ON THE EVENING of October 26, Phoenix artist Rick Bertoni stood in front of a mirror and used makeup to transform his face into a facsimile of a ghoul from the movie Dawn of the Dead.
Had he survived till dawn, the onetime godfather of the Phoenix punk scene might have appreciated the irony of what he was doing.
Of course, if he had survived, there wouldn't be any irony.
FOLLOWING BERTONI'S death at age 35, friends and acquaintances are struggling to understand the man who did as much as anyone to ignite the underground cultural explosion that erupted here during the late Seventies and early Eighties.
While observers quibble about the exact impact Bertoni had on Phoenix's underground scene, everyone agrees on one thing: If Bertoni had never moved into a sprawling, ramshackle house in the 300 block of East Palm Lane, there never would have been a scene.
Located at the edge of the Coronado district, the decaying stucco manse was the perfect setting for Bertoni's dream commune.
Three of the four bedrooms were big enough to serve as artist's quarters, while the huge master bedroom was sufficiently spacious to double as a music rehearsal studio. The huge dining room/living room, with its original wooden floors, was a dance hall just waiting to happen. And the small cellar--whenever it wasn't under three feet of water--became an outlaw nightclub called the Detox Lounge, an intimate show room where, if the spirit moved them, patrons could chase cocktails with spoonfuls of prescription cough syrup.
It was sometime in 1978 when Bertoni forked over the first month's rent (reportedly $125) and nailed the front door shut. The Hate House was open for business. Watch your step as you crawl through the window.
"The Hate House was the hub of that entire scene," says longtime Valley musician Dan Clark, now keyboardist for Victory Acres. "All the bands had ties to it. The Meat Puppets rehearsed there. JFA got started there. The Feederz, Mighty Sphincter, International Language, the Consumers, the Deez, Killer Pussy. A lot of out-of-town bands stayed there, too--45 Grave, the Gun Club and Dream Syndicate. Name any band from that time--they were all there."
Although the Meat Puppets would eventually become the best-known group to emerge from the Hate enclave, Puppets' bass player Cris Kirkwood recalls that the group's first brush with Bertoni's inner sanctum was far from auspicious.
"We were this little backyard band at the time, but we'd heard about the Hate House," says Kirkwood. "One night we got up the nerve to take some fliers over there. When we got over there we could see some band playing through the window and I don't think we made it to the porch. We tossed the fliers on the lawn and took off. The Hate House was a special place for special people."
Yes, and they didn't come more special than the members of the Hate House crowd, a group that looked like a road company of Pink Flamingos. There was Marcie Murder, the house ditz who once commemorated a hot date with Iggy Pop by having the singer's love bites permanently tattooed on her back. Self-styled "enemy of the people" Frank Discussion nailed rats to the floor while performing with his band the Feederz. And who could forget Charlie Monoxide, the Addams Family wanna-be who made headlines when Tucson police charged him with drinking the blood of a dead parrot during a botched burglary attempt.
"Rick had a real talent for people," says Kaydel Wilcox, a longtime Bertoni buddy who operated a punk clothing store of the era. "All sorts of people gravitated towards him--like a magnet. Maybe that's why he became the center of the Hate House, which was a giant bonding experience for all these highly creative people who were out there on the edge."
The house was decorated with Bertoni's large, pop-art portraits of punks--and a big self-portrait of himself with a 45-rpm record draped over his right ear, grinning goofily while shooting up heroin.
In a 1980 profile that appeared in Uva (a short-lived local arts tabloid), self-avowed "relentless punk artist" Bertoni described himself as "proprietor of Phoenix's exclusive New Wave boarding dump." And whether tromping around the house in his trademark uniform of shorts, shades and cowboy boots or greeting party guests in more formal evening dress (say, skintight leather pants and electrician's tape), Bertoni apparently relished those roles to the hilt.
"Rick was a great guy, the perfect host," recalls Victory Acres vocalist Mary Alice Clark, who lived at the house after Bertoni left. (Clark met her husband Dan at a Hate House function.) "I always liked the way he'd make a big vegetable buffet for all his parties. That's a lot of work, you know, all that chopping."
When party time rolled around, Bertoni was cutting up even when he wasn't chopping.
Artist Bob Steinhilber, a onetime resident of the house, laughs as he recalls the surprise Bertoni cooked up for guests at one memorable bash. "Somewhere, he'd gotten a bunch of free samples of creme rinse and he methodically opened hundreds of packets of this stuff into a big punch bowl," says Steinhilber. "Later, when everyone was dancing, he threw a bunch of marbles on the wooden floor and then dumped this creme rinse on top of it. There was no way to keep your footing. Everyone wound up in a big, gooey dog pile."
Not long afterward, Bertoni and pals received an even bigger surprise. Fresh from his job as a security guard, one late arrival was in the process of making his entrance when several guests noticed his uniformed legs and arms coming through the window. "Everyone freaked because they thought he was a cop," remembers another guest. "The pills went flying and everyone headed for the back door."
"When the police really did show up later that night," Steinhilber recalls, "it was the boy who cried `Wolf!' all over again. Nobody paid any attention to them because nobody believed they were real cops."
Hard-core Hate House guests would soon learn to tell the difference.
"They didn't call it the Hate House for nothing," says former resident Jennie Harris, who remembers one dispute that ended in gunfire. (Although Bertoni was shot in the hand, he refused to press charges against his boarder.) "At first it was a real party place, but it got down and dirty," says Harris. "Nothing was sacred. When I moved in, they said, `No pets,' but I brought my dog anyway. One day as I was going to work, Frank Discussion told me he'd take care of it." Harris says she moved out of the house after learning the dog had been shot. "Nothing," she says, "was sacred. Be careful, children. These little party houses aren't what you think."
Some of what went on was the kind of stuff you don't want to think about. "I had such a good time there, I don't feel comfortable discussing it today," says David Therrien, now proprietor of CRASHarts at the Icehouse.
Others recall that the Hate House degenerated into a weird melange of vandalism, burglaries and drugs.
"The Hate House was wrapped up in a very heavy punk scenario," agrees former scenester Matt Banegas, now a travel agent in Los Angeles. "Everything was negative--black, destroy, hate. And while it seemed that people over there were always busy doing things, nothing ever seemed to get done. I guess you could say it was a very happening nonhappening place."
A few years after setting up the Hate House, Bertoni apparently agreed. In 1981, he struck out for New York City to make his mark as a painter.
"It was like a fairy tale world," says Sharon Take, who made the move to New York with Bertoni in hopes of establishing the pair's band, Hate & Take. "You know how people lined up at clubs to get into places like Danceteria? Ricky and I never had to wait. We made the scene--we were everywhere."
When not painting the Big Apple red, the prolific and talented Bertoni could be found in front of one of the dozens of canvases he turned out during this period. Some of his work sold through Horse Nostrils, a small gallery he ran in the East Village. But most of the paintings reportedly wound up being sold piecemeal at bargain-basement prices to finance drug habits. Today, friends know the whereabouts of only four of Bertoni's paintings.
Bertoni's widest exposure came from an uncredited work: After New York City officials blockaded the entrance to the abandoned building in which he and Take were living, Bertoni painted a saguaro on the cinder-block barricade. Sharon Take reports that a photograph of the cactus was prominently featured in a New York Times article on street art.
Bertoni spent most of the Eighties ricocheting back and forth between New York and Phoenix. A couple of years ago, he returned to Phoenix for the last time, landing a job painting scenery at Sunbelt Scenic, a Tempe production company. Friends say he hadn't touched heroin for a year and had made a concerted effort to steer clear of anyone who did.
BERTONI'S LUCK ran out on October 26. Accompanied by two friends from his Hate House days, Bertoni attended a costume party at a home in central Phoenix. After finding a bottle of Benadryl capsules in his host's medicine cabinet, Bertoni split up the pills with his companions. The trio washed down the pills with alcohol.
Still in costume as ghouls, the threesome adjourned to another house, where Bertoni used heroin for the last time.
He never regained consciousness.
"The problem was his makeup," says a friend who was with him. "We couldn't tell he was turning blue."
Bertoni forked over the first month's rent and nailed the front door shut. The Hate House was open for business.
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He described himself as "proprietor of Phoenix's exclusive New Wave boarding dump."
When party time rolled around, Bertoni was cutting up even when he wasn't chopping.
"He threw a bunch of marbles on the wooden floor and then dumped this creme rinse on top of it. There was no way to keep your footing."
"While it seemed that people over there were always busy doing things, nothing ever seemed to get done.