I know there are people out there who spend their time considering what's punk rock and what isn't. I'm not one of them. But something happened not long ago that's made me think a lot about what's punk. And I can tell you that the most punk rock thing I've seen in a long time happened at a NunZilla show last month.
At the New Times' Summer of Sound punk show, NunZilla took the stage with its usual crazy cabaret of clergy costumes, cartoon nun collages, and caricature of communion. I'm a big NunZilla fan; I wrote a cover story on them earlier this year ("Bad Habits," April 5, 2007), and as New Times music editor, I chose them along with the rest of the lineup (The Complainiacs, Labor Party, and Big Vinny and the Cattle Thieves) to appear that night.
The NunZilla debacle started when Asses of Evil (and former JFA) drummer Bam-Bam Sversvold came onstage in his Cardinal costume, huge tub of communion wafers in hand, and announced into the mic that anybody who wanted to participate in communion should come up to the stage.
About a dozen fans rushed the stage, and Bam-Bam started throwing handfuls of wafers into the crowd while NunZilla played behind him. Suddenly, the stage lights went off, leaving the group in pitch blackness. NunZilla kept playing, and vocalist Kenyatta Turner kept singing. A couple of seconds later, the microphones went dead. Since I was standing right in front of the stage, I could see Turner as she continued screaming out the song lyrics, fists clenched at her sides, face flushed from pushing as much volume from her lungs as she possibly could. Several people jumped onstage and screamed along with her, all shaking their fists or throwing up their middle fingers toward the sound booth, where the stage manager stood. Bam-Bam flung the entire tub of communion wafers into the crowd and all over the floor, and people stomped them into dust.
Frankly, it was the most punk rock thing I've seen in this town.
NunZilla won the audience vote for "Best Punk Band" that night. If any of this had been planned, it would've been a brilliant PR coup. Instead, it was a punishment that turned into an award, à la the PMRC's censoring of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be, a horrible album that sold millions of copies only after Tipper Gore brought it to everyone's attention. Having the plug pulled on them made NunZilla the underdogs, the heroes, the band that had to say, "Fuck you, we're going to do what we want," and everybody rallied behind them which is exactly what punk rock is about. Thinking about it afterward, I realized that for a long time, it had felt like I'd forgotten that.
Warm fuzzies aside, what transpired was totally fucked-up. It wasn't a stunt. It was a bad decision to censor the band's show, a decision made by none other than my employer, New Times.
The backstory starts with the New Times Summer of Sound series (seven shows in seven genres, scattered throughout the summer), which is a promotional project, meaning the New Times marketing department bears the brunt of the expenses, handles the logistics, and runs the shows. The editorial department (where I work) and the advertising/marketing department at New Times generally adhere to a "separation of church and state" creed. We coexist but rarely coalesce. As a new music editor, the SOS series is the first time I've worked with our marketing department, and my involvement has consisted of selecting the local bands to play the shows.
Now, the folks in our marketing department could've just as easily picked the bands themselves, but they asked me, as music editor, for my input, and I was happy to oblige. After seeing slews of shows over the past year and listening to every local CD I've come across, I felt I could really treat people to the cream of the crop.
My goal was to book the best bands for each show, even if some of the bands were balls-out bizarre. And when it comes to punk rock, that's kind of a given. Iggy Pop exposed his shlong. G.G. Allin flung poo at his audience. Johnny Rotten spit on his. The word "punk" has never had a wholesome connotation. It honestly never occurred to me that any of these local punk bands might have something in their show that would be considered so offensive by anyone at New Times in my department or outside it that censorship would actually come into play.
So I was surprised when Kenyatta Turner called me the day before the show to tell me that she'd gone to the venue (Club Red in Tempe) earlier that day, and that stage manager John Durham had told her if NunZilla dared to do their usual "communion," he'd pull the plug on them. (Durham was hired by New Times to be the stage manager for the last four shows in the series.)
Now, I've seen this "communion" at several NunZilla shows, and it basically consists of Bam-Bam dressing up as a Catholic cardinal and handing out communion wafers to anybody who wants one. It's cheesy and fun. Nobody's obligated to partake, and there's no actual communion verbiage. And considering I wrote all about the communion thing in my story, I figured that, at least, the people who work at New Times were aware of NunZilla's Catholic-parody antics. I was bristling at the idea of censorship in any form, and immediately called Whitney Fitzpatrick, our marketing director, to find out what the deal was. I was sure it was all a misunderstanding.
But Fitzpatrick confirmed that NunZilla had been asked not to perform the communion because she didn't want to offend the show's sponsors, which included Bud True Music, Southern Comfort, Bookman's, Chameleon Glass, Sam Ash Music, and Sprint. New Times Publisher Kurtis Barton (as Fitzpatrick's boss, he runs the business/advertising/marketing side of the paper) agreed with the decision, Fitzpatrick told me, and she had given Durham permission to pull the plug on NunZilla if they did not comply with the request.
It should be noted that the event's main sponsor, Budweiser, has also served as the biggest alcohol sponsor for the annual Phoenix gay pride festival for at least the past seven years. I've seen everything at these events, including a lesbian wedding ceremony, men making out in nothing but neon thongs, and people lining up to have leather daddies beat red tracks down their bare backs at the "whipping booth." Somehow, I doubt that seeing a fake cardinal throwing around communion wafers is gonna send Budweiser over the edge.
Over the phone, I argued with Fitzpatrick against the censorship. New Times is an "alternative" weekly, this was a punk rock performance, and I felt the M.O. should remain "no holds barred." But when it came down to it, this was a marketing event. Looking back, I suppose I should have told my boss, New Times Editor Rick Barrs, what was going on, and taken my concerns up the ladder.
I didn't, mainly because I couldn't imagine they'd actually follow through with the censorship, but also because NunZilla hadn't indicated whether or not they'd do communion anyway. But when I arrived at Club Red for the show that Friday, I did ask Durham about the situation. "Frankly, it pisses me off that [Turner] called you afterwards and tried to get that decision reversed," Durham told me. "I don't like censorship, either, but my first concern is for the sponsors. We don't want to do anything that would offend them."
It doesn't matter how lighthearted or silly or symbolic of freedom of speech NunZilla's show is supposed to be. This could be the next nipple to pop out of a top at the Super Bowl halftime show. Durham wouldn't budge.
Neither did NunZilla.
NunZilla was the last local punk band onstage that night. Their set went off without a hitch until the last song, when Bam-Bam charged onstage. You know the rest.
When I showed up for work Monday, I still wasn't entirely clear about what had happened. So I talked to Fitzpatrick and Barton. It was a fairly brief conversation. Fitzpatrick defended her position by announcing she would also not allow a puppy to be sacrificed onstage. Barton, who's been around longer than Fitzpatrick, didn't say much. He asked me to put my questions in writing.
The response from Barton, on behalf of himself and Fitzpatrick, read, in part: "It is New Times Marketing's position that NunZilla's faux communion is an editorialized act. The Marketing team was interested in NunZilla's music. Subsequently, we paid them to play music, not express what could be deemed as a 'charged' viewpoint."
Barton's official decision, he wrote, was "to not allow material into the show that could be deemed offensive to a particular group of clientele."
Now, as a journalist, I don't have "clientele." I don't sell advertisements or negotiate with event sponsors, and so I don't have to worry so much about what's "appropriate" or not. But the whole thing still seems silly to me. How is a band dressed as Catholic clergy throwing communion wafers at people even remotely similar to killing a puppy onstage? To me, that's the same leaping line of thought that extremists use when talking about what would happen if gays were allowed to marry. ("What's next? You can marry a dog?")
According to Barton and Fitzpatrick, New Times does not have a written policy regarding what is and isn't sanctioned when it comes to bands playing its events. So how are such determinations made?
"With zero tolerance, we mandate that all bands respect local laws," Barton wrote. "We also respectfully request that bands and partners alike honor a venue operator's established expectations."
But NunZilla's communion doesn't break any laws. And the "venue operator," whom I assume was stage manager John Durham that night, was acting as a New Times employee, enforcing a decision that was made by the New Times marketing department. So any expectations which did not seem "established" at all obviously come back to New Times. Barton acknowledges that they've made promises to sponsors in the past regarding musical acts, and it's pretty clear that concern for the sponsors was a major factor in this decision.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"It is important to distinguish New Times the Newspaper from New Times the Event Producer," Barton responded. "As such, the New Times Newspaper is set up for broadcast media, wherein a story applies not to just one single writer's right to publish ideas, but also to the right to express political views and to cover and publish artistic ideas. However, a New Times event is not news. It will neither be politically charged nor designed as a platform for others to express a possibly offensive act (or view) that could be construed as 'positioned by' New Times. Instead, a New Times event is designed to promote music, connect with readers, and support the various sponsors that make possible the event. In short, an event does not fall under the protection of freedom of expression."
Sounds like semantics to me. This was supposed to be a punk rock show. Couldn't we leave a little room for something that might be slightly provocative?
I suppose I could have avoided this fiasco by picking sanitized bands. But I had no idea that's what they wanted. And it's certainly not what I or any other editorial employee at New Times want. Our marketing department can act as it pleases, but if anyone asks me next year or 10 years from now, if I'm still music editor at this place I'll continue to recommend the best music. That's punk rock.