If you were to asked where the coolest, funkiest place to live in the Triangle was, Wake Forest, the quaint, tree-lined home of the conservative Southeastern Theological Seminary, probably wouldn’t be the first town to come to mind.
But if you took a walk down one of those tree-lined streets, on a cold, rainy Sunday, you’d pass a particularly well-decorated bungalow, its door still festooned with a Christmas wreath, and you’d notice it: Someone in that house is blasting the Slits.
“I just love this band,” says Ron Taylor, who opens the door to his beautiful home wearing a Flat Duo Jets sweatshirt. Monday through Friday, Taylor, who looks a heck of a lot younger than 52, works as an adjudicator for the Wake County Employment Securities Commission. But when he gets off work, Taylor, who, as the singer of the band Butchwax was one of this area’s original punks, likes to immerse himself in rock ‘n’ roll.
“I think the Flat Duo Jets should be considered a natural resource of North Carolina,” he says, settling into an antique chair. “I feel the same way about the Bad Checks. I think they’re two of the best bands ever to come from this state and two of the least known.”
And why, pray tell, is that?
“They’re too raw. They’re not what people want to hear. They play rock ‘n’ roll without any kind of polish or anything.”
The same can definitely be said about Taylor’s band, Butchwax, who, after a 20-year hiatus, is reuniting to open for the Bad Checks this Friday, Jan. 21, at Kings in Raleigh.
“Butchwax were the bad boys on the block when they were playing,” wrote Bad Checks bass player Clif Mann in an e-mail. Mann has fond memories of hell-raisin’ shows at a Lizard Lick farmhouse called the Tanqueray Lounge. “Johnny Thunders, New York Dolls … punk rock before the days of hard core.
“I have to say that Butchwax is one of the reasons I still love playing music, and [I] consider them one of the best rock bands from North Carolina.”
Byron McKay, who led Th’ Cigaretz, and is generally considered to be punk’s local godfather, agrees.
“They were rock-steady kick-ass, and we had to really work hard when we played with them. I was just amazed at how good they were.”
Not a bad legacy for a band that was only around for two years (1979-81), and whose only recorded output is board tapes from various live shows.
Butchwax formed in 1979 after Taylor, a rockabilly fan who had always wanted to be a rock star, heard the Ramones’ first album. Taylor had long been an editor of the local punk zine Modern World and wrote under the name Butch Modern. He got together with a group of friends who were also into Th’ Cigaretz and began practicing in one friend’s bedroom out near Clayton. Taylor sang and wrote songs for the band on guitar, but other than an occasional encore rave-up, he never played an instrument on stage. (“I have a hard time singing and playing guitar at the same time,” he says. “I play drums on the guitar.”) After searching high and low for a drummer who wasn’t influenced by Keith Moon (“The Who were the only band who needed a manic drummer like that,” he says), the group settled on a permanent lineup: Michael DuPree on guitar, Richard “Ritchie Clerk” Martin on bass and Mike Burnette on drums. Completing the group were Molly Winner, who sang when studies at UNC-Greensboro permitted, and Vicc Fool–a.k.a. Mark Bireline, editor of the zine Blind Boys Gazette–whose antics, including throwing a chair, got the group banned from Raleigh’s Pier nightclub.
The music, which included lots of old rockabilly and Stooges covers, was fast, primitive and fun. Winner, whose commanding shriek rivals that of X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, fit perfectly with Taylor’s hopped-up rockabilly wail–that is, if you caught them on a good night.
“The Heartbreakers had a line to describe them: They were either tremendous or hor-rendous, and it could go either way on any given night,” he says. “That was kind of [true for] us. There were times that I think, because of that, we took it further than it could go under normal circumstances, and then there were times that it completely collapsed.
“I told Clif the other day about one show I remember at the Purple Horse [an old Hillsborough Street club]. … We tuned up during the entire first set–just could not get in tune. And all but about five people left. Then we played one of the best shows we’ve ever played in our life for the second set, and there was nobody there. It could go either way.”
The end came suddenly for Butchwax. Scheduled to play a house party, one member didn’t show up because of relationship problems, so the others decided the band was no more. Burnette now plays with an alt-country group called The Kydells, and DuPree and Martin both play solo acoustic shows. Winner teaches Latin in a Washington, D.C., suburb, and is still trying to arrange her schedule to be at the upcoming show.
The band members haven’t even been together in the same room since ’81, and probably would never have gotten back together if Clif Mann, whose own Bad Checks reformed several years ago after an extended hiatus, hadn’t prodded them to do so.
Depending on how the show goes, the group may or may not join other local first-wave punk groups (Bad Checks, Chapel Hill’s The Gillettes) and re-form permanently. In true punk fashion, Taylor doesn’t seem to care that much either way. A week and a half before the show, the band members still hadn’t gotten together to see what they remembered or figured out what to put on the set list. Taylor admits he’d even thought of calling off the show, but a phone call from The Independent made him think, “Well, if people already think this is going to happen, we might as well do it.”
“There were a lot of really good musicians around back then, but everybody was just going out to make a big noise on Friday night and they weren’t taking it seriously enough,” he says, when asked why some of those first-wave bands are now getting back together. “Some friends of ours wrote a scathing review about how we could really do something if we took this seriously. Of course our goal was to cover the beer tab and the P.A. at the show and we were happy.”
So what’s the goal now, for someone who has a good job, a wife and kids, and a lovely home in Wake Forest?
“To get through this show without making a fool out of myself at my age.”