by Pat Jarrett
When the pandemic shut down the opportunity to experience live music, I was hit hard. I started going to shows when I was fifteen. (Once, my mom dropped me off to see three punk bands play for about forty people in a park building next to the playground I frequented with my childhood friends.) I formed my first band in middle school and stuck with it throughout my formal education and early professional life. I still make time every week to create music with my friends. It’s a way for me to connect with people: Playing shows, going to shows, experiencing live music—specifically punk and heavy metal—with my peers in real time is a connection I’ve nurtured since my adolescence, and I didn’t know life without it.
In 2021, the the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (VMOCA) asked me to make a body of work based around the theme of “shelter.” I took the request as an opportunity to reunite with the punk scene and immediately dove into making new work documenting house venues. These photographs are now on view through February 5 in the exhibition “More Than Shelter.”
Punk music has always had a do-it-yourself (or DIY) ethos. Very few punk bands make a living playing this music. Even before the recording industry was hollowed out by the rise of streaming services, punk was not commercially viable. Venues for aggressive music exist in cities with big enough scenes to support them, but in most of America these established venues are few and far between. This is where the DIY ethos shines, and how houses become DIY venues.
Alan “Rocky” McIntire grew up near Winchester, playing music in his church before forming several bands, including the horror-punk band Trapp Hill Collision. When I interviewed him, he said there is a metal scene in Winchester with bars that cater to a metal audience, but the same can’t be said for the punk scene.
“Punk is a youth driven movement,” McIntire said. That’s why he decided to make a space for the punks to come and listen to this music: his home in Stephens City, which he calls Cactus Crypt. “I want this place to be a creative space for the bands that don’t really have room in the bigger scene around here.”
Cactus Crypt is a defunct garage and print shop that McIntire moved into after his grandfather, the original inhabitant and owner, passed away. He turned the upstairs into a venue and advertises shows on social media, but as is the custom, attendees are prompted to “ask a punk for the address” to protect the scene and the crowd.
Harrisonburg punk band Crab Action recently opened for Trapp Hill Collision (THC) at Cactus Crypt. It was THC’s record release show for their album “Watch the Skies,” also recorded at the Cactus Crypt. Crab Action front man Grant Penrod (a.k.a. Gnat King Cruel) has performed and attended house shows in Harrisonburg for decades and remembers when there used to be dozens of houses that hosted punk and metal bands. Most house venues have esoteric names: Spaghetti House, 401 House, Funk House, Corn Rocket. The scene thrived in Harrisonburg in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, in part because city venues could not host major touring bands.
(Penrod shared some wild stories about those days, like when the Punk House floor collapsed and had to be fixed with a car jack, or the time he built a halfpipe in someone’s backyard to use as a venue that was later nearly shut down by a property owner.)
One of the lasting pieces of lore of the Harrisonburg house show scene took place in 1998 when the Swedish band Refused played their last US show at the 401 House. The show drew a large crowd from surrounding states, but it was shut down by the police only a few songs into the set. The band made their way to Washington, D.C. and flew home, only to announce their breakup upon arrival. This show is infamous in the Harrisonburg scene; people talk about the cops pulling the plug on the PA system like I’ve heard folk music fans talk about the axe Pete Seeger may or may not have wielded during Bob Dylan’s amplified set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. (A comprehensive story about the show is featured on the local news site The Hburg Citizen.)
As city venues in Harrisonburg improve and as old housing tracts are absorbed into the portfolio of student housing developers or James Madison University itself, the number of house venues dwindles. Crayola House is one of the few still active. It has hosted shows since the early 90s, when it was called Corn Rocket, making it one of the longest-running house venues in the country.
Musicians and students still live upstairs at Crayola, acting as stewards of the venue, cleaning up after shows and running sound. Layers and layers of graffiti cover the walls, the original artists unknown to many who live there, and bespoke art installations featuring rat-sized punk venues (complete with small prints of rats) adorn the basement. A tribute to Harrisonburg punk icon Terry Turtle of the experimental band Buck Gooter, who passed in 2019, is spray painted on an exterior door. Crayola House is a veritable monument to what makes Harrisonburg unique while still providing a home for the DIY scene.
While attending a show at HELL, a house venue in the D.C. suburbs last summer, I overheard a conversation between two concert-goers. “This is like a house of cards,” one said to the other. “It could all come falling down at any time.” Danny (last name withheld to protect the venue), who books HELL, said he notifies neighbors about upcoming shows with a bouquet of flowers in an attempt—successful so far—to stave off noise complaints and unwanted attention from police. One mistake could stop any of these venues for good, which makes the experiences shared that much more temporal and rare. The men talking in the driveway then greeted a friend who had just arrive with big hugs and “I love you”s.
I hear expressions of love at HELL and other DIY venues more often than I do anywhere outside of a family reunion. Rory Galligan, who is a regular at house shows around the region with his Fredericksburg-based powerviolence band Lacking, credits these common professions of love at shows to the pandemic lockdown. People are grateful to be back inside house venues, finding shelter in their blending of aggression and tenderness. Lacking are regulars at Fredericksburg’s Crawlspace, typically donning black balaclavas and performing punishing songs to a crowd that fights back. Words scrawled on the ceiling tiles at Crawlspace read “I’m gonna f*** all this shit up,” even though the homeowner (who asked to remain anonymous because of his career) takes care to keep a tidy home upstairs and his cat out of trouble during shows.
I’m planning to see more shows soon, maybe to make some photos or maybe to clap some friends on the back while hugging them. Regardless: I’ll still have to ask a punk for the address.