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More Bad Habits

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.

I do know NunZilla better than most because I wrote that cover story on them. The band's gimmick does make fun of the Catholic Church, but never in a malicious manner.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea