Sunday, September 11, 2005

Richie Birkenhead



I went to my very first hardcore show in October of 1987. Thanks to a steady flow of mix tapes from my friends, I was able to leap headfirst into the music, but I didn't actually get my first chance to experience hardcore music up close and personal until over a year later on that cool autumn evening at City Gardens.

A few things stick out in my head about the evening:

*My friends at school had been to a few shows before me, so prior to that weekend, the only things I knew about shows were the things I heard them talk about at the punk rock lunch table at my high school, C.B. West. They always talked about City Gardens like it was something out of the Wild West. I was about as "white bred suburban" as they came, so this worried me to the extent that, at the lunch table, I wondered aloud whether I should wear my jock to the show. Why I would ever say such a thing aloud, I couldn't tell you. But my friends thought it was funny enough that I still get ribbed about it to this day.

*When I got to the club and the bands started playing, I was surprised to see that the pit was just a dancefloor. I was under the impression that the pit was literally a "pit," where the combatants jumped down there, danced hard and did their thing while everyone else just kind of watched from above. Before I got to City Gardens that night, I was thinking "The Pit" was like something out of Thunderdome.

*I wore a black generic DRI shirt, jeans, red suspenders, and combat boots. My hair was shaved around my head, with a long weak-ass sort of flat top thing at the top. The day before, my Mom had taken me to get my hair cut, and when I told the dude to shave it all off, my Mom had a cow. So the compromise was the hairdo that ended up being my 10th grade class picture. I look like such a herb.

*That black generic DRI t-shirt got destroyed the first time I ever danced. I was kind of intimidated, so instead of skanking, I was running around in a circle on the outer rim of the pit like some amped up mongoloid child. In my travels around the pit, I stepped on the feet of the biggest skinhead I have ever seen. He was eight feet tall and six hundred pounds. His hands were as big as catcher's mitts. He tripped me as I ran by him and then picked me up off of the floor by the back of my neck. Once I was on my feet, he grabbed my shirt in both of his hands and shedded my DRI shirt off of my body like some deranged Hulkamaniac. He kindly handed my shirt back to me by shoving it into my face, then picked me up by the back of my jeans, gave me a wedgie, and threw me across the pit into another crowd of well-adjusted college graduates. I'm surprised I'm still alive.

*The bill was Timmy & The Dub Warriors, McRad, Underdog & Agnostic Front. Timmy & The Dub Warriors were a rasta band. The singer had a huge staff that we was swinging around at people. McRad were okay. Roger Miret kicked me in the face with his boot while diving into the crowd during Agnostic Front's set.

*Underdog was the band that really left an impression on me that evening. After that night, I wanted to sing for a band, and that's exactly what I spent the next 13 years of my life doing in one band or another.

The following interview was conducted with one of the larger influences in my hardcore life, Richie Birkenhead, at the 2005 Positive Numbers Fest. The interview is broken into two parts. Part two will be posted to Barebones Hardcore tomorrow.

Interview by Ronny Little. Photo by Kim Seidl

Is this a reunion, or are you doing the kind of thing that SOD did for so many years where the band isn't completely broken up, and comes out of the woodwork for a show every now and then?

Richie: I guess, even though I hate the word "reunion" truth be told, that's kind of what it is because we were basically defunct for a while. We got back together briefly in 1998 to do some shows, but that was without Dean. So this time it's more real. More genuine. And, to be honest, I was kind of ambivalent before the CB's show, and it (the show) was just amazing. I had the greatest, greatest time, and it felt like we had never stopped playing. The CB's show was phenomenal. It was so much better than anything in that 98 tour. It was exactly like an Underdog show from the 80's.

In that 1998 reunion, that was kind of hard on you, wasn't it? You guys got in a van accident. Didn't you guys have a hard time on that tour?

Richie: Wait, did we get in an accident?

I remember the show we (ROTP) played with you, you started the set off by saying "I'm kind of sore. We got in an accident. Can everybody just give me a little room..." and then the first song in Jon Hennessey, who was a big DC scene guy and a very nice guy, went running across the stage and--

Richie: what show was that?

In DC at a big club called Capital Ballroom (now called "Nation").

Richie: Ooooooh yeah. I was really sore. That's right. My leg was messed up. I remember now. I got nailed in the face with a boot really, really hard in the face. It's no big deal. It's happened many, many times. In fact, at the CB's show I was kicked really hard in the throat. I almost lost consciousness. Like, full boot in the Adam's apples. I couldn't breathe for a few seconds. AND, it was like 140 degrees in CB's. And yeah, a big ol' boot in the throat.

So are you guys going to keep playing shows?

Richie: I think what's going to happen now is we're going to play pretty consistently for a while now. We're going to do a European thing in November or December. A very short European tour, and we're going to keep booking shows, at least for now, on the east coast, north eastern US, and maybe a show or two in Canada. We've talked to people about booking some west coast shows, but nothing has been booked yet.

So are there plans for new songs, or are you just playing the old songs?

Richie: There are no recording plans right now. We're talking about that. Some guys in the band want to, and I'm not sure yet if I want to. As far as recording goes, it's just not where I aesthetically right now, or musically at all, especially right now where all that I play at home and all that I write is acoustic. But, Underdog is absolutely part of me and something that I created, so I love playing these songs. I just don't know if I can sit down and deliberately write Underdog songs again if their not...I don't do it if it's disingenuous. I want to do it if I'm feeling it and I want to write a hardcore song.

Would you mind shedding a little light on your involvement in Youth of Today? I've never heard any stories about your time in the band. Can you tell me a little bit about the Break Down The Walls tour?

Richie: Well, it was brief. We did a US tour together. We recorded Break Down The Walls together. That basically came out of the fact that I was very, very close friends with those guys. I was roommates with John Porcell, and very close friends with both John and Ray from before Youth of Today. They were just friends of mine. I had always played guitar, and really wanted to play guitar again in a hardcore band, or in any kind of band, and it just kind of fell into place. I was just talking to Porcell one day, and he was like "maybe we should have two guitars in the band and sound huge." But it was a very brief thing. We did one US tour, and then there were a couple of little stints, like a couple of weeks with 7 Seconds or a few shows on the west coast, so I think that's why there is so little talk of it. As far as any juicy anecdotes from that tour go, there's very little I remember except in Arizona, almost having a rumble with a bunch of skinheads because one of them beat up Ray or something like that.

Really?

Richie: Yeah. Ray was getting roughed up. He was like, dancing during some other band's set, and some local skinhead apparently punched him or did something, so Ray (laughs) come and got me and Ray basically said to him "Richie's gonna kick your ass!" So, we arranged to meet in the parking lot, and I was just going to like, fight some skinhead in the parking lot, and there was a whole crowd of kids ready to see a big brawl, and the guy never showed up.

When the hardcore message board discussions always turn to the "tough guys of hardcore" your name always makes that list. But the thing is, nobody ever really sheds lights on the details. And it's always so weird to me, because most of the guys on the list are usually crazy sketched out dudes, and you're nothing like that.

Richie: Well, I used to have a very short fuse. Honestly, fighting and violence is not something I want to glorify or romanticize, but I definitely was a bit of a hot head at one time, and maybe a bit of a brawler, but like I said, I think I was a weaker person then because I would lose control easily. In all honesty, I don't think I ever, uh, beat anybody up who didn't deserve it a little bit, but there were certainly a lot of situations I could have walked away from and didn't because of my pride and just stupid shit. But yeah, I'm sure the stories are exaggerated and I'm sure people claim that I got in many more fights than I actually did, but yeah I did at some hardcore shows, get into some fights.

I think hardcore in general is a lot less violent than it used to be. I think when kids today talk about the old days and the fights, I think they talk about it more in terms of like, watching a fight at a hockey game where everyone has their favorite enforcer.

Richie: Well, the hardcore that got me into things when I first started seeing hardcore bands play in the very early 80's, it was a very different thing. It actually was sort of a dangerous, small underground scene. There was always a sense of danger, really. There were these dangerous characters, and I was not one of those people. I wasn't some dangerous guy.

You never struck me as a mean or sketchy guy, at all.

Richie: No. No, honestly, I'm very quick to admit my faults, but I don't think I was ever a mean guy, and I certainly never, in my life, I never picked on anyone. Never. Quite the opposite. I was almost a loner in school. I had very few friends. When I was in high school, I never picked on people. I was one of the very different kids in my school, and if anything, I caught a lot of shit from people. Maybe that's something that helped sort of erode my tolerance and made me a short-fused angry guy for a period of my life. Hardcore is very angry music. I can be very inspirational and uplifting, but you can't deny that there's an aggressive note that runs through all of hardcore. One of the things that initially intrigued me about hardcore was that it was very dangerous. It's very different now, and hardcore shows...when I'd go see shows in New York at A7 or CBGB's, there really wasn't a large element of suburban, bourgeois kids at all. There were suburban kids, but they were like real misfits. They weren't at all the just like the popular kids at their school, and the kids who were making the music were inner city, usually outer borough New York City kids.

Was there a breaking point for you, a specific incident, where you just said to yourself "I'm done with fighting?"

Richie: Nothing at a hardcore show, no. But yeah, there was one incident where I was actually just looking for a friend of mine at a restaurant in New York. It was a crowded, almost like a night club, very crowded restaurant where people were deejaying. I actually wanted to go in there and see if a friend of mine was deejaying, and anyway, a very drunk guy...at the time my hair was bleached. Of course, I walk into some drunk frat guy, sort of Wall Street-type. He was calling me names, making fun of the bleached hair. I was trying to ignore it, and he ended up trying to put his cigarette out on my chest, and I completely overreacted and I hurt him really badly. I was sick about it. Just completely sick about it and disgusted with myself, and I just went home and I was a wreck. I was depressed for days. I don't think it was the last physical altercation I ever got into, but that one incident pretty much ended my "fighting career."

Check back for the second part of the interview tomorrow.

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