Funny Stuff at the Outhouse – My Life in Midwest Punk Rock

by Ben Easher on April 2, 2013


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photo by Holly Homan

Though my parents were from the East Coast and have since retired there, my father got his first and only job in Springfield, Missouri when I was one year old. For a while, he had continued to seek employment elsewhere, but we were still there when I was graduating high school at seventeen.

Though medium-sized, Springfield felt like a small town. Gossip spread fast, whether it was true or not. Alcohol wasn’t sold on Sundays. Besides Baptist churches, the culture revolved around sporting events and shopping centers. I never saw harvest-colored shirts and bell-bottom jeans in the seventies, just cowboy boots and football jerseys.

The preppy jocks and cheerleaders who dominated my high-school class knew very little about punk rock. As a result, I associated the term with talentless maniacs shouting “Fuck you!” Most of the local rock bands played cover songs, though there were a few original power-pop acts like Fools Face. My favorite radio station, KRFG, specialized in album-oriented rock—basically classic rock with a larger playlist.

Much of my high-school social life was wasted on sports. I was too skinny for football and too flat-footed for basketball, but I went to practice and sat on the bench at games. It did nothing for my general lack of popularity. Spending more time on music wouldn’t have helped. Some of my classmates played instruments, but not in public, and they rarely went to concerts.

As a senior, almost by accident, I wound up in a band. Some of my relatives were drummers, so by high school I had a cheap drum kit (and a cheap guitar that I could barely play). One day in the gymnasium, I was fooling around on some drums left over from a talent show. As a result, some younger students recruited me into a band that would never get its act together. Literally: right before our only gig (a school dance), the guitarist decided he wouldn’t play the lead section in the middle of Van Halen’s “Jump,” leaving the audience to hear unaccompanied bass and drums. The performance turned out to be a hint of what was to come in my musical career.

Arriving in Lawrence, Kansas in the fall of 1984 was like landing on another planet compared to where I had been. Much of that state consists of prairies, but Lawrence (forty miles west of Kansas City) has trees and hills. Founded in 1865, the university had grown to 25,000 students by the time I enrolled. Though the school had a successful basketball team and several fraternities and sororities, the counterculture there rivaled the mainstream. Hippies were commonplace—in fact, a longhaired anarchist named Dennis “Boog” Highberger was elected student-body president in 1984.

The college radio station, KJHK, played everything from vintage country and psychedelia to obscure punk bands. Lawrence was the center of a regional music scene that sometimes got attention from East Coast critics. Local favorites the Micronotz shared a manager with author William S. Burroughs, who had relocated from New York and wound up contributing lyrics for one of the band’s songs.

I knew nothing about the weird side of Lawrence, yet. I moved into the straitlaced Ellsworth Hall with a Republican roommate. The hippie president and some oddly dressed neighbors at Hashinger Hall caught my attention, but for the first few months I was dedicated to my studies.

One day in November, I noticed a flyer on the cafeteria wall: Drummer Wanted. The brief list of influences included David Bowie and something else mainstream—maybe the Beatles—and at the bottom was a phone number. I called just for the hell of it and reached a guitarist named George Frazier, who lived in Hashinger. Strike one. I told him that I was a drummer who liked David Bowie and maybe the Beatles. He asked me if I was into any other styles of music, and I responded with Night Ranger. Instead of hanging up immediately, he mentioned that he had been listening to punk rock lately. Strike two, but I agreed to meet him in one of the music rehearsal rooms at Hashinger. I arrived expecting to find a purple-haired freak, but George’s hair turned out to be relatively normal. I hemmed and hawed about maybe bringing my drum set up after winter break, which I wound up doing.

George had recruited a bass player, Steve Buren, who came up with the band name: BOFI (Bunch of Fucking Initials). George wrote the songs with some help from the singer, Brett Murphy. They ranged from lightning-speed thrash to a dirge called “Opium Haze.” At practices, Brett sang through George’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had tiny speakers that we could barely hear. Steve played through George’s backup guitar amplifier, which sounded horrible for bass. Parts from my drum set periodically fell onto the floor.

Promotion wasn’t BOFI’s strong point—and half the time, neither was musicianship. We didn’t play a lot of shows. Our debut was at a house party in the student slums. One time we opened for some local bands at the Outhouse. This legendary cinder-block shed in the middle of a cornfield served as Lawrence’s leading punk venue for years. Even Nirvana and Green Day played there before they were superstars.

Here’s a video to give you an idea of what the place was like:

Our most unforgettable gig, however—memorable is too positive a word—involved a road trip to Woody’s Back Door, a tiny bar in Wichita. The other bands were Lawrence punk favorites, Short Notice and Near Death Experience, so in theory this was a good opportunity. George had borrowed his mother’s minivan, but as we were climbing in, someone shut the sliding door and shattered the window, leaving us to shiver for three hours on the way there. After arriving in Wichita, we stopped at McDonald’s. While we sat drinking Cokes, one of our entourage lit a clove cigarette. The security guard immediately walked over and threatened to kick him out for “smokin’ that funny stuff.” At Woody’s we played our worst set ever, and by the end of the night, someone had stolen George’s distortion pedal. We shivered for three more hours on the way home.

When the school year ended, I returned to my hometown. In retrospect, work and true friends were hard to find there, but I was still undecided about the whole punk-rock thing. From the start, I had thought of BOFI as an opportunity for me to build up my drumming speed so I could one day duplicate the heroics of classic rock. So I went back to the mainstream for the summer, even attempting to reunite with my high-school band. On the plus side, I returned in the fall of 1985 with a better drum set.

By the time BOFI reconvened, Brett had left town. Then Steve quit to concentrate on his other band, Brompton’s Cocktail. George wasted no time replacing them. Jeff Holland became the new singer, and James Martin took over on bass, though his instrument was fretless and he was trained in jazz. I had learned enough guitar by then to contribute a couple of songs. This lineup opened for the California band Decry at the Outhouse and played a Hashinger gig, but not much else. When Jeff left for Colorado at semester’s end, that spelled RIP for BOFI.

By early 1986, George was bored with thrash and wanted to form a psychedelic band, though with short songs instead of long jams. John Cutler had seen BOFI perform and loved “Opium Haze.” With John on bass and Bill Volmut on second guitar, the new group was given the lengthy name St. George’s Mystery Express. Although our musicianship was more consistent, we still only played occasional parties except for one Outhouse gig with local bands. At the end of the school year, I again chose exile in Springfield.

During the summer, a family friend invited me to bring the band down for an afternoon showcase at a music store. Guitar strings would be the only compensation, but my bandmates said yes, even though they had tickets to see Donovan in Kansas City the night before. They drove down after the show and arrived at my parents’ house at four in the morning. We slept as much as we could, then headed to Glynn’s Music Company. Though the store had promised to supply equipment, we were informed upon arriving that drums weren’t included, so we had to drive back to the house and get mine. After the first band played, we set up, only to be cut off after four songs because we had supposedly blown up the mixing board. We were too tired to protest.

The Mystery Express started back up in the fall of 1986. Tired of dormitory life, I rented a cockroach-infested apartment across from the football stadium. Bill soon left the band, with Shannon Stice replacing him. I grew frustrated because my backlog of songs didn’t fit the group’s sound. Sometime during the semester, I quit too. Tony Staples took over on drums, and they carried on under a catchier name, Dashboard Buddha. Eventually they broke into the bar circuit. Meanwhile, I searched in vain for a backing band.

In 1988, KJHK joined the gradual trend of standardization in college radio by cutting back on punk rock and other marginalized styles. I graduated that May and moved to Portland, Oregon. In the nineties, John joined Tenderloin, who released two CDs on Warner Brothers. George borrowed John’s song title to name his own band, Julia Surrendered. They sold three thousand copies of a three-song self-released CD, but broke up in the middle of recording a full-length project for the Evil Teen label. The Outhouse turned into a strip club.

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Ben Easher

Raised by East Coast parents in the Midwest, Ben Easher has been in the Northwest since 1988. He currently lives in Portland, and still plays guitar and drums. (Photograph by Holly Homan.)

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