Second Set: Bill Boll and the Punk Disco Raid
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2012 - The Bernard Pub, during its heyday in the 1980s, was passed by thousands of cars a day, though many of those drivers and passengers likely never noticed the quirky structure at the corner of Lafayette and Thurman, just down a steep embankment from a busy interstate. Even from that distance, it was quite a sight, with a wooden fence surrounding a concrete patio, nominally used as a smoking-and-kibitzing area before shows and during breaks.
The structure resembled a corral, with trees both inside and outside the fencing. Sometimes, touring groups would rotate members to keep someone stationed outside, because the threat of break-ins moved well beyond urban legend status and into the realm of regular occurrence. Band vans, in particular, were sitting targets on nights that a whole bunch of them would be lined up outside, with groups from around the country sharing three-, four- and five-band bills, brought to the club by The Bernard's legendary booking agent, John Green.
While the corral might've been an unusual touch, the club itself reflected a lot of the hallmarks of alternative venues of the moment. Bands brought in their own PAs, piecing their own sound boards, mains and monitors into working, one-off sound systems.
The two-deck stage provided a slightly funky touch, too: drummers generally sitting on a riser behind the guitarists and vocalists. The interior was simple, with gig flyers filling the empty spaces. And the bar, itself, was far from a full-call experience; on some nights, you'd see Green, or whoever was bartending that night, walk into the club with bags of soda and six-packs from a local market.
The accommodations may have been far from perfect. In retrospect, though, the memories are so rich with period references that you can't help but look back with a sigh and a "wish-you-could-go-back" series of daydreams.
If you went to The Bernard Pub more than handful of times, you'll definitely have a vivid memory of the place that takes you right back to the '80s or '90s. For me, I remember, as distinctly as if it happened yesterday, a fire on the hill across the street. Neighbor kids ran from blocks around to watch. And though fire engines finally got there, they only came after the summer grasses had burned into an impressive conflagration, the strip between Lafayette and 44 taking on that exact color of orange that can only comes from a real, live, big burn.
Though I wasn't a punk rock kid, the scarcity of venues for underagers meant that you'd go wherever a show might be happening; and, true enough, The Bernard booked some shows that didn't necessarily ring true to punk. The most important element was that the doors were open a few times a week. There was something happening. And it was probably interesting. You could be 18 years old, with $7 in your pocket at the start of the night, and those numbers would match up for fun.
Bill Boll's been a songwriter, documentary-and-music video producer and card-carrying member of the St. Louis arts community for a couple decades. He was one of the kids who might be at the Bernard on a random night, taking in whatever show was being offered, purely on the off-chance that the bands that evening would transform the rough space into the best concert hall in town. He was there on April 19, 1984, a night that would stick with him for decades.
"The mid-'80s were a weird time for punk in St. Louis," Boll remembers. "Just a few years earlier, the local punk scene was incredibly small and completely out of the mainstream. A spiky haircut and a trenchcoat was considered so radical, you'd draw stares everywhere you'd go. By 1984, there were more and more kids at SLU who dressed like they listened to the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys. But there were very few venues that played punk shows regularly, and they were all notorious places.
"The Bernard was in a really bad neighborhood near SLU," he continues. "Cars were always getting broken into, getting their windows smashed and their trunks pried open. People still went there because no one else was playing punk shows. Nobody had ever heard of the Offenders, but White Suburban Youth were opening that night, and the show was at the start of Easter break, so it drew a big crowd. I went with a few friends from SLU, including one girl who was going into the convent that fall! We all got busted even though a lot of us weren't drinking. I hadn't started drinking yet. Years later, John Green (the manager) told me that the city just wanted to shut him down because of noise complaints from the neighbors."
Let's pause the story for a moment. The show didn't just get shut down; kids got hauled to jail, based on their haircuts and trousers. The bust made news across St. Louis, as St. Louis' finest took away three dozen concert-goers, based on little more than a hunch that drinking was taking place at the all-ages venue. Thinking back on the rules of the day, it's not impossible to imagine that some were drinking, but there's more of a chance that the night was simply an excuse to send a message: Punk rock was taking hold and some locals didn't like it.
Coverage of the piece in both the Globe-Democrat and Post-Dispatch of April 21, 1984, reflects a complete, and, in retrospect, hilarious misunderstanding of what was happening in the club that night.
Wrote E.S. Evans of the P-D: "The police officers who raided The Bernard Pub, 4063 Lafayette Avenue, on Thursday night found more than 100 youths - many of them believe to be under the drinking age of 21 - vividly dressed and made up for 'punk rock night.' Detective Fred Husman of the vice squad said many of the dancers had been running into each other and falling down. 'They called the dance The Slam Dunk,' he said."
Slam dancing. Slam dunks. All the same. Oh, my.
A good while after the incident, Boll did what writers do: He composed a song around the night, using the language of the news stories, themselves. The track's called "36 Minors," reflecting the SLMPD's paddy wagon haul that Thursday, April 19, 1984. He's let that song live in different skins over the years, working it up, most recently, for a new record, "Neverland."
"I wasn't going to put '36 Minors' on my new CD because it's so old, but it's never officially been released before," Boll says. "It only appeared on a limited-edition CD I made as a Christmas present for friends eight years ago. It doesn't even fit with the themes of the new album. But I do think it's one of my best songs, and when I play out, I get a lot of requests for it. I do it live as a slow ballad; it works. So it's on the new CD."
For those of us who're lucky enough to have picked up that gift nearly a decade ago, the track's got a sound that's pretty immediately recognizable. Boll explains the technical aspects of the track: "In the late '90s, I moved back to St. Louis and built a digital recording studio in my basement. For the first time, I had access to an unlimited number of tracks and went way overboard in over-thinking and over-producing everything I was recording - probably overcompensating for my earlier poor production techniques.
"Anyway, I'd been thinking about doing a song about the Bernard Bust for a long time, and one of the first songs I wrote and recorded there was '36 Minors.' I used a very unusual, non-repeating chord pattern I'd written years before for the verse, and tacked on a very standard chorus for contrast. Except for the one (doubled) guitar part, the whole song is a MIDI sequence; and I wanted it to be able to sound like late '80s techno for the verses and '70s disco for the chorus - with just a few subtle alterations.
"That took a long time to accomplish. The finished mix with the guitar sounds a lot like the band Garbage, but this was completely unintentional, or maybe subconscious.
"At the time, I was experimenting with the 'naive' or 'modern primitive'-style lyrics, and that style seemed to work well to tell the story in a very straightforward way, using few words but still leaving room for those all-important details. I made no attempt to rhyme the lyrics because of the style I was working in. Also, I've found that if you really want people to pay attention to the words, you should make them not rhyme. It happens only a couple of times and that's complete coincidence. I actually love those lyrics, I think that lyrically, it's one of my favorites."
He concludes, "This is the only song that anyone's ever asked me about my production techniques, because of the weird guitar sound. I strum once for each chord change, every two measures, and the decay is long and smooth, but with exaggerated distortion and harmonics. To get that effect, I recorded two identical guitar tracks with a small amount of tube overdrive, panned about 25 percent and 75 percent. Then, I played back each guitar track through an old solid state amp with distortion at full volume and recorded that. I played those tracks out through the amp again and recorded that. I did this six times for each of the two tracks, and the subsequent tracks are mixed in at lower volume and panned increasingly further from the center. The final tracks are unrecognizable as music, it's all feedback and rumble. But the overall effect gives the mix a subtle sense of chaos."
Appropriate, for a song borne of chaos.
At some point, when a local college offers a 1000-level class in St. Louis Rock History, the syllabus will be written with a Punk Rock week taking place about halfway through the semester. And when that course is taught, the peculiar weirdnesses of The Bernard Pub will get passed along to a new generation.
The stories! How it moved from the edge of Shaw/McRee Town to the then-kicking Laclede's Landing, before finally moving to the great club zone in the sky. How the old building, after the venue had left it, had a dead woman found on the second floor. And how the final indignity came to pass, dramatically, as a small-engine plane, manned by student pilots from Parks College, crashed their little aircraft into the roof, the tail literally sticking out of the building, visible as could be from ol' I-44. And, how today, with the entire neighborhood around it completely razed and rebuilt anew, the corner of Lafayette and Thurman remains an empty corner lot. Even now, that property stands apart from everything else around it.
The Bernard Pub left a history, alright.
With Bill Boll providing a fitting theme song.