'The Outhouse The Film 1985-1997,' about a fabled punk house outside Lawrence
Filmmaker Brad Norman wasn’t sure what kind of response he would get. He wanted to interview rapper Ice-T about the Outhouse, a fabled house of punk outside Lawrence, Kan., back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Ice-T performed there with his band Body Count shortly after the 1992 debut of their controversial “Cop Killer” single.
Norman wasn’t expecting to be summoned into Ice-T’s presence virtually on the spot. “I was thinking in a couple of months,” Norman told the singer’s manager the first time they spoke.
Two months later, the manager told Norman why he had scored the meeting.
“Listen kid,” he said, “the only reason you’re getting this interview is because I’ve heard this ***dam Outhouse story 10,000 times. He won’t shut up about this place.”
This place burned into Ice-T’s memory existed in the where-the-hell-are-we remoteness of dirt roads and cornfields in Douglas County, Kansas.
Norman’s documentary, “The Outhouse: The Film, 1985-1997,” debuts Saturday, Oct. 14, to a sold-out crowd at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, ground zero for Outhouse memories. He is planning a Kansas City showing for January.
Music venue is a kind description for an inhospitable cinder-block building that made customers shiver in the winter and sweat in the summer. Cars got stuck in the muddy parking lot. When the bathrooms were out of order, people left their doody in the cornfields.
It was such a s***hole, legend goes, that it begged to be called the Outhouse.
The groups that performed there, on the other hand, were no dregs.
The lineup of bands that played that dump over the years, in addition to local groups, is rich with music royalty: Fugazi, the Melvins, Rollins Band, Gwar, the Circle Jerks, Body Count, Social Distortion, Bad Brains, White Zombie, Descendents, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Fishbone, the Meat Puppets, Helmet and Nirvana.
With few traditional venues in the area willing to host their music, the default setting for the bands became a concrete “shack” in Boondocks, U.S.A. that shocked quite a few of them when they pulled up to the place.
The first time Fugazi played there, band members were so afraid they stayed in their van until showtime.
Stark and brutal like the punk music played there, the Outhouse’s desolate location among tall corn made it the perfect place for brawling, under-age drinking and hiding from parents.
Defined by their taste in music, the patrons were punks. Kids with mohawks. Kids with mullets. Straight-laced. Skinheads. College kids. Sixth-graders.
Defined by where they went to hear it, they were children of the corn.
“Could a venue like the Outhouse exist in Brooklyn, New York? No. Could it exist in Manhattan? Could it exist in downtown Washington, D.C., or Boston, Massachusetts? No, no, no and no,” Henry Rollins, who fronted the California hardcore punk band Black Flag, says in the documentary.
Norman, who is 46, hung out there back in the day when he dyed his hair with Kool-Aid and at a time in his life when trying to avoid getting beat up at the Outhouse was better than anything happening in his own home in Parkville, Mo.
For the documentary he spent five years hunting down amateur video footage and photos of the place and interviewing musicians who performed there. He rounded up the flyers for every show ever performed there and cataloged them on the film’s website, TheOuthouseFilm.com.
Most of the people he approached couldn’t wait to figuratively spill their brains. Ice-T nearly literally did when he performed there, banging his head on an overhead beam while he was jumping on the stage.
“There was no precedent for a club like the Outhouse. It was better than nothing,” Bill Rich, one of the Outhouse’s promoters and prominent in its success, says in the film.
Packed, the Outhouse could hold about 350 people, “maybe 500 if you were on top of each other,” Norman said.
With “nothing to break in there,” the Outhouse was perfect for stage diving and “circle pitting,” where the rule was, if you see someone fall down, you pick them up.
“There were benches against the wall, but it was cinder-block walls and concrete floor,” Norman said. “The only thing you could break was your head.”
With no alcohol served it was bring-your-booze. Some people would sit in their cars and drink their beers, others just walked right in with it.
“That’s the other thing about that Lawrence scene. I remember these people were just getting plowed,” Ian MacKaye of Fugazi says in the documentary.
But mostly, Norman said, “people were only there for the music. And because they were different. They needed their own place. For me, the Outhouse was a place where I found people who were like me.”
In a 2003 story about the Outhouse in the Lawrence Journal-World, former patron Matt Sullivan said the place “opened my eyes as a 14-year-old walking out in that cornfield seeing things I never saw in school.
“It was definitely a bad influence — I smoked my first cigarette, drank my first beer and almost lost my virginity.”
The Outhouse wasn’t exactly a good neighbor, Norman found when he interviewed law enforcement officials and nearby farmers — otherwise known as the folks who tolerated it.
The club closed in the late 1990s and today it’s a strip club, a reality that Norman still refuses to accept. What an insult.