Rocking the House

in Features

I walked up the uneven stairs to the Panty House’s front porch on a Sunday night in November. A group of twenty-somethings with bull-ring nose piercings, shaggy beards and long, purple-streaked hair sat on the patio smoking. They nodded silently as I entered.

Less than three miles from Yale’s campus, this “female house of punk,” as described by resident Kayla Bastos, was hosting a concert by New Haven band Mute Witness. Their front man, Ed Goodfriend, had warned me not to spread word about the show’s location too widely or publish the address. Doing so could attract police attention to the unofficial concert venue and result in fines for those who live there. There was no entrance fee, but Chris Szczerba, a punk enthusiast who helps book shows for local bands, collected contributions in the living room. His black felt top hat was filled with crumpled singles. Inside the warm living room, a dozen people passed around steaming mugs of cider and a small black Labrador retriever puppy.

On any other day, the living room of this old, white house could only be described as quaint. The couches were strewn with sweaters, the bookshelves overstuffed with books—and in the corner sat a box of kitty litter. But its fresh-cut flowers, vintage candelabra, and handmade quilts were hard to spot, as about thirty people passed through the room that night.

“We’re ready for ya!” someone called from downstairs, and the crowd filed down a narrow staircase to the house’s basement. I ran my fingers along the cement walls covered in torn concert posters, some designed by Bastos herself. They were emblazoned with the names of punk bands like Foulmouth, Modern Horror, and Nursery Crimes. On a large silver tank against the basement’s back wall, a banner of colorful letters spelled out “DICK FART.” Christmas lights illuminated a chalkboard on which someone had scrawled that night’s performers: Mountain Man, Nervous System, Mute Witness, Rage, and Throw Shit Away.

The Facebook event page describes Mute Witness’s sound as “worship but not emulation of metalcore made back before that got to be a dirty word. Political hardcore.” Goodfriend jumped around, screaming lyrics that were rendered inaudible by thrashing guitars and a thumping bass. He danced with audience members and shoved the microphone into their faces so they could scream along. I felt the basement floor vibrate beneath my feet. The music grated on my ears, but the crowd’s energy and rapture made me nod along. A sweaty Goodfriend paused between songs to look into the crowd and say, “Thank you to all who work for punk rock, to do something unconventional in homes like these.” I caught sight of Bastos in the crowd, eyes half-closed beneath her pink bangs. She was smiling softly and nodding her head to the music, a punk at peace.

But she wouldn’t be at peace for long. It was one of the last concerts ever to be hosted at this New Haven punk venue. Just weeks later, the Panty House would be shut down—going the way of punk rock houses across the nation. Residential dwelling by day, crowded venue by night—these homes violate legal regulations because they are not registered venues. But the law isn’t the only thing leading to their decline. As people move in and out of new homes, the stress of hosting large groups of people at wild concerts often deters punk fans from holding concerts in their own basements.

***

            When I visited, Panty House, along with a handful of other house venues in New Haven, had hosted shows every few weeks since 2012. Since Bastos and her friends moved there, the house had become more than the place where five women, a gray cat, a shaggy brown dog, and the occasional male slept and ate. Bastos and Emily Byram, who form the musical duo known as Circle Circle, practiced and performed their folk-pop tunes with banjo and ukulele in the living room. At night, young punk bands rocked the basement so loudly that Bastos’s cat Mishka scurried across the floorboards upstairs. But the scene looked tame compared to the notorious New Haven stages of the 1970s and 1980s.

New Haven’s punk clubs were known to look rough on the outside and worse on the inside. As punk grew popular internationally, the city became notable for local bands such as the Saucers, Sperm Donor, and the Poodles. Big-ticket musicians, including the Ramones, the B-52s, and Blondie, stopped by while traveling between New York and Boston. With both teenage rockers and celebrities passing through, the New Haven punk community coalesced around “unpretentious, fist-banging, working-man music,” said John Stone, a member of the New Haven band 10,000 Blades. Though the punk market has shrunk over the past few decades, the rebellious spirit of the rockers remains in residential basements, alive but out of public view. It is a gentler punk, with a close-knit but open community that revives the raucous spirit of the past in private spaces. Most concertgoers at the Panty House, for example, knew those who lived there, as well as those performing. Still, anyone could receive the house address via e-mail a few hours before a show.

New Haven’s most famous punk rock venue was Ron’s Place, once on the corner of Park and Chapel Streets. In the 1970s, Doc Marten combat boots stuck to the club’s beer-soaked floors, and the running joke was not to use its toilets, lest you get crabs. But its dance floor was “packed every night of the week,” said Jim Martin, a member of New Haven’s original punk scene and the front man of the local band Chem-trails.

I met Martin in October at the now-closed Anchor Bar. Dressed in all leather, Martin was hard to miss. When he slid into a booth by the near-empty bar and stuck out his hand, I noticed that his knuckles revealed the faint outlines of a rag-tag tattoo done by friends. His forearms are covered with tattoos of the names of all of his former bands, along with the mantra “Born a rocker, die a rocker.” Having been a regular at punk clubs since age fourteen, Martin spoke about the local stages he once played with his former punk band, Broken.

In the 1980s, the Connecticut punk scene grew from New Haven to Stamford, Bridgeport, Hartford, and New London, with new clubs popping up across the state. But by the late nineties, as interest in the music faded, most of these once-crowded punk venues shut down. Punk became memorialized in numerous retrospective documentaries, exhibits, and performances. Meanwhile, its pioneers grew older and put down their electric guitars.

Photos by John Kritzman.
Photos by John Kritzman.

In New Haven, though, musicians from the Golden Age of punk are now training a new generation of head-bangers and guitar thrashers who strut their stuff in the kind of basements where the genre originated. Though these venues are small, the music is as loud as it was decades ago.

The Panty House and similar establishments celebrate anti-establishment eccentrics, but they have tried to stay away from the less-than-lovely faces of punk. In the original club punk scene in New Haven, Martin says, “there were creepy factions, factions that hated people.” It was a time when homophobia and racism were more often publicly encountered than they are today. Martin remembers the angry skinhead punks of the eighties, the “Nazi garbage” who once tried to stab him at a concert.

The house venues of today are different. “The scene self-polices,” Martin said. “People don’t let that shit survive, and it hasn’t in New Haven.” Szczerba, an employee at the independent booking firm Arc Agency and the donation collector at Panty House, said the current house venues are nothing like the clubs where, as a teenager, he broke his ankle three times.

Yet the absence of racism doesn’t mean these houses offer family-friendly evenings. “To have a house of punk, you need a lawless shithole,” Stone said. With citywide efforts to clean up the town, opening a legal venue that’s also a “shithole” is not as feasible as hosting a show on home turf. Stone’s studio apartment, dubbed the Yankee Doodle, is one of New Haven’s newest house venues, hosting both folk and scream-o punk concerts. It follows in the creative, rule-breaking tradition of places like the Panty House. At house venues, “people are free to create,” Stone told me, green eyes widening. “And also to puke off balconies.”

***

When Bastos and her friends established Panty House, they were determined to make it a place where, true to the ethos of punk, misfits could feel at home in an open-minded feminist environment. On the basement wall, the faint remains of sidewalk chalk scribble read in capitalized lettering: “No sexism, no racism, no homophobia. Don’t be a jerk.” Bastos’s house rules basically end there. Panty House is meant to feel respectful but also irreverent.

A few weeks after the concert, Bastos invited me back to Panty House for a tour. I followed her as she darted into the kitchen. On a corkboard by the fridge, Bastos had pinned thank-you notes from out-of-town bands that came to perform and crashed on her couch. One band, SWAATH, hailing from Maine, praised the home for its “max comfort and warmth.” On the fridge, someone stuck a magnet from Arc Agency, the concert-booking firm at which Bastos is the only female employee. We made a pit stop back in the living room before heading downstairs, where Bastos flipped through a small brown book, a guest log of the Panty House’s visitors.

Bastos giggled, reading choice entries out loud, transporting herself back to nights of loud music and drunk dancing. One read, “Wow, will this blunt ever end and where is my food also I want to live here this is good.” Julia Rodriguez, Bastos’s housemate, entered. She knelt by Bastos and read over her shoulder. With a pierced septum and wild, curly streaked hair, Rodriguez fits in with the basement’s punk décor.

Later, we scrolled through dozens of grainy videos from Panty House concerts, while Bastos provided commentary. She laughed at memories of her friends and the touring musical idols who performed from out-of-town performing on her makeshift stage. We watched footage of bands she admires most, from Saintseneca, a folk rock group, to Mountain Man, a hardcore punk band. “I can’t believe Mountain Man played here,” Bastos told me. “I’ve been listening to their music since high school. Watching them play, in my own house, Wow.” Bastos trailed off, lost in memory.

***

Stone’s Yankee Doodle apartment is, like the Panty House, a living museum, reflecting the work and spirit of young artists. Stone fills his playing space with plants potted in plastic bottles hung from rafters and smoothly sanded wooden furniture he made himself. Sitting on his couch and opening a Narragansett beer, I spied a prosthetic leg on the floor, what appeared to be an antler, a cinderblock, and several half-finished paintings.

Stone’s trio 10,000 Blades took to the makeshift stage to practice while I propped my feet on the bright orange road work sign that serves as Stone’s coffee table. Stylistically, 10,000 Blades falls somewhere between Bastos’s Circle Circle and Goodfriend’s Mute Witness. They certainly aren’t indie folk, but they aren’t hardcore punk either. One of Stone’s neighbors told him that they weren’t really a punk band. Rather than argue, Stone retorted that it’s true—even with their high-energy rhythms and wry lyrics, 10,000 Blades isn’t quite a hardcore punk band. Yet it’s antithetical to the punk ethos to exclude others from a genre that’s grown increasingly diverse musically, to tell a musician that he is not punk enough to rock. It’s punk’s do-it-yourself spirit—not its volume—that 10,000 Blades embodies.

The members of 10,000 Blades played as if in a trance. Sam Carlson closed his eyes while drumming and Stone, jumping around in paint-splattered sneakers, sang with his eyes closed and lips pressed against the microphone. After an extended guitar solo, Stone reemerged. “Not so bad. Fucking hands are cold though.” Behind the drum set hung a sheet on which he spray-painted “We are in Connecticut and it is cold outside,” a tongue-in-cheek homage to the state he loves. “I’m here in New Haven intentionally,” said Stone. “I give a crap about this beautiful city. It has a lot of problems. It needs some TLC, and my way to provide that is by hosting shows and playing my music.”

“You should return to where you’re from, and work to make that city cool,” added Carlson, looking around the Yankee Doodle approvingly. “Everyone moves to New York, but there’s a lot of potential to build a great community right where you’re from.”

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Stone and Bastos welcome crowds into their personal spaces on the condition that their belongings are respected with the vigor that punks usually direct against the establishment. “I usually shout something like, ‘If you break my shit, I’ll slash your tires,’ into the mic before shows here,” Stone told me, only half-joking. After hosting particularly rowdy and drunken crowds, Bastos posted a PSA about the Panty House on her blog, titled “The Panty House is not a Party House,” in which she wrote, “I live in a residential neighborhood and will not hesitate to kick you the fuck out of my house if you can’t cooperate with the general house rules.”

Maintaining a comfortable home full of mementos that simultaneously functions as a public punk rock space is no easy feat. “Every time a place pops up, they shut down before too long,” Szczerba said, listing bygone New Haven house venues like the Discovery Zone, the Cookie Jar, Fort Flesh, and Submarine. Stone’s Yankee Doodle has only hosted shows since last summer, and Bastos noted that the Panty House—which hosted concerts since 2012—had a uniquely long run by New Haven standards. “It’s a really volatile environment to live in,” said Goodfriend, who has lived in a few of New Haven’s concert houses but grew tired of living in a “lawless shitholes,” as he said. Aside from concerns about destructive crowds, Bastos endured the constant difficulty of keeping an unregistered venue below the police’s radar: She knew of house venues across Connecticut that were shut down by the police. Bastos was “really anal” about making sure that bands start and finish on time in accordance with New Haven’s sound ordinance. Even so, police have twice received sound complaints about the Panty House. “I better not be fined,” Bastos had said, biting her pierced lip.

Bastos was not fined, but she was forced to close the house venue. In late November, Bastos was at work at The Granola Bar, a café in Westport when she received a panicked call from Rodriguez. “There’s a huge foreclosure sign on our front lawn,” Rodriguez said into the phone, “and the sign says I can’t remove it. What do we do?”

“What do we do?” Bastos echoed in her living room, seated on the couch and stroking Mishka. The five women in their twenties who lived at the Panty House had to move out by the end of December. Bastos’s only recourse was to post a photo of herself flipping off the foreclosure sign on Facebook, captioned “RIP Panty House.”

“I’m incredibly sad,” Bastos told me. “I love living here. But I’m also a little relieved.” As exciting as it is to plan shows, two years had been enough for Bastos. She enumerated the anxieties involved in running a concert house, chief among them the disappointment of sparse crowds. Though the Panty House usually summoned a few dozen punk fans to its dank basement, “sometimes only ten people show up, and that makes me so fucking sad,” Bastos said. When crowds were thin, Bastos paid performers out of pocket. “I’d hate for them to leave with nothing.”

“It’s so hard to find a good group of people to live with, who can afford a house in New Haven and who are down to commit to the house concert lifestyle,” she said. She, Rodriguez, and Tobias were looking to move into an apartment. “It’ll be really nice to not live in a house that’s falling apart,” Bastos laughed, and I remember the gaping hole in their basement window, kicked in by an attempted theft and shoddily patched with a square of carpet. “We’ll probably have acoustic shows in our apartment, and I’ll always book local bands at other venues through Arc Agency,” she assured me. “But first, we’ll have an insane final concert, with punk and folk bands,” she said. Her eyes swept across the room, from the wilting flowers to an enormous sombrero. “This place is special,” Bastos said. “I hope other people pick up where we left off, opening up their houses the way we did.”

The final concert, on December 28th, was the biggest one they had ever had. Over a hundred people came, to hear punk bands in the basement and Circle Circle strumming upstairs. It was a unique melding of the punk spirit with the homey vibe of a group of women who were sorry to leave the place they had so carefully made their own.

***

 On a Saturday evening in early December, two friends and I ran through a rainy parking lot and into the warmth of Stone’s Yankee Doodle. In a crowd of a dozen young adults bathed in gold Christmas lights, I listened to the soft sounds of sweater-clad rockers sitting cross-legged on Stone’s stage. The Panty House might no longer exist, but the sounds of New Haven’s do-it-yourself music scene still blur the boundaries, recalling punk’s heyday, on a smaller scale. The music was honest and sweet, and at a certain point I forgot about New Haven’s punk politics and lost myself in the songs about finding love and leaving friends and jerking off.

 

Anna Meixler is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

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