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When Punks Played In Peoria

Vintage Peoria punk show flyers
Punks in Peoria
Vintage Peoria punk show flyers

The River's City's DIY youth counterculture of years' past is documented in the new book "Punks in Peoria." Tim Shelley speaks with authors Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett.

TIM SHELLEY: It seems like Peoria, punk scene, not two things you would typically put together. So talk to me a little bit about the genesis of this book idea.

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Awesome, you want to kick it off?

DAWSON BARRETT: Sure. I mean, you know, for Jon and I, we grew up playing in bands and putting on shows, I mean, part of this history is our history, although we went a lot further than it. But we drew, I think, a lot of interesting conclusions about what it means to try to build a counterculture in a place like Peoria, which wasn't especially welcoming to young people, at that time, anyway.

TIM SHELLEY: What was counterculture like in Peoria? First of all, let's back up and go back to the timeframe we're talking about. So we're starting to kind of what, late '70s, early '80s going through the '80s into the '90s a little bit? So I mean, what was it like, if you could give us just kind of an overview?

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, the first chapter, we kind of give some background on the Peoria music scene going back even to like Elvis Presley. But the bulk of the book starts really in the early '80s. And mostly takes place in the '80s and '90s, into the early 2000s. So obviously, in the '80s, the landscape there was, you know, strikes at Caterpillar, 20% unemployment rate, the decline of the industrial Midwest, which, you know, we weren't even really cognizant of that happening at the time. It's really only looking back in hindsight that that becomes clear.

In the '90s, when we came up - or I'm a few years older than Dawson - I kind of got into the scene in around 1994. There was, you know, one coffee shop in town, One World, that had literally just started. And there was, you know, a couple of record stores, and a skateboard shop. But you know, there weren't really a lot of there weren't really a lot of institutions that people like us could really attach ourselves to and find others. So we kind of connected at record stores.

I worked at the Co-Op Records in East Peoria, from '94 to '96. And that's where I really met, like, almost all of my friends in the Peoria scene. So that's how I got into it. It's how I started doing shows.

So yeah, there wasn't... I think the theme is really, that there wasn't a lot of infrastructure in Peoria. We talked a little bit about Bloomington and Champaign, how both of those cities are smaller in population, yet they had much richer scenes, because they had college radio stations that were playing post punk, and they had record stores that were kind of set up that way. They were they were more college towns, and that gets into, you know, Bradley versus like the public universities, and that sort of thing. But I don't know, do you want to add anything to that?

DAWSON BARRETT: No, I think that's a pretty fair assessment. I would also say that, you know, we're writing this book from the perspective of adults, and we're trying to get back into the minds of, you know, teenagers and people in their early 20s. And so your perspective of what a city has to offer changes a lot. And I think that's important that we talk a bit in the book about how this is about a love/hate relationship with your hometown. And I think that rings true.

TIM SHELLEY: And I know that love/hate really...I mean, I know Jared Grabb's in your book, and he talked a lot on his Middle America podcast that we aired kind of about a little bit of this love/hate dynamic. It seems to, especially among youth, that seems to be a pretty common thing here in Peoria. So I mean, how does all that play into the punk scene? And, you know, the music that came out of that?

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Yeah, I think as a kid, you know, almost all of us were trying to get out. We were trying to get out and see a larger world then what we could see in our own backyards, and then a lot of us did get out and move across the country and and participate in in larger cities and see what they had to offer. And then a lot of us came back.

And again, you know, everyone is different, but I think it takes a variety of experiences to really instill that perspective and kind of see things differently. When you're a kid you feel very confined. And especially when you don't think that you have what the larger cities have. So you want to get out and escape, make it elsewhere. And then a lot of times you realize, you know, actually things weren't so bad, you know, with in your original hometown. So it's a matter of perspective, I think, in time and growing up.

TIM SHELLEY: So just in terms of the music, because I mean, you can't talk about punk without... I know, it's a whole attitude. It's a mindset, but it's also the music and the music is, how I, as somebody who's a little younger, can go back, listen to that music and kind of, I guess, try to understand how those, late teens, early 20 somethings were feeling and what they were thinking at that time. I mean, if we could talk a little bit about some of the bands back then, some of what they recorded, and I mean, what can we get from that?

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Well, first, I think it's important to note that we use the word punk very loosely. It really defines more of a subculture and a DIY approach, you know, the lack of infrastructure to build a scene.

So there's punk music, which this obviously entailed, but it was much broader than that. It encompassed indie rock, and ska, and, and even like, you know, folk musicians, and electronic musicians. And so it's really more of a mindset, I think, than the sound. But the sound is important, too.

We have this compilation record that's coming out alongside the book, that'll be available on vinyl and CD. The first side is a lot of the earlier kind of real punk rock bands out of Peoria. Some of the early, in fact, the earliest, and some of the major players there, but you can kind of as you listen to the record, you can kind of watch or listen, hear that musical journey as people started actually learning how to play their instruments expanding on that kind of that punk ethic and broadening the musical horizons. And then of course, the one record can't possibly account for everything. So you know, that it's not an it's not intended to be a be all-end all. It's really just a kind of a sampling? I guess. Dawson, what you want to add to that?

DAWSON BARRETT: Well, you know, I mean, in some ways, this is a book about bands. But I think more broadly, it's about young people, you know. One of our conclusions, is 'yeah, they're all these great bands from Peoria, but they're great bands kind of everywhere.'

And that's what's so important about punk rock is that it's participatory, that can anyone can pick up a guitar or a drum set and just start a band right there. And so, you know, often what was happening here wasn't like rock stars playing on a big stage. And often there were no stages, and you were two feet away from, you know, your best friends who were playing their band, and then they watched you 20 minutes later. And so there is more of an egalitarian spirit here. And you know, there were specific bands that we put on the record, and we wish we could have put 500 more on there. But I think it's really about something bigger than just band names.

JONATHAN WRIGHT: And I wanted to add real quick, that something that I feel is pretty unique about this is, you know, we're going back 30 years, 35 years, and we're still friends with a lot of these people. We made these connections in the punk scene back in the day, and now a lot of us are, you know, running businesses and, you know, a little bit more respectable, so to speak. But we're actually, you know, we're still friends with people that we knew in high school and got to know through the DIY Peoria scene. So I think that's an important thing to note. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have built such strong connections, when they were our age, back in the day.

TIM SHELLEY: In today's youth, I mean, is that still around today? That's kind of what a lot of this book talks about is, you know, how one generation would influence the next to some extent. So, I mean, today, it's as simple as having a microphone and a computer and you can basically make your own song or record. I mean, does that spirit carry on today?

DAWSON BARRETT: I think so. I think it probably looks different. You know, a lot of people were talking about, you know, we didn't have the internet, you know, there was no TikTok. I mean, now you can, you can kind of get your message out a lot faster to a lot more people. So you know, it takes different forms. But I think that impulse to sort of be a participant in culture and to, you know, build something with your friends. I think, of course, that's still there.

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Yeah, I agree with that. Absolutely. We were very conscious. We didn't want to be the the old men talking about how everything was so great back in the golden days, we really did not want that approach. Because, you know, we talked about how we're happy to celebrate the past, but we don't want to live in it. We're happy with what we've done since and, you know, that I think that's always a danger, when you when you look back, is being overcome by nostalgia. And we're both, you know, we don't want to be known for looking back. We want to be living in the present and moving forward. But that doesn't mean that you can't look back and celebrate those connections.

TIM SHELLEY: So for somebody picking up Punks in Peoria when it comes out in bookstores around the Peoria area, what do you hope they get out of it? What do you hope they think about it?

DAWSON BARRETT: I think one thing that they hopefully will get out of it is seeing the city around them a little differently. You know, one of the things we go back to repeatedly in the book is that because there was no formal punk rock venue, these young people had to rent out VFW halls or make arrangements to put on shows in church basements. And so you know, when you drive around Peoria, you know, you might start to see that actually, the Owens Center where you go ice skating was once a punk rock venue, or you drive past Expo Gardens. And you think, oh, that's where I go to the fair. But there were punk rock shows there, too. So I guess maybe the world around you is a little more punk rock than you thought.

JONATHAN WRIGHT: And I think there's always something happening under the surface that that the majority of people in mainstream culture aren't aware of. And it's happening right now. And I don't even though what it is, but things are happening, people are getting together, people are creating art and putting together shows and different things under the radar out of the mainstream. You won't see that. There won't be ads in the paper for it or anything like that. But it's important, nevertheless.

And you know, I think all of these things were happening throughout the '80s. And '90s, very little of it made it into the Journal Star. Very few people were aware of what was happening. So I think it's kind of a celebration of, of that sort of underground culture and and the spirit of DIY, that continues to live on in whatever form it takes. But it definitely has not gone away.

TIM SHELLEY: Anything else that either of you want to add?

DAWSON BARRETT: One thing I would say is, I think many people when they imagine punk rock, they think of it as destructive or self-destructive. And I think that element is certainly there. But what we found in researching and writing this book is that this is really a history of young people building something together and trying to improve the world around them, and doing so more or less from scratch.

JONATHAN WRIGHT: Yeah, that's definitely one of the key themes of the book. And kind of that duality with your hometown, the love/hate relationship. You know, I think there's more love than hate. For sure. You know, you can be critical of certain aspects of your hometown, but then you also come to appreciate a lot of it as well.

And I guess, other than that, we have a lot of events coming up. We've got the virtual book launch on Tuesday. On Friday, we're doing a book signing at Lit On Fire from 6-9 p.m. There's a couple of events in Bloomington, in the Quad Cities, but then we're having a big festival in September, where there's 14 bands playing outdoors in the Warehouse District. And these are bands that that stretch all the way back to the early '90s into the early 2000s. A lot of them are getting back together just for this show. And then there's also some current bands as well. So we're really excited about all of that.

We're excited, thankful, lots of gratitude to all of the people that we talked to. We interviewed at length more than 80 people for the book. And, you know, it was seven years in the works, so there's a whole lot of people to thank. And so far the reaction has been very communal, very celebratory of kind of a larger purpose then then any one band, any one individual, and that's exactly what we were going for. So we hope that we can continue to carry that forward that people can see that as inspiration, and that younger people, 20, 30 years younger than us can carry it on in their own way.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.