Lisa and Duwan photo by Duwan Dunn

So Fun: Duwan Dunn and Greg Kessler Shape and Share the Early St. Louis Punk Scene by Daniel Makagon

Feb 15, 2022

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Duwan Dunn was an active participant when the punk scene was forming in St. Louis. Her photographs documented the creative DIY efforts that helped energize early converts and provided a record of a scene that would change as hardcore became a more dominant subgenre. Greg Kessler discovered punk as both the sound and scene were shifting. His early excitement about the music blended with a broader curiosity about history and a collector’s impulse. After learning about various ways that work from photographers like Duwan could be shared through digital archives, Greg established the Archive of St. Louis Punk. I did not know much about the scene in St. Louis, so it was exciting to talk with these two punks. Duwan and Greg reflect on the reasons why documenting local scenes and caring about the preservation of punk materials can provide a historical record of the diverse ways that punks do DIY.

How did each of you get into punk?

Duwan: Way back in the late ’70s, like ’78, I was fifteen then and I was interested in rock’n’roll, but I just wasn’t hearing anything on the radio that really stuck with me. It was all these late-’70s over-produced bands like Foreigner and Journey. I’d go out and buy some of those albums, but it really wasn’t resonating with me. I guess the first thing that I can say that I got into that was kind of punk… I had an issue of Rolling Stone and read a review of the Tom Robinson Band. They were from Britain, they were political, and I thought it was really interesting that music and politics could connect. I bought their album and I played it to death. Then my brother saw the Ramones at a club. He went to see the Runaways. I think they opened for the Ramones or vice versa. He decided that I would like the Ramones and he got their record for me for Christmas. And it was just all over after that. I found the music I’m looking for and so I started buying more punk stuff.

Greg Kessler

Greg: You know that scene in SLC Punk! where the two guys have the argument in the basement? That is almost exactly my life. I played D&D with some guys and at the time I was wearing bell bottoms and listening to a lot of Bob Seger. And they gave me hell about it constantly. I don’t remember what we were doing, but we met some girls. There was a girl, I think she was a junior, and I was absolutely just blown away. I asked about her on the way home. And my friend Jay said, “Oh, she won’t like you. She’s into punk rock guys.” I was living in Granite, Ill. and this was like 1983. Being the jackass that I am, I went to school the next day where I worked in the library. I dug through the magazines, I pulled up a bunch of articles about punk rock, and started printing them off microfiche. That’s apparently how you become punk. [laughs] It in some ways had the same effect as Dungeon and Dragons did because it was a whole crowd that didn’t fit in in Granite. In the space of about six months, I bought straight leg jeans and I bought a cassette of the Ramones’ Subterranean Jungle. It was between that and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. I think I made the right decision for my own personality.

Daniel: And how do each of you go from hearing the music to becoming involved in the local scene?

Vintage Vinyl photo by Duwan Dunn

Duwan: There was a very small scene in St. Louis at that time in the late ’70s. They called themselves the Fun 100. I lived way out in the suburbs and would drive downtown or to South City. Bands played in American Legion halls, bowling alleys, and stuff like that. That became my social life because I didn’t really have much at my high school. That became really important to me; I thought I found what I was looking for.

Greg: There was an under twenty-one dance club called Animal House that was in the old Mark Twain Theater in North St. Louis. My sister Kelly used to show pictures of it to her students. She would show them me and my jackass friends with, you know, giant asymmetrical hair and they would think that it was an image from movie. She’s like, “No, that’s my idiot brother.” Anyway, on Friday nights the bottom floor was basically a big new wave club. I started going to that and it just snowballed. We started going to record stores in St. Louis real quick. Punk became so central to everything, part of my whole worldview.

Black Flag came through town in the summer of ’85 and that was the first hardcore show I went to. Then in January of ’86 Naked Raygun played at Southern Illinois University (SIU), Edwardsville. It was kind of weird, the people who I saw play in the opening bands became a huge part of the scene and real good friends, contributors to the archive, and the guitar player for one of the bands ended up being the bass player from my band. He also put out our first record.

In late ’85 my friend, Jim Harper said, “I’m going to start a band and you’re going to be the singer.” I went back to school—I was going to school about an hour away—and I started writing songs. It took forever for us get started, mostly because we kept picking people who didn’t play instruments. Our first show was in March of ’87 and our last show was in ’92. The first four or five shows we were the Beer Frogs and then changed the name to Snake Ranch. Our first show in St. Louis was at a place called Bernard’s Pub. Everybody played Bernard’s. We played with the Rollins Band, HR, Dayglo Abortions, and Social Distortion. And we played every weekend, either there or somewhere else around St. Louis. There was a big place in North County and we opened for All, we opened for Jesus Lizard.

Daniel: Let’s talk a little bit about the early scene in St. Louis before we get into Duwan’s photography and Greg’s efforts to create an archive. Can you talk a little bit about how the scene developed?

Greg: I wasn’t there, it’s before my time, but the original scene grew out of a radio show in ’76 at Washington University (Wash U). The Wash U radio station KWUR was so low wattage that they opened the studio foyer up and put a speaker out in the hallway. People from all over the city showed up to hang out. There’s a guy named Dave Thomas and he was having somebody in New York send him records. It was the first time anybody heard this stuff in St. Louis, so they were all hanging out and the original local bands all started in that room. The first show to come to St. Louis was Magazine. They said there were one hundred people who showed up: the Fun 100, as Duwan mentioned. A lot of those guys and women are still involved, but it was always a small scene and there weren’t a lot of places to play. You could go to other cities and walk down a street and hit four or five clubs. To hit five clubs in St. Louis in one night, you were going to have to drive three hours. You couldn’t walk around and go club to club; it just didn’t exist. I think that kept it small, which, you know, is good and bad.

Richard and Amy photo by Duwan Dunn

Duwan: The thing that is so significant to me about St. Louis is that it was so DIY. In the beginning it was such a small crowd and people were pretty tightly connected. The scene definitely went from the eclectic New York/British punk to hardcore punk. Honestly, I really was never that into hardcore, but I did go to the shows because I did enjoy photographing them. And all my friends were into it. Like I said, at the beginning it was a very small scene, very DIY. The bands were more eclectic, a lot of arts involved. The scene morphed into something less diverse. I still liked my friends, and I still enjoyed the scene, but there were more big bands. Of course, there were more all-ages shows. Early on, if you wanted to see a show and you were sixteen years old, you had to sneak into a club. As it became more popular, there were venues because I think the age of the kids into it became younger. In the late ’70s most of the people I knew were five or six years older than me. I left St. Louis in 1988 and kind of was already out of the scene then.

Daniel: Duwan, when did you start making photos, and how soon was it before you started focusing on punk?

Duwan: I went to college in 1981. At first I was studying art and then I wanted to study journalism. None of that worked out. I had a couple friends who studied photography and that seemed interesting, so I tried that, and I really liked photography. I took a lot of classes but I also took a lot of photos of my friends, who were all in the scene. Then eventually I went to shows and took photographs.

Daniel: Were you taking punk-related photos for your classes or were you taking the photos for yourself at that point?

The Bomb-out photo by Duwan Dunn

Duwan: If I had something that seemed to fit into an assignment at school, I would submit it. I had an assignment once that was called “honest emotion” and I took this picture at a show of a stage diver and these people in this crowd; a woman was turned around and there was this big smile on her face. That went over really well. So, some of the stuff I would submit for class but a lot of it was just for me. The gang I hung out with loved to pose and do photographs. We had this place we called the Bomb Out and it was kind of outside of the city, an old water treatment plant or something that had been shut down. We’d drive out there to these weird buildings that were abandoned. Everybody would go out there and they posed with whatever weird stuff was out there. So, we’d just take pictures and then, of course, I’d do the stuff at that shows, which was always a fun way to participate with the music.

Daniel: One of the interesting things you’re describing is that you photographed punks living their lives. Most of the other photographers I have interviewed for this series say they regretted that their early photos almost exclusively focused on the shows and that they didn’t spend enough time documenting the scene. Obviously, it’s hard to channel yourself back to the early 1980s, but to the best of your recollection, what inspired you to make those photographs versus only shooting shows?

stage diver photo by Duwan Dunn

Duwan: My friends. [laughs] I documented my friends really well, but I don’t feel like I documented the scene so well. I’m basically a shy person. I think a lot of shy people get into photography because it’s a way to participate and be part of the group. There were places where people hung out and I wish I had photographed more of that. But I did photograph my friends a lot. We’d go out and I always had the camera. Sometimes it would be photographs of us just hanging out and sometimes we’d go to locations and we all posed. Some of the photographs I have are just kind of silly. I have a photograph of all my friends, male and female, lined up at a urinal with one behind the other. They were very creative people who I was lucky to hang out with.

Greg: The cool thing about Duwan’s stuff is it falls into a few categories. There’s live stuff, and I think those are some of the best pictures ever taken in St. Louis. The photos get everybody excited because everybody knows who is in the photos: who the guy on the stage was and that kind of thing. Then there were also arty pictures she took: people in graveyards and stuff like that. And then there are just pictures of her and what was the small scene, hanging out.

Daniel: Duwan, can you talk a bit about your process? What were your strategies for making photographs and how did your eye develop over time?

Duwan: I don’t know that I had a strategy. I was trying to make photographs with people in them. I always liked photographing people because people make the photos more interesting. I was always working with lots of photographs ’cause I was never happy with them. With digital there’s a lot more you can do. But I was always real concerned about how the photograph was developed, how it was processed. I would print lots of photographs ’cause I wanted to get that one thing to pop.

I think people think you take a photograph and that’s it. It’s like, “Oh, look at this photograph. No filter.” Well, it’s raw material because the camera is never going to reproduce the scene exactly. The camera is never going to reproduce what your eye sees. It just can’t; it’s impossible. So, my idea is to take a photograph and then create what I saw. Maybe enhancing it a little bit: “This is what was in my head when I saw this.” I’m trying to present to you what it was. I pull out the shadows, isolate things. You know, with your eye, you are isolating things all the time.

As far as bands go, I photographed more hardcore bands than I ever did anything else. And I really enjoyed that because I really enjoy working in this sort of low light. It was all black and white and I liked pushing the film. I’d push the ASA so I could photograph in lower light. I really love those kinds of photos. And there was always so much to photograph. About your strategy question, at shows, I usually tried to stand near the stage ’cause that’s where the light is good and that’s where you can see the performers and that’s where the action is.

TSOL photo by Duwan Dunn

Daniel: But that’s also where the stage divers land. [laughs]

Duwan: One of the things that was really interesting that I found… one time I was back from the stage, standing on a chair so I could see over the crowd to photograph the band and the mosh pit. This whole gang of skinheads just came right towards me, knocked me off my chair, and just turned around and went back. One guy stood there and gave me a hand up. So, people were cool. They might knock you down, but they will help you up. And I had one time where I had an ex-boyfriend harassing me; he kept on stage diving into me. People told him to cool it. It was a small scene in St. Louis. Everybody knew everybody and nobody really wanted to hurt anybody.

Daniel: Duwan mentioned the shift from a more eclectic punk scene to a more specific hardcore scene, which mirrors what happened throughout the United States. I want to talk about your archival work, Greg, and what led to creating the archive, but let’s dwell in photography and punk imagery for a bit longer. What’s your sense of changes in punk images in St. Louis as the scene matured?

Greg: I think this goes along with early punk; the photographers seem to be more grounded in some sort of artistic vision. They didn’t just look at the band and take a picture. The pictures are art. Duwan was one of the few people in St. Louis who were taking pictures like that. John Korst—who did Jet Lag, and Mark Skinner, who photographed a lot of new wave bands—were two others. These people weren’t professional photographers at that time, but they were real photographers. There’s another Facebook page called St. Louis Concerts from the ’70s and ’80s. Tons of pictures from people that just took their cameras to concerts, and the photos don’t look great. So those are two different kinds of things. You look at pictures of Snake Ranch on stage and it seems like somebody took a picture of their kids at the beach. Everybody’s got their back turned and one out of every twenty pictures is actually, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.”

Photography is hard to get from people for the archive, so I have a better handle on the graphic design stuff. From ’76 to ’87 you can actually see the graphics get worse. The people in ’76 thought they had to be as good as Poco. By ’86, it was like, “Well, screw that. I can handwrite this, put my thumbprint on it, draw a pony, and I’m done as long as the pony has got a hole in its head.” The releases got as rough as the music. Then you get to about ’92 and people are making money. Then software becomes more accessible, and you can do things online. And that starts to get very nice again. Now what I’m finding is people are trying to make their stuff look as shitty as it did in ’87.

Noise fanzine #1

Daniel: Greg mentioned Jet Lag, which was one of the early St. Louis zines. Can you talk about various ways you shared your photos, Duwan?

Duwan: I was part of helping Jet Lag get off the ground, but very shortly after I was not a part of it. I may have had some photographs in that zine. When I was photographing the hardcore bands, I did a lot of photographs for this fanzine called Head in a Milk Bottle. That was just a guy. I don’t know how much distribution he had, and I don’t know how long the fanzine lasted. He was always really happy to get my photographs.

I did a photo show with a friend of mine who was in the punk scene. She was a painter and a visual artist. We made a film that was bombed out buildings in St. Louis and there was a clip in there from a film I made at a Circle Jerks show. The Circle Jerks thing was pretty cool because there was this woman beating up this guy in the crowd. [laughs]

Terminal Rage #1 fanzine

Daniel: Greg, let’s talk a bit about the archive. How and why did you start this project?

Greg: There are two things. I have always been history person. And I’m—I wouldn’t say a hoarder—but a collector. When I was in high school, I started tearing flyers off the lampposts. The first one I took off was Hüsker Dü and Get Smart at Mississippi Nights. My room was covered. Then my band started playing and I held on to those things. I’m just sort of a natural saver. If we did something, it just went in the box. My bachelor’s degree is in history, but when you get your history degree, they don’t tell you that you can study fun stuff. I also was a high school librarian and the kids were all using MySpace. Okay, so I need to know what this is because kids are talking about it. I made a MySpace account, and I put two or three flyers on it. Then I immediately got a bunch of emails: “Oh my god, we threw everything away. Do you have our flyers from like ten years ago? Can you put some of them on the page?”

Then I decided that I was going to do my master’s in history. I took an online archiving class and I thought, “I have all this stuff so I can start putting this stuff online.” The thing with punk is that it disappears because people stay involved for four or five years. Then they move. That stuff all goes in a box, gets put in the back of the closet, and is never seen again. I discovered that if I really wanted to be a good historian, I needed to be able to look at punk the way you look at jazz. And you need to be able to look at thirty or forty years. Most of the books that get published I compare to those big biographies of MacArthur. You get these books about the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, or something like Please Kill Me. I’ve read it three times because I needed some of the information, but every time I get angrier and angrier. If you read it, you think that there were ten bands in New York, and that’s it. It always reminds me of a yearbook that the cool kids put together and ignores everything else. And I thought, the only way I’m going to get this information is to loop in a local scene.

Daniel: Given what you said about people cycling out of punk and shoving their stuff in a box—or worse, throwing stuff away—I assume it’s not easy to track down materials in general but especially materials of good quality. What are some of the challenges you have faced with building the archive?

Greg: It started out as, “Can I borrow your crap?” Let me scan it and then I’ll give it back. One of the nice things about being in a band is that I knew a lot of people. We weren’t the best band in the world, but we got along with everybody. People trusted me. They trusted that when I said, I will bring this back, they were going to get it back. And it always came back in better shape. If it came to me in a shoe box then it went back in a tub, nicely folded and put in sleeves and stuff. More and more people got excited. Not only when they saw their flyers, but when they heard their cassettes. They hadn’t heard their own music in twenty years.

Debby Mikles and Robin Kozlen were part of the Fun 100 and the core that hung out at KWUR. Robin worked at Bernard’s Pub. She was just a wonderful person, knew everybody. Robin passed away and Debby had her biker jacket and wanted a bar to like display it because Robin always worked in bars. But nobody was picking up on it, so I finally told Debby: “Look, if you can’t find anybody, I will take care of it.” And what I tell everybody is: “When you give me something, when I’m done with this, it will all go to a museum or a library.” I’m not going to sell it; it’s not going to get traded. So, she gave me Robin’s jacket, and that was the first physical thing that anyone had donated. I had bought stuff from people, and on eBay. It meant a lot that she trusted me because everybody knows Debby, everyone trusts Debby. I don’t know if that was what prompted this, but not long after I got an email from Duwan. She said, “I have all this stuff and I don’t know what to do with it. Would you like it?” It kind of went back and forth for a while and it took time because I think her stuff was scattered around the East Coast. Finally, she asked for my address. It showed up, and it was thirty pounds. My Jet Lag collection doubled or tripled in one day. My flyer collection just exploded, there were some seven inches in there, and there were a few pictures. She trusted me to take care of it even though I didn’t know her. Then, little by little people started giving me things.

The hardest thing to do is talk to somebody after someone’s passed away, but I’m so nervous about things ending up in the trash. And I also understand why people might not want to give away their stuff. It’s horrible to ask people to give me their memories. You know, “Can I have all the crap from your twenties?” I always see myself as the old lady from the historical society who wants to get in your attic. But I’m terrified because I just can’t say how many times I’ve talked to people: “Oh yeah, I had that single, but I threw sixty of them away last year.” So, there’s a part of me that, you know, I have to work myself into it. It doesn’t happen very often but, “Please”—and I say this online a lot—“please don’t throw it away. I will come to your house and take it away.” And there’s nothing too small. If you’ve got an envelope full of ticket stubs, I’ll come get them. You have you have a bass drum, I’ll come get it. T-shirts are really hard, because people paint their houses in them and then they disintegrate. Anything someone wants to give me I’ll take, but I try and tell them: “I would rather you keep it, and you love it.”

Motion Sickness fanzine #1

Daniel: Duwan, as Greg just said, you made choice to send your stuff to him when most people tend to hang onto their things. What inspired you to make that choice?

Duwan: I had been carrying around these boxes of paper for thirty-five years: flyers, fanzines, newspaper clippings, photos. When I started traveling full-time ten years ago (first on a sailboat and then in a van), I got rid of all of my stuff except for these boxes of stuff. I realized that I couldn’t keep them if I didn’t have a house to store them in. My only heir is a niece. I figured that when I died, she would look at all this stuff and—since it had no value you to her—she’d promptly throw it away. It wasn’t worth keeping even in a storage unit. So, I started scanning things and gave all the originals to Greg. I appreciate that Greg is documenting this amazing time in St. Louis’ music history and I’m glad that I had a good home for all my bits of paper.

Daniel: We’ve been talking for a while, so let me ask each of you one last question. Greg, you mentioned earlier that one reason people trust you with their materials is that you promise not to sell or trade the materials. What are your long-term plans for the archive?

Greg: It makes me crazy to think that I could give this stuff to a university or historical society, and it would sit because they take a long time to process materials. The first thing they would do is take the site down. They would say that it is a copyright nightmare. I’ve had a couple of places ask me for the collection. They didn’t want to build their own collection. They thought, “Oh, we’ll just see if he is ready to donate.” No, not at all. I know both of these places; it would just go into a hole. If you wanted to travel there, you could look at the materials. That’s not what this is for. The idea is that you can sit down in Marrakech and say, “What did punk rock look like in St. Louis in 1977?” Then you could do all the research, because all the zines are on there, full text. If I had more room, I would put up full albums. But I usually put up two or three songs just because the hosting site charges an insane amount of money if you want to go above five gigabits or something like that. If it comes time that I can’t find some place take it over, I’ll find another historian. I don’t foresee that happening for another twenty years. I’m not looking to break up the collection to donate a single piece, except to loan to some place if they needed it.

Like Duwan said, she had worked on Jet Lag really early and she had kept the paste-up boards for issue two from 1981. They were the only ones that survived; there was nothing else. Right now the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park has a big sound exhibit and that’s hanging in there. It wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Duwan. The museum also used our site and made a pillar of flyers, a DIY section. Freddie King’s guitars are in there and Tina Turner’s outfit. Johnny Johnson and Chuck Berry are featured and one of Josephine Baker’s outfits is in there. Then you go around a corner and there are flyers. It’s really cool because my band had our first practice in ’85 or ’86 and here we are in the museum.

Daniel: That is really cool. And Duwan, you said earlier that you left St. Louis in 1988. Are you still making photos?

Duwan: I left because I wanted to live somewhere else. I’ve been traveling full time for ten years now, like I said earlier. I photograph the places where we go. It’s more scenery. Recently I’ve really gotten into photographing birds. It’s like a treasure hunt to find the birds. Then you get to watch them. It’s sort of like going to a show: you watch, and you look for that moment to take a picture. Wait for the birds do something interesting or unpredictable and those are the best photographs. I know that doesn’t seem very punk but living in a van is kind of punk rock. [laughs]

Duwan photo notes:

Lisa and Duwan
I’m on the right. My friend Lisa is in the mirror. We are in my dorm room. Photo by me.

Richard and Amy sitting on the wall along the Delmar Loop in U-City, St. Louis. The Loop in University City and this wall which fronted a parking lot between the Tivoli Theater (an art house movie theater) and Street Side Records was a hangout for punks in the ’80s.  My camera was loaded with infrared film this day.

Richard and Dana at the Bomb-out. The Bomb-out was an abandoned building complex in a rural area outside the city. I think it was a water treatment plant or something. We’d go out there and take pictures.

Stage diver at a Black Flag show. I used this photo for a class assignment to capture honest emotion.

Pete, Dane, Russ, and Sandra at Vintage Vinyl. Vintage Vinyl, an independent record store in University City, has been in operation for forty years. I shot a series of photos at Vintage Vinyl for a documentary photography class. I didn’t end up choosing a different subject for my assignment and didn’t end up using the photos, but Vintage Vinyl did use this photo in ads for the store.

Greg Kessler graphics note:

Since we talked about the graphics evolving, here are three zines from three decades: 1978, 1985, and 1996. Noise was the first zine in St. Louis. Gary Phillips singer from Whoppers Taste Good worked on both Terminal Rage and Motion Sickness (which was his baby).

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