Scenes from the Underground: Punk Rock Never Dies with Retail and Friends
Written and Photographed by Samantha Rose Key
Imagine you’ve been gone a long time. From wherever it is you come from. Not necessarily your home or your place of birth – but the place you long to go when you’ve been out in the wild too long. Maybe you’ve been gone so long it feels impossible to imagine a way back. Or maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of the way back, or you’ve had a quick visit, but for whatever reason you just haven’t had a chance to really commit to the journey. Things come up. The people you know in that place change, or they move away. For me, this place is punk rock.
At 15 years old, I lived for loud, fast music. Most of my friends were in some kind of band, and I frequented the various teen centers and VFWs littered across Connecticut that would house us. At that age, a Saturday night show, a joint, two 40s, and a crowd were a given. That’s what Saturday nights were for. What was Sunday morning if you weren’t waking up on a friend’s couch with a slight headache, ears ringing, and the feeling that normal life would resume shortly, but not before you spent the rest of that glorious Sunday afternoon basking in the glow of the feeling you can only quite get after you’ve spent a few hours shoving a bunch of your friends around in a dimly lit room filled with sweat and dirt.
These days the shows of my early youth seem like distant, dewey memories. Sure, I’m still very young. And I’ve got my old music and the spirit of punk rock (which never dies!!!). But 22 year old me works weekends. And coming up on 2 years living in New York, I’ve yet to be able to find the right circuit of bands that are throwing the type of show I’m looking for. I’ve often wandered the streets on a Friday night haunted by the feeling that somewhere a crowd of people are elbowing each other in the face without me. In high school I was known to frequent the metal shows and acoustic sets my friends played, but I never enjoyed something quite like I did a classic 5 dollar punk show. They were few and far between in suburban CT (usually something I had to travel into the city for) and at that age, the idea of a “secret show” in a tiny basement in Brooklyn would have sent me into the stratosphere with excitement. Last Saturday, I finally got to dive back into that dream when I was invited to see Retail with Salty, The Night Screams, and “a secret special guest”.
Armed with a couple of disposable cameras and instructions to introduce myself to someone named Austin (the lead singer of Retail) when I could find him, I found the super secret venue pretty easily. As I was raising a match to my first Newport of the night, a pretty Australian girl with blue hair asked me if she had the right place. I explained to her she had, but that the show hadn’t started yet. We made friends quickly, and shortly after we stepped through the doors to the first few notes of electric guitars being tuned. I got a really good feeling about where I was. A couple of Bud Lights and a few more cigarettes burned down in the back yard, and Salty was ready to play.
Salty is an energetic, all girl 3 piece hailing from Brooklyn. High-pitched, staccato vocals punching their way through dirty sounding guitars and frenzied drum beats was the perfect way to start the show with a high energy, high attitude bang. Salty’s performance was both casual and commanding. I felt compelled to joyfully listen just as I had as a teenager when I first discovered legendary all girl band The Slits. Likewise, Salty’s front woman punctuated their short, fast songs with yodels and yelps quite like those of female punk legend Ari Up. I was enjoying myself, feeling like I had arrived someplace I had missed and longed to go back to for some time. For the last song, there was an instrument change between Salty’s drummer and vocalist, with the woman on drums stepping out from behind her kit and wrapping up the set with a spirited vocal performance in which she crawled on hands and knees into the crowd. Watching these multitalented women, I was transported back to the days where I knew one thing to be undeniably true: There is nothing punk rock about a boys’ club.
Next up was The Night Screams. This Brooklyn based 3 piece’s sound calls on the classic pillars of punk most people can remember when they recall their early days of falling in love with the genre. With most of their songs running just 2 minutes or less, The Night Screams delivered a performance that harkened back to the golden days of punk – when the guitar parts were simple but bright, the drums clanged loud and brassy, and vocalists somehow sounded like they were sitting atop a washing machine, their wobbly vocals being quite literally shaken out of them. Like any good punk show, the crowd was just as much a part of the performance as the band. During this set I was offered a full bottle of tequila by a friendly neighbor, which I was satisfied to sip from as I was jostled around from one side of the room to the other. As I was too busy enjoying myself, I’ll admit I lost track of my camera. Luckily, another new friend took over for me and made the pictures happen. Honestly, is there anything more DIY than having your friend shoot the show for you?
After The Night Screams wrapped up their set, I made for the bathroom, where I planned to comb my unruly bangs and take a quick, slightly drunken wee. Naturally, I had to wait in line, and when I pulled out my phone to send a snap, I heard a voice call from a few yards away, “I see you snapchattin!” I turned and saw the voice belonged to a guy in a leather jacket at the end of the line, who quickly jumped into the frame and posed with impish glee for My Story. He introduced himself as Austin, and when I gave him my name he asked if I was the person sent to write and take pictures. I told him I was, and we agreed to catch up in a bit. When I saw him next, Austin pulled me aside and told me, “I’ve got something for you.” Beckoning me to Retail’s merch table, he dipped down into a bag and pulled out a Smirnoff Ice.
“Chug it!” He cheered. “Girl, you just got ICED.”
I’ve never been able to chug anything. And though I was feeling pretty game that night, I found my hopeless chugging skills were right where I left them. Austin didn’t seem to mind though, and he offered me a free shirt for being such a good sport.
“We’ve only got Youth XL though,” He informed me. “I feel like that’s what most people in our generation wear anyway, though. Boys and girls. We’re all just Youth XL.”
He made a fine point. Or maybe I was feeling that Smirnoff Ice. Who knows? I thanked Austin for the shirt and we parted ways as we prepared for the “Super Secret Guest” that was next in line to perform.
For the life of me I could not catch the name of this band. I was later informed they were called Stuyedeyed, and though their set was probably the most mellow of the night, it was also the moodiest. Dark, brooding vocals accompanied by pounding guitars lent them a certain grimness that I really enjoyed. During one of their songs, their lead singer, sporting a Puerto Rican flag as a cape, went into a somber vocal diatribe that reminded me of a spoken word performance. Standing in the middle of the crowd, with space around me to move, I felt as if I was in an intimate conversation that I couldn’t quite make out the words to. It was a cool moment, and the change of pace made for an excellent palette cleanser as Retail took the stage to round out the night.
Retail concluded the show with their signature rowdy, raucous set that did not disappoint. Austin gives the impression of a wild animal on stage. With his fingers pressed to the low ceiling and his eyes rolling back in his head he threw himself around with concentrated ferocity. With Max on guitar and Ross on drums, Retail gave a short but powerful performance that was at once savage and delightful. Kind of like being punched in the gut, except you’re out of breath from laughing too hard, not just from having the wind knocked out of you. Raw, screeching vocals mixed with gritty, wailing guitars give Retail a hardcore edge which made for the perfect finale. I dropped my phone halfway through the set, and somehow was able to retrieve it untouched despite it being trampled by 20+ frenzied punks. Others even helped me look for it as soon I dropped it. That’s kind of what being at a Retail show is like – completely overwhelming and at the same time, welcoming.
After the show, with everyone slowly streaming out of the humid basement to wash down their final cigarettes with the what was left of their Modelos and cheap whiskeys, I caught Austin as he was packing up. On the topic of what he wanted to see in the write up, he encouraged me to write, “I went and saw Retail, it was ‘R-Word’”. I applauded his political correctness and he laughed it off, but short of that he got pensive and said to me:
“But seriously though…It’s like in ancient Greece. These guys were hired to write these sad plays about death and suicide and cheating on people, because the idea was maybe if the masses see these things acted out they’ll feel like they’ve already experienced it, and they wont go home and do that stuff. And so that’s kind of how I see Retail. We sing about this dark stuff, we throw a wild show, and we hope people will bop around and have a good time and go home and not go through it. Whatever that is.”
I thought it was a great way to look at it. Thinking back on the pit during Retail’s set, I could see they had done what they wanted to do. In the midst of all the bodies thrashing, it might have seem liked we were hurting each other. But it only looked like that. Really, it was all friendly fire. Growing up listening to punk music, that had been what I loved most about it. Being able to push, shove, and bang my body up with bruises alongside people who I knew ultimately had my back, whether they knew me well or not. When I left the venue that night, I walked 6 blocks in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake. But it was okay, because I eventually made it home just fine. And I woke up in the morning with a headache, ears ringing, and skin bruised, my Youth XL t-shirt sitting crumpled on my bedroom floor. Just like the good old days.