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NAKED RAYGUN: We’re Here Now

Naked Raygun’s Jeff Pezzati and a smitten audience. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

It is 1988.

A group of Chicago punks loiter in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Belmont and Clark. They smoke cigarettes and sneak sips from bottles of beer wrapped up in brown paper bags. A couple of Chicago’s Finest approach the punks, start hassling ‘em, tell ‘em to move along.

They’ve hated the punks for a decade or more, already – just who do these kids think they are? Thinking they can wear police leather jackets and not even remove the patches that bear the Chicago flag; as though the city belongs to them. Thinking they can just hang out in this parking lot, without even buying a donut or a cup of coffee. “Scram,” the cops tell the punks.

The punks take off – they don’t wanna get fined or arrested, and anyway, they’re headed to a show at Metro.

Naked Raygun, maybe the best punk band to ever come out of Chicago – and certainly the longest-running – is playing.

Naked Raygun show poster, 1988 [1]

They’ve just returned from the west coast, and they’ve just released their third album, Jettison. And Metro – well, say whatever you want about how, since O’Banion’s[2] closed in 1982, the punk venues have gotten bigger and the punk scene has become less close-knit…but Metro has some damn good shows. So our heroes continue wending their way north on Clark Street. They smoke more cigarettes, take more sneaky sips of their beer. As they near Wrigley Field, they begin to get harassed, again – this time, not by cops, but by the legion of drunk Cubs fans that swarm the area during baseball season. “Fags!” the Cubs fans yell.

“Watch it, ya weirdos!” shouts a large man in a Cubs hat as he brushes past the punks.

But our heroes are undeterred. They keep walking, turning up their middle fingers at every intoxicated normie they pass. Nothing’s gonna bring them down. They’re on the way to see their favorite band, and they own the streets. They look down at the patches on their jackets and think: “Yeah, it’s our city. Not the cops’. Not the yuppies’. Ours.”

And then, they’ve arrived. They push their way through the throng of other punks outside Metro, and make their way to the front of the room. They wait out the final songs of the opening act, wait to hear those chords, those words, they know so well.

When Naked Raygun takes the stage, they brace themselves. The stage lights flare up, a brief hush falls over the crowd, and, finally: the guitar and bass and drums throb, throb, and a sea of denim-and-leather clad bodies smash into each other and scream along: “Bomb shelter! Bomb shelter! Bomb shelter! Bomb shelter!”[3]

Queers show flyer, 1998

It is 1998. I am sixteen years old, and I’m in my favorite part of my favorite city in the whole world, about to go see two of my favorite bands.

I’ve spent much of the past year here, bumming around Clark and Belmont with my friends, but this time, it’s different. This time, I’m flying solo, and I’m thanking the punk rock gods that I was able to convince my folks to let me take the Metra train down and see this show. I get a cup of coffee from the Punkin’ Donuts and hang out in the parking lot for a while. I smoke cigarettes, smile at cute punk girls and boys who pass by, and clutch my styrofoam cup hard in a futile attempt to stay warm. (It’s early November, and Chicago is already cold and, yes, windy as hell.) Eventually, I begin my walk up Clark Street, toward Metro.

The Cubs crowd is more mellow than they are during baseball season, but there is still the spill-off from the bars, the yuppie guys who alternate between shouting insults at me and cat-calling me. A group of older punk rock girls, all fierce in their tight black jeans and combat boots, see me cringing at the attention I’m receiving, and walk near me, shield me from the creeps. When one stumbling jerk gets too close to us, one of the girls spits at him, and he backs off. “Hey, thanks,” I say.

“No problem,” she says. “Want some beer?” asks another girl.

“Heck yeah.” She passes me a 40 oz. of King Cobra, and I take a few huge swigs, and I’m buzzed. (This is before I drink on a regular basis, so it doesn’t take much.) The show itself is a blur – not because of the alcohol, but because I’m jacked up on adrenaline. I befriend some people I’ll never see again, I pogo like a fiend and sing along to the Mr. T Experience’s ‘songs about girls’ and the Queers’ ‘love songs for the retarded.’ By the end of the show, my legs ache, my throat is shredded, and my high-top Chucks are filthy. I’m exhausted, and I still have to hightail my way to Ogilvie and catch the final train of the night back to Wisconsin – and I couldn’t be happier.

***

Metro – located at 3730 N. Clark Street, in the heart of Wrigleyville – opened in 1982. The building that houses Metro was erected in 1927, and initially used as a Swedish community center. When Joe Shanahan (founder of Metro) came across it, it was home to a jazz and folk club called Stages. The first official Metro show was in August of 1982. For a $5 cover charge, Chicago got to see a then little-known band from Athens, Georgia – a band called R.E.M.

In the 31 years since, Metro has hosted many punk and alternative rock bands from all over the world, as well as from their own backyard. Wanna talk Chicago alt-rock? Well, the Smashing Pumpkins played their very first show at Metro. And as for Chicago punk – Big Black played Metro numerous times, Blue Meanies used to host the Chicago Winter Nationals there every December 23rd, and Naked Raygun has played many, many shows there since the club’s inception – to name a few.

Naked Raygun formed in 1980.

They went through various line-ups before settling into the one that lasted until their break-up in 1992 and returned when they got back together in 2006: Eric Spicer on drums, Pierre Kezdy on bass (though, currently, Pete Mittler of The Methadones and The Bomb is filling in on bass while Pierre recovers from a stroke), Bill Stephens on guitar, and, of course, frontman Jeff Pezzati.

Though they weren’t the first Chicago punk band, they were part of the first wave, and one of the bands (along with the Effigies and Strike Under) that defined the Chicago punk sound. I have heard them described as punk, post-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, alternative, and even pop punk. After a while, all those genres and sub-genres become meaningless, and anyway, none of ‘em do NR justice.

Calling them a pop punk band is ludicrous – sure, their songs have hooks, and are often peppered with ‘whoah-ohs,’ but those are about the only similarities they have to pop punk. So what do they sound like?

They sound like Chicago. They’re abrasive and hard-edged, with a rusty steel heart like the heart of the city, but they’ve got melodies that warm you up like a double-shot of whiskey in a 4 a.m. bar. Or, as Jay Yuenger (member of another early-ish Chicago punk band, Rights of the Accused), puts it: “I still don’t even know how to pigeonhole them.  I don’t even know what you’d call Naked Raygun. Italian art surf punk. Anthem punk, or something. I don’t know.”[4]

I don’t remember how, or when, I first heard Naked Raygun.

It feels like I’ve always known about them, because they’re so omnipresent in the history of Chicago punk, but, most likely, I first heard them on a mix tape my best pal Ali made, sometime around 1998. Ali introduced me to a lot of Chicago punk bands, which is funny, because I was the one who was part of the Chicago scene – she lived halfway across the country, and was part of the D.C. scene. When we were younger, I think we wanted to switch scenes, like a punk rock version of Freaky Friday. “You’re so lucky,” I’d say, “you have Fugazi and the Daycare Swindlers.” “No,” she’d say, “you’re lucky! You have Naked Raygun and The Tossers!” She was right, in the end. D.C. has had some great bands, to be sure, but I wouldn’t trade Chicago for the world.

Which brings us to where we are now.

It’s 2013. Naked Raygun is 33.

Metro is 31, and so am I.

I’ve been going to shows at Metro for half of its – and my – life, and listening to NR for nearly as long. When I heard that NR were playing a couple shows this June, to celebrate Metro’s 30th anniversary, I decided I had to make it to one of ‘em. I’d been feeling old and sad, in that same kind of funk I get into every few months, like, “I’m all washed up, I used to be awesome and do rad things and now I’m a boring old grown up who does boring old grown up things.” I figured a night in Chicago might help me, uh, lose the blues. I figured seeing NR at Metro might remind me that my life isn’t over. Because, hey, if Metro and NR are also in their 30s, and they’re still awesome and punk rock, then maybe I am too, right? Right.

After a few weeks of playing email tag with various promoters and publicists, and some help from my buddy Aaron Cynic, it all worked out. We were on the list for the Friday night show, with a photo pass to boot, and on June 28th, I was on the Amtrak Hiawatha Line, clickety-clacking my way to the City of Big Shoulders.

Me and my pals bummed around for a while before the show, because no Metro experience would be complete without pre-show wandering on Belmont and Clark. Despite the city’s efforts to scrub Belmont clean, to sweep the freaks away and turn it into a tourist playground, I could still sense the old grit and spirit beneath all the shiny new facades. After stopping by a few old haunts, we moseyed our way toward Metro, dodging the drunken sports fanatics and the insults they hurled at us. That evening, we had to contend not only with the usual Cubs fans, but also with the stragglers from the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory parade.

We arrived at Metro a couple hours before the show was scheduled to start, so we decided to get a couple two-three beers at The Gingerman Tavern, a bar right next door to the venue. And what a bar it is: a punk island in a sea of yuppie sports bars. I knew it was the place to be as soon as we stepped inside – it was crowded with punks and skinheads and rudies and rockabilly folks. The bartenders were blasting an Undertones tune, and the one television in the bar was playing not a Cubs game, but a White Sox game. Yes, in deep Wrigleyville, the Gingerman elected to watch a game by the only Chicago baseball team that matters. Between beers, when we went outside to smoke, the patrons of the surrounding bars stared at us and shouted at us. But we didn’t care. Let the dude-bros laugh in their Cubs caps and Blackhawks jerseys, yelling “freaks” at us.

Even in old t-shirts with the sleeves torn off we looked cool. A cut above the rest because we were into something different. I pointed my cigarette like a switchblade, saying, “Yeah, but have you heard the Zero Boys, assholes?”[5]

June 28, 2013. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

We finished our second round, and then it was showtime.

Much like Belmont Ave., Metro has changed over the years. It used to be all smoky and sneaky; a blue haze of tobacco and clove and weed smoke hung over the stage, and it was pretty easy to smuggle in things like bottles of booze for cheap/underage drinking purposes, or Sharpies for tagging the bathroom wall. Not so, now: I mean, you can’t smoke inside any establishment in Chicago, anymore, and at Metro, you can’t even go outside for cigarettes cos they no longer allow re-entry. They’ve also cracked down on bringing anything fun into the show – most people get their bags or pockets searched as they enter.

Despite that, the show was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.

The Crombies were the opening act; they’re a Chicago-based ska and reggae band featuring some former and current members of Deal’s Gone Bad. Next up were the Zero Boys, probably the best-known punk band to ever come from Indiana, and they put on one hell of a show. And then we all waited, waited, drank beer, waited for Naked Raygun to start playing, cos honestly, they were the band we were all there to see.

Just like the night of my first Metro show, I was buzzing with beer and adrenaline – it was my first Naked Raygun show. I chatted with my friends and some friends of theirs; we discussed which NR songs we most wanted to hear that night. We all mentioned “Wonder Beer,” because it is one of the best NR tunes and we’re all a bunch of drunks. Some people said they wanted to hear “Vanilla Blue,” or “Metastasis.” I said: “The song I most want to hear is the song I turn to whenever I need a sonic kick in the ass. I wanna hear ‘New Dreams.’” Some of the folks I was talking with, who had seen NR several times, said “Oh, they never play that one,” and I was bummed, but determined to enjoy the show no matter what they played.

When the houselights dimmed and the stage lights flamed, Eric and Pete and Bill filed onto the stage. They noodled around with some instrumental stuff, then, from stage right, Jeff arrived. He said a few words, the music swirled into a glorious cacophony, and Jeff sang: “Check me out, ya know, I’m a major world power. Watch me as I swing my hips around.” The crowd erupted into chaos, everyone pogoing or slamming or just shouting along.

Naked Raygun, “Hips Swingin’” @ Metro, 6/28/13. Video by Chlexer

I wish I had their setlist from that night. I don’t remember all of the songs they played, or the order in which they played them. I danced in the back, a safe distance away from the pit; I broke my ankle in the pit this February, and since then have been a little wary about entering into the fray, but hey, at least I was dancing.

Naked Raygun burned with a strange, fierce energy that the audience fed on. I love seeing a band put their all into a performance, particularly when it’s a band that’s been around as long as NR has. Pete hit the bass notes perfectly, and then stepped out for a couple tunes so Pierre could play. I paid close attention to both of them, because one of the best things about NR’s music is their bass lines. They’re rough and funky, yet tight like a tension wire.

Pete Mittler. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

Eric’s drumbeats clunked and pounded like factory gears, and Bill’s guitar riffs were sharp and wailing. I hollered myself hoarse singing along with all the ‘whoah-ohs’ and ‘hey-heys’ and the words I know as well as the tattoos on my arms.

Jeff Pezzati and Bill Stephens. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

And Jeff. Jeff has a dark, mesmerizing presence. His voice is pure and ragged at the same time. He dredges up emotions from his core and flings them out into the world. That night, he dredged up all of it – the rage, sorrow, absurdity, and joy of life – and the audience was in his thrall.

John Haggerty – one of NR’s many former guitarists and songwriters, and erstwhile saxophonist – brought his sax out and joined the band for a couple tunes. He was wearing a Blackhawks jersey, but I forgave him for it, because I knew he wouldn’t be the kind of sports fan who tormented the punks. They threw free shit to the crowd – pink frisbees with text that read ‘Official NR Diaphragm.’ They played “Rat Patrol,” whoah-oh-oh-oh-oh, and when they played “Wonder Beer,” I was tired of holding back, fear of broken bones be damned, and I jumped in the pit and slammed and sang: “So I’ll drink to the wonder, while I wander. If there are gods they must be drunk. Rev’ling in the madness, you and I.” At the end of the set, they brought out a very special guest – Jake Burns, of Stiff Little Fingers. He took over vocal duties for a blistering version of “Suspect Device.”

Naked Raygun w/Jake Burns, “Suspect Device.” Video by Chlexer.

When the band finished playing, we howled out for more. I looked around me at the crowd, sweaty and worn out but not ready for it to be over, stomping and clapping and yelling for Naked Raygun to return. And I thought: “I wasn’t there in 1980 when NR formed, and I wasn’t here for that Metro show in 1988. Some of the other people here were around in 1980 or 1988, and some of them weren’t even here at Metro in 1998. But all of us – we’re here now, and that’s no small thing.” NR returned to the stage and played an encore that was just as fervent as their first set, an encore which ended with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The crowd went wild, and it might seem odd to the casual observer that so many punks like Springsteen, but it makes sense to me. If you really listen to his earlier songs, you’ll find that the lives of his hard-luck heroes are not far off from being much like the lives of many punks: dead-end towns, soul-crushing jobs (or no jobs at all), and that eternal desire to escape.

Slammin’ to Springsteen. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

That would have been a fine place to end the show, but the insatiable audience wanted more, more, more, and Naked Raygun obliged. They played a couple more songs, and then, for their very last song of their second encore, for the very last song of the night, they played the one I longed to hear, the one everyone told me they’d never play. I leapt into the pit one last time, and shouted as loud as I possibly could: “Got new dreams and I’m gonna make ‘em real!”

With that, the show was truly over.

The houselights came up, everyone chugged the dregs of their drinks and began stumbling outside. We all loitered out front for a few minutes, dazed and ecstatic, chatting a bit before Metro security kicked us off the sidewalk. Some folks that had seen NR before told me I couldn’t have picked a better night for my first Raygun show, that it was one of the best NR shows they’d ever seen. I have no basis for comparison, so I can’t say for sure it was one of their best shows, but it sure floored me.

Not only did the show do what I’d hoped it would – show me that life could still be amazing and that getting older doesn’t mean giving up on punk rock – but NR were so brilliant, so the perfect figureheads of Chicago punk, that they became one of my favorite bands of all time. Not just Chicago, not just punk, but favorite bands, of all time, of all cities, of all genres. Period.

After all our goodbyes had been said, me n’ my pals raced to make the last train of the night back to Pilsen. My ears were ringing, my legs were sore, my throat was shredded, and I felt more like myself than I’d felt in a long, long time.

So here’s to Naked Raygun: may they keep making music for another 30 years, and may each record they release be more exciting than the last.

And here’s to Metro: may they keep having shows for another 30 years.

And here’s to the Chicago punks: may we keep freaking out the squares in Wrigleyville, and reminding them that it’s our city, not theirs. Cheers.[6]

Your humble narrator, post-show. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

[1] Found here

[2] Punk club in Chicago, located at 661 N. Clark Street. Considered the zenith of the original Chicago punk scene. Open from 1978 to 1982.

[3] This is fiction. I mean, the show really happened, but I have no idea if Naked Raygun opened their set with “Bombshelter,” and this group of punks is a figment of my imagination. But something very like this could have occurred, and hey, I’m trying to set the scene!

[4] You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984.

[5] Many thanks to Aaron Cometbus; this little section, beginning with ‘Let the dude-bros laugh…,’ was inspired by something similar he wrote in Cometbus #45.

[6] Some recommendations for your further edification. Wanna know what shows are happening at Metro? They have a website. Wanna know what Naked Raygun is up to? They, too, have a website. On the topic of Chicago punk: You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984. Confessions of a Chicago Punk Bystander, by Marie Kanger-Born. American Skin, by Don De Grazia. Mix Tapes from the Midwest: Like Loving a Woman With a Broken Nose. And if you’d like to read more about the night of this show, including more stuff about the events surrounding the show, further Metro memories, and some juicy secrets, a piece about it will be appearing in my upcoming zine, Reckless Chants #19. You can keep an eye on my blog for ordering info, or just email me at [email protected].

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Douche Tarlick

    June 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    Thanks for posting that. I will never forget, the Summer of '87, I was 15 years old and I finally got to see my favorite band Naked Raygun. They were playing Bogart's in Cincinnati and we were able to get a ride (I was only 15). We knew that most Bogarts shows ended around 11PM-Midnight and our ride said to be out front no later than midnight.

    Luck was not on our side that evening as we watched those suave motherfuckers walk out, Jeff appeared to be around 6'10 and we were in awe. The clock struck midnight and we only caught two songs.

    Four years later I was able to catch Pegboy at Shorty's in Cincy and talked John Haggerty's ear off at the bar before a Pegboy show. Five years later I was working the door in Columbus, OH at Little Brothers and I noticed Pierre Kezdy was playing with Pegboy and selling merch. I probably annoyed the shit out of him with my constant talk and questions about NR. "Hey man, my band covers Only in America!" Such a cool dude.

    Now at 42 year old, I need to make the 5 hour drive and catch a gig in Chicago and rid myself of that nagging feeling of never really seeing Naked Raygun live.

  2. Anonymous

    January 7, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Awesome post. I was there. I've seen Raygun and Pegboy pretty much every single time each of the bands has played since 1991. You captured the intensity and the feelings surrounding the experience brilliantly.
    Not to throw cold water on anything; but that was not John Haggerty that came out on saxopohone.
    I forget his name; but I've met him a few times. He came and saw my band at The Live Wire Lounge and I talked with him.

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