Punk rock in a preeminently average town.
By Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett
The following is an exclusive excerpt from “Chapter 10: Nazi Punks Fuck Off” from Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland by Jonathan Wright and Dawson Barrett, published in 2021 by the University of Illinois Press.
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
I hate Illinois Nazis.
—Jake Elwood, The Blues Brothers
Throughout the 1980s, the arrival of police had been a Peoria punk tradition, from the first house show to the final performance at Owens Center and beyond. Even with bands like Dollface exuding world-class musicianship and songwriting, Peoria shows in the final decade of the twentieth century were still better known for the violence—and/or police action—that sometimes ended them. “The music wasn’t always that good,” admits Jim Moran, “but at every show something crazy happened.” Dollface formed amid this turbulence, and as a result its pop songs carried an unmistakable grit, grounded in the notion that rock and roll could still be a daring proposition. Following its memorable debut at Ed Carper’s Montage of Madness party, the band was more than ready for its first Peoria hall show.
The German American Hall show of July 1991—featuring Dollface, Walpurgis Nacht, Str8 Sounds, and Bloody Mess and the Skabs—remains legendary for its premature conclusion, still marveled at decades later. The newspaper would describe it as a “slam-dancing melee” that spilled onto Knoxville Avenue on a Friday night and left several days of media coverage in its wake.
Tensions spiraled out of control during the Skabs’ set, as a handful of slam-dancing punks faced off with the “kind of redneck” guys Bloody hired for security. One of these “bouncers” was allegedly itching for a fight and found his opportunity when one of the punks bumped into him. Bloody was a ring- master in this rock and roll circus, his alcohol-fueled performance revving up the crowd as hostilities somehow escalated into an all-out, animated brawl. “It was like a big ball of twenty people that looked like a cartoon cloud of fighting, with little arms sticking out,” Dollface singer and guitarist Matt Shane describes. “And it moved from the stage, all the way through the hall, out the front door, onto one of the busiest streets in Peoria. And it shut that street down.”
The unfortunate episode garnered multiple articles in the Journal Star, which conflated the fighting with slam dancing itself. “It’s arms slashing and people crashing into each other,” one Peoria police officer told the paper. “If this were happening out on the street, we’d call it battery.” The “frenetic activity,” he added, may have given the bouncers “an excuse to just go after people.”
Though no one involved in this melee was charged, Peoria police instead cited the show’s three organizers—Matt Shane, Bloody Mess, and Steven Streight— as well as the bartender, a German American Hall trustee. “I got charged with ‘mob action’ and paid an eighty-dollar fine,” Shane recalls. “Bloody was also charged with mob action; he fought it and got it dismissed.” The hall trustee, meanwhile, vowed “never to let a punk rock band use [the hall] again.”
Whatever the perceived merits of slam dancing, there’s no doubt that violence had become a huge problem at Peoria shows. “There were almost always fights,” notes Kate Dusenbery, “a phenomenon which, if you weren’t actively being attacked, made the whole scene take on a carnivalesque demeanor.” This pandemonium ranged from simple drunken idiocy, to self-destructive nihilism, to more serious quasi-ideological concerns—like the rise of Nazi-sympathizing punks.
In October, several months after the German American Hall fiasco, a VFW show on Pioneer Parkway in north Peoria ended in similar epic fashion. It was a typically odd Peoria lineup, slotting three metal bands (Leviathan, Coma, and Denial) alongside the gritty pop hooks of Dollface. And in classic Peoria style, Dollface’s set abruptly ground to a premature halt. “Some skinhead came up while we were playing and did the Nazi salute right in front of me,” recalls Jeff Gregory. “I took off my bass and tried to take his head off with it.”
“I look over and Jeff has the bass guitar above his head . . . getting ready to smash it down on this guy,” describes Matt Shane. “At this point the sound guy intervened and dove into the mix; it’s like four or five people fighting now. He grabs Jeff, takes him down and just pounds his head into the ground . . . and his guitar pedals. He didn’t realize Jeff was in the band. And that was the end of that show.”
* * *
Despite the state’s “Land of Lincoln” identity, central Illinois was no stranger to the dark underbelly of American racism and white nationalism. In addition to Peoria’s own history of segregation, discrimination, and police violence, nearby Pekin had once been regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan—and its high school mascot was a racial epithet until 1980. In the early 1990s, East Peoria native Matt Hale was one of the most prominent white supremacists in the country, already with a sizable criminal record in his early twenties. Long before his forty-year prison sentence for soliciting an undercover FBI informant to murder a federal judge, Hale and a small band of acolytes preached racial holy war at rallies in and around Peoria, triggering vehement protests from area residents, including many in the local punk scene.
Hale’s narcissism and delusions of grandeur ran nearly as deep as his well of bigotry. He organized his first hate group, the “New Reich,” in eighth grade. When his attempt to form a white student union at Bradley University was unsuccessful, he founded the American White Supremacist Party instead. As former KKK grand wizard David Duke gained national notoriety for his political efforts (including a 1992 presidential bid in the Republican primaries), Hale proclaimed himself the local leader of Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People. He then formed the National Socialist White Americans Party and ran openly as a white supremacist for the East Peoria City Council, receiving a disturbingly high 16 percent of the vote. Finally, he established the World Church of the Creator, bestowing upon himself the preposterous title of “Pontifex Maximus”: chief high priest of the mumbo-jumbo neo-Nazi group.
The string of hate groups founded by Matt Hale is comically absurd, in spite of his deadly serious intents. Setting aside his deplorable worldview, Hale’s organizing efforts also demonstrate a more universal human yearning: the desire for group belongingness, especially among the young and disaffected. Even at the opposite end of the sociopolitical spectrum, one might find a delicate parallel. Having identified a common adversary in the racist skinheads on the periphery of Peoria’s punk scene, a small circle of friends was prompted to start a local chapter of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or SHARP. Many of them, including Chris Hauk, Tom Nieukirk, and Jeff Keller, had previously been affiliated with the Disgusted Youth Organization, active in booking DIY shows and making zines and outspoken in their beliefs.
With members spanning the United States and Europe, SHARP was a global movement that sought to wrestle away the widespread image of skinheads from its neo-Nazi hijackers. The original skinhead movement—a union of working-class whites and Jamaican immigrants in 1960s London—was emphatically anti-racist, they explained, bound by their mutual love for ska music. “Nazis with short hair are not skinheads,” declared Chris Hauk in the February 1990 zine I Used to Be Disgusted. “They are bald racists and should be called that.” But more often than not, that message fell on deaf ears, as the media failed to make this critical distinction.
While SHARP was a welcome counterpoint to racist skinheads, the two groups shared a street-gang mentality that could be problematic of its own accord. “Back in the day you showed up as a crew,” explains Tom Nieukirk. “We all had jackets that said ‘SHARP’ on them and things of that nature, so you’re very identifiable.” On the opposing side—with “Aryan Nation” and the like painted on their own studded leather jackets—were the racist skinheads, the Nazi punks. Neither group shied away from violence. When they showed up in the same place, it took little to light the fuse.
For many in the punk scene, the phrase “Nazi punks” became shorthand for the recurring potential for violence at Peoria shows. But it was rarely clear—then or now—who was “actually” a Nazi and who was merely an aggressive jerk or drunken buffoon. Ben Ruddell was at the infamous “Dollface and the metal bands” show: “I don’t remember seeing any Nazi salutes at the Pioneer Parkway VFW, but something like that might’ve happened. I do have a pretty vivid recollection of a metal dude who had a tattoo of a drunken Pink Panther on his shoulder, acting a fool and getting all up in the band’s face while they played, and Jeff whacking him with the headstock of his bass, after which a scuffle ensued.”
Irrespective of labels, punk rock was unquestionably a vehicle for anger and aggression and a magnet for alienated youth—often for better, but sometimes for worse. “Peoria had a weird hybrid of good ol’ boys/Pantera metalheads/ Front 242 guys who seemed influenced by Matt Hale and Clark Martell’s [former leader of CASH—Chicago Area Skinheads] hate movements,” explains Peoria musician Jason Teegarden-Downs. He recalls “the most violent mosh pit I ever saw” at the Italian American Hall in April 1992—ironically, another mismatch of Dollface and three metal bands (Leviathan, Sid Ripster, and Act of God): “A bunch of guys were there with screws in combat boots and razors between their fingers. I’m pretty sure it is more gruesome in my head, now, than it actually was. But scary nonetheless. I remember a lot of it was more about self-mutilation. I was only fifteen years old and seeing guys purposely bleeding was quite an impression.”
Of those on the fringes who openly hailed Hitler, it is difficult to say who were true believers like Matt Hale and who were flirting with fascist imagery for its shock value. If their numbers were small, their presence alone was still enough to stir up trouble. For Dollface, an opportunity to play a large community festival on the Peoria Riverfront—the band’s biggest gig to date—found yet another set disrupted by violence. It would conclude in an extraordinary showdown between SHARP adherents and neo-Nazi skinheads, according to Andrew Wisecarver, who founded still another skinhead group, SANS (Skins Aren’t Nazi Sympathizers), upon moving to Chicago in the mid-nineties:
“A group of Chicago SHARPs came down; they had heard that a pro-Nazi group from Pekin had plans to start trouble. . . . Dollface was on stage. The Nazis, some in scout uniforms they’d modified to look like Brownshirts [the violent paramilitary group that aided Hitler’s rise to power], started shouting and trying to drown out the band with their Sieg Heil chant. This, of course, caused a bunch of us to start shouting them down. The band started to balk, then their singer started to change the song to [Dead Kennedys’] ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off.’ Well, that’s when the trouble really started. . . . Rather than the Nazis rushing the stage (the action that the band, the SHARPs and the police were waiting for), the SHARPs (all twenty of them) took the stage, knocking over the bassist, the drum kit and the “monitor” amps. The slow-witted police rushed the stage, but by now the SHARPs had started offstage onto the Nazi shites (all 10 of them) . . . full-scale battle. . . . When it was over so was the show and any future shows. . . . The next day, what do you suppose was reported in the papers? You guessed it: ‘neo-nazi skinheads disrupt riverboat days’ not ‘Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice Takes on Neo-Nazis,’ not ‘Police Arrest Neo-Nazis for Disrupting.’ Nope, skinheads. Once again the media associated the neo-Nazis with the skinheads . . . and once again, there was no one there to explain the difference.”
It should be noted there are conflicting memories of this show; just how deeply it devolved into violent spectacle remains unclear. But if the details are in question, the outline of the story rings true nonetheless. While Nazi punks continued to be an on-and-off concern at Peoria shows for years, the SHARP movement in Peoria was short-lived. “We kind of faded out of it,” Nieukirk explains. “Basically, we just got tired of being a magnet for fights all the time.”
In May 1993, Journal Star reporter Pam Adams profiled the former SHARP crew and the exchange of their acronym-emblazoned jackets for hip-hop fashion: “the shoes, the baggy pants, the [Negro League] baseball caps, the haircuts.” It was the same group of friends, still skateboarders, a little older and wiser—still realizing their group identity and proclaiming it to the world. “Keep in mind, youth is fluid,” Adams wrote. The yearning for human connection, however, is unchanging.
* * *
Despite being a consistent thorn in the side of the scene, Nazi punks were far from the only reason Peoria shows got shut down. In August 1992, the Hopewell Grange Hall near Washington, Illinois, hosted Beautiful Bert and the Luscious Ones and 10–96 (two Kenosha, Wisconsin, punk bands playing Peoria again) along with local acts Bloody Mess and the Skabs, World’s End, and PND (whose then-singer, Tom Twomey, formerly of Sub 13, had been a key participant in the raucous German American Hall brawl the previous summer). For fourteen- year-old Nick Lippert of Washington, attending his first show, it was quite an eventful evening: “I got doused in beer, clobbered by a sweaty shirtless drunken obese man, rode on the running board of a Volkswagen van, accidentally drank Jägermeister from a cooler jug, talked to a shirtless guy with a Mohawk and chest tattoos, saw some great music, and then the cops came and shut it down. I was hooked.”
The place was packed. A couple hundred people congregated in and around the otherwise-isolated hall, located a few miles outside of town. Bloody Mess and the Skabs were about to perform when the cops showed up, explains Jeff Gregory, a Skab at the time, who was backstage tuning his guitar: “I just re- member coming out through the curtain, and everyone was gone. Bloody and the entire band were gone. The audience was gone. There were just cops . . . and garbage and empties everywhere. I was like, what the fuck happened?”
What happened was slapstick—a Keystone Cops routine. As law enforcement descended upon the hall, scores of kids scattered among the cornfields, while Gabby Skab, sporting a blue wig, hurled his drum set at the uninvited guests. He then ran backstage, ditched the wig, and headed for the exit, Gregory recalls. “The cops coming in the back were like, ‘Did you see some guy with blue hair?’ [Gabby] was like, ‘Yeah [pointing], he went that way!’”
As red and blue lights flickered through the dust clouds of August, a more cringe-inducing story made the rounds. This one starred Beautiful Bert—the (now-deceased) 300-pound frontman with a stage act not unlike Bloody’s or GG Allin’s—who allegedly bent over and stuck the mic where the sun don’t shine: a disappearing “magic trick” for the benefit of Washington’s finest. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bloody admits. “He used to do that shit all the time. Bert played at a party in Peoria once, where he did something [like that], only he used a Barbie doll.”
Whatever Beautiful Bert did or did not do, this outrageous account was enshrined in legend—just one of many wild stories spawned at the Grange Hall that night. Vans plowed through the darkness, combing for hidden cases of beer in the cornfields. One band member, high on something, allegedly ran off with the door money. And the hall itself was vandalized; someone broke all the windows. One erroneous account blamed Bloody—not just for the broken windows but for proceeding to “douse the interior with animal blood,” evoking the debunked satanic ritual scare of several years earlier.
“One hundred percent fabricated lie—lots of those floating around,” Bloody declares, though he does plead guilty to peeing into an ashtray at a party later that night.
Memory is a tricky thing, and history is always subjective. Legends conform to preconceptions; thus Bloody takes the blame. Truths are stretched into tall tales—ergo, animal blood. Many tall tales came out of the Grange Hall show of 1992, but whatever hijinks followed the arrival of the police, everyone seems to agree on one thing: there were no fights—and no Nazis. “I think that was a peaceful show,” Bloody muses. “I think everybody was having a good time.”
Jonathan Wright is a writer, editor, musician, and longtime veteran of the Peoria music scene. He is editor in chief at Peoria Magazines.Dawson Barrett is an associate professor of history at Del Mar College. His books include The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America.