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    The release this spring of Bold Beginnings: An Incomplete Collection of Louisville Punk, 1978-83 (, $12) brought back a power chord of memories for Louisville Magazine contributor James Nold Jr., who was the lead singer in one of the 10 bands on the CD of original recordings. Known then, and now, as Chip, he spent five adventurous years on stage in town and on the road with the Babylon Dance Band. Here, he recaptures the spontaneity and spirit of a Louisville punk scene that received national attention. Photos courtesy of Bill Carner

    It was a point of pride with the Babylon Dance Band to play anywhere we were offered a gig, and to scrounge bookings up in the most unlikely places.

    Clockwise from top left: making the Louisville punk scene, circa 1978; Skull of Glee; the Babylon Dance Band at Robert Nedelkoff’s Floyds Knobs barn; Malignant Growth at the barn; the Dickbrains; and Malignant Growth again.

    So we performed at the women’s prison in Pewee Valley, where we received the ultimate rejection — walkouts. Just a couple, but still . . . people went back to their cells rather than listen to our band.

    We played the Schooner, a bar in Portland just down from the Louisville Outlaws’ clubhouse. A sign on the door warned customers not to bring liquor, drugs or guns inside.

    We played an assembly at a school for pregnant teens in Germantown: Tom Carson’s Village Voice article about the Louisville punk scene caught the memorable image of the seated girls rocking their big bellies side to side in time with the music.

    We played an eighth-grade graduation dance at a parochial school. We had been scrupulous about trying to determine if they
    wanted our kind of music, telling the woman who made the booking to first watch a local cable show on which we appeared that week. (She missed it.) We played for a while and were asked to leave when the parents determined we knew no songs familiar to the kids. “Don’t you know any Billy Joel?” a woman asked in an aggressive plaint.

    The Dance Band’s Tara Key (foreground) “attacked her instrument with true punk intensity.”

    We weren’t a jukebox, which is why we’d been so conscientious about forewarning the woman who booked our Babylon Dance Band. We played our own original punk-rock songs, spiked with covers chosen for their unlikeliness — sped-up versions of “Come On Down to My Boat,” “SOS” and “Well Alright.”

    “We’re limited people,” I told Billy Joel’s advocate.

    Then there was a teenage keg party in a barn off US 22, a gig we’d gotten secondhand from a more conventional band that couldn’t play it. After five or six songs, some jackass-in-training told me, “Nobody wants to hear this s _ _ _.”

    “Look, Jack . . .” I started. 

    “Don’t call me ‘Jack.’”

    “Don’t call my music ‘s _ _ _.’”

    And at that provocation, he sucker-punched me.

    Nearly 30 years later, recalling that moment, Tim Harris, the Dance Band’s bass player, was still blown away by the violence of that bonehead’s aesthetic judgment. It’s not that we looked weird — we wore a then-contemporary version of jeans-and-sneakers scruffy (no mohawks or leather jackets). We didn’t act obnoxious — we were a pretty compulsively polite group of people.

    “It was just purely a musical objection,” Tim said. I got hit because of how we sounded.

    New York’s Village Voice splashes the Dance Band.

    I didn’t get the worst of the abuse. There was a summer night at 1069 Bardstown Road, the house where we all practiced and hung out, and where a few of us lived. A group of thugs — supposedly boyfriends of the girls who worked at the Arby’s across the parking lot, who worried we would pollute their women — came over and beat up several guys (for the most part, the gentler, skin-and-bones ones).

    Let’s face it: Louisville is always an unlikely place for anything avant-garde or for a movement in its early phases. Maybe that’s why I cherish the locales of the original punk scene. While many of us lived in the Highlands, the punk club for one crucial year-and-a-half was a dive near Iroquois Park called the Iroquois Hideaway, later the South 40, now a chiropractor’s office. It was dark and wood-paneled; the tables were empty telephone-cable spools. We had to play three, four or five sets a night, not easy when you’re writing your own songs and still learning your instrument. The bar attracted a fair number of bikers — one rode his hog onto the dance floor as we opened a set and I finished the song from the Harley’s seat.

    Add in our crowd, which included everything from dental students to revolutionary communists, and it was a motley bunch. One night, in the beer garden out back, the South 40’s owner said, “Chip, where else could punks and bikers and Klansmen all enjoy the same music?”


    So why did we put ourselves in such a weird, lonely position? Why didn’t we just head off to New York or wherever people like us were supposed to go?

    We weren’t masochists. We thought we were evangelists. People needed to hear our music; they needed this loud blast to knock them out of their late-’70s ruts. You would see conversions in those days — some longhair would hear one of the early Louisville punk bands and show up the next day with visible ears. It was at the St. Matthews Potato Festival in summer 1981 that we first met John Bailey and Wolf Knapp, who a few months later started Your Food, one of the most formidable bands that followed after us.

    Maybe we were a cult — or, at the very least, our own little bubble. The tours of major punk acts almost entirely bypassed Louisville, and no out-of-town band played at one of our clubs until 1980 (the Ama-Dots from Milwaukee, I believe). The radio ignored the Ramones and Sex Pistols, so if there was going to be punk rock in Louisville, we were going to have to make it ourselves.

    Why return 30 years later to those heady times? The impetus, for me, came this May, when the local label Noise Pollution put out Bold Beginnings: An Incomplete Collection of Louisville Punk, 1978-1983, a 29-song collection that traces a five-year burst of excitement through tracks from 10 bands, beginning with No Fun and ending with Skull of Glee. The Babylon Dance Band contributed three cuts to the disk. I got a copy of the CD a week or so before Derby and started listening with some trepidation: Was this going to sound lame? Were we wrong? Should I have beaten myself up? Hell, no. It confirmed what I’d already thought: The recordings might be a little rough, there might not be a hit single in the bunch, but this had been something cool and quirky.

    Another advantage of our lonely position as Louisville punks was that the folks attracted into our scene were, almost by definition, interesting people. The obvious example is Steve Rigot, lead singer for three of the bands on Bold Beginnings: Monsters; Skull of Glee; and, first and most important, the Endtables, a crucial early combo that started playing in August 1978. Rigot is one of those figures who becomes a symbol to other people. He had the build of a pro football lineman and the manner of a ’40s starlet. In performance, he would alternate drag with something more singular. (For a show on Main Street he covered himself in red paint.) He was an ardent reader of radical feminist literature — I remember him talking about “The Redstockings Manifesto.” I don’t think Jeffersonville was an especially congenial place for him to grow up.

    His lyrics remind me of Kafka’s great short story “The Judgment,” but with the roles reversed: It was the son rising with sudden, surprising vitality to make a final appraisal of his parents. Rigot’s authority — his stage presence, the acuity of his lyrics — give him a surreal power. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of any country that will accept me,” he sings in “The Defectors.”

    Kenny Ogle and Mark Abromavage were South End teenagers who early on helped the Dance Band as semi-official roadies. Kenny was the closest I ever got to meeting Huck Finn: a vibratingly alive, keen-eyed rogue. He didn’t do well in school, but he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.

    One night in August 1979, Kenny and Mark drove up to hear us play in Lexington. Afterwards, there was a party at an apartment somewhere near the University of Kentucky. We stayed the night; Kenny and Mark set out to drive home. Mark got arrested and jailed for a traffic violation in Versailles. Kenny — who had cut his foot earlier in the week and was wearing flip-flops —walked in the middle of the night the 14 miles from Versailles back to Lexington and somehow found the apartment where we were sleeping so we could go bail Mark out. If they ever make a punk-rock Incredible Journey, there’s the script.

    Mark was big and quiet, with shoulder-length hair and the driest wit imaginable. And when he and Kenny formed Malignant Growth with Mark’s older brother Chris, he showed everybody what a powerful guitarist he was. Kenny left town in 1981, but it was apparently an iron law that Malignant Growth had to have an extraordinary person on lead vocals. His replacement, Brett Ralph, was a 16-year-old poet and football player (captain of the PRP football and High-Q teams). With Brett, the Maligs transformed into Louisville’s first hardcore band.

    The kids who became the Dickbrains — Alec and Cathy Irwin, Charles Schultz, Doug Maxson — started showing up with a group of friends in 1979. Most of them were Brown School students, even more shyly intellectual in manner than the Dance Band. (That’s why their name, which some people hated, was so beautiful.) From that point on, nearly every South 40 show was shadowed by concern about whether these under-agers would be allowed inside. Sometimes they’d hang around in the parking lot, listening to the music spilling out the front door and talk with us between sets. Finally, they started practicing with Tari Barr — the original resident of 1069, a diminutive, stylish belter — and gained access to bar gigs as part of the bill. But their band wasn’t just a ruse on the liquor laws: Though they only existed for four months, they might have been the scene’s most universally loved group.

    The rock critic Lester Bangs once called punk rock “democracy in action.” Our scene was open to everybody — even Klansmen, apparently (though I never did figure out who that was). Age was no barrier: Strict-9 were all in high school, and Languid and Flaccid, who played a few shows with us in 1982, were middle-schoolers. Education and wealth (too much or too little) weren’t obstacles either. You just had to have a taste for that loud, crazy sound. And Louisville punk rolled through the city’s internal checkpoints, bringing together kids from the East and South ends alike, in a creative collision that in some ways hasn’t stopped yet.

    We were trying to find the poetry in our surroundings. The Dance Band’s songs had lots of Louisville detail, calling up Cherokee Road, Rubbertown, removable floodwalls, the lights of Louisville seen from Floyds Knobs, the sewers exploding, the Humana Building going up. And it wasn’t just us. “I remember standing on the Belvedere/An Ollie in my hand,” Doug Maxson sang in Your Food’s “Leave,” memorializing the way Main Street looked and tasted before the Humana Building or the Kentucky Center.

    The Blinders’ version of the rock ’n’ roll standard “Honey Hush” expresses something else I felt in those days. With a core of brothers, Michael and Wink O’ Bannon, and born star Sandy Campbell (aka Fret Hondo) on bass, they were a slightly more traditional band than the rest of us, with strong roots in blues and early rock. (Their first lineup had a harmonica player.) But they were headed for the same territory. “Honey Hush” just blows the doors off — it has as much punk energy as anything on Bold Beginnings. And because the song is such a chestnut, it says to me, “We’re taking over. The means of production are in our hands.”

    It didn’t happen that way, but it sure seemed like it in 1980.

    Me? I ended up in punk rock by eagerly courted accident. I was no musician — not even a singer. When we had chorus classes in sixth grade, I was one of a handful of boys asked to sit back with the teacher — not because we misbehaved, but because our voices ruined the ensemble’s attempts at “Charlotte Town Is Burning Down” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

    Tim Harris and Marc Zakem — another one in the back-of-the-room bunch — were two of my closest friends from Waggener High School and St. Matthews Elementary. They were also the only ones of our classmates who agreed with me that rock ’n’ roll was something more than stuff on the radio, that it provided an organizing principle for life stronger than anything else around. Then in 1976 and ’77 the first punk records — Patti Smith’s Horses, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols’ singles, The Clash — boiled everything we loved about the music down to its most concentrated form. Here was the first new movement in rock since Captain Beefheart was a corporal, and we were in at the start.

    In Louisville, the few people who were interested in punk or new wave began identifying each other, primarily through Karma Records on Bardstown Road. One of them was Robert Nedelkoff, a brilliant kid with an encyclopedic knowledge of music (and many other subjects), a prodigious telephone habit and a big white barn on his family’s property in Floyds Knobs. When I came home from college in the summer of 1978, Tim and Marc rented a bass, some amps and a set of drums. We started messing around, and when Nedelkoff heard about it, he took this to mean we had a band.

    One Saturday in June, Marc and I went to see a Louisville punk show — No Fun at the Center for Photographic Studies on Main Street. I came in with a patronizing attitude. Punk in Louisville? I’d seen the Ramones and Talking Heads at CBGB’s in New York while attending college nearby. How pitiful was this going to be?

    Instead, it was exciting and unpredictable, an art-damaged bl/files/storyimages/of the Clash and Wire. They played strong songs and had created even stronger personalities. Lead singer Bruce Witsiepe had a jaw out of Dick Tracy, wore slogan-painted clothes, and bore the air of a man in touch with other, stranger realms. Tony Pinotti had an urgent yelp on the songs he sang and an oddball sense of humor, bringing out “the mighty Magnus chord organ” to add texture to some numbers. But the chief object of my interest was the guitarist: a short, long-haired woman in glasses, with a long, sober face, who attacked her instrument with true punk intensity. Tara Key possessed a unique sense of rhythm, and she was the person Marc and I left talking about. I also left thinking that punk in Louisville wasn’t such a ridiculous concept after all.

    Shortly after, Nedelkoff’s belief in our band bore fruit: He was going to have a party in the barn with No Fun and others and offered us a slot. We quickly formed our jamming into a more proper band, with me as lead vocalist, and added a drummer — Laura Lehmann, with whom I’d worked at Noble Roman’s Pizza. She was a skilled violinist and bluegrass fiddler who’d agreed to learn enough drumming to play with us. We worked up a short set. I made up a list of possible names — what I’d give to see that now — and we ended up combining two: Babylon Revisited (a nod to both F. Scott Fitzgerald and the New York Dolls) and the Highway Dance Band, Jonathan Richman’s original name for the Modern Lovers. Getting the perfect name didn’t matter too much. This show was certain to be a one-shot; we were headed for graduate school and other endeavors.

    It was a chaotic night up in the barn. Half the crowd was eight feet down, on the pressed-dirt-and-straw floor; the other half was 12 feet away, on the wide loft opposite us. I felt a subtle electric current — excitement, or poorly grounded electronics? — running through me. People kept grabbing the mike. Some excoriated the crowd; others sang along with our version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

    I don’t have a strong visual memory, but looking at other photos from that time I can imagine that about half the people that night would have looked like concert-goers at any heavy-metal show at Freedom Hall: flared jeans, T-shirts of some special significance (those faux-tux things, a bootlegged set of Rolling Stones lips, WhereinthehellisLouisvilleKentucky?), long hair, a lot of mustaches and beards. Scattered in were a few people who’d taken some pains to capture a more punk style, with close-cropped hair or self-painted shirts or leather or artistically crude jewelry or just a pair of vintage sunglasses. But all in all, hardly what an art director would choose today to depict “punk rock crowd.”

    Wonder of wonders, we got a good enough reaction in the barn to make us consider continuing the band. I put off my move to New York — permanently, as it turned out. Marc put off law school — likewise permanently. We started writing songs at a rapid clip — 17 in our first five months. When No Fun headed off for New York, Tara Key stayed behind, and we asked her to join our band, a deal that was sealed with one practice at Nedelkoff’s. Laura Lehmann went back to Vanderbilt, and we started searching for drummers, settling on Dave Bradley, an ancient-seeming 32-year-old (we were 23). Then, after a year or so, Marc and Dave left, we replaced Dave with 18-year-old Sean Mulhall, Tara turned into the female Jimi Hendrix, and the band assumed its best-known form.

    We were lucky enough to get out of Louisville and tour (often having to explain to club owners that we weren’t a reggae band). At our first New York show, at the re-opened Peppermint Lounge in December 1980, we went over as well as — maybe even better than — at the South 40. Walking the cold midtown streets after that show was our own personal Hard Day’s Night moment. I still feel chills recalling that sense of success, of having your best hopes fulfilled.

    We played up East a lot (even appearing in the New York Folk Festival), and left an impression. When Tim and Tara’s band, Antietam, put out its first album in 1985, the New York Times critic Robert Palmer wrote, “The New York club scene in the early 1980s was enlivened by the Babylon Dance Band, a group from Louisville that generated more joyous energy than any of its contemporaries on the circuit.”

    There was also a 1982 poll in New York Rocker that put us sixth in a list of favorite bands without an album out. Among the bands that finished just ahead of us: R.E.M. We didn’t /files/storyimages/up in the rock hall of fame like Michael Stipe and his bandmates, but these days what feels more of an honor is being the colleague of bands like Your Food, the Endtables, No Fun, the Blinders, Strict-9, Malignant Growth, Monsters, Skull of Glee, and those everlovin’ Dickbrains.

    Tara, after over 20 years in New York, retrospectively calls our scene “innocent.” While there was a fair measure of high-spirited behavior with intoxicants and libidos, it was, after all, the ’70s. There were probably accounting firms experiencing more drugging and screwing around. Quite a few marriages date back to the South 40 (or its successors the Windmill, Tewligan’s and the Beat). Not many of the people who were joined together have been put asunder.

    It might sound like we had training wheels on. But there’s nothing stupider than making an automatic link between self-destruction and rock glory — as if killing yourself is one of the punk rock union rules. As if that moment didn’t have everything to do with being young, onstage or out there among all the thrashing bodies on the dance floor, feeling the supercharged power of the music, and the surprise that all this wild energy was coming out of Louisville. The unlikelihood of the whole adventure sweetened every sweaty moment of being what we’d only dreamed about becoming.

    Ah, hell, just listen to the record.

    Punks in Their Prime

    Here are the current whereabouts and occupations of many mentioned in this story who were members of the city’s punk scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

    Chip Nold is a writer in Louisville. After the Babylon Dance Band, he sang in the Bulls. He has two sons.

    Tim Harris and Tara Key live in New York. Their band Antietam will release its eighth album, Opus Mixtum, in the fall.

    Sean Mulhall teaches at the University of Louisville School of Music. After the Dance Band he played in Malignant Growth/Fadin’ Out, Antietam, Mr. Big and Boris. He now plays in My Darling Asleep, an Irish group, and Baladna, a Middle Eastern pop band.

    Marc Zakem is a therapist for Home of the Innocents. He has three children.

    Robert Nedelkoff has lived in Silver Spring, Md., since 1997 and is currently an archivist for the Richard Nixon Library at the National Archives in College Park, Md. He also freelances as a magazine writer.

    After moving to New York in 1978, Bruce Witsiepe, Tony Pinotti, Rick LeTendre of the I-Holes (Louisville’s second punk band, unfortunately unrecorded) and Dave LeTendre formed Circle X. The band released a number of albums and other recordings until Witsiepe’s death in 1995.

    After Skull of Glee, Steve Rigot played in In the Vines, Common Law Cabin and Women Who Love Candy, among other bands. He is an artist (painter) and lives in Southern Indiana.

    Kenny Ogle lives in Louisville. He’s worked a number of jobs over the years, including as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields, construction, plumbing and asphalt/ blacktop repair. He has one son.

    Mark Abromavage is a glassblower and guitarist for the band ARCH. He previously played in Kinghorse and currently lives in Pleasureville, Ky.

    Chris Abromavage is a truck driver who lives in Jeffersonville. After the Maligs and Fadin’ Out, he played in Violents of the Sun and Core of Resistance/New Deal. He has a daughter and two stepsons.

    Brett Ralph is a poet who teaches creative writing at Hopkinsville (Ky.) Community College. After Malignant Growth and its later development, Fadin’ Out, he sang and played guitar in Rising Shotgun. He now leads Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Review.

    Doug Maxson is a painter and writer who lives in Louisville. After the Dickbrains and Your Food, he played in Trim. He now plays guitar in Minnow and maintains the most comprehensive archive of the early Louisville punk scene at He has one son.

    Cathy Irwin is an alternative-country singer and songwriter, on her own and as part of Freakwater (with Skull of Glee’s Janet Bean). She lives in Louisville.

    Alec Irwin is associate director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. He’s co-author of the 2003 book Global AIDS: Myths and Facts.

    After the Dickbrains and Your Food, Charles Schultz drummed for the Bulls and Antietam. He lives in New York and has a daughter.

    Tari Barr lives in Louisville and tends bar at Jack Fry’s restaurant. After the Dickbrains she played in Orange Orange (the early version of Your Food), Little Elvis and Antman. She has two daughters.

    Wink O’Bannon describes himself as a bartender at a seedy Germantown tavern. After the Blinders and Skull Of Glee, he played in a multitude of Kentucky bands, including Little Elvis, Bodeco and Kentucky Chrome Review.

    Michael O’Bannon is an artist (painter) who lives in Louisville. After the Blinders he played in Little Elvis, Antman, Grayson Hall and Pure Jesus, among other bands. He has two daughters.

    Sandy Campbell works at the Crescent Hill Public Library. After the I-Holes and Blinders he played in Robot Skullface. He has three daughters.

    John Bailey is a graphic designer in Louisville. After Your Food, he played guitar in the Bulls. He has two children.

    Wolf Knapp moved to New York after Your Food broke up. He played in Antietam and several other bands and earned a degree in performance from the New School of Social Research. He now lives in Montclair, N.J., and has one child.  

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