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Turn On the Lights, the Party's Over

A fond look back at the annual blowout that defined Chicago's garage-punk scene by a guy who's pretty sure he was there.

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Horizontal Action Blackout

Empty Bottle, 5/24-5/27

The Horizontal Action Blackout started out in 2001 as three nights of shows attended by a few dozen local garage-rock hedonists. Since then it's ballooned into a four-day, four-night binge of bands, beer, and booze that brings in fans from all over the country, even from overseas.

Starting the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the Empty Bottle will host the sixth and final Blackout, and the weekend's bursting at the seams. Headlining acts include the venerable Cheater Slicks and the reunited Oblivians with Mr. Quintron (for a complete schedule see Section 3), but the four-day passes available at the Bottle's Web site sold out in three hours back in March before a single band had been announced. Friday and Saturday's advance tickets were gone not long after, and now all four shows are sold out.

A new mini festival dubbed the Whiteout--booked not by the Blackout folks but by Darius Hurley of Criminal IQ Records--has sprung up to capitalize on the ridiculous influx of out-of-town fans and bands with a string of early-evening shows Thursday through Saturday. It says a lot about how big the Blackout's gotten that bands as good as the Feelers and the Catholic Boys--and others from as far away as Paris--end up playing piggyback gigs up the street at the Mutiny.

The last Blackout is also a bittersweet farewell to Horizontal Action, the rock 'n' sex mag that brought the party back to the Chicago music scene. What started out in 1997 as a xeroxed fanzine with a print run of 251 (after the number of men porn starlet Annabel Chong screwed for her record-breaking 1995 gang-bang video) became, by its 15th and final issue last year, an international underground institution of sorts, with a circulation in the thousands. A refreshingly unserious resource for info about new bands (and their masturbation habits), Horizontal Action gave first interviews to the likes of the Ponys, the Black Lips, the Lost Sounds, the Spits, the A Frames, and the Tyrades--in short, the groups setting the standard for modern garage punk--and printed piles of knowledgeable record reviews by folks with porno noms de plume like Howie Feltersnatch, Areola Chuffington, and Rich Drippings.

As the magazine grew, the Blackout grew too, moving from the Beat Kitchen to the Subterranean and then jumping to the Bottle in 2004, when Horizontal Action events coordinator Matt Williams started working there. So why stop now?

"Now that the Blackout is getting too big for the Empty Bottle, we don't want it to be any bigger than that," says Horizontal Action cofounder Todd Novak, aka Todd Killings. "That would mean it's no longer a party with a bunch of our friends all getting loaded like we want it to be. Then you'd have bouncers and everybody getting patted down. It would be a whole different ordeal, Ticketmaster involved, that kind of shit."

Brett "Uncle Ted" Cross, the magazine's publisher, also wants to be sure to quit while he's on top. "It's better to give it a rest now, while we're still successful," he says, "than to eventually become known as the creepy old rock 'n' roll porn guys."

Full disclosure: despite my beer-damaged memory, I'm positive I've been involved with Horizontal Action and the Blackout in such incriminating ways that I've ruined any future I might've had in politics. To co-opt a baby boomer cliche: if you can remember a Horizontal Action show, you probably weren't there.

Thanks to photographic evidence, I "remember" drumming in the Functional Blackouts while hanging brain through the fly of my red pants. A picture of me ended up on the back cover of Horizontal Action a couple years ago, and Uncle Ted had helpfully whitened my scrotum in Photoshop so it'd show up better in newsprint. If pressed, I can "remember" singing a cappella versions of the Angry Samoans' "Ballad of Jerry Curlan" and the Stones' "Emotional Rescue" in a shower of spit and beer as the 2003 Blackout emcee (a performance that also got me slandered in the pages of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll as a "homophobe" and in Razorcake as a "Chris Farley wannabe").

I can just barely "recall" accidentally stage diving into Miss Alex White's big red 'fro during the Testors' reunion show at the 2004 Blackout. And of course I "remember" waking up still drunk to find Bacci-pizza-and-PBR vomit trailing from the mouths of anonymous garage-rock dorks from parts unknown, then opening my freezer to discover the octopus that Timmy Vulgar from Human Eye had worn on his head during their set the night before (kindly returned in a bucket by the Bottle's Rob Lowe after he hurled it into the audience), frozen solid with its tentacles suctioned to the white walls.

As a corrective to my natural tendency to wax sentimental about the good old days, I decided to talk to somebody who wasn't fucked up the whole time--somebody who had to be the babysitter. I chose Arman Mabry, an Empty Bottle employee who's assisted with bouncer duties at the Blackout since 2004 (one of his bands, Galactic Inmate, is opening the first night of this year's fest).

"There's always something that stands out," Mabry says, "but last year was the coup de grace as far as that goes. We were cleaning up at the end of the night, and as we swept the piles of garbage one of the bartenders started retching and screaming. I look over to him and he's pointing at the ground towards an obviously used condom that wasn't more than five feet from the bar. Since all the nights were sold out and the bar was pretty packed, it would be possible for a couple to get it on surrounded by so many people. Or someone maybe just dropped it there. Who knows."

The Bottle reliably sells more alcohol at a Blackout gig than on any other night of the year--last year a back-of-the-envelope calculation put the figure for bottled beer alone at around six per person per show--but of course that leads more or less directly to drunk, art-damaged dummyheads getting up to no good onstage, backstage, in the bathrooms, in the alleys, and in the photo booth. The Bottle staff has come up with a few methods to keep a lid on the madness. "Just the fact that every retard in America gravitates towards it every year," Mabry says, "we get plenty of people who're way drunk, and we've devised a system of 'time out' when they get too rowdy. We don't want to kick people out for having fun, so we just make them sit by the door for a few minutes. I eventually made a dunce cap."

Bottle staffer Erik Westra started compiling a list of rules after the first night of the 2005 Blackout, though many of them are the sort of injunctions nobody would think to propose till after they'd already been broken. Highlights so far include "3. Squid (live/dead) will not be allowed inside," "6. No lighting shit on fire," and "8. Also, who brought pickle juice last night? That was dumb."

Rock 'n' roll in Chicago needed a reminder that the word itself started out as a slang term for sex--and that the music started out as something for kids to dance to. Horizontal Action provided that and then some, but the magazine's most important role was perhaps as a launching pad for new bands, especially locals--it put Chicago on the garage-punk map and helped foster the most creatively crazy music scene I've ever been part of.

Jim "Hollywood" McCann of the Tyrades (and the late Baseball Furies) knows from his own experience that Horizontal Action was good for more than a nice set of ta-tas: "It was definitely the focal point for our crappy little solar system," he says. "Todd and Brett were always buying records before anybody else and were cued into good music, and unlike other underground music zines, they were centered on fun and making friends." That group of friends became the nucleus of a larger audience for the band, and in June the Tyrades will be kicking off the second day of this year's Intonation Music Festival. "So now, instead of failing in front of 100 people, we get to fail in front of 7,000," McCann says.

"I'm on In the Red Records because of Todd," says Alex White. She met the Horizontal Action staff as a teenager in the Red Lights and got to know them during the year and a half she played in a duo with Chris Playboy, who was killed by a drunk driver a couple blocks from the Bottle in early 2004. "After Chris died I wanted to quit music," she says, "but Todd had sent our seven-inch to Larry [Hardy, the owner of In the Red], and he liked it. Horizontal Action connected a lot of people in positive ways and really created a network."

In fact White owes more than her record deal to that network--it was at a Halloween show presented by Horizontal Action that she met boyfriend Wes Kerstens, a former Clone Defect who now shares guitar duties in her Red Orchestra. "After the show, we went to White Castle, where there was a prostitute dressed like a cop and her pimp dressed like a criminal," she says. "The prostitute cop frisked Todd, and he claims he has no memory of this."

They've helped a lot of bands, they've been behind plenty of good times, and they've accomplished more than they could've hoped for nine years ago, but in the end the people most responsible for putting together Horizontal Action and booking the Blackout sound relieved that both have run their course.

"It's become too much work," says Novak, "but not the same amount of returns as before. It's the law of diminishing returns. You don't want a dozen donuts, you only want one."

Matt Williams, who drums in the Hot Machines and LiveFastDie, is the guy who has to do all the crazy catering to whims and hard logistical wrangling that come with booking the Blackout. He's looking forward to attending the other festivals for garage-rock cognoscenti that have sprung up around the country. "There's now at least four or five other fests every year that book the same bands I'd want to see," he says. "At the Blackout, while everybody else is drinking their asses off, I'm working, and while it's great to get all these bands together, I'm looking forward to going to these other shows and drinking with them without having to worry."

That's not to say the Horizontal Action crew is just going to ride off into the sunset. Novak says there's a compilation album in the works, tentatively scheduled for a late 2006 release on John Reis's Swami label, that will include unreleased tracks, demos, and outtakes from a cross section of the bands the magazine interviewed over the years. And a new Web site, victimoftime.com, is on track to go live by the end of the month, providing a portal to venue and show information in dozens of cities all over the country, as well as features on emerging bands and labels.

This is a better path for Williams, Novak, and Cross than hanging on till the Blackout descends into music-industry hell like South by Southwest, with the added torture of airport-style friskings at someplace like the Metro. They'd rather quit now. "The Empty Bottle is the last and biggest place that we would feel comfortable doing the Blackout," says Williams.

"We'd like to kill it off while it's still young and good-looking!" Novak says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.

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