The Rise and Fall of Westchester Punk
For the past couple of years, if you've wanted to learn about Westchester punk, you've had to travel to the Bronx. There, at the now-defunct Paul Shaffer's House, crowds from both the county and the city would meet close to the border to hear basement shows booked by the House's tenants, the messy but always respectful Genuine Imitations and No One and the Somebodies.
Fifteen years earlier, however, Brian Manning was living in Yonkers, taking the Metro-North to Regis High School five days a week, and playing drums for a band called the Walters in his spare time. When they were younger, the group would frequent Rockin' Rex, the local hangout that Manning calls "the one place where you could actually get punk and independent records." But by the time they formed, in 1995, the Rex had closed, and the area's DIY scene was mostly dormant. Soon, Manning's younger brothers, Tom and Bill—the former in high school, the latter still in seventh or eighth grade—would form a group of their own, the Banned, and recruit Brian to play bass.
Inspired, like so many other aspiring punks, by Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records and its bands like Minor Threat and the Teen Idles, Tom and Brian's next move was to start a record label. Never ones to resist a good pun, they called it Fourth Demention and began pressing seven inches from local groups like the Walters as well as New Yorkers like First Class and Magro Kuso. For their own debut, the Banned released a soundboard recording from a show at CBGB, one of their most frequented venues. "We probably didn't play too many shows in Westchester, just because there wasn't much going on outside of the Rye Rec Center and the occasional house show," Manning recalls.
Although Fourth Demention went inactive at some point in late '98 or early '99, the Banned continued playing shows, touring the country, and releasing records like 2003's independent Imitating Art, which became influential enough to have a one-off zine named after it. New bands like Morgan Storm and Steve Yankou's aforementioned No One and the Somebodies began to become increasingly good and popular, drawing large crowds to venues like the Scarsdale Teen Center and the Lower East Side's ABC No Rio.
Enter B.C. Records. Even in middle school, Mount Vernon–born, Yonkers-raised Matt Peterson had heard rumors of a local punk scene, and shortly thereafter, he became inspired by, as he puts it, "this cultural activity that would let young people participate." He formed the band Blue Velvet and entered the fray. Quickly, Peterson realized the need for a label not only to release his records but also to release the records his friends were making as well. Before releasing anything by Blue Velvet, B.C. released EPs from the Vibration and Morgan Storm, as well as a compilation tying together the county's disparate bands.
"We felt like there was very little documentation for this music," Peterson says. "When a lot of bands self-release, after the bands break up, there's no institutional infrastructure to keep the releases active." The comp was supposed to change that—arranged chronologically, it would both serve as a "living document" of Westchester punk and cement the idea of the county having a scene.
Forming her band in 1999 and searching AOL member profiles to find her then-16-year-old guitar player, Kathi, Morgan Storm's Allison Gray saw this community develop firsthand: "When we first started our band, there was nowhere to play, but by the end, all these kids were having house shows or renting out spaces, and shows were just a very common thing in Westchester." As Gray remembers it, these audiences not only grew, but they also changed in makeup. "After we were doing our thing for a couple of years, these other girl bands from around here started popping up, and it was never a competitive thing because all the bands were so different," she says in complete modesty.
Meanwhile, a few towns over, Dave Haack was playing a different circuit of clubs and community spaces, another teenager trying to make good music and figure out what rebellion actually looks like. Although he formed the Genuine Imitations in late 2001 (while still a junior at the prep school from which he would soon be expelled), the core lineup didn't come together until Harry Katz of Motel and the Six booked GI at the Rye Teen Center. "I remember saying that we were bombing Afghanistan, and instead, we should be bombing Rye. I thought that's what punk was at the time, though I guess I wasn't wholly wrong," Haack tells me. "People really hated us, and they probably should have." Katz, apparently, did not, and the band soon had a second member.
Even though he was an outsider to the B.C. Records scene, playing instead with the "druggy, high-school-garage-misfit people" at bars like the Low Down, Haack was taken aback by the release of the B.C. compilation, as well the subsequent release of NOATS's debut, Pretend You're Out of Control. "That's the first time I realized you could make a record that's as good as a Pixies record or something, and you can do it in Westchester," he says. Soon, the Genuine Imitations were writing actual songs and attracting actual fans; a show at the rec center or the bowling alley could draw 100 to 200 kids.
In 2006, Haack became involved with White Plains's WESPAC Foundation and was offered a room in its office building as a new place to host shows. This offer made the need to charge at the door, which could be prohibitive for jobless teenagers, less of an issue. "Since I was never really part of B.C. Records, I kind of wanted to feel like I was a part of something," he recalls, and almost immediately, a new slate of bands, groups like the Imitations, the Men Who Lunch, Whack, and the Penny Dreadfuls were drawing younger yet overlapping, equally large crowds to the new space.
For Dave, this always fragmented lineage of bands and audiences began to really fall apart sometime around 2008. "That year, things in Westchester really ended. I kept carrying [WESPAC] on, and there were street-punky kids who wanted to play a lot, but they really weren't as good as the ones who came before them." Two years later, he and his bandmates joined No One and the Somebodies (among others) and left the suburbs for the Bronx and Paul Shaffer's House, while exposing a new group of city kids (this author included) to music that had been coming from upstate for much of the past 10 years.
Reflecting on the new possibilities the city opened up for him, Haack expresses a sentiment common among members of this now-dormant scene, noting that because of the move, they've gone "from being the suburban punk band to a group that's trying to do something really different." Of course, living alongside their heroes had a similarly progressive effect. "That's always the way I measured the success of Genuine Imitations, that our music might not be better than No One and the Somebodies—I don't know if you could do that—but that it could hold a candle to them."
Gray, now living in Brooklyn and crafting jewelry for a living, remains more optimistic about the possibility of Westchester punk in the present day. "I definitely think that wave has dissipated because people have left their homes and moved wherever and either started new bands or stopped playing music. In a way, I think that's true—but for all I know, there could be a show happening right now."
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