A Punk Tour of Pensacola
“Write down the history,” he urged, with a passionate look his eye. “It’s the only thing that gives my life any meaning.”
This is a line from Aaron Cometbus’s novel “The Spirit of St. Louis,” a fictional account of the old school Pensacola punk scene, despite the title. Cometbus writes the influential punk fanzine Cometbus, but also played in several Pensacola punk bands, and lived next to (arguably) the oldest continuously-inhabited punk house in the United States—Pensacola’s own “309.” In short, he’s an expert witness.
The urgent moment Cometbus describes is based upon a moment in my life when the drummer for a local band heard I was attempting to compile a history of Pensacola punk. “Write down the history,” he urged.
Despite the drummer’s plea, the fictional character and I had difficulty completing this onerous task. To outsiders, the history may seem trivial at best, or devoid of meaning in the larger context on Pensacola’s history or even the larger history of punk. Which was why I wanted to capture this history: to prove its importance and show that our history, the history of Pensacola punk, is an important part of the historical fabric of the region.
Nonetheless, within the broader Pensacola community there is little to zero recognition of this history. Compared with other social and cultural histories, punk’s role in Pensacola history is still fairly obscure, or nothing more than the talk of middle-aged people reliving their glory days—listening to the Ramones as they pick up the kids from school. True, maybe, but isn’t all history on some level is both political and personal?
Historical markers recognizing opera singers of the last century, dueling grounds of the century before, the area’s first azalea trees and numerous religious congregations decorate the city. Not to take away from any of this history, but a case could be made that Green Day—who were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame— playing at The Nite Owl in 1989 is at least as historically significant as Sarah Bernhardt or John Phillip Sousa’s band performing at the Opera House 90 years earlier.
This article is my attempt to help reclaim this space, mark history, and serve as a temporary historical marker for a past and present that continues to make an impact on Pensacola—the nearly 40 year history of punk rock in Pensacola.
And what better way to begin this historical journey than a tour?
For now, I need to begin this “Punk Tour of Pensacola” with an apology and an admission: I’m sorry, but I can’t cover it all here. There are too many bands, too many unforgettable shows, too many promoters, too much art and too many temporary show spaces to do everything justice in this little space.
Instead of an all-encompassing article, think of this article as the first part of an installment series on punk in Pensacola.
We’ll begin with borders on our story and borders for our map. The historical borders will be from the beginning of the scene to the current day. The physical borders will be, as if driving a stake into the heart of the city, from the north side of Palafox to the south side of Palafox.
This was originally going to be a walking tour, but it’s probably better to ride a bike, or maybe a Segway tour. I’ll leave your mode of transportation to you.
Now, to quote the Ramones (who did sleep here once): Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
3901 North Palafox (late ‘70s-early ‘80s)
As the first club for punks in Pensacola, McGuigan’s Speakeasy holds a pretty historic spot in the hearts and minds of its generation. Photos of the bar show a space, well-loved and covered in Dead Kennedys and Black Flag graffiti placing this bar clearly within the punk spectrum, at least from a late-70s/early ‘80s perspective.
Whenever Pensacola scenesters speak of McGuigan’s, it’s rare that person fails to mention R.E.M. playing the Speakeasy before the regional band became famous.
While not punk, R.E.M. playing at McGuigan’s in 1982 is an important indicator of the direction the Pensacola scene was heading. Soon, Pensacola became a good place for touring bands looking to get their music out to a national audience, of which R.E.M. was very successful and McGuigan’s Speakeasy played an early role in the band’s success.
Northwest Florida’s Poet Laureate Jamey Jones used to frequent McGuigan’s Speakeasy back in his Kerouacian-youth.
“This little hole in the wall was a sanctuary,” Jones said. “We could wear ratty clothes, and would dance all by ourselves, as opposed to having to go through the whole meat-market ritual of having to ask a girl to dance or having to wait for a guy to ask you to dance.”
The comments on the late bar’s tribute Facebook page attest to the Speakeasy’s place in many people’s hearts. “Like Punk music,” Jones said, “this bar gave us—the Pensacola punks—hope where before there had been none. And the owner, David McGuigan was super nice guy. Very friendly.”
David’s father, Yank, also had a bar—Yank’s Bar, located off of W Street—that held punk shows for a while. Earl Lyon, Pensacola’s most distinguished delivery driver and founder of Earl’s Killer Squirrel, remarked that he “saw a ton of great bands that Gus Brandt booked [at Yanks], including Screaming Trees, ALL, Big Drill Car, to name a few.”
The McGuigan’s Speakeasy Facebook page posted news that Yank recently passed away. A lot of Pensacola’s punk community have him to thank for punk’s foundation in Pensacola—not only for owning a bar willing to host punk shows, but for fathering the founders of McGuigan’s Speakeasy.
3901 North Palafox (early to mid-‘80s)
There was probably no punker venue in Pensacola history than The Mix. While the Speakeasy was a bar, meaning they sold alcohol above the counter, The Mix was an all-ages space.
Nearly every local punk band played here, with Maggot Sandwich being the main draw. Maggot Sandwich played a crucial role in the growth of the scene not only as the premier local punk band, but maybe more importantly as the band who helped bring other touring bands to Pensacola.
The Mix put Pensacola on the growing map of touring spots for punk bands from across the U.S. and even the world. Italy’s Raw Power played The Mix along with the seminal New York hardcore band Agnostic Front, with local Redneck Meatwagon, NME Saints and Maggot Sandwich often supporting the touring bands.
John Rickmon is currently a local realtor but in the mid-‘80s he was the bass player for Redneck Meatwagon. He remembered somewhat fondly his era of punk.
“I hated the music right up until we played it for the first time in the summer of 1984,” Rickmon said. “And then I couldn’t play it enough. Michael Graham of Maggot Sandwich and KML Music sort of took us under his wing and booked us almost every week at The Mix.”
For many, all-ages spaces such as The Mix were their gateway into punk. As a mostly youth fueled subculture, all-ages spaces—permanent or temporary—played a critical role in the scene’s growth.
A 1985 Pensacola News Journal article described The Mix as being “darker inside the bar than it outside” with black walls and Christmas decorations dangling “near the stage which is a low, cramped platform at one end of the barracks-like structure.”
After The Mix closed, The Mix II opened on Pensacola’s Westside. Lyon described the Mix II as having “no stage, but a lot of great bands…the Adolescents, Youth of Today, the Vandals, Dag Nasty and Operation Ivy.”
Like the first Mix, the second Mix is now physically no more. The expansion of Gulf Beach Highway claimed the building that housed the second—and last—incarnation of this historic club.
The Nite Owl Bottle Club
1412 West Fairfield Drive (late ‘80s-early ‘00s)
The Nite Owl was a seedy bottle club where nearly every major punk band from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s played. From the Offspring to Fugazi, more bands than could possibly be mentioned played this club—including some that became pretty big.
Long before Green Day was winning Grammys or doing rock operas on Broadway, they were playing in Pensacola’s DIY punk scene.
“I went to a lot of Green Day concerts before they exploded, and I saw how easy it was to play punk rock with power chords,” remembered Lyon. Anyone who listens to Earl’s Killer Squirrel can see the influence of these early Green Day shows on his band.
Green Day’s first show in Pensacola was in 1989 at The Nite Owl. According to legend and their roadie Aaron Cometbus, less than a dozen people saw Green Day’s first show. The crowd was so small Cometbus had to push people into the band to get “the crowd” to move away from the wall and get closer to the band. Several visits later, especially after the explosion of their 1994 album “Dookie,” the band had no problem getting the audience to come closer.
Before the 1994 Green Day explosion, however, Lyon said one of the largest all-ages show of the ‘80s was the 1989 Nite Owl show featuring Bad Brains, with Maggot Sandwich opening (of course).
“Maggot Sandwich laid down their blitzcore rock ’n’ roll,” Lyon said. In typical fashion, “mostly everyone stayed outside until the main course [Bad Brains] came to play.”
When Bad Brains finally took the stage, “the place went nuts.” People came all the way from Miami. “I believe there was about 700 people there,” Lyon said. If only gravel and a parking lot could talk, imagine the stories.
Many a punk has claimed to have grown up in The Nite Owl’s parking lot. Unfortunately for today’s punk, he or she will have to grow up somewhere else since the former Nite Owl is nothing more than parking lot. The venue itself closed around the time Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola, and the storm destroyed the building. Beautiful or bitter, memories are harder to destroy.
“I miss the Nite Owl,” Lyon said. “But not the owners so much.”
If any of these spots is worthy of a historic marker, The Nite Owl is certainly one.
511 South Palafox (late ‘80s)
No offense to the late Trader Jon, but it’s safe to say that if John McCain thinks of your bar fondly, it’s probably not a punk club. Nonetheless, Trader Jon’s did serve other purposes besides getting sailors drunk, and one of those purposes was to occasionally host the punks.
According to Kent Stanton, who fronted Pensacola’s The Unemployed, a local promoter named John Fivgas began “booking shows in the big room on the other side of Traders. From what I gather,” Stanton said, “it was mostly Trader [Jon] letting him use the space for independent stuff.”
There aren’t a lot of fliers from those shows, at least that I’ve been able to uncover, but the ones that exist present another side to this bar’s history. Maybe the most significant aspect of this location, at least for this story, is that it’s the only DIY punk show space in Pensacola that already has its own historic marker—so far!
“I don’t think there were a lot of shows,” Stanton said, “but [the shows Trader had] were pretty cool.”
212 East Garden Street (early ‘90s)
Knuckleheads was a somewhat short-lived space where Gus Brandt booked some of the greatest shows of this important era in punk. This space was legendary, especially for those in the early ‘90s punk scene—a time in which Thurston Moore claims “punk broke.” For purists, this phrase could have a few meanings, but few could argue this moment wasn’t important to punk.
While Brandt booked shows at several spaces, Washington state’s Seaweed and Washington, DC’s Jawbox both played at Knuckleheads—among many others. Bad Religion was supposed to play there in 1992, but canceled because Greg Graffin fell ill at the last minute.
Kent Stanton remembered his band The Unemployed opening for the fear-inducing, fake-blood spilling metal band Gwar.
“It was one of the biggest shows around,” Stanton said. “Only I didn’t realize at the time we were filling in for The Melvins, [which explained] the 100 plus folks who were pissed off The Unemployed were playing.
“Gwar were just a bunch of nice mellow stoned hippies backstage, but when they performed I was actually scared.”
11 East Gregory Street (Mid ‘90s)
Chris Wilkes and Colten Wright started a small venue that mostly held hardcore shows next to a small record store named Cramm Your Records. In that location, numerous bands performed in its short lifespan. Like most DIY venues, the intense energy of the shows didn’t keep the space afloat forever.
Wilkes continued to book shows at nearly every venue available for the same two reasons he and Wright helped start Section 8: “One, a desire to be closer and more involved with music in general. Two, to bring bands here that we personally wanted to see.”
Today, Wilkes is a regular fixture on the corner of Palafox and Garden Street where he works with a team of people who run Vinyl Music Hall. “We would have killed to have had a venue like Vinyl in all those years of venue hopping,” Wilkes said. “To have such a long lasting and consistent location with good size and great production. Man, we could have been doing so much more all those years.”
Vinyl Music Hall, which is celebrating its fifth year, has become “not only a major component in local entertainment,” according to Wilkes, “but it’s actually changed the fabric of culture in this town.”
Much of this energy connected with Vinyl, which is a big part of the downtown revitalization, sprouted from this early desire to see punk bands play in Pensacola and originally took root at Section 8.
9 East Gregory Street (early ‘00s)
Subterranean Books, a beautiful bookstore that stood in the same place as Cramm Your Records next to the old Section 8 spot, did punk shows in an odd period after Sluggo’s was pushed out of Palafox and the Handlebar burned to the ground. In fact, one of its first shows was a May Day benefit show to help the Handlebar rebuild. Indeed, Subterranean Books hosted the punks fairly regularly for a few years. Between the rows of books, lined people staring intently at national and local bands and various solo acts playing in the DIY punk scene. David Dondero and Jim White played together on one show when they both lived in Pensacola. Anarchist hardcore band Catharsis and San Francisco’s Subtonix and numerous other bands of the early 2000s played the bookstore, including a number of local bands.
In the courtyard behind the bookstore, which now houses Revolver Records, Pensacola’s This Bike is a Pipe Bomb played several shows as they rose considerably in popularity. Mobile legends XBXRX set their equipment up near the Sci-Fi and Western section and stood atop amps to play as they too rose in popularity to later join Washington’s Kill Rock Stars record label.
While he didn’t play a show at Subterranean Books, it’s worth noting that punk icon Thurston Moore, of New York’s Sonic Youth, frequented Subterranean Books when visiting Pensacola for his Grandmother’s birthday parties. His grandmother lived in nearby Alabama, but he’d often take a day trip to Pensacola to visit the punks and find barbecue.
Van Gogh’s Coffee Haus
610 East Wright Street (early ‘00s-mid ‘00s)
Another unlikely venue which began holding shows during the “in-between years” was Van Gogh’s Coffee Haus. Managed by the surly ex-punk chain smoking barista Paula Mayberry, Van Gogh’s started doing shows partially as a favor. Within months, the punks took over.
Once a spot where yuppies went to meet and greet after a night of clubbing, Van Gogh’s soon became something different—a home for the punks. For better or worse, punk shows have a tendency to change a space, and Van Gogh’s was no exception.
Probably the most significant non-local band to play Van Gogh’s was the Gainesville folk-punk band Against Me! These Gainesville punks made friends with Pensacola’s This Bike is a Pipe Bomb and played numerous small shows here.
Besides Against Me! playing the infamous generator shows—shows powered by gas-powered generators to play punk shows on “Hobo Beach” by the Graffiti Bridge—the band played a short-lived Sluggo’s incarnation on Garden Street.
Now Against Me! is featured in Rolling Stone magazine and historic themselves for featuring the first transgender lead singer of a major rock band. Since their fame, they now play at the much larger Vinyl Music Hall. In their early years, though, Hobo Beach and Van Gogh’s Coffee Haus were their destinations.
As the café’s shows grew, sometimes cramping as many as 300 sweaty hardcore kids in a spot that could barely hold 30 coffee drinkers, Van Gogh’s transformed so radically that the old owners looked to sell the shop. Since no one would buy it, they eventually sold it to the workers and one of their close friends, Jen Knight-Shoemaker. Van Gogh’s then became End of the Line Café in 2002.
End of the Line Café
610 East Wright Street (‘00s-present day)
After the switch in ownership from Van Gogh’s to End of the Line, punk shows continued unabated for years with many major acts coming through on a regular basis. In the early 2000s, End of the Line was listed in an underground directory for freight-train hoppers passing through Pensacola as a friendly place to stop. Traveling kids—mostly punks—would jump off the trains, drop off their packs, tie up the dogs and hang out all day. As the punks found the café, the shows continued.
For Jen Knight-Shoemaker, the longtime-owner of the incredibly popular vegan restaurant, her most memorable EOTL shows were not the screaming emo band that attracted hundreds, but two acoustic (punk) shows in particular.
“One of the memorable for me was the Calvin Johnson show,” Knight-Shoemaker said. The former lead singer of the ‘80s legends Beat Happening played a solo show with David Dondero that lasted for at least two hours. “It was intimate,” Knight-Shoemaker said. “Almost like ‘an evening with Calvin Johnson.’
“It just seemed like we had the perfect space for that show. The sound was great, which was rare, and we got to see an amazing performance in this tiny room with a bunch of sweet people,” Shoemaker said. “It felt really good.”
The other memorable show was when Def Leppard dropped by the café for tea after playing the Civic Center. What made this event punk was that the British rock band came to play the open mic, hosted by longtime punk legend Kent Stanton.
After playing a set to thousands at the Civic Center, they didn’t want to play their own songs. Instead, Def Leppard played Stanton’s songs with him into the late hours.
“The always amazing Kent Stanton and Def Leppard acoustic jam at the cafe,” Knight-Shoemaker said, “will go down as a favorite of mine.”
The return of Sluggo’s and the reconstruction of the Handlebar took pressure off End of the Line Café as one of the sole punk venues in Pensacola. Momentum further shifted as the Café focused more on the
restaurant aspect of the café, which after all is why it originally opened. End of the Line Café remains a popular Pensacola dinning destination.
Victor Hugo’s/Sluggo’s 130 South Palafox
(late ‘80s—present day)
Speaking of punk venues with an all-vegan menu, now we have Sluggo’s. Whether it’s for the vegan food, which this destination is now famous for, or the shows of old, Sluggo’s and its founders—especially Terry Johnson— and crew are one of the main reasons Pensacola still has a punk scene.
Prior to Sluggo’s, the club opened under the name Victor Hugo’s. Besides the Flaming Lips playing at Victor Hugo’s, future local celebrities Troy Moon and Eric Jones played with their band Fudgepop at its grand opening nearly 30 years ago. Not long after opening downtown, they changed their name to Sluggo’s.
When locals speak of Sluggo’s, the phrase “when it was located (fill in the blank)” often follows. Famous for bouncing around to several locations (including the spot where the Handlebar currently resides), Sluggo’s settled for a long time on the corner of Intendencia and Palafox where its name on the national punk circuit solidified.
Run by Nick Flynn and Terry Johnson, Sluggo’s grew at its Palafox location and became a mainstay in the punk scene—both as an all-ages space and a bar for the jaded former straight edge scene. Flynn left Sluggo’s towards the end of the ‘90s after an infamous Impotent Sea Snakes show landed both managers in jail for the band’s obscene stage antics. Flynn (and Gus Brandt from the Knuckleheads part of our tour) went on to work closely with Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. Johnson co-founded This Bike is a Pipe Bomb with former professional skater and current folk artist Scott Stanton (a.k.a. Panhandle Slim) and Rymodee (another co-founder of End of the Line).
This Bike is a Pipe Bomb later broke up, reformed, and took over the folk punk scene that helped create a space for bands such as Against Me! to become the stars they are today. More importantly for our long tour, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb placed Pensacola on a national punk map in a way other local bands were never able to accomplish. Like migrant workers sending money home to the community, the band toured constantly and helped place Pensacola, and our two vegan punk establishments End of the Line and Sluggo’s, in a new national light. Often neglected at home, but loved across the global punk planet, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb sent the world back to Pensacola and nurtured a DIY scene which still rides strong today at Sluggo’s.
Instead of going through the millions of bands that played at Sluggo’s, I asked longtime-zine writer and punk DJ Michelle Shute what was her most memorable show at Sluggo’s. “It was definitely The Jesus Lizard,” Shute said.
“Musically and visually one of the best shows I’d ever seen. David Yow [Jesus Lizard’s singer] was at his best and as usual was messing with people in the audience, including me. He jumped off the stage at one point and grabbed me in a bear hug while continuing to sing. He finally let go and I turned around and looked at him and we both just laughed. Lots of adrenaline and intensity at that show.”
Multiply that experience to the hundredth power, and put a vegan Reuben sandwich on the side with your favorite This Bike is a Pipe Bomb song playing the background, and you have the best of Sluggo’s.
319 North Tarragona Street (mid-‘80s-present day)
The last stop on our tour is The Handlebar. As for Pensacola punk history, there’s no way to minimize the role this bar played—and still plays—in the growth of the Pensacola scene.
The Lamar family bar is a mainstay in the Pensacola punk scene. Surviving its near-death experience in 2000 with a fire that burned this beloved space to the ground, The Handlebar you see today is symbolic of Pensacola’s punk past and present.
Nearly every incredible act in local punk history, as well as most national bands of merit, played within these walls. Instead of reliving decades of amazing shows, which would be easy to do, let’s just focus on one of the most important moments in Pensacola punk history: the day Black Flag came to Pensacola.
To rephrase, William Faulkner’s famous line about the Battle of Gettysburg, translated into Pensacola punk history:
“For every punk kid 14 years old or older, whenever that punk kid wants to think about it, there is an instant available in our minds when it’s still January 22, 1986, and we’re outside the Handlebar waiting for Black Flag to play.” [my “translation”]
By all accounts, this was an amazing night to be alive in Pensacola and be a part of the scene.
In his book/tour diary “Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag,” Henry Rollins recounted the night:
“Some kid called me outside and asked if I would do something for this fanzine. I said OK. I went outside and there were all these people out there. They asked me questions. Most of it was OK. The kids were sincere and that was cool…[Then] from out of nowhere, this guy comes up, pushes his way through the crowd and in a loud voice starts drilling me with questions. He just wanted to fuck with me. ‘Are you bisexual?…What drugs do you do?…Do you like to play or are you just in this for the money?’ I amaze myself sometimes. On any other day I would’ve dropped him right there on the pavement, but I didn’t. I just smiled and wished him luck.”
Welcome to Pensacola, Mr. Rollins.
Our Poet Laureate Jones recalled that night at the Handlebar as nothing less than historic. “I remember it being the loudest show I’d ever been to and that it was just this total raw energy—the band was just smokin’. Rollins was this intensely physical presence—an animal, wailing, spitting and sweating. The packed crowd seemed inseparable from the band, in that it moved and swayed in the deafening heat and angst of the songs.
“And there was something incredibly liberating about it, too,” Jones said. “This was not Seville, the Fiesta of Five Flags or the Blue Angels—this was Black Fucking Flag, and I think everyone knew this was historic, and that this was a Pensacola history that was ours, finally.”
And so it goes.
Nearly 40 years of Pensacola punk history, all wrapped up in one incomplete, historical article. As stated at the beginning, this is not the whole story. I left out numerous all ages venues (DMZ, for one), halls and bars (UNICO, Lion’s Club, American Legion, Cinema Tavern), Anarchist info shops (Intransit and the Core House), pseudo-punk places (Mystic Garage and Daily Grind), countless punk houses (The Rat House, 309, 311, the Badlands, Greensboro’s Dominican Compound), punk protests (from the KKK protests to the Dead Kennedys protest at Capt’n Fun), and the other moments and places where punk resided, but for now we’ll have to leave the story here.
So break out your copy of Maggot Sandwich’s “Get Off the Stage,” put on ‘My Florida,’ and check out the history.