Yes, there is punk rock in Westchester. It just comes in fits and starts.
Photo by Michael Polito
No One and the Somebodies, representing some of their favorite local bands. (Left to right): Kevin Yankou, Bobby Yankou, Steve Yankou, Brian Yankou.
There’s sweat in my eyes and someone just accidentally elbowed me in the spine. I’m standing front and center at an underground Westchester punk show—but we’re above ground, on the second-floor space belonging to The Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC) in White Plains.
I can’t help but notice that I’m a foot taller than practically everyone else in the pit. As one of the oldest in the crowd, I’m also the only one with a full beard. I think back to the 15-year-old me at my first show, when I was intimidated by all the older kids, but they were seniors in high school, and I’m in my mid-20s, a college graduate, and seeking my third professional music-teaching job. I’ve seen this community evolve quite a bit—people come and go, bands come and go, venues come and go—but, somehow, it stays afloat. My older friends and I are respected by the high school kids who make up the audiences and the new bands in the scene. Yet when a 15-year-old stage-dives on top of me and I end up supporting 80 percent of his weight, I think: “Is it a little weird that I’m still here? Why am I still married to this punk rock community?”
First off, what is “punk rock?” The question reminds me of the endless philosophical “what is art?” debates. To define punk rock in a simple paragraph is to open oneself to criticism, but I’ll try. Punk is about rejecting mainstream choices in many aspects of life, not just in music, and cultivating your own creative space within your community. This is a place for people who are not satisfied with the three or four genres of music that corporate radio and corporate record labels have found to be marketable. It is also a place for people who feel underrepresented by their government, as well as curious kids with less defined political identities. One common theme is a fundamental belief in equality for all people. People who can relate to these ideas become friends, form bands, put together shows with other bands in the area, and before you know it, you have a scene. I was first attracted to the scene because it provided do-it-yourself entertainment, intellectual discussion, and an overall sense of camaraderie that I couldn’t find at school or dance clubs.
The scene in Westchester is exciting—and unstable. Shows are organized by band members or activists raising funds for groups like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and WESPAC. They generally take place at church halls, American Legion halls, or community centers, but there also have been a number of shows at WESPAC. There is no longstanding venue at which we can regularly organize shows, which makes it challenging to maintain a consistent audience.
Describing the bands of the county’s punk scene is difficult, because there are so many of them and they are so varied. There’s Whack, from Ardsley, a sort of circus-dance-instrumental-punk band whose principal songwriter, Max Gordon, plays the accordion on most songs. There’s Will Moloney from Tuckahoe, who writes and records most of his own records in his basement under the band name Old Table. He has no formal training in music but regularly comes up with rhythms and melodies that baffle some of our most scholarly musicians. His songs range from hilariously silly to heartbreaking. Men Who Lunch of White Plains is a two-piece punk band that writes 30-second songs about their daily lives. Subjects include riding bikes to the Kensico Dam and hanging out at the former Borders in White Plains. There’s Space Ghost Cowboys from Pleasantville, whose principal songwriter, Aaron Maine, was the subject of the first and, thus far, only issue of my homemade magazine, Imitating Art. His songs are very moving and catchy. Then there’s my band, No One and the Somebodies, made up of myself and my three brothers. It’s awkward to describe my own work, but Time Out New York wrote that our “lo-fi art pop crackles with zany fervor,” and I’m satisfied with that. There are many other bands with a wide range of styles: Buffalo Eskimo, Orphans, Drain You, TURBOSLEAZE, The Penny Dreadfuls, Darb Modnoc, LMNOP, The Genuine Imitations, Emilyn Brodsky—the list is ever-changing.
As a scene, we face a lot of challenges. We’ve had countless problems maintaining venues. I used to book shows at the Hawthorne American Legion Hall. We always received noise complaints but, according to the law, we could make whatever noise until 10 pm. I planned to end all shows by 10 and there were no problems. Then, the coordinator in charge of the space retired and his replacement told me they were unwilling to do shows because of noise complaints. I tried to explain that we were good kids who followed the rules and respected the space but he repeatedly stated, “We don’t do the bands anymore!’” Due to complaints from local businesses, WESPAC no longer can do shows when neighboring businesses are open, limiting scheduling to odd hours. And bars are unwilling to do all-ages shows without a ridiculous cut of the money collected at the door. The Thirsty Turtle in White Plains let us do a few all-ages matinées but demanded 80 percent of profits, leaving 20 percent to be split among the five bands. Finding a venue can be a very frustrating ordeal, often leading me to feel that Westchester is unwilling to put up with a bunch of morally corrupt dirty punk kids.
Perhaps our biggest challenge is that quick train ride to glamorous New York City. Many Westchester punk rock fans get involved in the NYC scene and overlook us. Kids in the scene tend to go away to college and rarely move back to Westchester, usually moving out of their parents’ houses and into city apartments. In 2003, friends of mine formed BC Records, and we were really starting to gain momentum. Shows became more frequent and the crowds got bigger; great bands like The Vibration, Blue Velvet, and General Miggs put out records; people from all over the county were showing up at the Ardsley Community Center, or Scarsdale Teen Center, or a church in White Plains. A sense of community really started to set in. We sold out shows at the small room at the Knitting Factory in the city and almost everyone in attendance was a Westchester resident. Within a few years, however, many of the people involved moved away. Shows became less well attended, and BC Records went into debt and was unable to make any more releases.
Eventually, I discovered that our little scene wasn’t the first wave of Westchester punk. Before us, there was Rockin’ Rex, a record store/venue in Yonkers that, from the early- to mid-’90s, supported local music and booked nationally popular bands. There was 4th Dimension Records, a ’90s Westchester punk label that released wonderful records from The Banned, The Walters, and Magro Kuso. These bands don’t play anymore, but most of the band members live and work in New York City and are still active musicians.
(Check out The Banned frontman Bill Manning’s current project, The New Dress, and Charles Burst from Magro Kuso’s
Now it looks as if the scene is growing again, and great efforts have been made to keep it thriving. Ben Pasternack from Men Who Lunch formed a new record label called Tapeworm and has released a number of albums, including the latest by No One and the Somebodies and Aaron Maine’s debut. Kristen Barry has booked many well-attended benefit shows for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Dave Haack from the Genuine Imitations has booked countless benefits at WESPAC. I wrote a ’zine about the scene and distribute it free. I named it after The Banned’s only full-length album, Imitating Art, which is now available at the No One and the Somebodies merchandise table. I help distribute Showpaper, a NYC-area publication that lists only all-ages shows and prints all Westchester punk shows. This has helped put Westchester on the punk rock map and, once in a while, NYC kids will actually take the Metro-North to White Plains for a show.
All the bands that came before us, as well as the dedication of those trying to create the scene today, helped make the WESPAC show with the stage-diving teenager possble. So when I’m standing up front in the audience, with the sting in my eye and the pain in my back, I am content. I hope I will be picking up fallen cymbals, lending my guitar to anyone who breaks a string, dancing and screaming along forever.
Editor’s note: If you are curious about the scene or any of the bands mentioned, or you want to get involved, visit myspace.com/imitatingart914.
Steve Yankou is a composer, music teacher, and punk rocker from Hawthorne.