Lawrence once had a legendary punk club where bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Fugazi played. But it was no CBGB or Whiskey a Go Go. It was east of downtown, tucked between a pumpkin patch and seemingly endless fields of crops, in a windowless, low-slung concrete building that sat back a bit from the road.
It was The Outhouse.
First-time filmmaker Brad Norman appears to have captured its heyday in “The Outhouse The Film 1985-1997.” Norman, who grew up in Parkville and now lives in Overland Park, went to concerts at The Outhouse regularly as a young teenager and later booked bands there.
“It’s been thirty years, but when you ask people about The Outhouse, they can remember it clearly,” he says.
In the 1980s, the Midwest punk scene (such as it was) was scattered and underground. There was nothing comparable to the established and thriving punk clubs and communities in New York, Los Angeles or Washington DC. Shows were held in houses, abandoned buildings or VFW halls. Concerts were booked and managed by fans and their friends, who worked the doors and helped to clean up the aftermaths. Bands would crash with fans, sleeping on couches and floors before waking up early to head to the next city.
The Outhouse was unique, though, in the sheer isolation of its location.
“It seemed like you drove forever. I think every band thought they were gonna get robbed,” says Norman. “They showed up early and thought, ‘Who even knows about this place?’ In the summer, it was literally surrounded on three sides by corn.”
A biker had bought the building to work on motorcycles and cars, but began renting it out for fraternity parties and, eventually, concerts.
“Bands needed someplace to play between Denver and Chicago,” Norman notes.
Soon, The Outhouse became their go-to and exemplified the grittiness of a punk rock lifestyle.
“Nobody enjoyed the esthetic of the Outhouse except the punks and skinheads,” Norman admits. “There were no weddings or receptions there. (In the winter) the heat was nearly nonexistent, and in the summer there was no air conditioning. Fights were common. Even though the local skinheads were SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) they had one major thing in common with the racist skinheads: They enjoyed their violence.”
Punks might have had a reputation for being dangerous, but life in the 1980s was often dangerous for them, particularly in rural areas.
“L.A. and N.Y. may have been used to seeing punks walking around,” Norman says. “Kansas was not. When I was 16 and died my hair blue with Kool-Aid, it made complete strangers furious. It was as if I was attacking the family structure as a whole. I would be challenged to fight … and these were by men my father’s age.”
Like many rebellious teens, Norman did not mind the antagonism.
“I loved it. All I had to do is color my hair and people were losing it. For a teenager into punk music, it was icing on the cake. I changed my hair color weekly.”
While punk fans might have felt alienated from society during the week, on weekends they traveled from quite far to meet at the Outhouse and build an itinerant family among themselves.
“If you were pretty well-balanced, the Outhouse was not what you needed,” Norman says. “But it saved me.”
The Outhouse changed hands several times before it was renovated into a BYOB strip club in the late 1990s.
“They kept the name The Outhouse,” Norman notes. “A disgusting name for a disgusting place.”
A successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011-2012 allowed Norman to cross the country to conduct interviews with musicians and collect the vintage video and photos featured in the film. Musicians and concert attendees contacted Norman to donate documentation, reviving the punk DIY community spirit.
Norman did not provide a preview screening for KCUR, but based on the trailer and old show fliers posted on his website, the film promises to be an informative and entertaining jaunt through punk nostalgia, featuring interviews with Ice T, Henry Rollins, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Gwar frontman Dave Brockie, among others.
Besides the audience of punk music fans and other Outhouse survivors, Norman, who has a BFA in Film and Theater Design from the University of Kansas, hopes it will encourage aspiring filmmakers.
“I would like film students to see it and realize: You too can make a film, all by yourself. Not to say people didn't help with photos and videos, but nobody else edited the film, the photos, the video, the fliers. It is a ton of work, but you can do it.”
“The Outhouse The Film 1985-1997,” premiers at 7:30 p.m., October 14 at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66044. Afterparty concert with Ultraman and Toxic Reasons, 10 p.m. at the Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.