrote for?
Of course, you can see portions discussed in my book Visual Vitriol, and my blog on midwestern punk documents literally everything I own that relates back to the scene.
Are you still doing Left of the Dial? What’s it about and where can we find it?
Nope, that is the past. It ran from 2000-2005 and is a collector’s item. Portions were re-published in my books Left of the Dial and Mavericks as well as my App, found on iTunes — Punk and Indie Rock Compendium: Left of the Dial. So, I have tried to make the material as accessible as possible.
You’ve got several great books about punk rock published, can you talk about them and where do we find them?
Everywhere! Left of the Dial and Mavericks contains interviews with the “icons” of the roots rock, punk rock, and indie rock movements and collect portions of my massive interview archive (well over 1,000 pages), whereas Visual Vitriol is a scholarly, folklore examination of the street art and cultures of the punk and hardcore generations, with a special look at graffiti and stenciling, skate culture, gays and lesbians, Hispanics and African Americans, and women too.
What year did you leave Rockford and why?
I left with my first wife in 1993 to live in New Mexico to be close to my poetry mentor at the time, your father, and attend the creative writing program at the College of Sante Fe. I have not lived in the Midwest since…
What’s your current situation today, where are you and what are you up to?
I am a punk scholar and folklorist, an educator, a writer, a drummer, a book publisher and editor, an archivist, a husband, and photographer. Well, at least that’s part of what I do!
David Ensminger is a Humanities, Folklore, and English Instructor at Lee College in Baytown, Texas. He has written about music, art, and contemporary issues.
Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.
Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generations.
Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons.
Co-author Mojo Hand: A biography of bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Contributor to Popmatters, Maximum Rocknroll, Houston Press, Trust, Postmodern Culture, Art in Print, M/C Journal, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Liminalities, Artcore, and various other journals.
Research blog: http://visualvitriol.wordpress.com/
Midwest history blog: http://midwestpunk.wordpress.com/