Before He Was Neil Hamburger, Gregg Turkington Was Part of the '80s AZ Punk Scene
Comedian Gregg Turkington was watching when Arizona's equivalent to Walter Cronkite said President Reagan's fake son was being brainwashed into becoming a punk rocker by the evils of sociology (that's right: sociology, not socialism). Turkington was a teen living in Tempe at the time, collecting punk records and devouring movies, long before he became a cultish stand-up comedian with his vile, hilariously deplorable Neil Hamburger persona.
He says he was just flipping channels that night in May 1982 when all the local TV stations alerted viewers of a hostage situation taking place at KOOL Channel 10 (now known as FOX 10). Beloved news anchor Bill Close and his crew were being held at gunpoint by a madman, Joseph Gwin, who demanded that his schizophrenic 12-page manifesto about the impending World War III be read on the air. Gwin eventually surrendered to police after Close patiently read the entire 20-minute rant on camera.
"Part of it said, 'Ronald Reagan, they are using sociology to turn your son Ricky into a punk,'" Turkington recalls. "He doesn't have a son named Ricky. It was just fucking loopy stuff, and I saw it all live."
Turkington's time growing up in the Valley was equally bizarre, and it was also the most fertile and strange period of Arizona music. Now-revered bands like skate rats Jodie Foster's Army (JFA), cow-punk shredders Meat Puppets, and globe-trotting malcontents Sun City Girls were warping the expectations of punk audiences, and Turkington was steeped in it all, documenting their antics in various handmade zines.
Turkington, who went on to front a series of post-punk bands and found the Amarillo Records label, and who stars alongside Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy in The Comedy, says seeing Penelope Spheeris' documentary The Decline of Western Civilization at Valley Art Theatre ignited his passion for punk. For the young Turkington, it represented a scene free of hassling by rednecks, jocks, and dismissive teachers he experienced at school.
At 13, he had his mom drop him off at Calderon Ballroom, a Mexican-owned event hall in Phoenix, to see the classic lineup of Black Flag. It was his first punk show. "I thought it was the craziest show I'd ever seen in my life," he said. "Henry [Rollins] comes out in black Speedo shorts, and two songs in, he took them off and just did the rest of the show naked."
Shortly thereafter, he saw an all-star bill that he still considers the greatest show he's ever witnessed: San Francisco punks Flipper with Meat Puppets and Sun City Girls. The show was at Madison Square Gardens on Van Buren, "a magical place," he says of the wrestling venue that hosted punk bands in the ring when there no matches.
The Sun City Girls veered into abrasive spoken-word interludes and threw typed-up fortune cards at the audience. The Meat Puppets did somersaults during songs and performed a mangled cover of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The punks in attendance were pissed, but Turkington was mystified. "I'd never seen anything like this, completely original music and bizarre showmanship, and no one cared at all," he says. "At that time, I liked the punk thing, but when you see something like this — it just transcends all that shit."
Thinking back, he has a hard time pinpointing what facilitated the Phoenix mélange of confrontationally strange acts like The Consumers and Mighty Sphincter. More than anything, he says Phoenix's peculiar punk scene was unlike any other because of its refusal to pander, which had a lasting impact.
"It's just an important lesson to get over the worry of the audience not being into what you're doing," he says. "It's certainly nothing I've worried about for years."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.