The recipe for the underground music scene in Little Rock in the late ’80s and early ’90s wasn’t unique. You can just about close your eyes and point on a map and find a natural confluence of boredom, repression and teen-agers. Throw in a couple guitars, a cheap amp or two and a hand-me-down drum kit and you’re well on your way to ready-made punk-rockers. Still, as a new documentary suggests, what emerged in Little Rock was somehow different.
For starters, teen-aged Little Rock punks made cookies and held garage sales. In the summer of 1992, dozens rallied together to raise money, in remarkably wholesome ways, to put out “Towncraft,” a vinyl compilation that aimed to capture the spirit of the Little Rock scene. Copies found their way across the country. Maximum RocknRoll, the influential national punk-zine, put the compilation in a top 10 list. Rumors floated in about seeing people with tattoos of these teen-agers’ bands’ names. College radio stations put the album in rotation. And high school bands started touring. It was arguably the apex of the scene.
“People felt that they were part of something that was special,” says filmmaker Richard Matson, “and they knew at the time, even as 17- or 18-year-olds, that they what they were doing was different and it meant a lot.”
The president of Matson Films, a New York-based production and distribution company, Matson grew up a part of the early-’90s Little Rock scene as the self-confessed “weak link in a lot of good bands.”
After more than a dozen years away from Little Rock, he returned last year to shoot a documentary on the 5-year anniversary of Max Recordings, the local label run by his longtime friend, Burt Taggart. But shortly after he got to town, he says he realized that the roots of the Max story were the story.
The resulting documentary, also called “Towncraft,” captures the scene with the kind of breadth usually reserved for a Ken Burns documentary. Over the course of six months, Matson interviewed 115 people (full disclosure: I was one of them). Coupled with archival material, the footage amounted to some 190 hours. Add in 2,500 pictures, and you’ve got a near defining portrait of the era.
Just from a cultural history perspective, there are dozens of fascinating nuggets. There’s Mel Hanks earnestly reporting on “How to be a Rock Star” (a three-part series!) —“You don’t have to have a big-time recording studio and be over 30 to make music. You can do it after school, homegrown.” There’s archival footage of “the first big local punk show” held at an unlikely locale, the downtown Woman’s City Club. Even better, Matson culls footage and photos of a punk show/birthday party for Jim Guy Tucker’s daughter that was held in the backyard of the Governor’s Mansion. Neighbors called the police to shut it down.
And for any local music fiend, the film includes the origins and feats and music of dozens of seminal Little Rock bands — Econochrist, Trusty, Chino Horde, Hatful Day, Soophie Nun Squad, the Big Cats, the American Princes.
But more than that, “Towncraft” captures the zeitgeist of the day, the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethic that was so elemental to the punk movement everywhere, but that Little Rockers embraced with staggering tenacity.
“As soon as things did start happening, there was this feeling that, ‘We have to work really hard to keep this going,’ ” says Matson.
No outlet for recorded music? Sixteen-, 17-year-old kids form a record label, File 13 (which still lives on today, in Chicago). No place to buy punk music? A 16-year-old Burt Taggart opens a record store, Long Arm Records. No punk radio shows? Local kids put on a radio show on community radio from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. (!) on Wednesdays.
The idea that the scene could be almost limitlessly self-propelling really emerges as one of the film’s central themes. It’s a patently DIY idea, but coupled with an ambition not often associated with the ethic, and one that might seem disproportionate to an outsider.
The same kind of ethos drives the “Towncraft” project itself. Matson says his company, which he founded in 2004, straddles the divide between the notion that there are scores of opportunities for film distribution within the “exploding digital landscape,” and the idea that there’s also value in the way movies have been made and distributed for years. “Towncraft” leans heavily on the former. In fact, the film might employ the most forward-thinking means of distribution ever for a national film.
“Towncraft” premieres in Little Rock on Friday, May 18, and will screen again the day after in conjunction with the Little Rock Film Festival. But the following Tuesday, May 22, it will be the first film ever to be simultaneously released on DVD, online and in theaters.
Matson says his company was “always emulating that DIY spirit in our distribution. Partially by necessity, but I think it’s more interesting than throwing up a movie with 15 other movies in New York on Friday. That means nothing these days. It takes so much to get people to pay attention to you.”
Each means of distribution will take on a far from typical form. The theatrical release will be staged like a tour, with showings, so far, in 11 different cities throughout the South, Midwest and East Coast. Various Little Rock bands will join local acts for post-screening concerts. The DVD, which will be available early for Little Rockers, after the screenings on Friday and Saturday, will be packaged together with a two-disc 40-track soundtrack and a 60-page book of pictures, flyers from the day and first-person memories of the era. The Internet release will be high quality and in a format that users can download and burn to a disc.
Fittingly, the new “Towncraft” is a collaborative effort between alumni of the scene. Scores of locals provided Matson with old photos and videos. Taggart, of Max Recordings, compiled the soundtrack. Matt Thompson, who put out the “Fluke” zines back in the day, assembled the book, and David Burns, who designed the original “Towncraft” record sleeve, also art-directed the new “Towncraft” materials.
Above all, the film’s website, www.towncraftmovie.com, feeds off the collaborative spirit. Very possibly the most extensive website ever associated with a movie, the site is a veritable repository of the scene, featuring almost exclusively user-generated content — stories, pictures, music and videos on even the most esoteric happenings of the era. An Arkansas Times cover story from 1996, called “Punk! (and there’s no need to be alarmed)” even warrants an entry.
“ ‘Towncraft’ is more than simply a movie — it’s a project,’” Matson says. Twenty years in and with no end in sight, you might say that’s an understatement.