Ask A Punk

PUNK AND HARDCORE MUSIC IN GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA

STORY BY SOL WEINER & DESIGN BY LISA DZERA

Greensboro’s forecast called for snow, anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. At 9 P.M. the night before, most of the city was already closed, but not Fantasy Ultra Lounge. Fantasy was not just open; it was loud.

Fantasy Ultra Lounge, usually known as Fantasy, is a DIY (do-it-yourself) venue for punk and hardcore music in Greensboro, N.C. Opened in early 2014, it has become the epicenter of one of the most vibrant punk and hardcore scenes in the South.

Fantasy’s ability to endure as a space for punk and hardcore music depends on its location remaining quasisecret. It’s in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood, just south of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The rent is cheap, a huge plus for a bunch of punks who often barely make enough money to cover living expenses. Fliers for shows tell those reading them to “ask a punk for address.”

The inside, though, is what matters. The entrance feels like a mudroom, with one table for collecting money and another for bands selling merchandise. The front room is long and narrow. There’s a bench against one of the walls, a couch in the back, and a 6-by-4 feet window over the couch that would look into the bathroom if somebody had not strung up a curtain and an American flag. Two clamp lights and a string of Christmas lights illuminate the PA system, the drums, the stacks of amps. A large front window looks out on the street, covered on the outside with metal bars and the inside with another curtain. The carpet is covered in dirt and booze stains.

There were four bands on the bill that night, following the same general formula as most Fantasy shows. There’s typically one band that’s on tour, and in this case it was Red Death from D.C. The touring band gets most of the money from the door. More often than not, the rest of the bill is local supporting bands that play for free; Ruinous Power, Bad Eric and Bobby Orr are all based in Greensboro. Sometimes a supporting band will come from Raleigh or Charlotte.

Before the show and in between sets, folks mill around outside, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. When the bands switch on the amps and feedback comes through the equipment, people know it’s time to move inside. The front room is so small that the crowd molds itself around the band and their equipment. There are people standing next to the PA, behind amps, and on top of the couch and benches. When the space is packed, body heat and body odor fill the room and accentuate the smell of stale beer.

The music is loud, brutal and cathartic. Singers in punk and hardcore bands often pace back and forth, their eyes wide with anger, purposely paying little attention to the audience. Lyrics emerge in screams, the words hardly intelligible but the rawness of the performance coming through clearly.

People bob their heads and pump their fists. When a song slows down or speeds up, they start moshing, sometimes referred to as a slam part. People swing their arms from side to side and march across the pit, the area immediately in front of the band. They throw themselves into each other, the walls and the band. If you stand near the pit, expect to get an elbow to the face.

“The slam parts are hard-hitting and tough as hell,” says Tyler Adams, the guitarist for Bad Eric. “It’s hard to articulate that kind of stuff.” In a slam part, a band will sometimes play single notes over and over, while the drummer switches to a beat more based on the tom, with minimal use of the cymbals. The result is a primal beat, essentially a backdrop for violence and aggression.

Eric Chubb, a member of bands Holders Scar, Wriggle, Louse and Bad Eric, also has a hard time describing what happens when the tempo slows down. He agrees that it’s such a visceral experience that it’s hard to find words for it. “It makes me want to move, to head-bang. I go wall-to-wall, pushing through people. But I also get a huge smile on my face, this shit-eating grin. I can’t describe it.”

Punk and Post-Industry

Greensboro is, at first glance, an unexpected place for a thriving punk scene. It’s best known for manufacturing, Civil Rights history and higher education, all interwoven through the history of Greensboro’s punk scene and the city as a whole.

In a state known for textile production, Greensboro was for a time one of the largest hubs for industry in the South. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Cone family began operating large textile mills in Greensboro and the surrounding area. Spatially, economically and culturally, the mills dominated much of the city. The Cones operated four mills and at least one mill village for each factory, ensuring that employees had homes and some basic services, while also guaranteeing nearly complete paternal control over workers. Buildings and roads in Greensboro are named after the Cone family.

To this day Greensboro remains starkly segregated. Events like the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party killed five protestors during an anti-Klan march, highlight how intimately related industry and racial and class divisions truly were. The march, planned in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes housing project, was part of a larger campaign by the Communist Workers’ Party to organize the textile mills. In the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings on the massacre, there is strong evidence that the Greensboro Police Department was complicit in the murders. According to the report, that sense of social isolation and collective trauma still shapes much of the city’s psyche.

For some, the pain and anger are directed toward activism, fighting for causes the city elites have long pushed back against: more police accountability, a more equitable distribution of environmental hazards like the White Street Landfill, and so forth. For others, that exasperation is channeled into art and music, both shaped indelibly by Greensboro’s postindustrial economy. When textiles left for Mexico and Asia, a large portion of the city’s workforce was left unemployed and suffering.

“All of my dad’s side of the family worked in the mills,” Wiley Johnson (name has been changed), who grew up in Greensboro and has long been an active member of the Greensboro punk scene, explains. “If I hadn’t grown up working class, I probably wouldn’t have been a punk. I would say that there are a bunch of kids around here who could say the same thing.”

Merm Hudson (name has been changed), another figure in Greensboro’s punk scene who has since moved away, agrees. He grew up splitting his time

If I hadn’t grown up working class, I probably wouldn’t have been a punk.

– Wiley Johnson

between High Point and Jamestown, two Triad towns both known primarily for furniture manufacturing and, to a lesser extent, textiles. “The textile mills and tobacco industry had a huge impact,” he says. “Workers brought their lives here, which generally included children. Kids are going to rebel in some way, and my outlet was punk.”

If Greensboro was built on textiles, it has survived in large part because of its colleges and universities. There are five major colleges and universities, all of which have historically played important roles in the city’s development: Bennett College, Greensboro College, Guilford College, North Carolina A&T University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Without the colleges,” Johnson says, “Greensboro might not even be there anymore.”

There’s a strong sense in Greensboro that if you want to see something done, you have to do it yourself. In 1960, four young men from historically black North Carolina A&T University began the sitin movement at the downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter. Other cities followed Greensboro’s example, and a national movement took off. From the outset, the movement’s energy and most radical voices came mostly from college students and other youth. From that moment on, they have played leading roles in nearly every aspect of Greensboro’s development.

Keeping a punk scene alive doesn’t have the same urgency as attacking segregation, past or present. The differences are obvious in the crude comparison: the punk scene is mostly white, whereas the student activism of the 1960s was led by people of color. Despite those differences, though, the similarity in the self-reliance of both groups is striking.

“Greensboro isn’t a hub for anything anymore but education,” Merm told me. “It has a strong punk community mainly because it’s a college town. It isn’t a big city, but it has a group of pissed-off people who wanna play music so loud their ears bleed.”

Do-It-Yourself

Most of the history of punk in Greensboro is passed down in bits and pieces, and it seems as if that scene came and went, dying a natural death.

Those ebbs and flows, though, are part of the life cycle of underground music scenes. In a 2012 piece in the Greensboro-based paper YES! Weekly titled “A Scene Grows Up,” Eric Ginsburg chronicles the evolution of a punk scene in Greensboro, built mostly by young people in the early 1990s. Andrew Dudek, one of the primary organizers in the scene, highlights the DIY nature of everything they did, from booking shows to re-appropriating abandoned houses, turning them into hybrid living spaces and music venues.

Eventually that scene faded, but all it takes to start anew is a handful of people with energy.

When Eric Chubb moved to Greensboro in 2011 to attend Guilford College, he realized that Greensboro’s punk scene paled in comparison to what he had known in Washington D.C. He quickly reached out to his friends’ bands, asking them if they wanted to play the Greenleaf Coffee Cooperative on Guilford’s campus, which had a history of hosting local bands. For those shows, he booked supporting bands from Greensboro such as Torch Runner, Kasper Hauser, Retina and Trouble. He also formed a number of his own bands that have since become major players and fan favorites.

At the time, the scene was somewhat dormant, but not dead. “I started booking my friends’ bands, then my friends’ friends started looking for shows, then other people in town who booked shows got busy and started giving all their inquiries to me,” he says.

The most important venue in Chubb’s time booking shows was TYP Haus, a space that hosted both shows and big parties, he says. There, the scene was revived and again rose to the prominence once seen in the mid-’90s.

But like all spaces, TYP eventually fell apart. In early 2014, Chubb and others in the scene found Fantasy, cleaned it up, and immediately began booking shows there. There was too much momentum in Greensboro to let the scene fade again. It quickly became the lynchpin of Greensboro’s scene for the same reasons TYP was successful: few neighbors, cheap rent and an abundance of passion for punk and hardcore music.

Around that same time, many of the core members of the punk scene in Raleigh, the state capital, left for punk meccas like D.C. or Richmond, Va. From the ‘80s until then Raleigh’s scene was arguably the strongest in North Carolina. Eventually, Chubb told me, Greensboro began to occupy the spot that Raleigh held previously.

“Raleigh doesn’t have a good DIY space. Often times people want to play Raleigh, but they hit me up saying, ‘A band hit me up and I don’t have a spot for them to play, can we do it in Greensboro?’”

Scenes come and go, and it’s understood that a good thing can’t last forever. Bands break up, people move or get burned out, cops show up – it’s all part of a life cycle.

Planning for the distant future, though, would be futile. Seeing a show at Fantasy is a testament to that; if something breaks, it breaks. When a band doesn’t show up, you find a replacement or just forget they were even on the bill. What matters most is that there are bands that play just because they love what they do, people who work tirelessly to keep the scene vibrant, and the will to keep it alive.