By Jonathan Singer
There’s no crime in punk rock, but “Random Punk Kid” still wishes to remain anonymous. At least he lives up to his punk name by volunteering at one of the few remaining do it yourself (DIY) scenes left in New York. Coming to ABC No Rio, a “collective of collectives” in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Saturdays, is the highlight of RPK’s week where he donates his time to keep the movement alive through six dollar shows that feature punk rock.
Real punk rock.
The music may be fast moving and aggressive, and some of the patrons may sport interesting hairdos, but ABC No Rio pre-screens lyrics to ensure no racist, sexist or homophobic bands take the stage. “This is a safe environment,” says Camilla Gonclaves, a 20 year-old volunteer in ABC No Rio’s Hardcore/Punk collective.
“Punk is about bringing people together,” says RPK, who is quick to make the distinction between skinheads (the Jamaican ones) and skinheads (the Nazi ones). “It’s about unity.”
That unity is echoed throughout ABC No Rio’s space, a four-story building located at 156 Rivington Street. With Times-Up!, a New York City bike collective losing its rented space a few blocks north and west on Houston Street, it’s good to be a landowner on the Lower East Side. While Times-Up! has made the basement of ABC No Rio its makeshift home (bicycle repair workshops are Tuesdays and Thursdays), ABC No Rio, a 501(c)(3) organization, has owned 156 Rivington street since June 2006.
Before ABC No Rio purchased the building, the organization still rocked out with punk shows, a darkroom (film is punk rock), a zine library, computer center (open source software is punk rock), and a Food Not Bombs chapter. It was also somewhat controversial, as 156 Rivington Street was home to squatters in a time before gentrification took over the Lower East Side.
The building was a ramshackle, but the city sold the space to the collective for one dollar, provided they renovate and keep their activities community oriented.
“So it can’t become a bar,” says volunteer Nat Meysenburg. ABC No Rio hardcore/punk matinees are all ages and alcohol free, but over the past few years bars, as well as designer shoe stores, have taken residence on Rivington Street, next to and across the street from ABC No Rio. “We’re not the loudest thing on the block anymore, at least,” says volunteer Bill Quattromani.
Renovations are another issue, as the building has not changed since 2006. From the revenue collected by the six-dollar concert charge, ABC No Rio receives around thirty percent. There is also a plea for makeshift donations. A collection jar is passed around the floor at the end of the concert. Since volunteers cut cap admission at 150 heads (the first floor gallery space’s legal capacity is twenty six), every dollar counts.
According to a brochure printed by the organization, ABC No Rio has already raised over $400,000 through donations (using vegetable inks on recycled paper). Since the original building is beyond repair, plans call for demolition and the construction of a new space, which would cost $2.6 million. This new building, however, will be a physical manifestation of the DIY ethos, albeit somewhat more complicated. Designed by architect Paul Castucci, it will feature a solar photovoltaic system, a planted green roof, and a heat recovery ventilation system, among other measures. “Although at the moment it is both technologically and economically prohibitive, our future goal is to use renewable energy sources to power 100% of our energy needs,” says the brochure.
The new building would also double the size of the gallery and performance space.
Some of those donations came from artists in other cities who have never stepped foot on Rivington Street. Although the documentary film “American Hardcore” didn’t film at ABC No Rio, three months ago the popular/mainstream rock band Alkaline Trio requested to film a music video at the space. (Maybe it’s because in true punk fashion, the stage at ABC No Rio is on the same level as the floor). “A lot of people want to start riding our coattails,” says Meysenburg.
Instead, ABC No Rio books bands like Polka Madre, who tour the US in a yellow mini school bus. “I miss New York in the 70s, even though I didn’t know it,” says lead singer Eric Bergman. Unlike the other bands who played last Saturday, Polka Madre is not punk or hardcore, but, of all other possible genres, closer to neo-klezmer, a Yiddish folk music style. Members of the hardcore/punk collective are actively seeking to book independent bands from other genres, and a recent matinee show was Polka Madre’s fourth or fifth time performing at ABC No Rio, or enough times that Bergman lost count. “We didn’t even play our most Jewish song because it’s a punk show,” says Bergman.
But that doesn’t mean the assembled crowd wouldn’t be open to more klezmer. The bands at these shows come from as far as Argentina and Spain, and the fans who come to watch come from all over the New York City area. “I mostly hang out in the dance scene and not the hardcore scene,” says Robin Frantz, who recently attended his second ABC No Rio Saturday matinee. Frantz’s parents, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the new wave band, Talking Heads, made a name for themselves playing as a non-punk at the more popular (and more for profit) punk venue CBGB. But the younger Frantz, 25, still has a knack for DIY. “You shouldn’t wait for approval,” says Frantz, who was born into a record industry that he says was more family oriented in the 1980s, when Talking Heads was at the height of their popularity. “You guys know about Clearchannel and how fucked up they are,” he says.
In step the “bookers” at ABC No Rio, who work for no pay but still keep real punk in New York City. Outside of ABC No Rio, Random Punk Kid also volunteers as an EMT and at an animal hospital. “Instead of donating my money, which I don’t have, I donate my time,” he says. “I like helping people out. To me, that’s what punk is about.”
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