Brawling Down Punk Memory Lane

Today it may be a BYOB strip club,  but the small brick-and-mortar building near Lawrence, Kansas known as The Outhouse was once a DIY punk venue that hosted many of the most dangerous local and national bands during alternative music’s heyday. From 1985 to 1997, The Outhouse wasn’t just a place for Lawrence’s youth to see and hear the music they loved, it was place to get stoned, drop acid, have sex, brawl, and rumble. Its location (four miles outside of town, just outside the jurisdiction of the Lawrence Police Department) made it ideal for such activities and bands loved the Do-It-Yourself aesthetic of the venue.  So much that many of the most important bands to emerge throughout the late eighties and nineties graced its “stage”– bands like Scratch Acid, fIREHOSE, Agent Orange, Naked Ray Gun, and even Nirvana before they achieved fame.

The Outhouse was such a legendary space that I had heard its lore well before moving to Lawrence to attend The University of Kansas. Through anecdotes, I found out just how important this hole-in-the-wall dive was to a past generation’s counterculture. I had always loved the idea of such a raw and potent place existing in my backyard and took to compiling an oral history for a class project, with the intention of carrying it beyond. But due to lack of time and funds, I never got past a handful of revealing interviews and became one of the many who have tried and failed to compose a definitive record of The Outhouse.

Thankfully, Brad Norman picked up the baton and his documentary The Outhouse: The Film 1985-1997 is nearly complete. Just a few thousand dollars short of its Kickstarter goal, Norman and his crew have now released a trailer to get the film finished.

With all these trips down punk memory lane, I’d thought I’d share a relevant interview I did  last year with Phillip Heying who was present at the one of the first Outhouse shows. Give it a read—there are some interesting details about the house party that led to the Outhouse—and maybe help Brad Norman out by donating to his Kickstarter. Also check out the film’s website for its great photo gallery and collection of fliers.

“Country Club Rejects”

In the summer of 1985 (the time of one the first Outhouse shows) Philip Heying was a recent University of Kansas graduate with a degree in painting, saving up money to move to France. He characterizes this as a period of transition—“I was working three jobs and just had graduated, wondering what the hell I was going to do.” According to Heying it was a dead summer full of wage-jobs and bored cops.

On August 23, Heying went to a house-party called the “Country Club Rejects” on Kentucky Street where local band Near Death Experience was playing. ”My friend Doug Hitchcock was in the band, so I decided to go see what my friends were up to. I always carried my camera… the rock and roll scene was pretty nutty back then and made for some incredible photo opportunities. It just had this authenticity and this edge to it, and some really dynamite bands.” Heying describes the party as a typical Lawrence event, a pretty basic house party with a band. But around 10:30 PM a neighbor made a noise complaint, and shortly afterwards the cops arrived.

“It was toward the end of the summer and the cops had been sitting around, pretty much bored all summer. And so they didn’t handle it very well,” says Heying. “They came like it was ‘Oh My God these hellions are going to tear the town up!’… We were slightly rambunctious, but not really a rambunctious party, and [the police] came in like stormtroopers.” Heying says they must have recently undergone some extra training, because they arrived at the house in a raid mode. “They had these new German billyclubs, the ones that twirl, and they had them out.”  Heying was standing in the corner of the room where Near Death Experience was playing.

“All of a sudden there was a cop right in front of Patrick Loughery, the singer for Near Death Experience, shining a flashlight in his face, so I took a picture of that. Then a couple other cops came in and started swaggering around. It was interesting so I was taking pictures.” However, the flash bulb on Heying’s camera agitated the cops. “I had a flash on my camera and from the corner where I was standing, it was right next to the entrance to the kitchen and a couple of these officers came walking by me to the kitchen. I took a picture of them when they were fairly up close. Without saying anything they turned around and pulled out their night sticks and cornered me.”

Phalanxed by officers, Heying was backed further into the corner. The police confiscated his camera, tore off the flash, bent the film door, and exposed his film. “They stood back and real fucking arrogantly handed my camera in pieces. I was like, ‘uh, excuse me, this is not constitutional.‘ I was like, ‘what the hell happened?’ That was the point where they took it too far.”

After this display of police intimidation, people in the crowd started screaming and the situation pitched toward chaos. “It started to get a little ugly and so I went to kitchen to get a pencil and piece of paper so I could write down their badge numbers and I wanted to get my camera fixed. I came back and I was writing their badge numbers and their names down and they just arrested me on the spot.”

Heying says that nobody was doing anything particularly alarming to warrant such extreme measures by the police. “Standing around with plastic beer cups. That was as threatening as it was. That was a pretty tame party. It was only, like, 10:30 at night. It wasn’t even that late. Okay it was noisy and the music was what it was, but it wasn’t that bad. It was kinda one of those things, if this thing doesn’t get going soon, I’m gonna go home. Not that wild of a party.”

And yet, Heying says, the situation could have easily escalated if there were more people.  ”I think it’s a situation where the cops were bored, maybe they drank too much coffee before their shift or something, and got into a situation where they overreacted and the people in the crowd overreacted a little more. It bubbled up to a near riot. If there had been, instead of thirty-five people, three hundred people, it probably would have been a full on riot.”

Heying says, “Once I was arrested I was like, just keep it cool, it will be over. I was out in five or six hours. My friend Doug Hitchcock, knew the presiding judge and called her that night, and told her ‘it’s not what you think it is.’ And she let me out.” But the police officers’ actions that night had triggered an alarm for the country club rejects. However, Heying recognizes that the police made a mistake in overreacting, and seems to begrudge the officers little. He was not, as he says, a proponent of a “fuck the pigs” mentality like some other scenesters of that era.

But the incident still reverberated throughout the local alternative music community. Heying’s phone rang constantly with people telling him to fight the charges. Word of the incident only inflamed the anti-police mentality already present in the broader alternative rock community. “People were saying “oh I hate the cops, did you see what they did to Phillip?” In the aftermath, cop cars were damaged by thrown rocks and keys scraping their sides. People spat at officers, taunting them.

One the first shows at what became The Outhouse–then known as Past the Pavement Hall because it was four miles away from the paved city road on 15th street–was organized as a fundraising effort to help cover the legal fees for the individuals arrested at the “Country Club Rejects” party.

“I was working at the time with guys in Brompton’s Cocktail. And they were like, you know, we could play this benefit. Somebody had heard that Donny [Mellenbruch] had the place out there and they put me in touch with Donny, so I went to see him… Got together with the other guys that got arrested and we did division of labor, and put it together.” Mellenbruch owned the property primarily to work on motorcycles and throw parties until Heying rented the “cement toilet in a cornfield” and set to work organizing the benefit show.

“Later on in The Outhouse, they kinda cleaned it up. But that first night, it was just an empty cement husk. The stage was lit with one 250 Watt bulb and there were just a couple of outlets that we could run the amps on. It was just a concrete bunker. The jon didn’t have a lid. Talk about not girl friendly—somehow the girls dealt with it.  I think most of the people probably peed in the corner anyway. It was just the most barebones place. That afternoon I said, we gotta do something to clean this place up. So I went out to buy a white sheet and some blacklight paint and painted a big, very detailed, kinda photorealistic eyeball with blacklight paint. We hung up some blacklights over that—so the band was lit with just one 250 Watt white floodlight and back behind them was this big eyeball floating up there. When the acid kicked in, it looked pretty good. It looked pretty fucking good.”

Three local bands were on the bill that first night: Brompton’s Cocktail, Near Death Experience, and The Mircronotz. The Micronotz especially left an impact. Heying says “when they opened with their first riff that night, it was like God yawning.” A bootleg recording of The Micronotz set is the only documentation to have surfaced from the first night, but listening to it indicates just how pure rock and roll the show was. The band played with monstrous ferocity to a crowd of exuberant teenagers and twenty-somethings.  “The first one was amazing. It was like a micro-Woodstock moment. It was really something. All three of the bands were great and the Micronotz were really special. But also the atmosphere– the crowd was really, really something.”

Although Heying made the moved to France that year— where he continued to reside for 12 years— he still made visits back to Lawrence, and would always go to the Outhouse. “I saw Fishbone play there, I saw Agent Orange play there, and a couple other bands that would be notable.”  From its inauspicious beginnings, the Outhouse blossomed into a safe haven for alternative and punk music-lovers. Though the venue itself never really did escape its status as a “cement toilet out in a cornfield,” music-goers embraced it for its DIY atmosphere and attitude. Moreover, the Outhouse fulfilled a need for Lawrence’s youth, providing a space to avoid further incidences like what happened at the “Country Club Rejects” party.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As Heying and others have pointed out, there was one previous show at the spot that became The Outhouse. Piece has been updated to reflect this new information.