In 1994, the Ramones played the Edge in Ft. Lauderdale, with opening act Load. I was 15, and it ruined my life. When a searing passion blooms in you for art, you’re doomed. You have just found your tribe and no other tribe will ever mean as much. Relationships come and go, time passes and things inevitably change, but there’s something about putting the needle to the wax that will always transport you to a time and a place — it’s transcendent.
The Ramones were a force of nature that night. They took 2-second breaks after every five or six songs and they played for what seemed like an eternity. I was transfixed, mesmerized by the speed, intensity, and passion they clearly felt for what they were doing. I had never seen anybody go so hard in my entire life. This wasn’t my first show, but in a way it was the first show that truly mattered. However, it isn’t just the Ramones that get all the credit for what happened. Load was every bit as intense, except Load were raw, unhinged. And they were from here. I knew I wouldn’t get to talk to the Ramones, and quite frankly, what would I even say to them? Load, on the other hand, were locals. They were the guys you’d see every night, just loafing around Fort Lauderdale or down in Miami hanging out at Churchill’s. They were just local kids, but local kids who had just shared the stage with the greatest American rock band, and had made them work harder than they probably had to at any other stop on their tour.
Load was one of the bands that should have gotten out of here. Or maybe they just would have mattered more down in Miami than up in New York. Maybe it’s because we’re so isolated, or maybe it’s because we took the whole punk thing and ran with it in so many different directions. The defining feature of South Florida punk is that it can’t be defined. It’s sticky from the heat and way too grumpy to care what you think.
Hindsight is a funny thing. At the time, we thought everything down here was terrible. Only the Killed By Death compilations showed Miami’s scene any love. Most others just skipped over everything South of Georgia entirely. But in reality, it was an incredible time for music in South Florida.
Starting in the nineties, South Florida’s punk scene began to thrive in noisy little pockets. Churchill’s, of course, was already the grandfather of the scene, opening its doors in 1979, and it’s still a living legacy, still embracing every kind of live music. Countless Miami bands would play there, including the Stun Guns. Back then, it was one of the first places to live and breath punk, but there were others. At the end of I-95 and US 1 stood Cheers. The Metrorail ran right over it. Just don’t look for it now — it’s a Quiznos. Still, it was once a powder keg, in the best way possible. The band Chickenhead was part of the combustion, started in 1991 by Chuck Loose, Iggy Scam, and Brian Bush, aka Buddha. Scam would sell zines and compilation tapes after Chickenhead shows for just a couple bucks. Each tape was filled with music by crazy bands from all over, especially hard to find local releases. And the Scam zine was filled with his own stories, and comics, and random art. One of those stories would end up on This American Life in 1998, with Iggy recalling his love for, and slight obsession with, an illegal Miami radio station that disappeared and reappeared, a mystery he chased throughout the years.
Not much larger than a living room, Cheers was usually packed, and attracted everyone from Less Than Jake to Miami’s own doom metal pioneers Cavity. At one particularly mad show with hardcore punk California stalwarts Spazz, the pit was taken over by steamrolling punks who knocked over the competition like bowling pins. Ryan Cacolici, currently of The Nag Champyons, laid down on the ground and began rolling right through the crowd. “Steamroller was just one of my whims o’ disaster,” Ryan mused decades later.
We were an oddly aggressive bunch.
Then there was the story of Joey Tampon and the Toxic Shocks, who came through town and played their set wearing rolled up bed toppers splattered with paint and little tails to represent… tampons. At some point during their set, Joey was stripped of his costume and everyone took turns in the tampon suit. Emboldened by the padded costume, the crowd turned the rowdiness up to 200 percent, until the suit was ruined and the last guy in it ran off to take a nap in the middle of 441 at 2 in the morning.
I spent almost every weekend at Cheers watching Against All Authority, The Crumbs, Los Canadians, and so many others tear through the place with a reckless abandon rarely seen anywhere. It was magical. But of course, it didn’t last, and after a few too many interactions with the police, Cheers closed its doors.
Up in the far northern wilds of Broward County, there was Far Out Records, once located in the Progresso building now better known as the home to Laser Wolf, Fort Lauderdale’s favorite beer spot for a certain crowd of cool. Far Out would host all ages shows at the Edge, and some of my favorite memories of that time consisted of wild nights where the old punks and we young bucks could mingle in the sweltering pit, South Florida’s heat blending with our excitement.
At some point, a core group had the bright idea of organizing Punk Picnics far out west on Krome Avenue, at the edge of Miami-Dade County. They were picnics in name only. No food, but line-ups definitely worth the drive. Chuck Loose, owner of Iron Forge Press and the drummer for countless bands, the Crumbs, among many, many others, remembers that the Punk Picnics came about because the only time his bands could get booked at Churchill’s was during the Thursday night noise jams. “That wasn’t working for us,” he said. “So, I rented a generator from a place in Boca, about 10 of us put together a P.A., and we went to find a place to play. It was just about trying to find a place to play.”
And really, that’s what it was all about. Just finding a place to play, and playing. Nobody wanted to be mainstream, and nobody expected to be popular. But still, Miami’s underground scene of freaks and weirdoes endures, despite the cyclical nature of Miami trends. As Chuck explained, “If you look at it year by year, you can watch the whole thing crumble, like the fall of Rome. It goes in four-year cycles. … People leave and someone else has to get the scene going.”
By 2002, Chuck Loose had a new band called the Heatseekers, I was in Ac Cobra, and the scene was repopulated and invigorated. Years later, those bands vanished, too. Now, I’m in Armageddon Man and Chuck Loose is in Party Flag and SANDRATZ, with local bands like Snakehole keeping the punk spirit fresh and alive. It’s still a bustling little scene, and it’s still nowhere near mainstream, but there’s venues out there embracing bands that defy what’s expected of them from West Palm and Fort Lauderdale to Wynwood and Little Haiti. A little paradise of artistic expression, isolated and beholden to no one. That’s just how we like it.