Atlanta punk! A reunion for 688 and Metroplex

In the early 1980s, the music world was beating a path to Athens, where bands such as the B-52’s, REM and Pylon were helping redefine underground pop. Although Atlanta produced no break-through acts like those during this same period, it was home to a rich assortment of local sounds and a tightly knit community of local bands and music fans.

Nowhere was that sense of community stronger than in the city’s active punk scene, which centered around two of Atlanta’s most celebrated music venues, 688 and the Metroplex. The two clubs offered an asylum for a generation of awkward, alienated teenagers wearing black eyeliner and studded collars who came to escape the drab reality of their suburban lives.

“The message of the music was, ‘We don’t care what people think about us,’ and that appealed to us,” recalls Jill Griffin, who haunted the clubs during the ’80s.

This Saturday, Oct. 4, the former owners of 688 and the Metroplex will throw a reunion party and concert aimed at bringing together some of the bands and fans from an era viewed now with fond nostalgia: Atlanta – the punk years.

Sex Pistols: the blast that started the scene

Folks in Atlanta were listening to punk before 1978, and some were even playing it. But until the Sex Pistols rocked the Great Southeast Music Hall that January, there was no local punk scene.

As Glenn Thrasher, who later published the underground music ‘zine Lowlife, recalls: “The only people who came to that show really looking like punks were Chris Wood and David Barge from the Restraints.”

During the show, Sid Vicious wore black jeans and played shirtless, displaying his pale, sunken chest. Johnny Rotten, with an open vest covered with buttons and a loosely knotted tie, looked as if he’d just slept off a bender on someone’s floor. Both had filthy, spiked hair.

“The Sex Pistols brought a distilled version of punk to Atlanta,” says Wax ‘n Facts owner Danny Beard. “After that show, you saw people wearing leather and dressing differently.”

Punk scenester Jill Griffin agrees: “From that point on, everybody wanted to be punk. They cut their hair and got skinny ties and stopped wearing bell bottoms.”

Be suspicious when an old-timer says he saw the Pistols play Atlanta, Thrasher warns. Only about 500 people got into the modestly sized venue in what was once the Lindbergh Plaza shopping center, many of whom were out-of-town journalists looking to cover the band’s first U.S. show. The club owners turned dozens of ticket holders away from the oversold hall, offering distraught fans passes to the following week’s show – featuring father/son bluegrass duo Doc and Merle Watson.

For some, the Pistols’ music wasn’t the main allure. The evening before the concert, admitted groupie Griffin and a friend tracked the band to Sweet Gum Head, a nearby drag club. “I don’t know if Sid was stoned, but I couldn’t understand a word he said,” she recalls.

Later on, her friend managed to take Vicious home, but he was jonesing for smack so badly that he spent the night ransacking her medicine cabinet and trying to cut his wrist with a letter opener. The next day, Griffin says, she found Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren in her own apartment looking for the bassist. After a quick trip to Piedmont Hospital to bandage his arm, Sid was ready for his next gig.

Atlanta’s Sid and Nancy

Being part of the counterculture in mid-’70s Atlanta meant you were a hippie – or, if you were really out there, a yippie.

Chris Wood was different. Small, sickly and nearly blind, Wood had Coke-bottle glasses that made his eyes appear froglike. Wearing leather jackets covered with studs and chains, he looked equal parts miniature Hell’s Angel and urban redneck, long before being a redneck became chic.

“Chris embodied punk,” says guitarist David Barge, who formed the Restraints with Wood in 1977. “He was the first guy I knew who had tattoos all over his arms.”

Wood also had one of the first Mohawks in Atlanta; later he shaved his head. Always striving to shock and offend, he collected and wore Nazi paraphernalia, and carried a loaded pistol, which he waved with abandon. On stage, he was a charismatic performer who lived to be outrageous; his signature stunt was sticking a hypodermic needle filled with lighter fluid into his forehead, then setting it on fire.

“In a way, maybe he was like the circus geek,” says Barge, who insists that Wood’s fixation with Nazism and weapons was part of an act to make him seem more threatening and outlandish.

Like many of the first wave of Atlanta’s punks, the members of the Restraints lived in the famed Pershing Pointe Apartments, Atlanta’s version of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel. There, they were part of a group of artists, musicians, poets and other young Bohemians associated with the Blue Rat Gallery, an in-house arts collective.

“There was a lot of sex and drugs and freedom and creativity,” Barge recalls, “and punk music was the soundtrack.”

The Restraints regularly opened for such bands as the Ramones and the Clash. Barge even remembers headlining a show preceded by a pre-Chronic Town R.E.M. But the band dissolved in 1982 without ever making a record.

In late 1984, the fun came to an end. During an episode of drug-fueled partying in Wood’s apartment, Robin Peskin, a 19-year-old Jewish girl, was shot in the face with his .44-caliber pistol. Wood claimed the girl was a close friend who accidentally killed herself. But a jury, convinced that the tattooed Nazi enthusiast had committed a hate crime, convicted him of murder. Five years later, Wood died in prison of complications from diabetes.

688: Misfits welcome

In the mid-’70s, when the Captain & Tennille, Barry Manilow and John Denver were the top acts in the country, Steve May had nearly given up on rock.

“I didn’t think white music was fun anymore because it was run by corporate idiots,” says May, who was working as a promoter for jazz, R&B and funk acts. Then, on a visit to London, he went to see some of the emerging New Wave and ska bands such as Squeeze and Madness, and was taken with their energy, edginess and attitude.

Back in Atlanta, where he owned a rehearsal space, he began to throw monthly keggers to showcase local bands. The events became so popular that May and friend Tony Evans decided to start a music venue. Their nightclub at 688 Spring St., which opened in the former Rose’s Cantina in May 1980, was something Atlanta hadn’t seen before. Rather than trying to lure established bands and familiar names, May focused on the new sounds coming out of college radio. If it was fresh, different and a maybe a little dangerous, he booked it.

The event that really put 688 on the music map was a weeklong stand by Iggy Pop, the wiry ex-Stooges singer now widely considered the godfather of punk.

“Our first show was a teen night and Iggy was at his absolute worst, cursing every other word and exposing himself,” May recalls. “All the parents were upset. If that had happened today, we would’ve been charged with a crime.”

But the Igster’s antics communicated on a visceral level with teen audience members, including a young Randy Blazak.

“As a nerdy kid from Stone Mountain who was getting beaten up by football players, I had a life-changing experience seeing Iggy Pop in 1980,” he says. “Here was a guy bouncing around, beating himself up on stage – it sounds funny, but to me it was empowering.”

Blazak quickly became a 688 regular, getting DJ gigs and helping design show fliers. “The club was right next to the Varsity, but once you went inside, it felt like another world,” he recalls. “Suddenly, all the people who didn’t fit in had a place to go.”

Unlike the clean, welcoming venues run by veteran promoter Alex Cooley, 688 was an indisputable dive. A friend of May told him it was “like walking into Charles Manson’s rec room.” The walls were covered in graffiti, the couches and tables were thrift-store rejects and the low stage put the bands within arm’s reach of the audience.

“Being a suburban teen from Decatur, I’d never experienced anything like that before,” says Cathy Hays, who snuck out to the club every chance she got. “Anything punk was fascinating to me and 688 was so grungy, it was everything a kid needed in terms of contained rebellion.”

And then there was the music; 688 booked a variety of New Wave and edgy pop acts, from R.E.M. to Pylon and XTC to Violent Femmes – bands that would later be clustered under the heading of “alternative.” But it also served as home base for Atlanta’s early ’80s punk scene, hosting such touring bands as the Stranglers, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Fall and the Minutemen.

The granddaddies of American punk, the Ramones, usually drew such large crowds that May had to rent out the Agora Ballroom in the basement of what is now the Georgian Terrace Hotel. One afternoon in 1982, May got a call from the Secret Service. Amy Carter, daughter of the recent ex-president, was a big fan of the Ramones, he was told, but she couldn’t make the all-ages show that evening and, at 15, wasn’t old enough to attend the late-night show. Could she drop by and watch the band rehearse?

“We had eight Secret Service guys in suits and shades positioned around the room while the Ramones played a sound check for Amy Carter,” he recalls. “At one point, the caterer bursts through the back door wearing a leather jacket and a Mohawk and found all these guys pointing guns pointed at him.”

In 1982, William DuVall had just moved with his family from Washington, D.C., to suburban DeKalb; he soon learned which bus routes would bring him to Wax ‘N Facts records in Little Five Points, the only place that carried the punk records he wanted.

“I was 14 and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere interesting,” he says. “I only got to go to clubs when I could convince my mom to take me. I vowed I would either run away from home or start a punk band.”

Taking the second option, DuVall recorded a demo tape with some neighborhood kids. He took the cassette straight to Steve May, who gave the youngsters a booking. At only his second gig at 688, DuVall and his friends found themselves opening for the Circle Jerks.

“That was huge for us!” he recalls. “We’d seen them in The Decline of Western Civilization and now we were playing with them.”

The beginning of the end for 688 came in early 1986 when Georgia raised the drinking age from 19 to 21; other new liquor laws forced the club to abandon all-ages shows. The club had never been much of a moneymaker, concedes May, who didn’t take a salary for several years. When 688 could no longer serve as a sanctuary for disaffected teens, there seemed little point in continuing. May jumped ship to join the city’s other well-known punk club, the Metroplex.

By that fall, 688 was history.

Metroplex: Punk’s second wave

As a student activist pushing for marijuana legalization in the early ’70s, Paul Cornwell learned the ropes of music promotion before dropping out of UGA to open a nightclub in Athens. A few years later, the former yippie moved to Atlanta to organize “smoke-ins” and pro-pot rallies.

Impressed with the anger, energy and fuck-you attitude of the new punk movement, Cornwell organized “Heartbreak Hotel,” a series of underground shows held at the Cotton Exchange building near the then-grungy Buckhead triangle and other venues. Music was provided by such local bands as the Restraints, the Razor Boys and Heathen Girls.

After a few years, Cornwell started looking for a permanent space. “I got tired of cleaning out warehouses, so I opened a club,” he says. In 1983, he rented out a former blood bank on Luckie Street and named it the Metroplex – in reference to the Dallas area’s nickname, which in turn was an obscure homage to the Dead Kennedys.

It would take more than a year for the police to realize that the club had neither a business license nor occupancy permit, after which Cornwell moved it around the corner. The new building on Marietta Street was designed to allow all-ages shows, with the bar separated by chicken wire from the stage area which, with its cement floor overlooked by concrete balconies with industrial metal railing, resembled a bunker.

As the sound of the Atlanta scene shifted away from the simpler, more melodic style of British and New York punk, the ‘Plex quickly became synonymous with the aggressive machine-gun rhythms of hardcore, typified by Black Flag and Bad Brains. Club-goers work off excess energy slam-dancing, stage-diving and crowd-surfing.

“For me, it had to be faster, louder, harder,” DuVall says. “This was music that made no pretense of trying to get on the radio or sell records.

“But it wasn’t just frenzy and anger,” he adds. “The energy itself was life-affirming, like how Bad Brains singer H.R. began each show by diving onto the stage from the balcony. I don’t know if straight-up punk rock would’ve existed in Atlanta without the Metroplex.”

DuVall’s new band, Neon Christ, debuted at the ‘Plex in December 1983, becoming one of a host of local hardcore acts, including DDT, Dead Elvis and the Anti-Heroes, that frequently opened for such touring bands as DRI, the Exploited, MDC, the Plasmatics and Suicidal Tendencies.

Besides serving as a base for the hardcore scene, the ‘Plex became a haven for a revolving collection of street kids and skate punks. Cornwell offered matinee shows – three bands for three bucks – and let teens hang out in the club during the day. Suburban kids who’d missed their ride home were allowed to crash at the club, as were bands that had run out of gas money. At any given time, there might be up to a dozen youngsters living upstairs.

“The whole game changed when Cornwell opened up the Metroplex to all these disenfranchised kids,” DuVall says. “When your home is a war zone and you don’t identify with anyone at school, you gotta have a place to play. It happened at just the right time for me.”

Andrew Adler moved into the club as a 19-year-old when it was still on Luckie Street and stayed for several years, working for rent and a salary of $50 a week.

“It was a communal scene,” says Adler, nicknamed “Andrew the Mug” because he emulated the tough-guy talk used in classic ’40s gangster movies. “There was a safe, all-ages environment; everyone had fun, but they came away with a sense of political awareness.”

An ugly blemish on the city’s punk scene came in the mid-’80s, when a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads began squatting in a vacant warehouse across the street from the ‘Plex and would come to the clubs to start trouble. Adler recalls a Black Flag show at 688 when one climbed onstage to hassle female bassist Kira Roessler, but singer Henry Rollins threw him off.

DuVall took the skinhead movement personally, believing they’d targeted the Metroplex as a racist reaction to the fact that a hardcore band had a black guitarist. The club played host to a number of integrated bands or African-American artists, such as Bad Brains and Fishbone.

After being kicked out of the club on a nightly basis, Adler says, the skinheads eventually moved to Little Five Points, where they continued to cause mayhem for a number of years.

David Durango came to live at the Metroplex in late 1987 when it got too cold in his unheated warehouse space downtown. Better-known as “Rotten Dave,” Durango fronted the band Rotten Gimmick, which played regularly at the ‘Plex. He spent the rest of his time doing odd jobs around the club, picking up girls and basically hanging out with rock stars.

Some nights, he’d find Henry Rollins sitting in a corner writing poetry or Lemmy from Motörhead playing pinball or Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter without his trademark sunglasses. When El Duce, the late singer for shock-rockers the Mentors, got drunk and passed out in the club’s filthy bathroom, folks took turns writing on his bald head with a marker.

“To me, it was the coolest place in the world to live,” Durango says. “I’m now in Florida a couple miles from the beach, but I still miss the Metroplex.”

In the end, it wasn’t loud music, violence or drugs that brought down the Metroplex; it was politics. In the summer of 1988, longtime activist Cornwell hosted a weeklong “Alternative Convention” to coincide with the Democratic National Convention taking place a few blocks away at the Omni.

He brought in LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, then-Libertarian presidential nominee Ron Paul, Native American activist Russell Means, political activist Lenora Fulani and political humorist Pat Paulsen, in addition to a dozen local and international bands. But police, citing safety concerns, barricaded Marietta Street outside the ‘Plex, turning away many of Cornwell’s would-be customers.

“I lost somewhere between 20 and 30 grand on that event,” says Cornwell, who blames city leaders for orchestrating the club’s demise. He closed the Metroplex in December 1988. A few months later, the building was gutted by a mysterious fire and demolished.

Adler believes Atlanta’s punk scene effectively died when the Metroplex shut its doors. “Since there was no club for the scene to call home, the next generation of punks never really took hold,” he says. “These days, people go to a club because they want to see a particular band, not so much to hang out and be part of a community.”

Punk’s last gasp

Certainly, GG Allin wasn’t interested in building community. The notorious East Coast shock-punker, famed for performing in a jock strap and taking dumps onstage, was on tour in 1991 when his band left him in Atlanta. Allin took up temporary residence in the Clermont Hotel and soon agreed to a session with local recording engineer Jeff Bakos.

Bakos recalls that although Allin “smelled like piss,” he seemed civil and normal enough during rehearsals. “Then, when I handed him the microphone, he turned into GG Allin, this character with frantic energy who ran around the studio like a wild man,” Bakos says.

Shortly thereafter, Bakos stopped by to visit Allin backstage following a gig at the Wreck Room. While Allin was chatting with friends and fans, his girlfriend, a Clermont stripper, “whipped her pants down in the middle of the dressing room, peed into a pitcher, and he drank it,” Bakos remembers. “GG always had to be the most outrageous motherfucker on the planet – and he was.”

A few months later, Bakos got a call from Allin, who was in a Detroit jail for throwing feces on his audience. “He said he wanted to do another recording, but the next thing I heard, he was dead,” Bakos says.

Allin OD’d on heroin in June 1993 after a particularly raucous New York concert. He was found face-down in a friend’s apartment, covered in blood and feces, but it was several hours before anyone realized he had died. That same year, one of his last singles, “Hotel Clermont,” was released.

Punk memories

Randy Blazak, now a sociology professor at Portland State University, draws upon his own experience as part of Atlanta’s punk scene for a course he teaches titled “Youth subcultures.” William DuVall moved to L.A. to advance his musical career and is recording his first album as guitarist and lead singer for Alice in Chains, replacing the late Layne Staley. Paul Cornwell sells memorabilia out of his Rockstar Gold boutique in East Atlanta.

Some or all of them will join other mainstays from the city’s bygone punk subculture for the Metroplex/688 Reunion this Saturday at the Masquerade Music Park. The master of ceremonies will be Andrew the Mug, who spent some of the intervening years as a club booker and now fronts the band the Hot Rods.

The band lineup is a flashback to the mid-’80s Atlanta club scene: Swimming Pool Qs, Dead Elvis, Mary My Hope, the Nightporters and others.

But apart from the tearful reunions and the memories, there’s a real hope among some that the event is able to rekindle a punk spirit.

“There was more to the punk scene than wearing a Mohawk,” Adler says. “It was an attitude of anger and angst against the system by people who want control over their own lives. That feeling still holds true.”