The mainstream-media coverage of the so-called melee that took place Saturday, May 18, at a punk show staged at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall was, in a word, typical. The television news accounts that I saw immediately following the incident--which involved the arrests of seventeen people and the participation of more than fifty police officers, many outfitted in riot gear that left them looking like extras in Red Dawn--attempted to hype the drama of the situation via shaky-cam shots, shock edits and the juxtaposition of interview snippets that made the cops seem harried but responsible and the young attendees appear inarticulate and wild. The first several articles in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were staid by comparison. But they failed to mention any of the acts scheduled to appear that night at the hall at 4747 W. Colfax, or to allow musicians or promoters to counter the statements made by either VFW spokesman Ron Schneider, who says that the nature of the concert came as a complete surprise to him, or representatives of the police, who insist that they did absolutely nothing wrong.
But Jason Cotter, a booker for the Raven nightclub who co-promoted the May 18 spectacle with three others, focuses the blame for what happened squarely at the VFW. Furthermore, he says the police made a bad situation worse. "It was one of the stupidest acts of judgment I've ever seen," he says. "This could have been completely prevented." George Fraska, guitarist with one of the opening acts, Four, echoes this analysis: "The kids inside were just watching the show and having fun. None of this had to happen."
The bill's headliner was Propagandhi, a Canadian act whose popularity escalated when two of its songs were included on a punk sampler released on Fat Records, a label owned by Fat Mike of the act NOFX. The group is known for the political nature of its lyrics; as Cotter puts it, "they're probably the most nonviolent band around. They're anti-barriers, anti-war, anti-sexism, anti-racism."
"They're also really against U.S. politics," Fraska says. "They came to Colorado Springs about two and a half years ago, but they've hardly been back to the United States since, because they don't like the politics and the police here. Which makes it really ironic that the police had to do all of this at one of their shows."
The Propagandhi musicians don't simply talk the talk about their beliefs; they also try to walk the walk. They're so dedicated, in fact, that they dub many of their appearances benefits, with proceeds earmarked to fund the publication of books that foster their viewpoints. The Denver date (which, in addition to Four, featured Crestfallen, Useless and the Nobodies) was such a benefit and was so identified in the contract between the VFW and the promoters. The VFW's Schneider subsequently argued that the event had been misrepresented, a charge Cotter vehemently denies. "They knew exactly what we were going to do," he asserts. "They knew we were going to have music, and they were cool with that. We were totally up front with them."
Cotter states that the contract listed capacity of the hall at 500 people, adding, "We had a verbal agreement for 300 above that, but it was only verbal. It wouldn't stand up for shit." A few more than 300 tickets were sold in advance, and sales of tickets at the door were brisk. Cotter estimates that an hour and a half after the performance's 7 p.m. start time, approximately 420 people were in the upper level of the hall--the portion of the building rented by the promoters--with another 100 or so milling around outside, apparently waiting for the headliner to take the stage. In his opinion, there were no substantial problems prior to the decision to shut down the show. The contract called for the VFW to supply security, which consisted of two off-duty police officers and a handful of others; also present were several plainclothes security types provided by the promoters. To Cotter's knowledge, no one was ejected by any of these guards.
So why the decision to abort the evening's program? In published reports, VFW representatives say that fans without tickets began trying to force their way into the hall after it was decreed that the building was at capacity--and that listeners inside began throwing objects at police following an announcement that no one else could gain access to the concert. As for the reason the VFW decided that the joint was full well before the agreed-upon number of folks had gained admittance, Cotter says, "It was really hot in there because their air conditioning was broken upstairs, and it made them really nervous. And we weren't informed about that until we got there. I mean, we'd rented a building with air conditioning. So that was the VFW's fault."
"Besides," Fraska says, "the kids didn't care how hot it was. They wanted to see the show. And there was plenty of room up there. When they shut it down, it was only about half full."
(According to Cotter, only the air conditioning in the concert zone was out; it continued to function in a downstairs area, where a wedding reception was taking place at the same time as the concert. "Fortunately," he says, "those people got out of there before the main stuff went down.")
Whatever the case, VFW officials pulled the plug on the music before Propagandhi had taken the stage. "We were in the middle of our set," Fraska recounts, "and a cop came up there. I couldn't really hear everything he said that well, because I was tuning my guitar, but the gist of it was, 'If you go back outside, you can't come back in, because it's too hot in here and there are people passing out.'" He doubts the verity of the latter statement: "I didn't see anyone passing out. I was jumping around on stage with those hot lights on me, and I wasn't passing out."
In response to the policeman's address, Fraska says, "Everybody started booing, but they didn't throw anything. I just told them, 'You guys should be nice,' and then we finished our set and went downstairs to get some fresh air. But we could tell that the police were starting to get mad. So we went back upstairs during Crestfallen's third song, at about the same time that the cops were trying to tell the sound man to shut it off.
"I guess he didn't hear them," he continues, "so the cops went on stage and said, 'Okay, that's it. Everyone out. Show's over.' And the next thing I knew, the police lined up and started pushing kids out. That made the kids mad--they said, 'We're not leaving,' and stuck their fists up in the air. That's when the police started hitting them in the stomachs with their nightsticks, and the kids started throwing ashtrays and stuff."
At the beginning of this clash, the listeners inside the building didn't realize that a similar scrap was taking place outside. Cotter calls the decision to clear the structure foolish and unnecessary. "There wasn't a threat of the people upstairs getting out of control," he says, "because people outside couldn't get in." He concedes that "the people outside were pretty mad, but they could have been dispersed, and we could have bought back all the tickets of people who couldn't get in. But they turned it into a confrontation. If they would have treated the people outside better, they would have acted nicer and we could have finished refunding the tickets and they would have left."
Instead, the massive number of police officers called to the scene split their forces into two fronts; half tried to shoo away the people outside, while the other half attempted to evacuate the hall. Cotter notes that he was one of the first to move from his seat to the sidewalk. "I identified myself to a cop and told him I was working there, and he gave me a pretty good shove and told me to get out. That was enough for me. I was gone before they really started whupping ass on the kids."
Fraska, however, was an eyewitness to the pandemonium. His description is graphic: "The police started dragging people out by the hair. There were, like, thirteen-year-olds and little kids, and all these cops were beating them until they were unconscious. Our drummer was thrown down the stairs, and my girlfriend was hit in the shoulder with a flashlight--she has this big bruise on her shoulder. Another friend of mine was hit in the head, and as he was trying to get away, the cops were hitting him in the back. The same thing was happening to other people, too, and some of them were asking to get the cops' badge numbers. But they wouldn't give them out--which is why I'm glad we've got some of their faces on video."
You read right: A portion of the action was caught on videotape. Cotter has viewed some of the footage. "One clip I saw was of a kid and a cop," he reveals. "The kid wasn't physically hurting the cop--he may have been mouthing off to him, I guess. But the cop slammed him in the side of the head with a billy club." Other members of the crowd were later sprayed with Mace--"which caused panic," Cotter says. "It was like somebody yelling 'Fire!' in a theater."
"The upstairs was just full of Mace," Fraska declares. "There was a kid passed out in the middle of it. I tried to go help him, but it was so thick in there that I couldn't breathe anymore and I had to run back to the window. My lungs still hurt now."
Over the course of the night, the VFW contends, the hall sustained nearly $10,000 in damage. Cotter says neither he nor his co-promoters have any intention of paying for it. After all, he believes that the fray shouldn't be laid on their doorstep, especially since the concert was hardly a financial windfall. "The show broke even," Cotter acknowledges, "but a lot of people got stuck with seeing a show that really wasn't what they wanted. And a lot of people couldn't get in who had tickets, or should have been able to purchase tickets at the door but weren't allowed to. It was supposed to be a benefit for Propagandhi, but it turned out to be a benefit for the VFW."
For his part, Fraska is more interested in holding the police accountable for their methods, which have come under close scrutiny of late as a result of disturbances on Federal Boulevard during the recent Cinco de Mayo celebration and a more recent ruckus at a Thomas Jefferson High School dance. "I've called the ACLU to tell them about it," he says. "I called all the news stations, too, to tell them that they missed a lot of details. They said they'd call me back, but they didn't. Which is about what you'd expect."
When Doug Kauffman of the nobody in particular presents promotions firm decided a while back to forego using Ticketmaster in favor of a relatively unknown ticketing service, Rocky Mountain Teleseat, he knew he was taking a risk. Luckily for him, it's worked out pretty well; his company continues to prosper despite Ticketmaster's near-monopoly in the ticketing world. But suddenly he's got a new problem. Teleseat's walk-up counters are located in King Soopers stores--and since employees at the grocery chain are on strike, concertgoers accustomed to picking up their tickets in person will have to cross a picket line in order to do so.
Thus far, Kauffman indicates that the strike hasn't hit his bottom line: "I checked it out, and I haven't noticed a significant decrease in sales." But, he says, "in the long run, it can't help"--especially in regard to several as-yet-unannounced alternative shows that will appeal to music fans apt to support labor rather than management. However, customers can get tickets at various independent businesses, including Wax Trax and Albums on the Hill, as well as through the Ogden Theatre box office (835-2525) or the main Teleseat number, 800-444-SEAT. As Kauffman puts it, "I just want to make people aware that tickets are available through other means, without crossing any picket lines. And if you get them through the Ogden, the service charges are lower."
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Known for their bizarre press releases, the duo called the R Band has topped itself with its "R Band 1996 Wish List." Highlights of the roster include: "Commercial radio dies and is resurrected as something decent after truth of listenership numbers (0) is discovered by curious broadcasting client"; "Fat-old-farts in the rock sand box get out and stay out"; and "R BAND gets a 'Best of Westword' award for heckling other bands." Hey, you're stepping on my turf now.
On Saturday, May 25, it's the event you've been anticipating for so long--the International Drag Poets Ball at the Elks' Lodge Ballroom, 3rd and Coffman, in Longmont (call 970-785-0912 for more information). Among the performers eager to express themselves in your presence are Wryeteous Pybayk Jammbory, Atomic Elroy Juventino R. Manzano and the ever-popular Miss Understood and the Falsies. It's the real thing, baby.
Also. On Thursday, May 23, Steven Ray Liedlich, who concentrates on creating "acoustic music that won't bore you to death," headlines at the Blue Note Cafe. On Friday, May 24, Geggy Tah explains what the hell its name means at the Fox Theatre; the Hate Fuck Trio, Humanure, Old Bull's Needle and Hell's Half Acre make a racket at the Ogden Theatre; and Jux County plays for absolutely nothing at Boulder's Round Midnight. On Saturday, May 25, Five52Fern grows on you at Cricket on the Hill; Fe puts the accent in the right place at Penny Lane; Spiteboy gets even at the Oriental Theater, with Mutant Sad Face and Oh No Yo-Yo; and Shari Weissman is only one of many performers at the Boulder Creek Festival (call 331-2483 to learn more). On Tuesday, Durt and Brethren Fast put the pedal to the metal at the Boulder Theater, and the latest incarnation of the Band hits the Fox. And on Wednesday, May 29, Mah Tovu celebrates the release of Only This, a CD the bandmembers say is filled with "Jewish rock and roll," at the Bluebird Theater. Mazel tov.--Michael Roberts
Backbeat's e-mail address is Michael_Roberts @westword.com