Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

Take the Skinheads Bowling

Las Vegas plays host to the Punk Rock Bowling Tournament

Friday night at Sam’s Town Casino, five miles south of the Las Vegas strip: The unsuspecting locals didn’t know what hit them. Dangerous-looking men with tattooed heads and hands were perched at the blackjack tables. Women wearing ripped-up fishnets and fuchsia-pink mohawks blew kisses on the dice at the craps table. Bleary-eyed boys and girls cavorted around the slot machines wearing hoodies and clutching bottles of screw-top wine. Down in the basement bowling alley, it was like a Mad Max cast reunion, an amateur porn convention and visiting day at the Las Vegas State Penitentiary all rolled into one. The Sixth Annual Punk Rock Bowling Tournament was officially underway.

Every year, on the second weekend in February, scores of punk rockers from all over the United States descend on Sin City for three days of drinking, bowling, music and more drinking. The centrepiece of the event is a bona fide tournament with cash prizes, trophies and swag (read: porno) doled out to the top teams.

There’s nothing quite like coming down an escalator to see a bowling alley overrun by your own kind. It’s a little like being a fan of a sports team in a faraway city, and then opening the door to a bar one day and discovering a whole tribe of people who share your fanaticism. The difference being that, in the punk rock tribe, we take lots of pills and shit our pants.

Las Vegas teems with tribes. I remember a moment during a previous tournament when a bunch of punk rock bowlers were crowded around the escalator just as a golden-agers’ bingo bowling tournament let out. As we mingled with the old folks in tracksuits and enormous sunglasses, I wasn’t sure who was more bewildered: us or them. We were looking—let’s be honest—at our future, while they were seeing the embodiment of their worst fears. Another time we partied with cowboys after the National Rodeo Association award ceremony. After all, who were we to tell them how silly they looked in their getups?

The criteria for participation in the bowling tournament are strict, but it might surprise you that they don’t hinge on how punk rock you are. No one measures your mohawk or scrutinizes your tattoos. There are no background checks to determine whether you were a closet Mötley Crüe or Morrissey fan in high school. It basically comes down to this: Do you contribute to the independent punk rock music scene? Are you a roadie for a band? Do20you pen music reviews or work in the shipping department at an indie label? If you help the scene in any way, you’re in. These kinds of criteria can’t be faked. If your indie punk-rock cred is tight, you can roll.

Razorcake Fanzine has been sending its writers (myself included) to the punk rock bowling tournament for as long as it’s been in existence. In years past, the editors—Sean Carswell and Todd Taylor—would take the list of contributors who wanted to make the trip and then group people into teams more or less at random. Inspired by a respectable thirteenth-place finish last year (I rolled a 227), I talked the editors into putting all of our good bowlers together on one team. And so the Blatant Stereotypes were born: an angry UPS driver, a lazy Mexican, a drunk Irish-American (me) and a short dude with a Napoleon complex. We were determined to come home with some hardware.

I was more than a little nervous. I’d bowled with my teammates many times at the decrepit All-Star Lanes in Eagle Rock, California, where the proprietor has been known to heckle our gutterballs and missed spares over the intercom, but the Blatant Stereotypes hadn’t practiced together or rolled a single frame as a team. I knew that in places like Minneapolis, San Francisco and Santa Monica, teams were meeting regularly to work the kinks out of their game. We were going to have to wing it.


FRIDAY NIGHT: BOOZE ON THE BALCONY
It wouldn’t be a true punk rock weekend without live music—the louder and faster the better. Since 1998, the Bouncing Souls, Dropkick Murphys, NOFX, Swingin’ Utters, Youth Brigade and many more have demolished the stage at the official opening show. Bands looking to capitalize on the influx of punk rockers book gigs at venues all over Vegas as soon as the tournament dates are released. Last year, hardcore veterans Ill Repute and the Bad Samaritans played at the infamous Double Down Saloon. Two years ago, the Circle Jerks and GBH played at the Huntridge theatre and I ended up stranded for half the night in a tattoo parlour after learning the hard way that taxis don’t pick up people off the street in that part of town.

This year, I went straight from the airport to the opening gig at the House of Blues inside the Mandalay Bay Casino. The show started with Punk Rock Karaoke. There were no karaoke machines, no monitors: just the singer, the stage and a super-group on backup that read like the history of Southern California punk rock: Greg Hetson (Bad Religion, Circle Jerks), Steve Soto (Adolescents, Agent Orange), Eric Melvin (NOFX) and Derek O’Brien (D.I., Social Distortion). The entire balcony, reserved exclusively for bowlers, booed a pimply-faced teenager whose rendition of “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” wasn’t up to snuff, then applauded wildly when a kid sang “White Riot”—but only because his zipper was down the whole time. The house favourite was a woman whose applause was due partly to her stirring finale to “Amoeba” and partly to her “I Love Cock!” T-shirt, clearly visible on the big screen. She brought the house down.

Enter Throw Rag: four seriously slim, heavily tattooed dudes from the Salton Sea and one fat Englishman who played the washboard and flopped around in his underwear. Halfway through the set, the band’s thrift-store-chic leisure suits and polyester pants came off and things started to get ugly. Rail thin and stunningly corpulent, singers Captain Sean-Doe and Jacko strutted the stage as if they’d been hypnotized into believing they were too beautiful for this world. (All those who have ever shaved their head, sported a mohawk or dyed their hair for no good reason know exactly what I’m talking about.) Throw Rag dares you to stare.

The evening’s headliner was an Irish pub rock outfit out of LA called Flogging Molly. Their arrangements were traditional but intense. Front man Dave King—an affable redhead whose effusive cheer is no less appealing for having been studiously rehearsed—is one of the few people I know who can encourage big, sweaty men to link arms and dance to a waltz. I’ve seen Flogging Molly perform more times than I saw my high school girlfriend naked, and the only time I’ve ever witnessed Dave lose his cool was at an all-ages show in San Diego where alcoholic beverages were barred from the performance area. Flogging Molly without Guinness is like a carnival without cotton candy.

To get back to Sam’s Town Casino, my friends and I piled into a limo with a bunch of punk rock girls from San Francisco. At $10 per person, it was cheaper than a taxi—and after the larcenous drink prices at the House of Blues, the free booze was like manna from heaven. Everyone agreed it was a good deal, even though our value-conscious disposition was kind of funny considering we were collectively on the verge of pissing away hundreds of dollars in the bars, at the tables and in places well off the map of respectability.


SATURDAY: SAM’S TOWN BOWLING CENTRE
If the Friday night show felt like a reunion, then Saturday was an after-prom house party. There’s nothing like bowling to “We Got the Neutron Bomb” or “Rip it Up”—if there is a better feeling than throwing rocks to punk rock classics, I don’t know what it is.

On the surface, punk rock and bowling may not seem like a ham-and-egg combination, but there are enough similarities to warrant a closer look. Both require a venue equipped with specialized equipment and involve a stage. Participants adhere to a rigorous style of dress that is a meld of common-sense functionality and look-at-me aesthetics, and must manoeuvre their bodies in precise ways—a dance, if you will, that is equal parts restraint and release, and that results in a satisfying collision. Call it premeditated mayhem. Or to put it another way, the objective is to knock down as many things as you can and look good while doing it. That’s a sport a punk rocker can get behind.

The first Punk Rock Bowling Tournament was held at the Gold Coast Casino in 1999 and hosted 27 teams. Now, six years later, 106 teams were competing in a tournament that featured two days of bowling, a sold-out show at the House of Blues and an awards ceremony with live entertainment.

The whole thing had been started by the Stern brothers—Shawn and Adam— punk rock veterans whose band, Youth Brigade, and label, BYO Records, have been around since the early eighties. The Sterns’ organizational acumen had been put to the test this year. A week before the tournament was scheduled to kick off at Castaways Casino, federal marshals shut the place down. By the middle of the week, though, they had locked up the lanes at the Sam’s Town bowling centre. In a culture pervaded by a fun-while-it-lasted mentality, the Sterns possess a characteristic not often associated with punk rockers: dependability. This is the only annual punk rock event of its size you can count on not to suck.

What makes punk rock and bowling a truly dangerous combination—like moonshine and demolition derbies, or Mardi Gras and organ poaching—is alcohol. As everyone knows, bowling is one of those sports where one’s performance can be enhanced by booze. However, in Las Vegas, the city without clocks—where discretion is optional, sleep is for the weak and epic alcohol abuse is encouraged as long as you don’t defecate on the casino floor—this can be a delicate balancing act, like making napalm on your kitchen stove.

No one pushes these boundaries farther than Team Tiltwheel, who have managed to come in last every year they’ve entered. And they work very, very hard at it. They have been known to bowl barefoot, shirtless and even in the buff. Masters of the improvised delivery, they have experimented with the discus throw, the drop kick and the head butt (via a headfirst slide down the beer-splattered lane). Blood is simply one more thing to laugh at for the reckless San Diego band and their crew.

In an effort to minimize collateral damage, the organizers from BYO Records have banished Tiltwheel to the far end of the alley. Which seemed like a wise move when one of them hucked a ball with such violence that it jumped out of the gutter, careened down the passageway, banged open the door to the pin-setting equipment and disappeared—much to the delight of the throng of wastoids cheering the team on. Visiting the Tiltwheel end of the bowling alley, I was reminded of a line from Naked Lunch: “The lighted cafe was a diving bell, cable broken, settling into black depths.” The territory they’d staked out was every bit as uncharted, and the inhabitants resembled a species of homo sapiens seldom seen sober, and then not for very long.

When things got out of hand, Shawn Stern had to play the heavy. “I told them to cool it, or [the bowling centre] will shut you down and you’ll have to forfeit. Then you won’t be able to lose.”

There is a method to Tiltwheel’s madness: BYO gives a prize to the last-place team. The first year Tiltwheel “won,” their beloved and big-bellied ringleader Davey Tiltwheel took the gay porno movies they received as a booby prize and sold them on eBay, making enough money to buy a new catalytic converter for the Tiltmobile. “Our handicap is so huge, we could easily win if we tried,” Davey told me. “But where’s the fun in that? Trying sucks.”

As Saturday rolled along, the bowling alley was gradually filled to capacity with drunk punks wearing shoes even sillier than usual. Although many of the bowlers had brought their own equipment, the serious-with-a-capital-S types were in the minority. A quick survey of the team names told the story: they ranged from the humorous (the Britney Spares) to the blasphemous (the Church of Satan Youth Group), from the anarchic (the Pin Ladens) to the sexual (Got A Little Irish In Me—here’s a clue: their boyfriends were Irish, they were not). These were not people who took themselves seriously, much less a bowling tournament.

The music played. The alcohol flowed. The girls from Varla, a punk rock pin-up magazine, strutted around wearing short-short skirts and latex sailor suits. (There’s always a crowd around the Varla girls, who have an uncanny talent for being underdressed and overdressed at the same time; bowling near them can have a detrimental effect on your average.) The real competition took place at the bar as bowlers struggled to shake off Friday night’s hangover without getting too much of a jump-start on Saturday night. This contest was every bit as entertaining as the performance on the lanes. By the time the night was over, punk rock bowlers had gone through five hundred cases of beer.

It was hard to tell how well I and the other Blatant Stereotypes were bowling because the team we were playing against was really, really bad. One of their bowlers was recovering from a torn ACL, but she gamely hobbled up to the stripe. As the saying goes, you’re only good by comparison. At the end of the session, we got the news: we’d finished tenth overall. The Blatant Stereotypes were going to the playoffs, one of sixteen teams. We celebrated with White Russians for reasons that should be obvious to Big Lebowski fans.


SUNDAY: THE PLAYOFFS
The first team we bowled against in the playoffs was Ill Repute, a hardcore band that had played a show the night before but seemed clear-eyed and well rested. Our handicap was fairly even and it was close for much of the game, but in the end we pulled ahead and won by a respectable margin. In the second round, we competed with Barflies.net, a website that promotes punk rock and rockabilly events in Southern California. They had a huge handicap, but we took the lead in the penultimate frame and cruised to victory. We could now finish no worse than fourth. The third game was against Pins & Needles from the Art & Soul Tattoo shop, our best competition of the day so far. We squeaked by with some timely marks in the last frame and advanced to the championship round: the Cereal Bowlers vs. the Blatant Stereotypes.

In spite of racking up our highest scores of the afternoon, we didn’t win. Those who had bowled well in the earlier games bowled less well in the championships, and those who had struggled at other times in the tournament were lights out. It was a terrific team effort, but ultimately we couldn’t catch up to the Cereal Bowlers’ huge handicap, which amounted to spotting the other team a seventy-five-pin lead. Their worst bowler had her best game of the day, throwing strike after strike after strike.

Even though we lost—we were crushed, actually—the $800 second-place prize helped soothe the sting, and we went upstairs to celebrate. Most of the punks had congregated in the atrium at the centre of Sam’s Town; while it will never be confused with the lobby at the Bellagio, it’s easily the most impressive space inside the casino. Designed to look like a scene airlifted from the Rocky Mountains, the atrium is full of fake trees growing in the shadow of a fake mountain, down which a fake waterfall tumbles. Animatronic creatures are scattered throughout the simulated woods. A fake beaver squats in a manmade stream and gnaws on a fake log. The fake owl cries, “Hoot-hoot, hoot-hoot!” A functioning bar masquerades as a log cabin made from moulded plastic, and so on. It sounds depressingly Disneyfied, but there was so much to look at in such a relatively confined space that it was actually kind of interesting, like stumbling into a large-scale diorama at the Museum of Natural History or an empty habitat at the zoo—or like a class trip to Disneyland, only with vodka, pills and beer. Judging from the looks of the good people of Sam’s Town, we were the wild animals. So we gave them a good show. Grrr.

As bowlers and partiers mingled, the exploits of lucky and unlucky alike were extolled. Who got caught having sex by the ice machines? Who donated their paycheque to the hard-working women of Glitter Gulch? Who bumped into the singer of a famously terrible nu-metal band at the Hard Rock, uncharacteristically picked a fight and stole the jerk’s jacket?

“Every year,” Shawn Stern told me, “people come up to me and say, ‘I can’t wait for next year!’ ‘Well, you’re here now,’ I tell them, ‘you might as well make the most of it!’” But I understand where this impulse comes from. Winning is nice, on the lanes or at the blackjack table, but my favourite moment of the weekend was when we all made our way to this, the biggest bar in the casino, and took it over. There were crusty punks to my left, tattooed bombshells to my right and punk rock bowlers three deep at the bar. A kid from San Pedro sat on a table and strummed his guitar. Pissed punks took advantage of the excellent acoustics inside the atrium and sang along. A huge man with a Hitler moustache passed out beers. Friends from Santa Cruz gave me a celebratory snort of single malt scotch.

Two of the bowlers got married at the log cabin. One of the Stern brothers performed the service, and right as he said, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” the fake grizzly bear stood up on its hind legs and roared. This may sound tacky and trite, and maybe it is, but punk rockers aren’t accustomed to this kind of on-the-spot validation, and I’m told it was quite moving.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the laser light show started. Pink laser beams cut through the fake fog rolling down the fake mountain. The fake bear danced and the fake American eagle spread its wings. The hoot owl played shrill accompaniment to Pink Floyd. As “God Bless the USA” boomed out of the speakers concealed in the fake primeval forest, the punk rocker next to me wiped a fake tear from his eye and said, “It’s nature’s ballet, man.”


SUNDAY NIGHT: AWARDS
Because it takes place on Sunday night, not everyone can make it to the awards ceremony. There are long drives to embark on, flights to catch. The drudgery of regular life beckons. This is a shame because the awards ceremony is always the wildest night of the tournament, thanks in no small part to 25¢ bottles of Tecate and Rolling Rock.

The master of ceremonies was too drunk to fulfill his duties, so Minister Stern took over and rushed through an abbreviated rundown of the winners. When the Blatant Stereotypes were called up to the stage, I seized the microphone and, after thanking everyone who needed to be thanked, led the masses in a beery but heartfelt “Happy Birthday” for Razorcake co-editor Todd. After that, things got a little out of hand. Manic Hispanic took the stage (a cover band with a twist, it “mexifies” punk rock staples: Social Distortion’s “Mommy’s Little Monster” becomes “Mommy’s Little Cholo,” the Clash’s “Garageland” is transformed into “Barrioland,” etc.). Team Tiltwheel took off their shirts. I had an envelope in my pocket stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, and I felt like a gangster.

I couldn’t shake the feeling the punk rock gods had punished us for our hubris, that the Blatant Stereotypes had crossed a line punk rockers have no business crossing. We’d tried too hard, and as a result had been thunderbolted out of contention by a drunk girl in a halter top and pigtails who turkeyed twice. But if the point of punk rock bowling is not to win, but to lose stylishly, didn’t second place make us the most successful losers in the joint?

I decided it was time to get acquainted with some top-shelf tequila.

••

I hit the casino candy store on my way out of town. The Filipina behind the counter was super friendly and handed out free samples. She asked if I was part of the bowling tournament, then proceeded to tell me all about her teenage son. He’d called her up the day before to tell her he was coming to visit her at Sam’s Town on account of all the punk rock activity at the bowling centre. She testified to his passion for punk rock and recounted his early forays into petty crime. Clearly she had a punk rocker in the making (albeit a nice one who visits his mother at work). She went on and on about how excited her boy was, and in a weird way she seemed just as excited. I’m not sure what that says about the state of punk rock, but it reminded me of how my own mother took my brother and me to our first punk rock show—the Ramones—at a club in Washington, DC, when we were barely teenagers, and how it kick-started a lifelong passion that isn’t in danger of dying out any time soon.

“He got all dressed up and everything. It was a big deal for him.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a pretty big deal for us, too.”