I’m looking at pictures with my kids.
“Dad, wasn’t that your old high school band?” my 24-year-old daughter says to me.
My immediate thought is “No!” Gothic Playground wasn’t some high school band. We played with Flaming Lips and Bad Brains. And we didn’t just play high school dances around Tallahassee. We played in Gainesville, Pensacola and Atlanta. We had a manager (George Barker) and a record. We were legit! And while Jon (our drummer) and I were both at Florida High, the rest of the band were older…long out of high school. And what about bands like Youth Brigade and Teen Idles? Those guys were all teenagers when they started…
Then I started thinking about this day when I walked into my high school English class and sat down. Instead of Mrs. Hunt starting to talk about Their Eyes Were Watching God or Brave New World she greets the class with a copy of the Tallahassee Democrat in her hand. To my horror, she then proceeds to hold up a feature article on Gothic Playground that had just run. The band is posed in front of a chalk board (with the band name written on it). I’m holding my guitar and wearing my Black Flag shirt from the Sweetbay Studios show. I consider crawling under my desk when she decides to read the article, in its entirety, to the class. Mark Hinson said we were “not a band you’re likely to see playing the downtown Hilton anytime soon” and that one of our songs would “clear a fern bar in seconds.” I didn't know what a fern bar was but I sure wished I could clear out of that classroom.
Ok, so I was in high school when I was in Gothic Playground. And yes, there was even a picture of us playing at CA Chapel (warming up for Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto) in the Florida High yearbook on the “Sizzling Seniors” page in 1987. But does that make it my “high school” band?
Some say there were upwards of 3,000 people at our farewell show. Even if it was 300, how many high school bands can say that?
Ok, fine, the show was at the Civitan’s Oldies But Goodies Dance at Lincoln High School…
I guess, like most things, a lot of it is perspective.
I turned 50 recently and things sure look different from here than they did when I was in high school. I remember my father-in-law’s 50th. It was a big deal. A big party. It should have been. He made it to 50! Might as well have been 100 as far as I was concerned then.
I grew up with my mom playing Johnny Cash and Tom Waits and hearing things like Queen, Bad Company and George Thorogood on D-103 (don’t let Gulf 104 trick you into thinking they were always a rock station because they weren’t back then). Anyway, I think it was the summer between 6th and 7th grade when I went to a camp and heard Van Halen, AC/DC and Black Sabbath for the first time…and it felt exactly like the mythologized rock and roll enlightenment. I knew right then I had to get a guitar and make it growl like that.
And just do that.
My dad was really supportive but he also wanted to hedge his bets so his offer was that he would rent (not buy) me an electric guitar and practice amp from Scott Tennyson Guitars (in what we now call midtown). He signed me up for lessons too and I understood the arrangement to be that he would continue paying for things as long as I demonstrated a commitment to it.
I didn’t know guitar brand names then but I knew the guitar he rented me was an off brand. It looked cool but it was really hard to play. I didn’t know what “action” meant either but the jagged metal strings were about a mile off the fretboard. It ended up serving me well and training my hands. And I wore it as a badge of honor when the blood from my fingers crusted up the strings. I convinced my dad this wasn’t a passing interest and he got me a new Electra Phoenix guitar from Tennyson’s and later a Marshall 75 Reverb from Sam Ash on a trip back home to New York City. It’s 30-something years later now; my dad is gone but I still play through that Marshall amp almost every day. And the case fell apart long ago but I still have the Electra guitar too.
According to the unwritten manual of guitar players at the time, I learned “Smoke on the Water” first. It wasn’t right the way I learned to play it but it was close enough that I could hear the chord progression (da-da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da-da, da-da). I learned things like “867-5309” by Tommy Tutone and “No One Like You” by the Scorpions. It quickly became apparent to me that I wasn’t ever gonna figure out “Eruption” by Van Halen or how Randy Rhoads played “Flying High Again.” Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and the rhythm guitars of what I thought then was Angus but was probably as much Malcolm Young of AC/DC became my true north.
When I was standing around the bonfire at that camp in the woods of North Florida at 13-years-old and heard “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” and “Hells Bells” I didn’t know the earth could move under me like that. And it never occurred to me that it would happen again.
But it did.
I don’t remember the exact chain of events that led to me hearing punk or hardcore for the first time. I think it stemmed from my friend James spending the summer at his mom’s place in Redondo Beach in Southern California. What I do remember is coming home from school at Florida High, I guess in 7th or 8th grade, putting Dead Kennedys’ “In God We Trust, Inc.” on my redneck Marine Drill Sergeant stepfather’s kickass stereo, sitting on the blue velvet church pew we used for a couch at the time and being hit with a brutal noise and angst I didn’t know was possible. This Jello guy was really upset about all the stuff he was singing about. I only vaguely paid attention (at 13 or 14) to President Reagan. I didn’t know who Jerry Falwell or Phyliss Schlafly were at all. But you better believe I found out everything I could about the Dead Kennedys and every punk anything I could get a hold of (pre-internet, you know).
Sometimes Jon and I would sneak off campus at lunch and walk up Stadium Drive (Florida High was where the medical school parking lot is now), cross West Tennessee Street and head over to Vinyl Fever (when it was in the shopping center there next to Nature’s Way). We’d flip through the seven-inch punk records on the counter and the 12-inches in the bins. We’d ask the clerks who seemed approachable for advice (I think that’s how I ended up getting “Zen Arcade” by Husker Du and “Group Sex” by the Circle Jerks).
Somehow, I also don’t remember how though it had something to do with Vinyl Fever, I got hooked up with this guy doing a punk radio show at Auburn University (of all places) called “Mystery Playhouse.” I still have the cassette tapes he left for me at Vinyl Fever of one of his shows. That alone turned me on for the first time to everyone from D.O.A. to the Minutemen to MDC to the Ramones and so many more.
In this ecosphere we quickly got wind of our hometown hardcore bands representing for the Capital City: Hated Youth and Sector 4. That was another revelation when I realized a local band could bring the thunder like these bands did when I saw them live at places like Nature’s Way (Sector 4 with Battalion of Saints) and the Union Green at FSU.
As a pretty rudimentary rhythm guitar player I could relate more to Minor Threat, Circle Jerks and Husker Du than Van Halen and Iron Maiden. And I also related more to the “overthrow the government” message of hardcore than the optics of hard rock that was morphing from the legit heaviness of Black Sabbath into the MTV-driven pretty boys of hair metal.
Jon played percussion in the marching band at Florida High and I already had a guitar and amp so we started playing together, learning songs by Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and MDC. In those early days we’d play in Jon’s scorching hot garage, humid with the scent of litter boxes, him on his practice pads wailing away and me with my Marshall combo. I remember watching mosquitoes perch on my arm and get fat with blood in the time it took us to finish “Coup d’état” or “John Wayne Was a Nazi” (which wasn’t long). Eventually, the neighbors complained enough that the cops came and shut us down.
Somehow (probably a flyer at Vinyl Fever) we heard about a bass player. Her name was Kathy Denton. She came over to jam with us at my dad’s place. We played a few of our songs and a few of hers and it went pretty well. She had a thumping punk rhythm to her playing that jived with what we were doing on guitar and drums. She told us she’d recently jammed with a couple other people, a singer and another guitar player (turned out to be Bruce Wilson and Tracy Horenbein). It was decided we would all get together so Jon and I went over to Tracy’s folks’ place out St. Augustine Road and set up in their A-Frame. We played Kathy’s songs and ours and then maybe tried a couple covers Bruce suggested (the Misfits’ “London Dungeons” and Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” come to mind). Later we incorporated “Teenage Nightingales to Wax” by the Three Johns and “Stepping Stone” (our soundcheck song I for years mistakenly assumed was by Minor Threat).
I remember pointing to a piece of typing paper hanging on the wall with a headstone and Van Gogh on it and the name Gothic Playground (with the “t” made into a red cross). “That’s the name of our band,” Tracy said. “We have our first show this Friday night at CA Chapel.” That’s how Gothic Playground got started.
That first show was on June 27, 1986, warming up for a ska band called Freedom of Expression. An interesting opening gambit for Gothic Playground, who George Barker would later describe in Capital City magazine as “combining industrial, death-rock, hardcore and cowpunk” and “probably the most exciting band to come out of Tallahassee – not only to listen to but to watch as well.” Funny that he left out ska or reggae given that one of our staple songs later became “Jah Will Provide.” That one always threw people for a loop.
I don’t know about “industrial” but with a wide range of ages and with members who’d lived in different regions of the U.S. and Canada, we certainly had varied influences ranging from old school punk (Misfits, Dead Boys) to hardcore (Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys) to reggae (Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse) and rock and hard rock ranging from King Crimson and Brian Eno to Black Sabbath and AC/DC.
We played everywhere there was to play in Tallahassee from CA to Planet 10 to Club Downunder to the Musical Moon and even the Miccosukee Land Co-op where Bruce (who worked at Dominoes) littered the dance floor with pizza coupons raining down like confetti.
We went on to play with such local luminaries as X-Band, YWB, Paisley Death Camp, Thrasher/Undecided, Paul Suhor, Insect Fear, Headhunters, Squid Row and Darth Vader’s Church.
According to Capital City, Gothic Playground and the Slut Boys were the last show before the demise of CA. I don’t remember playing with Slut Boys but I guess we did. Twenty years later, in 2007, Jon put a Gothic Playground page on MySpace and someone posted, “I attended FSU in 1986 and my life was forever changed when my friend dragged me to CA Chapel to witness Gothic Playground and the Slut Boys…I saw Husker Du, The Ramones and the Flaming Lips that year in Tallahassee but my most memorable shows were the CA shows.”
We played with panhandle greats like Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto and national and international acts including Die Kreuzen, BGK, Dead Milkmen, Flaming Lips, Camper Van Beethoven and Youth of Today.
One of our more memorable shows was a Fat Harry Production in Gainesville on a bill with Corrosion of Conformity. I remember ambulances taking some audience members away after violence at the show and me trying to get religious protesters to come in and hear us play. I still have a button one of them gave me that I’ve never really understood. It says, “Smile God Hates Sin.”
The first change in our lineup came when bassist Kathy Denton “ran off with her boyfriend” (according to one of our promo pieces) and was replaced by FSU music major Wayne Higgins who’d recently returned from playing with a band in Dallas, Texas. Wayne later posted on a forum called GuitarNoise about the experience.
“We played this battle of the bands thing at a place called the Musical Moon in Tallahassee, FL. About 1,600 screaming kids showed up. We won the contest. The money disappeared, as did every penny Gothic Playground ever made. 2 and a half years and I got $25. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Bruce’s grandparents were in town for that show and ended up being interviewed by the Tallahassee Democrat. His grandmother, Mandy Wilson, said “I think it’s marvelous” and that the crowd were “well behaved.” She opined that “we were wilder than that when we used to jitterbug.” But his grandfather, Gene, said, “It’s too loud. I had to turn down both my hearing aids. They’re all going to go deaf.”
For the majority of the band, the gig we were most excited about was a chance to open up for Bad Brains at CA. We were originally scheduled to play with 7 Seconds (also super cool but not the Bad Brains) but George decided we couldn't be on every bill so we begged off the 7 Seconds show in favor of sharing a stage with what I thought then (and still think today) was one of the greatest, most original and most powerful bands ever.
The Bad Brains front man, Joseph (HR), ended up sticking around and hanging out with us for a while in Tallahassee. We took a trip with him to Panama City Beach and I thought we might all end up in the Bay County Jail when he suddenly started praying and chanting with his chosen sacraments right there on the beach.
One remarkable thing that happened was that Jon and I wrote and recorded a song with him. Very few people have ever heard it. We even had serious talks with HR at the time about signing on to his label (Olive Tree Records) and playing with Bad Brains at a big MTV Spring Break show in Panama City Beach but neither came to pass.
In ’86 we managed to sneak into the recording studio in the Diffenbaugh building on FSU campus and record a ten song demo cassette that was released with a live show from CA on the B-side.
We were featured frequently in the now defunct Capital City magazine (they once described us as “a local outfit who, in a short time, have built a feverously rabid following”) and the much missed Florida Flambeau (who listed us as one of the “high points” of 1986). We even got a mention in the punk rock bible, MR&R and, of course, a big writeup in Trojan Talk (the Lincoln High School paper) and our picture in the Florida High yearbook!
In addition to an original sound, we became known for our what one article described as “a thrash-rock group who do a lot of local advertising with spray-paint” but even more for Bruce’s outrageous stage antics and artistic flyers.
As the self-appointed band historian I tried to collect as many of Bruce’s original (sometimes even hand-painted) flyers as I could. One of the coolest ones he did was hanging on the front door at CA for one of our shows. I confirmed with George and Bruce that I could have it after the show. As soon as we finished breaking down our gear and loading out I went straight to the door only to find one of our “fans” already peeling the tape off the door to take it. It was an awkward interaction. I was both flattered they wanted it and didn’t want to lose it. At the end of the night let’s just say they wanted it more than I did. (If that was you and you’re reading this get in touch with me. Maybe we can work something out.)
We stayed busy for that first year from the summer of ’86 to the spring of ’87. On May 1st of 1987 we played our farewell show at Lincoln High School. Five days later, on May 6th, we entered ESP Studios. We recorded 17 songs live on two tracks (and in just two sessions) with Fred Chester at the helm. On May 8th we parted for the last time in this incantation of the band. Bruce, who’d ended up in Tallahassee because he was working on the movie “Something Wild,” moved to Boston, and Jon went off to college at Tulane. And just like that, the rollercoaster ride seemed to be coming to an end.
Then, after a brief hiatus, the remaining band members decided we wanted to forge ahead with Tracy taking over on vocals. So we found a new drummer, Brian O’Donnell (whose influences ranged from The Police to Chick Corea to Led Zeppelin; he later went on to play in Funk Bible and moved out to California). An article in the Flambeau from August of ’87 said that “Tallahassee’s biggest hardcore band is currently undergoing a shake-up that will probably alter their sound, but their new album is due out in September.”
It’s an understatement to say the personnel changes would alter our sound. Just as the LP was released with our “old sound,” the new version of Gothic Playground began writing and rehearsing songs that took us away from any vestige of hardcore or even punk and moved us more into a progressive rock or college radio sound.
The ad for our show at Mardi Graz (the short-lived club in Tallahassee, not the annual New Orleans Carnival), said “if you haven’t caught their album or heard them on V-89, tonight come check out one red-hot, up-and-coming, progressive band!” I think there were only two or three paying customers that night.
While the Democrat was still calling us “Tallahassee’s favorite hardcore band” the Flambeau reviewed our LP but didn’t find it to their liking, calling it “an overload of violence, death and nihilism” that came off sounding like a “self-parody.” I don’t think it occurred to us that songs like “My Baby, She’s So Cadaverous” or “Death and Dying, Oh Depression” would be taken seriously. The Democrat was more enthusiastic, describing the album as “the perfect stocking-stuffer for the skinhead skateboarder in the family” and going on to call us “Tallahassee’s fastest and best slam band.”
The Democrat’s Mark Hinson even stuck with us when we put out another demo cassette with the new line-up saying we “still had plenty of punch.”
We only ended up playing a couple more times after recording that new demo tape in May of 1988. Our last real show was a memorable one, on the steps of the courthouse in Quincy, Florida of all places. I remember seeing an elderly Black woman doing the limbo in front of the stage as we played. She had a big smile on her face.
That was a pretty strange gig for us but perhaps the strangest was when we played at a frat party at Beta Theta Pi on FSU campus. It was culture shock for the band and frat crowd alike. They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. Fraternities were an anathema to the vague but vigorously held value-system we had. Greek life wasn’t for us cowpunk death-rock types. But we had our own fraternity, of sorts. I recently wrote a song about it and I’ll let that be my last words on the topic of my high school band.
Fraternity of rock
Those of us who survived adolescence
belong to a brotherhood
That said fuck the man
And fuck your boss
And anyone standing in the righteous path
Of our rock and roll
We all had guitars
And concert tees
And bootleg import vinyl
We were more than devotees
We had the password
To the secret clubhouse
We had our own record out
We opened up for Bad Brains for Christ’s sake
We lost what money that we ever had
But we didn’t care
We had the keys and we were racing down the track
We were the wolves of the pack
And we all had the jackets
For the fraternity of rock
top left (Wayne onstage at the Musical Moon); top center (George looks on from the control room as Jon records drum tracks for the first demo at Diffenbaugh); top right (sign for the show at Mardi Graz) center left (Bruce, Jon and Kathy on stage at CA when Gothic Playground played on the bill with Maggot Sandwich and Stevie Stiletto); center right (Damien, Brian, Wayne and Tracy on stage at the Musical Moon) bottom left (Tracy on vocals at the Musical Moon); bottom center (Damien playing on the courthouse steps in Quincy); bottom right (a Quincy local doing the limbo)
top left (Brian onstage at the Musical Moon); top center (Wayne); top right (Gothic Playground graffiti on a building near CA) center left (Jon onstage at CA); center right (Tracy and Bruce onstage for the farewell show) bottom left (George, Bruce and Kathy in the A-frame where Gothic Playground rehearsed); bottom center (ticket to Teen Night at the Moon and below that, Damien on stage at farewell show); bottom right (backstage pass at the Musical Moon)