Surrounded by farms in the middle of the American Midwest, Peoria, Illinois isn’t known for much more than corn stalks and conservatism. Peoria’s even-keeled cultural temperament has made it one of the most popular test markets for consumer goods in the country— if it can “play in Peoria,” as the old cliché goes, then it can catch on anywhere. Including punk rock.
In their new book Punks In Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland (available June 2021 via University of Illinois Press), co-authors Dawson Barrett and Jonathan Wright dive deep into the unlikely history of their unassuming hometown’s nascent counterculture. It’s the quintessential story of small-city youth creating something from nothing, and against all odds, making noise that would reverberate across the country.
New Noise caught up with Barrett and Wright via email to discuss the inspiration behind the book and why small-town scenes deserve to have their stories told.
New Noise: What initially inspired you to write Punks in Peoria?
Dawson Barrett: I would say that, for me, the initial impetus really came from being in touring bands in the early 2000s. Many of my best show experiences were in sort of no-name places like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Fargo, North Dakota— cities, like Peoria, where young people really had to get together and build their own music scenes from the ground up. When the opportunity arose to write this book with Jonathan, I already knew there was a story there that was something more than just being proud of my hometown’s bands.
Jonathan Wright: Over the years I had daydreamed about writing on this topic, but never got serious until Dawson called me up and pitched the concept. I would not have embarked on this journey alone, so I’m grateful that he thought of me. I believed that the inspiration I discovered in the DIY punk scene in my youth was significant enough to matter— and interesting enough for others to perhaps take an interest as well.
NN: In your view, what makes small-city punk scenes in middle America unique or interesting enough to warrant an entire book?
Wright: I think most every city has a unique story to tell, and perhaps even warrants more than one book! I don’t think small cities are any more or less interesting or unique than larger cities. But they are very different environments in which to come of age— and that difference alone makes their stories worth telling.
Barrett: I think it’s definitely a bigger story than just Peoria. Being an oddball in any “uncool” place— in this case, a city that has generally been unfriendly to misfits of all stripes— is probably a more quintessential punk experience than, say, living through the CBGB-era in New York City. We also take a long view, examining nearly three decades of underground music, which is pretty unique, and was really eye-opening, since most people (including us) have little or no knowledge of what came before or after their few peak years in a punk scene.
NN: What, do you think, made Peoria especially conducive to fostering an impactful punk scene?
Barrett: One answer is that there wasn’t much else to do, at least not for the kinds of people drawn to the punk scene. There weren’t shows every night. That amplified the importance of local bands, and it made the touring bands that came through almost legendary. Many years after the Jesus Lizard and Fugazi played in Peoria, people were still talking about their performances and sharing their music with new converts. I don’t think that intensity of attention could happen in the same way in a city where another great band played every night.
Wright: Another answer is that perhaps it wasn’t any more impactful than anywhere else— it just happens to be where we lived and what happened to us. It was special and it meant something, to be sure, enough to write about 25 years later. But the backdrop of “flyover territory”— the lack of things to do, the sometimes-stifling conservatism, the absence of cultural cachet— certainly engendered a need for release, which the punk scene dutifully provided.
NN: The time period this book covers ends just as the Internet was really beginning to change how people share and discover music. Today, kids in smaller cities face many of the same challenges as they did back then, but accessing music and culture has become much easier. Do you feel that makes capturing that snapshot in time, of a small-town scene where nothing was easy in the ’80s and ’90s, that much more important? Or, at the very least, unique in ways that are worth documenting and reflecting upon because that era is never coming back?
Wright: I love history and I believe in documentation. Culture builds on itself, so knowing what came before is essential to progress. But it’s not easy to maintain those historic records. In the pre-internet days, it was up to the kids in the scene to save their own physical flyers, zines and photographs. Today, we have an altogether different problem with the often-ephemeral nature of digital files. In any case, I believe those snapshots in time – especially a deep dive like this one – provide a lot of opportunities for reflection.
Barrett: We’ve tried pretty hard not to fall into the “back in my day” trap of thinking there was a harder or better or more authentically punk period in the past. I’ve always resented that idea, but there are, of course, differences. In the pre-internet era, for example, because people had to physically post or hand out each flyer or zine, personal interactions were sort of the default, which was great, but that also had a pretty limited reach. It was also once pretty rare to know what bands sounded like before getting to a show (or buying an album). Sometimes, those risks and surprises were magical, but I think the accessibility of music today is an objectively good thing.
NN: Something the book notes is that people’s memories may be hazy and some stories you heard from interviewees would contradict others. How did you attempt to sort fact from fiction in instances where details from different sources didn’t seem to line up?
Barrett: Beyond a few flyers, very little of this history was documented in any concrete way. In that sense, we were unearthing the collective memory of what most likely happened, not necessarily any absolute truths. We had to talk to a lot of people, and we left out some things that we could not corroborate. That’s part of why the book took us so long.
Wright: Given the lack of documentation, and knowing the tenuous and biased nature of memory, we tried not to take anything at face value. We attempted to substantiate every detail. There were definitely things we cut that I wish we could have kept, purely for the story’s sake! But then you’re writing fiction and you’ve lost all credibility.
NN: You also uncovered flyers for shows you’re reasonably convinced never actually happened. I’m guessing some of those might have been for shows that got cancelled, but why do you think these flyers were created, and how did you approach verifying the authenticity of flyers and other punk-related collateral you came across while researching?
Barrett: Yes, for sure— shows were cancelled, or individual bands on flyers canceled. That’s fairly standard for DIY punk. Generally, if we talked to enough people, we could get to the bottom of most of those. There were some, though, where a couple of people would vividly remember seeing “band X,” but the promoters would swear that the band never showed up. I think that disagreement, or false memory— whatever you want to call it— is as important to the story as what actually happened in that VFW hall thirty years ago.
Wright: While those cases were relatively few, they encompassed some relatively important moments in this interwoven history. So we decided to embrace the uncertainty. We don’t consider ourselves “experts” on what “really” happened, so that was an easy choice to make. As Dawson said, the points of contention were often as significant as the actual facts. And of course history isn’t just about facts – it’s also about context and perspective and the myth making that develops over time.
NN: Were there any particularly surprising stories or facts you uncovered in the process of writing this book?
Wright: Reaching backward into a past which I never directly experienced provided all sorts of wonderful discoveries. Tracing the Peoria punk scene back to its first show and first band (as far as we know)—as well as Peoria’s connection to Chicago’s early hardcore scene—was not unlike a treasure hunt. Learning that Black Sabbath and the MC5 both played Peoria in the early 1970s, was pretty mind-blowing, or that Stabbing Westward played here often in their early years. I’d heard legends about Black Flag and Dag Nasty *almost* playing Peoria— so digging into those stories to learn “the truth” was super-fun.
Barrett: One of my favorite discoveries was that 7 Seconds played a show at an ice-skating rink that I frequented as a child. I had absolutely no idea that its back room had, years earlier, been rented out and used as a punk venue. There were dozens of examples like that, and I think it’s a really awesome way to think about our surroundings— that the punk venues of the past (and the future) are all around us! It really embodies that DIY idea that the world is ours for the making.
NN: You say in the acknowledgements that, “this book has given us the opportunity to visit the past, but we are glad not to be living in it.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?
Barrett: Mainly, that the insight that Jon and I have, as adults, is what made researching and writing this book so valuable to us. It is not a vanity project, seeking to glorify the good old days. As fascinating as these stories are— and, sure, as great as many of these shows and bands were— it was pretty miserable being sixteen. That’s what drove us to the punk scene in the first place. And it’s okay that the teenagers in the book didn’t get everything right. They didn’t have everything figured out.
Wright: I think it’s pretty important not to live in the past, no matter how great or legendary those times might seem in hindsight. There’s a definite danger in romanticizing nostalgia at the expense of the present, and we didn’t want to succumb to that.
NN: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Punks in Peoria?
Barrett: So many people we interviewed told us that their time in the DIY punk scene shaped who they became as adults— scrappy, empowered, skeptical of authority. I hope that readers can take away some of that, too. If young people in a place like Peoria can look around at YWCAs and ice rinks and envision punk rock shows— and then make them happen – just think of the world we could build together!
Wright: I echo Dawson’s answer. The DIY principles that I discovered in punk rock were essential to my own growth as a human, so naturally I hope others can find and recognize the same thing. But certainly, the punk scene is not the only way to get there.
Punks in Peoria: Making a Scene in the American Heartland will be available in June 2021, get your copy on Amazon here.
Listen to the Punks in Peoria Soundtrack below, and pick up a copy on limited edition vinyl here.
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Images courtesy of Dawson Barrett and Jonathan Wright.