Cover Story - High times for Atlanta lowbrow

Southern culture goes beyond the skids

Any of the 2,500 or so people who head out to the Starlight Six Drive-In this weekend will feel like they're attending a family reunion.

Drive-Invasion, the annual harmonic convergence of Atlanta's lowbrow-culture scene, brings together punk-inspired rockabilly, garage and surf rock, hot-rod and custom-car contests, and a slew of old horror and science-fiction movies, shown from dusk practically till dawn.

It's the signature event in a scene that over the past decade has flourished by celebrating fading cultural landmarks and old pop trends. With the help of a creative cadre of musicians, performance artists, promoters and tinkerers, ancient theaters such as the Starlight and the Plaza, and converted industrial spaces such as the Alcove Gallery, are taking the past and bringing it alive with a new, uniquely Atlantan energy. Lowbrow culture has taken root in Atlanta.

The word "lowbrow" has come to describe the embrace of a whole range of 20th-century pop-culture trends with a decidedly DIY spirit – from the hot-rod scene of the Roaring '20s and the post-World War II tiki-bar craze to pop-surrealist, cartoon and comic-book art. The West Coast hipsters seem to celebrate all things lowbrow with a sense of irony that hints at trendiness.

But in Atlanta – where highways and power centers sometimes overshadow a more homegrown personality – a tightly knit group of creative spirits seems to have left irony behind in favor of an authentic lowbrow aesthetic with its own Southern accent.

"You go to the Tiki Invasion in L.A. at the Mission Tiki Drive-In, and the people don't even stay for the movies," says Shane Morton, an Atlanta indie-rock veteran, lowbrow/tattoo artist and Drive-Invasion regular who launched the Silver Scream Spook Show in 2006. "There was a guy I know in a band here who played out there, and he said he was ashamed. He told me, 'They just don't get it.' They want to see and be seen and check out the bands and then leave. The L.A. people just don't get it."

Talk to an Atlanta lowbrow artist, performer or fan, and you'll probably find someone who was raised on '70s and '80s TV, underground comics or punk-rock music and developed a passion for the rebellious entertainment outlets where people eschew what's presented to them and create entertainment for themselves.

Many of them forge new identities and forms of artistic expression. Persona, the assumption of another identity, is everything. Some even prefer to go by their nicknames or pseudonyms when being interviewed.

The result is a free-spirited form of fun, as varied as the influences – to the point that many in the scene find themselves working in two or more different groups. A rocker becomes a burlesque dancer, a tattoo artist becomes a bandleader.

It's a fair bet you'll find some of the key figures in the scene either onstage or in the crowd this weekend at Drive-Invasion. As if charmed by their creative connections and collaborations, they inevitably seem to wind up at the same place one way or another, as performer or spectator.

For example:

• Dirk Hays, a tattoo artist, opened the Gallery at East Atlanta Tattoo next to his shop to pursue his passion for lowbrow art inspired by Big Daddy Roth and R. Crumb. But you can also catch him as the leader and washtub bassist for a country-psychedelic-death-metal outfit called Uncle Daddy & the Kissin' Cousins.

• Barb Hays, Dirk's wife, is a buyer at the Junkman's Daughter in Little Five Points. Her alter-ego, Barbilicious, plays bass and shares vocals in the cheeky chick-rock band Lust. She also dances with Sadie Hawkins in the Blast-Off Burlesque troupe they co-founded two years ago.

• Tattoo artist Shane Morton and his girlfriend, Amy Dumas, started the punk-rock band the Luchagors after Dumas retired from her career as the champion Lita in World Wrestling Entertainment. (They'll perform at Drive-Invasion.) Their old friend, freelance journalist Jon Waterhouse, started the Van Heineken tribute band, which performed at May's Monster Bash at the Starlight.

• Singer Mike Geier (frontman for Kingsized and Tongo Hiti) and his wife, Shannon Newton (leader of Dames Aflame) often collaborate for shows that marry swinging Vegas-style lounge music with vaudeville burlesque.

• Jonathan Rej, a veteran of Atlanta's indie-rock scene (the Mouthbreathers, Puddin'), bought another neighborhood movie landmark, the Plaza, with his wife, Gayle, two years back.

It's gotten to where they all seem to know where everyone will be from one night to the next, whether it's at an art opening, a band's gig, a show at the Plaza, an event like the Drive-Invasion.

"We're such an incestuous little group," Dirk Hays concedes with a grin.

The growth of the scene has created challenges, whether it's about maintaining authenticity or just not spreading the talent too thin.

"If some people would pick one thing and stick with it, they would frickin' rule that one thing," says Barb Hays. "For us to take it to the next level, maybe we need to focus on one thing."

But as fellow performer Dickie Van Dyke points out, part of the fun is in the variety of performances they can pull off: "If I didn't have my hand in so many different cookie jars, I wouldn't have such a great taste in my mouth!"

The sun's shining, and it's hot and muggy on the last Saturday in June. Jonathan Rej eyes the kids and parents sauntering in for the matinee showing of the Silver Scream Spook Show.

Rej frets about today's turnout; the indie-rock music fest Corndogorama is running all day a couple miles away at Lenny's, and pop-surrealist artist R. Land is opening his first Atlanta exhibit in five years later that evening in Little Five Points.

Rej notes the crossover with a wary smile: "It's all pretty much the same crowd."

But Rej and his wife, Gayle – who pooled their financial resources two years ago to buy the Plaza – marvel at the success, and impact, of the monthly horror/sci-fi event.

"I'm surprised at their attention span during the show," Jonathan, 35, says of the children, who range in age from 5 to 10. "And the kids really stick around for the movie afterward, and they pay attention."

The Silver Scream's troupe of about a dozen members features Morton, Dumas, the Blast-Off troupe and others performing horror or sci-fi skits that recall programming from the early days of television designed to introduce that week's scary movie.

"Silver Scream's the biggest event we have," Jonathan Rej notes, while Gayle preps for her debut as the stuttering Persephone in an upcoming skit. "It shows that all of our events are not just movies. It's more interactive."

Another veteran of Atlanta's music scene, the mutton-chopped Morton is an impresario who for years has been finding an outlet for his love of all things spooky. His Decatur home overflows with action figures, movie posters and life-size creatures from camp classics such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. "He's the Robert Osborne of monster movies," a friend says.

The Silver Scream Spook Show is the craziest scheme Morton has hatched since he and fellow tattoo artist Jim Stacy collaborated on the 16-member Star Wars tribute band Grand Moff Tarkin back in 1999. "Our basic goal," Morton says, "was to get sued by George Lucas."

Morton formed the troupe when he recruited Jon Waterhouse to play his Igor-like sidekick Retch during the Silver Scream Spook Show, and the Blast-Off crew as supporting players and script co-writers.

The show features an ongoing rivalry between his character, Professor Morté (Morton), and Morte's nemesis, the evil, conservative Doctor Wertham (Nick Morgan) – a reference to social scientist and comic-book hater Frederic Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame. Morton winks at the audience as he spits out one-liners. With his Eddie Munster black wig and mischievous streak, Morton comes across as a wise-cracking Bela Lugosi.

June's wafer-thin plot involves Wertham's belief that there's no such thing as aliens (from outer space, anyway). The Blast-Off Burlesque women fill in as sexy nurses and go-go dancers, with Waterhouse's sidekick, Retch, egging Morté along in his duel with Wertham.

"I came here to watch science-fiction movies and eat popcorn," Morté declares, "and I'm all out of popcorn!" He eats the toy version of Wertham and smacks his lips. "Mmm, tastes like chicken," he sneers as the kids scream in delight.

Morton saves his real enthusiasm to introduce the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which underscores his passion for classic monster and sci-fi fare. "This was in the day before computers ruined everything," he says "You're going to see flying saucers that were made to be flying saucers, by actual humans!"

The movie rolls, and as Jonathan Rej predicted, the kids remain in their seats, transfixed, as a young Leslie Nielsen tries to save the titular forbidden planet from itself.

While the film rolls, the Silver Scream cast heads for the lobby to evaluate the performance, which invariably requires tweaking for the night show.

Morton is unfazed, even if the show precedes a five-week U.S. tour with Dumas and the Luchagors. "It's going to be a lot tighter," Morton promises. "It's never too tight. People come to watch us fuck up. It's hanging from a desperate string the whole time."

The Silver Scream Spook Show isn't the only regular lowbrow event that is happily suffering growing pains. You can see it in the prevalence of burlesque troupes, women's flat-track roller-derby matches, lowbrow-art openings and hot-rod/custom-car clubs.

While the car clubs have grown from zero to three or four clubs over the past decade, the burlesque scene has witnessed a more roller-coaster history. Some troupes spring out of others, which then disband. Lowbrow/pop-surrealist art events have brought packed crowds at the Gallery at East Atlanta Tattoo since Dirk Hays started them last fall. The Atlanta Rollergirls roller-derby league, in its fourth season, has enjoyed sold-out crowds and appears headed for bigger things.

Individually, they offer something for everyone, whether it's the participants or their audience as they pay homage to their respective forms of anachronistic culture.

"Part of the reason why Atlanta has such a diverse lowbrow scene is everyone's really well-networked," says Sadie Hawkins, 32, who formed Blast-Off with Barb Hays after they met in the now-defunct Doll Squad. "Also, the people here are very well-rounded. It's not like 'I'm a rockabilly guy!' People are more open to exploring different things here."

Barb Hays and Hawkins met in the city's growing vintage-scooter scene. They recruited another vintage-scooter rider, Dickie Van Dyke, who as a drag king adds to the troupe's neo-vaudevillian tone. In less than two years, their crowds of about 200 have outgrown the cozy confines of the Alcove Gallery in Avondale Estates. They often collaborate with another burlesque upstart, Syrens of the South.

Dames Aflame clearly is the most traditional and, it should be noted, boasts the more classic burlesque figures among its members. Which is what makes watching Blast-Off and the sometimes plus-sized Syrens of the South such a wonderful complement to the Dames' more overt sexiness.

"We're all just average joes with average bodies," says Barb Hays, 43. "The sexiness comes with the total confidence in what you're doing." In the recent Go West! show at Alcove, Hays happily danced around in her Little Bo Peep costume. As the crowd howled with approval, she sang "I Wanna Be Loved By You" while sodomizing a small black-sheep blow-up doll with her staff.

While Hays is excited about the troupe's growing popularity, she worries about it becoming too successful.

"Now we're thinking about maybe we should do them more often, but there's a fine line," she says. "I want to keep the momentum going, but it will drive us nuts if we do too much. I'm not in this to make this a business. There's something to that DIY, 'Our Gang,' let's-put-on-a-show kind of feel to what we do."

Dirk Hays has grown weary from the tattoo-shop competition that has challenged the shop he opened six years ago, so he focuses more on his own lowbrow paintings and gallery. The creative outlet has been a relief for him, and he gets more feedback via the Internet and his gallery openings. "More and more people are coming by to check out the show," says Dirk, 49.

The same can be said for the Rollergirls, who after three years moved from the All American Skating Center in Stone Mountain to the Yaarab Shrine Temple's gym on Ponce de Leon. The league features such teams as the Toxic Shocks and Apocalypstix and equally pun-loving players such as Hollywood stunt double Skate Outta Compton.

The league also has sold out every bout this summer, averaging about 800 in attendance – with a waiting list for tickets. Organizers believe they'll last another year at the Temple.

"We've already outgrown this venue," says Hot Legs Hooligan, the league marketing director and co-founder. "Our sisters in Raleigh skate in front of at least 1,500 a month. We don't ever want to stop it from being a DIY thing, but we need to create a bigger space for 2010."

Josh Mills has nurtured a growing custom-car scene with similar mixed feelings. The Virginia native had only recently returned to the Southeast from Southern California, which already had a hip car-culture scene. He noticed custom-car owners in Atlanta were mostly middle-aged men, with no generation coming up behind them. Some of the older guys would spend as much as $100,000 to trick out their rides, he says, adding that the emphasis on pricey features seemed to trivialize the notion of a custom-designed car.

In 1999, at the first Drive-Invasion, Mills and a handful of others launched what would become the Dixie Fried Car Show. Ten cars showed up.

Now Atlanta's spawned more car clubs, including Mills' own Road Kings, the Odd Rods and the Road Devils. At this year's Drive-Invasion, as many as 200 vintage cars are expected from Atlanta and around the Southeast.

"It's exploded," says the 34-year-old Mills, who points to the Internet as one factor. "EBay has made it so much easier to get the parts for older cars."

As the scene has grown, Mills worries about how authentic it can remain as more people become involved. "You have to wonder sometimes," he says, "if it's scene-related, or car-related."

Like the Plaza Theatre, the Starlight Six Drive-In and its signature event keep providing new ways to find audiences for its old venue. Both are curious cultural anachronisms whose brethren were leveled long ago for something shiny and new; instead they're the lone remaining Atlanta movie theaters of their kind.

As American drive-ins celebrate their 75th anniversary, the Starlight continues to shine, under the lowbrow management of a towering presence. The 6-foot-7 Jim Stacy took over as manager after five years as owner of the Star Bar. But he's been involved in Drive-Invasion one way or another over the years.

"There was one year that my job was to give myself a third-degree burn on my ankle with a Lowcountry boil," recalls the red-haired, red-bearded Stacy.

Like Jonathan Rej at the Plaza, he's gone from performer to manager to help keep the Drive-Invasion one of the most popular weekenders in the Deep South. The 42-year-old Stacy, an Atlanta native, was raised in the 1970s on the hodgepodge of children's programming that aired on Ted Turner's WTCG (now TBS): "The Banana Splits Adventure Hour," "H.R. Puff 'n' Stuff," "Ultra-Man," even "Georgia Championship Wrestling."

He embraces a hard-rocking theater of the absurd. The same man who helped launch Morton's Grand Moff Tarkin also performed as the Rev. Uncle Laffo the Clown in Greasepaint, a circus-inspired band he started with Mike Geier. He reunites with Morton to produce the summer-kickoff event, the Starlight's Rock 'n' Roll Monster Bash, a Halloweenish spin on Drive-Invasion. The one-day event, which included Morton performing in his old band Super X-13, sold out this year. (Morton will perform twice this weekend, on Saturday with Gargantua and Sunday with the Luchagors. Because of his presence, the Silver Scream Spook Show was bumped up one week this month.)

Drive-Invasion attracts even more overlapping lowbrow scenes. The hot-rods race their engines by day and the movies roll at night. Many attendees camp at the Starlight and cook out while the bands perform.

"For me, it's the camaraderie," says David Goodson, who attends both Monster Bash and Drive-Invasion. "You look around, and it's a tattoo-fest. It's like an inner-city version of a hippie camp-out."

Stacy quickly shoots down anyone who suggests that the event he calls the "the best festival in the world" has outgrown itself. Much of the criticism came from when organizers booked Blue Oyster Cult to headline the closing Sunday in 2006 – compared with Southern Culture on the Skids that Saturday. Ticket prices increased, people grumbled, and the prices went down again.

Stacy's message to those who complain: "Stay at home. I'm sure your marathon of Guitar Hero will be much cooler." As for the increased ticket prices: "That won't happen again."

Drive-Invasion offers another opportunity to grow the lowbrow scene that's been his source of inspiration for years, one where he's made friends and left his mark. Come this weekend, he'll probably see the Hayses, the Rejs, Morton and Dumas, Geier and Newton, Sadie and Dickie. He'll welcome all the musicians and hot-rodders and dancers and tattoo artists, and watch them rock to the music, marvel at the cars and nod off while they camp out to camp classics. Stacy says that seeing so many familiar and creative faces reminds him how lucky Atlanta is to have a scene so authentically anachronistic, independent and fun.

"Because I'll be looking around at a bar some night," he says, "and I'll turn around and I'll see all these talented people, and think, 'Damn, I hope the bar doesn't burn down.'"

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